The Eyes Have It: Cameras Are Spying on Travelers

By Robert McGarvey

On a May 5th United flight from San Diego to Houston, an unnamed female passenger in first class entered the bathroom where she noticed a blinking blue light. She did not know what it was but she took the device to the flight crew. United Corporate Security subsequently determined it was a video recording device.

Then, per a document compiled by the FBI, “After viewing the information on the device, a male was caught on video installing the device in the first class lavatory of this particular flight.”  Apparently the man’s face wasn’t visible but – using his clothing and also jewelry – an ID was made. The arrest of Choon Ping Lee, who works for Halliburton, an oil field service company, followed.  

Creeped out? Justifiably. But here’s the grim reality: throughout your travels, very probably you are being spied on.  In some cases it’s by state sponsored security forces. In other cases it’s by miscellaneous creeps, perverts, and miscreants.

Does it really matter who?  Is it more comforting to know the Chinese government has eavesdropping devices in your Beijing hotel room – which it probably does and it also probably has your cellphone tapped – than it is to know that your Airbnb host is a perv who has cameras in rooms?

Guess what, it’s nothing new. In 1983 I co-wrote a book called The Complete Spy, which detailed the hundreds of legally available devices that let ordinary citizens spy on their spouses, children, neighbors, co-workers, bosses, you name it.  A theme of the book was that our privacy was evaporating and we seemed uninterested in fighting back.  

It is much, much worse today.

You don’t have to be Erin Andrews to have your privacy robbed. But a take away from the Andrews caper is that a determined eavesdropper can – with few roadblocks – easily spy on us in hotels.  And spying in hotels is surprisingly common

There’s even a claim that a hidden camera was found in a cruise ship cabin.

Why would anyone want to spy on me or you? Who the hell knows.  

Some nation states spy compulsively.  The Soviet Union and East Germany did it routinely (and if you visited either, you were eavesdropped upon. This is beyond question).  Today, Russia ranks high among nations that eavesdrop on foreign visitors. But China does likewise (maybe even more so).  The Saudis do too. Ditto the Israelis.  But you also hear about the French, Singapore, and many, many more nations. It’s not just nation states however.

As for who else eavesdrops in hotels, it can be anything from a business competitor to a jealous spouse or a just plain weirdo.  Remember Gay Talese’s The Voyeur’s Motel, where he documents a motel owner who systematically spied on guests.

Don’t say it can’t happen where you are staying.  Especially not because spying has gotten easier.

What’s new today is that eavesdropping has become very cheap and very low skill.

Around $40 will buy you a perfectly good spy camera.

For a few extra bucks, you can get a camera disguised as a clock or a bluetooth speaker.

Such cameras are usually wireless and battery powered. It takes essentially no skill to set up a camera.  

That’s a scary difference. A generation ago, cameras were expensive but also high maintenance.  Now cameras are installed by dropping them in place and, very probably, forgetting about them. Who needs to retrieve something so cheap?

How can you fight back?  The good news is that self-defense detection weaponry too is proliferating.

Now for Spy vs. Spy. There is plenty of technology that says it can find hidden eavesdropping technology and that has a prima facie credibility in that these devices typically connect via wiFi and/or Bluetooth. A device, or app, that hunts for Bluetooth and WiFi in the immediate vicinity may well pinpoint a nearby camera.

Some also hunt for a glint from the lens of a hidden camera and they just may find them.

But they may not, too. The better, pricier eavesdropping tools are built to foil the cheap detectors.

Dial up the price of the detector to north of $50, or even better, north of $100 and your odds of finding spy gear escalate.

Experts also recommend an oldfashioned physical inspection. Look for what’s out of place – a blinking blue light in a United lavatory – and you’ll hit the bullseye without any tech.

But even with preventative steps, don’t count on having privacy wherever your travels take you.  For 40 years people have asked me what I do to avoid being spied upon. My answer has always been the same: nothing.  I assume I may be spied upon, I act accordingly, and if I am spied upon, so be it.

I really cannot think of any surer strategy. Especially not today.  

Practicing Flygskam in Phoenix – Really?

by Robert McGarvey

I am looking at my travel schedule and in September up pop a couple trips to Las Vegas. A trip to Santa Fe is also a definite maybe. Is it time for me to put up or shut up, to practice flygskam abstinence or just stay home?

In June I wrote – somewhat favorably – about flygskam aka flight shame, the Sweden born movement to scorn air travel that is fast trending across Europe. The core idea is that air travel is hideously polluting – and global warming is no joke. The ice is melting in the North Pole, South Pole, Greenland, you name it. And summer temps in Phoenix where I live crest ever higher (especially the daily lows which are higher and higher. It’s not unusual to walk out into 90+ weather at 6 a.m.) so for me global warming isn’t an academic issue. It’s in my face daily.

What can I do about it?

I can pollute less. Understand, I rarely drive and when I do it’s a 2017 BMW which runs very clean. Mainly I walk or take the light rail around town. Now I see a Washington Post piece headlined, “Europe’s flight-shame movement has travelers taking trains to save the planet.” I have to ask myself: what about me?

The Wapo story’s lead focused on one Johan Hilm, a Swede traveling from his home country to Austria. That’s a flight of about two hours. Mr. Hilm chose to take a combination of train, bus, and ferry in a journey that took more than 30 hours.

Explained the Wapo reporter, “one passenger’s share of the exhaust from a single flight can cancel out a year’s worth of Earth-friendly efforts.” He added: “so they are digging out their parents’ yellowing Europe-by-rail guidebooks and trading tips on the most convenient night train to Vienna. “

What about me?

A flight from Phoenix to Las Vegas is about 70 minutes, costs around $150, and, for me, the airport is maybe a 20 minute light rail ride from my door step which happens to be where the light rail stops. Talk about convenience. In a lifetime of flying I have never had it so good in terms of ease of airport access (and inside Sky Harbor is a well run place). That makes flying a slam dunk – except for the pollution and the global warming.

So I hunt online for a train and indeed there is one, also for around $150. There also are nine departures daily. Of course there are many more flights but with nine, a train departure will suit me.

But then there is the duration. The distance between Phoenix and Las Vegas is around 250 miles – the drive time is about four and one half hours. How long is a train ride? The quickest train is about 10 hours. The typical duration is 20 hours.

Read that again: 10 to 20 hours. For a trip you can make in a little over an hour by plane and under five hours in a car.

Is walking the only way left? That would take about 80 hours (plus sleeping and rest time).

But there is a flygskam style option: a bus. Trips take about five hours, there are nine departures daily, and price is around $25.

What about Santa Fe? Trains there take around 10 hours and cost about $135. A flight on American takes an hour and a half and a round trip costs under $200. A bus costs around $50 one way and the trip takes from 12 to 18 hours.

There indeed is the problem. Going full in with flygskam flight abstinence necessitates suffering. Standing up for the environment necessitates long flight alternatives that, at least with trains, often cost around the same.

The US is not alone in this. A UK Guardian writer recently noted, “Taking a flight from London to Edinburgh results in 193kg of CO2 emissions; opting for the train means you produce 24kg – that’s 87% less. But as I compared both prices and travel times for my journey, opting for air travel was not only quicker, it also cost much less. Later in the year I’d like to visit a friend in Barcelona: I can fly in November for £37; train travel is more than £250.”

Plainly we need more and better alternatives to planes if we in fact are going to use them. It is well and good to talk flygskam purity but until viable alternatives are on the table, only zealots will ditch air travel and cheers to them – sincerely – but I just am not sure I am ready for long, long train rides. I haven’t been on a long distance bus ride in maybe 45 years and can’t say I much liked it when I took them so I am not keen on that option.

Will I take the train to Las Vegas? Ask me later, I haven’t decided. And, frankly, I’m not quite sure how to explain to the client that the trip took many multiples longer and also cost the same as a flight. Maybe more. That just isn’t easy to justify.

But neither is contributing unnecessarily to global warming. There’s our dilemma. How do we get where we’re going while doing the least damage? How indeed.

CU2.0 Podcast Episode 46 Kirk Kordeleski on Doubling Your Size and More Good News

Can a credit union double in size in five years? You bet, says Kirk Kordeleski, a senior consultant with Best Innovation Group and before that, CEO of Bethpage Federal Credit Union on Long Island where he did exactly that.

Kordeleski points to Navy and also BECU as examples of other credit unions that have also experienced exponential growth.

How? That is why you want to listen to this podcast. He gives the recipe, in some detail, here.  Boiled down it’s think competitively and believe – really believe – you can use inherent credit union advantages such as tax exemption to take a billion or more in dollars of business away from money center banks who very probably won’t even notice it is gone.

There’s more in this podcast. Kordeleski also tells why this is a time of immense, perhaps unprecedented opportunity for credit unions. Use digital and use data to allow your institution to expand in ways that a generation ago would have been unimaginable.

The bad news: a decade from now the number of credit unions may be about half what it is today. Expect 2000 credit unions to vanish in the next decade.  You don’t want to be among them?  There are plenty of survival tips in this podcast.

Listen here. 

Like what you are hearing? Find out how you can help sponsor this podcast here. Very affordable sponsorship packages are available.

Find out more about CU2.0 and the digital transformation of credit unions here. It’s a journey every credit union needs to take. Pronto

The Cooperators Podcast Episode 23 Brel Hutton-Okpalaeke NASCO on Student Co-Ops

Put Brel Hutton-Okpalaeke in your contacts if you are a college student searching for affordable housing. That’s because he is the director of development services at NASCO,  North American Students of Cooperation, where the primary focus is on cooperative housing, especially for students.

Now is the perfect time for NASCO – colleges have been raising student housing and board fees at a brisk pace and, unbeknownst to most, schools run those functions as profit centers. They are not usually loss leaders.  What’s more, schools know that while all eyes are on tuition increases – jumps in prices for room and board frequently are under the radar.

Enter co-op housing where, frequently, students put in work requirements and an upshot is that savings over university housing and board charges can be substantial.

The downside? It takes a number of years to form a new student housing co-op. Schools increasingly are hostile to such co-ops (they want the revenues!). And many cities and towns are downright hostile towards housing options for significant numbers of unrelated adults.

Add in difficulties in securing financing to pay acquire new housing.

That’s why NASCO is crucial. It helps students navigate these difficult, churning waters.

And know there are real plusses to co-op housing for students.  The format teaches how to function in a democracy and, for many, co-op housing is an introduction to cooperatives in general. A few years in a co-op house can lead to credit union membership, membership in food co-op, and maybe even membership in a worker owned cooperative business.

Hoteliers: Time to Give Us Keyless Entry

By Robert McGarvey

How many ways have hotel key cards failed us. I remember a stay at a Berlin hotel where twice in the space of the first six hours I was a guest I needed to replace the key card.

I remember long, long walks in a Las Vegas casino hotel to get a new card.

Ditto in Chicago, San Francisco, Washington DC.

Key cards are failed technology. They just are unreliable.

And, worse, they can be hacked.

So is now the time – finally – when hoteliers will switch to room entry systems based on the cellphones we carry?

The New York Times believes just maybe. It related that “the number of hotels in the United States that have digital keys available rose from 6 percent in 2016 to 17 percent last year, according to a survey by the American Hotel & Lodging Association.”

Of course, there are quirks in the implementation.  According to the Times, “Some [hotels], including Hilton and Marriott, only allow a single phone to receive a key during a stay, and other guests in the room receive card keys. Like the card keys, the digital keys can be used to access elevators, fitness centers, parking garages and other common areas. Some mobile keys require the user to touch a button on their phone screen to unlock the door, while others require that the phone be held up to the lock.”

Basically however this is all quite simple. Some electronic innards are built into the room lock and the traveler uses Bluetooth to open the door. Easy.  

Why is this taking so long? Why are the implementations often so wonky?

Partly it’s our own fault.  Many of us just don’t want to use our phone to open our hotel rooms (also cruise ships and, for the record, my key card failed on the last cruise I took in October 2018).  

A recent YouGuv poll found that only 29% of us say they would prefer to access a hotel room wirelessly – which means that 71% are content with the status quo, that is, keycard entry.

If you are in that hold out group, feast on the vulnerabilities of key card systems. Researchers have shown that with a one minute hack and a $300 RFID card read/write tool most hotel key card systems can be hacked.  Pull a room card out of the trash, reprogram it and, bingo, you have a master key card that will open an estimated 500,000 to one million hotel locks around the world.  

Feel safe? Sure, that vulnerability may have been patched by now but know that there are other vulnerabilities, other hackers, and a growing acceptance of the reality that keycard entry systems just don’t measure up.

 

Keycards also fail – frequently and annoyingly.  It’s just poor technology.  I cannot remember the last time I spent more than a couple nights in a hotel and didn’t need a replacement card. For a one night business trip, sure, no probs.  But for anything longer they can be counted on to fail.

Nobody in the office space, where keycards took hold perhaps 50 years ago, believes keycards have a long future.   Some of course are using biometrics for entry and others are using phones. In that world, keycards are heading towards extinction.

So why aren’t hotels stampeding to put keycards in their past? Probably it comes down to money or, rather, the reluctance to spend it.  Hoteliers, and the hotel owners, just are skinflints when it comes to investing in this kind of upgrade.

That’s despite the fact that, as reported in Hotel Management, “Mobile keys are the safest form of guestroom entry in hotels today. Unlike plastic keycards that guests often leave within easy reach, which provide immediate access to the guestroom when stolen, mobile keys offer several layers of security.”

Then there are environmental benefits in getting rid of oldfashioned plastic keycards. Hilton for instance estimates a savings of 40 tons of plastic due to get use of its Digital Key app.

Another, huge plus of using the phone to open doors is that it just may eliminate the check in desk and almost certainly will end the long lines.  A guest who has a reservation can just sign in via the phone and walk straight to his/her room where the phone should open the door.

Sign me up.  

I have used a keyless system to open up and start my car for at least five years. No fails. How convenient.

I want it in hotel rooms too and I want it now.

How about you?

CU2.0 Podcast Episode 45 Gary Oakland BECU

Call this the credit union oral history sequence – Blaine, Bucky Sebastian, now Gary Oakland who took over BECU, with around $700 million in assets, in the mid 1980s and when he left in 2012 it had become a $10 billion+ credit union, one of the nation’s very biggest.

How did Oakland do it? In this podcast you will hear his recipe for credit union success which, put simply, is make the member the center of this universe.  When the member is served, the credit union will thrive.

“It’s all about the member,” said Oakland.

Oakland sees a bright credit union future – but he wonders about the arrival of bank trained executives and how that background will impact credit unions.

A break that came BECU’s way was when the big bank in Washington State, Seafirst nearly went belly up in the 1980s – and was saved from that only when Bank of America took it over.  That gave BECU smoother sailing in its quest to be dominant in its state.

Oakland says he is proud that he left BECU with a small credit union attitude in a big credit union body.

It’s an inspiring credit union tale.

Listen up here.

Like what you are hearing? Find out how you can help sponsor this podcast here. Very affordable sponsorship packages are available.

Find out more about CU2.0 and the digital transformation of credit unions here. It’s a journey every credit union needs to take. Pronto

Upgrading the Airport Experience: A Fool’s Errand?

by Robert McGarvey

Delta has figured out that our airport experience genuinely sucks – and it says it wants to fix it. Are you optimistic?

Delta’s CFO, Paul Jacobson, is the bearer of these glad tidings. At a recent CNBC conference, Jacobson said, “I think the next area of competition in air travel is in the airport.”

He added: “How do you continue to streamline the on-the-ground experience. It is a big part of how passengers rate the experience.”

So true. Even with Priority Pass, Amex Platinum, Global Entry, and Diner’s Club along with a couple airline credit cards, I dread the airport experience. Where I live, Phoenix, it’s actually not that bad. I live 30 minutes away from PHX via lightrail, the security lines are predictable (and usually short), and it’s an airport where little seems to go awry. When a Centurion Lounge opens in 2020, life will indeed be good.

Delta, incidentally, already has a lounge at PHX. It’s gotten good ink – but count me a Centurion loyalist.

The problem is that I go to PHX to fly elsewhere and the other airports – such as EWR, JFK, DFW – are circles in Dante’s Inferno.

Enter Delta with a $12 billion war chest earmarked for airport upgrades – specifically at LaGuardia, LAX, Seattle, Salt Lake City and Atlanta.

Airlines nowadays are flush with cash and the big carriers seem persuaded they have upgraded the inflight experience as far as they can go, so what’s next on the fix it list? Airports are definitely a mess and indeed we do blame the carrier for our woeful airport experiences.

But is this fixable? By an airline?

Honestly, even clubs, the frequent traveler’s cure for airport misery, are rapidly deteriorating. Journalist Chris McGinnis recently filed a story in the San Francisco Chronicle that was headlined, Crowding pushes airport lounges to raise prices, limit access. The subhead was even gloomier: Finding respite from airport mobs getting tougher.

Wrote McGinnis, “due to their popularity, lounges are getting as crowded as airport terminals.” Club operators are deploying various strategies to better manage, indeed limit, access – but still the complaints grow that at many airports the clubs no longer count as sanctuaries.

I’ve even heard complaints that there was no place to sit in a Centurion, and no place to recharge a phone. Reports of overcrowding at Centurions are plentiful.

Of course club woes are just a symptom of what ails airports today. The short answer is just about everything.

The problem is known: the US just hasn’t opened a new airport in decades (Denver, 1995) and it hasn’t expanded airports to meet demand. Around a billion passengers clog US airports each year and that infrastructure was built to handle maybe half that passenger load. In boom times, like now, the limitations of the infrastructure become painfully obvious.

As far back as 2013, the Washington Post ran a story headlined: Reports say U.S. airports are dangerously close to capacity. Per the story: “Failure to invest in airports and the aviation system will ­result in a steady increase in airport congestion.”

Five US airports rank among the world’s busiest: Atlanta, LAX, DFW, Denver, Chicago O’Hare.

J. D. Power even ranks the country’s most hated airports. LaGuardia wins the prize, nosing out Newark.

What’s the solution? A massive airport instructure renewal plan is just about the only way out. According to the U.S. Travel Association, $130 billion is needed over the next four years for infrastructure involving airports.

Just about everything here is broken. We need more terminals, more runways, more parking spaces, more and better roads leading to the airports, more public transit to and from the airports.

China, by way of contrast, has 236 airports it will build by 2035. That will essentially double the nation’s airport capacity. China also is furiously building roads, bridges, and the rest.

The US, meantime, has made no progress in addressing an airport issue that most experts believe started perhaps thirty years ago. The problems aren’t new, they are years in the making, and what’s needed to do fixes is political will and investment dollars.

Which brings us back to Delta and its $12 billion upgrade fund. The carrier deserves applause – the other big carriers ought to pony up as well – but I just don’t see these efforts having the clout and the cash needed to make fundamental changes in our airports. Of course it’s all nice but nice won’t result in the changes we need.

We need a bold plan that aims to provide an airport infrastructure that will work at least through 2050. Call it a 30 year plan. Anything less just won’t do what we need.

Are any significant politicians showing support for bold air transportation initiatives? Not that I am aware of. That’s a shame.

The future of flying in the US is heading towards more gloom, more crowding, more hectic hours at airports. It doesn’t have to be that way. But until we mount a coherent, sweeping program that’s what we are likely to get.

Credit Unions Buying Banks: Good, Bad, or Plain Ugly


By Robert McGarvey

Ten times so far this year a credit union has bought a bank, according to Credit Union Times’ count.  Some deals are small – Verve for instance paid $43 million to buy South Central Bank in Chicago.

Some are bigger such as Arizona Federal Credit Union’s buy of Pinnacle Bank in Scottsdale with its $236 million in assets. No details on the purchase price have been released.

In Florida – where the recent credit union buying a bank trend kicked off in 2015 when Achieva Credit Union bought Calusa Bank for $23.2 million — there have been three buy outs of banks by credit unions so far this year.

In the Chicago area, there also have been three purchases of banks by credit union so far this year.

This isn’t an entirely new phenomenon. The first deal dates to July 2011 when United FCU bought Griffith Savings Bank in Indiana.

And the deals keep coming.  

Understand this: some credit union thought leaders are adamantly opposed to this trend.  To them, banks and credit unions are different and never the twain should meet.

Still others worry that as credit unions incorporate more elements from banks – including hiring bank trained staff – they may become more bank like and lose the credit union difference.

Consider this maybe the very most contentious issue in the credit union universe.

Banks incidentally are vocally opposed to the trend – or put more accurately they see this as a proof that credit unions should lose their tax exemption.

The other reality is that community banks are struggling. Their numbers are dwindling as the big banks get bigger and smaller, community banks find it harder to compete. For them, in some cases, the exit strategy is to sell the assets – primarily branches, loans, customers – to another financial institution and if it happens to be a credit union, so be it.  (Here’s a list of many CU – bank deals. Go to page 8.)

Big banks also seem largely uninterested in buying struggling community banks.  For many of the latter, a possible acquisition by a credit union looms as an attractive exit strategy.

But, first, what specifically is in this for a credit union? The St. Louis Fed tackled exactly that question.  Here’s what it said: “So what would entice a credit union to pursue a bank instead of another credit union? For one thing, it may be the fastest way to expand into new business lines that are more closely associated with banks (for example, business lending). The average ratio of business loans to total loans for the acquiring credit unions in the quarter before the transaction was 8.6 percent, whereas the average for the acquired banks was 33.8 percent. The acquisitions of the commercial banks raised the business-loans-to-total-loans ratio in the credit unions to 10.9 percent.”

Moreover, like credit unions, small community banks tend to have strong community ties and know their customers on a more personal level than their large-bank counterparts do. This strong community relationship can be an asset to the acquirer.” 

Other experts suggest that the number of sizable, viable credit unions that are available for merger into another credit union is dwindling. The attractive candidates have already merged, at least most of them have.

Very probably, we will see a continuing stream of credit union purchases of banks or at least parts of banks.  But probably not that many. The St. Louis Fed believes this kind of deal will never become commonplace: “Because of all the regulatory and business-model barriers involved, it will likely never be a dominant transaction type.”

Which brings us to the big issue: are bank purchases in fact good for credit unions?

For starters, know that the bank charter is not transferred in the deal.  A credit union cannot own a bank charter, said Wendell “Bucky” Sebastian, a co-founder of Callahan, longtime CEO of GTE Federal Credit Union in Tampa, general counsel of NCUA, and, at the start of his career in banking, a senior official in an Illinois regulatory agency.  Hear Bucky’s candid podcast for a lot more opinions including Bucky’s optimism about the credit union future. Listen here.

As for foes of bank acquisitions, there’s Jim Blaine, retired CEO of SECU, the giant North Carolina credit union, who has strong opinions on this topic. He ventilates his ideas with gusto in the CU2,0 podcast.  

Blaine opposes credit union – bank mergers. He sees them as a manifestation of an increase in what he calls the commercialization of credit unions.  At their founding, credit unions were created to serve members. Not to sell them products they don’t need which of course is a bank business plan.

Blaine also said that in negotiations between a banker and a credit union executive, he’d bet on the banker to win.

Credit unions just aren’t banks and shouldn’t be, Blaine believes. So keep them apart.

Bucky Sebastian – who supports credit union mergers, definitely ones with other credit unions, in his podcast – also comments that “banks exist for one purpose – to take as much from their customers and to give it to their shareholders as they can.”  That’s true. So ask yourself how that culture blends with a credit union’s.

That deep philosophical concern is aired by Gary Oakland, the retired, longtime CEO of BECU who saw that institution grow from a couple hundred million in assets to over $10 billion during his tenure. (He offers his perspectives on range of issues facing the industry in his CU2.0 podcast – find it here, it posts in late July – and he specifically addresses why BECU grew so big, so fast when many other credit unions did not.)

“You are seeing a change in leadership of credit unions,” says Oakland.  “A lot of new leaders are coming in from the banking industry. There’s not as much development of homegrown leaders.”

Which leaves us with a troubling question: at what point does a credit union assimilate so much bank characteristics that it ceases to be a real credit union and instead becomes a bank? Sure, the charter may say credit union.  But is the institution truly a member focused institution?

Is that case closed, credit union purchases of banks are bad? Not so fast. Some bank branch buys win broad applause. In the Deep South, Hope Federal Credit Union has bought a number of bank branches, mainly from institutions that had announced plans to close those locations.  Hope CEO Bill Bynum talks at length about that strategy in his CU2.0 podcast.

These acquisitions have been widely praised.

Even the cynic Blaine applauds what Hope is doing and he indicated that in negotiations he’d bet on Bynum to beat the bankers.  In some cases Hope may well have gotten the branches at no cost.

That’s a hard deal to turn down especially when a credit union can do tremendous good for the community by using the facilities to offer financial services to a community that might otherwise become a “banking desert.”

That does not mean however that it’s full steam ahead for bank mergers, either. 

Eyes will be on growing numbers of credit unions that have consumed banks, or hired senior bank executives.  The verdict has not been written.

But it will be.