Tag Archive for 'data'

Don’t Worry NSA, Google Has E-mail Surveillance Covered

It shouldn’t be surprising that Google monitors Gmail for child pornography. After all, this is the same company that scans e-mails and bombards uers with advertising for legal services. However, the scans of John Skillern’s Gmail will likely result in a lengthy prison sentence rather than annoying advertisements.

gmail surveillanceIn 2008, Google applied new software to its e-mail system. The software consists of a “database” of child abuse images (only data, no actual pictures!) which is compared to Gmail attachments. If there is a match, child protection agencies are alerted, who then send tips to local police.

The system is automatic, so Google employees aren’t involved in the process. Since Google’s e-mail system is the world’s largest web-based e-mail service, with about 425 million users worldwide, this system is one of the largest surveillance systems in human history.

A few weeks ago, Google’s new software led to the arrest of John Skillern. Skillern is a registered sex offender, convicted of sexually assaulting an eight year old boy in 1994. After Google scanned Skillern’s Gmail, police obtained a search warrant and allegedly found child pornography on his phone and tablet. The 41 year old Houston City restaurant cook was charged with one count of possession of child pornography and one count of the promotion of child pornography.

“Those Who Sacrifice Liberty for Security Deserve Neither”

Pedophiles who thought the “right to be forgotten” could shield their evil online are in for a rude awakening. There is no doubt that child pornography and the child abuse it promotes is profoundly wrong and people like Skillern deserve to rot in the deepest prison cells.

However, this type of surveillance is morally ambiguous at best and outright dangerous at worst. First, there’s the slippery slope argument. If Google can monitor private communications for child pornography, could they also monitor Gmail for drug use or criminal conspiracies? Can the software scan for politically sensitive issues like religion or terrorism? How about activists’ movements like Occupy or Tea Party? Surveillance always starts with good intentions. If the NSA has proven anything, it’s that employees of massive surveillance technology abuse it at the first opportunity.

Of course, slippery slopes are an easy argument, even if America’s legal system tends to ride slippery slopes all the way to crazy town. Google currently has little potential for employee abuse since Google’s system is automatic, with almost no human control. The software automatically compares data, not even actual photos, for a match. When Detective David Nettles said “I can’t see that photo, but Google can,” he was misleading reporters.

So what could go wrong when a computer system does all the surveillance? Ignoring the obvious Terminator reference, machines don’t understand context. Many child pornography laws require that the defendant have a certain state of mind, a criminal intent, for the defendant to be convicted. Suppose a defendant’s Gmail was hacked. Or a virus spread images of child pornography across random computers. Or if a child protection agency employee Gmailed a district attorney the photos as evidence. Google would pick out the transmissions, even though none of these cases would result in a conviction. Skillern looks like he possessed child pornography for the purpose of looking at and selling young children, but with 425 million users, there could easily be grey area cases.

The End of Net Neutrality?

In January of this year, a federal court of appeals tossed aside Federal Communications Commission (FCC) regulations that limited Internet Service Providers (ISP) ability to discriminate and interfere with speeds of certain types of content. This has been touted as one of the final, deadly blows in the battle over “net neutrality.”

Net NeutralityWhen the Internet first started to become the high-speed, high-bandwidth behemoth it is today, there was this concern that ISPs could freely funnel certain types of information through at the higher speeds. This naturally would leave other content that the ISP chose on the outer ring of the bottleneck, if not shut out entirely. This ostensibly would create a type of tier system, in which some “data” would be more valuable than others, and obviously, priced accordingly.

Sounds a little greedy, doesn’t it? I mean, if you are already paying for access to this ‘information super highway,’ why should you have to pay more or less depending on what you chose to do with your lane on that highway? A good way to think of it is being charged a toll to get onto a highway, and then, instead of relying on a uniform speed limit, you were limited depending on whether or not you were driving a sports car or a hybrid or a news van. In this example, the sports car could be left in the dust by news vans and hybrids, just based on the preference of the authority overseeing the highway. In an even more Kafka-esque twist, imagine you could only go quicker in your sports car if you paid more sports-car-exclusive tolls along the way.

But has this sort of thing happened? Well, yes, but only once (officially). Comcast has intentionally limited the speed of peer-to-peer (P2P) sites such as BitTorrent (think of Napster but for all things entertainment). And with this recent decision, the FCC is scrambling, almost desperately so, to try and draft a set of regulations or disclosures that will keep the Internet open and to stop this type of discrimination from happening on a larger scale.

But could it happen on a larger scale, you ask? Well, even when the FCC was regulating ISPs, it allegedly already has. During the legal proceedings in January that lead to the holding that the FCC has no authority to enforce a ‘net neutrality’ principal, AT&T and Verizon were both under fire; AT&T for patenting processes that take advantage of the FCC’s current, meek regulations, and Verizon for showing slower speeds through Netflix and Amazon Cloud services.

Fine, but why do I care? Plain and simple: money. Think of your cell phones data plan. Cell phone companies have been doing this sort of tiered data streaming for years. If you pay for 1GB of data, you can get more once you cap out, but at a price. And if think your phone gets “unlimited” data, think again: despite the premium price you pay, it gets a specified amount of data at normal speed, and then the speed you receive any data after that is drastically reduced. This may not matter much if you do not stream videos, but if you do, you pretty much are required to pay more for using the airwaves than someone who just looks at pictures or reads the news.

To boot, if ISPs are free to cap bandwidth for certain types of sites, like Netflix, and especially sites that compete with their own video or music services, you can be assured that they will. And as long as there is a demand, companies will begrudgingly pay whatever they must to have the cap removed, and then they will shamelessly pass that cost on to customers. While this does not necessarily mean your $8 pass to streaming online movies will jump to $80 overnight, it does mean that there will almost definitely be an increased cost, or in exchange, decreased service, and all in the name of this “artificial” scarcity the ISPs are free to create. Again, we all understand the cost of fuel rises and lowers on availability and projected use, but the Internet simply is not a finite resource.

Unfortunately, if the FCC is unable to come up with meaningful regulations, it will certainly start to feel that way. And while your nightmare of a slow-as-molasses Netflix may not come true, it’ll certainly cost you in the form of ads or a spike in service fees.

LegalMatch Site Data Shows High Interest in Wrongful Terminations

wrongful terminationAccording to our internal traffic statistics, it appears that one of the most popular law library articles on our website is about wrongful terminations.

Does this mean that your employer is going around firing employees left and right, just for fun? Probably not…unless you work for this guy.

More likely, the current state of the economy (in case you haven’t heard, it’s not doing too hot right now) has led to many people losing their jobs, with no sign that the bloodletting of employment is going to abate anytime soon. When someone loses their job, especially if it’s for economic, and not performance-related reasons, they are understandably upset.

However, the vast majority of terminations are perfectly lawful. In virtually every state in the U.S., employment is “at-will,” meaning that the relationship is completely voluntary, and dependent on the mutual consent of both parties. This means that employees can quit their jobs at any time, and that employers can fire them at any time, for any reason, or for no reason at all.

There are exceptions, however. For example, under federal law, and the laws of almost every state, it is unlawful to fire or refuse to hire a person because of their race, color, religion, national origin, sex, or disability (if it can be reasonably accommodated). Also, if the employee is working under an employment contract, they can only be terminated pursuant to the terms of the agreement.

Whether your termination is ultimately found to be lawful or not, it is not a bad idea to speak with an attorney if you suspect that improper motives colored your employer’s decision. It’s better to talk with an attorney for a few minutes and have them tell you that you don’t have a case, then to sit on your rights, and let a valid claim for wrongful termination slip through your fingers.

Many people seem to recognize this, and are using LegalMatch to help.

Average U.S. Homeowners Facing Foreclosure Owe $200,000, LegalMatch Data Shows

home-mortgage1LegalMatch data is continuing to shed light on startling facts about the United States Housing Crisis. In the past year thousands of customers from around the country have come to LegalMatch seeking foreclosure attorneys. I decided to look at how much these clients reported owing on their mortgages. Based on analysis of these responses, between now and March 2008, the median amount owed in a foreclosure action was $200,000.

That’s a lot of money to owe on your house. It might also give us a clue at the depth of the current financial crisis.

“Toxic Assets” have become the new buzzword during this financial crunch, just like “weapons of mass destruction” started rolling off everyone’s tongues in 2003. What are these toxic assets? Most of them are convoluted investment packages that represent a hodge-podge of upside down mortgages from around the country. In other words, big mixed-up sacks of worthless investments that no one wants. The total “value” of these toxic assets is unknown, and probably never will be known. (Part of the whole problem was they were never actually worth what everyone thought they were.)

What can be guessed at, however, is how much money mortgagors were owed in 2008, and how much they are now looking at as potential losses before recouping anything in foreclosure sales. (I.e. the loss these toxic assets might represent on balance sheets). To do so we can use two rather modest assumptions: $200,000 median debt-per-household based on LegalMatch data, and the (low-end) estimated total number of foreclosures in the US in 2008, which was 2 million according to CNN. Putting these numbers together, we get a staggering $400 billion in total outstanding debt in the U.S. housing market. That’s quite a lot of money, and that is probably an estimate on the low end.

However, haven’t we spent something like $10 trillion in bailout money so far? Or at least promised that much? Even if my estimate is off by a magnitude of 5, we’ve still spent more than that already. What if we had spent a few trillion simply paying off overdue mortgages? A “trickle-up” economy, as opposed to the old “$@*# rolls down-hill” approach. Almost every day we are bombarded with news about bailout this, bailout that, trillion dollars here, hundreds of billions of dollars there. I haven’t seen any of this money, have you? (Well maybe if you work for AIG).

Now before someone says that is just rewarding people for their own shoddy financial planning, what are we doing for the banks and firms such as AIG? Banks and their enabling financial partners created an artificial market where risky mortgages not worth the paper they were printed on were sold off as if they were written in gold-ink. How is it somehow more appropriate to reward them for their misdeeds and not the taxpayers who are footing the bill anyway? These are the institutions that invested your 401K in your neighbor’s upside-down $1 million McMansion mortgage. If your neighbor stays in his home for the same inflated price he mortgaged it for, at least your home price won’t plummet due to a cramdown or foreclosure sale.

I’m not a financial expert, but I like to play one online. Where am I going wrong with my populist approach?

LegalMatch Data Shows Foreclosure Rates Skyrocketed in 2008

foreclosuresThe collapse of the United States housing market was a crucial part of our recent economic downturn. According to LegalMatch data compiled since 2005, foreclosure rates (compared to the past three years) skyrocketed during 2008. This massive upswing in foreclosures may have been the shock that caused the global economic house of cards to tumble in 2008 and 2009.

According to LegalMatch statistics, foreclosure rates from 2007 to 2008 jumped by over 150%. This staggering increase closely mirrors the precipitous drop off of home prices in the US during 2008, when the median value of an American home dropped by 18% in twelve months.

LegalMatch data correlates with national statistics compiled by industry experts showing a 76% increase in foreclosure rates between 2006 and 2008. Are house prices to blame for this huge downturn? Partially. A number of home owners and home speculators alike took advantage of a lull in interest rates between 2000 and 2005 when introductory interest rates on adjustable rate mortgages dropped to the 4-6% range. During this time housing prices were also artificially high and seemingly rising without end, so buyers saw a potential win-win situation. Sub-Prime Adjustable Rate Mortgages ( ARM) fueled the flames of the bubble and allowed speculators and new home buyers alike to enter the market at cut-rate introductory rates that jumped massively one or two years down the road.

Home owners who saw low rates and rising prices in 2005 and 2006 took the bait, thinking things would continue to get better. When interest rates continued to rise and these so called “exploding” ARM loans almost doubled between 2006 and 2007, owners who failed to sell prior to 2008 saw the value of their homes plummet to prices far below the amount owed on their mortgage. Unable to keep their heads above water, homeowners with upside-down mortgages in 2007 and early 2008 faced foreclosure judgments in mid-2008 and 2009, as shown by the LegalMatch stats above.

This enormous well of unpaid debt coincided with the breaking news of financial collapse of some of the nation’s biggest financial firms such as Bear Sterns, Lehman Brothers, and the now infamous AIG. It is no coincidence that trillions of dollars in investments insured and managed by these firms was inextricably tied into these bad loans and defaulting homeowners. Securities backed by these worthless mortgages are the kinds of things people are referring to when they talk about “toxic assets.”

Although it was not the sole cause, the housing crisis has a tremendous impact on the financial health of this country. When it dramatically explodes like it did in 2008, the shockwaves spread everywhere throughout our economy. As these trends continue to shake out we will be watching the data, so stay tuned for more updates on where the housing market, and our economy, may be headed.