The History and Mathematics of Codes and Code Breaking

Month: November 2019 Page 2 of 5

The Price We (Force Others to) Pay

In the episode of Leading Lines, one point that Professor Gilliard brought up was that of how privacy infringements in the United States can have consequences that transcend national borders. The example provided: the oppression of Uyghurs in China.

At one point in the episode, Professor Gilliard mentions how FaceApp, an app available to American consumers through the app store that enabled users to leverage AI to perform mobile edits to photos of their faces, stored information on the user base’s facial data and transmitted it to foreign servers in China. While for us, this kind of privacy infringement doesn’t necessarily have any immediate consequences, there is a group that is currently paying a steep price for our negligence: the Uyghurs of China. Gilliard mentions how the data collected by FaceApp was actually leveraged by the Chinese government to train their facial recognition algorithms and ultimately augment their ability to locate and extradite Uyghurs to “reeducation camps”. For the west, such a grim reality is a drastic departure from what we consider as the true threat of increasing government infringement on personal privacy; most discussions of privacy infringements in the west eventually turn into hyperbolic debates about the inevitable slide into a 1984-esque police state, the common theme being that these debates primarily focus on conjecture of how the future may or may not turn out given the actions taken in the status quo. For China, however, these repercussions are unfolding today, and complacency with the privacy of our data in the west is leading to unparalleled and unheard of misery and suffering to the order of millions of people.

Consequently, China must serve as a wakeup call for what a government given too much power over privacy can and will accomplish. No longer should the debate surrounding government infringement of privacy revolve around what-ifs and conjecture. Rather, they should cite China as an inevitable terminus for a government given too much power and too much information.

Picture Privacy

At around the 16th minute in the podcast, Professor Bruff brings up the FaceApp. The FaceApp was a smartphone application in which users uploaded photos and the app modified them in creative ways. It was later discovered that FaceApp was taking the data of the faces and potentially storing it in some servers. With an application created abroad, naturally it drew criticism from the U.S. as a potential spying problem. This is an example of a larger problem, the misleading nature of privacy on the internet. A similar example is the Cambridge Analytica scandal in which innocent looking personality tests were used to collect data on Facebook users. The problem is that the majority of these apps are very unclear as to their privacy terms of service, and oftentimes are misleading by creating an innocent looking application while not being entirely transparent with their users about what they will do with the data that the users are supplying. Professor Gilliard then goes on to mention how he tries to avoid putting up pictures of himself on the internet. This is a completely foreign concept to anyone using social media. Be it Instagram or Snapchat, social media revolves around photographs. This has spread to internet culture, where accounts for various services oftentimes have an untrustworthy connotation if they do not have a profile picture.

Is FaceApp a Trap?

In Episode 62 of Leading Lines, I found the example of FaceApp extremely interesting. I remember using FaceApp this summer without a care in the world. At the time I was overseas looking for a bit of fun while waiting for food at a restaurant. My friends and I transformed our faces into ones of the far future with just a click of a button. We did not have a care in the world. After listening to this podcast I can now see how this may have been a mistake. 

As mentioned, the pictures that we used in FaceApp (and the transformed old people pictures) could be sent overseas and used for training exercises for similar technology, or for simple data collection. So, it’s possible that somewhere in Russia or China some machine knows what I will probably look like when I am 70. That has a lot of implications. In an extreme way, who knows what life will bring to people in the next few years. Lets say someone has to go on the run from the government. Now they cannot, simply because many countries have an image of what they look like at various stages of life. Or, in a less extreme case, when traveling overseas, you can be monitored more closely. Not only would they be able to use metadata like credit card history, or the times of calls made, they would also have visual data that would be useful at any point in life. Scary. 


Privacy Rights

When discussing the argument that “I have nothing to hide so surveillance isn’t really an issue for me,” Chris Gilliard brought up an interesting point, stating plainly: that’s simply not how rights work.

I never really comprehended the fuss over privacy. Why is it a big deal for a big corporation or government to look at what we’re doing. If you have nothing to hide, who cares and why should it matter? Gilliard really helped broaden my perspective on the topic. I now understand the faultiness of that logic. For example, with the First Amendment, the United States’ Bill of Rights grants citizens freedom of speech, press, assembly, religion, and petition. Using the same argument people often use against privacy and applying it to something like speech, it becomes rather ridiculous. “I have nothing bad to say about the government, so I don’t have a problem with my speech and writing being restricted.”

Rights are the fundamental rules are humans are owed in life, and according to our societal values, privacy is one of these rights.

The Gilded Age of Surveillance Capitalism

One phrase that Chris Gilliard used in the Leading Lines podcast that really stuck out to me, presumably because I had never heard it before, was his use of the term “surveillance capitalism.” In the podcast he was using it to compare how colleges and universities have borrowed, in his words, “some of the worst practices” of companies that collect data. There was never a term in my vocabulary to describe what I have witnessed, as I’m sure most people have, corporations like Amazon or Facebook doing—collecting and analyzing the data of everyday people to somehow profit off of this knowledge. “Surveillance capitalism” sums it up perfectly.

When I think of any big leap forward in human history—usually it is associated with a term like the “agricultural revolution” or “industrial revolution.” These terms connote a grand change, typically a positive one, in the quality of life for humans and the organization of society, and they are always associated with the way humans exchange goods—in a sense, the progression of man to fully capitalist societies. In the Western world we live in, capitalism is good, it connotes democracy and liberty and laisse faire. But where do we draw the line on the progress of capitalism? When does it go too far? It’s not a nuanced issued. It’s one that we have seen time and time again in the policy making of the United States.

So back to “surveillance capitalism”…Are we in the midst of a surveillance revolution? Definitely. But what we are seeing these days might just be the beginnings of a surveillance Gilded Age—when companies are creating monopolies just like the robber barons of the 1920s (Cornelius Vanderbilt, anyone??), except now those monopolies are being created on the collection of our whereabouts, tastes, online activities and transactions—when looked at in a connected web, essentially our identities. When companies are allowed to buy and sell a person’s digital (and often physical) history—where will we draw the line?

Watch Out Your Personal Information

In the podcast, there is an example of that some companies use a personal picture to predict what the person looks like in the future; this event also happens in China. When I surfing online or using apps for chatting, this kind of advertisement will come up sometimes. Expect about your future appearance, there are also some advertisements about what you are going to look like when you become a soldier. These are really funny and some of my classmates played with it. Before this class, I think this event is just for having fun and never think about giving out your personal information. Although I have not played it before, thinking that these companies may use our pictures to use for other purposes, I’m worried about this. These companies don’t have any income if they just do this activity, so there are possibilities that they sell personal information for money, which may cause a lot of inconvenience and troubles. What’s more, there are other fishing websites and we also need to keep out them. We need to think carefully before we click on the link or the app. To keep our own privacy, we need to pay attention to details and maybe some unfair condition is hidden inside the texts.

Blog Assignment #11

For your next blog assignment, listen to this interview with Chris Gilliard, professor of English at Macomb Community College, that I conducted for Leading Lines, the educational technology podcast I host. Then write a 200 to 4o0 word post in which you respond to a statement, argument, or example shared in the podcast that caught your attention.

Please (1) give your post a descriptive title, (2) assign it to the “Student Posts” category, and (3) give it at least three useful tags. Your post is due by 9:00 a.m. on Friday, November 22nd.

Bookmark Assignment #7

For your next bookmark assignment, find and bookmark a resource that helps answer one or more of the “first questions” we brainstormed in class yesterday. If you’d like to address a “first question” not on the class list, that’s fine. Either way, be sure to find a resource that’s credible.

Save your bookmark to our Diigo group, tag it with “FirstQuestions” and at least two other tags, and put the question you’re trying to answer in a comment attached to the bookmark. Your bookmark is due by 9 a.m. on Wednesday, November 20th.

First Questions

In class the other day, I asked you to brainstorm questions that you might need answered as you prepare your final argumentative essays. Below is a curated list of those questions. I’ll ask you in this week’s bookmark assignment (see next post) to find a source that helps answer one or more of these questions.

  • How effective has mass surveillance been in preventing terror attacks since 9/11?
  • What actual harm has come to US citizens as a result of mass surveillance?
  • How specifically has the pursuit of privacy impeded security efforts?
  • What are the mechanisms behind surveillance? How precisely are people surveilled in the US?
  • What is the balance of threats to national security that come from inside the US versus outside?
  • What specific legal frameworks are relevant to a discussion of mass surveillance?
    • What safeguards are in place to protect people from unwarranted surveillance?
    • What about other regulations or policies that govern privacy? Like regulations that might govern Facebook?
  • What reasons for surveillance does a government have other than terrorism prevention?
  • What have experts predicted for the future of surveillance?
  • What alternatives to mass surveillance have been proposed, and by whom?
  • What does polling say about public perception of surveillance and privacy?
  • What does this debate look like other countries? Say, China or the EU?
  • What do experts say about the risks of government “back doors” in software?

Paper #2 – Security vs. Privacy

Here’s the info on your final paper assignment, due Monday, December 9th.

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