The History and Mathematics of Codes and Code Breaking

Tag: Data

Worry About Amazon

In Episode 062 of Leading Lines, Derek Bruff’s guest Chris Gillard begins talking about changing his twitter handle to something insulting Amazon as a joke. In explaining his motivation behind this, he said  “I’m very troubled to say the least by the surveillance network amazon is building.” While almost just a comment in passing, I found this to be an extremely interesting comment. This is because of the role amazon is begging to play in our society. For a long time, I have claimed that the things amazon is beginning to do are not only troublesome in terms of our security, but also in terms of our economy and our survival.

What Amazon started out doing was fine. Providing an online marketplace to compete with in-store shopping and with online shopping on companies’ sites was a good idea. However, the success of that idea has allowed Amazon to expand into much more than that. As Amazon out competes retail and closes stores, and as it grows dominance as the only mainstream online marketplace, its power becomes too intense. This is shown in the fact that it has been proven that Amazon’s actions directly impact inflation, which no one company should be able to do, and that municipal governments competed and begged for Amazon’s headquarters. This business such a powerful presence, and it is expanding. Amazon is planning to start it own banking system. This would make the Amazon experience completely contained: people could hold their money in Amazon and use it to purchase what they need in Amazon. The problem is that this involves giving away so much financial and personal data. And not to the government; to a private company. If the government can abuse data, a private company can do worse, and a private company that it seems can’t be held accountable because society is starting to depend on it can do much, much worse.

Surveillance = Dehumanization

One of the topics most widely discussed throughout Little Brother by Cory Doctorow is government surveillance. Was it justifiable for the DHS to track the citizens of San Francisco’s every move in the name of national security? An instance where this ethical dilemma came into question occurred on pages 136-138, when Marcus and his father learned that the DHS was closely monitoring ground chatter. Marcus, who was responsible for this spike in chatter, was opposed to the DHS’ involvement with the issue, while his father praised the DHS for their work attempting to catch the “methodical fools.” According to Marcus’ father, in today’s society you must sacrifice some things in order to feel safe, asking his son, “Would you rather have privacy or terrorists?” Marcus on the other hand sees the monitoring as an invasion of privacy, and does not believe that surveillance will amount to the arrest of terrorists.  


I found both Marcus and his father’s arguments extremely interesting and compelling. On one hand, the terrorists who killed thousands of people where still physically free, and potentially able to cause more harm. On the other hand, the constant monitoring has only slowed society, and has created fear throughout the city. Although both arguments are valid, from an ethical standpoint I would have to side with Marcus. The use of algorithms and data-mining to determine the likelihood of a person to be a terrorist is extremely dehumanising. In the US, we have already turned humans into mere digits by using social security numbers to keep track of virtually everything we do. Data-mining, for the purpose of finding criminals, reduces human behavior to simple numbers. We are not computers. This dehumanization allows the government to treat us like statistics. As shown by the book, we go far beyond this assumption. Our behavior is influenced by a range of variables (like emotions), that computers cannot comprehend. 


Privacy VS. Security

For many years, the debate about encryption and hiding messages has come down to one trade off: personal privacy vs. communal security. In his article “Mining Student Data Could Save Lives,” Micheal Morris takes a strong stance on this debate. His argument pertaining explicitly to universities, he claims that if universities could prevent tragedies if they looked into student’s data more. He believes that a technique called “Data Mining” could be used to prevent events like stalkings, suicides, and mass shootings on campuses.

Morris begins his article with an analogy to a school shooter and crystal ball. He portrays a vivid image of a student holding a glock and then states “If only there had been a way to look into a crystal ball and see that this horrific confrontation was about to occur, it could have been prevented.” This sets up his main argument that schools could prevent serious tragedies if they only had a closer look into the lives of their students. Morris then explains that this “crystal ball” is, in a way possible through data mining. Data mining would involve a similar process to, as Morris explained, credit card tracking. When a credit card company sees that you have an irregular pattern of spending, they will shut off your card because of the possibility that it has been stolen. Similarly, certain patterns of behavior online can be indicative to a university of potential real life actions. An online history of looking at automatic weapons might let the university know of a potential shooter threat. Knowledge of a google drive draft of a suicide note might allow the university know of a potential victim of suicide. With the right data, the university may be able to save lives. However, people have begun to value their data privacy so much that they have a problem with universities tracking these sorts of data. Still, Morris argues that it is worthy of losing some privacy. 

I completely agree with Morris’s argument. First, this system wouldn’t even involve a major sacrifice of privacy. It wouldn’t monitor students talking about drinking or parties or anything of that sort. It would only monitor for behaviors that could pose a serious threat to students. Second, I believe that most people fear systems like the one Morris describes not because they value privacy so much but because of how the government’s similar system has not worked out. In the post 9-11 world, the US government has become notorious for non-consensually taking citizens data and doing nothing good with it. People fear that it will be the same with universities. The difference is that a university can do far less to hurt a person than the government, and that the universities will be operating more smaller systems with a much more specific task. The potential for data abuse is much smaller. For those reasons, I believe that universities should be doing whatever they can to prevent these tragedies.

Data Mining in Universities

The issue over Internet privacy and surveillance is large and ever-increasing as our lives become more and more linked with the digital world. In Michael Morris’ essay Mining Students’ Data Could Save Lives, Morris argues that schools and universities should employ data mining technology on their networks to try and prevent potentially harmful acts against the staff and student body.

Morris’ stance on this topic is obviously an extremely controversial one. When presented with the notion that schools can track their data, most students would most likely be upset with the idea, saying it’s a violation of their privacy. However, the article brings up an interesting and valid point that we already give up much of our personal information to online websites, most notably for targeted advertising. Yet, most people do not seem bothered by this idea, and continue to use these online services.

The reason why most people wouldn’t agree with schools tracking students’ online activity, despite consenting to online surveillance on the daily, is the concept of personal disconnect. A student is at school for 9 months a year. They have had direct contact with their administration as well. As a result, it feels much more personal to be watched by a university versus a large corporation like Google which has billions of users. In addition, students would most likely feel suspicious with the school, thinking that administration would be watching their every move online with a magnifying glass. I think that university surveillance of students’ activity on their networks could be an effective way of keeping schools safe. With gun violence being such a hot issue in America, it’s reasonable for schools to be allowed to look at potentially suspicious activity. If you’re not doing anything wrong, there should be no reason for you to worry.

Should A Student’s Data be Monitored?

In his essay, “Mining Student Data Could Save Lives”, Michael Morris argues that universities should implement data mining technology to prevent crime and make universities safer. Data mining technology would help a university predict crime.

In his essay, Morris uses pathos to gain the attention of his readers. School shootings are events that are emotional for the victims and the people that here about them. He talks about school shootings since it is something that the entire nation is familiar with and horrified of. He uses the school shooting example since a school shooting is an event that could be stopped by monitoring behavioral patterns. A student’s behavioral pattern can be shown through what they do online. Universities can monitor a student’s activity through school computers, conversation through the school’s emails, and the activity that is on the WiFi network. Michael Morris states that universities are not able to access a student’s data until after a catastrophic event has already occurred.

I agree with the author’s argument that universities should use data mining algorithms to monitor potential threats. I think that data mining is not as serious as everyone thinks it is. Whenever a person searches something online browser cookies are used to suggest future online searches. I believe that we also lose privacy when we use social media. I think that it is fine if our privacy is lost to prevent horrifying events such as school shootings.


More Data, More Leaks

I am currently planning to write my first essay about the essay “Hello Future Pastebin Readers” by Quinn Norton. This essay is mainly intriguing to me because it is an important reminder that the publication of most people’s private information is nearly inevitable. It is interesting to realize how much of our information we make freely available without any concern about the repercussions. From Snapchatting our locations to checking in on Facebook, we constantly broadcast our information to everyone who can listen without any hesitation.

It’s also important to me that I had never considered the concept of “Over time, all data approaches deleted, or public.” This is a ‘law of data’ penned by the author, Quinn Norton. He claims that this rule has always been applicable to data, but it is only with the internet that the rule became so important to recall. The point of this rule is to remember that data often ends up in locations where it wasn’t intended to end.

I’m excited to write an essay about this topic specifically, because it is an issue which I believe is important and needs to be brought to light for modern society. It’s compelling to me that this topic is so obscure to most people. I hope that my essay will help change everyone’s opinion about public data.

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