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Roadside Breath Tests Are Just As Unreliable As Field Drug Tests

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Portable alcohol testing equipment (a.k.a. breathalyzers) have been called "magic black boxes" and "extremely questionable" by judges. And yet, they're still used almost everywhere by almost every law enforcement agency. They're shiny and sleek and have knobs and buttons and digital readouts, so they're not as immediately sketchy as the $2 drug-testing labs cops use to turn donut crumbs into methamphetamines. But they're almost as unreliable as field drug tests.Even when the equipment works right, it can still be wrong. But it so very rarely works right. Cops buy the equipment, then do almost nothing in terms of periodic testing or maintenance. A new report from the New York Times shows this equipment should probably never be trusted to deliver proof of someone's intoxication. And the failure begins with the agencies using them.

The machines are sensitive scientific instruments, and in many cases they haven’t been properly calibrated, yielding results that were at times 40 percent too high. Maintaining machines is up to police departments that sometimes have shoddy standards and lack expertise. In some cities, lab officials have used stale or home-brewed chemical solutions that warped results. In Massachusetts, officers used a machine with rats nesting inside.
There are also problems with the machines themselves, even when they've been properly maintained. And the problems aren't limited to single manufacturer. Dräger, the company that owns the name "Breathalyzer," produced a machine that experts said with "littered with thousands of programming errors." This finding was made during a rare examination of breath-testing equipment by defense attorneys granted by the New Jersey Supreme Court. Those findings resulted in zero lost law enforcement customers for Dräger.CMI's breath tester fared no better when examined by toxicology lab experts. CMI's Intoxilyzer gave inaccurate results on "almost every test," according to the report. This didn't stop multiple law enforcement agencies from purchasing CMI's tech, even when a Florida court had this to say about the Intoxilyzer.
The Intoxilyzer 8000 is a magic black box assisting the prosecution in convicting citizens of DUI. A defendant is required to blow into the box. The defense has shown significant and continued anomalies in the operation of the Intoxilyzer 8000’s operation. The prosecution argues most of the tests do not show anomalies. In fact, a high percentage of the tests may show no anomalous operation. That the Intoxilyzer 8000 mostly works is an insufficient response when a citizen’s liberty is at risk.
In the state of Washington, state police spent $1 million on Dräger breath testers to replace aging machines. Rather than roll this out in a controlled fashion with proper testing, state officials opted to bypass outside testing of the software to speed up deployment to police officers. Six years after this speedy rollout, the device's reliability was called into question in court. The court allowed defense lawyers to review the software. The result of this testing was never made public… at least not officially. The experts who reviewed Dräger's equipment had this to say about it:
The report said the Alcotest 9510 was “not a sophisticated scientific measurement instrument” and “does not adhere to even basic standards of measurement.” It described a calculation error that Mr. Walker and Mr. Momot believed could round up some results. And it found that certain safeguards had been disabled.Among them: Washington’s machines weren’t measuring drivers’ breath temperatures. Breath samples that are above 93.2 degrees — as most are — can trigger inaccurately high results.
Dräger sent the researchers a cease-and-desist order, forbidding them from discussing their findings with anyone and demanding they destroy all copies of their report. Unfortunately for the company, the preliminary report had already been distributed to other defense lawyers and made its way to a number of websites.The rush to deploy equipment wasn't just a problem in Washington. The same thing happened in Colorado, but the rollout was even more haphazard and borderline illegal. There weren't enough techs available to set up the purchased equipment, so the manufacturer (CMI) sent a salesperson and one of its lawyers to help with the initial calibration and certification. Only one actual lab supervisor was involved. The rest of the workforce was composed of assistants and interns. At best, one person was qualified to do this job. Since this seemed likely to pose a problem down the road if the equipment or readings were challenged in court, the state lab used an extremely-questionable workaround.
[T]he lab’s former science director said in a sworn affidavit that her digital signature had been used without her knowledge on documents certifying that the Intoxilyzers were reliable. The lab kept using her signature after she left for another job.
In Washington, DC, faulty equipment wasn't taken out of service by the person overseeing the program. Instead, the person meant to ensure the equipment was working properly was making everything worse when not acting as a freelance chemist.
Mr. Paegle’s predecessor, Kelvin King, who oversaw the program for 14 years, had routinely entered incorrect data that miscalibrated the machines, according to an affidavit by Mr. Paegle and a lawsuit brought by convicted drivers.In addition, Mr. Paegle found, the chemicals the department was using to set up the machines were so old that they had lost their potency — and, in some cases, Mr. King had brewed his own chemical solutions. (Mr. King still works for the Metropolitan Police Department. A department spokeswoman said he was unavailable for comment.)
Once the courts were informed, 350 convictions were tossed. The damage here was relatively minimal. In Massachusetts -- where crime lab misconduct is an everyday occurrence -- 36,000 tests were ruled inadmissible. In New Jersey, 42,000 cases were affected by breath test equipment that had never been set up properly.Very few corrective measures have been implemented by law enforcement agencies. The fixes that are being made have almost all been the result of court orders. The unreliability of roadside breath tests have led several courts to reject pleas or prosecutions based solely on tests performed by officers during traffic stops. But none of this seems to have had an effect on law enforcement agencies who continue to purchase unreliable equipment and deploy it with proper safeguards or testing.Breathalyzers are field tests in more than one sense of the word. Drivers are merely lab rats who face the possibility of losing their freedom, their licenses, and possibly their vehicles because a "magic black box" told a cop the driver was under the influence.

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posted at: 12:00am on 21-Nov-2019
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Should The Big Tech Companies Voluntarily Fund The Journalism Business?

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There have been plenty of stories that have made the rounds over the years arguing that Google/Facebook have "killed" the journalism business by sucking up all the advertising revenue. In the past, I've pointed out how silly and tiresome this argument can be, and certainly looking through the data, it simply does not support the narrative. Instead, it appears that the success of Google and Facebook is much more a scapegoat for the legacy news business' own failure to adapt to a rapidly changing marketplace -- one in which their previous competitive advantage (limited competition within a geographical region) was completely eroded.That said, even understanding that properly doesn't answer the question of how one can actually save the journalism business, which has faced a huge variety of challenges over the last couple of decades. Lydia Polgreen, writing for the Guardian, has an interesting proposal that argues that the big internet platforms can both save journalism and deal with their big misinformation problems in one single move, by throwing a huge sum of money at journalism organizations. Among other things, she compares the rise of misinformation and the collapse of journalism to the impacts of industrial pollution, and suggests that internet companies could create a parallel to how businesses have now begun focusing on sustainability programs regarding environmental impact. Except, instead of dealing with things like carbon emissions, they could help deal with the pollution of misinformation via funding journalism efforts:

Just as companies decarbonize their businesses, they should think carefully about how they contribute to the destruction of our information ecosystem and choose to reach consumers on platforms that slow rather than increase the pace of information ecosystem collapse.I am not suggesting anyone must immediately abandon Facebook or Google advertising platforms. But I do propose an experiment. What if the chief marketing officer of every major corporation set aside a substantial chunk of their marketing budget and devoted it to high-quality news? Of the $130bn devoted to digital advertising, set $50bn aside for news.
She argues that both the platforms and their advertisers might benefit from this sort of program:
Advertisers love these platforms for the same reason industrialists love carbon-based energy: it provides powerful, measurable fuel for their businesses. But increasingly they are becoming wary of these platforms because they are full of disinformation, fraud and abuse. Just as companies are weaning themselves from substances that pollute our air, water and lands, companies should wean themselves from platforms that are destroying our information ecosystem. It's just good business.
I'm not convinced that equation adds up as neatly as Polgreen thinks, though -- and I'm certainly not convinced that there's a direct correlation between funding more journalism and ending disinformation. They may be loosely related, but the willingness of many to simply buy into mis- and disinformation suggests something more fundamental at stake.As someone who runs a company that has a foot squarely planted in the journalism space, the business side of my job responsibilities certainly would love to see a massive, many-billion dollar pot appear out of thin air to fund more journalism. However, I still would worry about the downstream consequences of such a fund. For all the (often misleading or misunderstood) talk about how some of these tech giants "fund" various projects, and how that biases them, wouldn't this just set off that concern at a much, much higher level? Would people be confident that there would be valuable investigative journalism about the tech giants if those companies held the keys to a $50 billion pot of gold? I think there would be reasonable concerns about the incentive structure. Along those lines, there would be similar concerns just in determining who gets access to those funds. Who chooses? And if you think the fights about "bias" are bad now, just wait until "pick ideological news source of your choice" doesn't get any of the funding, or gets a smaller amount than a rival news source with a different ideological basis.Now, it's entirely possible that some of this could be sorted out. You can sketch out plans for some sort of "independent foundation" that would make the decisions, with some sort of guarantees that keep it free from interference over a long period of time.But, my biggest concern about such a plan is that it is fundamentally a band-aid to cover up a wound, rather than looking for a true, sustainable solution to funding journalism as a whole. Indeed, this entire plan seems premised on the idea that the big tech companies of today are locked in place, and will continue being the big tech companies of the future. What's the mechanism for the next big tech companies to be pressured into joining this effort? And what happens when -- inevitably -- some of the companies start to falter. What's the mechanism for them to remove themselves from coughing up a huge chunk of their revenue to journalism?While this is a different and ambitious plan, it seems to create many more questions than it answers and, most importantly, does little to deal with the fundamental and structural issues that have knocked the foundation out from under traditional journalism funding.

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posted at: 12:00am on 21-Nov-2019
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