SRSLY

The best reporting you probably missed

David Epstein

Welcome to SRSLY, an (experimental) newsletter highlighting under-exposed accountability journalism. We’ll distill the important information from investigative reporting you probably missed, and deliver it to you in three-minutes-or-less worth of reading. Sign up to have it delivered to your inbox. (You can, of course, unsubscribe at the first whiff of a bad joke.)

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You probably heard the one about the “darkly-complected” (he’s Italian) mystery man (Penn econ professor) who caused an American Airlines flight to be grounded because of his seatmate’s concerns over the inscrutable notes (math) he was intensely scribbling (still math) while the plane taxied. In the seatmate’s defense, humans have been freaking out at the sight of differential equations since the dawn of grades. This sort of troubling misunderstanding of technical material isn’t restricted to the Bloody Mary-and-peanuts set, though. Last year, the Justice Department arrested Xi Xiaoxing, chair of Temple University’s physics department, on charges that he was a spy — he was facing a cool 80 years in prison — after they obtained schematics he had shared with Chinese colleagues of a restricted piece of research equipment. Except, it turns out the schematics were for something completely different and not restricted. The feds just didn’t know how to interpret them. As pretty woman Julia Roberts would tell a haughty store clerk: Big mistake. Big. Huge. According to an article in the Washington Post’s eclectic Outlook section, Xi’s case is a great example that “tech law needs a reboot.” Your four W’s:

What?

As Garrett M. Graff writes in the Post article: “Both federal prosecutors and the attorneys who represent executive agencies in court are bungling lawsuits across the country because they don’t understand what they’re talking about.” OMG Garrett, do you know how high our unemployment rate would be if everyone had to know what they’re talking about??

What else?

Apparently Xi’s case is just one of a growing body of investigative tech flubs that have wasted time and resources and, ya know, sent a dozen FBI agents through a physics professor’s door. (Surprise!) Just last week, according to the Post piece, a federal judge in Iowa tossed evidence collected by the FBI in a child pornography case because the Justice Department didn’t seem to understand how its own digital investigative tools worked. … And all this after the Justice Department went to the trouble of unplugging it and plugging it back in.

What else?

The Post article details a litany of technical failings in government legal investigations. For example: “Government attorneys frequently confuse content and metadata, even though the two types of information face very different legal standards. One possible reason: The Justice Department’s decade-old Electronic Surveillance Manual is incorrect about the basic mechanics of how email works, according to a forthcoming article in the Harvard Journal of Law & Technology.” Is it just me or does it seem like the author is kind of obsessed with people knowing what they’re talking about? I bet Garrett M. Graff’s head totally does that Exorcist thing when he listens to talk radio.

What’s needed?

Basically, the supply of tech lawyers and tech law education needs to catch up with the proliferation of tech crimes and the increasing complexity of “the cyber,” as Donald Trump termed it in the first presidential debate. The Post reports that only “a handful of mostly elite law schools” offer cybersecurity classes. As Kristen Eichensehr, who teaches cybersecurity law at UCLA, told the Post: “No one who is practicing today had a cybersecurity class in law school.”

They Said It

“He had to download the entire iOS system on his computer, he had to decrypt it, he had to do all of these things I don’t even understand.” — an assistant U.S. attorney, in court, during a recent hacking case. Surprisingly, the government did not come away with the W.


SRSLY Shortstack

Facebook’s value to advertisers depends on how long viewers keep their eyeballs glued to videos. Turns out Facebook was practicing the tried-and-true strategy of removing annoying data that made the viewer stats look less impressive. According to the Wall Street Journal, Facebook acknowledged that “the average time users spent watching videos was artificially inflated because it was only factoring in video views of more than three seconds.” Facebook says it fixed the “mistake” as soon as it was discovered.


Tweet of the Week

Additional research by Kate Brown.

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ProPublica does not vouch for the accuracy of stories appearing on SRSLY. We select, review and summarize key points from accountability stories that may not have gotten wide exposure. But we are not able to independently vet or vouch for the accuracy of stories produced by others. We will inform readers if we learn that stories have been challenged publicly or corrected.