I think it is super important in the current debate about government surveillance to separate two different arguments. First, I have stated and continue to believe that large scale secret programs without supervision and without checks and balances are unacceptable for a democracy. The potential for abuse and the cost in terms of a loss of rights (eg having a fair trial) are simply too large.
Second, we should, however, not make the mistake of applying what Taleb would call a turkey argument to the severity of threat of terrorism: the turkey believes for a long time that the farmer doesn’t pose a threat. For instance, this piece in the Atlantic points out that from 1999 to 2010, about 3,000 people in the US were killed by terrorists compared to 364,000 by gun violence. True. But a single nuclear bomb detonated in Times Square would dramatically shift that balance. And there are very likely people out there in the world trying to figure out how to do just that.
So the debate we need to have as a society is what kind of more limited and properly supervised programs we are willing to accept to try to prevent such an event from occurring. The answer may still be only a very restricted set but we should not be kidding ourselves about the severity of the threat based on a false reading of statistics.
The scale of the protests against government in Turkey is significant with over 200 demonstrations in 67 cities. Social media has played an important role in making the rest of the world aware of the scale of the protests and more importantly of the aggressive government response which has involved mass arrests and excessive use of tear gas and water cannons.
It is not surprising that the Turkish Prime Minister, who initially replied saying that the opinions of the protestors will simply be ignored, is now calling social media a menace to society, directing his ire aTwitter in particular. A politician railing against social media wouldn’t be so bad if the Turkish government didn’t apparently try to actively disrupt access to the cell phone networks (this is an *unconfirmed* report — still points to an important potential choke point).
What is most significant is that all of this is happening in a democracy. This is important because it speaks to the current debate about how technology is not inherently liberating but can also be used for oppression (I have not yet read “The New Digital Age” but will now do so given Assange’s critique). That debate is just as relevant for the US and other democracies. We are going to need more than “don’t be evil” we will have to know how to “be good.”
I am an immigrant (from Germany). I work in tech (as an investor and previously as an entrepreneur). I support comprehensive immigration reform. That part is pretty simple — it would be hypocritical to argue that something that I have benefitted from tremendously should be less accessible to others. But I have largely chosen to stay out of this particular fight because the arguments on both sides have been too narrow with a lot of needlessly heated rhetoric.
I am quite convinced that the actual impact here will be less than people expect it to be in either direction. The reason is that there are other forces at work that are a lot stronger. Graduate students from places like India and China are returning to their home countries in far greater numbers not only because we have made it harder to stay post 9/11 but also because those countries have rapidly growing domestic economies which offer a lot of opportunity. On the other end of the spectrum of the labor market the far bigger deal is the pressure of technology on wages. I have written about this extensively.
The twin forces of globalization and technology will have far more impact on our economy and society than the changes we are making to immigration law.
Our elected representatives are busy at work coming up with misguided laws. Leading the charge once again is Lamar Smith, this time proposing to replace peer review of NSF grants with congressional criteria (Congress of course is not exactly known for its scientists). Now that is not to say that we shouldn’t look into how NSF funding works and propose changes to it. For instance, with crowdfunding platforms for science like Mircoryza emerging, it would be interesting to see if these can be used to make the NSF process more transparent and even route some NSF money through these types of platforms.
Another misguided effort comes from a state senator in California who is proposing to require registration of 3D printers because they could be used to print guns. This comes on the heels of the US government requiring a website to remove the files for a 3D printable gun. Why is this misguided even though I have been calling in general for more regulation of gun ownership? Because regulation should be about making it harder on the margin to obtain high performance weapons for the average person, not a one off weapon for the determined. It is the same reason why locking your front door makes sense even though you have a large glass window next to it.
I am somewhat hopeful that neither one of these will go anywhere. Still the rate at which legislation like this gets suggested or actually introduced is a good argument for having shorter sessions or otherwise limiting how many bills lawmakers can propose!
If ever we needed a reminder that technology can both make our lives better and more terrifying this week provided plenty of them. Pressure cookers for cooking and bomb making. Fertilizer for agriculture and explosions (sadly also used in the Oklahoma City bombing). Social media for collaborative (re)search and public witch hunts. This is why we need values. Without being guided by strong values we will not enjoy the benefits of technology but will be leaving in fear of it instead.
I was planning to write more on cyber security but then yesterday I read this harrowing letter from a prisoner at Guantanamo Bay (Gitmo). I don’t take his claims about his lack of involvement at face value. It is irrelevant. He has been held for a shocking 11 years and 3 months without a trial. That goes against everything we as a country should stand for.
I wrote in 2010 that “I wish we had the courage to go ahead with a shutdown of Guantanamo, even if that results in releasing people who will want to attack us.” I believe that today more than ever. If we want long term security not just for ourselves but for the world, we have to stop believing in drones and start by leading with the values that we want others to embrace.
Gitmo Must Go.
I have written previously about cyber security and cyber defense topics that have become more acute in the wake of several large scale attacks on banks and other companies. Unfortunately, law makers in DC are reacting the only way they seem to know how: by further broadening laws that are already overreaching and yet ineffective at the same time. In particular the House Judiciary committee is proposing changes to make the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA) even more draconian. As a quick reminder, this is the act under which Aaron Swartz was charged.
Why is the CFAA ineffective? Because most of the attack activity comes from other jurisdictions. Yes, there is some of it here domestically but we have had relatively little problem tracking down folks and applying existing law.
Why is the CFAA overly broad already? Because it elevates terms of service violations to criminal offenses with significant jail penalties. And we all know that nobody reads the Terms of Service and that they tend to include the kitchen sink.
How is this about to get worse? The new draft makes this broadness much worse by adding the possibility of racketeering charges, making intent — not just actual breach — punishable, further increasing penalties and expanding the definition of “exceeding authorized access.” Here is a good summary of the changes.
Why does this matter? Because it is turning activities that many of us engage in nearly every day into crimes and putting a huge damper on important innovation. As an example of the former, I frequently when checking out a startup that has auto-increment ID numbers in their user URLs will see how many users they actually have by trying out higher ID numbers. Under the CFAA this is punishable with jail time. In fact, any kind of manual change to a URL in the browser bar become basically illegal. Now imagine trying to build a new piece of technology that does web scraping or spidering or tries to interact with a site on behalf of a user. Basically, the CFAA makes this kind of innovation illegal.
A while back I had stopped worrying about bee Colony Collapse Disorder because it had been out of the news for a while. From this morning’s New York Times it seems like I was wrong. Apparently if anything the rate of bee colonies collapsing has accelerated. This could turn into a very serious threat to the food supply for anything that needs pollination by bees which includes many fruits and vegetables.
One of the potential culprits here are genetically modified plants that include so-called neonicotinoids. The largest producer of such plants is Monsanto. And that makes a provision that was “slipped” into the Agricultural Appropriations Bill so pernicious: it protects the makers of genetically modified seeds from litigation related to health risks.
I am not against progress and I am not even against genetic modification in general (although I am highly suspect of it), but letting commercial entities get all the upside and carry none of the risk is a terrible idea no matter what you believe otherwise. We need bees, but we can do just fine without Monsanto. If you feel similarly outraged, go sign the petition!
I have started reading Antifragile by Nassim Taleb (review coming when I am done with it). As an early example of a system that gets better under stress he mentions city states (presumably as they existed in ancient Greece).
At USV we have been thinking about jurisdictional competition as a way to run more experiments during a time of change. We have focused on small countries such as Iceland and Singapore which might pass progressive Internet legislation but there are relatively few of those. In the US, we have 50 States and that might be a better starting point. So maybe the right thing to do here would be to build a broad coalition for pushing a lot more regulation back from the federal level to the state level.
What is really influencing my thinking here is the progress that we have made with gay marriage. In the DOMA discussion at SCOTUS, some judges are coming at it from an equal protection angle and others from a States’ rights perspective but that may result in a large a coalition. Maybe the right way forward is to go back to breaking up some huge federal programs into smaller state programs and then get 50 parallel experiments going.
This could also be an interesting way for advancing the peer progressive agenda. Some states will be more welcoming than others to the use of peer networks as a way of organizing society.
Because I consider myself a peer progressive who believes in some role for government and the existence of market failures, I usually don’t agree with Senator Rand Paul. But I strongly support the basis of his filibuster of John Brennan’s nomination: highlighting the excessive powers available to and sought by the President with regard to killing American citizens without due process. I have long felt that President Obama is completely on the wrong side of the drone program which is an example of the military-industrial-security complex at its most pernicious.
We have been headed in the wrong direction on civil liberties and constitutional protections ever since 9/11. One of the original promises of Obama during the 2008 campaign was to reverse course on that. Since taking office if anything we have been going deeper into the rabbit hole (a metaphor also used by Rand Paul). Whether it is warrantless wiretapping or the militarization of the police or the use of drones domestically, across the board things have become ever more out of control and unbalanced by legislative and judicial oversight.
If any of these are based on an extraordinary clear and present danger then the executive should release the evidence for that either broadly or at least to a large enough group of elected officials to make its case. Without that it is high time to re-institute civil liberties and assure our constitutional guarantees. I applaud Senator Paul for taking a stand here and was thrilled to see Senator Wyden also speak out against the drone program.