Blog Posts by Liz Goodwin

  • Privacy a looming issue as drone regulation loosens

    UK police officers use a remote control drone fitted with a TV camera to help combat potential crime in 2007. (Christopher Furlong/Getty)ATLANTA—Earlier this month, a woman in the Capitol Hill neighborhood of Seattle noticed a small camera-equipped drone buzzing around outside the third-floor window of her home. She sent her husband out to tell the man operating the small aircraft by remote control to leave, but he insisted that it was legal for him to fly above their property.

    “We are extremely concerned, as he could very easily be a criminal who plans to break into our house or a peeping-tom,” the woman complained in a note to a local blog.

    So was the drone operator right when he insisted that it was legal for him to fly above this woman’s yard?

    The question doesn’t have an easy answer, and it’s one that some drone researchers gathered this week in Atlanta for an international conference on unmanned aircraft are grappling with.

    Paul Voss, an engineer at Smith College who entered the drone field through his work developing the world’s smallest altitude-controlled meteorological balloons, gave a talk at the conference Wednesday titled “The Case for Protecting Privacy and Property Rights in the Lowermost Reaches of the Atmosphere.” He argued that the drone community should be proactive in addressing privacy concerns now, before the number of drones in flight skyrockets when regulations are eased in the next few years.

    At the beginning of his talk, Voss showed a photo of a drone hovering outside the second-floor window of a home, and asked the class, “How many of you think this is public airspace?” Only one person raised his hand.

    Voss thinks that one student is probably right, though it's a legal gray area. The Supreme Court ruled in 1946 that the air above the minimum safe altitude of flight “is a public highway” and not subject to trespassing laws. The ruling reversed a lower court’s judgment in favor of a chicken farmer who lost 150 chickens due to fighter planes flying less than 100 feet over his roof on their way to a local airbase. (The chickens were so scared by the thunderous noise that they threw themselves against the wall and killed themselves.)

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  • Scientists say: Give drones a chance

    A U.S. Marine launches a surveillance drone near Bakwa, Afghanistan, in 2009. (John Moore/Getty Images

    ATLANTA—As dozens of protesters waved signs proclaiming, “Stop Assassinations: Ground the Drones!” outside the Grand Hyatt on Tuesday, a room full of scientists, oblivious to their demonstrations, raptly watched a 30-minute PowerPoint presentation about “riparian vegetation,” “river morphology” and the helpful qualities of beaver dams.

    The researchers who came from around the world to attend the International Conference on Unmanned Aircraft Systems (a fancy term for “drones”) in Atlanta this week say they are not interested in the remotely controlled predator drones that help the U.S. government track and kill suspected terrorists—and sometimes, by accident, civilians—without having to put a single U.S. service member at risk.

    President Barack Obama defended the U.S. government’s use of the deadly, pilotless aircraft in a national security speech last week, though he suggested that drones might play less of a role in the war on terror in the years to come.

    At this drone conference, however, scientists—and those who hope to profit off their research—pore over slides that show how small, light drones equipped with inexpensive cameras that can be purchased at Wal-Mart can take images clear and comprehensive enough to help farmers design irrigation systems for their crops, or create the most efficient system for fighting a wildfire, or conduct search-and-rescue missions. The camera-equipped drones are also useful for determining the health of a river’s vegetation or finding out how much of a wetlands area is destroyed after a new road is built.

    “We want them to help people, not kill people,” Dr. YangQuan Chen of the University of California, Merced, one of the conference’s organizers, told the researchers at his workshop on Tuesday morning.

    Many of the conference attendees are hyperaware of the perception that drones are primarily used in warfare or by local police for covert surveillance or spying. (Chen's former student lamented during his presentation that drone researcher is considered "the opposite of sexy.") This year alone, these concerns have spurred dozens of states to consider legislation limiting the use of drones. It’s a rare issue that’s attracted bipartisan support—everyone from Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, to Rep. Ed Markey, D-Mass., has raised the specter of a drone-filled America devoid of privacy.

    The furor has left many of these scientists confused. They see drones as “co-scientists,” as Chen put it—friendly and reliable tools that can gather data efficiently and quickly in places scientists just can’t get to.

    When Colin Brooks, a scientist at Michigan Tech Research Institute who uses drones to find potholes and other problems in the state's roads, read about his state lawmakers considering a bill to ban weaponized drones in Michigan a few months ago, he was baffled.

    “When I read the state legislature bill, I was like, ‘What? I just want to look at potholes!’” he said. “They think killing people in Afghanistan or spying in grandma’s window is the only application. That’s not the story.”

    Brooks’ drones can tell him exactly how many potholes are in a stretch of road and how deep each of them is. The drones do the tedious work in a matter of hours that otherwise would have to be conducted on the ground by a team of workers over days. He doesn’t understand why these less glamorous but helpful civilian uses of drones don’t get attention from politicians or the press. (Despite their concerns, at least one poll by Monmouth University suggests most Americans approve of using drones for civilian purposes such as search-and-rescue missions. Nearly two-thirds of Americans support the use of drones in killing suspected terrorists, meanwhile, as long as the killing doesn't take place on U.S. soil.)

    Civilian uses of drones are sure to get a lot more attention in the next few years when the Federal Aviation Administration must lift its ban on the commercial uses of drones. Last year, Congress directed the FAA to open the airspace to drones by October 2015. The agency has allowed only very limited, noncommercial use of drones. For public use, researchers must submit stacks of paperwork to certify their drones, a bonding subject at the conference.

    “Today we worry about getting arrested or put in jail, but after 2015 the national airspace must be open,” Chen joked.

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  • Anthony Weiner logo appears to feature Pittsburgh skyline

    Is this the Pittsburgh skyline? (

    Anthony Weiner's nascent New York City mayoral campaign might have hit a slight snag.

    Azi Paybarah at Capital New York notes on Thursday that the skyline featured in a banner on Weiner's campaign site appears to picture the lovely city of Pittsburgh, not New York.

    Weiner announced his candidacy in a video posted to the site on Wednesday, but he did not emerge to talk to voters or the media until Thursday morning, when he greeted commuters at a busy Harlem subway stop.

  • Anthony Weiner courts NYC voters: ‘It’s a second-chance city, man!’

    NYC mayoral hopeful Anthony Weiner courts voters in Harlem on May 23, 2013. (Mario Tama/Getty Images)

    Mayoral hopeful Anthony Weiner made his first appearance on Thursday since declaring his candidacy, apologizing again for his bizarre, Internet-only infidelity scandal that forced him out of Congress nearly two years ago.

    "There may be people who will never vote for me, and I respect that," Weiner told the phalanx of reporters who surrounded him outside a crowded Harlem subway stop. "If citizens want to talk to me about my personal failings, that's their right. I certainly will apologize."

    Jason Rolom, a 31-year-old construction worker who lives in Harlem, was not one of those voters. Rolom posed for a photo with Weiner while on his way to work. "I know from the past that he had that scandal, but now he's here to help so I'm going to give him a shot," Rolom said. "Sometimes you've got to let go of the past."

    Another man shook Weiner's hand on his way to the subway and exclaimed, "It's a second-chance city, man!"

    Weiner, hands on his hips and smartphone strapped to his belt, told reporters he's "encouraged" by how willing voters have seemed to give him a second chance. His fellow politicians—and New York City's unforgiving tabloids—have so far seemed less receptive to his comeback attempt, however.

    Sen. Charles Schumer, once Weiner's political ally and mentor, has stayed quiet on the announcement. "Shame on us," Gov. Andrew Cuomo said of the possibility that voters will put Weiner in office again. "I'm not asking people for endorsements," Weiner said on Thursday, adding that he wanted to prove himself.

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  • What’s next for the immigration reform bill?

    Elena Marquez, center, and others at a rally to call on Congress to pass immigration reform. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

    It's been a good week for proponents of immigration reform. The sweeping bill that seeks to legalize most of the country's 11 million unauthorized immigrants was passed by the Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday night, after five full days of debate and amendments that did little to significantly change the original compromise.

    So, what's next for the bill?

    It is likely to be introduced on the Senate floor as early as June 3, and lawmakers will be able to propose more changes to the legislation there. Meanwhile, a secretive bipartisan group in the House also may release a competing immigration bill, though members are divulging few details about what their proposal will look like.

    Immigrant advocates are worried the Senate reform bill may face a tougher crowd in the Republican-led House than it has so far in the Senate.

    Ben Monterroso of the Service Employees International Union said advocates worry that GOP House members, all already in election mode for 2014,"are going to play to the base."

    "I'm not sure that the extremists [in the House] are going to allow this process to go without a fight," Monterroso said.

    Overall, the bill moved slightly to the right during its trip through the Senate committee. Republicans on the 18-member Senate Judiciary Committee were able to push through a few modest amendments that beefed up some of the border security provisions of the original bill, as well as loosening restrictions on and increasing the amount of visas for the high-tech industry to hire foreign workers.

    Unions were unhappy with the high-tech visas amendment but willing to live with it. "We appreciate the work done by the Gang of Eight, as well as all those senators—both Democrats and Republicans—who engaged in good faith in the arduous job of advancing this bill," said AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka in a statement. "We applaud the progress by the Judiciary Committee, but we will still work to make a good bill even better."

    Meanwhile, liberal groups expressed disappointment that the bill does not yet include a provision to allow people in same-sex marriages to be able to sponsor their spouses for green cards. Sen. Patrick Leahy, a Democrat of Vermont, withdrew the amendment this week after being warned it could disrupt the fragile bipartisan coalition that supports immigration reform.

    Though the bill remained largely unchanged in the Senate committee, three main issues have emerged as major potential sticking points that could derail the bill in the coming months:

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  • Immigration reform bill largely untouched going into fifth day of debate

    Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, speaks on May 9. (Win McNamee/Getty Images)

    A bipartisan group of senators begins a fifth full day of debating changes to the immigration reform bill Tuesday. So far, the so-called mark-up process has left the sweeping overhaul of the nation's immigration laws—which would legalize most of the country's 11 million undocumented immigrants—largely untouched.

    On Tuesday, the senators will address some of the final controversial changes to the bill, including increasing the number of visas for the high tech industry and whether to allow people in same-sex marriages to apply for green cards for their spouses. A final vote is expected by the end of the week.

    Republicans are outnumbered on the 18-member Senate Judiciary Committee, and two of them—Sens. Jeff Flake and Lindsey Graham—helped draft the original bipartisan bill in the first place. Nonetheless, Republican senators have been able to push through a few amendments that they say will strengthen the enforcement portion of the bill.

    On Monday, Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, introduced an amendment that would require officials at 30 major airports to take the fingerprints of departing foreign visitors as a way to better keep track of which people on temporary visas had left the country when they were supposed to. Graham, meanwhile, passed an amendment that would prevent people applying for asylum from returning to their home countries to visit unless they showed there was good cause to do so. Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, also passed an amendment that would bar unauthorized immigrants with three drunken driving convictions from legalizing.

    Attempts by Republican senators to levy tougher criminal penalties on people who illegally enter the country or to prevent unauthorized immigrants from ever becoming citizens have failed, to the disappointment of groups that oppose the reform bill.

    "We don't think the changes are very meaningful," said Steven Camarota, director of research for the Center for Immigration Studies, a think tank that promotes lower levels of immigration.

    Mark Krikorian, executive director of the center, said the group wants the greater enforcement of the border and employment verification portions of the bill to take place before any undocumented immigrant is eligible to legalize his or her status. Efforts to change the bill to do so in the committee have failed.

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  • Despite Rubio’s wooing, radio hosts protest immigration reform bill

    U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., with other senators in the gang of eight. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

    Conservative radio talk show hosts have signed a letter opposing the sweeping immigration reform bill in the Senate, bucking tea party favorite Sen. Marco Rubio's attempts to win their support for the bill, which would combine enhanced border security with a legalization program for the nation's unauthorized immigrants. Rubio, a member of the "gang of eight" senators who drafted the bill, has become the most prominent conservative spokesman for its passage.

    Conservative talk show host Laura Ingraham, who had Rubio on her show twice in the past few months to let him make his pitch for the bill, signed onto the open letter that says the "unsalvageable" measure "would do more harm than good." The statement, signed by more than 100 conservative groups and leaders, argues that the bill is laden with earmarks and "rewards" lawbreakers by allowing most of the country's 11 million undocumented immigrants to legalize if they pass a background check and pay fines.

    Some influential conservatives have argued that the party needs to embrace reform in order to combat its declining support among Hispanic voters and to fix a broken system, even though the bill is also high on President Barack Obama's agenda.

    In the past, most in the right-wing talk show world have argued that any legalization of unauthorized immigrants was unacceptable "amnesty," forming a unified front that helped kill previous attempts at reform under George W. Bush. But Rubio had appeared to make inroads with Ingraham and syndicated hosts Lars Larson and Mark Levin, who also signed the letter, this spring when he appeared on their shows.

    Rubio made the case to all three hosts that the current immigration system provides "de facto amnesty" to unauthorized immigrants, while his bill would hold them accountable for overstaying visas or entering the country illegally. Levin, for one, seemed receptive to the argument, saying after his interview with the senator in April that "It's a problem, we've got to address this problem, and he's right."

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  • USCIS union president fights immigration reform bill

    Immigration Services officer Norma Christian speaks with an immigrant at the USCIS office on May 17, 2013, in New York City. (John Moore/Getty Images)

    The president of a union that represents 12,000 U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services employees announced his opposition to the immigration reform bill in the Senate on Monday morning.

    "The legislation will provide legal status to millions of visa overstays while failing to provide for necessary in-person interviews," union President Kenneth Palinkas said in a statement. "Legal status is also explicitly granted to millions who have committed serious immigration and criminal offenses."

    The Senate version of the bill, which has not been introduced to the floor, will offer legalization to most of the country's 11 million undocumented immigrants, provided they pass a background check and pay fines.

    The USCIS union's workers examine and approve citizenship and visa applications.

    Palinkas said USCIS employees are pressured to "rubber-stamp" citizenship and visa applications and lack the resources to adequately investigate applicants.

    Palinkas is joining the National ICE Council, the

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  • Sticker shock: New college graduates, here is why your education cost so much money

    Students at the University of California, Los Angeles campus, which has faced steep state cuts. (David McNew/Getty Images)

    When high school senior Jenny Bonilla got her college acceptance letter in March, she felt shock and heartbreak rather than joy. That’s because the letter from Goucher College, a private liberal arts school in Baltimore, also brought news that she would owe an unaffordable $20,000 a year in tuition and board, even with a scholarship the college was offering.

    Bonilla had been in the running for a full ride to Goucher but eventually lost out because her parents’ combined income of $57,000 a year was deemed too high.

    “That was heartbreaking,” she said.

    Bonilla’s experience is all too familiar to many students and their parents contemplating college, as higher education price increases have far outpaced the growth in middle-class wages over the past three decades.

    The average tuition and fees at a public, four-year university rose to $8,655 in 2012-13, not counting the costs of room and board, according to the College Board. That’s 250 percent more than it would have cost in 1982, when a year of college would have set the average student back just $2,423 in today’s dollars.

    The tuition at private colleges has increased at a slightly lower rate over the same period: The average four-year private institution costs $29,056, not counting room and board. It would have cost $10,901 in 2012 dollars in 1982.

    The pricey degree comes with big returns, on average: College-educated workers earned 79 percent more than high-school-educated workers in 2012 and were much less likely to be unemployed.

    The pain of the price hikes has been partly offset by an increase in federal grants and tax breaks for college, as well as by private schools offering deeply discounted tuition rates to lower-income students. But even with that help, some students like Bonilla are finding themselves locked out of the system.

    Why is college so much more expensive now than it was 30 years ago? Economists fall into two main schools of thought in explaining the trend.

    One theory, referred to as the “Bowen Rule,” says the decisions made by many colleges and universities—such as how many administrators to hire and how to spend its cash—primarily drive the cost.

    A competing theory, called “Baumol’s cost disease,” posits that higher education is expensive because of outside macroeconomic factors that affect other businesses, specifically that it costs more to hire highly educated workers even in fields that have not grown more productive.

    In other words, it’s either the colleges’ fault, or it isn’t.

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  • Holder promises ‘nationwide’ investigation into IRS targeting

    Attorney General Eric Holder said Wednesday that the Justice Department investigation into IRS employees singling out conservative nonprofits for extra scrutiny will be a broad, nationwide one based in Washington.

    "This is something that we will base in Washington, and that way we can have a better impact nationwide," Holder said in response to tough questioning from lawmakers at a House Judiciary Committee hearing Wednesday afternoon.

    Holder said he launched an investigation last Friday into why the IRS subjected conservative groups to more review when they applied for tax-exempt status. The IRS inspector general's report said that a group of low-level staffers in an Ohio office were responsible, and a top IRS official has apologized on their behalf.

    Rep. Bobby Scott, D-Va., asked Holder at the hearing whether an "apology" from the IRS protected them from criminal prosecution. Holder answered, "No."

    The DOJ investigation will go beyond Ohio and look into any allegations of targeting elsewhere, Holder said. He noted it's possible civil rights laws have been violated. "We will take a dispassionate view of this," Holder said. "This will not be about parties ... anyone who has broken the law will be held accountable."

    At the hearing, Holder faced pointed questions from both sides of the aisle over the twin scandals that have dogged the Obama administration this week: the IRS revelations and the seizure of phone records of Associated Press reporters and editors. In his prepared statement at the hearing, Holder mentioned neither topic, instead focusing on the Justice Department's commitment to civil rights, immigration reform and the reversal of sequester cuts.

    During the hearing, Holder also said he realized there's been "criticism" of the department's decision to subpoena records for the private and work phones of more than 20 AP reporters and editors without notifying them first. But he added that he was unable to say why the investigation's scope was so large or why it was kept secret from the AP because he had recused himself from the matter along with the rest of the national security division. Deputy Attorney General James Cole signed the subpoena, he said.

    "I am not involved in the case," Holder said.

    Holder said he didn't believe there is any documentation of his recusal, and acknowledged that it would be better practice to document all of his recusals in writing.

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