Commentary

Civil rights groups to tech giants: Don’t sell face surveillance to the government

In case you missed it yesterday, the ACLU issued a demand to Microsoft, Amazon and Google yesterday that the companies not sell face surveillance technology to the government.

This is from the release that accompanied the demand:

A coalition of over 85 racial justice, faith, and civil, human, and immigrants’ rights groups today sent letters to Microsoft, Amazon, and Google demanding the companies commit not to sell face surveillance technology to the government.

The coalition makes it clear to each company that a decision to provide face surveillance technology to the government threatens the safety of community members and will also undermine public trust in its business.

“Companies can’t continue to pretend that the ‘break then fix’ approach works,” said Nicole Ozer, Technology and Civil Liberties director for the ACLU of California. “History has clearly taught us that the government will exploit technologies like face surveillance to target communities of color, religious minorities, and immigrants. We are at a crossroads with face surveillance, and the choices made by these companies now will determine whether the next generation will have to fear being tracked by the government for attending a protest, going to their place of worship, or simply living their lives.”

The coalition also notes in its letters that face surveillance “gives the government new power to target and single out immigrants, religious minorities, and people of color in our communities” and that “systems built on face surveillance will amplify and exacerbate historical and existing bias.” Acknowledging both employee and shareholder calls for corporate change, the coalition reiterates that it is time for these companies to take responsibility for the impact of their technology on the privacy and safety of communities and commit not to sell face surveillance to the government….

The letters come as executives from Google, Amazon, and Microsoft have all spoken publicly about facial recognition technology, revealing an industry at odds on how to respond to concerns raised about government use of such technology. Read more

News

Update: UNC Board of Governors wants UNC-Chapel Hill Chancellor gone by January 31

The UNC Board of Governors accepted UNC-Chapel Hill Chancellor Carol Folt’s resignation Tuesday – but said they want her out of the position by the end of this month.

Folt announced her resignation abruptly Monday after tensions with the board of governors over the future of the “Silent Sam” Confederate statue. In a press conference Tuesday morning, Folt said she hoped to stay until graduation in May.

The Board of Governors has authorized interim UNC President William Roper to to appoint an interim chancellor “at such time as he deems appropriate” until a new full-time chancellor can be chosen.

UNC Board of Governors Chair Harry Smith said in a statement Monday that the board was blindsided by Folt’s resignation and upset by her  order to remove the base of the Confederate statue, which was taken to an unnamed secure location Monday night.

While I’m disappointed by the Board of Governors’ timeline, I have truly loved my almost six years at Carolina,” Folt said in a written statement Tuesday afternoon. “Working with our students, faculty and staff has inspired me every day. It is their passion and dedication, and the generosity of our alumni and community, that drive this great University.”

“I believe that Carolina’s next chancellor will be extremely fortunate, and I will always be proud to be a Tar Heel,” Folt said in the statement.

Courts & the Law, Defending Democracy, News

Amid Barr confirmation hearings, former N.C. judges call for “fair and impartial” Russia investigation

A screen grab of William Barr at the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing Tuesday.

Former North Carolina Supreme Court Justice Bob Orr and former state Court of Appeals Judge Gerald Arnold are old enough to remember the issues and debacle surrounding Watergate — they also grew up during the Cold War and understand well the threats imposed on a democratic system.

They said during a Tuesday teleconference that the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on President Donald Trump’s nominee to be the next U.S. attorney general, William Barr, was of utmost importance in light of special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into the administration’s relationship with Russia.

“The public should be able to believe the legal process and procedures we’re going through with here is going to be fair and impartial, and to be fair and impartial, it has to be independent,” Arnold said.

Barr, if confirmed, would succeed Jeff Sessions. He served as both attorney general and deputy attorney general during George H.W. Bush’s administration. He has openly condemned the Mueller investigation, and he’s been criticized by Democrats for his views on everything from executive power to immigration and mass incarceration.

Orr said the protection of Mueller’s investigation needed to be a top priority for any attorney general in this administration. He said there was an extraordinary external threat and the investigation needs to be full and thorough.

“I have absolute faith and confidence in Robert Mueller and his team, in the law enforcement and intelligent communities that serve this country,” he added.

There are a number of ways an attorney general could impede Mueller’s investigation, including by limiting the resources available, having improper communications and not releasing the final report to the public. The latter seems hard to conceive of though, Orr and Arnold said.

“I think the ultimate question that continues to crop up: Where does his loyalty lie?” Orr said of Barr, adding that loyalty should first be to the oath and to the people of U.S., not to the president. “I think that we have to operate on a degree of trust that someone in Mr. Barr’s potential capacity as attorney general has to understand their oath and responsibilities.”

Susanna Hailey, of Law Works, who hosted the teleconference, said Barr’s nomination was the most significant since former President Richard Nixon’s nomination of Elliot Richardson, a former U.S. attorney general who opted to resign when Nixon ordered for him to interfere in the Watergate investigation.

A recent poll by Law Works — a group that “engages bipartisan voices and educates the public on the importance of the rule of law, the role of the special counsel in the justice system, and the integrity of our judicial institutions” — found 81 percent of Americans, including 69 percent of Republicans, believe “Trump should not be allowed to pick the person who investigates him because the investigation needs to be independent and not controlled by the person who is being investigated.”

Hailey said Trump, through his actions has said he wants an attorney general who will undermine Mueller’s investigation.

The Senate hearing is underway today. You can watch it live here.

News

Update: UNC-Chapel Hill Chancellor denies “Silent Sam” issue led to resignation

In a short telephone press conference Tuesday morning, UNC Chancellor Carol Folt denied tensions with the UNC Board of Governors over the “Silent Sam” Confederate monument led to her announcing her resignation this week.

UNC-Chapel Hill Chancellor Carol Folt

“I have not wanted my job status to be part of the decision making about the monument and it hasn’t been,” Folt told reporters Tuesday.

Her decision to order the removal of the base of the statue – which was toppled by protesters last year – came in the same Monday statement in which she announced her resignation. Both moves blindsided the UNC Board of Governors, according to Board Chair Harry Smith.

But after nearly six years as chancellor, Folt said, she had been considering her next steps for some time. The tension with the board over the statue and her resulting order, which infuriated some of its members, happened at the same time she made her decision but weren’t directly related, she said.

After touting her accomplishments as chancellor since 2013, Folt deflected questions about her tensions with the UNC Board of Governors and rejected the notion that she should have acted more quickly and decisively on the divisive monument.

Asked whether she had waited too long to develop moral clarity over the statue and the necessity of its removal, Folt said she believes her moral position hasn’t changed. She was simply looking at the problem for a legal perspective and constrained by a 2015 state law protecting such statues, she said.

With the statue’s toppling and continued examples of its danger to campus safety, she said, the way the problem was approached had to be changed. Last month Folt and the UNC Board of Trustees delivered a report to the board of governors in which a panel of security experts concluded the statue should not return to campus. Prominent members of the board of governors disagreed, with Smith saying the law left no other option.

The board of governors is meeting in an emergency closed session teleconference at 1 p.m. Tuesday to discuss Folt’s resignation announcement.

Asked if she thinks they will fire her or ask her to leave before the end of the semester, Folt said she couldn’t speculate – but she hopes not.

Environment

Extra pollution controls on Enviva wood pellet plant still don’t address industry’s contributions to climate change

The Enviva plant in Hamlet, under construction. It will be company’s fourth wood pellet plant in North Carolina. The others are in Hertford, Northampton and Sampson counties. (File photo: Lisa Sorg)

The controversial Enviva wood pellet plant in Hamlet has received a key state permit that would allow it to pulverize more logs and ship the pellets overseas to be burned as fuel.

As Policy Watch reported in November, Enviva had asked DEQ to modify its air permit in more than a dozen ways. The most significant request was an increase in production of pellets from 537,000 oven-dried tons per year to 625,000. The Maryland-based company also wanted to change with the mix of softwoods and hardwoods it would use.

These adjustments can produce greater amounts of pollutants, particularly volatile organic compounds (VOCs), like formaldehyde and benzene. Enviva proposed to install controls that the company says will cap pollution to less than 250 tons per year.

During the public hearing, timber industry workers and representatives asked DEQ to approve the permit for economic reasons. Environmental and health advocates and several scientists urged DEQ to reject the proposal, pending further reviews. Among their requests were air monitoring at the fenceline, a more thorough environmental justice analysis and a fuller accounting of how the wood pellet industry contradicts the governor’s executive order on climate change.

DEQ said in its press release that after considering public comments, the agency required additional pollution monitoring and controls on the plant. For example, Enviva will now have to test for particulate matter, including PM 2.5. That particulate matter is no wider than a human hair and can burrow deeply into the lungs.

Source: DEQ

 

But these additional controls don’t address the global impact of the wood pellet industry.

The United Kingdom burns wood pellets in lieu of coal, ostensibly to cut its carbon dioxide emissions. But science has shown that the entire production cycle of wood pellets creates more CO2 per unit of energy than coal. Cutting the trees releases CO2 into the air. It takes decades for new trees to absorb the same amount of CO2 as its timbered forebearers. Add in the emissions from the plant and transportation — truck, rail and ship — plus the actual burning of the pellets themselves.

Adam Colette, program director at Dogwood Alliance, immediately criticized DEQ’s decision. Dogwood Alliance has worked with concerned Richmond County citizens in opposing the project on environmental, social justice and public health grounds.

“The Cooper administration and the NC Department of Environmental Quality continue to take one step forward and two steps back on forests, environmental justice and the climate crisis in North Carolina,” Collete said in a prepared statement. “Even with advanced air quality controls, allowing Enviva to increase logging and degrade natural flood protections directly in the region of our state where major storms have devastated communities is an injustice to all North Carolinians. We hoped the administration would be a champion for forests and communities. Clearly we are still waiting for that day to come.”