Valerie worked at Bryan Metal Systems, making suspensions for Chrysler. She made good money there, but that company was taken over in 2005 by Global Automotive Systems. In 2010, Global shut down the Bryan plant and sent the work to Michigan as part of a “global optimization strategy.” Valerie traveled to Michigan to help train her replacements. After that, she bounced around, sometimes working temp factory jobs, until she landed at the Sauder furniture plant.
By 2019, unemployment was below 4% in Williams County, but higher-paying jobs had been replaced by work with low wages and “temporary” status that employers maintained—in name only—so they wouldn’t have to pay benefits. Menards, a big Midwestern home-improvement retailer, became the largest employer in the county. Menards wrangled a rich package of tax incentives and infrastructure out of local and state government in return for putting a distribution center about 15 minutes northeast of Bryan. By late 2019 people were starting at about $14 an hour, or about $28,000 per year, for full-time work. In the last 20 years, the median household income in Williams County (in constant dollars) has gone from $62,000 to $49,500. Defined-benefits pensions have given way to less-generous retirement savings accounts. Health insurance premiums have gone up. So have deductibles.
As the employment landscape changed, so did the county’s demographics. Young people, especially college-educated young people, left and didn’t come back. I asked Les McCaslin, the retiring chief of the Four County Board of Alcohol, Drug Abuse, and Mental Health Services and a native of the area, how he thought they might be persuaded to return. He remembered a recent economic development meeting: “We were talking about the town. And I simply said, ‘Why would you come here? Why would I bring my two kids?’ And there was silence in the room. You had commissioners there and they couldn’t come up with one reason.”
The Menards effect
Bryan’s hospital, Community Hospitals and Wellness Centers (CHWC), caught the fallout from these changes. As was true in many such communities, CHWC, an independent community hospital, became the largest employer in town. But it struggled to stay open and independent. Because the county’s population was getting poorer and older, many patients qualified for either Medicaid or Medicare, both of which pay lower reimbursement rates than private insurance. (The two government programs account for two-thirds of CHWC’s revenue.) So although, say, an MRI machine costs CHWC just as much as it would another hospital in a richer area, CHWC gets paid at a lower rate when it is used.
Former hospital CEO Phil Ennen calls this “the Menards effect.” The company was “a real problem for us,” he says. “Seventy-five percent of Menards [employee] accounts with us are Medicaid, charity, or some sort of self-pay. From a health-care perspective, they are a horrible employer.”
Many people were like Valerie: they just didn’t go to doctors. The spring after we sat in the basement of the church, Valerie was back there, this time counting Girl Scout cookie money with her daughter and a friend. She still worked three jobs. Her back ached from an old injury during her days at Bryan Metal Systems. And she was coughing from a bug she thought she’d caught from a coworker at Sauder. Valerie wound up with bronchitis, an inner ear infection, and a sinus infection, but she didn’t miss any work, because she had no paid sick leave. “No! I went to work every day,” she said, laughing, which called forth a brief coughing fit.
How to poison the data that Big Tech uses to surveil you
In a new paper being presented at the Association for Computing Machinery’s Fairness, Accountability, and Transparency conference next week, researchers including PhD students Nicholas Vincent and Hanlin Li propose three ways the public can exploit this to their advantage:
- Data strikes, inspired by the idea of labor strikes, which involve withholding or deleting your data so a tech firm cannot use it—leaving a platform or installing privacy tools, for instance.
- Data poisoning, which involves contributing meaningless or harmful data. AdNauseam, for example, is a browser extension that clicks on every single ad served to you, thus confusing Google’s ad-targeting algorithms.
- Conscious data contribution, which involves giving meaningful data to the competitor of a platform you want to protest, such as by uploading your Facebook photos to Tumblr instead.
People already use many of these tactics to protect their own privacy. If you’ve ever used an ad blocker or another browser extension that modifies your search results to exclude certain websites, you’ve engaged in data striking and reclaimed some agency over the use of your data. But as Hill found, sporadic individual actions like these don’t do much to get tech giants to change their behaviors.
What if millions of people were to coordinate to poison a tech giant’s data well, though? That might just give them some leverage to assert their demands.
There may have already been a few examples of this. In January, millions of users deleted their WhatsApp accounts and moved to competitors like Signal and Telegram after Facebook announced that it would begin sharing WhatsApp data with the rest of the company. The exodus caused Facebook to delay its policy changes.
Just this week, Google also announced that it would stop tracking individuals across the web and targeting ads at them. While it’s unclear whether this is a real change or just a rebranding, says Vincent, it’s possible that the increased use of tools like AdNauseam contributed to that decision by degrading the effectiveness of the company’s algorithms. (Of course, it’s ultimately hard to tell. “The only person who really knows how effectively a data leverage movement impacted a system is the tech company,” he says.)
Vincent and Li think these campaigns can complement strategies such as policy advocacy and worker organizing in the movement to resist Big Tech.
“It’s exciting to see this kind of work,” says Ali Alkhatib, a research fellow at the University of San Francisco’s Center for Applied Data Ethics, who was not involved in the research. “It was really interesting to see them thinking about the collective or holistic view: we can mess with the well and make demands with that threat, because it is our data and it all goes into this well together.”
Four new hacking groups have joined an ongoing offensive against Microsoft’s email servers
A Chinese government-linked hacking campaign revealed by Microsoft this week has ramped up rapidly. At least four other distinct hacking groups are now attacking critical flaws in Microsoft’s email software in a cyber campaign the US government describes as “widespread domestic and international exploitation” with the potential to impact hundreds of thousands of victims worldwide.
Beginning in January 2021, Chinese hackers known as Hafnium began exploiting vulnerabilities in Microsoft Exchange servers. But since the company publicly revealed the campaign on Tuesday, four more groups have joined in and the original Chinese hackers have dropped the pretense of stealth and increased the number of attacks they’re carrying out. The growing list of victims includes tens of thousands of US businesses and government offices targeted by the new groups.
“There are at least five different clusters of activity that appear to be exploiting the vulnerabilities,” says Katie Nickels, who leads an intelligence team at the cybersecurity firm Red Canary that is investigating the hacks. When tracking cyberthreats, intelligence analysts group clusters of hacking activity by the specific techniques, tactics, procedures, machines, people, and other characteristics they observe. It’s a way to track the hacking threats they face.
Hafnium is a sophisticated Chinese hacking group that has long run cyberespionage campaigns against the United States, according to Microsoft. They are an apex predator—exactly the sort that is always followed closely by opportunistic and smart scavengers.
Activity quickly kicked into higher gear once Microsoft made their announcement on Tuesday. But exactly who these hacking groups are, what they want, and how they’re accessing these servers remain unclear. It’s possible that the original Hafnium group sold or shared their exploit code or that other hackers reverse engineered the exploits based on the fixes that Microsoft released, Nickels explains.
“The challenge is that this is all so murky and there is so much overlap,” Nickels explains. “What we’ve seen is that from when Microsoft published about Hafnium, it’s expanded beyond just Hafnium. We’ve seen activity that looks different from tactics, techniques, and procedures from what they reported on.”
As the Texas power crisis shows, our infrastructure is vulnerable to extreme weather
On Valentine’s Day, a rare burst of Arctic air spread across the central US and into Texas, dropping temperatures there into the single digits and nearly causing the state’s power grid to collapse. A state known for its abundant energy resources saw widespread failures of natural-gas and electricity systems that left more than four million Texans without power for days.
The proximate cause of Texas’s grid failure is now well understood. Frigid temperatures drove electricity demand to a new winter record that exceeded even the “extreme” demand scenario considered by the state’s power grid operator, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, or ERCOT. Then dozens of natural-gas power plants and some wind turbines rapidly went offline, plunging the Texas grid into crisis. To prevent the whole grid from going down, ERCOT ordered utilities to initiate emergency blackouts and disconnect millions of customers.
Scientists are still working to determine whether the fast-warming Arctic is driving more frequent breakdowns of the “polar vortex,” which precipitated the Texas freeze. But we know that climate change is making extreme weather like heat waves, droughts, wildfires, and flooding more frequent and more severe. Any of these events can push our critical infrastructure to the breaking point, as happened in Texas. How can we prepare?
Climate resilience will require investment of up to $100 billion per year globally in our infrastructure and communities. But careful planning can help our scarce resources go further.
Looking back, Texas’s troubles offer several key lessons for how to make both critical infrastructure and vulnerable communities everywhere more resilient to climate extremes.
Assessing future risks
First, it’s worth noting that grid failure alone did not lead to the intense suffering and loss of life Texas residents faced.
Natural-gas wells and gathering lines also froze, cutting gas production and supply for the state’s pipelines and power plants in half just as demand soared. Elsewhere, water treatment plants lost power, and frozen pipes caused water distribution networks to lose pressure. Frozen roadways prevented residents from traveling safely.
The connections between these infrastructure systems keep the lights on and taps flowing in good times but can compound failure when things go bad.
Extreme weather also tends to cause multiple parts of critical systems to fail at the same time. These kinds of simultaneous failures are far more probable than one might think. If 10 power plants each have a 10% chance of failure but these probabilities are all independent, the chance that they all fail simultaneously is infinitesimal (0.00000001%).
A 1% chance that 10 power plants all fail at once is far more worrisome. So building resilient infrastructure means paying close attention to extreme events that can slam large parts of the system all at once, whether that’s a winter storm, wildfire, hurricane, or flood.
Lastly, the worst human impacts of any infrastructure failure don’t come from the outage itself. They come from exposure to freezing temperatures, a lack of clean water to drink, dwindling food supplies, and the fear that help may not come soon enough. So the magnitude of suffering is determined not only by the magnitude of the infrastructure failure but also by each community’s ability to weather the storm.