Why Has the E.P.A. Shifted on Toxic Chemicals? An Industry Insider Helps Call the Shots

Why Has the E.P.A. Shifted on Toxic Chemicals? An Industry Insider Helps Call the Shots
A scientist who worked for the chemical industry now shapes policy on hazardous chemicals. Within the E.P.A., there is fear that public health is at risk
Oct 21 2017

WASHINGTON — For years, the Environmental Protection Agency has struggled to prevent an ingredient once used in stain-resistant carpets and nonstick pans from contaminating drinking water.

The chemical, perfluorooctanoic acid, or PFOA, has been linked to kidney cancer, birth defects, immune system disorders and other serious health problems.

So scientists and administrators in the E.P.A.’s Office of Water were alarmed in late May when a top Trump administration appointee insisted upon the rewriting of a rule to make it harder to track the health consequences of the chemical, and therefore regulate it.

The revision was among more than a dozen demanded by the appointee, Nancy B. Beck, after she joined the E.P.A.’s toxic chemical unit in May as a top deputy. For the previous five years, she had been an executive at the American Chemistry Council, the chemical industry’s main trade association.

The changes directed by Dr. Beck may result in an “underestimation of the potential risks to human health and the environment” caused by PFOA and other so-called legacy chemicals no longer sold on the market, the Office of Water’s top official warned in a confidential internal memo obtained by The New York Times.

The E.P.A.’s abrupt new direction on legacy chemicals is part of a broad initiative by the Trump administration to change the way the federal government evaluates health and environmental risks associated with hazardous chemicals, making it more aligned with the industry’s wishes.

It is a cause with far-reaching consequences for consumers and chemical companies, as the E.P.A. regulates some 80,000 different chemicals, many of them highly toxic and used in workplaces, homes and everyday products. If chemicals are deemed less risky, they are less likely to be subjected to heavy oversight and restrictions.

The effort is not new, nor is the decades-long debate over how best to identify and assess risks, but the industry has not benefited from such highly placed champions in government since the Reagan administration. The cause was taken up by Dr. Beck and others in the administration of President George W. Bush, with some success, and met with resistance during the Obama administration. Now it has been aggressively revived under President Trump by an array of industry-backed political appointees and others.

Dr. Beck, who has a doctorate in environmental health, comes from a camp — firmly backed by the chemical industry — that says the government too often directs burdensome rules at what she has called “phantom risks.”

Other scientists and administrators at the E.P.A., including Wendy Cleland-Hamnett, until last month the agency’s top official overseeing pesticides and toxic chemicals, say the dangers are real and the pushback is often a tactic for deflecting accountability — and shoring up industry profits at the expense of public safety.



The Guardian view on internet security: complexity is vulnerable

The Guardian view on internet security: complexity is vulnerable
A huge weakness in Wi-Fi security erodes online privacy. But the real challenge is designing with human shortcomings in mind
By Editorial
Oct 19 2017

This week’s security scandal is the discovery that every household with wifi in this country has a network that isn’t really private. For 13 years a weakness has lurked in the supposedly secure way in which wireless networks carry our information. Although the WPA2 security scheme was supposed to be mathematically proven to be uncrackable, it turns out that the mechanism by which it can compensate for weak signals can be compromised, and when that happens it might as well be unencrypted. Practically every router, every laptop and every mobile phone in the world is now potentially exposed. As the Belgian researcher who discovered the vulnerability points out, this could be abused to steal information such as credit card numbers, emails and photos.

It is not a catastrophic flaw: the attacker has to be within range of the wifi they are attacking. Most email and chat guarded by end-to-end encryption is still protected from eavesdroppers. But the flaw affects a huge number of devices, many of which will never be updated to address it. Since both ends of a wifi connection need to be brought up to date to be fixed, it is no longer safe to assume that any wifi connection is entirely private.

The story is a reminder of just how much we all now rely on the hidden machineries of software engineering in our everyday lives, and just how complex these complexities are. The fact that it took 13 years for this weakness to be found and publicised shows that no one entirely understands the systems that we all now take for granted. Also this week, a flaw was discovered in one of the widely used chips that are supposed to produce the gigantic and completely random numbers which are needed to make strong encryption truly unbreakable. Even the anti-virus systems that many users hope will protect them can be turned inside out. First the Israeli and then the Russian intelligence agencies appear to have penetrated the Russian-made Kaspersky Anti-Virus, a program of the sort which must have access to all the most sensitive information on a computer to perform its functions.

And then there are the known unknowns: the devices which most users do not even notice are connected to the net. It is estimated that there will be 21bn things connected to the internet by 2020, from baby monitors and door locks to cars and fridges. Billions of these are unprotected and will remain that way.

But this kind of technological failure should not blind us to the real dangers of the digital world, which are social and political. The information about ourselves that we freely give away on social media, or on dating sites, is far more comprehensive, and far more potentially damaging, than anything which could be picked up by a lurking wifi hacker. The leak of millions of user accounts from Equifax, the credit reference agency, is only the most recent example of the plundering of personal information by criminals.


How Fiction Becomes Fact on Social Media

How Fiction Becomes Fact on Social Media
Oct 20 2017

Hours after the Las Vegas massacre, Travis McKinney’s Facebook feed was hit with a scattershot of conspiracy theories. The police were lying. There were multiple shooters in the hotel, not just one. The sheriff was covering for casino owners to preserve their business.

The political rumors sprouted soon after, like digital weeds. The killer was anti-Trump, an “antifa” activist, said some; others made the opposite claim, that he was an alt-right terrorist. The two unsupported narratives ran into the usual stream of chatter, news and selfies.

“This stuff was coming in from all over my network of 300 to 400” friends and followers, said Mr. McKinney, 52, of Suffolk, Va., and some posts were from his inner circle.

But he knew there was only one shooter; a handgun instructor and defense contractor, he had been listening to the police scanner in Las Vegas with an app. “I jumped online and tried to counter some of this nonsense,” he said.

In the coming weeks, executives from Facebook and Twitter will appear before congressional committees to answer questions about the use of their platforms by Russian hackers and others to spread misinformation and skew elections. During the 2016 presidential campaign, Facebook sold more than $100,000 worth of ads to a Kremlin-linked company, and Google sold more than $4,500 worth to accounts thought to be connected to the Russian government.

Agents with links to the Russian government set up an endless array of fake accounts and websites and purchased a slew of advertisements on Google and Facebook, spreading dubious claims that seemed intended to sow division all along the political spectrum — “a cultural hack,” in the words of one expert.

Yet the psychology behind social media platforms — the dynamics that make them such powerful vectors of misinformation in the first place — is at least as important, experts say, especially for those who think they’re immune to being duped. For all the suspicions about social media companies’ motives and ethics, it is the interaction of the technology with our common, often subconscious psychological biases that makes so many of us vulnerable to misinformation, and this has largely escaped notice.

Skepticism of online “news” serves as a decent filter much of the time, but our innate biases allow it to be bypassed, researchers have found — especially when presented with the right kind of algorithmically selected “meme.”

At a time when political misinformation is in ready supply, and in demand, “Facebook, Google, and Twitter function as a distribution mechanism, a platform for circulating false information and helping find receptive audiences,” said Brendan Nyhan, a professor of government at Dartmouth College (and occasional contributor to The Times’s Upshot column).

For starters, said Colleen Seifert, a professor of psychology at the University of Michigan, “People have a benevolent view of Facebook, for instance, as a curator, but in fact it does have a motive of its own. What it’s actually doing is keeping your eyes on the site. It’s curating news and information that will keep you watching.”

That kind of curating acts as a fertile host for falsehoods by simultaneously engaging two predigital social-science standbys: the urban myth as “meme,” or viral idea; and individual biases, the automatic, subconscious presumptions that color belief.

The first process is largely data-driven, experts said, and built into social media algorithms. The wide circulation of bizarre, easily debunked rumors — so-called Pizzagate, for example, the canard that Hillary Clinton was running a child sex ring from a Washington-area pizza parlor — is not entirely dependent on partisan fever (though that was its origin).

For one, the common wisdom that these rumors gain circulation because most people conduct their digital lives in echo chambers or “information cocoons” is exaggerated, Dr. Nyhan said.

In a forthcoming paper, Dr. Nyhan and colleagues review the relevant research, including analyses of partisan online news sites and Nielsen data, and find the opposite. Most people are more omnivorous than presumed; they are not confined in warm bubbles containing only agreeable outrage.


Fighting Racism Is Not Just a War of Words

Fighting Racism Is Not Just a War of Words
Oct 21 2017

ANN ARBOR, Mich. — Amid the cultural amplification of Donald Trump’s brand of belittling speech, college campuses are wrestling with how to respond to emboldened acts of expressive racism.

During the first weeks of classes here at the University of Michigan, where I am a professor, unknown perpetrators spray-painted an iconic boulder on campus with graphic slurs against Latinos, along with the pro-Trump acronym MAGA (Make America Great Again); others defaced the name tags on the dorm-room doors of three African-American students with pejorative comments, including that most visceral of anti-black insults; and still others posted fliers proclaiming “Free Dylann Roof!” championing the man convicted of the murder of nine black church congregants in Charleston, S.C. When students circulated photos of the defaced name tags via social media and The Michigan Daily newspaper, faculty members and students voiced an urgent need for statements denouncing the hate speech.

I joined with colleagues on our department’s “racial climate task force” to produce a proclamation overnight. As we were editing our statement that evening, another colleague shared the document cranked out by her own program in response to the incident. The next day, the equity and inclusion committee of one of the largest departments in the college issued its statement. Meanwhile, student protesters pressed the university president for an official statement beyond his initial tweet.

Soon after, faculty members across the university proposed a new action group whose mission would include issuing collective statements. All told, university personnel spent hours and days drawing up sentences to proclaim principles that should be obvious. We abhor racism. We believe in the dignity of all human beings. Students of color belong on this campus.

When I learned that a colleague at an East Coast institution had also been preoccupied with a faculty statement on a campus incident that week, I began wondering: In the fight against the alarming threat to our most fundamental values, was this the best use of our time?

There is worth in the expression of shared principles, as well as in the support that stems from collaboration. But beyond the immediate affirmation of restating our moral convictions, I confess my nagging worry that ceaseless statement-writing as an act of protest is sucking us dry — of time, rest, energy, creativity and our place in the public square.

Protest aims to voice dissent and sway public opinion toward the ultimate end of shaping social change, or in our moment, halting social decline. But when formulaic statements are issued by committees of liberal professors, or “the educated elite” — the same voices who always lecture on race — the words have limited impact. Our proliferation of statements online may in fact spur those who enjoy setting off shock waves through race-baiting language and then sitting back and watching the show.

As the Southern Poverty Law Center’s report “The Alt-Right on Campus: What Students Need to Know” suggests, what these instigators crave is “spectacle.” When we respond to slurs with the visceral go-to words — “vile,” “heinous,” “inhumane,” “attacks,” “assaults” — we may be fueling the opposition. We might be diminishing the power of our lexicon for future and more egregious affronts. We certainly are expending precious time.

This is not to say that words do not matter. Words hold immeasurable weight, which is why we bemoan Donald Trump’s mean and facile use of them. But all word-work requires time, and some have more impact than others. In this mudslinging cultural melee, we need the right words: the stories, jokes, essays, poems, harangues and treatises that paint a compelling vision that we all want to stand for. And beyond judiciously choosing the words to put on the page, we would be wise to follow in the great social-movement tradition of matching our words with bodies in action.


North Korea’s deadliest weapon? Its hackers

North Korea’s deadliest weapon? Its hackers
As Sony Pictures and the New York Federal Reserve will attest, the regime has become extremely skilled, and successful, at cyber attacks
By John Naughton
Oct 22 2017

Rule No 1 in international relations: do not assume that your adversary is nuts. Rule No 2: do not underestimate his capacity to inflict serious damage on you. We in the west are currently making both mistakes with regard to North Korea. Our reasons for doing so are, at one level, understandable. In economic terms, the country is a basket case. According to the CIA’s world factbook, its per-capita GDP is $1,800 or less, compared with nearly $40,000 for the UK and $53,000 for the US. Its industrial infrastructure is clapped out and nearly beyond repair; the country suffers from chronic food, energy and electricity shortages and many of its people are malnourished. International sanctions are squeezing it almost to asphyxiation. And, to cap it all, it’s led by a guy whose hairdo is almost as preposterous as Donald Trump’s.

And yet this impoverished basket case has apparently been able to develop nuclear weapons, plus the rocketry needed to deliver them to Los Angeles and its environs. Given the retaliatory capacity of the US, this is widely taken as proof that Kim Jong-un must be out of what might loosely be called his mind. Which is where rule No1 comes in. Kim’s priority is to avoid regime change. He knows that if you have nukes, then no one – not even Trump – is going to try any funny business, especially when it’s clear that a seriously aggressive move by the US would mean the death of hundreds of thousands of South Koreans. The North Korean leader’s rationale for developing nuclear weapons that are ready for deployment is identical to Britain’s rationale for renewing Trident: deterrence.

So “Rocket Man” (as Trump calls him) is rational. He believes, as we do, in mutually assured destruction. He is therefore looking for lower-risk ways of inflicting damage on the US and its South Korean ally. And he’s found one. It’s called “cyber operations” and the North Koreans are getting the hang of it. They’re not as skilled yet as the Chinese and the Russians (not to mention the Americans), but they’re making real progress.

And while once the thought that a country with only about 1,000 internet addresses could inflict serious damage on a nuclear-tipped superpower was regarded as preposterous, nobody in Washington (or London, for that matter) is laughing any longer.

Evidence of North Korean prowess in cyber operations has been steadily mounting. The other day, the New York Times provided an instructive progress report. Last year, for example, North Korean hackers nearly pulled off the greatest bank heist in history. They were within a keystroke of nicking a billion dollars from the New York Federal Reserve and were stopped only by a spelling mistake: a bogus withdrawal request misspelled “foundation” as “fandation”. Even so, they got away with $81m.

Two years earlier, they had pulled off a devastating attack on Sony Pictures that resulted in the theft of thousands of documents, the wiping of internal data centres and the destruction of 75% of the company’s servers. Among the haul were contracts, salary lists, film budgets, medical records, staff social security numbers, personal emails – and five entire movies, including one that had not yet been released.

But the coup de grace came last September when the North Koreans penetrated South Korea’s defence data centre – in the HQ of South Korea’s defence network – and stole a trove of top-secret files, including American and South Korean operational plans for wartime action. The documents included OPLAN 5015, the plan for dealing with full-blown war with North Korea, which reportedly included procedures to “decapitate” the North Korean leadership, plus a contingency plan in case of sudden political changes inside North Korea.


The Observer view on the crisis in Europe

The Observer view on the crisis in Europe
Beyond Brexit, from Catalonia to the Czech Republic, the European dream is under threat
By Observer editorial
Oct 21 2017

The unprecedented measures initiated on Saturday by Spain’s government, aimed at thwarting Catalonia’s secession, are but the latest expression of a developing, Europe-wide crisis of identity and political legitimacy. Mariano Rajoy, the prime minister, was reluctant to resort to direct rule from Madrid, but faced by the stubborn and, in his view, illegal defiance of the Catalan leadership, he clearly felt he had no choice. Rajoy’s intervention could defuse the situation or, by triggering a formal declaration of independence, render it even more unstable.

The drive for a separate Catalan state has causes specific to that region’s history and culture. But it has also been fuelled by the perceived failures of national political leadership. Inconclusive elections in 2015 and 2016 shattered the traditional dominance of the mainstream centre-left and centre-right parties. Rajoy’s conservative Popular party has been damaged by corruption scandals. The Socialists registered their worst ever performance last year amid record low turnout. Yet would-be mould-breakers such as Podemos failed to achieve a breakthrough.

This rejection of politics as usual, and the consequent fragmentation of the body politic, finds powerful echoes across Europe. Everywhere, or so it seems, newly minted or reviving political forces, sometimes benign, more frequently not, are attempting to fill the vacuum. This weekend’s elections in the Czech Republic are a case in point. Polls suggest the ruling, pro-EU Social Democrats face defeat by the upstart populist, Eurosceptic, anti-immigrant Action of Dissatisfied Citizens led by a pro-Russia billionaire. In prospect is a coalition with the rightwing Freedom and Direct Democracy party, which wants to quit the EU.

Events in Prague recall in turn last week’s Austrian elections, which brought victoryfor the youthful conservative People’s party leader, Sebastian Kurz, whose cynical tactic was to ape the extremist, xenophobic outlook of the far-right Freedom party. Kurz now looks set to form a governing alliance with a party whose neo-Nazi origins and ideology led the EU to boycott Austria in 2000, when the Freedom party first entered government. It is a measure of how Europe has become more accepting of, or resigned to, far-right activism that no repeat boycott is mooted in Brussels. More than half the Austrian electorate backed parties fiercely opposed to immigration, integration and multiculturalism. Muslim and Jewish citizens are understandably alarmed.

Now switch focus to northern Italy and, again, anger over political failings at the centre can be seen combining, negatively and corrosively, with fears about personal and regional identity. This weekend’s referendums on increased autonomy for Lombardy and the Veneto have at their heart distrust of the Rome government and resentment (and there are echoes of Catalonia here) at the way the poorer south is supposedly subsidised by wealthy, industrialised Milan. But in its tribalism, micro-nationalism and sociocultural exclusivity, the biggest regional party, the Northern League, nurtures many of the unsavoury prejudices displayed by similar groups across the continent.


Tech giants face Congress as showdown over Russia election meddling looms

Tech giants face Congress as showdown over Russia election meddling looms
Facebook, Twitter and Google once seemed to encapsulate freedom and connectivity. At a hearing on 1 November a new question will be posed: have they become a tool for foreign autocracies and domestic extremists?
By Julian Borger, Lauren Gambinoand Sabrina Siddiqui in Washington
Oct 22 2017

A showdown is looming in Washington between Congress and the powerful social media companies that have helped define the current unsettled age in western democracies.

The immediate issue before the Senate and the House intelligence committees, which have summoned representatives from Facebook, Twitter and Google to appear on 1 November, is to determine the extent the companies were used in a multi-pronged Russian operation to influence the 2016 presidential election.

All three companies have admitted that Russian entities bought ads on their sites in an effort to skew the vote. In Facebook’s case, ads pushing divisive messages were bought by fake American accounts and focused on swing states. On Twitter, vast armies of automated user accounts – “bots” – and fake users helped promote fake news stories, damaging to Hillary Clinton and favourable to Donald Trump. Russian-funded accounts spread bogus stories across the Google search engine and its subsidiary YouTube.

The wider question hovering over the committee hearings on 1 November is whether these organisations, which once seemed to encapsulate the spirit of free speech and communication in the 21st century, have become Trojan horses used by foreign autocracies and domestic extremists to subvert democracies from the inside, exploiting openness, blurring fact and fiction and fuelling civil conflict. 

“What should alarm the American people is the brazen exploitation and distortion of popular opinion by a hostile foreign power amounting really to an attack on our democracy,” Richard Blumenthal, Democratic senator for Connecticut, told the Guardian. 

“This attempt to disrupt our elections by surreptitiously targeting voters in certain places with certain backgrounds and views is clear threat to our democratic process, so Americans should be as alarmed about it as they would be an act of war.”

Facebook, Twitter and Google will send their general counsels to testify before the congressional panels. They will face unprecedented questions about how the companies plan to police themselves.

With those hearings looming, Trump sought on Saturday to downplay the importance of Russian ads and fake news during the election. “Keep hearing about “tiny” amount of money spent on Facebook ads,” the president tweeted. “What about the billions of dollars of Fake News on CNN, ABC, NBC & CBS?”

“Crooked Hillary Clinton spent hundreds of millions of dollars more on Presidential Election than I did,” the president wrote in another tweet. “Facebook was on her side, not mine!”

Nonetheless, momentum is building in Congress to start regulating and patrolling the open plains of social media. On Thursday, a bipartisan bid was launched in the Senate to exercise some control over online political advertising. “The Honest Ads Act”, sponsored by Democrats Amy Klobuchar and Mark Warner and Republican John McCain, is aimed at preventing foreign influence on elections by subjecting political ads sold online to the same rules and transparency that applies to TV and radio.

“Unfortunately, US laws requiring transparency in political campaigns have not kept pace with rapid advances in technology, allowing our adversaries to take advantage of these loopholes to deceive millions of American voters with impunity,” McCain said on the bill’s launch.