Archive for April 2012
Science Daily announced today that researchers at UT Dallas have developed an imager chip for potential use in cell phones and other portable electronic devices that would enable them to see through opaque materials including walls, wood, plastics, paper and other objects.
The new imaging technology capitalizes on research in the terahertz range of the electromagnetic spectrum, which is close in frequency to the millimeter wave technology in use by the TSA in their new body imaging scanners in many airports.
Law enforcement agencies are actively pursuing such technology for their own use, including the New York Police Department, which is already testing such devices, developed in conjunction with the Pentagon, to check for concealed weapons.
Advocates tout such scanning technology as an improvement over stop-and-frisk, but several privacy groups have raised concerns, citing Fourth Amendment protections.
The potential application of terahertz scanning in consumer electronics raises its own serious privacy concerns. Imagine a world in which an opaque walls are easily seen through by cell phones. Coming soon?
Steven Aftergood of Secrecy News has posted a thoughtful review of Jesselyn Radack’s new memoir Traitor: The Whistleblower and the American Taliban. In Aftergood’s words:
In 2001, Ms. Radack was a Justice Department attorney and specialist in legal ethics. In response to an official inquiry, she advised that the newly captured John Walker Lindh, the so-called “American Taliban,” should not be interrogated without an attorney present — which he then was anyway. When Department officials publicly denied having received any such legal advice, and even destroyed evidence to the contrary, she exposed the deception.
Ms. Radack was not looking for a fight, but only to do the right thing. For her trouble, she was forced out of her Justice Department position, put under criminal investigation, fired from her subsequent job, reported to the state bar, and put on the “no fly” list.
Radack now works for the Government Accountability Project, a legal organization dedicated to supporting whistleblowers, which we looked at recently in a related post on the government’s ongoing abuse of anti-terrorism laws to stifle constitutionally-protected speech.
Mr. Aftergood’s full review is here.
Update: I was contacted by Carolyn Said of the San Francisco Chronicle about this post, and was subsequently featured in a front-page article on this topic in their June 10th Sunday edition.
You can read the Chronicle article here.
A Case Study
We had been having problems with our upstairs neighbor for over a year. The leaseholder moved out the week we moved in, and set up a couple of subletters (prohibited by our lease). He was telling our management company that he was still in residence, though he “did have housesitters in place from time to time.”
Those “housesitters” were causing a lot of noise problems, like waking us up repeatedly after midnight during the week. We kept complaining and our management company was acting to address the problem, but under San Francisco’s renter-friendly laws, dealing with this kind of thing takes months or years.
One Sunday night as we were trying to sleep, we were startled awake by the audible sounds of two small children above us. We knew very well who was occupying the unit upstairs, and she didn’t have kids. We went up to knock on the door and say, “Excuse us, but … who are you?”
The woman who answered the door had two children under the age of 4. She was just renting the place for a couple of nights, she told us.
Ah, well, that explains it.
Do you know about Airbnb? It’s a hot new service, kind of like Craig’s List, only for-profit. Their website brokers the short-term rental of apartments. Like if you are going to London and don’t want to pay $400 a night in a hotel, you can book a room in someone’s flat for $100 instead.
I used Airbnb extensively last summer, so I knew about the service. I immediately figured the unit upstairs was listed, and it took me two minutes of searching the site to find it, complete with pictures and a profile of the “housesitter.”
We furnished this information to our management company, who agreed that this would at least speed up the process of getting rid of the illegal subletter, since she had thoughtfully given us proof that she was not only occupying the unit, she was renting it out as well.
Our next step was to call Airbnb that morning, to get their assistance in shutting down the illegal rental and in finding alternative arrangements for the residents, who were booked for the next week.
That’s when we found out the bad news about Airbnb.
Think about it from the market point of view for a second. Airbnb earns its income from unit “hosts,” who post listings on their site, and renters, who pay for them. How do the neighbors of the rented-out units fit in?
It immediately became obvious that in Airbnb’s model, they do not fit in, at all. There is no information on Airbnb’s website about what to do, or who to contact, if there’s a problem with a unit rented through their service in your building. If you call their support number, there is no phone tree option for people in our circumstances. They are there for the hosts and the renters.
Second, all Airbnb does is provide a listing service. They have neither the ability nor the responsibility to mediate in conflicts between hosts and their neighbors. We were advised to take it up with the woman with the listing.
You mean, the woman who is illegally renting out the unit, and who is not even on the lease? The one who has lied to us and to our management company in every conversation we’ve had?
In this case, yes.
I didn’t think they would either. So a few days later, when they hadn’t, I asked our rental agent to call them, which she did.
In the meantime, we kept having noise disruptions from our upstairs guest and her kids. Once we went up and very politely, very calmly, tried to explain that she wasn’t in the unit legally, and that we understood it wasn’t her fault, but the building is very poorly noise-insulated and could she please just be mindful of that?
Well, the occupant yelled at us, and told us it wasn’t her problem, and she didn’t care about any of that. “You live in a city,” she yelled, “Get used to it!”
We’re not used to it, so we followed up with Airbnb several times in the next few days, and they assured us that they “took this very seriously.” Mm.
Well, the listing came down in about a week, and the illegal subletter was kicked out by our management company. So that’s nice.
Guess how long it took before we had our next Airbnb-related problem? One month!
One month later, someone kept trying the knob to our apartment at eleven o’clock at night. I’m half-dressed, but I open the door in surprise to see what the hell is going on. “Oh, I thought this led to the lobby,” a person whom I didn’t recognize said.
About ten days later, the same thing happened – a second unfamiliar person tried our doorknob, this time trying to get to the trash area. What could be going on? I asked myself. Sure enough – it took me two minutes to find the new Airbnb listing, for a different apartment in our fourteen-unit building.
The Moral of the Story
If you’re a renter or you care about the rental market, you should be aware that this is the situation that we’re all creating for ourselves when we use Airbnb. We’re guaranteeing that a parade of travelers will have access to your apartment building and to the units next to you. And if you have any problems as a result, well, Airbnb would like to assure you that they’re very concerned about the matter.
They’re so concerned, in fact, that six weeks after they took down an illegal listing in our building, they are hosting a second listing in the same building.
In markets like San Francisco and New York City – highly-desirable destinations with expensive hotels – there is going to be an enormous incentive for these rentals, and I think I’m starting to get a sense of the frequency of these issues.
How long will it take until it is common for people in desirable markets to rent three or four apartments, just to let them out with these services? How much of that is already going on?
After all, where is the leaseholder who’s currently renting out her apartment in our building? Her unit’s booked through June, so it’s not like she’s just out of town this week.
If you support Airbnb and services that run with a similar model, you’re supporting the transformation of the apartment rental market into an network of semi-legal pseudo-hotels. These rentals do not pay occupancy taxes, depriving the city of revenue. It’s going to drive rental prices up. It’s going to cause security, maintenance, and cleanliness problems.
Like this case, also in San Francisco, in which an Airbnb host returned home and found their place completely destroyed.
This host doesn’t even know if the person renting their apartment was a man or a woman. I’d love to live next door to someone who rents out their apartment to people without knowing the first thing about them! What could possibly go wrong?
Who are you going to complain to when someone wakes you up in the middle of the night? The hotel-that-is-your-apartment-building probably has no front desk, and there’s currently no option in the Airbnb phone tree for you.
Before you book a room, no matter how much you’re going to save, I encourage you to think about what kind of rental market you want to live in first.
It’s entirely possible that Airbnb was caught unprepared for their explosive growth, but now they’re here, and they need to be controlled, and to control themselves. Their success is driving a new kind of market, and it’s huge. Founded in 2007, Airbnb is currently valued at over a billion dollars.
New York is trying to crack down on this market, and recently passed a law which is widely-interpreted as targeting the new business model, making short-term rentals illegal. Thus far the law is widely ignored.
Airbnb needs to provide legitimate resources for people affected by their service. They need to take allegations of TOU violations seriously and investigate them. They need to flag buildings that are known to disallow the use of their service, and they need to set up a service whereby building owners can opt to prohibit listings at their addresses. And they need to be pro-active about ensuring people don’t rent multiple units for the purpose of letting them out through their service.
Occupancy taxes on these rentals are only a matter of time – the laws will simply need to catch up.
If they don’t voluntarily take these actions, then it’s going to be up to our state and federal legislative bodies to make sure it happens. If these checks aren’t placed on services of this kind, the effect is going to be toxic to the rental market, and soon.
Last week I saw a talk by Ahmed Al Omran, a Saudi journalist who maintains the excellent Saudi Jeans blog, offering eye-on-the-ground information on the Saudi political scene. The talk was part of the Electronic Frontier Foundation‘s Geek Reading series.
Al Omran was early on the scene in the Saudi blogosphere. His wide readership and use of English, in a post-9/11 Saudi Arabia that is eager to improve its international image, give him some latitude to write critically of his government at times, even when comparable work in Arabic may result in arrest. Al Omran compared his own work to that of blogger Fouad al-Farhan, an Arab-language blogger who was arrested by Saudi authorities until international pressure prompted his release. The two are shown together in this Washington Post article with Al Omran on the far left.
Al Omran’s presentation could perhaps be characterized by short-term sobriety and long-term optimism. He noted a number of factors supportive of movement toward gender equality, representative democracy, freedom of speech, and free access to information in Saudi Arabia, especially including the prevalence of Internet access. He noted that the Saudi government ordered a media blackout on the news of the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990 – no one in the country knew about it for a week. That would be unthinkable today, he observed, because of the decentralized nature of the Internet and the difficulty in effectively blocking access to sites.
In addition, many young Saudis are abroad earning a higher education – around 60,000 in the US alone, and as many in Europe and elsewhere. Many of these young people become accustomed to free access to information.
However, Al Omran cautioned, we should not be overly optimistic about the short-term. We do not know to what degree exposure to foreign ideas will result in commitment to political reform by the “scholarship generation,” as he called the current wave of students abroad. Many of whom will remain abroad, and many more will return to Saudi Arabia with the intention of leading quiet lives.
The Arab Spring did not effectively reach Saudi Arabia, and one high-profile scheduled protest, the Day of Rage, fizzled badly. Al Omran attributes the failure to reach critical mass to a number of factors, including the relative affluence of Saudi Arabia, the effectiveness of the Saudi education system in discouraging the idea of political reform, and the conservative culture of the country as a whole.
Nonetheless, 70% of Saudi Arabia’s population is under the age of thirty, and many of the nation’s rulers are in their 80s and 90s. Women are making largely-symbolic but significant gains, such as winning the right to vote and run in municipal elections, and a movement working toward the right to drive appears to be gaining traction.
This morning Der Spiegel ran an article (auf Deutsch) on Saudi Princess Basma Bin Saud Al Saud, who has been calling for a constitutional monarchy and greater equality for freedom. So who knows what the future holds? Political reform sometimes comes like bankruptcy – gradually, then suddenly.
In a new article for the New Yorker, Seymour Hersh, the superstar journalist who broke COINTELPRO, My Lai, and Abu Ghraib, reports that the US government provided operational training in tactics and strategy for an officially-designated terrorist organization, the Iranian dissident group Mujahideen-e-Khal (MEK), beginning in 2005.
The MEK has made public contributions to several prominent figures in American national politics on both sides of the aisle, including Rudy Giuliani and Howard Dean. Author and lawyer Glenn Greenwald, who has been covering the surprisingly-overt support for the MEK in his column, notes that providing such assistance to a terrorist group is a federal crime in the United States, punishable by life in prison.
It’s worth noting that under the NDAA act recently signed into law by President Obama, Giuliani and Dean may now be legally detained indefinitely by the US military, with no right to due process, until such time as “hostilities end,” whatever that may mean in this case.