Posts with «politics & government» label

US lawmakers want to make sure pandemic telehealth coverage doesn't lapse

The pandemic pushed US lawmakers to provide provisions to expand medical coverage for telehealth in 2020, speeding up a process that would otherwise have taken years. Since then, there have been efforts to make the change permanent, through things like the Telehealth Expansion Act of 2021. But there is an interim period that could present some uncertainty over whether people can get crucial telehealth services while permanent legislation is drawn up. Today, a bipartisan group of 45 lawmakers, led by Senators Brian Schatz (D-Hawai‘i) and Roger Wicker (R-Miss.), said they're "calling for the extension of expanded coverage of telehealth services to be included in must-pass legislation in February."

The group published a letter addressing Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, as well as their minority counterparts and notable signees include Senators Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.), Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.). 

The letter states "While Congress prepares to enact permanent telehealth legislation, we urge you to include an extension of the pandemic telehealth authorities in must-pass government funding legislation in February." 

Currently, pandemic telehealth decision-makers have temporary authority, and that's tied to the COVID-19 public health emergency declaration. As stated in today's letter, the emergency declaration is renewed in three-month increments. "Without more definitive knowledge about the duration of the pandemic and Medicare’s long-term coverage of telehealth, many organizations have been hesitant to fully invest in telehealth."

In addition to providing more confidence to providers that investing in telehealth will be a sound long-term investment, adding an extension to telehealth coverage while making it permanent will also "reassure patients that their care will not end abruptly."

The lawmakers called for "An extension to maintain expanded coverage of Medicare telehealth services for a set period of time," which the letter said "would provide much-needed certainty to health care providers and patients." They believe an extension would also allow additional time for studies to be conducted on the impact of telehealth, which "could help inform Congress's next steps on permanent telehealth legislation and appropriate program integrity and beneficiary protections."

Therefore, the group is also asking to ensure that "an extension not include unnecessary statutory barriers in accessing telehealth services during this data collection and analysis period," which could prevent people from getting essential care.

Democratic lawmakers press crypto mining companies over energy consumption concerns

A group of Democratic lawmakers led by Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachuttes has asked six crypto mining companies, including Riot Blockchain, to answer questions about the impact of their operations on the environment and cost of electricity in the US. In separate letters to the chief executives of each firm, the group asks the companies to detail how much electricity they consume, their scaling plans and any agreements they have in place with local utility companies. They have until February 10th to reply.

Lawmakers say they’re concerned about what a dramatic increase in domestic cryptocurrency mining has meant for the environment and consumers. Specifically, they cite a 2021 study from the University of California, Berkeley that estimated crypto mining in upstate New York raised annual electricity bills by approximately $165 million for small businesses and $79 million for consumers, “with little or no local economic benefit.” They also point to the fact that energy consumption related to Bitcoin mining tripled between 2019 and 2021.

“The extraordinarily high energy usage and carbon emissions associated with Bitcoin mining could undermine our hard work to tackle the climate crisis – not to mention the harmful impacts crypto mining has on local environments and electricity prices,” Senator Warren said. “We need more information on the operations of these crypto mining companies to understand the full scope of the consequences for our environment and local communities.”

The group stops short of suggesting regulatory action could be on the horizon for the industry, but clearly the effect of cryptocurrency on other parts of the economy is something lawmakers are thinking about. On January 20th, the House Energy and Commerce Committee held a hearing titled “Cleaning up Cryptocurrency: The Energy Impacts of Blockchains.” What’s more, US lawmakers have taken a more board interest in cryptocurrencies in recent months. That was on display in December when the Senate held a hearing on Stablecoins.

California governor details $10 billion plan to boost electric vehicle adoption

Back in 2020, California governor Gavin Newsom issued an executive order that will ban the sales of new gasoline and diesel vehicles in the state by 2035. While California already represents half the EV market in the US, the state's officials know that they have to offer help and incentives to accelerate EV adoption and reach an all-electric future. They need to take steps so that removing gas vehicles from the market wouldn't hurt consumers. California committed $3.9 billion for its EV-related initiatives last year, and Newsom recently proposed the addition of $6.1 billion to the state's zero-emission vehicle package to bring the total to $10 billion. Now, the governor has detailed what he plans to do with the money.

First off, Newsom is hoping to make EVs more accessible by putting aside $256 million for low-income consumer EV purchases and spending $900 million on deploying affordable charging options to low-income neighborhoods. Another $935 million will also be spent to add 1,000 zero-emission short-haul trucks and 1,700 electric buses to the state's fleet. $1.5 billion will be used to electrify school buses, while $1.1 billion will be used to buy trucks, buses, off-road equipment and fueling infrastructure. California will spend $400 million on the electrification of ports and $419 million to support projects that increase access to zero-emission transportation in low-income communities, as well.

Alvaro Sanchez, Vice President of Policy at The Greenlining Institute non-profit org, said in a statement:

"To achieve California's climate goals we must focus on the needs of the most polluted and underserved neighborhoods. Governor Newsom’s ZEV investment proposal recognizes this reality. We're excited to work with the Governor and the Legislature to prove to the rest of the country that we can not only advance our climate agenda but also advance equity."

You can read more information about the proposal on the governor's website.

White House tells agencies to adopt the 'Zero Trust' security model

The White House wants the government to adopt a security model called Zero Trust within the next two years. The Office of Management and Budget (OMB) released a finalized federal strategy that lays out the initial details of the shift.

It told agencies to each designate a strategy implementation lead within 30 days. Agencies were given 60 days to submit an implementation plan to the OMB and Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA). 

"This memorandum sets forth a federal Zero Trust architecture (ZTA) strategy, requiring agencies to meet specific cybersecurity standards and objectives by the end of fiscal year (FY) 2024 in order to reinforce the government’s defenses against increasingly sophisticated and persistent threat campaigns," OMB acting director Shalanda D. Young wrote in the memo. "Those campaigns target federal technology infrastructure, threatening public safety and privacy, damaging the American economy and weakening trust in government."

The Zero Trust approach is based on the notion that local devices and connections can't be completely trusted. Users need to be authorized, authenticated and continuously validated. Organizations usually have control over Zero Trust setups, and users and devices are often only granted access to essential data, apps and services.

Google offers a Zero Trust solution called BeyondCorp. Last week, a company called Sikur revealed a smartphone it designed using Zero Trust principles.

The release of the strategy follows an executive order President Joe Biden signed last year with the aim of improving the country's cybersecurity, as well as a draft strategy that the OMB published in September.

The finalized strategy lays out a vision for the government in which staff have "enterprise-managed accounts, allowing them to access everything they need to do their job while remaining reliably protected from even targeted, sophisticated phishing attacks." The devices would be continuously monitored and each agency's system would be isolated, with reliable encryption for internal network traffic and sending data to other agencies.

Under this approach, enterprise applications would be tested internally and externally before staff could access them over the cloud. The OMB also said federal security teams and data teams would work together "to develop data categories and security rules to automatically detect and ultimately block unauthorized access to sensitive information."

The strategy directs agencies to harness strong, phishing-resistant multi-factor authentication, perhaps using physical methods like Personal Identity Verification cards. The OMB also told agencies to have a full inventory of devices that are authorized and used for official business and to make sure they meet CISA standards.

The White House cited the Log4j vulnerability that recently emerged as the latest proof that "adversaries will continue to find new opportunities to get their foot in the door."

"This strategy is a major step in our efforts to build a defensible and coherent approach to our federal cyber defenses,” national cyber director Christopher Inglis said in a statement. “We are not waiting to respond to the next cyber breach. Rather, this administration is continuing to reduce the risk to our nation by taking proactive steps towards a more resilient society."

US warns global chip shortage will likely last through 2022

Don't expect the worldwide chip shortage to end any time soon. Bloomberg and The Washington Post note the US Commerce Department has published a semiconductor supply chain report estimating that the global shortage will last until at least the second half of 2022. "We aren't even close to being out of the woods" with supply problems, Department Secretary Gina Raimondo said.

Many companies are particularly sensitive to problems, too. The median chip inventory for a client company plunged from 40 days in 2019 to under five days in 2021. Even a relatively short (weeks-long) disruption overseas could shut down an American factory, the Department said.

The shortage is particularly damaging to broadband companies, car makers and medical device producers, according to the report. Despite early claims, there wasn't evidence hoarding contributed to the shortfalls. Demand was higher, too, with median interest about 17 percent higher in 2021 than it was two years earlier. The Commerce Department's study was comprehensive, obtaining supply chain data from almost all major semiconductor firms and companies across a range of industries.

Officials concluded the government couldn't directly end the shortage. Private companies were "best positioned" to overcome challenges by increasing production, optimizing their designs and limiting the impact on their supply chains. However, Raimondo used this as an opportunity to plug President Biden's proposed $52 billion subsidy through the US Innovation and Competition Act (USICA). The investment could help "rebuild American manufacturing" and boost domestic supply chains for "years ahead," she said.

Factories resulting from USICA money wouldn't be ready for years, however, and the bill itself has been delayed. While it passed a crucial Senate vote, the House bill is only expected to surface by this week at the earliest. It could take longer to both clear the House and evolve into a final form Biden can sign into law. For now, the tech industry largely has to solve this dilemma on its own.

Senator Klobuchar's major tech reform bill advances out of committee

A major tech reform bill that would prevent the industry's biggest players — Apple, Amazon, Google, and their ilk — from discriminating against smaller businesses that rely on the big platforms' services is one step closer to passage on Thursday after passing from committee on a bipartisan 16-6 vote. Senators Mike Lee, John Cornyn, Ben Sasse, Tom Cotton, Thom Tillis, and Marsha Blackburn all voted against it.

The American Innovation and Choice Online Act, which was sponsored by Senator Amy Klobuchar, would prohibit Amazon from promoting its own Amazon Basics gear over similar products in search results. Similarly, Apple and Google would be barred from pushing their in-house apps over those from third-party developers in their respective app stores. The bill passed out of both the antitrust subcommittee and the primary judiciary committee with the support of that vote and will now be put forth on the Senate floor.   

Unsurprisingly, the platforms impacted by these proposed regulations are none too pleased with the recent proceedings. Apple's Tim Cook has reportedly been personally lobbying against the bill while Amazon has released the following statement:

There’s a reason why small businesses who sell on Amazon are asking Congress to take a look at the “collateral damage” that will fall on them and their customers, should the American Innovation and Choice Online Act become law. This bill is being rushed through the legislative process without any acknowledgment by its authors of its unintended consequences. As drafted, the bill’s vague prohibitions and unreasonable financial penalties—up to 15% of U.S. revenue, not income—would jeopardize our ability to allow small businesses to sell on Amazon. The bill would also make it difficult for us to guarantee one or two-day shipping for those small businesses' products—key benefits of Amazon Prime for sellers and customers alike. The bill’s authors are targeting common retail practices and, troublingly, appear to single out Amazon while giving preferential treatment to other large retailers that engage in the same practices. We urge the Senate Judiciary Committee to reject Senator Klobuchar and Senator Grassley’s bill and refuse to rush through an ambiguously worded bill with significant unintended consequences.

A similar bill has already passed the judiciary committee's counterpart in the House though the President has not yet weighed in regarding his support of these proposals.

President Biden signs memo to help improve military cybersecurity

President Biden is following his executive order on cybersecurity with more concrete action. The leader has signed a memorandum aiming to improve digital security for the Defense Department, the intelligence community and national security systems. The notice sets firmer requirements, both for schedules and for the technology needed to lock down government data.

The memo lets the NSA require agencies to take "specific actions" in response to threats and security flaws, and asks the NSA to coordinate with Homeland Security on directives. Agencies will also have to identify their national security systems, report incidents and secure tools that transfer data between classified and unclassified systems. The President's move also sets timelines and guidance for implementing technologies required in the executive order, ranging from encryption to multi-factor authentication.

Biden's move complements an order that was initially signed in response to critical infrastructure cyberattacks. In theory, this will tighten security at some of the most sensitive federal government institutions. As with the order, though, the memo can only accomplish so much without Congress' support. Virginia Senator Mark Warner, for instance, used the signing to ask Congress to pass legislation requiring notices of critical infrastructure breaches within 72 hours.

The timing is apt, at least. The President's effort comes as tensions rise between Russia, the US and American allies, with Ukraine blaming Russia for a string of cyberattacks that knocked out government websites. The situation might not lead to outright cyberwarfare, but the US still has a strong incentive to close as many security holes as possible.

Lyft is spending millions to stop Massachusetts drivers from becoming employees

Lyft has already splashed out $14.4 million towards a likely November ballot measure in Massachusetts which would cement its drivers as contractors, rather than employees — and the vast majority of those funds were paid in a single, $13 million donation, the largest in the state's history by a considerable margin. It's an unambiguous opening salvo in what will likely be a bitter and protracted battle, the playbook for which Lyft and its gig work peers successfully tested in California two years ago. 

As the Boston Globereports, Lyft has thus far contributed the lion's share of the Flexibility and Benefits for Massachusetts Drivers committee's $17.2 million war chest, which is intended to fund the forthcoming ballot measure. The rest comes from Uber, DoorDash and Instacart owner Maplebear. The previous record for largest single donation was nearly a third the size: a $5.1 million contribution from General Motors in 2020. 

Currently Lyft and Uber are engaged in a lawsuit, filed by the Attorney General of Massachusetts, which contends that the companies have been misclassifying their driver workforce as contractors. Leveraging contractor status relieves them of many of the costs and obligations associated with employees — such as minimum wage, healthcare and overtime pay — but true contractors typically control how and when they work, and what they charge for their services. Whether or not ridershare drivers actually have that level of autonomy has become a point of legal contention in several of the states and countries in which these companies operate.

California thus far has prosecuted its defense of gig-workers-as-employees most vociferously, first through a state Supreme Court ruling in 2018, then through AB5, a successfully-passed bill that (however briefly) enshrined these kinds of drivers as employees. It went into effect on January 1, 2020 and was overturned by ballot measure Proposition 22 that November. Uber, Lyft, DoorDash, Instacart and Postmates dumped a historic $224 million into the proposition — outspending their opposition, which largely consisted of labor unions, by more than 10-to-1 — the most expensive ballot measure in California history. 

Although Prop 22 was eventually ruled unconstitutional, the strategy has thus far been successful for gig work companies. Legislative changes have been tied up in court, and nowhere in the United States are Lyft or Uber drivers currently entitled to the entire slate of benefits enjoyed by full-time employees.

In making their case for Prop 22, gig companies essentially employed two lines of attack. The first, against its own workers, was a facile attempt to tie the concept of "flexibility" to contractor status, an utterly false dichotomy perpetuated by the companies themselves. The second was to convince voters in California that the costs associated with a fleet of employee drivers would either force them to scale back service or raise prices. 

After Prop 22 passed, every single company that backed it raised prices anyway. Uber's CEO also recently contended on a call with investors that, in the face of potential employee-status regulations in the European Union, Uber can, in fact, afford to "make any model work" financially. We've reached out to Lyft to ask if it's in a similar position.

Given this much publicized bait-and-switch, it seems unlikely the Flexibility and Benefits for Massachusetts Drivers committee will be able to successfully argue the same case regarding cost to consumers. Still, the $17.2 million already amassed has paid for, as the Globe reports, a slew of big-name political consultancies who were behind what is currently the most expensive (and likely to soon the be the second-most expensive) ballot measure in Massachusetts history, which sought to stymie a right to repair law.

Are you a gig work driver or courier working in Massachusetts? Download Signal messenger for iOS or Android and text me confidentially at 646 983 9846 and let's keep in touch.


Apple and Google oppose Senate antitrust efforts, claiming they'd hurt consumer security

With the Senate Judiciary Committee scheduled to discuss the American Innovation and Choice Online Act and the Open App Markets Act this week, Apple and Google are stepping up their opposition to both bills. According to CNBC, Apple recently told lawmakers the legislation would make iPhone users less safe.

“The bills put consumers in harm’s way because of the real risk of privacy and security breaches,” Apple said in a letter seen by CNBC. The company specifically targets app sideloading as a potential threat. One of the provisions of the Open App Markets Act would force platform holders to allow consumers to sideload software and install third-party app stores. “But, if Apple is forced to enable sideloading, millions of Americans will likely suffer malware attacks on their phones that would otherwise have been stopped,” the company states in the letter.

On Tuesday, Google, in a post attributed to Kent Walker, the company’s president of global affairs and chief legal officer, advanced a similar argument. “Google is able to protect billions of people around the world from cyberattacks because we bake security and privacy protections into our services,” he said.

Walker warns the bills could hurt the company’s ability to integrate automated security features in its services. He also claims the bills could hurt the company’s ability and that of its US counterparts to compete with foreign firms by forcing them to obtain approval from “government bureaucrats” whenever they plan to release new features or address existing issues.

Apple and Google may not like the proposed bills, but they have support from others in the tech ecosystem. Specifically, the Coalition for App Fairness, an organization Epic and Spotify co-founded to pressure the two companies to change their app store policies, has come out in support of the legislation. “Moving this important legislation forward sends a clear and unambiguous message that monopoly control of the app ecosystem is no longer acceptable,” the group said on Monday.

The Senate Judiciary Committee will discuss both bills on Thursday, at which point they could advance to the floor of the Senate. At that point, the Senate would need to make time to vote on the legislation. That’s something that could take time with all the other issues it needs to consider in the coming weeks.

Israeli police reportedly used Pegasus spyware to conduct domestic surveillance

Israeli police have employed NSO Group’s Pegasus spyware to extract data from phones belonging to Israeli citizens, according to an investigation by the country’s Calcalist business publication. Police reportedly used the controversial software to target a number of individuals, including politicians and members of an activist group that had called for the removal of former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. According to the report, Israeli police conducted their surveillance without court supervision, a claim both police and public officials deny.

“All police activity in this field is done in accordance with the law, on the basis of court orders and strict work procedures,” Israeli Police said. The Washington Post reports Omer Bar-Lev, the country’s country’s public security minister, said an initial investigation had found no evidence of a “secretive wiretapping” program but promised a judge would check everything “thoroughly and unequivocally.”

“We would like to clarify that the company does not operate the systems in its customers’ possession and is not involved in their operation,” NSO Group said in a statement the company shared with Israeli media. “The company sells its products under license and supervision for the use of security bodies and state law enforcement agencies, to prevent crime and terrorism legally, and according to court orders and local law in each country.”

Per The Guardian, Israeli law only allows Shin Bet, the country’s domestic intelligence agency, to hack a phone without a court order. What’s more, the only context in which the agency is allowed to carry out such an action is to prevent a terrorist attack involving Palestinians, Israeli-Arabs or Israeli-Jews. Approval from a senior Shin Bet official or the attorney general’s office is also required. No such exemption exists for the country’s police service. However, according to Calcalist, the software wasn’t directly covered by Israel’s existing laws.

The report comes a month after Reuters found the Pegasus spyware had been used to target at least nine US State Department officials. In that instance, an unknown assailant had used the software to target federal employees who were either stationed in Uganda or whose work involved the African country. NSO has claimed its software can’t target devices linked to American or Israeli phone numbers.