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.