Your Personal Data Is Worth Money, and Andrew Yang Wants to Get You Paid

Contact tracing has been a somewhat controversial tool for fighting coronavirus in the US. American consumers wanted privacy to be preserved, so Apple and Google set about devising an API that could help track potential Covid-19 outbreaks while keeping users’ identities anonymous. But what many of us seemed to forget during conversations about contact tracing is that we’re already living under a digital microscope, with multiple companies following and recording our every move.

Indeed, just going about our daily routines can generate hundreds of data points, from where we went to how much time we spent there to what we bought, ate, or drank. Essentially, we’re freely giving away all kinds of data to companies that analyze, package, sell, and profit from it—not just every day, but every hour.

Former Democratic presidential candidate and entrepreneur Andrew Yang wants to change this, and he’s rolling out a framework to do so. Yang is most well-known for his support of a universal basic income of $1,000 a month for every American. UBI would be a central tenet of building what he calls a human-centered economy, which entails a form of capitalism that measures economic success by peoples’ well-being rather than by corporate profits or GDP.

Putting lower-earning citizens on a more equal basis from which to pursue opportunities is one piece of a human-centered economy—that’s where UBI comes in. Dismantling the systems that allow big companies to rake in billions while the average Joe lives paycheck to paycheck is another piece—and that’s where Yang’s newly-launched Data Dividend Project (DDP) comes in.

On its website, the DDP is described as “a movement dedicated to taking back control of our personal data.” There’s not a ton of information about how the project is going to accomplish this, but it seems like a big part of it is raising awareness and mobilizing people; as the site states more than once, individual consumers can’t do much to fight big companies or request payment for data, and the more people involved, the more leverage they’re likely to have. Yang’s ultimate goal is for Americans to be able to claim their data as a property right and get paid for it if they choose to share it.

By signing up, you give the DDP permission to act as an authorized agent to exercise your legal rights under the recently-enacted California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA). The act went into effect on January 1 of this year, and it gives consumers in California the right to know how their personal data is being collected and shared, the right to request that their data be deleted, and the right to opt out of the sale or sharing of their personal information. The act also prohibits businesses from selling the personal info of consumers under age 16 without explicit consent.

The law only covers California right now, but Maine and Nevada recently passed similar bills, and according to the DDP’s website, 10 other states are considering doing so. If you sign up and your state doesn’t yet have a relevant bill, you’ll be notified when (or if) one is passed in the future. Europe is a couple years ahead of the US; its General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) went into effect in May of 2018.

According to the DDP’s website, data brokering is a $200 billion industry. “We are completely outgunned by tech companies,” Yang told The Verge. “We’re just presented with these terms and conditions. No one ever reads them. You just click on them and hope for the best. And unfortunately, the best has not happened.”

Yang has a point. When was the last time you thoroughly read the terms and conditions—and understood all the legal gibberish therein—before signing up for a service or downloading an app?

Oh, never? Same here.

But Yang’s Data Dividend quest is likely to be an uphill battle. There’s some serious distance between having the right to know how your data is being collected and getting cash in your pocket from the companies collecting it.

A philosophy called dataism, first described in 2013, takes the opposite stance: dataists advocate for handing over as much information and power as possible to data-driven algorithms, thus allowing the free flow of data to unlock unprecedented innovation and progress.

In a pretty big way, we’re all benefiting from the way companies use our data; we get to use apps and services for “free” and the providers get our data in exchange. They then use that data to (among other things, of course) improve the product.

GPS apps, for example, are free to use, and they save us time and stress. We’ve accepted the fact that they may be tracking or recording our movements as part of the deal, and most of us would rather give up that data than pay for the app. Similarly, Facebook is a free, easy way to keep in touch with your friends, and those of us who use it have tacitly agreed to let the platform collect all kinds of information about us in exchange.

The catch, though, is that especially in Facebook’s case, most of us didn’t realize just how far this went until it was too late to do anything about it (other than deleting your account, but even that wouldn’t erase years’ worth of data already collected).

Last year’s Netflix movie The Great Hack detailed the dark side of data collection, centered around the 2016 Cambridge Analytica scandal. The movie describes how “psychometric profiles” exist for you, me, and all of our friends. The data collected from our use of digital services can be packaged in a way that gives companies insight into our habits, preferences, and even our personalities. With this information, they can do anything from show us an ad for a pair of shoes we’ll probably like to try to change our minds about which candidate to vote for in an election.

With so much of our data already out there, plus the fact that most of us will likely keep using the free apps we’ve enjoyed for years, could it be too late to try to fundamentally change the way this model works?

Maybe not. Think of it this way: we have a long, increasingly automated and digitized future ahead of us, and data is only going to become more important, valuable, and powerful with time. There’s a line (which some would say we’ve already crossed) beyond which the amount of data companies have access to and the way they can manipulate it for their benefit will become eerie and even dystopian.

So have at it, Mr. Yang. Though they say the best things in life are free, the reality is that most things come with a cost—monetary or otherwise.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons




This Tiny House Is 3D Printed, Floats, and Will Last Over 100 Years

One of the world’s first 3D printed houses went up in China in 2016. At 400 square meters in size and 2 stories tall, the house took 45 days to print—and at the time, this seemed amazingly fast.

Since then, similar houses have popped up in other parts of the world, including Russia, the US, Italy, and even an entire community of 3D printed homes in Mexico.

Printing about half-complete. Image credit: ©Buřinka/Kateřina Nováková

This month, another country joined the list: the Czech Republic. Not to be outshined by its predecessors, Prvok, as the house has been christened, even boasts a few extra-cool features: it has a green roof, it’s built to last over 100 years, and it can float (not on its own, though). Printed this month in a warehouse in the southwestern city of České Budějovice, the house will be transported to Střelecký Island on the Vltava River in Prague in August, where it will be open to the public.

Prvok is the brainchild of Czech artist Michal Trpak, who collaborated with bank Buřinka to make his vision a reality. “Architecture is rational, calculated in a way,” Trpak said. “Sculpture is irrational and it’s more about emotion. I like to fuse, experiment, and try new materials and technologies.”

Prvok 3d printed house robotic arm Scoolpt
The Scoolpt robotic arm printing the house. Image Credit: ©Buřinka/David Veis

The house was printed using a robotic arm called Scoolpt, which was tweaked and reprogrammed for this purpose after initially being used on an automotive assembly line. The material used was a concrete mixture enriched with nano-polypropylene fibers and substances to improve plasticity and speed up drying. “I love concrete for many reasons,” Trpak said. “It can be shaped, cast, molded, sprayed, layered… it offers so many possibilities.” It takes 24 hours for the concrete to initially “set,” or harden, but 28 days for it to set to its full load-bearing capacity, which the project’s engineers say is equivalent to that of a bridge.

It took 2 days (not straight through—22 hours of total printing time), 25 workers, and 17 tons of the custom concrete mixture to print the house, which is about 463 square feet (43 square meters). That’s the size of a studio or small one-bedroom apartment, and the space is divided into a living room/kitchen combo, a bedroom, and a bathroom. The project hasn’t released details about the cost of printing the house or its final price tag after completion.

Czech 3d printed house interior
Prvok house interior, artist rendering. Image Credit: ©Buřinka

Though it can stand on land, Prvok was specially designed to live on a pontoon. It’s fitting; with a submarine-like shape and circular porthole-like windows, the house has a distinctly nautical appearance. Trpak claims it can weather at least a hundred years in any environment. “In the future, the owners can crush the building once it has run its useful life, and print it again with the same material directly on the location,” he said.

Granted, 100 years isn’t an extraordinarily long lifespan for a house; there are plenty of them that have been around for that long, and have decades of life ahead of them. But if you consider the speed with which 3D printed houses go up and the simplicity of their construction and materials, it’s a pretty cool build-time-to-longevity ratio.

3D printing has been hailed as a fast, cheap, environment-friendly way to build affordable housing. Earlier this year, a handful of 3D printed homes were added to a community outside Austin, Texas built for people who were previously homeless, and 50 homes are being built for low-income residents of Tabasco, Mexico.

Both of those projects came from Austin-based construction technologies startup ICON, whose co-founder Jason Ballard said, “With 3D printing […] you have the possibility of a quantum leap in affordability. Conventional construction methods have many baked-in drawbacks and problems that we’ve taken for granted for so long that we forgot how to imagine any alternative.”

3D printed houses do have their own drawbacks; they’re most practical in rural areas with low population density, but the world’s biggest need for affordable, safe housing is in or near big cities. The material they can be built from is currently limited to concrete and plastics, which aren’t practical in some climates. And the bare-bones concrete walls that are spit out by a printer can present engineering challenges or limit functionality in the home’s interior.

On the plus side, though, it seems the Czech project has just overcome one big barrier for 3D printed houses: they’re no longer exclusively confined to land.

Banner Image Credit: ©Buřinka




A Hospital Was Accused of Racially Profiling Native American Women. Staff Said Administrators Impeded an Investigation.

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This article was produced in partnership with New Mexico In Depth, which is a member of the ProPublica Local Reporting Network.

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Federal regulators are ramping up scrutiny of a prominent women’s hospital here after clinicians’ allegations that Native Americans had been racially profiled for extra COVID-19 screening, leading to the temporary separation of some mothers from their newborns.

The U.S. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services will refer findings from state investigators about a violation of patient rights at Lovelace Women’s Hospital to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Office for Civil Rights, state officials said. The state Department of Health declined to specify details of the violations it had found.

The HHS Office for Civil Rights enforces federal laws banning discrimination in the provision of medical care and investigates violations of patient privacy rights.

“The allegations against Lovelace Women’s Hospital are very serious,” said New Mexico Department of Health Secretary Kathyleen Kunkel. The department “continues to be concerned that individuals will not access the medical care they need and are entitled to due to fear or mistrust.”

The state and federal actions were announced after an investigation by New Mexico In Depth and ProPublica found that Lovelace had a secret policy of designating Native American women as under investigation for coronavirus based on their appearance and a list of ZIP codes, regardless of their symptoms. The ZIP code list, known informally as the “Pueblos List,” a reference to New Mexico’s 19 Pueblo tribes, contained ZIP codes that corresponded with tribal reservations, some of which have suffered high rates of COVID-19 outbreaks. Other tribes on the list, however, have had few cases. Ethicists have described the practice as a case of racial profiling.

The decision to elevate the investigation comes as hospital workers told New Mexico In Depth and ProPublica that the hospital appeared to hide documents and discourage cooperation with state investigators.

Hospital employees said documents were removed from nursing stations, including COVID-19 screening and treatment protocols. In one internal communication viewed by the news organizations, a hospital official reminded workers that they did not need to talk to the investigators and provided a short script as a sample response.

“They told us that DOH might be calling to ask us questions about the policy, and they told us we don’t have to talk to them,” one clinician said. “They suggested we could just not answer the phone.”

Kunkel, the state’s highest-ranking public health official, said such an instruction would be a potential violation of the hospital’s operating agreement with CMS, as would removing documents with relevant information from inspectors’ review. She promised the Health Department would assist federal investigators in any ongoing reviews.

It was not clear on Monday whether state inspectors obtained access to any documents employees said had been moved. The state’s report to CMS was not immediately released, and a state official did not immediately confirm that the hospital had given investigators all of the documents they sought. Once the hospital is notified of the findings, it will have 14 days to respond.

A photo of the ZIP code list, known informally as the “Pueblos List.”
(Obtained by ProPublica and New Mexico In Depth. Redactions added by ProPublica and New Mexico In Depth.)

A hospital spokeswoman said Friday that the hospital had not yet received notification of the results of the inspection. She declined to respond to repeated requests for comment regarding accusations that hospital administrators had attempted to impede the investigation.

“We continue to modify screening and testing protocols based on” guidelines from the Health Department and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention “as this pandemic continues and as the country continues to learn more about this disease,” hospital spokeswoman Whitney Marquez said in a statement.

The allegations of profiling have angered New Mexican political leaders and Native American activists. Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham demanded an investigation into the hospital after the article by New Mexico In Depth and ProPublica.

The hospital’s practices were “significant, awful allegations and, if true, a disgusting and unforgivable violation of patient rights,” Lujan Grisham wrote on Twitter on June 13.

Malia Luarkie, a birth and breastfeeding advocate for the reproductive justice organization Indigenous Women Rising, said the policy was detrimental to the health of Native Americans.

“The first minutes and days of birth are important to a baby’s development and to bonding with their parent(s),” Luarkie said in a press release. “This is an atrocious and racist move by Lovelace Women’s Hospital.”

Seven clinicians who worked at Lovelace described the now-abandoned policy to single out pregnant Native Americans as “persons under investigation” for COVID-19 testing. Pregnant women who gave birth before the return of test results were separated from their infants as a precaution, two clinicians told the news organizations.

A spokeswoman acknowledged that the hospital used geographic regions as a criterion for additional COVID-19 testing but did not respond to questions about the use of a list of ZIP codes linked to Native American tribes. Hospital policy requires that expectant mothers being investigated for COVID-19 infection be separated from their newborns. But the spokeswoman said mothers were educated about the pros and cons for the baby and given a choice to separate. Some patients opted to keep their babies with them, she said.

It is unclear how the hospital’s ZIP code list was developed. The Navajo Nation and several Pueblo tribes in New Mexico have recorded some of the highest per capita rates of COVID-19 infection in the nation. But most ZIP codes and associated tribes on the list have had relatively few positive COVID-19 cases and several fell outside of state-designated hot spots.

In April, the hospital’s policy called for screening anyone from New Mexico Indian Pueblos and reservations, according to internal communications and documents newly obtained by the news organizations.

“We will now be screening all patients who are from the Indian reservations,” stated an internal communication from late April reviewed by New Mexico In Depth and ProPublica. Clinicians should look at patients’ home addresses rather than asking them if they live on an Indian reservation in order to “avoid them feeling singled out,” that communication stated.

An April 22 staff communication to Lovelace Women’s Hospital providers similarly identified “Native American Reservation/Pueblo/Navajo Nation” as one of a set of three “high-risk classifications” that would trigger COVID-19 testing upon admission. Other high-risk classifications noted in the communication included patients undergoing dialysis and those who reside in congregate living facilities like nursing homes. People classified as under investigation were to be assigned to “appropriate COVID-19 isolation,” the communication said.

A photo of Lovelace Women’s Hospital COVID-19 protocol.
(Obtained by ProPublica and New Mexico In Depth)

The hospital has not publicly explained why it did not simply test all patients for COVID-19. Two other major hospitals in Albuquerque, the University of New Mexico and Presbyterian, said they did not carry out any screening based on ZIP codes.

In an internal memo to staff on June 16, Lovelace CEO Sheri Milone defended the hospital’s actions. She acknowledged that the hospital had screened people based on whether they lived in “geographic hot spots,” among other risk criteria. She said such screening was needed to triage the hospital’s limited supply of COVID-19 tests to populations most at risk for the coronavirus.

She said the screening policies resulted in COVID-19 tests for 15 expectant mothers “from a variety of ethnic backgrounds.” Two women were separated from their infants at birth as a precaution since results had not yet come back. One of those women was Native American, Milone wrote. The hospital spokeswoman declined on Monday afternoon to say how many of the 15 mothers were Native American or to answer other questions.

One clinician who initially told the news organizations that six Native American women had been separated from their infants as a result of the policy is now no longer willing to quantify an exact number of separations but says that the practice did occur.

“We were not made aware of a patient, family member, staff member, or clinician objecting to the screening and testing process,” Milone’s letter said.

Bryant Furlow is a reporter for New Mexico In Depth




What the Trump Campaign Is Up To on YouTube (Hint: It Involves Aliens, Bin Laden and Ivanka)

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This story was co-published with WNYC.

Donald Trump is famous — and infamous — for his use of Twitter and Facebook. But particularly since the pandemic forced him to largely swear off his favorite mass, in-person rallies, his campaign has been amping up the use of another form of alternative media: YouTube and podcasts.

The president’s most recent sit-down interview? As it happens, it occurred last week on “Triggered,” a YouTube program hosted by his namesake son. In a conversation in the White House’s map room, Trump Jr. quizzed his dad about everything from who his favorite child is to whether aliens exist — to a Fox News report that Osama bin Laden wanted to assassinate President Barack Obama so that Joe Biden would ascend to the presidency.

This was no ordinary campaign video, nor was it a random question, this week’s episode of “Trump, Inc.” makes clear. “Triggered” followed the exchange about bin Laden with a campaign ad that repeated the same point, showing how closely the program’s conversations are tied in with campaign talking points. “Trump, Inc.” explores the Trump campaign’s universe of podcasts and YouTube shows, which has expanded since the coronavirus began locking down huge swaths of the country. (The campaign did not respond to requests for comment.)

Sure, every major candidate has a podcast. Hillary Clinton had one. Biden has one, though it hasn’t been updated since mid-May. But unlike those dutiful and largely ignored offerings, “Triggered” is part of a growing constellation of shows. There’s the campaign’s official podcast, hosted by Trump’s daughter-in-law, Lara. (Kayleigh McEnany used to fill in occasionally as host before being promoted to White House press secretary.) And there’s “The Right View.” Just imagine “The View,” conducted entirely on Zoom, if Meghan McCain was considered too liberal to be on the panel and if no one ever disagreed. The programs have combined to create something of a Trump media network, one that takes the president’s bellicose messaging and transports it to an environment of family, friendship and banter.

People are starting to pay attention. Nightly programming of the unofficial Trump Network reaches upward of a million viewers each week. It’s a realm dedicated to reinforcing even the president’s most incendiary ideas — with no pushback, skepticism or difference of opinion.

To learn more about how the programs lay out their views of everything from bin Laden assassination plots to the controversy over vote by mail, listen to this week’s episode of “Trump, Inc.”

“Trump, Inc.” is a production of WNYC Studios and ProPublica. Support our work by visiting donate.propublica.org or by becoming a supporting member of WNYC. Subscribe here or wherever you get your podcasts.




My Family Saw a Police Car Hit a Kid on Halloween. Then I Learned How NYPD Impunity Works.

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Last Halloween, my wife and then-6-year-old daughter were making their way home after trick-or-treating in Brooklyn. Suddenly, an unmarked NYPD car with sirens wailing began speeding against traffic up a one-way street, our neighborhood’s main thoroughfare. The officer seemed to be going after a few teenage boys.

Then, in an instant, the car hit one of the kids.

It was the first of many jarring things my family saw the NYPD do that night. Afterward, I tried to find out more about what exactly had happened and whether officers would be disciplined. There was footage and plenty of witnesses, and I happen to be an investigative journalist. I thought there was at least a chance I could get answers. Instead, the episode crystallized all of the ways in which the NYPD is shielded from accountability.

This happened in my neighborhood, Carroll Gardens, which is overwhelmingly white. Residents named it that in the 1960s to distinguish it from nearby Red Hook, where the population was largely Black. The area has changed enormously over the decades. But even now, it’s segregated almost block by block.

Halloween is the one day that it can seem like an integrated neighborhood. With lots of stoops and storefronts, there’s always plenty of candy to be had. Kids from the whole area come for the haul.

The police said a group of teenage boys that night had punched and kicked another teenager at a nearby playground and stolen his cellphone. The teen flagged down an officer and was driven around the neighborhood looking for the boys. He pointed out a group, and police descended from different directions. One car sped against traffic until it hit a kid; the boy slid over the hood, hit the ground, and then popped up and ran away along with the others.

My wife took a photo of the car right after:

The NYPD car that went against traffic and hit a teenage boy.
(Courtesy of Sara Pekow)

The police then turned their attention to a different group of boys. My wife and others said they were younger and didn’t seem to have any connection to the ones who had been running. Except that in both groups, the boys were Black.

The police lined five of the younger boys against the wall of our neighborhood movie theater and questioned them, shining bright lights that made them wince and turn their heads. The smallest of the boys was crying, saying, “I didn’t do anything.”

My daughter took in the scene. “What did the boys do wrong?” she asked. The family members of a couple of the boys were there. They had all been trick-or-treating in the neighborhood.

The police eventually let the two boys with relatives go and arrested the three others: a 15-year-old, a 14-year-old and a 12-year-old.

My wife came home with my daughter and urged me to go back. I arrived about half an hour after everything started, a bit after 9 p.m., just as the handcuffed boys were put into a police car.

I watched the mom of one of the freed boys try to tell the ones being arrested to shout out their parents’ numbers, so somebody could tell them what was happening. An officer stood in front of the car window to block the boys from sharing their numbers. Another officer walked up close to the mom and started yelling at her to shut up. A senior officer backed him away.

I also watched another little girl take it all in. She was about the same age as my daughter. Except my daughter is white, as am I. The little girl is Black, and she had just watched her brother be put against the wall and her own mother being yelled at by a cop.

The boys were driven to our local precinct, the 76th. I eventually made my way there, too. The families of all the boys were there. The police are required to notify families when a minor is arrested. But the families told me that hadn’t happened. They’d learned about the boys’ arrests from friends. (The police later said the families showed up so quickly they didn’t have time to make notifications.)

The parents stood outside the precinct for the next four hours, waiting to be allowed to see their kids. One of the fathers, silent most of the time, said he was worried about how late the kids were being held because they still had school in the morning. A mother had to leave her 2-year-old with a neighbor. She paced around outside the station. “I blame myself,” she kept saying. “I never let him out on Halloween. A bunch of Black boys together. I shouldn’t have let him out. But he begged me.”

The police didn’t allow the parents into the station or let them see their kids. At one point, an officer came out, apologized and explained that the station was simply waiting for paperwork to go through. The boys were finally let out around 12:45 a.m.

They weren’t given any paperwork or records about what had happened or told the arresting officers’ names.

The next day, our daughter and her 8-year-old brother were full of questions: “Why did they arrest the boys if they didn’t do anything wrong?” “Is the boy that got hit OK?” I had questions, too. So I called the NYPD. What was the department’s understanding of what happened, I asked, and was it going to investigate any of the cops’ actions?

I felt a sense of kinship with the NYPD’s spokesman, Al Baker. He’s a former journalist. We followed each other on Twitter. Surely, he’d tell me the real deal.

Baker soon called me back. He had looked into it. The boys were being charged with something called “obstructing government administration,” which basically amounts to resisting arrest.

The police hadn’t done anything wrong, Baker said. I don’t know what your wife saw, he explained, but a police car did not hit a kid.

So I went back to my wife and asked her, “Are you sure?” She was sure. It happened right in front of her. Still, memories are fallible. So I went into nearby storefronts and asked if anyone had seen anything the night of Halloween.

“Yeah, I saw a cop car hit a kid,” a waiter told me. He said he had a clear view of it: A handful of kids were running. One of them jumped out into the street and got hit by the police car, “probably going faster than he should have been.” He saw the boy roll over the hood and fall to the ground: “It sounded like when people hit concrete. It made a horrible sound.”

I spoke to four witnesses, including my wife. All of them said they saw the same thing. When I called Baker back, he told me that my wife and the three others were mistaken. The car hadn’t hit the kid. The kid had hit the car.

As his statement put it: “One unknown male fled the scene and ran across the hood of a stationary police car.”

Transcribed statement from New York Police Department spokesman Al Baker.

The NYPD has units devoted to investigating its own cops. The city’s district attorneys can also charge officers, of course. But there is supposed to be another check on abuse by police.

New York City has an agency dedicated to investigating civilians’ allegations against the police, the straightforwardly named Civilian Complaint Review Board. After reporters covered what happened on Halloween, the CCRB responded to a Twitter thread I had written, saying it was investigating. Once again, I assumed we’d get answers.

But the NYPD has long fought against truly independent civilian oversight. Seventy years ago, community groups banded together and pushed the city to address “police misconduct in their relations with Puerto Ricans and Negros.” The NYPD responded by creating the CCRB. But it didn’t have any actual civilians on it. The board originally consisted of three deputy police commissioners.

The first outsiders were appointed more than a decade later, by Mayor John Lindsay’s administration. The police unions fought it. “I’m sick and tired of giving in to minority groups with their whims and their gripes and shouting,” said the head of one.

Things have changed a lot over the years. The civilian board now has about 200 staffers, and its investigators dig deep into cases. My wife said a CCRB investigator who called her was incredibly thorough.

They have lots to do. In 2018, the latest year for which there’s complete data, the board logged 2,919 complaints against NYPD officers for punching, shoving, kicking or pushing people. Each complaint can contain multiple allegations and involve multiple officers. About 9% of the members of the force have had six or more complaints of some type made against them.

The names of all of those officers have long been kept secret, which is finally set to change after New York repealed the notorious “50-a” law that had barred disclosure of police discipline records.

Source: Civilian Complaint Review Board 2018 Annual Report

A recent CCRB report focused on police abuse against Black and Latino boys: “Young teens or pre-teens of color were handcuffed, arrested, or held at gunpoint while participating in age-appropriate activities such as running, playing with friends, high-fiving, sitting on a stoop, or carrying a backpack.”

In one case, a few boys were walking home and throwing sticks when police swarmed them, drew guns and ordered the boys up against a wall. The kids were “compliant and cooperative,” the report says, but the commanding officer at the scene decided to arrest two of the boys, ages 8 and 14, for disorderly conduct for throwing the sticks. The report notes: “The children were transported to the stationhouse, handcuffed and in tears.”

The report flagged a few other troubling patterns. One was the NYPD not notifying parents of arrests. Another was children being held for running from plainclothes officers.

I asked the NYPD about the report and everything else in this story. They didn’t respond.

The CCRB assiduously logs all complaints it gets against the police, about 7,000 per year. But actually investigating them, let alone meting out discipline, is a different matter. The NYPD still has control of nearly every step of the process.

Take body cams, which are now standard equipment for NYPD officers. There’s almost certainly footage of exactly what happened on Halloween. But civilian investigators don’t have direct access to the footage. They email requests to the NYPD, which decides which footage is relevant. The department takes its time.

The CCRB’s monthly report shows investigators have made nearly 1,000 requests for body cam footage that the NYPD hasn’t yet fulfilled. More than 40% of the requests have been pending for at least three months.

The CCRB and NYPD recently hashed out an agreement to marginally improve the process: CCRB investigators can now go to a room and watch footage. The agreement stipulates that CCRB staff can only take notes. They cannot record anything or use footage they see of abuse that happens to be different from the specific incident they’re investigating. They must sign a nondisclosure agreement. The deal runs nine pages.

It’s different elsewhere. Civilian oversight investigators in Washington, D.C., San Francisco and New Orleans all have direct access to the body cam footage. Unlike New York, police there can’t redact footage. “That type of behavior should have gone out about 50 years ago,” the head of Washington’s civilian oversight board told WNYC.

Here’s another glimpse into the leverage NYPD officers have: Since the pandemic started, officers haven’t allowed CCRB to interview them remotely, meaning investigations have effectively stalled. The police unions had objected to doing it over video.

“We won’t do Zoom,” one union spokesman told The City. The CCRB is re-starting in-person interviews soon. It noted 1,109 investigations are awaiting police officer interviews.

Most CCRB investigations aren’t completed, and not just because of police intransigence. The roughly 100 investigators can only handle so many cases at once. Each one is its own challenge; witnesses often don’t respond or are hesitant to say what they saw.

Mayor Bill de Blasio has increased the office’s budget in recent years to hire more investigators. But after the pandemic hit, de Blasio laid out a 6% cut for next year. (Asked for comment, the mayor’s office said the cuts are only for one year.) A city report recently noted that the CCRB’s staffing is already below the level mandated by a referendum passed last year to expand the agency.

If a complaint does end up being investigated, the police still get to decide what happens. The police commissioner can take the case back from the CCRB at any point. If the commissioner doesn’t interfere, and if the board — which still has some members chosen by the commissioner — finds that abuse occurred, then the CCRB can recommend discipline.

The CCRB has been able to get to that point and confirm plenty of cases. In 2018, again the most recent year for which there’s full data, the board calculated that the NYPD had 753 active officers who’ve had two or more substantiated complaints against them.

But even if the CCRB substantiates a case, the commissioner still has complete authority over what to do next. He can decide to simply ignore the recommended punishment. The commissioner can also let the case go before an internal NYPD judge (whose boss is the commissioner). If the judge decides punishment is merited, the commissioner can overturn or downgrade that, too.

The NYPD has rejected the CCRB’s proposed punishment on the most serious cases about two-thirds of the time.

So that’s how the system works. And this is what comes out of it: In 2018, the CCRB looked into about 3,000 allegations of misuse of force. It was able to substantiate 73 of those allegations. The biggest punishment? Nine officers who lost vacation days, according to CCRB records.(An additional five officers got a lower level of discipline left to the discretion of their commanding officer.) The most an officer lost was 30 vacation days, for a prohibited chokehold. Another officer wrongly pepper-sprayed someone. He lost one vacation day.

Last winter, I sat down with one of the boys my family saw arrested, Devrin. We were with his mom and the founder of the celebrated charter school he attends in Red Hook called Summit Academy.

Ellen DeGeneres gave college scholarships to the senior class a few years ago after the school founder, Natasha Campbell, wrote to her about the kids’ accomplishments. The vast majority of the students are Black or Latino.

Campbell told me her guess is that at least 40% have been stopped by police at some point. Students are stopped so often that the backs of their student IDs have instructions about what to do when that happens.

Instructions on what to do when stopped by the police are on the back of student IDs at Summit Academy in Red Hook, Brooklyn.
(Eric Umansky/ProPublica)

Devrin, who was in ninth grade and turned 14 the day before Halloween, sat with me and his mom in Campbell’s office. He’s about 5 feet tall and sat slightly hunched over. It was clear that sitting with a stranger and being asked questions about that night wasn’t his first choice. But his mom and Campbell had encouraged him to, so there he was.

Devrin answered a few questions I asked to try to break the ice. He loves basketball, is on the JV team and had practice in about an hour. Campbell pointed out that he’s never been suspended or disciplined at school.

“I don’t even get in trouble at home,” Devrin chimed in. And then he talked about his experience on Halloween.

Devrin said he was finishing up trick-or-treating when “I just saw a bunch of cops jumping out of their cars.” It was a confusing scene, particularly so because some of the police were in plainclothes, including one who started to go after Devrin. Devrin said he didn’t know the man was an officer.

“I was taught when I see danger to run,” Devrin said. He was starting to run home when he heard the plainclothes officer say he was following a suspect with a Tom & Jerry shirt. That’s what Devrin was wearing. “I turned,” Devrin recalled, “and he pointed a gun at me. He said, ‘Stop before I shoot.’ He was like this with both his hands” — Devrin mimicked holding a gun — “like he was about to pull the trigger.”

I spoke to another witness from that night who recalled the same scene but said the officer was pointing a Taser. Devrin and the witness, a law student named Zoe Bernstein, agreed on what happened next: The officer pushed Devrin to the ground and handcuffed him. “They tackled him,” Bernstein told me. “He just looked so young.”

Devrin was lined up against the wall. He’s the one who was crying, saying, “I didn’t do anything.”

After he was taken to the station, Devrin was handcuffed to a table along with the other boys, asked a few questions and mostly left alone. Then, they said, “You can leave now.”

“I didn’t really sleep that night,” Devrin told me.

He said he just wants to forget about what happened. His mother, Deveeka, wants to let him do that, “but I can’t sit in this thing and let it go. I want answers.” (I’m using only their first names at her request.) She was the mother at the station that night upset with herself that she had let him go.

She said she makes Devrin call her whenever he goes out, even to the corner store. “I’ll ask, ‘Dev, you OK?’ And he’ll say, ‘Yeah, you OK?’” She would seem to have a particular advantage in getting answers. At the end of our interview, she mentioned her job: She’s a school safety officer for a public school in Brooklyn. She works for the NYPD.

Deveeka said she was considering suing but said she’d had a hard time finding a lawyer because the police, her own agency, said they have no records to give her. And despite the NYPD announcing the boys had been charged with obstruction, they didn’t actually follow through with it. “All I have is a story,” she said.

Last week, facing enormous pressure after protests, de Blasio announced reforms. The city is going to post NYPD discipline records online, and police have to move quickly to investigate and release camera footage when there’s alleged abuse involving serious injuries or death. The police commissioner also said he’s disbanding a plainclothes unit that’s been involved in many shootings.

None of the changes limit the commissioner’s absolute discretion over discipline.

The CCRB said this month that it has received more than 750 complaints about NYPD abuse in less than two weeks involving the recent protests. There were 129 separate incidents reported. And the mayor’s office recently said there’s likely little bodycam footage of the incidents since the NYPD adheres carefully to an old civil rights agreement limiting the filming of protests.

I recently called the CCRB to ask the status of its investigation into the Halloween case.

It said the investigation is still open, along with 2,848 others.




Slavery Existed in Illinois, but Schools Don’t Always Teach That History

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Illinois schools are not required to teach a class in the state’s history. Perhaps as a result, you may be surprised to learn that Illinois at one time allowed slavery. But Darrel Dexter, a historian and high school social studies teacher in Tamms, has been researching, writing about and teaching the history of slavery in Illinois for years. His book about the topic, “Bondage in Egypt, Slavery in Southern Illinois,” was published by Southeast Missouri State University in 2011, and described by one academic reviewer as “the most comprehensive account to date of racial slavery in Illinois.” I first met Dexter at the public library in Anna, Illinois, while reporting on its history as a sundown town. Since then, he’s helped me better understand the parts of our state’s history often left out of classroom curricula and, as a result, the public’s understanding of Illinois history.

I recently spoke with Dexter just ahead of the Juneteenth holiday, which commemorates the ending of slavery. Here is an edited version of our conversation.

In learning about the Civil War, we typically learn there were “slave states” and “free states.” In what ways does Illinois complicate those seemingly clear-cut definitions?

Illinois is what I would call a quasi-slave state. And what’s surprising to people is that it existed here within the law. It begins with the colonial slave laws that came from France (because Illinois was a French territory). And so slavery, at least the enslavement of Africans and then later African American people, started in the French settlements, at least as early as 1720, maybe even before that. And then the Northwest Ordinance (an act that provided a path for much of the Great Lakes region to be admitted to the Union) stated that there shall be neither slavery nor indentured servitude, nor involuntary servitude, except as the punishment of crime. And so people seem to think, “Well, that does it for slavery.” But people still brought slaves in, in violation of the law.

But then as early as 1803, a loophole was created that [essentially] said: “Bring your slaves to Illinois. It’s fine. Just go through the formality of an indenture contract.” Some contracts were for 99 years.

But most indentured people really weren’t given a choice. If your master, or someone who’s claimed to be your master, or has told you they were your master for, you know, 20, 30, 40 years, tells you to put your mark [signature] on a paper that says you’re willing to continue as my indentured servant, it’s not likely that someone would refuse.

In 1818, a woman by the name of Judith signed a contract for indentured servitude for 99 years with a man named William Wilson of Pope County. Judith was 17. She would have been 116 when she was to be freed on Jan. 26, 1917.

This reminds me of something you said once before about slavery being adaptable. In a talk you gave at the Chicago History Museum last year, you said, “Slavery was called a ‘peculiar institution’ for a reason — and the reason is because it can be adapted.” Can you tell me a bit more about what you meant by that?

I meant that when people think about slavery, and this is largely due to the fact that so many of us get much of our information from the entertainment media, we envision slavery as the Deep South and working on cotton plantations. And what really surprised me as I began researching slavery in Illinois was there weren’t the big cotton plantations, but at the same time there was slavery. And so our image of slavery is not necessarily wrong, but it’s a lot more complicated. It’s a lot broader. I think that what we tend to do oftentimes is think of slavery and racism as something they have down South and kind of with a judgmental attitude: “You know, we’re not like that [in Illinois]. We don’t have slavery here. We didn’t have slaves.” Actually, we did. It was just a different form that was adapted to meet the needs that we had for enslaved people.

What were some of those needs and how different did that look?

Dexter: Here in Union County, although it’s not officially documented, when our first log cabin courthouse was built on the square in Jonesboro, the person that received the contract to build that log cabin was a slaveholder named Thomas Cox. He would have sent enslaved people to work, cutting the trees and building the cabin. Slaves can work in cornfields just as well as they can work in cotton fields.

In the years leading up to the Civil War, where was Illinois positioned in terms of slavery?

1848 was the year that the [state] Constitution was passed in Illinois. That was truly our first “free” constitution. The 1818 Constitution was called a “free” constitution, but it allowed indentured servitude. The 1848 Constitution ended that and made Illinois a free state that did not permit slavery.

But then in 1853, the state legislature passed a law which made the settlement of African Americans in Illinois a crime. If African Americans remained in Illinois beyond 10 days, they could be arrested and fined. If they couldn’t pay the fines, they were to be auctioned off. It only lasted five years that we were truly a free state.

What would African Americans who sought new livelihoods in Illinois have faced arriving here in the mid-1800s?

Well, beginning of course in 1853, settlement was illegal. The counties that had a free black population already in 1853 kept detailed records. All the free black people were listed by name, physical description and origin. They had to prove that they were free in order to live in Illinois legally.

Those documents … those were what’s referred to as “freedom papers”?

Right. So if you were formerly enslaved or even if you had been born free, you should always have had those freedom papers handy in your pocket. In the 1820s, Illinois had a state law that said all white men are required to stop any black person and have them prove that they were free. I can remember a woman asking me once if I thought this was the beginning of policing of black communities, and I never really saw the connection before she mentioned that. But every white man was required to do it. If people could not prove their freedom documentation, they were placed under arrest — basically a citizen’s arrest — taken to a justice of the peace, put on trial, advertised in the newspapers as a runaway, and then the white person would receive a reward.

So there was incentive to do this.

Right. Chicago newspapers said there were people making a living doing this. And they became known as the kidnapping gangs, because basically they were kidnapping people to make a profit.

Why don’t we learn about this in Illinois? We know of Illinois as being the Land of Lincoln, the home state of the Great Emancipator, yet as you say Illinois was a quasi-slave state.

Well, it’s definitely ironic. When the Civil War started, it was promoted as the war to save the Union. Hundreds of thousands of white men from southern Illinois enlisted not to free the slaves but to restore the Union. And then by 1863, when it became more clear it was a war to free the slaves, many people deserted.

Today, the Civil War is taught as a war to free the slaves and that Illinois was a “free state.” The reality is it’s a little more complicated. People don’t know about it because people don’t talk about it. Here in Illinois, our state history is not a required class. If people aren’t taught about it and they don’t hear the stories, then of course they don’t know about it. That just encourages this myth that in Illinois and in the Northern states there was no racism here. There was no slavery. You know, that it’s just bad white people in the South that were the problem.

Did Lincoln’s assassination sort of let us off the hook in terms of acknowledging the state’s role in slavery? When an important public figure dies, the way that we tell their stories is often shifted to be about their accomplishments, and these nuanced, complicating factors can get pushed away.

I’m not sure. Illinois wasn’t the only Northern state that had slavery. Slavery existed in other Northern states. In the 1850s, with the publication of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” and then stories circulating in the press about the evils of slavery, some people began to very gradually become abolitionists. So I think the pendulum was already moving. And then of course, when Lincoln was assassinated, that image of the Great Emancipator did help block out the state’s history with slavery.

Why would it be important for people to learn about this sort of state history?

Whenever I write about something that’s not flattering to the region or to the state, well-meaning, nice people will say: “Why do you always write about the negative stuff? Why do you always have to bring that up?” My students were doing research on the Ku Klux Klan in Alexander County and after they did a presentation, someone said to me: “Why did you have them do this? We’re trying to forget that. We’re not like that anymore.” And I keep saying that, until people confront their past and acknowledge that it’s there, you can’t move forward.




Electionland 2020: Georgia Aftermath, USPS Struggles, Poll Workers, and More

This article is part of Electionland, ProPublica’s collaborative reporting project covering problems that prevent eligible voters from casting their ballots during the 2020 elections. Sign up to receive updates about our voting coverage and more each week.

New From ProPublica

The Postal Service Is Steadily Getting Worse — Can It Handle a National Mail-In Election?

Postal delays and mistakes have marred primary voting, and after years of budget cuts and plant closures, mail delivery has slowed so much that ballot deadlines in many states are no longer realistic. Read the story.

Georgia Election Aftermath

  • The secretary of state announced proposals to prevent a repeat of the chaotic June 9 primary, but said the state would not send absentee ballot applications to every registered voter in the fall like it did for the primary. One new measure would assign a technician to each polling place to offer technical support. (Atlanta Journal-Constitution, GPB News)

  • The state extended the amount of time voters have to correct signature problems on mail ballots, giving them three business days from the time they’re notified. (CNN)

  • Voter turnout tripled compared to the 2016 primary. (NBC News)

  • In the wake of the election, celebrity chef José Andrés said he’d give food and water to voters waiting in long lines in November, and basketball star LeBron James teamed up with other athletes and entertainers to start a voting rights group. (Fox 5, The New York Times)

  • An NAACP-organized protest convened hundreds who marched in Atlanta to demand criminal justice and voting reforms. (GPB News)

The Latest on Vote by Mail

  • Michigan voters can now request an absentee ballot online. Last week, a group of Trump supporters burned absentee ballot applications during a protest. (MLive, The Detroit News)

  • Hawaii, which has a robust vote by mail system, is holding its first all-mail election in August, with “voting service centers” in lieu of traditional polling places. (Hawaii News Now)

  • Almost half a million New York City voters requested absentee ballots ahead of the June primary, but some haven’t received their ballots yet. (Gothamist)

  • The Wisconsin Elections Commission agreed to send absentee ballot request forms to most registered voters ahead of November 3. (Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel)

  • The District of Columbia will send all registered voters a mail ballot in the fall. (DCist)

  • Because of the delays in counting mail ballots, experts warn it’s unlikely we’ll know the result of the presidential election on election night. (NPR)

Coronavirus Impact Continues

  • Jefferson County, home to Louisville, has a single polling site open for early voting and on Election Day next week — an exposition center. “I think it’s going to work,” the county clerk said. “And maybe I’ll just have to eat my words, but we’ll see.” Meanwhile, a pending lawsuit calls for more polling locations. (WLKY)

  • The government of Kentucky is supplying masks, face shields, hand sanitizer and gloves to all 120 counties for poll workers to use during the primary. (Paintsville Herald)

  • After months of requests from election supervisors, Florida’s governor issued an emergency order giving them some flexibility to address pandemic-related problems in holding elections in August and November. (Tampa Bay Times, Miami Herald)

  • Alaska will hold two statewide elections and one round of local elections in the coming months, but it also has an acute shortage of poll workers. In Anchorage, 95% of the municipality’s regular election workers decided not to participate this year. (Anchorage Daily News)

  • Some lawmakers in Georgia’s Dekalb County say poll workers should receive hazard pay. (Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

  • Minnesota is facing a poll worker shortage ahead of elections in August and November. (Mankato Free Press)

  • Several North Dakota election officials quit while counting ballots because some workers refused to wear masks. (Valley News Live)

  • The Brennan Center published a state-by-state resource guide on how elections will work during the pandemic. (Brennan Center)

Cybersecurity Issues

  • The National Guard will assist with election cybersecurity assistance during the general election. The West Virginia Guard recently helped with cybersecurity protection during this month’s primary. (Bank Info Security, DVIDS)

  • Delaware dropped its internet voting system amid security concerns. (Delaware Public Media)

  • A pilot program run by the Election Assistance Commission and the Center for Internet Security will scrutinize epollbook security, though it likely won’t issue a report until after the November election. (The Washington Post)

The Latest Lawsuits

  • Alabama: A judge lifted certain absentee and curbside voting restrictions during next month’s runoff election. (AL.com)

  • California: A district court judge temporarily halted the governor’s executive order on the number of in-person voting centers must be set up in each county. (CalMatters)

  • Florida: A federal judge denied the state’s motion for a stay on his order on felon voting rights. (Tampa Bay Times)

  • Minnesota: In settling two lawsuits, the state will not require a witness signature on absentee ballots for the August state primary, but the rule doesn’t apply to the general election. (Star Tribune)

  • Tennessee: A judge threatened to hold the state in contempt for not adhering to her order to allow mail-in voting for voters concerned about getting sick. (Newsweek)

  • Texas: The Texas Democratic Party asked the U.S. Supreme Court to weigh in on the case to expand vote by mail. (Texas Tribune)

Voting Legislation Updates

  • Illinois: The governor signed election bills this week that make Election Day a state holiday and require election officials to send absentee ballot applications to those who voted in recent elections. (Block Club Chicago)

  • Iowa: The legislature concluded its session and passed a budget bill that included language requiring voter ID for early voting. It also passed a bill to limit the secretary of state’s emergency powers. Meanwhile, legislators killed an amendment to enfranchise felons, but the governor promised to sign an executive order to enfranchise felons by the fall. (Des Moines Register, Radio Iowa, KCRG)

  • Massachusetts: The state Senate approved legislation to expand early voting and vote by mail, including sending an absentee ballot application to every voter. (Mass Live)

  • North Carolina: The governor signed legislation to expand vote by mail, fund public health measures for in-person voting and mail-in ballots will now require one witness signature instead of two. (News & Observer)

  • Ohio: Democrats in the state legislature came out against a bill stripped of amendments like allowing online absentee applications and more than one polling location per county. Meanwhile, the secretary of state says Ohio will send an absentee ballot application to all registered voters ahead of the general election. (Columbus Dispatch, Reuters)

Election News Grab Bag

  • Facebook will launch a “Voting Information Center” and aims to register 4 million voters before the general election. (The Wall Street Journal)

  • An effort coordinated by the Republican National Committee seeks 50,000 people to act as poll watchers during the general election. In some states, poll watchers can challenge a voter’s eligibility. (NBC News)

  • The influential Trump lawyer on the frontlines to limit who can vote this year was one of the lawyers involved in the Shelby County v. Holder landmark case that rolled back parts of the Voting Rights Act. (The New York Times)

  • The Southern Poverty Law Center will disburse $30 million in grants to nonprofits in Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana and Mississippi to help mobilize voters of color. (NPR)

  • Trans and nonbinary voters face barriers to voting in states that require photo ID. (The Guardian)

Any newsroom can apply to be part of Electionland. We’re looking for newsrooms — especially local newsrooms — that will be dedicating resources to covering voting problems during the 2020 election. Radio, TV, online and print reporters are all encouraged to apply. Sign up here.




Inside the Trump Administration’s Decision to Leave the World Health Organization

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Right before President Donald Trump unveiled punitive measures against China on May 29, he inserted a surprise into his prepared text.

“We will be today terminating our relationship with the World Health Organization,” he announced during a press conference in the Rose Garden.

Most of the president’s top aides — and even some of his Cabinet secretaries — were blindsided.

Just 11 days earlier, Trump had sent an ultimatum threatening to withdraw from the WHO if reforms were not enacted in 30 days. Some senior officials hoped that he was bluffing or would change his mind about a decision that could hobble efforts to fight dangerous diseases.

Trump’s foreign policy choices are at the center of a forthcoming book by former national security adviser John Bolton, who argues that many of the president’s erratic actions are aimed at boosting his re-election chances.

But while Bolton’s book focuses on revelations about Trump’s past dealings with Turkey, Ukraine and China’s leader Xi Jinping, officials interviewed by ProPublica said the less explored WHO decision may have a more lasting impact.

ProPublica has interviewed senior officials at five federal agencies to understand the repercussions and the behind-the-scenes efforts to contain the damage of a decision in which they had little input.

In the weeks after Trump’s Rose Garden declaration, the White House gave little direction on what to do next. Officials who deal with the WHO knew that withdrawal is a cumbersome process requiring a year’s notice, a multiagency review and payment of unpaid dues.

As a result, Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar instructed his department to continue cooperating with the organization. The American ambassador in Geneva, Andrew Bremberg, kept negotiating with the WHO director general on the reforms demanded by the president, including an independent inquiry into the WHO’s response to the pandemic. (The talks were first reported by Vanity Fair.) Dozens of scientists, doctors and public health specialists detailed from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention kept working at their posts at the WHO’s Geneva headquarters and in the field, fighting Ebola and other diseases in Africa and elsewhere.

But on Monday, the administration made it clear there would be no backing down.

At a meeting at the White House, a director with the National Security Council told diplomats and health officials that they must now justify any engagement with the WHO as being necessary for national security and public health safety, senior government officials told ProPublica. In addition, the State Department has begun preparing formal paperwork to declare the official withdrawal of the United States from the WHO, officials said.

“The president is moving toward a fast withdrawal,” a senior administration official said in an interview this week. Another administration official said on Friday that the White House does not plan to reconsider the decision. National security and health officials confirmed those assertions.

“The President has made clear that the U.S. is terminating its relationship with the World Health Organization, and that process is being expedited,” said Katie McKeogh, an HHS spokesperson, in an email response to a request for comment. “All US-WHO collaborations are being examined through an interagency exercise as part of the termination process to ensure the safety of the American people will be protected.”

The new “no-engagement” policy is a concrete step to curtail the relationship, and it has caused alarm and confusion, other officials said.

“This is sending just unbelievable shock waves through the agencies,” a senior government official said. The official warned that reduced cooperation with the WHO will have “profound and severe repercussions.”

Among the most immediate potential impacts: The move could for the first time cut the U.S. government out of the development of the seasonal influenza vaccine for the Southern Hemisphere, a process coordinated by the WHO in partnership with the United States. And the withdrawal from the WHO could impede access to an eventual COVID-19 vaccine if it is created overseas, current and former officials said.

Leaving the organization could also significantly blind the U.S. to health threats in remote foreign locales that, as the pandemic has shown, have the potential to make their way to the U.S. shores. Experts also fear the impact on major initiatives to combat infectious diseases, such as a WHO-led program that is on the cusp of eradicating polio.

“To do this in the middle of a pandemic is breathtakingly dangerous,” said Nancy Cox, a former CDC virologist, who for 22 years led the agency’s WHO center on influenza surveillance and control. “So I worry a lot about what’s going to happen to so many of the programs at WHO that were strongly supported financially and through expertise and consultation with the U.S. I just think it could be really bad.”

When informed of the NSC directive, a WHO spokesman in Geneva wrote that the organization “hopes the United States will remain part of WHO, as it has been since 1948. Its leadership in global public health as a WHO Member State is important to all people, everywhere.”

The United States is the largest donor among the WHO’s 194 member states, giving about $450 million last year. The WHO said the U.S. cut in funding would affect childhood immunizations, polio eradication and other initiatives in some of the most vulnerable parts of the world.

Trump’s disgust with the WHO is well-founded, administration officials say. The decision to leave wasn’t solely due to the WHO’s stumbles on COVID-19, but because they capped a record of unresolved structural issues and failures during crises, officials said. As the pandemic spread early this year, the WHO reported that only 1% of cases were asymptomatic, while Chinese doctors were privately saying that the number was actually as high as 50%, the senior administration official said.

“The organization had no credibility,” the official said. “It was either clueless or cut out, being manipulated.”

Recent missteps, including conflicting advice about the efficacy of masks, raised further questions, officials said.

The administration plans to fill the void left by its withdrawal with direct aid to foreign countries, creating a new entity based in the State Department to lead the response to outbreaks, according to interviews and a proposal prepared by the department. The U.S. will spend about $20 billion this year on global public health. (About $9 billion of that is emergency aid for COVID response.)

But the senior administration official conceded that important activities led by the WHO, including vaccination initiatives, need to continue. It is not yet clear what will happen to those programs when American funding and participation end, the official acknowledged.

In fact, many aspects of the new policy toward the WHO remain unclear, officials said. At the White House meeting Monday, the NSC director who outlined the policy did not answer a number of questions from the agencies about its implementation and impact, saying responses would come later, the senior government official said.

The new directive will require officials to divert their attention from pandemic response in order to review a list of their WHO-related activities and try to justify them on national security and public health safety grounds, the senior government official said.

Critics warn of potential widespread damage as the United States attempts to extricate itself from an international health infrastructure in which it is entrenched. The timing will cause even more uncertainty, they said.

A case in point: The flu vaccine that Americans receive at drugstores and doctors’ offices is based on work that the CDC and Food and Drug Administration conduct through the WHO.

Since 2004, the U.S. has helped build a global network of WHO flu centers, buying lab equipment and training scientists. The centers in more than 100 countries collect samples from sick people, isolate the viruses and search for any new viruses that could cause an epidemic or pandemic. The CDC houses one of five WHO Collaborating Centers that collect these virus samples, sequence the viral RNA and analyze reams of data on flu cases around the world, while the FDA runs one of the four WHO regulatory labs that help vaccine makers determine the correct amount of antigen, which triggers the immune response, to include in vaccines.

The U.S. and other WHO members meet twice a year to pick the dominant flu viruses that are included in vaccines. The strains for this fall’s flu vaccine in the U.S. were chosen in April. But in September, the WHO flu centers are scheduled to pick the flu strains for the Southern Hemisphere’s vaccine, and months of work at the CDC leads up to that meeting.

The uncertainty has caused concern in the pharmaceutical industry as well as the government, officials said. The CDC could lose access to the data and virus samples that protects Americans from potentially deadly strains of flu from around the world.

“If we pull out of the World Health Organization, we’re going to be flying blind in terms of influenza and other pandemic threats,” said Cox, the CDC flu expert, who retired in 2014. “It’s going to be a lot harder to know what’s going on.”

The onslaught of the coronavirus has hurt immunization activities worldwide, causing a rise in measles and other diseases. American cooperation with the WHO is vital to fighting such threats, according to current and former officials. They fear that the U.S. decision will endanger a WHO-led program that has come tantalizingly close to the eradication of polio. The wild form of the disease now lingers in just two countries, Pakistan and Afghanistan.

“We are using WHO to run an anti-polio campaign and coordinate it,” said Andrew Natsios, a former administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development and director of the Scowcroft Institute of International Affairs at Texas A&M University. “And we’re almost there. We can’t stop that now.”

The Trump administration’s plan to bypass the WHO and address global health problems directly with foreign governments will run into trouble in the Middle East, South Asia, Africa and other regions where Americans encounter hostility or have difficulty operating, critics said.

“People coming into countries in WHO shirts to work on polio or AIDS are less threatening,” said former Ambassador Jimmy Kolker, a veteran health diplomat who represented the United States at WHO meetings until 2017. “It is easier to get collaboration from a skeptical country or population through WHO. It facilitates access.”

It is fanciful to think that other nations will accept a U.S.-led health initiative as a substitute for the WHO, Kolker said.

“No one is looking for U.S.-based alternatives to WHO,” he said. “Dead on arrival. There is no way they are going to be supported or even accepted.”

The WHO has a history of bringing together ideological rivals. William Foege, a CDC director under Presidents Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Carter, credits the global agency for uniting American scientists and their counterparts from the Soviet Union during the Cold War to eradicate smallpox in a little more than a decade.

The World Health Organization’s 1979 Declaration of Smallpox Eradication. During the Cold War, the WHO convened scientists from the U.S., the Soviet Union and other countries for a global vaccination program that eradicated smallpox, one of the world’s most feared diseases.
(Centers for Disease Control and Prevention via The College of Physicians of Philadelphia)

“It’s not a failed bureaucracy,” said Foege, who worked on the international fight against smallpox. “If you go there and see all they do every year, and they have a budget for the entire world that’s smaller than many medical centers in this country.”

At the same time, global health experts across the political spectrum admit that the WHO needs reform. The organization does not have the muscle to enforce international health regulations or put pressure on member states, experts say. Its decentralized structure gives the headquarters in Geneva limited power over regional offices, some of which have been fiefs dominated by politics and patronage.

During the U.S. response to the Ebola outbreak in West Africa in 2014, the Obama administration’s displeasure with the WHO led American officials to bypass the agency and join forces instead with other nations and nongovernmental organizations, current and former officials said.

The WHO’s flawed record shows the need for the United States to take the lead in response to health crises, a senior administration official said.

“As U.S. leadership demonstrated in the Ebola and MERS outbreaks, our diplomatic and development efforts enable countries to develop tools for addressing infectious disease,” the official said. “Due to these efforts, we filled gaps created by the WHO’s inaction to prevent, detect and respond to outbreaks immediately.”

Kolker said the calls for reform are legitimate, but he and others said the United States has enough influence to make changes from within. They disagree with the allegations that China controls the WHO and its director general, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.

“In general, the WHO is deferential to member states,” Kolker said. Yes, it should have been more aggressive in response to Chinese obstruction. Tedros surely realizes the public statements were too deferential to China. But the organization is not dominated by China. Its weaknesses reflect the challenges we have long faced in international collaboration on public health.”

China will gain control over the organization if Washington really does terminate its membership, current and former officials predicted.

“There’s one country that’s desperate for the United States to leave the WHO, and that’s China,” Sen. Chris Murphy, a Connecticut Democrat, said at a hearing Thursday of the U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations. “They are going to fill this vacuum. They are going to put in the money that we have withdrawn, and even if we try to rejoin in 2021, it’s going to be under fundamentally different terms because China will be much more influential because of our even temporary absence from it.”

Kirsten Berg contributed reporting.




Japanese to English Translation Tips: Avoiding False Cognates

by Olga Kuchuk | September 27, 2018

An image showing the English and Japanese interpretations of the "mansion".
Mansion = マンション

 

Unlike translating between languages from the same family, a pitfall in Japanese to English translation is false cognates, where the target word is unmoored from its original context.

Usually, when we think about false cognates within the same language family, such as in Indo-European languages, we are talking about words that come from the same root, but have evolved to mean something different. This is often the case between French and English, German and English, and Dutch and English, to name a few. Consider French ancien, which usually means “former,” but could be mistaken to mean “ancient” (which it also sometimes refers to) if we rely on the English term ancient as our point of reference.

Japanese, by contrast, has liberally adopted many loanwords from English and other languages and applied them to entirely different contexts, sometimes only retaining a trace of the original idea. We cannot use the English as a clue, as oftentimes there is no correspondence.

Consider the term ナイーブ, which at first blush seems to mean innocent or inexperienced. Surely a word as specific as naïve is being used in its original meaning, right? In fact, no — ナイーブ generally implies “sensitive,” as in overreacting to something. Take this sentence from the Tanaka Corpus:
JA: 昨日の喧嘩を気にしてるの?意外にナイーブなのね。
EN: Are you still letting last night’s fight bother you? You’re surprisingly sensitive.
Perhaps naïve was borrowed here to mean, “being so inexperienced as to get worked up about something,” but we cannot know. The usage has spun off on its own, or what Japanese would call 一人歩き.

A Japanese speaker is instantly familiar with this term, but a translator speaking English as a native language may have strong interference from English and not even notice that this is a loanword.

At first blush, translating the above as:

“Are you still letting last night’s fight bother you? You’re awfully naïve.”

would not seem wrong — in fact, this is a believable sentence, but it misses the point.

Another example is クレーム, meaning “complaint,” but seemingly derived from “insurance claim.” This often appears in day-to-day correspondence, and saying that “a customer has a claim” obscures the urgency of the fact that a complaint has in fact been raised.

One distinction is loanwords that deal with taxonomy and specify a category that does not exist in English. For example, employment regulations and labor documents often discuss categories of worker, such as 正社員 (full-time), 契約社員 (contract worker), 派遣社員 (temp worker), アルバイト (part-time), and パート (also part-time). Notice that the last two are seemingly synonyms — why make any distinction? In Japanese, アルバイト (from the German arbeit, meaning work) is seen as part-time workers of high school or college age who are not adult members of the workforce; パート is seen as adult workers working a side job on a part-time basis. We would refer to both of these workers as “part-time” in English, but the categories may be subject to different terms of employment, so you would have to further define what type of worker is being talked about due to liability issues. Outside of labor agreements, it would make sense to combine these two into one term for readability:
「アルバイト・パートを募集中」
“Seeking part-time workers, all ages.”
Notice how we can capture the age distinction without having to specifically translate out both terms, as they are both, for the purposes of English, part-timers.

Another taxonomy issue that may be familiar to you is what the de facto name for something is in a given region. Users of the popular LINE chat app download expressive スタンプ and send these to each other, but on the English version of the app and other chat tools, these are called “stickers,” not “stamps.” Interestingly, ステッカー is seldom used to refer to stickers, be they on LINE or otherwise; stickers are usually referred to as シール.

A conservative approach would be to research every loanword you come across, no matter how familiar it may look — the results may surprise you.

However, as the above indicates, oftentimes the best solution is a real-world, spoken familiarity with Japanese in order to know these terms like the back of your hand. Japanese is fast-moving with respect to neologisms and loanwords, and they are constantly appearing and evolving. Serious translators keep their ears to the ground to stay abreast of these changes.