Tag Archives: surveillance

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.

We’re Being Watched

Given the revelations over the past week, it seems clear that our government has overstepped what many of us would consider proper in the realm of surveillance.

Initial reports –
NSA Disclosure in the Guardian – http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2013/jun/06/nsa-phone-records-verizon-court-order
PRISM in WaPo – http://www.washingtonpost.com/investigations/us-intelligence-mining-data-from-nine-us-internet-companies-in-broad-secret-program/2013/06/06/3a0c0da8-cebf-11e2-8845-d970ccb04497_story.html

While it is perhaps too early to call these reports “the facts”, the administration has not denied that the programs exist, and has defended their usage and effectiveness in combating terrorist threats. However, the power wielded seems to be incredibly massive – all phone records of all calls made in or out of US soil in a multi-year period, ability to sift through the content of internet communications (“accidentally” picking up a lot of intra-US material even when only foreign material is targeted), in addition to all types of surveillance we know is available already, including databases of license plate numbers and warrant-less wiretapping and the like.

The framers knew that power was a corrupting influence, so they attempted to split it up and let power balance power as much as was possible. The “tyranny of the majority” needed the representative process to “cool” its passions. Power was vested in 3 distinct branches, so that any movement would be tempered, and a broad concensus would be needed to move policy in very new directions. The American people are directly responsible for two of those branches, with a third as a derivation and quasi-impartial check on the rest. This balance of the government, along with the influence of the people and public opinion, is responsible for the (relative) success of our system to date.

However, inherent in this process is that the people can be an effective check on the actions that are done in their name; without transparency, there is no way to hold the government accountable for what it does. In this case, with the legislature signing away extremely broad powers of surveilence, the executive interpreting them in an aggressive manner, and all questions adjudicated by a court whose opinions can never be read, how can the public really know or even attempt to police PRISM, cellular metadata, and other types of ridiculous collecting of information?

Our laws have evolved epically slowly in this time of technological transformation. The jurisprudence that allows the government to collect and aggregate this data, read any emails over 180 days old, and tap into other internet communication without a warrant was built in a simpler, less connected time. It is up to us to become educated and push for a modernization of the law. For unreasonable search and seizure should not be limited to the physical world; my old emails and digital footprint are immensely more personal than if police were able to rummage through my pockets as they pleased.

It seems inevitable that this will lead to corruption. Why should I trust the 3 branches to do their duty in isolation, without the check of the people? Why should I be made to trust that they will not use it for other ends? Saying that “if we don’t trust in the 3 branches to do what’s right” (paraphrase) in secret, then “we’re going to have some problems”, does not make me feel particularly at ease. If something is too powerful, no one or group should wield that power over another.

Nearly no one outside of the administration and the few senators that have spoken out on the program have taken stands to defend it. See some of the commentary –
If each of the seemingly small number (200) of court orders on this is as big as the Verizon one… – http://www.wired.com/threatlevel/2013/06/nsa-numbers/
The NYTimes in on the action – http://www.nytimes.com/2013/06/07/opinion/president-obamas-dragnet.html?pagewanted=all&_r=1&
Sad for the country that has done so much to push freedom around the world (disagree if you wish) to not follow its own guidance – http://www.slate.com/blogs/future_tense/2013/06/07/prism_hurts_us_internet_freedom_rankings_freedom_house_to_downgrade_america.html?wpisrc=most_viral

I think that each of us should take a little effort to familiarize ourselves with these programs, and what they might mean for our own information stored online. When I think about the size of my online footprint in the context of this, it surely is disheartening. Something I might test later is https://myshadow.org/, which might be able to help out. Others have written articles to help out – http://www.slate.com/blogs/future_tense/2013/06/07/how_to_secure_and_encrypt_your_email_and_other_communications_from_prism.html.

Peripherally, it will be interesting to see how this effects many of tech’s biggest giants, who inherently now rely on our data as their major business proposition. What if that data dries up because we have no faith that it won’t be used against us? – http://www.slate.com/articles/technology/technology/2013/06/prism_apple_google_microsoft_how_the_nsa_s_surveillance_program_could_ruin.html

Very thought provoking stuff.