Cryptography

The History and Mathematics of Codes and Code Breaking

Month: December 2019 Page 1 of 2

Class Notes

As you work on your final papers, you might find these notes from our class surveillance vs. privacy debate useful. Thanks to our three notetakers for capturing the debate so well!

Below you'll find my photos of our final class activity, the one that asked you to identify and then group "enduring understandings" about cryptography that you felt were important to remember. Click on any of the photos to see a larger version.

Online Participation Self-Assessment

Your online participation in this course contributes 10% of your final course grade. Now that the course is almost over, I'm asking you to review your online participation in this course, compare your participation to that of your peers, and assess your contributions to the learning community. Please give yourself an online participation score between 0 and 10 points, and email it to me with a justification (a paragraph or two). If I think your score is reasonable, given your justification, I'll use that as your online participation grade. Your online participation self-assessment is due at the start of class on Wednesday, December 4th.

To assess your online participation, focus on blog posts and bookmarks on Diigo, as well as other forms of online participation, if any. In each of these areas, I usually ask you for specific contributions -- posts that responded to particular questions, or bookmarks about specific topics, or tags and comments that fit certain parameters. As you look over your contributions to the course, keep these requests in mind. Also consider how your online participation contributed to the learning of your peers in the course.

We the Jury

“Beyond a reasonable doubt” is the standard upheld in the United States criminal justice system by which a defendant can be found guilty. Although we will not be conducting a murder trial in the classroom, serving as the jury, there are still certain standards by which I will be evaluating the arguments of the debate. Strong cases can be made for both sides of the question of electronic surveillance in the interest of national security, as we have delved into over the course of this semester. Various opinions on this matter depend on people’s differing political affiliations, prior experiences and moral values. Because attitudes are highly divergent and very personal, debaters often become emotional as they attempt to defend their standpoint. Although passion is very easy to detect and makes a speaker emphatic, it does not necessarily render their argument better. A sound argument, much like in the courtroom, requires hard evidence. There are a lot of unknowns and misconceptions with regards to electronic surveillance because of the secure nature of the act. Many arguments against security make assumptions and suggest hypotheticals about the unnecessary and invasive nature of surveillance. Likewise, arguments for security make assumptions and suggest hypotheticals about the necessity and efficacy of surveillance. As the jury, the only way to make a fair evaluation is to remain objective. A legitimate argument is backed by statistics, facts and hard evidence that can be verified, and as such that is what I will be listening for in the class debate.

Privacy Is a Right, Not a Privilege 

I take issue with the way this debate is often framed: privacy versus security. It's misleading to suggest that privacy is directly opposed to security. A more apt name would be privacy versus surveillance. My point in these semantics is that, even given a wide latitude to monitor the people of this country, government surveillance doesn't necessarily make us any safer. The American people are and have been under what some would consider heavy surveillance for a few years and it has not demonstrably impacted our security. What makes us think that expanding the reach of that surveillance would suddenly be more effective? The likelihood of some bad actor within the government abusing their power to invade the privacy of American citizens, as has already happened with the NSA, is too great to justify whatever security may or may not be gained by giving that bad actor more tools to work with.

Secondly, regardless of the effectiveness of surveillance, privacy is a right. Plain and simple. By surveilling the American citizenry, the government violates that right on a national scale. I think that the right to privacy should be more clearly stated in the constitution, but it is alluded to in the fourth amendment, and it is clearly a principle on which this country was founded, even if the founding fathers didn't think of it in terms of privacy because this debate looked different due to differences between then and now in technology. The intent behind "no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause" is pretty hard to mistake: it is a breach of privacy, and therefore a breach of our rights as citizens of this country to be subjected to involuntary surveillance by our government.

Is there a middle ground?

The topic for this debate is crucial because it is so real within our lives. Since the rise of the truth in the summer of 2013, more and more people have become concerned with their own privacy, while many others ponder at what the balance should be. As part of the jury, the main thing I want to focus on is this: how would the average citizen react or respond to this argument made by either opposition?

Arguments are generally settled by those directly affected by changes as a result of the debate, hence the role of the jury. For either side, I want to see something  compelling that goes beyond what I would know as a typical individual in America. Why do we need surveillance? Why do we need privacy? To what extent are the two allowed to intertwine and mesh together? Are they even allowed to be in the same conversation, working with each other? If so, how would that possibility play out in our society today? Are there any real and viable alternatives to the mass surveillance we have today? Rather than looking for an answer as concrete as one is better than the other, we want to look at how we can take benefits from both sides and possibly put them together.

The Importances of Both Stances

As a note-taker, I am a neutral person who simply wants to make sure that the most important aspects of the debate are discussed. With that being said, I have two questions. Has there been a period in history where something similar to this has happened and has gone very badly or extremely well? Exactly what boundaries would the government be allowed to overstep before it is seen as "citizens' privacy is not always respected?"

I think the first one is very crucial to ask because everyone knows that you must learn from your mistakes. Another saying is that "nothing is new under the sun." So if in the past, something similar has happened and the outcome was not favorable, it would be very smart to not have it happened again. And according to the second saying, it most likely has already happened, and if it stopped and is not currently happening, was it for the better?

The second question is important because boundaries must be set in place, but with the US being made of different people with differing opinions, these said boundaries would be very hard to establish. There are those who are very open with their personal lives, and does not mind if the government does a little snooping if it means that they are being protected. However, there are some people with secrets (whether good or bad) who just want to keep their secrets hidden. So exactly where exactly is the line drawn to prevent the government from merely occasionally invading citizens' privacy to comletely abusing their power?

Surveillance Must Be Reined In

The privacy of American citizens should be prioritized over government surveillance efforts, even in the interests of national security. First, the right to privacy is an unalienable right that goes in tandem with, or could even be seen as the obvious and necessary inverse of, the right to free speech. Even if American’s don’t realize why this is a right they need to have—or think they have “nothing to hide”—a rhetoric that is often used in this debate, that line of thinking is a slippery slope. Just because someone can’t see how they could use a right in that moment does not mean it should be taken away from them.

Second, even if citizen’s surveillance data is being collected solely in service to law enforcement and national security efforts—which, in many cases, other tactics prove just as successful as information gathering to solving—the government should not have this much power go unchecked. As the NSA is part of the executive branch, it is a gross overreach of this one branch of government on the citizenry that needs to be balanced and overseen, to ensure that only true suspects are being surveilled and not just every citizen. Also, it is important to remember that real humans do this work, and there are always bad actors that abuse the system—for example, NSA workers that were reported to have been using their credentials to spy on ex-girlfriends. These kinds of practices are another reason why government surveillance efforts and the NSA should not be given any kind of wide latitude to surveille, and must be reined in.

Trusting the Trade-Off

It is important to look at surveillance in the correct way, as an inanimate idea. Surveillance is but a tool used by entities in order to collect data about whoever is being surveilled. Thus a mistrust of surveillance lies fundamentally in the mistrust of authority and the powers delegated to it. My first primary argument is the importance of a social contract. The very idea of a government in a society is a trade off, where citizens give up certain rights in exchange for security and stability provided by the government. It is necessary to give up certain rights in order to live in a society with a government. Putting aside infringement on citizens privacy, there is no denying that when it comes to purely catching illicit activity, surveillance is extremely effective. Therefore the evils of privacy infringement need to be weighed against the good given by the surveillance. When considering the internet, the idea that privacy is an expectation falls apart when under scrutiny. Considering the internet as a public exchange of ideas makes it no different from a public plaza, where a conversation does not have the same expectation of privacy that it does in someone’s house. 

My second argument is that the shortcomings of people should not be put unto the tools that they use. Fixing the government and its many problematic areas is an important problem, one which we will be solving until the end of time. Privacy abuse is the misuse of the information that is provided by surveillance. Therefore there is a large potential for abuse. However the government and law enforcement is already extremely powerful, and yet most people are okay with police officers carrying weapons, and the government controlling the military, whose resources are practically unlimited. Trusting higher authority with those tools is possible, and thus it is possible to use surveillance to benefit all.

Why Privacy is Needed

The US Government should not be given wide latitude to use electronic surveillance on its citizens. The government cites national security as the reasoning behind surveillance, but often times, national surveillance is not even effective in keeping the country safe or preventing terrorist attacks. In 2013, the President’s Review Group on Intelligence and Communications Technologies analyzed terrorism cases from 2001 and onward. They found that the NSA's phone record collection was "not essential to preventing attacks." The idea of surveilling the entire population to find terrorists has been equated to finding a needle in a haystack because terrorists are so rare and the vast majority of people are innocent.

The government employing surveillance methods on the population also infringes upon American and human rights. The need for surveillance implies that citizens are all potentially guilty, rather than innocent until proven guilty. The presumption of innocence has been declared as an international human right by the United Nations. In addition, the Fourth Amendment states that without probable cause, law enforcement is not allowed to search an area or seize any items or people. The government does not have probable cause to look into our online history, yet they continue to do so.

Criteria For Jury

I plan on evaluating the arguments based on a couple criterion.

First, the relevance of the argument. Is the argument relevant to the average American or the argument directed towards a specific to a demographic? The relevance of the argument will be something I factor in heavily towards my decision. If the argument being made is not relevant to the average consumer and is pigeonholed towards certain groups or agencies then the large scope of national surveillance is not being explored.

Secondly, the validity of the argument. Are the arguments being made grounded in fact or are they purely hypothetical?  If the argument being made is purely hypothetical, then that provides no compelling evidence that is grounded in fact. If the arguments are tied into something historical that can be proven through a respectable source or by fact, then that makes for a more compelling case. 

Thirdly, originality/presentation of the argument. Is the argument based off of our tired talks on NSA metadata or do they find a new angle to attack the question from? A new perspective is refreshing; especially in a debate where it may catch your opponents off guard and unable to refute the evidence. Providing this evidence in a more cohesive presentation would also prove to be more persuasive towards the jury. Points that are well organized and interconnected will be more compelling.

Also, the group’s ability to refute the other side’s evidence will also be important.

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