Right Question, Wrong Focus

The damage caused by Edward Snowden is almost immeasurable and definitely irreparable. Hundreds of millions of dollars (more?) were wasted because of his selfish acts. He signed an oath to his country and completely defied it. However, he did start a conversation that almost everyone agrees is a necessary next step. The conversation has been about the wrong topic though. Everyone is examining the NSA programs rather than looking at the source – the companies that were providing the information to the NSA. The NSA gathers information, but has checks and balances like the rest of government and was not doing anything illegal in the PRISM programs. Private corporations have all of the information that the government was gathering and don’t have anyone looking over them to protect the rights of individuals.

The “super secret” NSA programs are about national security, not infringing on your privacy. The government officials are not monitoring general habits. They are looking for people who are out to hurt the citizens of the United States of America. Companies, however, can tell you your buying habits, where you prefer to hang out, who you’re with, etc. They know so much more than the NSA even cares about. They are the ones collecting the information. They are the ones hiring new graduates to analyze the big data resulting in complete profiles of indviduals. They are the ones providing the NSA with this information. They are the ones that are making a profit on our information. They are the ones who can do the most damage.

So really it’s the companies who are profiling us as individuals that we should be concerned about, not the NSA. The ability for a powerful company to know my habits is dangerous to all of us. It isn’t right that these companies can profile me and advertise to entice me, and get me into more trouble than I get into myself. The government protects us from many other harmful things in society: laws against drugs and alcohol, check points for drunk driving, laws to prevent you from being stalked, gun laws, domestic violence and hate crime laws, etc. Don’t we want our government to protect us from the people who know more about us than ourselves?

We have enough precedence in privacy matters that we should be able to aptly apply them to the use of big data. It is illegal to open mail addressed to someone else. Already, genetic company 23andme has been banned in the state of Maryland and more recently it was not approved by the FDA in order to “protect the public”. Courts can rule that stalkers are infringing on a person’s privacy. Our courts protect people from discrimination, be it hate crimes or hiring/firing laws.

Is it time to say that companies cannot search through our email accounts for directed advertising? That profiling a person by knowing where they shop and what they bought at that online store is a form a stalking? And that by knowing information about me from my digital profile, that I cannot be discriminated against, in any manner.

Our government needs to protect us from the bad guys. The bad guys are no longer just foreigners – they are right here in our homeland and they are bigger than just one person or group. It is the companies that leave us without privacy who can be considered an opponent. The companies need additional regulation and oversight, not the constitutionally approved NSA programs.

Internet Privacy

What level of privacy should we be granted on the internet? How do we enforce this? Firewalls? Large penalties for violations? Tougher sentences for hackers?

In today’s world, it has become easier than ever to learn about a person’s habits through data left behind during everyday online transactions. Anytime we surf the Internet, companies learn about our data consumption habits, our hobbies, and how we spend our time. Whenever we pay by credit card or even enter a store, be it to buy groceries or gas, the transaction or ingress becomes part of the metadata that defines our modern existence. Energy, water, and power meters report day, time, and peak usage data to the utility companies, giving entities, at all levels, unprecedented access to our data about our private lives. Companies will continue to monitor our Internet browsing and metadata. Just how much privacy should we be granted on the Internet or with our own metadata and how do we enforce this?

In the physical world we have limits set to protect our privacy. It is a felony to open someone else’s mail. You can be charged with harassment or stalking for following someone around and recording their physical movements. Yet on the Internet, entities routinely monitor every action, in the name of convenience and commerce, through the use of cookies. Most of us have had the experience while shopping for presents or searching a specific topic online that every advertisement we are seeing seems to be related to the product or subject that we were just researching. Companies also send people ads and coupons based on customer metadata from certain items purchased within their stores. So why is it okay for companies to use these cookies or metadata generated from a store? It can be argued that we gave up our right to privacy by visiting that specific website or buying that item, but should this be the case? Since collecting private data is easily done in the name of commerce, what’s to stop someone from gathering this data for more sinister reasons? We need better laws to protect our privacy in the digital world.

Entities use cookies (either evercookies, flash, or temporary) to do things that benefit the consumer, like remember passwords, track user preferences, and keep websites free. However, they can be hacked and personal information can be stolen. While not all cookies are bad, they need to be kept as up to date as possible to be effective.  We also need to be informed of their uses and be able to opt out of some or all cookie collection without having our website user experience negatively impacted. This type of management could be done at the web browser level, upon initial setup, with the preferences easily changeable at any time. If cookies are absolutely necessary and people choose to opt out of that specific type, ones that are free of all private and personal information should be available to fulfill the original purpose (like a blank cookie) without sharing or transmitting any user data. Some Internet browsers have begun to give users a private browsing option that clears all cookies upon closure of the browser window.

Penalties for not respecting user data should be significant enough to severely impact a company’s ability to do business. In some cases, criminal penalties might also be warranted. Consumers should have the ability to easily track how their electronic footprint is used and the ability to opt-out of certain services, just like postal customers can opt-out of junk mail. However, we as consumers of electronic media must also be responsible for our own electronic trail and be aware of our digital footprint online and elsewhere. If we want more privacy in the digital world, we have to be the ones to do something about it.

Speak Policy

Last month, Nature published a Comment titled, “Policy: Twenty tips for interpreting scientific claims” describing how to better educate policymakers to understand the imperfect nature of science.   The author’s theme was that scientists should help policymakers better understanding science.  They outlined twenty steps for doing so.

The authors wrongly assume that the answer is to make policymakers into scientists – or at least help policymakers understand the intricacies of science and technology.  They cite, as an example, the need to help policymakers understand the imperfect nature of science.  Our lawmakers and leaders already believe that science is imperfect.

Instead of trying to make policy makers into scientists or engineers, we (scientists and engineers) need to learn to speak in terms policymakers understand.  We need to help policymakers understand the impacts and implications of our science.  We need to articulate these impacts and implications in policy terms, not science and technical terms.

How egotistical are we, the scientists, to assume that understanding the impacts of science requires the technical training that we have.  If we are not able to articulate the impacts of our work, then it is because we don’t understand those impacts in the first place.  If we want the world of law and policy to appreciate our science we need to learn to speak their language instead of trying to make them understand ours.

We offer not twenty steps, but four easy principles:

  1. Scientists need to be able to take a step (or five steps) back from their immediate research and articulate the global impact of their field.  Communicate the impact in terms that focus on society rather than on science.
  2. Articulate how the science will affect the general public today and five to ten years in the future; this is what matters to policy makers.  Policymakers are overworked addressing the issues of today, much less tomorrow.  Articulate your science in terms of the impacts on society today and in the near term.
  3. Write backwards.  Policymakers need the conclusions and message up front; justification can follow.  This is the opposite of how scientists are trained to write for publication. Scientists write all of their reasons and justifications before they reach their conclusions. Policymakers have limited time so tell them up-front what you’re trying to say and justify yourself later. If they care one way or another, then they will read the rest. If you wait until the end to tell them what they need to hear, they will never get around to reading it.
  4. Explore recommendations outside of “provide more funding for my project.”  Just studying the problem more is neither the most satisfying nor often the most appropriate policy option.  Recommend policy and law that directly address the issues at hand.

It is far easier to teach scientists and engineers to write and speak in words that policymakers relate to than try to teach all the basics of science to the entire policy apparatus of our society. In an ideal world, our policymakers would have technical backgrounds to supplement their legal training, but that is not a realistic solution in Washington, DC today.

Eugenics in the Future?

We just finished an interesting discussion on the future of genetic enhancements. In the future we might be able to custom build babies and thereby create a new super race of human beings, leaving the poorer/unenhanced behind. We are reminded of the history of dominant cultures wiping out those they considered inferior, as in colonialism or Nazism or ethnic cleansings. At one time, royalty only married among others of their class with the idea that other races/classes were inferior and that their gene pool would be tainted by the lower class.


This may not actually happen in the future. We are constantly moving toward a more pluralistic and tolerant culture, at least in the US and other developed places.  More connectivity across the world will continue that trend. At the same time the wealth gap is increasing significantly and the middle/working class has less buying power now than they did before. We may be moving toward a much more divided world of haves and have-nots, and those with money will be the ones who have access to technology.


What if the gap between the haves and have-nots became wide enough that the have-nots got mad enough to do something about it? What if we had a rebellion of the unmodified? Will the enhanced be so powerful that they convince the underclass that they are content where they are? Some people think this happens today. The new eugenics could be used to keep the have-nots contained, or even engineer them to be docile and subservient, like sheep. What is the Marxism of the 21st century? Is it an anti-technology, anti-genetic enhancement movement? Old fashioned war? Or will the have-nots appropriate technology to serve different ends? Would they somehow turn the technology against those who use it?


Does the gap between the haves and have-nots increase the potential for eugenics?

What does it take to destabilize society?

In today’s session we talked about what it would take to bring down society similar to the plot of One Second After. In the book, an EMP shuts down all electronics. We discussed the importance of food distribution and storage, transportation, communication, sewage removal, federal government, and water distribution and purification. Would the loss of any one of these technologies reduce civilization to cannibalism? Each of these systems require electricity and computers, and the internet. Would the loss of internet capabilities be an existential threat to the country? I believe it would. It’s not just that we can’t research anything (i’m not saying life without Google) It would be life without any communication or network or servers. The Internet controls our communications – everything is through an IP address. Our sewage system, traffic system, food distribution, pharmacies .. All work through a connected network over the internet. It’s almost like being without power except we can still stay warm in the winter, providing that the utility companies can distribute electricity or gas without connectivity. Our cars will still work.


As time goes on, the technology increases and the systems become more complicated and more connected. Cars are becoming autonomous and thus will be connected to the internet all the time. Our houses are becoming ever more connected. We’re creating the Internet of things – why would we think that we can sustain society without the internet?


Even if we can imagine a society without the internet (which we all can), implementing it will be a lot harder than one may think. Food distribution used to be done without automated processes, we can do it again! Of course we can do it. But how long will it take for that new system (read: legacy system) to be developed and implemented? If it’s longer than a week, people will already be planning to attack their neighbors.


What does it take to destabilize society?