The History and Mathematics of Codes and Code Breaking

Tag: security vs. privacy (Page 1 of 2)

The Need to Establish a Common Ground

When the 9/11 attacks occurred on American soil, the government had to respond in a certain manner to ensure the safety of its people. Based off of an argument brought up by Cory Doctorow in his novel Little Brother, I agree that the government first has to protect the safety of all citizens above anything else. Therefore, the government's action to look into previous phone calls and other similar information I believe is justified. While I also advocate for privacy rights, technology has such an affect on globalization that the government would not be able to ensure these terrorists were brought to justice if they did not search through these messages.

However, my concern is: when does this investigation stop? The government can be justified for looking to catch the terrorists and their accomplices, but how do we know that once they are found the government will stop peering on our personal data. The answer is that we don't. It is this sole reason that causes me to deter the allowance of the government to have access to this technological data. At times our rights have to be compromised to ensure our safety, but when will we be certain that we will ever be fully safe again. It is arguments like this that continually give the government justification to continue their investigations through people's private matters.

Therefore, I would grant access to the government for these investigations if I could be assured there would be a set termination to the investigations. For example, if the information could not be found after a few months, then it would be halted. I believe this serves to establish the perfect medium between ensuring privacy rights while also ensuring the safety of the citizens of the United States.

The Land of the Free and Home of the Brave

This weekend marked the start of NFL football season, and for an avid fan like me it's one of the most exciting weekends of the year. However, I want to talk about what happened before the games rather than what happened during them, specifically the national anthem. At the close of each rendition of the Star-Spangled Banner, the words "The land of the free, and the home of the brave" are sung." Those words, that I've heard dozens, if not hundreds of times, took on a different meaning when I thought about my recent reading of Cory Doctorow's Little Brother.

In the society of Little Brother, the "land of the free" simply is not that; rather it is a land of oppression, violations of rights and tyranny. Following the detainment of Marcus and his friends, Marcus is accused of being involved with the terrorist attack simply because he was in the wrong place at the wrong time. As a result, many of his basic rights guaranteed by the Bill of Rights are taken away. Marcus even says on page 55 "you're talking about defending my freedom by tearing up the Bill of Rights." These rights are fought for every day by men and women who risk their lives to keep this the "land of the free." Once we lose our freedom, we lose everything that America stands for.

On Page 56, Marcus says "The truth is I had everything to hide, and nothing," which immediately had me think about our discussion in class the other day. One of the arguments in favor of Vanderbilt surveilling our data was that "if he we had nothing to hide then why should we care." We should care because this is the United States of America. Because this is indeed the "land of the free" and certain freedoms are guaranteed to us by the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. My counterargument to anyone who says we shouldn't care about our privacy being compromised if we have nothing to hide is to ask them whether or not they would be consent to the government searching their dorm, or their house every day; nearly everyone would object. I believe that our digital footprint should be treated the same way. After all, this is supposed to be the land of the free, and that freedom should extend to all aspects of our lives.

"Hooded Gas Mask" — Just Another Google Search

If my reaction to Chapter Four could be summarized in three words, they would be “hooded”, “gas,” and “mask.”

Separated, those are just three innocent words, but if you put them side by side, suspicion would loom over your head as if you were its shadow. “Suspicion… by who” you may be wondering. Well, in my case, it could be the suspicion of those who monitor the internet here at Vanderbilt University, and in a day and age of heightened concern over public safety, that is not the kind of attention you want directed at you.

You see, although those three words can be read back in Chapter Three, it did not peak my curiosity to google them until I had reached Chapter Four. There I was at 2:00 A.M. on a Friday morning looking up images of hooded gas mask — not necessarily something your average college student would need. To me, I was merely being curious, but somebody else may have thought otherwise; they may have thought I was planning to recreate the tragedy that happened at Virginia Tech several years ago.

Once I became self-aware of how weird it was for me to be googling “hooded gas mask,” I closed all my tabs, deleted my history, and reverted back to my daily browsing of Reddit.

Unfortunately, Marcus did not have this opportunity, for he was caught “at the wrong place at the wrong time.” Trapped on the scene of America’s worst terrorist attack while unrelatedly being a tech-wiz as well, Marcus was detained by Homeland Security for being a possible threat to the U.S. After an uncomfortable ride by truck and boat, he and his friends were taken to an isolated location. There, he was asked to unlock all of his gadgets and logins, one by one — each unlocked gadget or login granting him an additional privilege. First, he was asked to unlock his phone to which he wanted to say “no,” but he eventually complied. The next day,  he was asked to unlock his email to which he complied without resistance. Then the day after that, he signed some papers (hesitantly) and was released from custody, but his interrogator made it clear that Homeland Security would continue to watch him.

Throughout just a few days,  Marcus endured a terrible scrutiny of his entire life — all because he was “at the wrong place at the wrong time.” If Vanderbilt had just endured a similar tragedy that the U.S. did in this book, would I be subjected to a similar treatment just for looking up “hooded gas mask” out of curiosity? The thought is unnerving.

I have always been a guy to say that we should put security over privacy without question but not after finishing this chapter and certainly not after the finishing book.

Getting Our Priorities in Order

“The role of government is to secure for citizens the rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. In that order. It’s like a filter. If the government wants to do something that makes us a little unhappy, or takes away some of our liberty, it’s okay, providing they’re doing it to save our lives,” (Doctorow, 209). This is an excerpt from Little Brother, a novel by Cory Doctorow. At this point in the story, a DHS approved social studies teacher, Mrs. Andersen, has replaced Ms. Galvez, the regular teacher. Mrs. Andersen is explaining the Bill of Rights to the students from the DHS perspective.

Protecting life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness “in that order” is not only useless, but dangerous. If your first concern is always to protect your life above all else, then you shouldn’t get out of bed in the morning. Think of all the terrible accidents that could happen, just by getting out of bed. Not that staying in bed is much safer, what if a tree falls on your house? When you sacrifice liberty and the pursuit of happiness due to fear, you are no longer living at all. If the government has the right to take away your freedoms at will, as long as they can claim to be “protecting life,” then there is no government action that is unjustifiable.

This is an obvious example of the slippery slope between privacy and security. If the Bill of Rights is treated as a set of guidelines, then what is to prevent ideas like these? The framers of our Constitution did not intend for the Bill of Rights to be flexible; these rights are absolute. When they become less than that, we open ourselves up to the tyranny that those rights are meant to protect us from. It’s time that we recognize this, time that we truly get our priorities in order, before it’s too late. If the government has unrestricted access to all personal data, then we have failed to live up to the ideals that make this country what it is. Even in the name of remaining safe, of preventing terror, we will be causing it. Innocent until proven guilty could quickly become guilty until proven innocent. If we prioritize security over privacy, it may not be long before we are living in a world like that of Little Brother.

Private ≠ Illegal

“The truth is that I had everything to hide, and nothing.” (Doctorow 56)

Doctorow provides us with many interesting ideas in his novel; the one caught my attention the most is Marcus’s comparison between living without privacy and using the toilet in a glass room perched in the middle of Times Square, where people can see you naked for a while. While everyone goes to a bathroom, almost no one wants to share his or her nudity with others, simply because it is something private, something only belonging to our own life. Living under close surveillance is just as creepy as joining naked shows in public.

In a debate of privacy vs. security, perhaps one objection to keeping privacy from data mining is that if people have nothing to hide, nothing needs to be hidden. However, such a thesis is untenable and thus fallacious. Many people have long hold a misunderstanding of privacy, that what people are trying to hide is shameful, or even the proof that they are guilty since it looks stealthy, just as the severe haircut lady says, “honest people don’t have anything to hide” (Doctorow 49).  But the truth is, something private doesn’t mean it’s illegal; or we should never write down our secrets and goofy thoughts in diaries because by doing this, we break the law. That’s also why Marcus is reluctant to unlock his phone for the DHS agents though he has nothing to do with the terrorist attack.

Constant surveillance is nothing new in today’s digital life, but before I read the novel, it never occurred to me that everything about us can be mined via different surveillance strategies. I felt even more unsettled when I thought of the likelihood that all those high-tech surveillance tools would become true and more widely used in the near future, and therefore it will be much easier for the government to keep an eye on each of our moves. While such development of technology is inevitable, I hope that the government still gives respect to our privacy, since it’s part of our own life that we don’t want others to see.

Our Dependence on the Bill of Rights

The Bill of Rights continues to stand to defend our individual rights within the United States. In Doctrow's "Little Brother" these individual liberties are compromised when a bombing attack occurs in the town. As security in the town of the novel saw a severe increase, privacy rights were jeopardized as a result. In Marcus's history class, there was a contentious debate regarding the suspension of the Bill of Rights at times when safety is more important. Marcus believed that these individual liberties should never be compromised while his new teacher and enemy in the class, Charles, believed that security should always be the priority. They further went on to argue regarding the origin and purpose of the Bill of Rights. While Marcus believed its purpose was to keep the government in check, the teacher and Charles believed it was an outdated form used to oust the Kings at the time when it was created. As a result of Marcus's argument, he gets sent into the principle's office where he is reprimanded for exercising his first amendment in class.

While I have always been an advocate for free speech, my view on privacy rights changed throughout reading the novel. Prior to reading this novel, I agreed that it is necessary to compromise certain liberties in order to ensure our safety. However, learning about all the ways our privacy has been compromised without our knowledge, and the ease in which more of our rights can be infringed upon has caused me to have a deeper appreciation for the Bill of Rights. In specific regard to the Fourth Amendment, while our safety is essential, more government security measures can only ensure our safety to an extent. Furthermore, I found myself siding with Marcus in that America is a place for freedom, and although our safety is vital, once we let the government infringe on our rights there is no assured stopping point. Even if measures do get out of control, the Bill of Rights encourages us to challenge the government to ensure our democracy is kept in check. The Bill of Rights was written to defend us so why work against it?

Is Privacy Worth It?

“But if colleges use the crystal ball that's available to them, they will surely come much closer to that goal.”

Throughout the article, “Mining Student Data Could Save Lives,” Michael Morris, the author, made many arguments, but his central argument was that college campuses should in fact mine their students’ data. That is the “crystal ball” that he says is available to them while the “goal” he mentions is to stop large acts of campus violence.

Now Morris does in fact make the argument that mining students’ data could help college campuses prevent large acts of violence, but that is only meant to draw attention to the main issue which is the fact that many college campuses are actually reluctant to mine their students’ data for various reasons. That is where Morris makes his central argument being that college campuses should in fact mine their students’ data. He addresses the counter-argument that privacy is in question but rebuts it by explaining that college campuses use algorithms that only extract “usable” data. He addresses another counter-argument that mining students’ data may be  met with the backlash of a policy breach but rebuts it as well by explaining that the Department of Education revised the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (Ferpa) where colleges would have more access to the information of students who raise serious concern.

I, for one, agree with Morris’s argument. As he himself has already stated, we as a society have been waiving our online privacy for our increasing indulgence in online services over the past decade now, and we cannot simply just go back to the way things were. To me, it would be outrageous having to mourn the death of a fellow classmate while knowing it could have been prevented by the college campus. At some point we just have to take a deep breath and decide what is more important — making sure that my routine life as a college student is kept private or stopping the next “School-Shooting” headline.

Safety > Privacy

In "Mining Student Data Could Save Lives", Morris argues that mining data is basically a crystal ball into the future. Data mining will give the ability to notice and prevent potential threats to the campus and community around it. The example Morris uses is a school shooter. If a university can use data mining to monitor students' online behavior, then they can look for warning signs that people may display before they do something harmful to themselves and or others.

One study shows that between the years 2013 and 2015 there were 160 school shootings, with 47 percent of those taking place in a college or university (Everytown Research). Many of these could have been stopped with some preemptive data mining. Yes, it is true that every student has a right to privacy and their rights should be respected. However, the overall safety of the student body is much more important than the possibility of someone seeing your recent search history. Realistically, data mining will be much more helpful than hurtful. A school shooting is not likely to happen in your school. But what if it did? If data mining is allowed, then the likely hood of a shooting happening diminishes even more. The safety of students is a top priority among all universities. The use of data mining would not be a tool to invade a student's privacy, but rather a weapon to counteract horrendous acts.

Is Possible Student Safety More Important than Student Privacy?

In the article, "Mining Student Data Could Save Lives," by Michael Morris, one can draw that Morris argues that if universities began using data mining as a form of preemptive measure to predict "the propensity for a person's future behavior," it would increase the safety of the students from threats.  Data mining is a form of data examination of network usage that can be used to create new information. While data mining can be very important and a key to improving public safety, there is a fine line between analyzing the network usage of someone, and invading personal privacy of those who wish to keep it. I agree with Morris' argument, but only to a degree.

There are a couple reasons for people to not want their university surfing through your data usage. People search up, read, or watch things that wouldn't necessarily point them out as a threat to society, but still want to keep that sought up information to themselves. They also enjoy the pleasure of knowing or believing that they are not being spied on as they navigate social networks or the internet in general.

I agree with these reasons, however, I do believe that data mining, when used in a way that does not forfeit privacy without need, can be effective in stopping violence before it starts. Data mining that tracks extremely dangerous individuals can save countless lives. Using it wisely is the key to not crossing that fine line of protecting students, and invading their privacy. As I say that, you may be asking yourself, where do I draw this line? That honestly depends on the threat level of the situation, the location of the institute, and the overall attitude of the people that are possible non threats that are also being data mined. Let it be known, however, that the data mining of a person who clearly is not a threat, is a clear and direct violation of that person's privacy, no matter how effective a data mining is.

The article begs a question. Should we as a people value our privacy over our safety? This is a very perspective driven question. I believe that not one man or woman can effectively answer this question for another. Nevertheless, this should not stop the drive to keep people safe while keeping their comfort intact, as both are important to us as human beings.


Data Mining or Privacy Invasion?

In this essay, the author Micheal Morris argues that universities should have the ability to access students personal information, via data mining, in order to prevent violent actions from occurring such as school shootings. Personally I do not agree with Morris' argument. I think that if a university had the ability to look at personal files and data then it would be abused at some point. For example: if there is a professor who is not on good terms with one of their students and the professor uses data mining to find out the student has been talking badly about the professor through text or email, then that professor could give the student a bad grade even if their work is of A+ quality. Data mining could also be exploited through outside hackers. If there is a system that can gain access to a whole campus of students, then there are multiple people who can hack that system and gain the same access. This becomes very problematic considering what the hacker does with the information such as blackmailing or stalking. Another reason I do not agree with Morris is if the person evaluating the data mining algorithms misinterprets the meaning behind someones personal messages. Everyone gets extremely emotional and some people vent through the internet. Just because they are venting through the internet does not mean that they are an automatic threat to the university. I think that a person looking at this using data mining would not understand what level the venting is at and would look immediately towards the worse case scenario rather than looking at it as something basic. Though Morris does mention that no system can "100-percent effective, 100 percent of the time," I still think it is wrong for anyone to have that type of access to someones personal information regardless of the efficiency of a system.

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