ICE ‘Now Operates As a Domestic Surveillance Agency,’ Think Tank Says

Although it’s supposed to be restricted by surveillance rules at local, state and federal levels, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has built up a mass surveillance system that includes details on almost all US residents, according to a report from a major think tank. Engadget reports: Researchers from Georgetown Law’s Center on Privacy and Technology said ICE “now operates as a domestic surveillance agency” and that it was able to bypass regulations in part by purchasing databases from private companies. “Since its founding in 2003, ICE has not only been building its own capacity to use surveillance to carry out deportations but has also played a key role in the federal government’s larger push to amass as much information as possible about all of our lives,” the report’s authors state. “By reaching into the digital records of state and local governments and buying databases with billions of data points from private companies, ICE has created a surveillance infrastructure that enables it to pull detailed dossiers on nearly anyone, seemingly at any time.”

The researchers spent two years looking into ICE to put together the extensive report, which is called “American Dragnet: Data-Driven Deportation in the 21st Century.” They obtained information by filing hundreds of freedom of information requests and scouring more than 100,000 contracts and procurement records. The agency is said to be using data from the Department of Motor Vehicles and utility companies, along with the likes of call records, child welfare records, phone location data, healthcare records and social media posts. ICE is now said to hold driver’s license data for 74 percent of adults and can track the movement of cars in cities that are home to 70 percent of the adult population in the US.

The study shows that ICE, which falls under the Department of Homeland Security, has already used facial recognition technology to search through driver’s license photos of a third of adults in the US. In 2020, the agency signed a deal with Clearview AI to use that company’s controversial technology. In addition, the report states that when 74 percent of adults hook up gas, electricity, phone or internet utilities in a new residence, ICE was able to automatically find out their updated address. The authors wrote that ICE is able to carry out these actions in secret and without warrants. Along with the data it acquired from other government departments, utilities, private companies and third-party data brokers, “the power of algorithmic tools for sorting, matching, searching and analysis has dramatically expanded the scope and regularity of ICE surveillance,” the report states. The agency spent around $2.8 billion on “new surveillance, data collection and data-sharing initiatives,” according to the report. Approximately $569 million was spent on data analsys, including $186.6 million in contracts with Plantir Technologies.

“ICE also spent more than $1.3 billion on geolocation tech during that timeframe and $389 million on telecom interception, which includes tech that helps the agency track someone’s phone calls, emails, social media activity and real-time internet use,” adds Engadget.

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California’s Population Declined in Pandemic’s Second Year

America’s most populous state is shrinking — at least a little. The Associated Press reports:
With an estimated 39,185,605 residents, California is still the U.S.’s most populous state, putting it far ahead of second-place Texas and its 29.5 million residents. But after years of strong growth brought California tantalizingly close to the 40 million milestone, the state’s population is now roughly back to where it was in 2016 after declining by 117,552 people this year.
That’s a drop of 0.29% — at least some of which seems attributable to the pandemic.

California’s population growth had been slowing even before the pandemic as baby boomers’ aged, younger generations were having fewer children and more people were moving to other states. But the state’s natural growth — more births than deaths — and its robust international immigration had been more than enough to offset those losses. That changed in 2020, when the pandemic killed tens of thousands of people above what would be expected from natural causes, a category demographers refer to as “excess deaths.” And it prompted a sharp decline in international immigration because of travel restrictions and limited visas from the federal government.

California’s population fell for the first time that year. At the time, state officials thought it was a outlier, the result of a pandemic that turned the world upside down. But the new estimate released Monday by the California Department of Finance showed the trend continued in 2021, although the decline was less than it had been in 2020. State officials pointed specifically to losses in international immigration. California gained 43,300 residents from other countries in 2021. But that was well below the annual average of 140,000 that was common before the pandemic.
The state’s official demographer predicts California’s population will go back to increasing in 2022.

And even with the decline, the article points out that California “had a record budget surplus last year, and is in line for an even larger one this year of as much as $68 billion — mostly the result of a progressive tax structure and a disproportionate population of billionaires.”

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US Opens First Major Silicon Carbide Chip Plant

On Monday, the world’s largest plant for making silicon carbide chips was opened in central New York. Nikkei Asia reports: The $1 billion, 63,000 sq. meter fabrication plant, or “fab,” will be the first of its kind to make 200mm silicon carbide wafers, according to [North Carolina-based Wolfspeed]. Silicon carbide, or SiC, is an alternative to traditional silicon that is gaining popularity due to its energy efficiency when transferring power, something especially useful in electric vehicle manufacturing. Ahead of the fab opening, Wolfspeed announced a partnership with luxury EV maker Lucid Motors. It also has agreements with General Motors and China’s Yutong Group to supply silicon carbide chips for their electric vehicles.

The U.S. share of modern semiconductor manufacturing capacity has declined to 12% from 37% in 1990, according to the Semiconductor Industry Association, a group that has lobbied for the CHIPS Act. This trend, the group says, is largely due to a lack of government investment compared to other nations. […] In New York, there are hopes that other plants will cluster around the Wolfspeed fab. Wolfspeed received $500 million in construction subsidies from New York as the state seeks to expand its semiconductor manufacturing industry, which has generated nearly $6 billion a year in economic impact and over 34,000 jobs, according to [New York Gov. Kathy Hochul].

The grand opening of a modern manufacturing facility has a special resonance in central New York. The fab stands in the Mohawk Valley, an area along the Erie Canal that was once filled with traditional industry but long ago slid into an economic decline that has defined the region in recent times. So far the Wolfspeed facility has created 265 jobs, with a goal of over 600 new jobs by 2029, according to the company. The site sits directly across from a campus of SUNY Polytechnic Institute, New York’s public polytechnic college, and Wolfspeed has given the school $250,000 to help train potential future employees.

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The US Is Now Energy Independent

The U.S. produced more petroleum than it consumed in 2020, and the numbers were essentially in balance in 2021, according to the Energy Information Administration. Axios reports: The surge in oil prices taking place in 2022 has radically different implications for the U.S. economy — and for key geopolitical relationships in the Middle East and Russia — than in past episodes when energy prices have risen. In the past, when oil prices spiked, the impact on the U.S. economy was straightforward: It made America poorer, as more of our income went overseas to pay for imported energy. Now, after the shale gas revolution of the last 15 years, the impact is more subtle. Higher fuel prices disadvantage consumers and energy-intensive industries, yes. But there is a counteracting surge in incomes for domestic energy producers and their workers. Higher oil prices no longer depress overall measures of prosperity like GDP and national income, but rather shift it around toward certain regions. Texas and North Dakota win; Massachusetts and North Carolina lose.

As recently as 2010, America imported 9.4 million barrels a day of oil more than it exported. That had swung to a 650,000 barrel per day surplus in 2020, and preliminary numbers for 2021 show trade pretty much in balance last year. To the degree the U.S. does still import oil, more of it is coming from our closest ally. Canada was the source of 51% of U.S. petroleum imports in the first 10 months of 2021, compared with 8% from the Persian Gulf. By contrast, the Gulf states supplied more than 30% of American petroleum imports in 2008.

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US Nuclear Power Plants Contain Dangerous Counterfeit Parts, Report Finds

At least some nuclear power plants in the US contain counterfeit parts that could pose significant risks, an investigation by the inspector general’s office of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has found. Those parts “present nuclear safety and security concerns that could have serious consequences,” says the resulting report (PDF) published on February 9th. The Verge reports: The investigation was conducted after unnamed individuals alleged that “most, if not all,” nuclear plants in the US have fake or faulty parts. The inspector general’s office uncovered problems with counterfeit parts at a few different plants as part of its investigation. The report also says that the DOE had separately flagged 100 “incidents” involving counterfeit parts just last year. It’s a problem that the US will have to crack down on if it moves forward with plans to include nuclear power in its transition to clean energy. Without greater oversight at the NRC, the report warns, the risk of counterfeit parts going unnoticed in the nation’s nuclear power plants could rise.

As part of its inquiry, the inspector general’s office looked for parts that are illegally altered to look like legitimate products, parts that are “intentionally misrepresented to deceive,” and parts that don’t meet product specifications. It sampled four power plants across the US and found evidence of counterfeit parts at one of those plants in the midwest. It also points to nuclear power plants in the Northeast, separate from those it sampled, where a “well-placed NRC principal” found that counterfeit parts were involved in two separate component failures.

The NRC might be underestimating the prevalence of counterfeit parts, the report warns, because the regulatory agency doesn’t have a robust system in place for tracking problematic parts. It only requires plants to report counterfeits in extraordinary circumstances, like if they lead to an emergency shutdown of a reactor. The report also notes that the NRC hasn’t thoroughly investigated all counterfeit allegations. There were 55 nuclear power plants operating in the US as of September 2021, and the inspector general’s office sampled just four for its report. NRC Public Affairs Officer Scott Burnell told The Verge in an email that “nothing in the report suggests an immediate safety concern. The NRC’s office of the Executive Director for Operations is thoroughly reviewing the report and will direct the agency’s program offices to take appropriate action.”

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Congress’s Big Tech Stock Stakes Make Regulation Awkward

A proposed antitrust bill has cast a spotlight on the immense portfolios of dozens of lawmakers. From a report: At a December press conference, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was asked her opinion of proposed restrictions on stock trading by members of Congress. Her response was quick and clear: She hated the idea. “We are a free-market economy,” Pelosi, whose family’s shareholdings exceed $100 million, shot back. “They should be able to participate in that.” Growing numbers of legislators from both sides of the aisle disagree. Following a series of recent abuses, at least five bills making their way through Congress would forbid lawmakers from owning individual stocks or force them to move their assets into a blind trust. One would make violators turn over any profits they earn to the U.S. Treasury Department. Another would extend the ban to family members. A third would also encompass top staffers.

[…] The fight over the measure highlights the potential conflicts of interest in lawmakers’ shareholdings. A Bloomberg Businessweek examination of financial filings found that at least 18 senators and 77 House members report owning shares of one or more of the companies, and the law could have a significant effect on the value of their portfolios. Pelosi disclosed that her husband has as much as $25.5 million in Apple stock alone. Republican Representative Mike McCaul of Texas reported that his family holds shares of all four tech giants, with a collective value topping $8 million. Last year members of Congress filed more than 4,000 trading disclosures involving more than $315 million of stock and bond transactions, according to Tim Carambat, a researcher who maintains databases of lawmakers’ financial trades.

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