Monthly Archives: February 2013

Icesave Case: winners & losers of bank failures

In 2008 Britain’s former prime minister Gordon Brown chose to invoke anti-terrorism laws to freeze the assets of a failed Icelandic bank…In January 28, 2013 a ruling delivered in Luxembourg by the European Free-Trade Association Court, dealt with the collapse of Icesave, an online subsidiary of Iceland’s Landsbanki. Before the crisis Icesave had used a European “passport” to open branches abroad and collected deposits in Britain and the Netherlands with almost no oversight from regulators in those countries. One condition of its passport was that it promised that its deposits were backed by a national deposit-insurance scheme in Iceland. Yet when the bank collapsed Iceland’s deposit scheme was overwhelmed. Icelandic depositors in the bank ended up getting their money back; the British and Dutch governments both had to step in to compensate depositors in their countries.

Many observers had expected the court to rule that Iceland was obliged to stand behind its national deposit-protection plan and not to discriminate against foreign depositors. Instead the court found that Iceland was obliged only to make sure that it had a deposit-insurance scheme. The state was not required to pay out if the scheme had no money because of a banking crisis. Oddly, the court also found that Iceland had not breached an obligation not to discriminate between domestic and foreign depositors, even though it made only the domestic ones whole.

The questions addressed by the court may seem anachronistic: European law on deposit protection has been extensively rewritten since the crisis. Yet the ruling is another warning to those who hope that regulators can strike binding agreements on how they will share the costs of a future banking crisis. Supervisors in America are already trying to ensure that foreign banks there operate as separately capitalised subsidiaries, so they do not have to rely on the vigilance of foreign regulators. Hopes that Europe’s banking union will include a mutual deposit-guarantee scheme are in any case faint. This week’s ruling will only weaken confidence in the willingness of countries to bail out foreign creditor

The Icesave ruling: In the cooler, Economist, Feb. 2, 2013, at 64

Watching your Internet Fingerprint

The current standard method for validating a user’s identity for authentication on an information system requires humans to do something that is inherently difficult: create, remember, and manage long, complex passwords. Moreover, as long as the session remains active, typical systems incorporate no mechanisms to verify that the user originally authenticated is the user still in control of the keyboard. Thus, unauthorized individuals may improperly obtain extended access to information system resources if a password is compromised or if a user does not exercise adequate vigilance after initially authenticating at the console.

The Active Authentication program seeks to address this problem by developing novel ways of validating the identity of the person at the console that focus on the unique aspects of the individual through the use of software-based biometrics. Biometrics is defined as the characteristics used to uniquely recognize humans based upon one or more intrinsic physical or behavioral traits. This program focuses on the computational behavioral traits that can be observed through how we interact with the world. Just as when you touch something with our finger you leave behind a fingerprint, when you interact with technology you do so in a pattern based on how your mind processes information, leaving behind a “cognitive fingerprint.”

This BAA addresses the first phase of this program. In the first phase of the program, the focus will be on researching biometrics that does not require the installation of additional hardware sensors. Rather, DARPA will look for research on biometrics that can be captured through the technology already in use in a standard DoD office environment, looking for aspects of the “cognitive fingerprint.” A heavy emphasis will be placed on validating any potential new biometrics with empirical tests to ensure they would be effective in large scale deployments.

The later planned phases of the program that are not addressed in this BAA will focus on developing a solution that integrates any available biometrics using a new authentication platform suitable for deployment on a standard Department of Defense desktop or laptop. The planned combinatorial approach of using multiple modalities for continuous user identification and authentication is expected to deliver a system that is accurate, robust, and transparent to the user’s normal computing experience. The authentication platform is planned to be developed with open Application Programming Interfaces (APIs) to allow the integration of other software or hardware biometrics available in the future from any source.

The combined aspects of the individual that this program is attempting to uncover are the aspects that are the computational behavioral “fingerprint” of the person at the keyboard. This has also been referred to in existing research as the “cognitive fingerprint.” The proposed theory is that how individuals formulate their thoughts and actions are reflected through their behavior, and this behavior in turn can be captured as metrics in how the individual performs tasks using the computer.

Some examples of the computational behavior metrics of the cognitive fingerprint include:

− keystrokes

− eye scans

− how the user searches for information (verbs and predicates used)

− how the user selects information (verbs and predicates used)

− how the user reads the material selected

• eye tracking on the page

• speed with which the individual reads the content

− methods and structure of communication (exchange of email)

These examples are only provided for illustrative purposes and are not intended as a list of potential research topics. The examples above include potential biometrics that would not be supported through this BAA due to a requirement for the deployment of additional hardware based sensors (such as tracking eye scans).

Excerpt from, Broad Agency Announcement, Active Authentication, DARPA-BAA-12-06, January 12, 2012

On Feb. 12, 2013, two groups announced related projects. The first is an industry group calling itself the FIDO (Fast IDentity Online) Alliance. It consists of the computer-maker, Lenovo, the security firm, Nok Nok Labs, the online payment giant, PayPal, the biometrics experts, Agnito, and the authentication specialists, Validity. The second is the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency (DARPA), a research and development arm of the Defense Department.

Excerpt from DARPA, FIDO Alliance Join Race to Replace Passwords, CNET, Feb. 12, 2013

Shell Nigeria and the Ogoni People

On January 30th, 2013 a Dutch court ruled that Shell, Nigeria’s biggest oil producer, must compensate Friday Akpan, a farmer from the Delta region, for the pollution of his farmland and destruction of his livelihood. The ruling could open a flood-gate to legal complaints against oil companies.In 2008, five Nigerians, including Mr Akpan, filed suits in The Hague where Shell has its headquarters. The other four cases were dismissed; the court said Shell could not have prevented the spills involved. Environmental campaigners insist the company was negligent. Amnesty International says the dismissal highlights how difficult it is for Nigerians whose lives have been affected by oil pollution to get justice.

Court orders and regulatory fines are rarely enforced in Nigeria. According to a 2011 United Nations report on the Ogoniland region in the Niger Delta, restoring the area, much of which is covered in thick, black oil, could take up to 30 years. It would cost $1billion just to start the clean up. Little progress has been made since the report was published. Bad laws, lax regulation and corporate exploitation make environmental degradation even worse in Nigeria.

Shell says that nearly 26,000 barrels of its oil was spilt last year in 200 incidents in the Delta. Some 55 were the result of “operational mishaps,” including poor maintenance of facilities but 144 were caused by sabotage or people siphoning oil from pipelines. Oil theft is increasingly a cause of oil spills in the region. The illegal refining of stolen oil is common in the Niger Delta. But in a region with few jobs, poor health care and dire schools, it is little wonder people resort to refining stolen oil. For some, it is the only way left to make a living.

John Donovan, A mixed verdict, Economist, Feb 3rd, 2013

Leaking Toxics: Hanford Nuclear Site

United States: Washington state Gov. Jay Inslee got a disturbing call Friday (Feb. 15, 2013) from Energy Secretary Steven Chu: Nuclear waste is leaking out of a tank in one of the most contaminated nuclear waste sites in the U.S.  Inslee released a statement, saying a single shell tank at Hanford Nuclear Reservation is slowly losing between 150 and 300 gallons of radioactive waste each year. All of the liquid was removed from the tank in February 1995; what’s left is toxic sludge.  According to Inslee “The leaking tank was built in the 1940’s and was stabilized in February 1995, when all pumpable liquids were removed by agreement with the State. The tank currently contains approximately 447,000 gallons of sludge, a mixture of solids and liquids with a mud-like consistency. This is the first tank which has been documented to be losing liquids since interim stabilization was completed in 2005. There are a total of 177 tanks at the Hanford site, 149 of which are single shell tanks.”

Inslee said “Fortunately, there is no immediate public health risk. The newly discovered leak may not hit the groundwater for many years, and we have a groundwater treatment system in place that provides a last defense for the river. However, the fact that this tank is one of the farthest from the river is not an excuse for delay. It is a call to act now.”

Northwest News Network reporter Anna King, who’s tracking the Hanford site, found activists who say there’s a worse problem than the leak: Now that the tank is breached, where will officials put the toxic waste? “Tom Carpenter heads the Seattle-based watchdog group Hanford Challenge. He says Friday’s news highlights the fact that there’s little space to move highly radioactive waste to. So Carpenter asks, ‘If you have another leak, what do you do? You don’t have any strategy for that.’ And the Hanford Advisory Board and the state of Washington and Hanford Challenge and others have been calling upon the Department of Energy to build new tanks. That call has been met with silence.”

Hanford has been in existence since the 1940s, when the site was used to prepare plutonium for bombs….Federal officials have spent many years and billions of dollars cleaning up the reservation, including efforts to protect the nearby Columbia River. There are 177 tanks holding nuclear waste at the Hanford site; Gov. Inslee says 149 are single shelled, like the leaking one. Worse, they’ve outlived their 20-year life expectancy.

The waste mitigation work now faces a predicament with the impending sequester, the automatic across-the-board federal spending cuts that are set to take effect March 1 unless Congress reaches a different arrangement on a spending plan. Inslee says this will mean layoffs at Hanford and could even stop work there. He termed the combination of the leak and the budget cuts the “perfect radioactive storm,” according to the Seattle Post-Intelligencer.

Excerpts from KORVA COLEMAN, Nuclear Waste Seeping From Container In Hazardous Wash. State Facility, NPR, Feb. 16, 2013 and from Governor Inslee’s statement on news of Hanford leak Feb 15, 2013

Lethal Operations Against US Citizens Lawful: secret memo

A confidential Justice Department memo concludes that the U.S. government can order the killing of American citizens if they are believed to be “senior operational leaders” of al-Qaida or “an associated force” — even if there is no intelligence indicating they are engaged in an active plot to attack the U.S.The 16-page memo, a copy of which was obtained by NBC News, provides new details about the legal reasoning behind one of the Obama administration’s most secretive and controversial polices: its dramatically increased use of drone strikes against al-Qaida suspects abroad, including those aimed at American citizens, such as the September 2011 strike in Yemen that killed alleged al-Qaida operatives Anwar al-Awlaki and Samir Khan. Both were U.S. citizens who had never been indicted by the U.S. government nor charged with any crimes….The undated memo is entitled “Lawfulness of a Lethal Operation Directed Against a U.S. Citizen who is a Senior Operational Leader of Al Qa’ida or An Associated Force.” It was provided to members of the Senate Intelligence and Judiciary committees in June by administration officials on the condition that it be kept confidential and not discussed publicly.

Although not an official legal memo, the white paper was represented by administration officials as a policy document that closely mirrors the arguments of classified memos on targeted killings by the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel, which provides authoritative legal advice to the president and all executive branch agencies. The administration has refused to turn over to Congress or release those memos publicly — or even publicly confirm their existence. A source with access to the white paper, which is not classified, provided a copy to NBC News.

“This is a chilling document,” said Jameel Jaffer, deputy legal director of the ACLU, which is suing to obtain administration memos about the targeted killing of Americans. “Basically, it argues that the government has the right to carry out the extrajudicial killing of an American citizen. … It recognizes some limits on the authority it sets out, but the limits are elastic and vaguely defined, and it’s easy to see how they could be manipulated.”…..

The completeness of the administration’s public accounts of its legal arguments was also sharply criticized last month by U.S. Judge Colleen McMahon in response to a lawsuit brought by the New York Times and the ACLU seeking access to the Justice Department memos on drone strikes targeting Americans under the Freedom of Information Act. McMahon, describing herself as being caught in a “veritable Catch-22,” said she was unable to order the release of the documents given “the thicket of laws and precedents that effectively allow the executive branch of our government to proclaim as perfectly lawful certain actions that seem on their face incompatible with our Constitution and laws while keeping the reasons for the conclusion a secret.”  In her ruling, McMahon noted that administration officials “had engaged in public discussion of the legality of targeted killing, even of citizens.” But, she wrote, they have done so “in cryptic and imprecise ways, generally without citing … any statute or court decision that justifies its conclusions.”……..

“A lawful killing in self-defense is not an assassination,” the white paper reads. “In the Department’s view, a lethal operation conducted against a U.S. citizen whose conduct poses an imminent threat of violent attack against the United States would be a legitimate act of national self-defense that would not violate the assassination ban. Similarly, the use of lethal force, consistent with the laws of war, against an individual who is a legitimate military target would be lawful and would not violate the assassination ban.”

Excerpts from Michael Isikoff. EXCLUSIVE: Justice Department memo reveals legal case for drone strikes on Americans, NBC News, Feb. 6, 2012

S&P: Unfair Umpire Misleading the Public

Attorney General Eric Holder announced on Feb. 5, 2013 that the Department of Justice has filed a civil lawsuit against the credit rating agency Standard & Poor’s Ratings Services  (pdf) alleging that S&P engaged in a scheme to defraud investors in structured financial products known as Residential Mortgage-Backed Securities (RMBS) and Collateralized Debt Obligations (CDOs). The lawsuit alleges that investors, many of them federally insured financial institutions, lost billions of dollars on CDOs for which S&P issued inflated ratings that misrepresented the securities’ true credit risks. The complaint also alleges that S&P falsely represented that its ratings were objective, independent, and uninfluenced by S&P’s relationships with investment banks when, in actuality, S&P’s desire for increased revenue and market share led it to favor the interests of these banks over investors.

“Put simply, this alleged conduct is egregious – and it goes to the very heart of the recent financial crisis,” said Attorney General Holder. “Today’s action is an important step forward in our ongoing efforts to investigate – and – punish the conduct that is believed to have contributed to the worst economic crisis in recent history. It is just the latest example of the critical work that the President’s Financial Fraud Enforcement Task Force is making possible.”

Attorney General Eric Holder was joined in announcing the filing of the civil complaint by Acting Associate Attorney General Tony West, Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Division Stuart F. Delery, and U.S. Attorney for the Central District of California André Birotte Jr. Also joining the Department of Justice in making this announcement were the attorneys general from California, Connecticut, Delaware, the District of Columbia, Illinois, Iowa and Mississippi, who have filed or will file civil fraud lawsuits against S&P alleging similar misconduct in the rating of structured financial products. Additional state attorneys general are expected to make similar filings today.

“Many investors, financial analysts and the general public expected S&P to be a fair and impartial umpire in issuing credit ratings, but the evidence we have uncovered tells a different story,” said Acting Associate Attorney General West. “Our investigation revealed that, despite their representations to the contrary, S&P’s concerns about market share, revenues and profits drove them to issue inflated ratings, thereby misleading the public and defrauding investors. In so doing, we believe that S&P played an important role in helping to bring our economy to the brink of collapse.”

Today’s action was filed in the Central District of California, home to the now defunct Western Federal Corporate Credit Union (WesCorp), which was the largest corporate credit union in the country. Following the 2008 financial crisis, WesCorp collapsed after suffering massive losses on RMBS and CDOs rated by S&P.  “Significant harm was caused by S&P’s alleged conduct in the Central District of California,” said U.S. Attorney for the Central District of California Birotte. “Across the seven counties in my district, we had huge numbers of homeowners who took out subprime mortgage loans, many of which were made by some of the country’s most aggressive lenders only because they later could be securitized into debt instruments that were given flawed ‘AAA’ ratings by S&P. This led to an untold number of foreclosures in my district. In addition, institutional investors located in my district, such as WesCorp, suffered massive losses after putting billions of dollars into RMBS and CDOs that received flawed and inflated ratings from S&P.”

The complaint, which names McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc. and its subsidiary, Standard & Poor’s Financial Services LLC (collectively S&P) as defendants, seeks civil penalties under the Financial Institutions Reform, Recovery, and Enforcement Act of 1989 (FIRREA) based on three forms of alleged fraud by S&P: (1) mail fraud affecting federally insured financial institutions in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 1341; (2) wire fraud affecting federally insured financial institutions in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 1343; and (3) financial institution fraud in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 1344. FIRREA authorizes the Attorney General to seek civil penalties up to the amount of the losses suffered as a result of the alleged violations. To date, the government has identified more than $5 billion in losses suffered by federally insured financial institutions in connection with the failure of CDOs rated by S&P from March to October 2007.  “The fraud underpinning the crisis took many different forms, and for that reason, so must our response,” said Stuart F. Delery, Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General for the Department’s Civil Division. “As today’s filing demonstrates, the Department of Justice is committed to using every available legal tool to bring to justice those responsible for the financial crisis.”

According to the complaint, S&P publicly represented that its ratings of RMBS and CDOs were objective, independent and uninfluenced by the potential conflict of interest posed by S&P being selected to rate securities by the investment banks that sold those securities. Contrary to these representations, from 2004 to 2007, the government alleges, S&P was so concerned with the possibility of losing market share and profits that it limited, adjusted and delayed updates to the ratings criteria and analytical models it used to assess the credit risks posed by RMBS and CDOs. According to the complaint, S&P weakened those criteria and models from what S&P’s own analysts believed was necessary to make them more accurate. The complaint also alleges that, from at least March to October 2007, and because of this same desire to increase market share and profits, S&P issued inflated ratings on hundreds of billions of dollars’ worth of CDOs. At the time, according to the allegations in the complaint, S&P knew that the quality of non-prime RMBS was severely impaired, and that the ratings on those mortgage bonds would not hold. The government alleges that S&P failed to account for this impairment in the CDO ratings it was assigning on a daily basis. As a result, nearly every CDO rated by S&P during this time period failed, causing investors to lose billions of dollars.

The underlying federal investigation, code-named “Alchemy,” that led to the filing of this complaint was initiated in November 2009 in connection with the President’s Financial Fraud Enforcement Task Force.

Department of Justice Sues Standard & Poor’s for Fraud in Rating Mortgage-Backed Securities in the Years Leading Up to the Financial Crisis, Department of Justice Press Release, Feb. 5, 2013

How to Save the Lions

In the dark the safest way to attack the lions was to catch them in the headlights of a car and run them over. Once the adults were downed it was easy enough to dispatch the cubs with spears and arrows. When the killing stopped last year in Kitengela, on the plains outside Nairobi National Park, six lions were dead. It was the worst such incident in recent memory.

Killing lions without a licence is a criminal offence in Kenya and the slaughter was witnessed by a trio of park rangers from the Kenya Wildlife Service. Outnumbered, they decided not to try to stop what one of them described as “mob justice” by locals angry that their goats had been eaten. Seven months later no one has been arrested. Whereas elephant and rhino poachers often end up dead or in jail, no lion killer in Kenya has ever ended up behind bars.

Recent estimates put their number (lions) in Africa at 15,000-25,000. LionAid, a conservation group based in Britain, says it knows of only 645 still in west and central Africa.  Paula Kahumbu of Kenya-based Wildlife Direct says their fate Africa-wide will be decided in Kenya, home to one in ten of the surviving beasts. Kenya is losing about 100 every year, its wildlife service estimates, most of them killed by herders whose cattle graze the land where lions hunt. Cheap pesticides, such as Carbofuran, which is tasteless and odourless, have replaced spears as the chief killer. Kenya’s human population, up from 8m at independence in 1964 to 42m-plus today, has deprived the lions of habitat and prey.

Laurence Frank, who runs Living With Lions, a Kenyan charity, says that the big cats are viewed as an expensive nuisance by rural people who see few benefits from tourism.   Compensating owners for livestock lost to lions may have reduced locals’ incentive to look after their herds. Paul Mbugua of the Kenyan Wildlife Service suspects that last year’s Kitengela killings were meant to send a message that the local Masai wanted bigger compensation. Paying them to guard the lions has worked better…..Most successful of all has been the sprouting of private conservancies turning ranches into wildlife havens that earn their keep from tourists as well as farming, and recycle the income into local communities better than national parks do. Several such ventures in Laikipia, a plateau north-west of Mount Kenya, are reversing the downward trend in lion numbers.

Excerpts, Kenya’s lions: Sad for Simba, Economist,  Jan. 26, 2013, at 45