Wisconsin primary voting during coronavirus should be a 2020 Election Day wake-up call

5 0 08 Apr 2020

The coronavirus is wreaking havoc on our country in a myriad of ways. Federal, state and local governments are scrambling to make sure citizens are protected from the virus and unnecessary risks aren’t being taken. That is, except in the state of Wisconsin.

Gov. Tony Evers, a Democrat, tried to stop his state’s primary from continuing on Tuesday, but the state Supreme Court invalidated his order and concluded that he had exceeded this authority. As a result, residents across the state are going to the polls, with turnout expected to be mostly depressed.

The latest developments regarding Wisconsin’s ill-planned and ill-fated election make clear that lawmakers must act immediately.

The latest developments regarding Wisconsin’s ill-planned and ill-fated election make clear that lawmakers must act immediately to implement plans to allow eligible voters to cast ballots in this or similar crises without endangering their health or the health of others.

We do not know what the world will look like seven months from now, when Election Day arrives. But we do know that it is time for states to start planning to protect the right to vote.

If, as many experts have predicted, there is a second wave of COVID-19 in the fall, it will be untenable to pack voters and poll workers into polling places. Many states postponed their primary elections or moved to all vote-by-mail elections as they triage the current election cycle. But others, including Florida and Arizona, kept polls open in March. This uneven response speaks to our unpreparedness during the primaries — and our need to get smart, fast, as we head toward the general election.

The first and most obvious solution is to increase the ability of voters to vote by mail. Some states require voters to submit an application or request an absentee ballot before one is mailed to them. Those states should make their applications available online, via e-email, and proactively send applications to voters via snail mail. Some states require that voters provide a reason or excuse before obtaining an absentee ballot. Those states should make it clear that the threat of becoming ill from COVID-19 is a sufficient excuse. And all states should ensure that they have the infrastructure in place to provide and process the expected deluge of vote-by-mail ballots.

The second solution is to allow for more early voting at more polling places. This would allow voters and poll workers to maintain physical distance while still casting their ballots. A certain number of people could be let in at a time, and they would be spaced apart in the polling place.

So let’s talk about what is actually happening on the ground in Wisconsin.

First the governor called a special session and asked the Republican-controlled Legislature to pass a bill to allow voting by mail for this election, send ballots to all registered voters who had not yet received or requested a ballot, and postpone the day that ballots had to be received.

The Legislature refused, leaning on tired, unpersuasive and discredited arguments about such legislation creating the potential for confusion and voter fraud, and the need to fill state and local positions that were also on the election ballot.

Then Evers took the audacious step of going around the Legislature. He issued an executive order suspending and postponing in-person voting until June. The order was promptly challenged by Republicans in the Legislature. The Wisconsin Supreme Court, ruling along ideological lines, found that Evers had exceeded his authority under state law.

But that is not the end of the legal wrangling. At almost the same time that the Wisconsin Supreme Court was ruling on Evers’ executive order, the United States Supreme Court overturned, again along ideological lines, a lower court decision that had extended the time for Wisconsin voters to return absentee ballots.

Practically speaking, if Wisconsin voters do want to vote in person on Tuesday, they might have problems finding an open polling place. Milwaukee typically has 180 polling places, but reports are that it will only have a handful. Second, if you are one of about 10,000 people who applied for an absentee ballot but have yet to receive it, you are out of luck.

It is apparently now worth stating the obvious: No person should have to choose between exercising their right to vote and facing a real and immediate threat to their health and safety. No person should have to go against the advice of medical professionals and leave their homes because they do not want to forgo the ability to weigh in on who their nominees, representative or judges will be.

The fact that voters might be asked to do this has little to do with the law and a lot more to do with political power. Republicans know that lower voter turnout helps their candidates. President Donald Trump has acknowledged that implementing more robust vote-by-mail opportunities would harm Republicans chances of winning elections. As Trump said on “Fox and Friends” in March, “They had things — levels of voting that, if you ever agreed to it, you’d never have a Republican elected in this country again.”

It is possible, but highly improbable, to read Trump’s comments as a warning about voter fraud, which is largely a myth pedaled by those seeking to depress voter turnout. But other Republicans have said similar things. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., described making Election Day a federal holiday, which would also increase voter turnout, as a Democratic power grab.

Politicians should not use the mechanisms of election administration to determine the winners of the contests. But the window for states to take meaningful action to protect the right to vote is closing. The news from Wisconsin provides a cautionary tale. States should expand opportunities for voting by mail and/or early voting now so that voters are not forced to rely on potentially partisan judges to protect their rights later. If Wisconsin teaches us anything, it is that the judiciary cannot be relied upon to protect your right to vote.

Retail has been on life support — coronavirus could pull the plug

5 0 08 Apr 2020

With hundreds of thousands of stores closed nationwide, the coronavirus pandemic is accelerating dramatic changes across the retail industry that had been underway well before the viral outbreak hit the U.S., according to analysts.

“Retail has been on life support,” said Ian Ross, principal of the commercial real estate investment firm Somera Road. “Dozens of these companies were on the verge of financial collapse, and I have a hard time believing they’re not going to collapse because of this.”

Over the last few weeks, dozens of retailers have announced furloughs. Macy’s put the majority of its roughly 130,000 workers on furlough. Kohl’s, JCPenney and Nordstrom temporarily closed all of their stores and put their workers on furlough, about 300,000 people.

Mall operators Simon Property Group, Westfield and Taubman Centers have announced temporary closures in response to state-mandated shutdowns of nonessential businesses.

Even digitally savvy companies have buckled. The online beauty shop Glossier closed its retail stores, Rent the Runway laid off all its retail employees and the fashion company Everlane laid off or furloughed about 200 of its workers.

“Nobody wants to cut people out of their company,” said Allen Questrom, the former CEO of Macy’s, Neiman Marcus, Barneys New York and JCPenney. “The key is to stay alive so the company can come back into business.”

However, in a highly competitive business with slim margins, the impact of the virus is broadening the gap between which companies may be viable after the pandemic is contained and which may not survive, said Linda Tsai, a real estate investment trust, or REIT, analyst who covers retail with Jefferies Financial Group.

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Companies that have gone through bankruptcy proceedings, such as Sears, are clearly on the shakiest ground, while stores in higher-income areas and retailers with low debt will likely bounce back faster from the impact of the virus and any potential recession, Tsai said.

Over the last few years, the retail industry has been rocked by a wave of bankruptcies as retailers rush to right-size their businesses. Most recently, Forever 21 and Barneys New York filed for bankruptcy, along with retail chains like Payless ShoeSource and Modell’s Sporting Goods.

“Big companies with the ability to weather a storm like this can go on for a while without income and can come back strong,” said James Cook, director of retail research for the commercial real estate service firm JLL. “A lot of retailers who have gone through private equity and mergers or acquisitions that have saddled them with a lot of debt can’t coast for very long without some kind of restructuring.”

Mall operators that house the retailers are also scrambling to preserve cash. The mall owner Macerich cut its dividend by 33 percent. Westfield cut its dividend in half. Weingarten, which operates open-air shopping centers with mainly grocery and essentials tenants, drew down a $482 million line of credit, citing an immediate need for liquidity.

“It may take time for damage to unfold,” said Anna Lai, a REIT analyst with S&P Global Ratings.

Some mall operators and retailers had already been short on cash and high on debt before the pandemic hit, according to S&P Market Intelligence reports. Mall-based companies, including Belk, Neiman Marcus and J.Crew, are on the S&P’s watch list for default, with triple-C credit ratings. That could create major challenges for malls after the virus is contained, according to the company.

“I think the malls will face near-term pressure, but longer term, they could face pressure to lower rent but also occupancy pressure if some of these retailers do not survive,” Lai said.

At this moment of crisis, all options are on the table, said David French, senior vice president of government relations for the National Retail Federation. Retailers are discussing their lease terms with their landlords to find temporary relief on rent and are asking their lenders to ease their debts, he said.

The mall operator Taubman recently told its retail tenants that it expects all of its tenants to meet their lease obligations but that it is willing to discuss any financial challenges and help them with a type of payment plan.

“Liquidity is a massive issue, and there is no one silver bullet,” French said. “If you’re not making sales, you’re running out of cash.”

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The retail and shopping mall industries have joined the melee of hamstrung sectors to plead for financial relief from the Trump administration as it rolls out a $2 trillion stimulus program.

The National Retail Federation asked the administration in a letter last month to consider offering retailers government-backed loans and relief from certain tax obligations. The International Council of Shopping Centers, a trade association representing malls, including Simon Property and Kimco Realty, argued in a letter to the Trump administration last month that shopping malls could crumble without business interruption coverage for retailers, restaurants and landlords. The organization argues that without ensuring the stability of its tenant base’s roughly $1 trillion in secured and unsecured debt, the shopping center industry will be at risk.

“One in 4 jobs are retail related,” said Tom McGee, CEO of the International Council of Shopping Centers. “If you want to save the U.S. economy, you need to focus on the retail industry. It’s foundational to the economy and foundational to the community.”

As retailers resort to furloughs and close stores to manage costs, retail workers are left without incomes.

Nayeli, a former JCPenney employee in Santa Ana, California, who asked that her last name not be used, has been unemployed for about a month. She considered a job at Costco to continue to help her parents make rent and buy groceries, but her dad said he’d rather pick up extra shifts at his job manufacturing airplane parts than risk her being exposed to the coronavirus.

“I was concerned because I helped my parents with rent and groceries, and I was like, ‘What am I going to do?'” she said. “Although JCPenney isn’t doing well as a company, they should offer some sort of pay. Imagine people who just rely on that paycheck. How are they going to pay the bills, you know?”

Coronavirus has ignited a battle over voting by mail. Heres why its so controversial.

5 0 08 Apr 2020

WASHINGTON — One of the biggest fights of this year’s presidential election may be over the election itself and how to hold it during the coronavirus crisis.

Vote-by-mail, long mostly a hobbyhorse of good-government advocates, has suddenly been thrust to the center of an escalating partisan war as some say it’s the only solution staging the November election if the pandemic continues.

And the mess in Wisconsin — which is holding in-person voting Tuesday after a partisan legal fight — shows that changing the election will not be easy, since the battle has become more about power than the already considerable logistical and legal issues.

President Donald Trump and other Republicans warn that a massive expansion of vote-by-mail could lead to their demise, while Democrats say failure to do so will disenfranchise millions.

Until now, the main factor as to whether a state embraced vote-by-mail was not its partisan lean, but its geographical location. West of Colorado, 69 percent of ballots are cast by mail, compared to only 27 percent of ballots nationwide, according to the National Vote at Home Institute.

Deeply conservative Utah has moved almost entirely to vote-by-mail in recent years while the Republican secretary of state in Washington is one of its biggest champions. Meanwhile, true-blue states like New York and several in New England have some of the more restrictive absentee balloting rules in the country.

But in the past few weeks, as the extent of the coronavirus outbreak became clearer and Democrats ramped up calls for national vote-by-mail, the partisan lines have sharpened.

Liberal-aligned groups that don’t primarily focus on voting rights, such as the Sierra Club and abortion rights advocates, have joined the calls for vote-by-mail while conservatives have repurposed longstanding arguments about voter fraud to line up in opposition.

The tension sets up a battle in Congress over the next coronavirus relief measure, known to many on Capitol Hill as “Phase 4.” Democratic leaders face growing pressure from their base — liberal activists and mainstream figures alike — to use the next aid package as leverage to ensure access to the ballot box by requiring every state to offer the option of voting by mail.

“With the insanity of Wisconsin, Democrats have the proof they need to make this a mandate for November,” said Neera Tanden, the president of Center For American Progress, a think tank influential in Democratic circles.

She urged Democrats to do whatever they can to ensure vote-by-mail becomes law everywhere as a “fallback” in case the virus limits people from voting in person.

Rep. Mark Pocan, D-Wis., the co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, wrote a letter to Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., urging her to make it a priority to “enact a national vote-by-mail requirement for every federal election in 2020,” while moderate Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., has made vote-by-mail a focus since ending her presidential run.

Pelosi included national vote-by-mail in Democrats’ opening bid on the previous legislation, but it was removed due to Republican opposition. GOP aides cited security concerns and objected to using a coronavirus aid bill to overhaul election laws.

“It’s a nonstarter,” a senior Senate Republican staffer, who wasn’t authorized to speak on the record, said of national vote-by-mail. “Republicans believe in federalism.”

GOP opposition has only hardened since the last relief bill was passed two weeks ago, with Trump and his allies suggesting national vote-by-mail is little more than a Democratic plot to steal the election.

“You’d never have a Republican elected in this country again,” Trump said last week on Fox News, referring to vote by mail.

During his daily briefing on the coronavirus Tuesday, Trump went even further. “Mail ballots are a very dangerous thing for this country because they’re cheaters,” Trump said. “The mail ballots are corrupt, in my opinion.”

That view did not stop Trump himself from requesting a mail-in ballot last month so he could vote absentee in Florida, where has now designated his Palm Beach club as his permanent residence. Trump also voted absentee in the 2018 midterms, the White House said at the time.

Trump also claimed in that briefing that Democrats did not try to move the Wisconsin election until he endorsed in the state Supreme Court race, but he actually endorsed in mid-January, nearly three months before the governor called off in-person voting.

“House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and former Vice President Joe Biden say we must throw election integrity to the wayside in favor of an all-mail election,” Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel wrote in a Fox News op-ed. “The overhaul would vastly expand opportunities for fraud and weaken confidence in our elections, but all Washington Democrats see is a potential benefit for their party.”

Conservatives argue that removing the voting process from the watchful eyes of poll workers and other voters creates opportunities for mischief. But allegations of mail-ballot fraud have been exceedingly rare, with the most recent prominent example coming on behalf of a Republican congressional candidate in North Carolina in 2018.

Joe Biden, the leading Democratic presidential candidate, anticipated challenges to the election in an interview on NBC’s “TODAY” show Tuesday, but said it must take place on Nov. 3 as scheduled and floated voting by mail as something “all the experts” say should be considered.

New legislation being crafted by Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., would give states resources to carry out voting by mail. It is expected to include $1 billion to improve safety and efficiency of voting places, as well as encourage ways to cut lines to extend access to voting while social distancing, potentially with time slot reservations and curbside voting from one’s car, according to an aide familiar with the emerging bill.

Her fellow former presidential candidate, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., wrote Tuesday that Congress must use the next coronavirus relief to enact a number of voting provisions, including providing a vote-by-mail option.

The eight states that have switched to or are in the process of switching to entirely vote-by-mail say it is not only possible to protect the integrity of the ballot, but that they’ve been doing it successfully for years.

Kay Wyman, the Republican secretary of state of Washington, touted the fact that Washington now has the highest turnout of any state in the nation because everyone gets sent a ballot, and hoped educating critics about the security features would turn them around.

“The biggest challenge that states are going to face are the critics of vote-by-mail and people who don’t understand it,” she said.

But on the left, few think Republicans are being genuine in their concerns, arguing the real reason they want to stop vote-by-mail is precisely because states like Washington have such high turnout.

“These baseless attacks on vote-by-mail are a pathetic attempt to suppress the vote in the middle of a national crisis,” said Ryan Thomas, spokesperson for the liberal group StandUp America.

Election experts say it’s not clear that vote-by-mail would actually help Democrats, noting that plenty of Republicans still get elected in Utah and that Republican-leaning counties in Wisconsin have been returning absentee ballots at higher rates than Democratic-leaning ones.

Wisconsin is not the only battleground state where partisan fighting has already led to confusion about an election during the coronavirus crisis, even though it’s only about a month old.

In North Carolina, the Republican leader of the state Senate rejected proposals by the state’s top election official to make voting-by-mail easier, suggesting “progressive, liberal Democratic groups” wanted to make voter fraud easier, citing a recent instance of absentee ballot fraud on behalf of the GOP House candidate.

And in Georgia, the GOP secretary of state last month announced plans to send an absentee ballot to every active voter in the state’s upcoming May 19 primary, but he’s faced opposition from fellow Georgia Republicans.

“Vote by mail in my view is not acceptable,” Georgia House Speaker David Ralston, a Republican, said in an interview with a local news site. “This will be extremely devastating to Republicans and conservatives in Georgia…This will certainly drive up turnout.”

Key Trump coronavirus task force must work remotely after positive COVID-19 test

6 0 08 Apr 2020

A critical White House unit that is getting, shipping and distributing goods to fight the spread of the coronavirus has been ordered to vacate its war room and begin working remotely after a “partner” of the group tested positive for COVID-19, according to an email the Federal Emergency Management Agency sent to staff members late Monday.

“Until further notice, all personnel in the Supply Chain Resilience task force” on a particular floor of one of FEMA’s buildings “and the FEMA Conference Center are required to telework,” according to an email obtained by NBC News and confirmed by a FEMA official. The message was sent to FEMA headquarters staff at 11:17 p.m. ET Monday.

The “Conference Center” is a war room set up in the FEMA complex in Washington where Navy Rear Adm. John Polowczyk’s supply chain unit, a sub-task force within Vice President Mike Pence’s larger task force that has gotten particular attention from presidential son-in-law Jared Kushner, works to find and allocate personal protective equipment and other materials to combat the spread of the coronavirus.

Polowczyk and members of his unit were listed as recipients of the email.

It was not immediately clear what effect the new teleworking situation would have on the work of the task force, which has been highly visible thanks to Polowczyk’s appearances at daily White House briefings.

It has also been highly controversial. One reason is the involvement of Kushner, who is simultaneously deeply engaged in President Donald Trump’s re-election campaign. The task force has also drawn criticism for circumventing federal procedures and structures in ways that critics say have created delays, inefficiencies and cost increases in acquiring goods for the coronavirus fight.

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Before Monday night’s email, the task force members were working together in the conference center war room rather than from separate locations.

A FEMA spokesperson told NBC News that after conducting “contact tracing” in recent days, FEMA concluded that “at no time” did the person who tested positive “or any other known to have contact with them, come within six feet of any other Task Force principal for a prolonged period of time.”

In addition, the spokesperson said that “all areas visited by Task Force members were disinfected prior to their visits” and that “FEMA will facilitate cleaning to ensure that the potentially affected workspace meets federal health and safety standards.”

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The closure of two locations within the FEMA complex indicates that the “partner” who tested positive — partner is a term used for someone who normally does not work for the agency — was in both places, according to the FEMA official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of a lack of authority to speak publicly.

The supply chain group is “not the first task force” to get a stay-at-home order, this person said, adding: “We’ve had numerous people test positive. … Sometimes they’re telling us, sometimes they’re not.”

Coronavirus outbreak delayed his liver transplant. Then doctors found a solution.

7 0 08 Apr 2020

Zach Branson, a Colorado man whose lifesaving transplant was put on hold last month because of the coronavirus pandemic, has received a new liver, donated by his uncle.

Doctors at UCHealth University of Colorado Hospital in Denver previously canceled the surgery — along with all other organ transplants from living donors — amid concerns that such operations would leave patients and donors vulnerable to the coronavirus.

But the hospital reversed course last week after developing the capability to test for the coronavirus in UCHealth’s lab and get results in under four hours.

Zach and his sister, Ashley.

“All potential living donor transplant patients are being reviewed on a case-by-case basis, examining risks to the donor and recipient, before an appropriate plan of action is determined,” Dan Weaver, a hospital spokesman, said in an email.

Both Branson, 33, and his uncle, Troy, 45, tested negative for the virus Monday morning, giving doctors the green light. Within hours, transplant surgeons had removed a portion of Troy’s healthy liver and implanted it in his nephew, who was born with a rare disease that caused bile to back up in his body, slowly devastating his liver.

“Zach is doing great!” his sister, Ashley, wrote in a text message Tuesday morning. “Surgeon said his new liver is working great.”

Zach Branson recovers from his transplant surgery on April 6. Courtesy of Zach Branson

Doctors had told Branson early last month that, without the transplant surgery, he might have 30 to 45 days to live. Then, on March 13, he received word that the hospital was postponing the operation, scheduled for March 25, citing concerns about the coronavirus.

In the days afterward, Branson made arrangements for home hospice care — unsure whether he would need it.

“Whatever is meant to be is going to be,” he said at the time. “That’s the way I’m trying to approach this.”

The coronavirus pandemic has led hospitals across the United States to cancel or postpone most elective surgeries, seriously disrupting the lives of many awaiting new organs, transplant experts said.

Doctors in some parts of the country say an inability to quickly test potential donors for the coronavirus has led them to decline viable organs, forcing some ailing patients to wait longer. To avert the spread of the virus among vulnerable patients who must take immunosuppressive drugs to prevent rejection of their new organs, doctors have canceled most routine follow-up visits for transplant recipients.

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And in anticipation of a surge of coronavirus patients requiring beds in intensive care units, some hospitals are now performing transplant operations only for patients who are at the most dire risk of death. That may mean delaying kidney transplants for patients who can get by on dialysis, or holding off on heart transplants for those surviving on mechanical heart pumps.

Prior to his surgery Monday, Branson said he knew he was fortunate to get another chance. On Tuesday morning, he texted his sister from his hospital bed, where he was recovering.

“They keep telling me I’m the most alert and active liver recipient that they’ve seen,” he wrote. “I chalk it all up to the extended love and support from all of you.”

Behind the global efforts to make a privacy-first coronavirus tracking app

6 0 07 Apr 2020

In a Google Doc that now stretches beyond 20 pages, software engineers and health experts are working out what they hope can be a way for the world to soon return to something resembling normal life.

“What’s the minimum duration of contact that we should consider important?” an engineer asked.

It’s one of many crucial questions from engineers who believe smartphone technology could be the key to creating a way to anonymously track the spread of the coronavirus — and by doing so help save lives and get people back to their jobs and social lives.

“There are people who have been waiting their entire lives for a problem that can be solved by exactly the right algorithm,” said Peter Eckersley, an artificial intelligence researcher who convened an informal group of like-minded experts called “And those people are springing to work.”

Versions of coronavirus tracking apps already exist in China, Singapore, Israel and elsewhere, but the lack of privacy protections worries many technologists in the U.S. and Europe, who are looking to build their own.

Eckersley, based in Australia, is helping to coordinate the far-flung efforts through the Google Doc. More than a dozen clusters of experts, scattered in cities including Seattle, London and Lausanne, Switzerland, are working on some form of voluntary smartphone-based tracking technology to provide app notifications to people who may have been exposed to the virus and need to isolate themselves.

The projects to trace contacts have names like COVID Watch, NextTrace and Corona Trace, and they’re conferring with one another and with epidemiologists online over Google Docs, Slack and the software repository GitHub.

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The semi-coordinated efforts come as there are some signs in Europe and the U.S. that social distancing has helped turn the tide against the coronavirus — but also evidence in parts of Asia that a second wave of the virus remains a risk.

The hope is that smartphone tracking — combined with widespread testing — can help create a framework for cities to let people resume their lives while keeping a close watch on a resurgence of the coronavirus. The White House and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have already expressed interest in using smartphone location data to track interactions and possible coronavirus spread.

The efforts are also the subject of growing scrutiny from privacy advocates and some health care experts who question the efficacy of such systems. To be effective, an app would need to be downloaded by a significant percentage of the population.

But tech experts remain optimistic about putting a new tool in the hands of everyday phone users with a voluntary app that would silently and anonymously use Bluetooth technology to ping phones nearby — without sharing personal data with the government or other third parties.

They say the progress of technology in recent decades could culminate in a tool that could help society avoid some of the worst health and economic impacts of the coronavirus while helping people get back to their lives in a way that still ensures privacy.

How it could work

The goals of most of the technologists volunteering their time are similar: create an app that would help trace where the virus is going while protecting the privacy of users and not creating a permanent surveillance tool for authorities.

The eventual aim is to answer a simple question that requires massive amounts of data to answer.

“You’d like to be able to ask: Am I in a good situation or a bad situation?” said Alex Pentland, a computer scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who’s helping to lead one of the research efforts, called Safe Paths.

Pentland said that public health authorities have a growing number of software tools to track how the virus is spreading and that a voluntary smartphone app would give people more information if they want it.

Other apps and websites from tech companies such as Verily and engineers at Pinterest have so far been more limited, relying on people to enter symptoms and demographic information. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said Monday that the social network would begin showing a voluntary symptoms tracker run by Carnegie Mellon University.

The science behind many of the apps isn’t new. An app could remember which other phones have been nearby. If someone you had coffee with two days ago tests positive for the coronavirus, you would get a notification along the lines of “you may have recently been exposed” — and advising temporary isolation. Passing someone on the sidewalk wouldn’t be enough to trigger a notification, but sitting next to each other for 10 or 15 minutes might.

There is some disagreement on key details. Should a smartphone app use Bluetooth technology, which senses the proximity of nearby phones, or cellular network and GPS data?

What they do agree on is that it should be a voluntary app — something that people willingly agree to. In Israel and China, a technological approach to fighting COVID-19 has meant surveillance by the government and the central collection of mass amounts of personal location data.

The projects surveyed by NBC News would avoid that by making sure any data would stay on users’ phones. The data would be encrypted, and no government could access it at a later point.

“Our one and only goal was to build a system where the server knows absolutely nothing,” said Carmela Troncoso, a professor at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology who is designing an app that would use Bluetooth proximity data.

Eckersley compared the idea to Apple’s Find My iPhone software, which uses anonymous, encrypted Bluetooth technology.

“That could happen without revealing the identity of any of the parties involved,” he said. “Your phone talks to my phone.”

It isn’t clear how federal health authorities will respond. App developers said they haven’t gotten clear guidance from the CDC or elsewhere. The CDC didn’t respond to a request for comment.

‘A better way’

Versions of coronavirus tracking apps already exist in parts of Asia.

Singapore has launched a contact tracing mobile app, called TraceTogether, and said it would provide the computer code openly to others, although U.S. researchers said that Singapore hadn’t yet published the underlying code and that the app wasn’t designed to minimize data collection.

“Their privacy model doesn’t fit with the way we would like things to be done, and I would hope things would be done in the U.S. in a better way,” said Tina White, a doctoral candidate researching machine learning at Stanford University, who has helped organize COVID Watch.

In Israel, around 1.5 million people had signed up by last week for an app called HaMagen — Hebrew for “The Shield.” Personal data doesn’t leave the phone, developers say, but the government publishes the movements of people diagnosed with the coronavirus using information from a counterterrorism database.

Surveillance in China is even more extreme, with the government using Alipay, a payments app, to provide people with a QR code that’s green, yellow or red depending on their status: green meaning healthy and free to move about, or yellow and red for different levels of quarantine restrictions.

In the United Kingdom, the National Health Service, the country’s health care provider, is developing its own app with input from academics, corporations and officials.

The effort has already drawn a response from dozens of British academics and privacy advocates who have warned in an open letter that “far reaching data-gathering powers” from mobile phones, combined with newly expanded police power to detain people, could be used as a “means of social control.”

Waiting for launch

There are skeptics who think that the entire idea won’t work and that software can’t solve what’s primarily a medical emergency.

“There’s really never been a time in history where a clever app means the difference between widespread calamity and people being able to go about their lives,” said Ryan Calo, a University of Washington law professor who studies privacy. “It’s just not plausible. This is a serious emergency we’re in.”

Calo said an app could fail in multiple ways even if it’s designed well. For example, could a prankster visit several grocery stores and then sign up for the app as a false positive to cause trouble, sparking unnecessary panic?

Developers said they’ve anticipated such abuse and can prevent it — by allowing only hospital staff members to authorize someone to identify on the app as having tested positive — but Calo said there are too many other ways an app could go wrong.

“People will be reassured when they shouldn’t be, and they will panic when they shouldn’t panic,” Calo said.

In general, the use of proximity or location data has alarmed human rights advocates. Amnesty International and more than 100 other organizations have issued a statement calling for limits on how governments use surveillance, including mobile phone location data, to fight the coronavirus.

There’s no official launch date for an American app. Some developers said that one could, in theory, be ready for deployment in a couple of weeks, especially if health authorities signaled their support, but that the whole project depends on the widespread availability of cheap and easy testing — which isn’t available yet in the U.S. or many other countries.

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Even app developers believe their tools would need to be widely used to be truly useful. Eckersley said 20 percent might be a viable threshold depending on how an app is designed, but getting 1 in 5 smartphone users to download an app voluntarily is still a tall order.

Apple and Google, which together run the operating systems for the vast majority of smartphones in the U.S., could push people to adopt an app in the interest of public health, and 75 tech experts have asked in an open letter for the two companies to get involved.

Neither company responded to requests for comment, although they are taking other steps to respond to the pandemic.

Michael Veale, a lecturer in digital rights and regulation at University College London, said the work being done shows it’s possible to use smartphones to slow the spread of the virus without giving more data to tech companies or the government.

“This needs to be an effort where there’s public buy-in, public trust, where people feel like they need to do this for the population, but also it’s safe for them to do this,” he said.

Every day is a crisis: Zoom boosts its security as scrutiny grows

5 0 07 Apr 2020

Every tech company’s dream is to become a verb. Think “Let me Google that,” or “I’ll just Uber over.”

But Zoom, the videoconferencing company that was until recently best known within the corporate world, has inspired a verb with decidedly more negative connotations: “Zoombombing,” in which the uninvited crash Zoom calls to harass users.

The Silicon Valley firm is now a part of the daily lives of millions of Americans as schools, companies and governments have embraced it amid coronavirus lockdowns. Zoom says that as of last week 200 million people now use the platform every day. That’s up from 10 million daily users before the pandemic.

But like many other tech platforms that were built on ease of use, Zoom is finding that life in the public eye can be challenging — particularly now that zoombombing has emerged as a new way for internet trolls to launch vicious attacks. That has suddenly made Zoom the focus of pranksters and racists, as well as hackers, attorneys general and cybersecurity experts.

“You know, lesson learned,” Zoom CEO Eric Yuan said in an interview through his company’s videoconferencing software. “We’ve got to double down on privacy, double down on security.”

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The company has already taken some action. On Saturday, Zoom said it would enable its “Waiting Room feature” as a default for all users (it had previously been the default for only paid users). It will also require additional password settings on all accounts in an effort to bolster privacy and security.

The practice of hijacking a videoconference had become so pervasive that the FBI’s Boston field office issued a formal warning late last month. Last Friday, federal prosecutors in Michigan warned that such actions could be considered crimes. That same day, Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, sent a letter to the Federal Trade Commission calling for an investigation into the company, accusing it of engaging in “deceptive practices.” On Tuesday, Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., echoed Brown’s call to the regulatory agency.

The company currently faces three lawsuits in federal court — all filed within the last week — over privacy and security concerns.

Zoom’s problems also go beyond harassment. The Washington Post reported on April 3 that Zoom had even allowed thousands of recordings of video calls — many containing intimate details including nudity and personal financial information — to be easily discovered online.

Similarly, Zoom has been pilloried for describing its service until recently as “end-to-end encrypted,” — a technical term with a specific meaning. The company later admitted that the way it had been using the term was inaccurate, and said that it “never intended to deceive any of our customers.”

Zoom now says it’s cooperating with all legal inquiries and lawsuits. Yuan said he blames the recent spate of problems on his company transforming from a business tool to a widely adopted mass market communication platform virtually overnight.

“Nobody, you know, expected this,” Yuan said. “Our business was beautiful, serving the enterprise and business customers who normally have an IT team to help you to configure the security settings.”

Looking back, Yuan wishes he would have implemented more obvious, user-friendly security measures the moment he first made Zoom free to K-12 schools on March 13. “I think on Day One we should have done that,” he said.

The damage may already be done. New York City public schools are now beginning to “transition away” from Zoom, in favor of a competing product, Microsoft Teams and similar products from Google. Other districts in different parts of the country including Clark County, Nevada, have reportedly taken comparable measures.

Yuan was quick to defend his company as the problems piled up. He said Zoom is now talking directly with New York City public schools to create a more secure approach by developing what Yuan calls “a master account to manage every subaccount to make sure every school will have security settings.”

“Because we moved too fast and also added too many servers, there were also missteps,” Yuan said. “But we take it very, very seriously. We do all we can to quickly fix that problem.”

Changing a product this quickly is not easy. When asked how the engineers are doing, Yuan said, “Every day is a crisis.”

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Yuan said he feels like Zoom has gone from playing on a high school varsity basketball team to suddenly playing in the NBA in just a week.

“For the first week, you got beaten so hard,” he said. “But guess what? Move forward. Learn the mistakes.”

Yuan began working in video conferencing in the late 1990s as an engineer for Webex, a videoconferencing company that was acquired by Cisco in 2007.

The Chinese-born engineer rose to become Cisco’s corporate vice president of engineering, but found himself increasingly frustrated with Webex, and sought to — as he told an interviewer in 2017 — “make customers happy.” So Yuan built a competitor: Zoom.

Since then, Yuan and Zoom have become one of the biggest success stories in Silicon Valley while also remaining out of the spotlight. The company’s stock started trading publicly in April 2019 and rose quickly, outperforming better-known consumer tech companies like Lyft and Pinterest, which also went public around that time.

Zoom’s stock jumped sharply in March as coronavirus lockdowns pushed millions of people to videoconferencing, though it has ticked down in recent days.

Security questions dogged Zoom well before the coronavirus pandemic. In July 2019, researchers detailed a vulnerability showing how an attacker could set up a malicious call designed to take over a computer’s webcam. Zoom quickly patched the problem.

As Zoom has faltered in these past few weeks, Cisco’s Webex video conferencing software has started to regain some ground. Webex has also not hesitated to take indirect or even direct potshots at Zoom and its approach.

Abhay Kulkarni, a Webex vice president, recently wrote a blog post pointedly titled: “Collaboration Without Compromise: A Security-First Approach to Remote Working,” writing that security concerns in Webex are never a “trade-off for convenience or speed.”

The sudden and unrelenting pressure of serving 200 million daily users has pushed Zoom to ramp up hiring in engineering, sales and customer support. Yuan said he doesn’t have time to check his own email.

Yuan said that Zoom remains focused on its business customers despite the sudden influx of users.

“I want it to go back to serving our business enterprise customers. And we know how to do that,” he said, “if we have a choice.”

At the moment, Yuan said Zoom is focused on getting through the next few months. As for what’s next, he says it’s too early to tell.

“At least we know one thing for sure: For the next three months, we double down, triple down on privacy and security,” he said.

But could there be a future for Zoom as a consumer product to rival giants such as Facebook?

Yuan looked tired just thinking about it.

“I have no idea for now,” he said.

Kayleigh McEnany expected to be next White House press secretary

4 0 07 Apr 2020

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump on Tuesday is expected to name campaign aide Kayleigh McEnany as the White House press secretary, replacing Stephanie Grisham, who will return to work for first lady Melania Trump, according to people familiar with the discussions.

The reshuffling comes days after Trump’s new chief of staff, former Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., began work amid a scramble within the administration to respond to the coronavirus crisis and increasing criticism that it was not prepared to combat the outbreak.

McEnany, who is currently a press secretary for Trump’s re-election campaign, has been a fierce defender of the president on cable television, often making controversial statements like saying in February that “we will not see diseases like the coronavirus come here.” Before joining the campaign, McEnany was a CNN contributor and spokesperson for the Republican National Committee.

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Trump campaign manager Brad Parscale and RNC chairwoman Ronna McDaniel pushed for McEnany to be named White House press secretary, according to a person familiar with the deliberations. The news was first reported by The New York Times.

McEnany will be Trump’s fourth press secretary.

White House Press Secretary Stephanie Grisham will leave the West Wing and return to work for First Lady Melania Trump. Tom Brenner / Reuters file

Pentagon spokesperson Alyssa Farah is also expected to join the White House as director of strategic communications, said a senior White House official confirmed. Farah was previously a congressional aide to Meadows and a spokeswoman for the vice president.

Ben Williamson, who arrived at the White House as a top aide to Meadows, will become senior communications adviser, the official said.

The role of White House press secretary was once a high-profile job that helped shape the president’s narrative, but became a background role under Grisham, who rarely appeared on television and never formally briefed the press from the White House during her nine months in the job.

Since mid-March, Trump has appeared almost daily from the White House briefing room and delivered lengthy updates from the White House coronavirus task force. Grisham has not participated in these briefings.

Grisham will take on a new role as chief of staff and spokesperson for Melania Trump.

Grisham came to the White House from the Trump campaign, where she worked as a press wrangler with the traveling press. She joined the administration as a deputy press secretary, but quickly moved over in March 2017 to the East Wing where she was named director of communications for the first lady.

Grisham moved into the role of White House press secretary in June 2019 after Sarah Sanders left the administration.

“I am excited to welcome Stephanie back to the team in this new role,” the first lady said in a statement. “She has been a mainstay and true leader in the administration from even before day one, and I know she will excel as chief of staff.”

The last White House briefing was over a year ago, on March 11, 2019 — three months before Grisham took over the role as press secretary from Sanders.

“I continue to be honored to serve both the president and first lady in the administration,” Grisham said in the statement. “My replacements will be announced in the coming days, and I will stay in the West Wing to help with a smooth transition for as long as needed.”

Rebecca Shabad, Carol E. Lee, Kristen Welker, Peter Alexander, Hans Nichols and Elyse Perlmutter-Gumbiner contributed.

An Illinois mayor had cops crack down on social gatherings. His wife was among the violators.

9 0 07 Apr 2020

The mayor of a southern Illinois city said his wife was among a group of people who violated the state’s stay-at-home order to hang out at a local bar.

On Sunday morning, police in Alton, near the Missouri border, broke up a gathering at Hiram’s Tavern that was “clearly disregarding the executive order and public pleas for compliance,” the department said in a press release.

Police did not say how many people were at the bar and did not name any of the violators. But Mayor Brant Walker said in a Facebook post on Monday that his wife, Shannon Walker, was among those who got in trouble.

“I was made aware that my wife was in attendance at this prohibited social gathering. I instructed the Police Chief to treat her as he would any citizen violating the ‘Stay At Home’ order and to ensure that she received no special treatment,” the mayor wrote in his post, saying he was embarrassed by the incident.

Mayor Brant Walker speaks at Liberty Bank Alton Amphitheater in Alton, Ill., on April 29, 2014.John Badman / The Telegraph via AP file

“My wife is an adult capable of making her own decisions, and in this instance she exhibited a stunning lack of judgment,” he said. “She now faces the same consequences for her ill-advised decision as the other individuals who chose to violate the ‘Stay at Home’ order.”

Walker said he told police on Friday to begin more strictly enforcing the governor’s order after he received reports that people in Madison County were continuing to gather. The mayor apologized to the residents for his wife’s actions.

“My first and most important priority is the safety and well-being of the citizens of Alton. We are in the midst of a national public health crisis, and I will continue to do everything in my power to ensure that your health is protected, including enforcing the Governor’s statewide ‘Stay At Home’ order,” Walker said.

Police said their department had received several complaints that Hiram’s Tavern was continuing to operate on the weekends. Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker issued a stay-at-home order on March 20 and said all nonessential businesses must cease.

Officers previously conducted an investigation into the bar but found no unauthorized activity. On Sunday, a group of people had gathered inside the bar “in an area outside public view,” the department said.

Officers issued criminal complaints for misdemeanor reckless conduct. Each person at the bar on Sunday will be summoned to court at a later date, police said. Two of the individuals, including owner Hiram Lewis, had warrants.

Lewis, who had an arrest warrant stemming from a domestic battery incident, was arrested and taken to the local jail.

“If members of our community will not protect each other, and will be so brazen as to gather in public places, we will be forced to take action like we did this weekend without hesitation,” the police chief, Jason Simmons, said in a statement.

There are more than 12,200 confirmed cases of the coronavirus in Illinois, according to the state’s Department of Public Health. Madison County has 52 cases.

Acting Navy secretary apologizes for scathing rebuke of ousted captain

7 0 07 Apr 2020

Acting Navy Secretary Thomas Modly on Monday delivered a scathing attack against the captain who sounded the alarm over the spread of the coronavirus on his ship.

Speaking in Guam to the crew members of the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt, Modly said Capt. Brett Crozier was guilty of a “betrayal of trust” in choosing to express his concerns to a broad audience in an email that ultimately was leaked to the media, according to a recording of the speech obtained by NBC News.

“If he didn’t think, in my opinion, that this information wasn’t going to get out into the public, in this day and information age that we live in, then he was either A, too naive or too stupid to be a commanding officer of a ship like this,” Modly said. “The alternative is that he did this on purpose.”

Crozier was relieved of his command last Thursday. In a news conference, Modly defended the decision as his own and insisted it was made because Crozier went outside the chain of command.

U.S. Navy Capt. Brett Crozier.Nicholas Huynh / U.S. Navy via AP

But Modly used far more biting language in his speech to the Theodore Roosevelt crew members Monday.

“It was betrayal,” Modly said, according to the recording, which was first obtained by the online publication Task & Purpose. “And I can tell you one other thing: Because he did that, he put it in the public’s forum and it’s now become a big controversy in Washington, D.C., and across the country, about a martyr CO who wasn’t getting the help he needed and therefore had to go through the chain of command, a chain of command which includes the media.”

Modly, in a statement released after a purported transcript of the remarks was reported by several news outlets, said he stood by his words.

“The spoken words were from the heart, and meant for them,” Modly said. “I stand by every word I said, even, regrettably any profanity that may have been used for emphasis. Anyone who has served on a Navy ship would understand. I ask, but don’t expect, that people read them in their entirety.”

But several hours later, Modly reversed course and apologized for his remarks.

“Let me be clear, I do not think Captain Brett Crozier is naïve nor stupid,” he said in a statement. “I think, and always believed him to be the opposite.”

Modly went on to describe Crozier as “smart and passionate.”

“I believe, precisely because he is not naive and stupid, that he sent his alarming email with the intention of getting it into the public domain in an effort to draw public attention to the situation on his ship,” Modly said. “I apologize for any confusion this choice of words may have caused. I also want to apologize directly to Captain Crozier, his family, and the entire crew of the Theodore Roosevelt for any pain my remarks may have caused.”

Modly’s new statement came after President Donald Trump addressed the controversy at a news conference, saying he planned to intervene.

“The letter shouldn’t have been sent,” Trump said, referring to Crozier. “But all of that said, his career prior to that was very good, so I’m going to get involved and see exactly what’s going on there because I don’t want to destroy somebody for having a bad day.”

Modly had delivered the sharply-worded speech to the Theodore Roosevelt crew members two days after a video appeared on social media showing dozens of them cheering for Crozier in a rousing farewell as he walked off the ship in Guam.

Modly said the governor of the U.S. territory told him that the release of Crozier’s letter caused great alarm among local residents who feared an influx of sailors infected with the virus.

“So think about that when you cheer the man off the ship who exposed you to that,” Modly said. “I understand you love the guy. It’s good that you love him. But you’re not required to love him.”

In justifying his decision to remove Crozier, Modly said the captain lost sight of the ship’s mission and “compromised critical information about your status intentionally to draw greater attention to your situation.”

“This put you at great risk,” Modly said.

Nearly 4,900 crew members were aboard the vessel. According to the latest figures, tests have been performed on 61 percent of the crew.

Some 173 have tested positive for the virus. More than 800 others are in isolation at a base on Guam, many of them still awaiting test results. About 1,150 crew members who tested negative were moved off the ship and placed in hotels. Nearly 2,900 sailors remain on board.