Monday, March 10, 2014

Embracing the Reality of Mass Surveillance

By Dillon Cory (Privacy Rights) - Hearing recent revelations about the scope of government monitoring, you might believe that we are on a slippery slope towards an Orwellian dystopia, destroying any vestiges of privacy. But this fear is overblown. In America, our democracy that challenges government’s power and legitimacy bends the long arc of our moral universe towards justice, while providing protections for both security and privacy.

It is true that the surveillance powers of the National Security Administration (NSA) and wider intelligence community are expanding, collecting our metadata and screening our online communication. This matches an exponential growth of technology in every facet of life, providing undeniable convenience and an unprecedented window into our lives.

This growth exposes the alteration of the public and private sphere, as Americans offer their personal data to corporations and the government through daily participation in society. This ubiquitous presence of government surveillance in a post 9/11 world shouldn’t be met with alarm, but with admiration for a service that protects our national security interests.  

Terrorism, internal and external, will always be a threat. But not just 9/11 style terrorism, but the pernicious threat of cyberterrorism and other online attacks. These attacks know no borders, creating an evolving threat environment. While the paradox of the terrorist threat is that it can forever justify expanding surveillance even when the threat is low, the threat is real. Responding to these threats takes a robust intelligence community with the appropriate capabilities.

A visceral reaction to the surveillance state in decrying its encroachment on privacy as a slippery slope towards a future of Big Brother ignores the benefits of mass surveillance and charges discourse on how to create an intelligence community with proper oversight that does not impede our national security goals. At the same time, supporting such a community must be tempered with a desire to cultivate a responsible surveillance apparatus that respects a reasonable concern for privacy.

Constant evaluation of the intelligence community is necessary to ensure its effectiveness in protecting individual rights and safety within constitutional bounds. The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Courts, that oversee requests for monitoring electronic communications, need to have more accountability, firstly in the form of a special advocate from outside the intelligence community that can advocate for transparency, privacy, and civil liberties. There also needs to be strong congressional oversight for organizations like the NSA, FBI, and CIA that blur the boundaries between domestic and foreign spying, real versus imagined threats.

But the largest necessary change is a societal shift in the mindset about electronic communication and what constitutes the private sphere. No longer is online communication a place where one can have the reasonable expectation of privacy. From corporations to the government, someone always has access to your communication activity. And this reality is not a bad thing.
As many studies have shown, being watched promotes prosocial behaviors. Mass surveillance, matched with consistent legal enforcement, could prevent many crimes committed both online and offline when there is the constant possibility of being recorded.

Instead of fighting widespread surveillance, we need to fight selective and discriminatory enforcement of laws. The problem of mass surveillance is when it is used to purposely target individuals who are otherwise law-abiding citizens. There need to be protections that limit the coercive apparatus of the government, but this can only be done with a simplified legal code that is consistently enforced.

In the words of Thomas Jefferson, “Whenever you do a thing, act as if all the world were watching.” With this sentiment in mind, we should all support a strong intelligence community that can face the evolving threat environment in a manner that respects the foundations of our democracy.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Hackers of Many Hats

Hack·er: noun. 
  1. A person who secretly gets access to a computer system in order to get information, cause damage, etc.
  2. A person who illegally gains access to and sometimes tampers with information in a computer system.
Merriam-Webster Dictionary
By JC (Privacy Rights) - According to popular culture, hackers are the new super villains of our technological era.  They steal our information, exploit our security weaknesses, and threaten our national security.  They’re the Green Goblins of cyberspace, coming out of their evil lairs to terrorize innocent civilians.  Even official dictionary definitions of “hacker” have overtly pejorative connotations.
Hackers make headlines.  “How hackers stole millions of credit card records from Target,” “Indian hackers pose as Netflix Tech Support, aim to steal files, identity,” and “Bitcoin bank Flexcoin shuts after theft by hackers” are just a few of many recent high profile hackings.  The “saving the world from an evil hacker” trope has also been a Hollywood favorite in recent decades.
This hacker reputation is laughable; it's equivalent to labeling all gun owners as bad guys.  This is a na├»ve view of hacking and fails to make the distinction between method and intent.  In order to improve cybersecurity and protect individual privacy, we need to address these misconceptions about hacking.  It's time to fix the hacker reputation.

On the most basic level, a hacker is a person who seeks and uses weaknesses in a computer system or computer network—Merriam-Webster isn't wrong about that.  However, the more nuanced understanding of hacking involves the intent of the hacker.  On one hand, we have “black hat” hackers.  These are the stereotypical hackers who hack with the malicious intention of illegally breaking into computer systems and networks to steal private information and benefit from improper use of this information.  On the other hand, we have benevolent “white hat” hackers who hack into computer systems and networks in order to ensure the security of information systems by performing preventive penetration testing and finding bugs and other potential security weaknesses.
Black hat hacking tends to receive more media attention due to the intrinsically flashier nature of its crimes.  The massive Target credit card security breach happened last December but is still being discussed today.  Black hat hackers such as Guccifer gain notoriety by hacking influential public figures and celebrities—one of Guccifer's claims to fame is his leaking of George Bush's personal paintings.  Black hat hacking is exciting because it is so bad.
However, the media also paints a narrow view of benevolent hacking by only associating it with controversial hacktivist groups like Anonymous.  Anonymous has taken action on high profile issues such as anti-digital piracy campaigns, major corporations (PayPal, Sony, etc.), WikiLeaks, and the Occupy movement.  Depending on your stance on these topics, you may view Anonymous as a group of freedom fighters or a group of cyber terrorists.
The current media treatment of hacking is a serious problem; we need to expand public understanding of hacking in order to create a more secure cyber future.  Hacking is a self perpetuating problem nowadays: hacking's controversial and predominantly negative reputation creates general aversion to hacking, which in turn increases both state and third party organizations' vulnerability to hacking by simultaneously decreasing the supply of qualified white hat hackers and creating widespread ignorance about why and how to pursue preventive cybersecurity measures.
Today, most governments and companies are not adequately protected against cyberattacks.  We are all too familiar with cybersecurity breaches against targets such as the US government, media agencies, and major corporations.  In fact, the loss of private data is becoming a problematic norm; does a week go by without a successful significant cyberattack?  To fix this problem, we need more benevolent hackers.  We need to prioritize preventive hacking.  And most of all, we need to first fix the hacker reputation.
Hackers aren’t just storybook super villains; they’re the heroes too.  If the Green Goblin is a hacker, then Spiderman is an even better hacker.  Peter Parker’s uncle once said, “With great power comes great responsibility.”  He’s right.  We can perform both great and terrible feats through hacking—what really matters is how we use this new hacking power.  So now, we need to stop criminalizing Spiderman.  He can’t fight crime if he’s being chased by both the police and the villain of the week.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

My Cousin Can't Vote

By Chandler James (Equal Rights) - My cousin was recently released from prison with little fanfare and a crude ceremony. My dad and I drove six hours to pick him up, enduring a brutal winter blizzard to warmly welcome him to a life of freedom. He was all smiles when he saw us at the gates, presumably just as happy to see familiar faces as he was to exit the guarded fortress that he called home for more than 2 years. The drive home was a cordial experience. We talked about relatives who had gone on to do great things, about friends who had married since his conviction, and about loved ones we lost since he had been gone. We were more than happy to have him back with us, but we were worried about his prospects, and so was he. The conversation soured when we asked him what he was going to do for money. “Nothing,” he said, “I can’t do nothing.” What could we tell him? It was probably true. Our society is particularly vengeful toward convicted felons. Felons are denied many forms of employment, access to government programs, and in many states, they are denied the right to vote. Civic participation is key to our democracy, yet felons have a diminutive voice in the democratic process. Like many convicted felons, my cousin can’t vote. 

Nearly 3% of America’s population is under the supervision of the American judicial system. The United States incarcerates a higher percentage of its citizens than any other nation in the world. Of the near 7 million people under judicial supervision, African-American’s make up 38% of that number. The percentage of African-Americans in prison is significantly disproportionate to the percentage of African-Americans in the population (about 13%). Largely convicted of drug and gang related crimes, black men have a 1 in 3 chance of being heralded away to prison in their lifetimes, according to statistics by the Bureau of Justice. Felony convictions have long led to corresponding voter disenfranchisement, to the detriment of many black voting interests. 

Enfranchisement and democratic participation is key to what makes America great. French historian, Alexis de Tocqueville, in his widely read work, Democracy in America, detailed the distinct nature of American society. Sociologist, Seymour Martin Lipset described the American way, quite distinct from Europe, as American Exceptionalism. Tocqueville, too, considered the United States exceptional. America was exceptional, Tocqueville posited, because of its egalitarian spirit. Democracy in America was effective because of the associations that bound men together and represented the interests of the individual. These associations which fomented civic participation were key to the democratic process. Ostensibly unequal in Tocqueville's approximation are blacks, and if you ask many people today, they might say the same thing. Blacks have historically voted at much lower levels than whites. Despite America’s progress in racial equality, the large of amounts of blacks that populate U.S. prisons suggests that we have not come far enough when it comes to political equality. 

I don’t necessarily believe that the American political system is stocked to the brim with racists. I do believe, however, that politics have perpetuated a systemically racist judicial system that strips many impoverished blacks of their right to vote. These poor men, with no political voice, are lost in the shuffle and their interests are ignored. That’s a key reason that the system remains as it is. Formerly imprisoned black men have nothing to offer politicians once they are out, and thus have no means to effect substantive change in the political arena. It’s paramount that our felons are given the right to vote once they serve their time and repay their debt to society. Enfranchising convicted felons will lead to decreased levels of recidivism. If involved involved in the democratic process, felons will integrate more intimately in society and imbue the political system with ideas and leaders that promote their particular interests. At an increased rate, felons will turn to legitimate employment because the system will correspondingly address their concerns and aspiration for humanity and foment their transition from felon to good citizen. It’s time to treat former prisoners better, giving them their humanity and citizenship back once they get out. Let my cousin vote. Give my cousin a second a chance, he’s an American just like us. 

Friday, February 28, 2014

You’re Equal. Got it? The legal service gap in civil law

By Dillon Corey (Equality under law) - As Stephanie sat in the lobby of Maryland’s Legal Aid Bureau, she was visibly distressed. Her mother had been living in an assisted care facility just miles from Stephanie’s home, but Stephanie alleges that her mother had been abused through neglect. Without the funds to pursue legal action, she desperately looked for legal assistance.

Stephanie’s story is representative of a struggle for millions of low income Americans who seek justice. In theory, we are all treated equally under the law, the result of a long-standing legal precedent and Constitutional protection. But this equality is an illusion.

The fact is, the poor in our society are disadvantaged before the law. While a defendant is provided a lawyer if they are unable to afford one in criminal trials, in civil cases, representation is up to the litigants. This creates barriers for low-income citizens, forced to navigate the civil legal system alone and suffer the consequences of confusion. We need sweeping reforms to provide civil legal services for all citizens.

Poverty impedes access to legal representation, preventing proper protections and undermining the equality that all citizens are supposed to share. And this doesn’t just hurt “the poor.” It hurts millions of low-income veterans, disaster victims, urban workers, and rural workers. Our neighbors. They face a lack of knowledge about their rights, legal services in their area, and trust in the legal system, on top of not having lawyers. These barriers not only damage the most fragile among us, but put an increased burden on society.

When the poor are unable to access legal services, they turn to more costly types of government aid and cease to fully participate in the economy. This happens when the government has to pay for emergency shelter for wrongfully evicted families, when victims of domestic abuse are treated in emergency rooms because they don’t know the legal steps to distance their partner, or when social services must make increased child support recoveries. Instead of having a legal system that mediates and prevents civil disputes, society is left to pick up the costs.

Better legal services are not just beneficial to the public good but to the economy. In Washington D.C., the DC Access to Justice Commission shows that for every one dollar of public funds invested in legal services, it provides four dollars in benefits. This follows a similar study in Texas that saw a $7.48 increase in consumer spending and a $3.59 increase in production of goods and services for every dollar spent on legal aid. Similar findings have been seen in other states as legal resources support strained social service networks.
But most important to the foundations of our society, having a class of citizens who are disadvantaged in the legal system makes our American claim to equal treatment under the law a platitude. When people participate in a legal system but do not understand their rights, equal treatment struggles to find just outcomes.

Fixing our broken legal system is a pragmatic cause on which both the left and the right can agree. For conservatives, civil legal reform provides spending reductions by easing a financial burden on expanding social services. For liberals, reform gives a way for the government to provide efficient services that will make a meaningful impact on the lives of millions of Americans. While addressing the legal service gap only combats the symptoms of underlying poverty, it is an important project for our society.

The most direct step to close the legal gap is an increase in government funding to legal services for civil cases. Public funds are currently available in some major cities, but are needed on a national scale, as private groups struggle to meet demand. Other avenues must also be explored; support for legal service non-profits, greater legal outreach into poor communities, and promotion of pro-bono work at law schools and firms.

Without reform, the civil legal system will continue to be unequal for America’s poor. Private sector solutions are currently unable to correct the systemic problems, and it is time for the government to act. In the current system, the poor become accustomed to accepting adversity and unfairness. We need to give them a reason to believe in the complete integrity of our legal system, for it is the foundation of our democracy. If even the weakest among us lack full access to a legitimate legal system, none can be truly equal.

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Corporations Living on Welfare

By Brendan Jordan (Minimum Wage) - President Obama in his State of the Union address several weeks ago announced that he would issue an Executive Order requiring federal contractors to pay their federally-funded employees a fair wage of at least $10.10 an hour – because "if you cook our troops’ meals or wash their dishes, you shouldn't have to live in poverty." This announcement came after a debate over raising the minimum wage serendipitously started in this country several months ago amongst political talking heads and media elites. This debate is a tired one that now seems like a quinquennial ritual in which democrats call for a minimum raise increase, some on right claim job losses will ensue, and the raise gets passed anyways.

As a libertarian and person who broadly believes in assumptions of neoclassical economics the traditional argument against raising the minimum wage or not even having one at all made sense to me. Raising the marginal cost of labor would decrease the quantity demanded by employers and more people with low skill sets would be out of work or the added cost would be passed onto consumers resulting in an effective wage cut for all.

However, empirical studies have cast doubt on this ostensible economic truism in recent years. One study by David Card and Alan Krueger commonly cited by higher-minimum wage advocates found that New Jersey's increased minimum wage had no affect on fast food restaurants when compared to lower-waged Pennsylvania restaurants across the Delaware River.  Although studies like this one certainly cast some doubt on the neoclassical position, I find place to place comparisons troubling when trying to advocate for policy positions. We are all too familiar with this phenomenon during debates over gun control. These discussions resemble verbal games of Sporkle where gun control advocates and proponents yell out low-crime places with either strict or loose gun laws to prove the superiority of their policy preferences.

However,  Ron Unz, a California conservative activist and businessman, offers a more convincing criticism of a lower minimum wage than the standard liberal arguments. Unz argues that because of a low minimum wage, low wage workers need to rely on welfare and subsidies in addition to their income. This is effectively a form of corporate welfare since the safety net covers employees' wages that would presumably have been paid for by the employer in the absence of such a net. If there was no safety net, workers would be a lot less willing to work at McDonalds for $7.25 and the resulting competition amongst employers for low skilled workers would drive up wages to their true equilibrium.

Although this is a clever and attractive argument for raising the minimum wage on libertarian or conservative grounds, it does not address the true problem, which is not a low minimum wage, but the modern progressive welfare system in this country. Companies could not get away with relying on welfare to pick up the tab to support their employees if employees had to rely on their wage as their main source of income. The savings from the elimination of the welfare programs would also result in an effective pay increase for all tax payers, allowing people to demand more of the goods and services low-skilled workers provide.
I am not heartless so a negative-income tax or charity vouchers for the disabled maybe appropriate to prevent people from 'starving in the street.' Nevertheless, for ready, willing, and able workers eliminating welfare might actually provide the best solution for their problems.

However, given that this country has shown a strong dedication to a robust welfare state, the most libertarian solution in practice could involve supporting a higher minimum wage for those workers who rely on welfare to supplement their income. 

Friday, February 21, 2014

Saving Lives: Why We Should Opt-In to Opt-Out

By JC (Property Rights) - In the US, 18 people die every day while waiting for available organs.  The organ transplant waitlist is over 100,000.  We are facing a medical crisis in this country.

It’s easier than ever to sign up to become an organ donor: many states only require an additional signature while processing your new or renewed driver’s license.  Two check boxes pop up on the screen; you get to choose one.  Could it get any easier?

However, a recent survey found that most Americans are willing to donate their organs after death but only 38% of registered drivers are registered to do so.  What drives this disparity?  Research suggests that misconceptions about the donation and registration processes are two of the primary factors that create this difference.  Some people fear they are not healthy enough or are too old to donate viable organs.  Others believe doctors will not work as hard to save their lives if they are organ donors.  Some even fear having their organs sold on a black market after donation.

Even I suffer from these misconceptions.  I’m open to the idea of organ donation—who wouldn’t want to save a life if it’s within his or her power?  Yet, I’m not a registered organ donor and don’t go out of my way to register.  Whenever I’m renewing my driver’s license, I usually breeze through the organ donation screen with a quick check in the “NO” box.  Why?  This is usually after over an hour of wait time; I don’t know if there are additional screens after the first organ donation one if I check “YES.”  All I know is that I want to get out of the MVA as fast as possible—and I do not feel strongly about organ donation so any extra time spent on the process creates negative utility for me.

This is why the US should have an opt-out organ donation policy.  An opt-out policy will have great gains in donation rates amongst currently unregistered people who are either willing to donate or are indifferent about organ donation.  Changing the program from opt-in to opt-out eliminates some structural and bureaucratic inefficiencies, thereby increasing the availability of organs anywhere from an estimated 16% to 50%.  When organ donation is the default assumption, it will take extra effort to remove oneself from the program and only those who are strongly against organ donation will take the time to do so.

Furthermore, the current US organ donation policy is inconsistent with its other property destruction policies: the US has historically denied individuals the right to destroy.  Courts are concerned with the waste of resources available to society as a whole; they generally try and prevent the negative externalities that would result from the destruction of one’s physical or financial property.  A physical house might be worth $1,000,000.  Yet, the average estimate of the value of a statistical life for a middle aged worker is $7,000,000.  Why should someone be stopped from destroying his or her house but be not only allowed, but systemically encouraged by government policy, in destroying his or her kidney that could save someone’s life?

US policy regarding organ donation boils down to the societal norms.  Our society treats the human body as sacred and is not educated on the realities of organ donation.  Mass media and hippie yoga teachers hand us whey kale shakes and whisper seductively in our ears: “Our bodies are sacred.  Let us worship at their shrines.”  It would be different to become an organ donor—it’s not the norm.  Consequently, there is not a widespread push to change the current policy and policymakers are reluctant to even approach the subject.  
Yet, can a dead person’s kidney really be more sacred than a living human’s life?

The US would not be the first country to adopt an opt-out organ donation policy; France, Spain, Australia, Belgium, and Portugal all have varying forms of presumed consent policies, along with significantly higher organ donation rates.  If the US follows their progressive lead, we can fight our medical crisis and save more lives, one kidney at a time.    

Thursday, February 20, 2014

One Size Fits All

By Jeffrey Tyburski (Religious Freedom) - 
With the Affordable Care Act, government expands further into healthcare. Its one size fits all policy disregards individual conscience.If government provides your health insurance, then it gets to decide what exactly it should cover. It also decides how to pay for it. Essentially, government is forcing people to buy health insurance and dictating what the details are.

Within ObamaCare, there is an ‘employer mandate’. What this ‘employer mandate’ means is that employers must provide health insurance for their employees or face a fine collected by the IRS. The Affordable Care Act specifies goods and services to be included in the employer mandate insurance.

One of these specified goods is abortifacients. Abortifacients prevent the planting of a recently conceived embryo into the embryonic wall. For one who believes life begins at conception, this is murder.

Many employers find the employer mandate offensive to their religious-moral beliefs.Amongst these employers is the Green family, owners of ‘Hobby Lobby’, a Denver based chain of arts and crafts stores. The Green family is devoutly Christian. Hobby Lobby has not complied with ObamaCare mandate and is taking its case to the Supreme Court. By fighting the law, Hobby Lobby risks facing up to $1.3 million in fines per day.

This law is egregious. It forces employers, such as the Green family, to purchase something which is against their religious-moral beliefs. It does not even give them the option to provide employee insurance without contraceptive drugs. Nor does it consider that employees could use their wages to buy contraceptive drugs.

But that wouldn’t fit the paternalist vision of ObamaCare. God forbid if people took responsibility for themselves, or if employers and employees worked out their own agreements.It is necessary that the government make people pay for some things which they may object too. For example: An army and a police force are necessary functions of government. One cannot be made exempt from a portion of the income tax simply because they object to police protection.

The real question then becomes “What is government necessary for?”.

If one considers universal access to abortifacients to be a necessity, and government coercion the only way to provide it, then the Green family should be forced to provide this service to their employees. But if one thinks government should micromanage us all the way down to details such as abortifacients, then what does one think the government should not manage?The more the government manages our lives, the more likely it is to trample individual conscience. When government plans things on a massive scale, it is unable to account for individual preferences. It is nearly impossible to know what diverse and numerous individuals desire. If the 100 smartest people in the world gathered together in Washington D.C., they could not know what you specifically desire. Simply put: no one knows what you want better than you do. Obama does not know what you want better than you do, nor does any member of congress, nor any bureaucrat planner.

And for that matter, neither does your boss. Why should one be paid with health insurance? It’s a different question, but it illuminates why health care is such a politicized issue. Is it because health care is a necessity? So are food and shelter. Should one be paid in the form of meals or mortgages? This unusual position of healthcare is the result of government intervention. Health insurance, as a form of pay, receives special tax incentives. Like the Affordable Care Act, this older policy has unintended consequences, such as higher health care costs nationwide.The debate on health care is often framed in skewed terms. One could say “The Greens do not want to pay their employees in the form of coverage for abortifacients.” However, I often see the same idea presented as “The Greens threaten the reproductive rights of their female employees”. There is a perverse logic. Someone else not paying for your healthcare is equated with ‘taking’ your healthcare. Obviously the Greens are not trying to take anything from their employees. No one forces their employees to work for them; this is not serfdom.

ObamaCare has created a one-size-fits-all plan. This is bound to run over individual conscience. It has created an insane debate which portrays the religious sentiments of business owners as exclusive to the reproductive rights of employees. That is absurd. This conflict exists because ObamaCare has presented the Greens with a binary choice: yield on their faith or destroy their livelihood. Without ObamaCare, the Greens could continue to work and live as they see fit, while their employees could still use their wages to purchase healthcare as they desire.

One may counter that business owners such as the Greens are required by The Affordable Care Act to provide health insurance for their employees at no cost to those employees. Such expectations are fantasy. The cost for the health insurance must come from somewhere; it cannot be created from thin air simply because the government mandates it. It must come from lower wages for workers or higher prices for consumer goods.

I guess in this country two people are incapable of working out an employer-employee contract. We need the government, which obviously knows best, to dictate workplace arrangements for us.