Tag Archives: writing

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.

TED Talk – Reclaiming the Republic

Reclaiming the Republic

The attached TED talk was recently sent to me, and I think it warranted sharing – with some comments of course.

Lawrence does a good job of outlining the problem. Money in politics is akin to a cancer – candidates are in an arms race reaching ever deeper into the pockets of the very few to bankroll their candidacies. This of course gives undue political power to those interests, which increasingly control the electoral landscape. Some of the statistics are absolutely staggering. 132 people…

I think he is right, especially in the perspective that everyone knows that this is a problem. He is certainly not the first one to point out the symbiotic relationship between Capitol Hill and K Street, to the determent of the taxpayer as well as to pragmatic and effective policy. There are so many instances where the way that our electoral process is structured leads to sub-optimal outcomes – i.e. corn subsidies are unlikely to end anytime soon due to Iowa’s place at the top of the hierarchy of primary elections. Money in politics is one of the most unsightly issues that is so obviously one of the “first issues” that prevent real reform – in either direction, left or right.

However, I think his overview of potential solutions is terribly lacking in specifics and much oversimplified. Campaign finance reform has always been the the political “boondoggle” for many of the reasons mentioned in the TED talk, above all that the number one exit opportunity for a legislator is to join one of the big lobbying firms. However, it is a web of legislation, law, ethics, freedom, and public opinion – all of which need to be navigated to make any progress.

Dollars are one currency that we have typically regarded as political speech. Unless we reclassify speech as not including money, how can we limit it? If we limit dollars now, what does that mean for potential alternative “political currencies” down the road? Will someone with twitter follower numbers over a certain amount be subject to campaign law restrictions because of undue influence on the electoral process? The legal questions are much more complex than he seems to let on.

While it is not an easy problem to solve, it should definitely be a priority. I’m going to put some more thought into this one.

NASA Spending Under the Sequester

News broke this week that NASA is having to alter its behavior in response to the sequester—

Well, it looks like it’s finally happened: the U.S. sequester – a “series of across-the-board cuts to government agencies totaling $1.2 trillion over 10 years” (CNN) — has finally hit NASA… right where it hurts, too: in public outreach and STEM programs.

In an internal memo issued on the evening of Friday, March 22, the Administration notes that “effective immediately, all education and public outreach activities should be suspended, pending further review. In terms of scope, this includes all public engagement and outreach events, programs, activities, and products developed and implemented by Headquarters, Mission Directorates, and Centers across the Agency, including all education and public outreach efforts conducted by programs and projects.”

Read more: http://www.universetoday.com/100949/sequester-cancels-nasa-outreach/#ixzz2ObHVnM7B

In total, the cuts equal approximately $1.2B off of NASA’s $17.8B in planned spending, or about a 7% decrease. Not only will the cuts slash outreach, they will also threaten on-going modernization efforts and technology research. Basically, it will slow both NASA’s core operations as well as its ability to inspire study in the math and sciences, something that we are currently struggling with as a nation (I wonder how many people are engineers today because of the Apollo program or the space shuttle program…).

While a 7% haircut may adversely affect agency operations for the current year, it is worth placing this in the longer term context of the erosion of finance support for NASA since the mid-90s, and really, since the end of the Apollo program. Sequester related cuts are miniscule in comparison to the stagnation of spending in real dollars for the past few decades. NASA will have to make adjustments to its plans, but its activities already pale in scope and magnitude compared with some of the projects that it has taken on in the past.

For historical comparison, I have looked at NASA spending since its inception in 1958 as compared to the overall level of Federal spending. While it is to be expected that spending would be lower than at the height of our stretch towards the moon, it is striking how spending has decreased from 1% of the Federal budget throughout the 80s and 90s, to nearly 0.4% today. Federal priorities have clearly shifted elsewhere, and in my opinion, to our detriment.

Of all the economic markets that the Federal government invests in, subsidizes, and stimulates with other regulatory tools, spending on space exploration is no longer a focus. However, the unique mix of extreme long-term nature of returns, high levels of risk, and distributed economic and social benefits provide a more obvious probable cause for spending on NASA than on almost any other market; the case for government intervention is comparatively strong. 

For every $1 spent on NASA, typically about $2.1 is added to the economy in revenues, a high multiplier compared to other economy jump-starting spending – for instance, tax cuts typically have a spending multiplier of 1.0 to 1.3. Additionally, many of these dollars go to high tech and infant industries; some of the many beneficiaries during the Apollo program were the semiconductor and computer industries. I wrote a long paper long ago on some more of these issues – but my point is, even a typically free market aficionado can see some of the enormous benefits of the funding of space program in the public sphere, and the relative inability of the private market to fill the void left by the loss of public spending. 

If NASA spending were held at the historical 1% level, we would be spending more than double on NASA this year ($38B). In the most (perhaps recklessly) optimistic scenario, with budget allocation equal to the 1966 peak, NASA would be nearly $170B of spending today. In either event, the American people would be achieving much more than we are today, and pushing more of the boundaries of our exploration.

I am hopeful of changes to this policy at some point in the future, although I doubt we will raise spending in the near term. In our current political reality, it will take some strong form of catalyst to push us against the current inertia.

In later posts, I want to dig into some of the specifics of the benefits of NASA spending and why it is a good endpoint for Federal funds.

I have included the budget numbers below for those curious to see how the budget of NASA has unfolded over the years.