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A roundup of recent Michigan newspaper editorials

August 7, 2017

The Detroit News. August 3, 2017

Invasive tech needs low-tech approach

In the digital age, threats are encoded, technology is expedient and the legal tradition of limiting the intrusiveness of government simply can’t keep up.

Law enforcement gadgets such as Stingrays, which pretend to be cell towers to trick phones into sharing locations, and “textalyzers,” a developing tool that will tell police whether a phone was in use before a car crash, outstrip legal protections by decades. That disparity jeopardizes privacy and violates constitutional rights.

The solution, however, is low-tech: requiring warrants that inform judges of who’s being tracked and why.

In the last year, The Detroit News has reported a variety of uses of Stingrays — originally earmarked for counter-terrorism — from investigations into fraud to immigration to gun crimes. While efficient at finding suspects, the device also pulls data from bystanders’ phones and interrupts all cell reception.

Warrants establishing probable cause to use technology are optional, so police opt for court orders establishing the lesser standard of relevance, said Nathan Wessler, a staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project. He added that there are no rules governing the deletion of irrelevant data, and signing judges often don’t know how deep the invasion will go.

As for “textalyzers,” developers promise it will only access information about phone usage, the AP reports. But common sense would say if the machine has access to that data, it probably has access to personal material, too. Police can already search phones if they establish relevance. “Textalyzers” make the process more efficient, and likely less constitutional.

Once, Stingrays were reserved for military intelligence fighting terrorism. Recall that counter-terrorism, specifically the post-9/11 Patriot Act, completely tipped the scales balancing national security and Fourth Amendment privacy and permitted previously unconstitutional searches.

The act, which passed 357-66 in the House and 98-1 in the Senate, had controversial provisions, including “sneak and peeks,” which permitted searches of homes, businesses and personal property before issuing warrants. The bulwark against these privacy transgressions was supposed to be judicial oversight.

Wessler attributes today’s laundry list of applications of Stingrays to the lack of an overarching legal framework. Police operate under a 30-year-old doctrine that states if individuals willingly share their location with companies through the use of cell phones, that information is no longer private and warrants aren’t necessary.

Wessler calls that an outdated legal fiction that doesn’t make sense at a time when millions leave detailed digital breadcrumbs: One device, such as the Apple Watch, stores data on everything from the wearers’ heart rates to track fitness to when they enter and leave the house to set the thermostat.

Judicial oversight will help regulate such invasive technology. Advocating for warrants that protect privacy will not hamper efforts to protect us from real security threats.

“You have to do both,” said Ian Walters, communications director of the American Conservative Union. “We ought to strike a balance between civil liberties and national security.”

That is why we have three separate branches of government with checks and balances. It’s why judicial oversight demands warrants that specify what technology is in use, why, for how long and how quickly irrelevant data culled during the investigation will be deleted. If judges have the training to make informed decisions about invasive tech, the conflict between investigative technology and civil liberties would shrink.

We are inextricably intertwined with powerful technology that gives all manners of agencies insight into our lives. Fighting technology with technology, however, would be a losing battle.

When it comes to privacy, the law — and the real people upholding it — is our best weapon.


Detroit Free Press. August 3, 2017

Detroit schools out of testing madness

In schools, tests serve one legitimate purpose — to measure where student performance is — and a host of inappropriate ends, which include punishing teachers, or even weighing exclusively into decisions that keep schools open or closed.

We’d guess that by announcing that Detroit Public Schools Community District will eliminate 70% of the tests it administers to students each year, new Superintendent Nikolai Vitti is trying to push the district more toward the former, and away from the latter.

And that’s a good thing.

When you count the statewide tests kids take, along with assessments necessary to gauge performance and progress, you’re already talking about an awful lot of examinations. And the more you take, the higher the public stakes seem to be, and the less useful the tests tend to be in guiding actual instruction or improvement.

Vitti has his eye on wrestling that high-stakes culture out of Detroit’s schools, presumably to give teachers and students a little more breathing room and to focus more on learning than on test-taking.

It gets an initial thumbs up from us.

It could be an important step in making the school system more focused on children, and on learning.

The irony of testing in Detroit schools right now is that it’s both the means for the harshest criticism about the district and for understanding how progress has already begun.

Without question, Detroit schools’ performance on state tests is far below average — average for the state, average for the nation.

And it has been that way for far too long. Decades, in fact.

In 2015, a national trial test designed specifically for urban districts like Detroit, showed the city’s kids pulling up last, even among big-city peers around the country.

But there has also been a steady increase building in scores on state tests — steady but slow — that suggests that with a little consistency, the gap between Detroit and other districts could be closed.

Like all districts, Detroit saw a test-score setback when Michigan switched to the M-STEP (and statistically, its kids lost more ground than the statewide average) but for years, the scores had been climbing out of the cellar and toward respectability.

But in addition to those state tests, there are important assessments that take place in schools, to help teachers know where kids are and how far they have to go. And in Detroit, like most districts, there are also a slew of other exams that get administered each year. The national tests that Detroit sometimes takes have been a cudgel with which every critic has battered the city and its reputation.

But all the attention and criticism has not generally inspired more focus on classroom learning. It more likely fuels more anxiety, among students and teachers, about the tests. And it encourages too much bending of curriculum and instruction toward the idea of “passing” the tests, rather than making sure kids are getting the knowledge they need.

Tests, as they go, can be among the many useful tools educators have to figure out what’s working and what’s not. But overuse of them, and overreliance on them as exclusive indicators of success, can cause schools to lose focus, and purpose.

So far, Vitti’s focus has been on returning Detroit’s schools to the essence of their mission, rather than the distractions. He is repurposing much of the administrative infrastructure to serve in classrooms, and schools, rather than in offices.

He has talked about getting Detroit schools out of the business of opening schools under the state’s charter law, to focus on girding the strength and performance of the traditional public schools that the district operates.

It’s a sound strategy, and eliminating superfluous testing complements it importantly.

The only potential downside could come from an over-aggressive diminishment of assessment. Teachers need to know where students are, and testing is an important measure of that for curriculum and instruction.

In addition, teachers need to be held accountable for their performance, and testing — in limited, properly referenced use — can be a critical tool for their assessments.

There’s nothing in what Vitti announced that says tests will be completely de-emphasized, or eliminated. And that should not be the attitude that takes over Detroit school culture.

But if Vitti can reshape the role testing plays, give teachers more time to teach and students more time to learn, while maintaining the necessary assessments to guide everyone’s work, he will have done a lot to improve schools in the city.


Times Herald (Port Huron). August 2, 2017

Congress, Lansing take aim at our safety

Americans for Responsible Solutions says Michigan needs protection against Congress. Michigan needs protection against its own legislature first.

Americans for Responsible Solutions is a political action committee that argues American homes and streets will be safer with stricter gun laws and the only way to get those laws passed is to elect a Congress that isn’t beholden to the gun lobby. Before it out-campaigns the gun industry, the group is warning of the threat posed by legislation under consideration in Washington called the Concealed Carry Reciprocity Act.

The bill, if passed, would require all states to honor the concealed weapons laws of other states — including those states that have weak or no standards for allowing people to carry hidden firearms in public. A dozen states require no permit or training for a person to carry a hidden firearm. If the bill passes, the group warns, visitors from those states would be allowed to carry conceal firearms in Michigan even though they’ve not been required to complete any training, testing or background screening.

“This bill, which is being crafted by special interest groups in Washington, would have a disastrous impact on public safety here in Michigan,” said state Rep. Robert Wittenberg, D-Oak Park. “Before voting on this bill, I hope our lawmakers will think twice about how this bill will make Michigan less safe.”

The special interest groups are not only in Washington.

In June, Wittenberg’s colleagues in the Michigan House passed a set of bills that would effectively do the same thing as the federal legislation Americans for Responsible Solutions opposes. Those bills would allow any lawful gun owner to carry a concealed firearm without a permit or state-mandated training.

Like Wittenberg — and most state law enforcement, prosecutor and medical officials — we fear these bills would have a disastrous impact on public safety in our state and we hope our lawmakers will think twice about how this bill will make Michigan less safe.

The bills still must be taken up by the state Senate, and if passed, signed by the governor. We hope each senator and the governor will think twice about putting more pistols in our homes, cars, and public places. More guns mean more shootings.


Traverse City Record-Eagle. August 3, 2017

County must learn lesson from IT crisis

Sometimes a can kicked down the road one too many times decides to turn around and kick back.

In fact the revenge of the kicked can has become so commonplace when it comes to unmaintained taxpayer-funded infrastructure and poorly funded programs, officials at all levels of government should be plodding to work in head-to-toe armor.

It’s a sequence that played itself out as lawmakers dug Michigan into a gaping pothole by shifting funding away from road and bridge upkeep. It festered in local governments statewide as elected officials failed to properly fund pension obligations for public employees. And most recently Grand Traverse County officials learned they face a $6.4 million tab to upgrade and modernize its IT equipment and infrastructure — a network that cooperatively serves the county, city and Traverse City Light & Power.

The latest revelation certainly isn’t the making of current county board members, but it is yet another in a string of mountainous expenses they face, reverberation from decades of apparently continuous can kicking by their predecessors.

Fortunately the millions outlined in an IT expert’s report released last week can be spread over a number of years, nonetheless the increased expense will strain a budget already buckling under the weight of tens of millions in unfunded pension debt.

But a gradual investment in securing and modernizing the county’s computer infrastructure shouldn’t end once the recently produced $6.4 million checklist is complete. The upkeep for such systems is much like upkeep for a home — a coat of paint and occasionally pumping the septic system are low-cost maintenance investments that prevent costly, catastrophic failures in the future.

Anybody who has owned a home computer, a smartphone or just about any Apple product knows the latest, most secure technology today will be obsolete in a matter of months. The same is true for IT software and hardware.

The AS400 network system in place at the county has been in operation for decades and will no longer be upgraded or supported by its maker, IBM. That means officials will need to shell out millions to migrate vital documents and operations to new systems soon.

There is some argument over the necessity of such an upgrade — officials from TCL&P say the current system works for the utility’s needs — but there is no doubt the system is sucking its last breaths as IBM has announced it will stop offering software support in the next few years.

So, as officials come together to wrestle with the most recent can that kicked back, it is paramount that they begin gleaning the important lessons offered by such experiences.

Small annual investments to maintain and upgrade the tech backbone that props up operations at both the city and county seem pretty reasonable when facing a $6.4 million tab triggered by decades of can kicking.___

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