Article 43


Monday, March 31, 2008

Why the RIAA Really Hates Downloads


The Democratization of the Music Industry

By Jeff Price
Huffington Post
March 24, 2008

As I writethis, iTunes ranks as the 2nd largest seller of music in the U.S.—only Wal-Mart’s physical stores sell more. Digital revenue is real, and there is a lot of it being earned. Sales from iTunes alone can provide a band enough revenue to achieve true financial success. Don’t take my word for it, just look at some of the sales by the following unsigned artists utilizing the Net for both digital distribution and marketing: Kelly sold over 500,000 songs in five months, Eric Hutchinson sold 120,000 songs in three weeks, The Medic Droid sold over 25,000 copies of a single in 45 days, Crank Squad sold over 20,000 songs in 30 days, Secondhand Serenade sold over 225,500 songs in three months, Jason Reeves sold over 20,000 songs in December 2007 and the list goes on and on. Unlike a physical store, digital stores like iTunes have unlimited shelf space allowing everything to be in stock. If the virtual shelves fill up, another hard drive is popped in to make more shelf space. In addition, inventory never runs out; the music simply replicates itself on demand each time it is bought.

After 17 years of running my record label spinART Records, I shut it down. The advent and general adoption of the Internet, digital media and hardware took control of the global music industry away from the record labels and media outlets and handed it to the masses. For the first time in history, through sites like TuneCore, all music creators can choose to be their own record label. There are no longer subjective gatekeepers controlling who gets let “in,” promoted and exposed. The choice is ours. Now, anyone can be famous.

In 1991, I asked my high school friend if I could help him release an indie rock band compilation CD called “One Last Kiss,” he said “yes” and spinART Records was born. For the next 17 years I co-ran the label and had the privilege of releasing many of the bands on my high school and college mix tapes (The Pixies, Camper Van Beethoven, Roddy Frame (Aztec Camera), Echo & The Bunnymen, The Church, Richard Thompson, and more) as well as a large number of other bands discovered post college (Lilys, Lotion, Clem Snide, Apples In Stereo, The Dears, Poole, etc.).

In 1996, I cold-called Ken Goes, then manager for the Pixies and Frank Black, in an attempt to convince him that our band Lotion should open for Frank Black on his upcoming national tour. While on the phone, Ken put me on hold for about two minutes. When he returned he told me the deal he had been working on with another record label to release the new Frank Black & The Catholics album had just fallen through—Frank Black would not grant them the digital rights as they had already been assigned to another company called GoodNoise (now called eMusic). I told Ken this would not be a problem for me. spinART went on to release the next seven Frank Black & The Catholic albums, a Pixies album and a double disc called Frank Black Francis.

Soon thereafter I met the founders of eMusic and went on to work with them for the next 3 years. spinART Records became the first label in the history of the music industry to put its available catalog up for paid download as MP3s and the education I received helped set the stage to adapt to the inevitable changes about to impact the music industry. I took to the emerging digital sector the way Bush took to weapons of mass destruction.

Over the ensuing years, spinART had its peaks and valleys. By 2004, there were a lot more valleys than peaks. The label still did what it did very well, identifying bands that it believed people would like and making them famous. But there was one big change, in the “old days” the more famous an artist got, the more money the bands and spinART made by selling the music. Almost suddenly, this correlation seemed to be breaking. Necessity being the mother of invention, it got me thinking, what could I do to remain in the music industry under a model that would not rely on selling music (the exploitation model). And thus the idea for a new model was born, turn distribution into a service for a simple up front, one time flat fee.

For the past century, artists could record, manufacture, market, and, to some degree, promote their own music, but no matter if they were The Beatles, Elvis or Led Zepplin, they could not distribute it and get in placed on the shelves of the stores across the country; the required costs and infrastructure of the physical world were just too massive—a 500,00 square foot warehouse staffed with 30 people, trucks and inventory systems, insurance, a field staff of 30 people walking to music stores leveraging, begging, pleading and paying to get the CD, album, 8-track, wax spool, etc., on the precious shelves of the retail stores—and checking up afterwards. Distribution was out of the hands of any one person, no matter how dedicated or wealthy. Without the music available to buy, there was no way for it to sell.

Record labels made artists famous and made money off that fame by selling the music—without the music available to buy, there was no way for it to sell. The record labels exclusively had the relationships with the distributors (and in the case of the “four major record labels” the same company owns both). Therefore, with only one means to the desired end, the goal for many artists was to get “signed” to a label.

Record labels were in a very unique position of power due to their exclusive access to distribution, they were not only the singular gatekeepers to a career for an artist by “signing” them to an exclusive contract, but they were also the subjective “deciders” as to what music was pushed out and promoted to the media outlets. With a “signing,” the labels acquired exclusive rights to and from the artist. In return, the label advanced money while providing the relationships, expertise and infrastructure to record, manufacture, market, promote, distribute and sell the music. Of all the artists and music creators in the world, far less than 1% got chosen by the labels due to the risks and economics of the “brick and mortar” world. Of all the music created around the globe, even less has had the opportunity to be discovered and heard by the masses.

And then the world changed thanks to the Internet and digital media.......

For administrative reasons, most of the digital stores like iTunes don’t deal directly with the artists—frankly, customer support for millions of bands (or Uncle Larry, who insists he can do the best version of “How Much Is That Doggy In The Window\") are not what the digital stores are about. The stores prefer to get the music from music industry middlemen that aggregate music and deal with the administrative headaches (a record label as one example). The way to meaningful distribution has been reduced from “access plus infrastructure” to merely “access.”

With the launch of TuneCore (full disclosure here, I am the CEO and founder), for the cost of a six pack and a pizza (around $30), anyone can now literally be their own record label and have the same distribution as any “signed” artist. However, unlike a “signed” artist, this new model allows artists to keep all their rights and receive all the money from the sale of their music via a non-exclusive agreement that can be cancelled at any time, all while having infinite inventory with no up front cost or risk.

This is analogous to telling a band 15 years ago that if they paid $30, every Tower Record store (god bless its now departed soul) around the world would have their album on its shelf and never run out of stock.

Music marketing and promotion is simply giving music to media outlets in hopes that they play it, talk about it or writeabout it. In the old days, there were three main media outlets that provided the general population a way to discover music en masse: commercial radio, TV (i.e., MTV, VH1, BET) and print magazines like Rolling Stone.

These three media outlets created a second subjective filter as they decided which music videos to show, albums to writeabout or singles to play on the radio from a limited pool of artists promoted to them via the labels. If an artist was not on a label, the possibility of getting exposure from any of these three outlets was virtually impossible—MTV in particular.

Just getting pitched to any three of these media outlets also required a label due to the costs (i.e., making a video, greasing the palms of the programming directors at commercial radio stations, hiring a publicist, etc.) and connections.

Once again, enter the digital age. The Internet has created new media outlets and given everyone global access. Commercial radio is being replaced by Internet based recommendation streaming radio stations like LastFM that let all music in for programming, not just music pushed from the labels. MTV (when they actually played music videos and nothing was being pimped out, dated or real world-ed) has been replaced by sites like YouTube. All anyone needs now is a cell phone to make their own video and broadcast to a potential Internet viewing audience of hundreds of millions. Print magazines have been replaced by MP3 blogs like Stereogum, Gorilla Vs. Bear, PitchforkMedia, My Old Kentucky Blog and many others. These, combined with social networking sites like iLike, MySpace and more, have limitless circulation and the ability to allow readers and users to form a community that listens to, shares, rates, comments on and in some cases, even buys music. Everyone can become their own commercial radio station, magazine and/or TV network, reaching tens of millions of people.

With the restrictions of the physical world removed sites like iTunes have new vehicles allowing people to discover and share free music (make sure to snag a copy of 34 Stars, a 34-artist compilation album available for free download on iTunes

Subjectivity and filters have been removed. All music can be discovered, downloaded, shared, promoted, heard and bought directly by the audience itself. It is truly the democratization of an industry.

As far as the other label functions, these are now affordable and accessible for everyone. For the cost of one day at a studio, you can go to a place like Guitar Center (disclosure again—Guitar Center have an equity position in TuneCore) and get inexpensive high quality gear to record at home along with lots of knowledgeable experts working the floors to educate and advise. With the removal of a physical medium to deliver the music (i.e., a CD), the barriers and expenses created by physical manufacturing have been removed.

Allowing all music creators “in” is both exciting and frightening. Some argue that we need subjective gatekeepers as filters. No matter which way you feel about it, there are a few indisputable facts—control has been taken away from the “four major labels” and the traditional media outlets. We, the “masses,” now have access to create, distribute, discover, promote, share and listen to any music. Hopefully access to all of this new music will inspire us, make us think and open doors and minds to new experiences we choose, not what a corporation or media outlet decides we should want. It is then the public, not a corporation that gets to decide what is bad and good. The revolution (pun intended) has truly begun.


Posted by Elvis on 03/31/08 •
Section Privacy And Rights
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Sunday, March 30, 2008

The Next Recession Part 20


US Recession - Knocking Down False Gods

By Peter Morici, Professor, Robert H. Smith School of Business, University of Maryland
March 28, 2008

The US recession is a WAKE UP CALL. Americans NEED TO CONFRONT some false gods - FREE TRADE, gas guzzlers and Wall Street.

In the 1990s, the US launched the World Trade Organization and opened trade with China. Americans were to import more tee-shirts and TVs and sell more software and sophisticated services to a world hungry for US knowhow. That would move Americans into better paying jobs.

Unfortunately, the US welcomed imports with more enthusiasm than China and other developing countries, who kept high tariffs and notorious regulatory barriers to purchases of western products. Americas CEOs and bankers learned how to outsource just about everyone’s job but their own. Radiologists and computer engineers joined textile workers among trade-displaced workers.

Since the last recession, imports have jumped nearly $1 trillion, while exports are up only about $650 billion, and the trade deficit now exceeds $700 billion. For most Americans inflation-adjusted wages have stagnated or fallen, while corporate CEOs and bankers get fat on bonuses and can’t lose stock options.

CHINA is the biggest problem. It subsidizes foreign purchases of its currency, the yuan, more than $460 billion a year, making Chinese products artificially cheap at WAL-MART. The US trade gap with the Middle Kingdom has swelled to $250 billion.

Mercantilist growth in China and elsewhere in Asia has pushed up global oil prices nearly five fold in six years, and the US oil deficit is now $350 billion and rising.

To raise our kids, finance a huge trade deficit and generally live beyond our means, Americans borrowed from foreigners.

Essentially, the banks wrote ever-more creative mortgages and extended excessive credit card and auto loans. The banks bundled those markers into highly complex bonds, designed to generate fat paydays for loan brokers and bank executives, and sold risk-laden securities to foreign governments, insurance companies, pension funds, and wealthy investors.

When the worst of the bogus bonds collapsed, those backed by risking adjustable rate mortgages, the banks got stuck with billions of yet unsold bonds. Bear Stearns collapsed, and the Federal Reserve loaned the banks and Wall Street securities dealers $600 billion against shaky bonds on a 90-day revolving basis. That essentially socializes the banks losses on bad bonds.

You have to love Ben BernankeҒs ideas about free trade and capitalism. If you are an autoworker and lose your job to Korean imports, as a good economist, he tells you to go to school and find another job. If you are a New York banker caught paying yourself too much and run short of foreign investors to fleece, he makes you a big loan lets you hunt for other unwitting clients.

Now foreign investors are nervous about all the money they have lent Americans and the integrity of US banks. They are fleeing dollar investments for euro-denominated securities, gold, oil, and just about anything sounder than the greenback.

Americans are forced to cut back, not just on purchases of cheap Chinese coffee makers, but also products made in America. That pushes the economy into recession.

Digging out requires us to cut the trade deficit and clean up Wall Street. Simply, we need to burn less gas, balance commerce with China and live within our means.

We can either let the price of gas double to force conservation or accept tougher mileage standards. Fifty miles a gallon by 2020, instead of the 35 currently planned, is achievable, but means more hybrids and lighter vehicles.

As long as China subsidizes the sale of yuan to Wal-Mart and other US importers, the US Treasury should tax dollar-yuan conversions. When China stops manipulating currency markets, the tax would stop. That would reduce imports from and exports to China, create new jobs in the US, raise US productivity and workers incomes, and reduce the federal deficit.

Ben Bernanke has given the banks a lot and received little in return, except a lot of bad loans. He should condition the Feds largesse on reforms at the big banks, even if that means lower pay for Wall Street big wigs.

Let the bankers try earning their money. Just like the rest of us.


Posted by Elvis on 03/30/08 •
Section Dying America • Section Next Recession, Next Depression
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Saturday, March 29, 2008

Religious Diversions Part 7


It is almost inconceivable that the American public and the Democrats are buying into the mindset that Bush’s illegal invasion of Iraq was right and that it is the seed for the spread of democracy throughout the region. The election in both Afghanistan and Iraq were micromanaged by the U.S. from the start with the obvious intention of maintaining a significant military presence in both countries.

This is Germany in the 1930’s when Hitler’s grand design was bought into by a sleeping German public ~ using the same propaganda techniques, moral righteousness and God condoning rhetoric being heard today.

I BELIEVE that God wants me to be president.
- George W. Bush

“I would like to thank Providence and the Almighty for choosing me of all people to be allowed to wage this battle for Germany,”
- Adolf Hitler - Berlin March, 1936

God is not on the side of any nation, yet we know He is on the side of justice. Our finest moments [as a nation] have come when we faithfully served the cause of justice for our own citizens, and for the people of other lands.
- George W. Bush

If we pursue this way, if we are decent, industrious, and honest, if we so loyally and truly fulfill our duty, then it is my conviction that in the future as in the past the lord God will always help us.
- Adolf Hitler, at the Harvest Thanksgiving Festival on the Buckeburg held on 3 Oct. 1937

“freedom and fear, justice and cruelty have always been at war, and we know that God is not neutral between them.”
- George W. Bush

“Never in these long years have we offered any other prayer but this: Lord, grant to our people peace at home, and grant and preserve to them peace from the foreign foe!”
- Adolf Hitler - Nuremberg Sept. 13, 1936.

“God is not on the side of any nation, yet we know He is on the side of justice. Our finest moments [as a nation] have come when we faithfully served the cause of justice for our own citizens, and for the people of other lands”
- George W. Bush

“ If we pursue this way, if we are decent, industrious, and honest, if we so loyally and truly fulfill our duty, then it is my conviction that in the future as in the past the Lord God will always help us”
- Adolf Hitler, at the Harvest Thanksgiving Festival on the Buckeburg held on 3 Oct. 1937

One columnist got it right this week and it was Seumas Milne who wrote a brilliant column in the British Guardian:

“The claim that democracy is on the march in the Middle East is a fraud. It is not democracy, but the US military, that is on the march What has actually taken place since 9/11 and the Iraq war is a relentless expansion of US control of the Middle East, of which the threats to Syria are a part. The Americans now have a military presence in Saudi Arabia, Iraq, the UAE, Kuwait, Bahrain, Oman and Qatar—and in not one of those countries did an elected government invite them in. Of course Arabs want an end to tyrannical regimes, most of which have been supported over the years by the US, Britain and France: that is the source of much anti-western Muslim anger. The dictators remain in place by US license, which can be revoked at any time—and managed elections are being used as another mechanism for maintaining pro-western regimes rather than spreading democracy.” Now let’s take this Germany analogy one step further with the announcement yesterday in the L.A Times that the pentagon has formally approved , in their latest strategic plan, preemptive attacks against nations thought to pose a threat to the United States.

Such a policy was categorically and without reservation condemned as a war crime on Nov. 21, 1945 by Mr. Justice Jackson at the Nuremberg Trials.

Against this gathering storm of radical right wing power consolidation and God driven and national security rationalized war fever, again very similar to Germany in the 1930’s, I recommend Oliver Hirschbiegel’s painstaking and provocative film on the last gasp of Hitler’s Third Reich ~ DOWNFALL.

Hirschbiegel’s movingly objective film makes Hitler and his fellow conspirators , Himmler, Goebbels, Speer and even Eva Braun frighteningly contemporary and plausible in their delusions of power and global empire building ~ while everything was deteriorating around them.

It was easy to visualize Cheney in his bunker with his protege Bush ~ along with Rice, Rumsfeld, Gonzales, Bolton and Wolfowitz ~ as they pored over their maps of middle east oil targets and domination ~ refusing to face reality and the consequences of their actions while the country slowly slipped into economic chaos.

Glenn Whipp, LA Daily News, calls the film fascinating for it’s depiction of the ordinariness of evil and writes “ you have a picture of madness that could exist anyplace where blind belief in a leader transcends reality

And therein lies my point - for the blind belief in Bush by the radical far right base of the Republican party and their Global empire building agenda is already close to transcending reality - and the future of our constitution and Republic is at great risk.

We cannot afford to make this mistake again and the world community, which has seen this moral blindness before, will not let us.

Allen L Roland

Allen L Roland is a practicing psychotherapist, author and lecturer who also shares a daily political and social commentary on his weblog and WEBSITE. He also guest hosts a weekly national radio show TRUTHTALK on CONSCIOUS TALK RADIO


Posted by Elvis on 03/29/08 •
Section Spiritual Diversions
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Friday, March 28, 2008

China’s Battle To Police The Web

By Darren Waters, Technology Editor
BBC News

Web users in China are able to view the BBC News website for the first time in years. So how does the so-called GREAT FIREWALL OF CHINA work?

It is not clear why China’s net population, the world’s largest, is suddenly able to view the BBC News website after years of being blocked. Nor is it clear how long the ACCESS will continue.

But what is certain is that China’s authorities have dynamic control of what their citizens can and cannot access.

Most countries that block or filter the internet do so on a site-by-site basis. For example, Pakistan blocked YouTube recently by telling Internet Service Providers (ISPs) in the country to redirect traffic whenever someone typed in the address for the popular video sharing site.

By deliberately rewriting the net address books inside Pakistan, authorities were able to redirect traffic.

But this is a blunt method of filtering and relies on authorities to actively track websites it wants to ban.

China does not block content or web pages in this way. Instead the technology deployed by the Chinese government, called GOLDEN SHIELD, scans data flowing across its section of the net for banned words or web addresses.

There are five gateways which connect China to the internet and the filtering happens as data is passed through those ports.

When the filtering system spots a banned term it sends instructions to the source server and destination PC to stop the flow of data.

Amnesty International has accused net giant Cisco and Sun Microsystems of actively assisting with the development of censorship and surveillance systems in the country.

Both firms have rejected the accusation and have said the equipment they sell to China is no different from products sold in other countries.

The dynamic nature of filtering in China gives the government more control over content and means the authorities can react to news events.

Oppressive regimes

It has been called “just-in-time filtering” and is being employed more widely around the world in oppressive regimes.

It allows authorities to block access to information around key events like elections, demonstrations etc.

Security researchers believe this form of filtering was employed on YouTube in China during the recent unrest in Tibet.

In January last year, President Hu Jintao reportedly ordered officials to regulate the internet better and “purify the online environment” ensuring that online information is “healthy” and “ethically inspiring”.

This was followed by a new wave of censoring certain websites, blogs and online articles.

But there have been well-documented ways to by-pass China’s firewall.

One method involves connecting to a friendly computer outside China and using it as a proxy, to access websites that are banned.

China cannot block every computer outside its borders so this method has proved popular with citizens wanting unfettered access to the net.

The problem has been in informing users in China of the IP address, the unique number of every device online, of the machines willing to act as proxy servers.

E-mail has been one method to alertpeople; however China is believed to have 30,000 people who routinely scan e-mails for this kind of information.

Organisations in the US and elsewhere have been working on technology to make this process of finding friendly computers more easily.

The University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab has developed software called psiphon which acts as a tunnel through the firewall.

Psiphon works through social networks. A net user in an uncensored country can download the program to their computer, which transforms it into an access point.

They can then give contacts in censored countries a unique web address, login and password, which enables the restricted users to browse the web freely through an encrypted connection to the proxy server.

Its creators say the system provides strong protection against “electronic eavesdropping” because censors or ISPs can see only that end users are connected to another computer and not view the sites that are being visited.

China Wide Web?

But even without specialised software, some China net users are able to crack the firewall.

A report released last year by US researchers showed that the firewall was more porous than previously thought.

It found that the firewall often failed to block what the Chinese government finds objectionable, and was least effective when lots of Chinese web users were online.

But even when no technology is used to filter or ban, China’s net citizens are not getting unfettered access to the web.

Western companies like Google and Microsoft have been criticised for launching services which effectively self-censor.

A search request on Google in China will not bring back the same results as it would in the US, with many websites removed from the list of returned items.

Microsoft’s blog service in China does not allow people to use words such as democracy, freedom and human rights.

Many observers now feel that China is not really connected to the web at all.

Instead, net users in the country experience a China Wide Web and not the World Wide Web.


Posted by Elvis on 03/28/08 •
Section Privacy And Rights
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Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Outsourcing Passport Production

What’s next - outsourcing MONEY PRODUCTION?


By Anne Flaherty
Yahoo News
March 26, 2008

Struggling with a deluge in passport applications, the State Department did what much of the government does to deal with a manpower crunch: It hired more private contractors.

But the practice of outsourcing allowed hired hands to snoop around in presidential candidates’ files. And now it’s pointing to questions about whether outside contractors should have access to such sensitive information about any citizen.

The nation has needed to use nongovernment workers as well as federal employees from its earliest days, Rep. Solomon Ortiz, D-Texas, said this month in a congressional hearing that focused on military contracting.

But he asked, “Have we gone too far in recent years by perhaps relying too much on contractors?”

The government routinely relies on PRIVATE FIRMS TO DO SENSITIVE WORK from managing weapons systems to protecting traveling diplomats to helping maintain records that contain private information on U.S. citizens. The Bush administration in particular has EMBRACED THE PRACTICE OF OUTSOURCING as a way to save money and improve efficiency, particularly in Iraq where there are just as many defense contractors as there are service members.

With the influx of contractors come increasing questions about LACK OF CONTROL.

The State Department, for example, has had to defend its employment of private security guards after several Blackwater Worldwide employees were involved in shootings that left Iraqis dead.

Then, last week, contractors were found to have pried into the passport files of Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama and Republican rival John McCain. Two contractors were fired and a third disciplined.

Democrat Hillary Rodham Clinton’s files also were breached when a State Department worker used the senator’s name during a training session and was reprimanded, officials said.

The State Department’s inspector general is expected to determine whether the files of other high-profile people were breached and if the searches involving the presidential candidates were politically motivated.

Spokesman Sean McCormack said Monday that the Justice Department has an “open invitation” to become involved. Attorney General Michael Mukasey has indicated that prosecutors are likely to wait until the assessment concludes before deciding whether to open an investigation of their own.

In the meantime, McCormack said the agency isn’t concerned it might be relying too much on private firms to help issue passports. The State Department’s Office of Passport Services employs about 2,600 contractors nationwide.

“These contractors go through vigorous personal integrity tests, the same kinds of tests that career government employees undergo,” he said.

“They are an essential part of what we do here at the State Department in terms of providing services to the American people, and they’re an essential part of the U.S. government providing the kinds of services that the American people expect their government to provide,” McCormack said.

Last year, the number of passport application requests soared after the January implementation of new rules that required air travelers from Canada, Mexico, the Caribbean and Bermuda to present passports. The State Department went from issuing some 12 million passports in 2006 to 18 million in 2007.

As the backlog worsened, the State Department took drastic and expensive measures, even paying some employees to return to the U.S. from overseas to help handle the paperwork. Anticipating the influx of requests to continue, the department hired contractors too.

“In order to deal with 18 million passports a year, we require lots of people to have access because it’s compartmentalized in the sense that different people perform different functions, including recording if someone advises that their passport has been lost or stolen,” said Undersecretary Patrick Kennedy, the department’s top management officer.

It remains unclear as to exactly what the contractors might have seen. Passport applications typically contain only basic personal information such as name, citizenship, age, Social Security number and place of birth. The files generally would not list countries the person has traveled to, agency officials said.

However, Passport Services maintain other records too, according to a Jan. 9 notice in the Federal Register. The federal notice says such information such as marriages overseas, court orders, arrest warrants and medical and financial reports may also be contained within the system.

Further, outside “users” may be given access to these files, including other government agencies and foreign governments. In the case of foreign governments, the records would be accessed primarily to aid in law enforcement, immigration and fraud prevention, the notice states.

There are about 180 million to 200 million records in the passport system, according to the State Department.

The two companies that provided the workers for the State Department - Stanley Inc., of Arlington, Va., and The Analysis Corp., or TAC, of McLean, Va.  have said their employees’ actions were unauthorized and not consistent with company policies.



More Passport Reviews Found at State

By Matthew Lee
San Francisco Chronicle
March 26, 2008

State Department workers viewed passport applications containing personal information about high-profile Americans, including the late Playboy playmate Anna Nicole Smith, at least 20 times since January 2007, The Associated Press has learned.

That total is far more than disclosed last week with the news that presidential candidates Hillary Rodham Clinton, John McCain and Barack Obama had been victims of improper snooping.

An internal department review has found the additional instances of department employees or contractors looking at computerized passport files of politicians and celebrities, according to preliminary results.

It has not been determined if the new cases also involved improper peeking, officials familiar with the review said Wednesday. Smith’s case, however, seems legitimate, the officials said. The review is not complete and the exact number of cases was not yet clear.

They spoke on condition of anonymity because the review is going on at the same time as the department’s own watchdog investigates passport record security related to the breaches involving the White House candidates.

Smith died in the Bahamas in February 2007. The review of her passport file appears to have come after a legitimate request from the U.S. Embassy in the Bahamas for information needed to complete her death certificate, the officials said.

Supervisors recorded each instance a file was viewed because the applications in question belonged to members of a select group of several hundred citizens whose passport files were “flagged” for extra protection due to their visibility, the officials said. Among these people are government leaders, movie stars and athletes, the officials said.

The list maintained by Bureau of Consular Affairs has included as many as 500 people at any one time, they said. The list is kept secret partly to deter workers from making unauthorized inquiries into high-profile records. Although there are no formal criteria for inclusion, people on the list are deemed to warrant special consideration because of their public status, the officials said.

The investigation begun by the department’s inspector general after last week’s disclosure covers some of the same ground as the internal review but also will examine whether the searches of the candidates’ records were politically motivated. Thus far, officials say they believe that snooping resulted from “imprudent curiosity.”

Two contractors were fired and a third disciplined for breaching Obama’s records three times and McCain’s records once. A department employee who looked at Clinton’s file as part of a training exercise was reprimanded.

The companies that provided the contractors Stanley Inc., of Arlington, Va., and The Analysis Corp., or TAC, of McLean, Va. ח have said their employees’ actions were unauthorized and not consistent with company policies.

Accessing any of the flagged files triggers an automatic notification that the record has been viewed. That allows supervisors to check whether it was done for a legitimate reason, such as an official request for verification of information contained in an actual passport.

The review being conducted by Patrick Kennedy, undersecretary of state for management, is expected to result in increased security measures for the passport files of flagged individuals, the officials said.

The most likely step would mean special security for those records, making them accessible to passport employees only after they get permission to view them from a supervisor, the officials said.

That restriction now applies to the files of the three candidates. Kennedy hopes to have it cover all high-profile records before the inspector general’s report is completed and ahead of congressional hearings on passport security, the officials said.

In addition, Kennedy wants to expand the list to more than 500 individuals, they said.

But that is unlikely to pre-empt calls for a separate Justice Department investigation into whether the breaches of the candidates’ files violated federal laws. Nor would it address concerns that the files of millions of people not considered high-profile enough for the extra protection may also have been improperly accessed.

It is unclear what the contractors might have seen in the candidates’ records. Passport applications typically contain only basic personal information such as name, citizenship, age, Social Security number and place of birth. The files generally would not list countries the person has traveled to.

But Passport Services maintain other records that can include information such as marriages overseas, court orders, arrest warrants and medical and financial reports. Further, outside “users” including other government agencies and foreign governments ח may be given certain information.

But the department says extraneous information would be included in passport application files only under rare circumstances, such as suspected fraud. Also, foreign governments are not given access to the U.S. electronic system that contains the files, it said.


Posted by Elvis on 03/26/08 •
Section Dying America
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In memory of the layed off workers of AT&T

Today's Diversion

A wise man only speaks when he has something to say; a Fool speaks when he has to say something. - Plato


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