Tag Archives: privacy

The Case Against Email That Makes Warranted Searches Impossible


Very thought provoking letter from a developer who was producing a privacy ensuring email and communication system, who later backtracked and shut down his project because of what he believed could be unleashed.

While we tend to focus on the lack of transparency available in the electronic mediums of communication we use every day, the opposite is also a potentiality. If I have something hidden in my house and am suspected of a crime, law enforcement can get a warrant and legally and physically gain access to investigate. If encryption was good enough, it is possible that they would never be able to unlock hidden secrets, no matter how dire the situation or clear that there was a legal reason to do so. We (this developer, really) could create a system that ensures that information cannot be decrypted. By creating this, would we be enabling terrorists or others to avoid all of the actions we take to try and stop them?

However, what is right here? Are we to fear what we can create? It gets back to the basic question of whether we value security or privacy more, and how much of one we are willing to trade to get the other. I tend to believe in the Mill-ian let no idea go unsaid as it strengthens our ability to see the truth, either by being the truth, or providing a point of argument to strengthen our own conception of what is right. Stopping free speech inherently dulls this search for truth. And I believe similarly for technological progress – by creating deeper and deeper ways to encrypt information, we also create the incentive to figure out how to break that encryption. If we limit the technological goals that we pursue too dramatically, we risk having the skills to get us there atrophy. (Kind of like when we abandoned the Saturn V…)

On a similar but unrelated note, I’ve often thought about how the internet could fragment due to some of these pressures. As the US and others lose control over the web’s governance (perhaps rightfully so after we have demonstrated our inability to be benevolent guardians of the web), and as it falls more under the dominion of powers looking to add more limits to its inherent functionality, will we see a rise of ‘parallel’ internets with different sets of rules? Imagine small communities networking themselves together to avoid being spied on by others, and rejecting this broader network we have created. It is kind of similar to what could be enabled by this enhanced privacy within the internet itself – just depends if they are separate whole networks or just shielded networks within networks.

We will have to see – there seems to be a lot of pressure to get away from the prying actions of others recently, both for privacy’s sake and otherwise. The internet is such a vehicle for democratization – just look at Bitcoin’s surge in the last few weeks…

Continue reading The Case Against Email That Makes Warranted Searches Impossible

Articles for June 22nd – Big Data and Elections and Access

It’s been a few weeks since I compiled a list of the articles that I have been reading – hoping to make a little headway against the backlog with this post.

A number of the articles that have been floating around have to do with data – how we use it, control it, and what we should do about it. I think we have all known how much data there is on each and every one of us out there, but all of the recent developments have been illuminating in who has access to it and what they can use it for.

http://www.nytimes.com/2013/06/23/magazine/the-obama-campaigns-digital-masterminds-cash-in.html?pagewanted=1&_r=0&adxnnlx=1371921826-rm%2051XvsMALZSwKnEKfgYg – The NYTimes posted a long article this week on some of the ways that recently victorious political campaigns have used data to their advantage, and it’s a great read. Frankly, its surprising that with so much at stake this didn’t happen a lot sooner. When the votes were counted, I wonder how much these analytics capabilities specifically were worth. In some sense, it is sad that the quality of the organization and activities of the campaign can have such important effects on the outcome relative to the messaging and policies that are actually being proposed. Marketing seems to trump the policy dimension. Additionally, with so much of the data coming from external sources (Facebook agreed that its terms of service were not being violated, but how much power could it have had to make the decision either way?), could we conceivably have data that was given to one campaign and not the other? This is what is so troubling about the NSA’s data collection or the IRS asking for donor lists – especially with the endemic lack of transparency, how can we be sure that the data is not used in an unfair or illegal manner?

https://www.eff.org/deeplinks/2013/05/update-email-privacy-law-must-go-further – One of the biggest legislative holes that we have is in email. Our law has not caught up to the realities of what email communication is, how personal it is, and how it needs to be protected. Phone calls, physical mail, and other communication has strict standards for access, and a default that prevents its use without probable cause. We need to update our laws for email privacy. The EFF is passionate about this and has a lot of good information on it.

http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2013/06/prism-is-bad-for-american-soft-power/277015/ – Even as our power begins to fade, the US still sets the tone for governmental engagement around the world, and historically (again, people love to argue about this) we have largely pursued an agenda of freedom and openness around the globe. How can we be the ‘city on a hill’ with regards to freedom when we so blatantly disregard those tenants within our own borders? How can we be a good example for those countries around the world which are coming into power and maintain more oppressive stances to their citizens than we do? We do not want to set the precedent for the coming century by weakening the freedom of the individual.

http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2013/06/the-irrationality-of-giving-up-this-much-liberty-to-fight-terror/276695/ – Terrorism is sensational – unexpected, unpredictable, fear inspiring, and often theatrical in character. The same reasons that psychologically cause us to fear airplanes more than automobiles causes us to be irrational about the dangers of terrorism, and too apt to surrender our freedoms to protect ourselves.

http://www.theatlanticwire.com/national/2013/06/majority-senate-skipped-classified-prism-briefing/66273/ – Good to know the Senate cares so much.

Switching gears, there have also been a number of articles dealing with another one of the issues of our time. How can we deal with free markets as well as income inequality? What are the main causes of income inequality and how to we rectify them? I would like to study this a bit more, but wanted to pass along a few articles that I’ve seen dealing with the topic in recent days.

http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2013/06/rip-american-dream-why-its-so-hard-for-the-poor-to-get-ahead-today/276943/ – Education is always cited as the answer that can help equalize the opportunity available to folks despite the situations that they were born into. However, as is pretty clear, income is predictive of income between generations, and it has gotten worse. Much of it is the result of  poorer students not having the information, or present means, to apply to colleges.

http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/wonkblog/wp/2013/05/11/thinking-utopian-how-about-a-universal-basic-income/ – Interesting look into a possible policy to lower income inequality. A universal basic income is one method to do this, as is a high minimum wage, welfare/social security and other safety net programs, the earned income tax credit and other tax policies. Which is the most effective way to distribute dollars, flatten the Gini coefficient, and not preclude folks from taking risks and being productive? This is an interesting economic as well as philosophical question – one I will hopefully dive in to in later posts when I can explore some Rawls and Nozick.

http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2013/06/forget-what-government-i-should-i-do-what-can-it-do/276546/ – We do spend too much time focusing on the left-to-right dimension of government, and not the better-to-worse (effectiveness) dimension, holding the scope of activities constant. I read a statistic recently of how the VA still uses paper forms, so thousands of cases are not handled before the former service members dies. Technology could be an easy way to automate and streamline a number of the activities of government.

Overdo Short Number of Articles from the Weeks Preceding May 14th

http://www.slate.com/articles/technology/technology/2013/04/boston_bomber_photos_the_marathon_bombing_shows_that_we_need_more_security.html – I think that this is one of the most important arguments that can come out of the Boston terrorist attack.

A few weeks have passed, and little has amounted to calls for more surveillance. Good for us in my opinion – when we rush to judgment, rarely do we make good and measured decisions on what is truly right.

Terrorism as a form of warfare does not leave us many options that are not in them selves constraining. As the Patriot Act and other actions in the wake of 9/11 demonstrated, there is a sliding scale between individual freedom and the security that can actually prevent events like this from occurring. In order to become more safe, we must sacrifice the freedom (more importantly the privacy) that we also consider very important.

Interestingly enough, this meshes well with the story that I wanted to cover on drone spying. A few weeks ago, Eric Schmidt of Google warned on the proliferation of drones, and how it threatens privacy, among other concerns. http://www.guardian.co.uk/technology/2013/apr/21/drones-google-eric-schmidt. Technology today allows us to be constantly aware and chronicle that which happens in the public sphere. Police cars can track and store every license plate that they pass as they patrol around a city, creating a database of where each car has been. Drones could see every inch of the country every second of the day, putting more of the world into storage at near real time. Google and its streetview have been the trailblazers in this regard – interesting to see Eric Schmidt speak out.

Already, the internet and its connectedness are offering us new ways to interact with our world. A quick search for the drone article above led me to http://www.diydrones.com/, a site devoted primarily to amateur drone instructions and ideas. Within the last month, a fully plastic 3d printable gun was created. It is crude and nearly disposable, but designs will get better over time. One wonders how we have any chance to control gun violence, while simultaneously leaving these new areas of innovation untouched.

A few other articles that I wanted to point out:

http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2005/01/lost-in-the-meritocracy/303672/ – Rather incredible long read. Not sure I have a lot to say about it, but is an amazing critique of some of the pressures in higher education, and the balancing of life with “achievement”, whatever that actually is.

http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2013/05/14/america-s-new-oligarchs-fwd-us-and-silicon-valley-s-shady-1-percenters.html – An article that I don’t necessarily fully agree with, but certainly expresses some of the changing landscape of business, and how that is affecting most of us. As we do more with less labor, and only the educated seem to be able to truly contribute, where does that leave us? Bertrand Russell’s In Praise of Idleness comes to mind. http://www.zpub.com/notes/idle.html

http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2013/05/green-lifestyle-choices-dont-change-the-systems-that-make-fossil-fuels-attractive/275575/ – I disagree with the main premise of this article that a carbon tax is a good or required thing, but acknowledge that it might be a more effective tool if replacing carbon is the goal.

http://nymag.com/daily/intelligencer/2013/05/why-left-and-right-economics-cant-just-agree.html?mid=google&google_editors_picks=true – Speaking of “many economists believe”, as the previous article on green energy does, this article speaks to the fact that economists have been heavily politicized. You can find any research on any topic that serves any purpose, all of it claiming a great deal of confidence that supposes that it is qualified on which to base important policy. Great.

http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/wonkblog/wp/2013/04/17/student-debt-is-dragging-down-the-u-s-economy/ http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/wonkblog/wp/2013/03/30/will-self-driving-cars-solve-all-our-energy-problems-or-create-new-ones/ – Two good recommended thought pieces on economics and policy.

I’ve been neglectful, so I wanted to get a few thoughts down on digital paper.