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5 important stories that didn’t receive a news alert

Breaking news came at breakneck speed last week in the form of smartphone news alerts, television and carrier pigeon.

Before journalists and the public could absorb the ramifications of, say, Robert Mueller being installed as special counsel to the Russia investigation, there were reports that President Donald Trump shared classified intelligence with Russian diplomats. Then came James Comey’s memo. Then the hug. Then the news that Trump had called Comey a “real nutjob” in a meeting with two Russian envoys.

Following each development, cable news split its talking heads into more and more split screens and congressional lawmakers were asked to react to each bombshell.

When Republican Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona was asked whether he was having fun amid the flurry of news, The New York Times reported that he responded with sarcasm: “Oh, it’s fantastic.”

We know it’s easy to overlook stories not involving Trump, Comey or Russia. With that in mind, we give you five important stories that you may have missed.

1. Some law enforcement officers may be using cell snooping devices to track down illegal immigrants

For years, law enforcement agencies have used secret snooping devices, known as Hailstorm or Stingray, to track and collect cell phone data from suspects in criminal investigations.

Now, an investigation by The Detroit News suggests investigators are using the technology to track undocumented immigrants in the U.S., too.

Hailstorm and Stingray are sophisticated cell site simulators that trick mobile devices into thinking they are cell towers. Once cell phones are connected, police and other law enforcement officials can collect data, including the phone numbers of ingoing and outgoing calls. They can also freeze all cell service in a given neighborhood.

An unsealed affidavit of a federal search warrant obtained by The Detroit News revealed that Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials used the tool in March to track down Rudy Carcoma-Carranza, a 23-year-old from El Salvador who had twice been deported but returned in the last two years to the Detroit area.

This year, after Carcoma-Carranza was arrested and released for a traffic offense, his case again caught the eyes of immigration officials. One investigator found his cell phone number on a Facebook profile, according to The Detroit News, and used the Stingray to track it to a single home in Warren, Michigan. After he was seen leaving the residence, investigators obtained a warrant and raided the home, arresting Carcoma-Carranza. His trial is scheduled for next month.

Why it’s important

Stingray and Hailstorm were designed to be counterterrorism tools used by intelligence agencies and the military.

“This is the first warrant I have seen specifically showing ICE’s use of a cell-site simulator in an immigration enforcement operation,” attorney Nathan Wessler told the Detroit News.

A 2016 report from the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform says the Department of Justice spent more than $71 million between 2010 and 2014 on cell-site simulation technology; Homeland Security spent more than $24 million on the devices in that time. Combined, the agencies have 434 such devices, according to the report.

In 2015, the Justice Department changed its policy to require federal agencies to obtain a warrant in order to use the devices. The policy also says Stingrays “cannot be used to collect emails, texts, contacts or images during an investigation.”

But no such policy exists for how local jurisdictions — eligible for $1.8 million in grants from Homeland Security to help purchase the technology — authorize cell site simulators. Which makes it hard to tell how exactly investigators are using them.

A 2015 investigation by the Detroit News found that the Michigan State Police, for instance , used cell snooping devices on 128 cases in 2015, “ranging from homicide to burglary and fraud, but not terrorism.” Other cities, like Detroit and Baltimore, have used the tool to crack down on drug gangs.

The government defends its use of the tool in any criminal investigation. But privacy experts worry this could soon become another frequent breach of privacy.

2. Notable reactions to the “My Family’s Slave” story

The Atlantic published “My Family’s Slave” last week as its June 2017 cover story. Written by Alex Tizon, the article charts how his family enslaved a Filipina woman named Eudocia “Lola” Tomas Pulido for more than 50 years.

When Pulido was 18 years old, she was gifted to Tizon’s mother as a nanny. In the 1960s, Tizon’s family moved from the Philippines and headed for the U.S., taking Pulido with them. Tizon wrote that Pulido was never paid and often suffered abuse from his parents.

After the author’s mother died in 1999, Pulido lived with Tizon in Seattle.

“I had a family, a career, a house in the suburbs—the American dream. And then I had a slave,” he wrote.

Tizon, who died in March, also described how he delivered Pulido’s ashes to her former village after she died at age 86. Once the story was released, a chorus of praise — and criticism — soon followed.

Why it’s important

Tizon’s account on modern-day slavery prompted a slew of reactions that beg for closer inspection.

Let’s start with journalist Susan Kelleher, who, at Tizon’s suggestion, wrote Pulido’s 2011 obituary for The Seattle Times. Kelleher wrote an essay after seeing Tizon’s “more honest account” in The Atlantic:

“No matter how much Ms. Pulido loved or was loved by Tizon and his family, she was not free. Tizon had an opportunity to tell that story when she died, to honor her more deeply than the saccharine sentiments he shared in our pages. And I now have an opportunity to examine my own lack of knowledge that allowed historical questions about slavery in the Philippines to go unasked,” she wrote.

Kelleher apologized for the incomplete obituary, adding that she wasn’t intending to denigate Tizon. However, she said she was sorry “for being complicit in further injuring Ms. Pulido by providing cover for what was ultimately a life denied.”

Similar criticism questioned why Pulido herself didn’t have a larger voice in Tizon’s story nor why Tizon doesn’t further evaluate his reasons for keeping Pulido in his home once his mother died.

“[Tizon] doesn’t stop to question why he cannot be the one who defines the conditions that make [Pulido] free,” Sukjong Hong wrote in her comic for The Nib, noting the author’s admitted frustrations that she wouldn’t stop being a slave.

Hong wrote that Tizon’s story “still bears the signs of a slave’s story told from the perspective of the slavemaster’s son.”

Some Filipinos defend Tizon from “western backlash.” See this Quartz article. And in a Facebook post, which should be read in full, University of Washington professor Vicente Rafael says that some tend to see the family’s “relationship with Pulido through the lends of antebellum U.S. slavery.”

“Such views tend to conflate the Tizon family with white slave masters, Lola with black slaves, and their household with the antebellum slave plantation. Once you’ve made these alignments, it’s easy to condemn Alex’s confession as insufficiently repentant, and the narrative as obscenely self-serving,” he wrote.

He goes on to say that a better understanding of Filipino history is needed for context. Read the full Facebook post here.

3. Maine’s lobster harvests are booming. But we don’t know when (or how) this will end.

A lobster sits in a holding bin before having its claws banded onboard the lobster boat "Wild Irish Rose" in the waters off Cape Elizabeth, Maine August 21, 2013. Lobster populations in Maine are booming like never before. The number of lobster processing plants in the state has more than tripled, from 5 in 2010 to 16 last year. Picture taken August 21, 2013. To match Feature USA-LOBSTER/ REUTERS/Brian Snyder (UNITED STATES - Tags: MARITIME BUSINESS FOOD ANIMALS) - RTX12VO7

A lobster sits in a holding bin before having its claws banded onboard the lobster boat “Wild Irish Rose” in the waters off Cape Elizabeth, Maine. Photo by REUTERS/Brian Snyder.

It’s the best of times and the worst of times for Maine’s lobster industry.

The good: Fishermen are being overrun with the state’s largest-ever lobster boom. In 2016, they harvested 130.8 million pounds of the clawed bottom-crawlers, close to double the record-setting 75.3 million pound harvested a decade earlier.

The bad: Scientists still don’t know why exactly this is happening — or when it will end.

Why it’s important

Sternman Rob Tetrault II works on the deck of the lobster boat "Wild Irish Rose" while hauling lobster traps in the waters off Cape Elizabeth, Maine August 21, 2013. Lobster populations in Maine are booming like never before. The number of lobster processing plants in the state has more than tripled, from 5 in 2010 to 16 last year. Picture taken August 21, 2013. To match Feature USA-LOBSTER/  REUTERS/Brian Snyder (UNITED STATES - Tags: MARITIME BUSINESS FOOD ANIMALS) - RTX12VOC

Sternman Rob Tetrault II works on the deck of the lobster boat “Wild Irish Rose” while hauling lobster traps in the waters off Cape Elizabeth, Maine. Photo by REUTERS/Brian Snyder.

Maine is responsible for all but a fifth of lobsters in the U.S., Bloomberg noted in a look at the lobster industry last week.

Maine’s lobster harvest has been on the general upswing since 1991 — the same year, Bloomberg points out, that its main (no pun intended) predator, Cod, started to plummet.

Since then, the number of Cod landings has dropped 99.2 percent, Bloomberg says, while the lobster harvest has grown by nearly 325 percent. This seems to explain most of the unprecedented haul — but not all of it. Not being able to pinpoint the cause of the boom means the state can’t prepare for its inevitable fall, a big question mark when you consider the industry contributes $1 billion a year to the state’s economy.

For now, fishermen have been mostly able to find buyers for the all of the extra crustacean. The biggest buyer: China. Bloomberg writer Justin Fox, who just spent a week in Maine learning everything lobster, has pulled a glut of stats on the booming Chinese lobster market. (Our favorite: five 747s filled with lobster were chartered into China this year to resupply Chinese New Year feasts).

But it’s still a fragile market. So too is the market for herring, the bait of choice for lobster fisherman. Fox points out that lobster catchers can’t rely on Maine’s supply of the fish — whose price has quadrupled in the last 15 years — and have had to bring some in from Massachusetts and Canada. (Like with Cod, the number of herring harvested are dropping every year).

For now: draw up the butter and bring on the lobster rolls. Fox points out fishermen have even developed a new machine to “squeeze the meat out of the lobsters’ spindly legs.” Just know that the party won’t last forever, and the end will probably bring problems of its own.

4. For the first time, Japan is letting an emperor retire from his throne

Usually, leaders clamor to keep their country’s top office. In Japan, however, the emperor is fighting for the right to step down.

Japan Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s cabinet approved special legislation Friday that would allow Japan’s Emperor Akihito to cede his throne to his elder son, Crown Prince Naruhito. It would be the country’s first abdication in about 200 years, according to the Bangkok Post.

The bill allows for a one-time provision for the emperor, who is 83, to leave the throne after 28 years, The New York Times reported. The bill — which makes an exception only for Akihito, preventing others from following suit — is headed to Parliament for approval and is expected to pass.

The Emperor first expressed trepidation about continuing his royal duty in August 2016, during a rare public address. Emperor Akihito has endured a number of health problems, including prostate cancer and heart surgery, according to The Indian Express.

“I am concerned it may become difficult for me to carry out my duties as the symbol of the state with my whole body and soul as I have done so far,” Emperor Akihito said in his statement.

Chief Cabinet Secretary of Japan Yoshihide Suga told reporters Friday the government “hopes for the smooth passage of the legislation.”

Even after the legislation passes, the government will need to decide Emperor Akihito’s date of departure; early estimates point to December 2018.

Why it’s important

Emperor Akihito’s looming retirement arrives amid a crucial debate underway in Japan: whether women should be allowed to succeed the throne (and whether there should be reform of the royal system overall).

In the past, BBC News reported, there have been at least eight female occupants of the throne. But in 1866, during Japan’s “Meiji Restoration” period, those in power made several alterations to the country’s government, including permanently barring women from succeeding the throne.

Today’s Imperial Law states that “The Imperial Throne shall be succeeded to by a male offspring in the male line belonging to the Imperial Lineage.”

As of 2012, the imperial family had 23 members spanning four generations. Thirteen of them were women.

The recent engagement of Princess Mako, Akihito’s eldest granddaughter, to Kei Komuro, a commoner, has reignited concerns over the longevity of the throne under the law. Marriage to a commoner means the 25-year-old princess would need to permanently leave the royal family — meaning any male offspring would also be barred from from eventually becoming emperor, The Japanese Times reported.

As the bill makes its way through parliament, the opposition Democratic Party said it will call for a supplementary clause allowing women to remain in the royal family even after marriage.

5. Joke theft is no laughing matter

Host Conan O'Brien on stage during the 2016 Nobel Peace Prize Concert at in Oslo, Norway. Photo by Jon Olav Nesvold/NTB Scanpix via Reuters

Host Conan O’Brien on stage during the 2016 Nobel Peace Prize Concert at in Oslo, Norway. Photo by Jon Olav Nesvold/NTB Scanpix via Reuters

A federal judge ruled last week that late-night talk show host Conan O’Brien can face joke theft allegations over three instances.

A lawsuit filed in 2015 alleged that O’Brien stole five jokes from a comedy writer’s blog and Twitter account for his nightly monologues on “Conan” from December 2014 to June 2015.

On Friday, Judge Janis Sammartino dismissed two joke theft claims, but allowed three to proceed to trial. These jokes were about Tom Brady, Caitlyn Jenner and the Washington Monument.

As The Hollywood Reporter noted, O’Brien addressed how these allegations impact a comedian’s career in the deposition.

“Accusing a comedian of stealing a joke is the worst thing you can accuse them of, in my opinion, short of murder,” O’Brien said. “I think it’s absolutely terrible.”

The plaintiff Robert “Alex” Kaseberg, who has contributed jokes to comedian Jay Leno’s late night show, said in a statement through his lawyer that the judge’s decision was “a victory for comedy writers, especially lesser known writers.”

Why it’s important

Although joke theft allegations aren’t rare, trials over the issue are.

For one, they’re expensive, as intellectual property lawyer Arnie Herz explained to USA Today.

“There are strong economic reasons to resolve this (before trial) because these are not easy cases to prevail, there are high standards plaintiffs have to prove,” Herz said. “At a trial, it depends on how a jury views the plaintiff and Conan O’Brien. The plaintiff and his lawyers could end up with nothing, so they don’t want to put in a ton of time and money and end up losing,” he added.

In her ruling, the judge also said Kaseberg’s jokes merited only “thin” copyright protection. New York University law professor Christopher Sprigman told USA Today this meant the jury would have to find the jokes to be virtually identical as those told by O’Brien to rule in favor of the plaintiff.

Easier said than done.

Sprigman added that it’s been decades since the last IP lawsuit over jokes appeared.

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