Blog Post 16: Computer Science for Everyone

The push for computer science information in lower level education is a rising tide in the U.S. One article writes that “the high school AP course has sustained record growth” and Ivanka Trump is pushing computer science from the White House. I think this is a fantastic thing. Computers play such an important part of our modern lives that everyone should have at least a basic understanding of how they work, so they understand how the many programs they might interact with on a day to day basis are working, at least on a basic level. Many people push computer science education because of the many job opporunities, which is a great thing, but I agree more with the sentiment that “it’s bigger than just preparing students for potential jobs, at the core of computer science is computational thinking, and, to me, computational thinking and that algorithmic process is a key skill that every student should have, that they can use in a lot of different professions and in everyday life.” This is more and more the way our business and economy thinks and works, so I think it is a disservice not to prepare our citizens for the way this works.

However, not everyone needs to be the best coder in the world. We still need doctors, educators, restaurant owners, etc. who don’t code on a daily basis. But they will be interacting with computers on a daily basis. We need to make sure that our workforce is comfortable working with computers programs and maybe a few years from now working alongside AI applications. I’m more concerned with computer education as a 21st century literacy tool than I am having a society of deeply knowledgeable computer experts.’

There is also an article about replacing foreign language requirements with computer language requirements. I think that this shows how low computer literacy actually is in the U.S. The difference between learning a computer language and learning Chinese is obviously an incalculably different for those of us versed in programming. They teach two very different life skills. If you want to argue that learning computer programming is more important than learning a foreign language and there is limited material to teach people, that is a debate that we can have. But the fact that a state government is somehow equating foreign language to computer languages shows just how far we have to go.

There are also some arguments against teaching computer science to everyone that focus on the idea that some people just simply can’t learn to program. One of the articles cites a study where they compared students before and after three weeks of instruction and found a split distribution between people who understood and didn’t understand coding. This distribution could also be found before any instruction in coding. While this might seem like a convincing argument against teaching people, there are a ton of studies that show people are not simply born with talents. They are acquired. This isn’t a disputable fact for most activities. It would highly surprise me if coding turned out to be one of these activities. To me, it’s more likely there is a confounding factor causing this. It could be that exposure to some other activity or field allows some students to better build the cognitive models for programming. It could be that there is some physical brain developmental hurdle still yet to be crossed (first year students in this study are most likely 17 or 18, they still have another five years or so before brain growth stops). It may be more difficult for some people to learn programming, but I think with some more innovative research and thought into the best ways to teach computer science, I suspect this is a barrier we can overcome. Even if I’m wrong, I think it is a mistake to stop searching for a solution this early into our field’s history.

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Blog Post 15: Patents and Intellectual Property

Patents are meant as legal protection of ideas and works so that you don’t invest a bunch of time in doing something only to have it stolen. Morally, this is important because it protects fair payment for labor. Practically, it gives an incentive to come up with new ideas and innovate which wouldn’t be present otherwise. Microsoft general counsel Brad Smith writes that patents “maintain the incentives that encourage and underwrite technological breakthroughs” and that “patents provide the legal foundation for innovation”. I think for these two reasons patents are a necessary and beneficial idea. You don’t want someone to work really hard on something for a long time and not make any money on it. That could  cause unfair financial hardship that affects their life in a negative manner.

That being said, I think that the patent system needs some rethinking for our modern tech economy. In an economy that is more based on knowledge and ideas than it is on physical attributes any more, patents take on a different meaning. Is it o.k to patent an abstract idea like software or an algorithm? What about taking that algorithm and applying it to a different problem that doesn’t compete with the business of the original algorithm inventor, does that count as a patent violation? Software is also something that by design is a conglomeration of a bunch of different algorithms to achieve a goal, so we should ask about whether we even want software to be patent-able. I agree with Bill Gates that “if people had understood how patents would be granted when most of today’s ideas were invented, and had taken out patents, the industry would be at a complete standstill today”. I think that software shouldn’t be patent-able for this reason among others. It is more beneficial for everyone, for software in particular, that basic algorithms and design ideas be non-patent-able. Software firms make their money from implementing this for particular ideas in a user friendly format. Another reason to ban software patents is that “software development is an individual, creative process more akin to writing a novel than designing a new car”. It takes a large amount of upfront capital investment to develop a new car, drug, etc. It makes sense that these are patent-able ideas. It’s practical to consult a lawyer for these few cases, there is an idea that results in a singular physical object, and you don’t want people being robbed of the large upfront investment costs. In contrast, “a single programmer working over a weekend can write software that employs numerous sophisticated mathematical algorithms.  It’s unreasonable to expect that programmer to consult a patent lawyer before releasing his software to the public”. Successful software isn’t the result of large scale science efforts coming up with a new idea. It is the ability to successfully combine these algorithms and deliver a available, usable product.

Looking at patent trolls shows what happens by allowing software to be patent-able.  They argue for their social need by saying that “if it didn’t buy patents, inventors would never get paid”. This is a weak argument to try justifying an extortion racket. If that was really the problem you wanted to solve, buy the patents and build something with them. Instead patent trolls sue anyone they can find although they haven’t caused any harm to the trolls or patent sellers that need to be rectified. It is an inexcusable behavior that is legal under our current patent system. Algorithms and math is such an interdependent web of ideas that the patent trolls have an easy time finding people to sue. Good software development requires picking through this web of ideas to find the tools for your problem. This web is a cultural inheritance of our country. It shouldn’t be patent-able.

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Blog Post 14: Intelligence and Automation

Artificial intelligence can be defined in a few ways, but I when I say AI in my article, I want it to refer to computers that can mimic human behavior well. Artificial intelligence is something different that consciousness, because “the assumption that if two systems are functionally indistinguishable, they will be mentally indistinguishable” is certainly false. AlphaGo is certainly functionally indistinguishable from a human playing Go, but it isn’t mentally indistinguishable. AlphaGo is a clever combination of Monte Carlo Tree search and constitutional neural nets to score boards. I think it would be difficult to argue that a computer that do these two algorithms/modeling techniques is considered conscious. But you can consider them functionally equivalent, so I would say that AlphaGo is still Artificial Intelligence in the broader sense of the word. I think right now we don’t have a very good sense of what qualifies as consciousness either. “We Can Quantify Machine Conciousness” puts forth integrated information theory as a way to say whether something is conscious or not, but I think this argument has a lot of holes in it. My main problem is that ITT is based on axioms that are supposed to capture conscious experience, but there is no real validation of whether these axioms capture what consciousness is. I think that is a very tricky thing that needs to rest on some lower level axioms, not just saying that these axioms are in themselves self evident.

I think perhaps a more practically relevant discussion for our current technological state is what role we should give artificial intelligence in our lives. We’re used to deterministic, well understood computer systems making decisions and being an integral part of our life. But artificial intelligence is inherently statistical/probabilistic in nature, so it is more difficult for us to accept something that works well a certain percentage of the time. This poses a lot of new risks for us. I think the Future of Life Institute’s letter for research priorities for robust and beneficial artificial intelligence is a good thing. Artificial intelligence is a new, powerful statistics tool that we need to consider how to manage effectively. The letter highlights the potential benefits that such a power can bring, but it is also important to consider the misuse of this technology. I’m not particularly worried about the end of humanity from AI, but it could have negative side effects we don’t intend. AI trained on tainted or biased data sets,  behavior that optimizes a loss function but is unacceptable moral behavior, etc. are all concerns that must be researched and addressed. I think we need to be careful about where we integrate AI into our lives until technology has reached the appropriate threshold. For now, it is fine to let AI book dinner. But letting AI make court rulings is not an appropriate place to let AI into our lives.

There is also some concern about the economic effect of integrating AI. I don’t think anyone can really predict what is going to happen well. The Freakonomics podcast had two economists with very different viewpoints on the effect of automation and I think only time will tell which of those arguments is correct. I tend to put a higher probability on the market weathering the shock. People have an innate drive to do something worthwhile with their lives and I suspect we will have entirely new classes of things to do when AI is more prevalent in our society. It will take a lot of roles humans currently occupy, but there is always a bunch of things we never dreamed we wanted just waiting to be done. I also think there is an underestimation of the value that AI working with humans can provide. If we realize this value and do a good job of implementing AI that works for and with people instead of just replacing them, I think we’ll see even better results than if we just tried to replace people. As more experimentation is done with integrating AI into the workforce, I think this will be discovered. We will shift our thinking paradigm from AI replacing people to AI enhancing people.

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Blog Post 13: Fake News

Fake news is, as Time magazine reports, “false news stories, often of a sensational nature, created to be widely shared online for the purpose of generating ad revenue via web traffic or discrediting a public figure, political movement, company, etc.”.  In other words, it is essentially news that uses obviously false premises/facts to draw conclusions. While I am a proponent of letting people of differing opinions speak their mind and twist base facts to whatever argument they want, making things up is unacceptable and tech companies, as well as the government, have an obligation to filter blatantly false communications. Words have power. State sponsors like Russia have weaponized social media through agencies like the Internet Research Agency. The New York Times relates a very frightening event where the agency fabricated a chemical spill. It’s easy to extrapolate the potential power that being able to fabricate any event gives a government or group.

Before going any further though, I want to be clear that blatantly false is a very, very narrow window of communication. This includes things like events that never took place, false statistics (misleading statistics are fine, stats is an interpretation game after all), and media posters presenting themselves as someone else. If a good set of blatantly false guidelines are judiciously applied, this doesn’t stifle free speech. Opponents of this would argue that it’s a slippery slope to shutting down all free speech, but I think a judiciously applied guideline system would reap great benefits for society. It’s not difficult to come up with a system of checks and balances that would prevent sides of an argument from trying to shut down each other in the name of false news. A well deployed system is crucial to the well being of democracy, our communities, and national security.

You can already see the effects of fake news starting to wreak havoc on our society. Articles with titles like “Mark Zuckerberg is in denial about how Facebook is harming our politics”, and “If you don’t have anything nice to say, SAY IT IN ALL CAPS” show that this is starting to become a discussion. When more people realize how they can use information warfare to their advantage, this problem will only become worse.

Google has taken what I think is a positive step to combat fake news by beginning to partner with non-profit fact checking agencies for their search results. This is a step in the right direction. A more technical solution might be increasing the authentication barrier for users to set up new social media accounts. Making it more difficult for users to set up multiple accounts can help to stop trolls. Similarly, we might consider the pros and cons of decreasing user anonymity on the web to fight fake news. I think there need to be some studies on how much the shield of anonymity allows people to feel safe posting dissenting opinions and its effect on conversation before we can have an informed discussion on whether or not it could make sense to make people less anonymous on the web. Anonymity makes people generally feel safer about posting things, both good (like a unpopular political opinion) and bad (like cyber bullying), but I think we need a more quantitative understanding of this before I am comfortable changing this in the name of stopping trolls.  The story of gamerGate and other cyber bullying stories are strong arguments to decrease anonymity. On the other hand, we wouldn’t want to take away anonymity for someone speaking out against a brutal dictator. This is a generally lose-lose situation in my mind that requires evaluating where we want to make sacrifices.

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Project 3: Privacy and Cloud Computing

When you use the cloud, you make a few trade offs. First, you give someone else control and access to all of your data as well as ensuring that your data is always available and secure. You’re essentially betting that whoever you choose to outsource this to is going to do a good job with security, data availability, and respecting your privacy. In return, it can save you a lot of money because you can scale servers up and down as needed, free you from making security decisions you may not be qualified to make, and prevent you from having to worry about data availability, hardware backups and reliability, etc. I’ve evaluated these trade offs and come to the conclusion that for a fair majority of projects, the responsible thing to do is in fact to use the cloud. Security is what comes to mind for me especially. Although there have been high profile breaches of cloud computing companies and data, I still would rather trust a company with a dedicated security team than me, who isn’t up to date on the latest exploits and am not particularly well versed in security. Also, I think in general someone who’s entire job it is to maintain a high up time percentage will probably do a better job than me doing it on the side of whatever main application or project I may be developing. Using the cloud doesn’t come without risks, nothing does, but the benefits are the reason that more and more companies are transitioning to cloud hosting, storage, and computing.

It can be worth it to manage your own cloud service in some circumstances though. For instance, if you are a large company that is very concerned about security (defense contractor, R&D type company, etc.) it could make sense to hire your own dedicated cyber security personnel so you have direct control over security as opposed to outsourcing it. If you had very, very specific hardware requirements for your system it might also make sense to manage your own hardware. It’s all about envisioning the trade offs of giving up control of managing security, hardware, and privacy concerns. If you think you are in a position that requires you to have direct control over any of these as opposed to trusting someone else to be competent, you should manage your own cluster. But it’s important to remember you may not necessarily do a better job than these companies can if you can’t give the appropriate resources, so that must be included in the calculus as well. In everyday life though, I will continue to use cloud services. I don’t have the time, desire, or resources to host the variety of services I am interested and need to use for my daily life. While I’m sure some companies will be irresponsible with the data I give them, it’s a risk I’m willing to take. Corporations aren’t made of inherently bad people, it’s just that sometimes the structural setup puts incentives on people that make them choose to act against what we as an outside viewer considers the moral thing to do. I’m hoping and trusting that as we come into an age where data security becomes more important, companies will choose to structure and manage incentives in a way that encourages the correct and moral handling of data. People make mistakes so security breaches will happen, but overall I am hopeful that as a tech community we can learn to manage data in an ethical manner.

You have a moral standing to complain about encroachment on privacy when you willing give away data to third party companies. It is virtually unavoidable in the modern era not to use these services and still function in society. As I’ve said, I think since companies are given person hood they should be held to the same moral responsibility as a person. This requires that they make an effort to respect the privacy of their users. Entrusting someone with information, you would expect them to be responsible with who they share that info with, how they protect, how they use it to make decisions, etc. You shouldn’t be expecting anything different from a company just because they are a collection of people instead of a single person.

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Blog Post 12: Censorship

Censorship is a difficult topic with a lot of gray area to consider. I believe that tech companies have a moral imperative to censor some types of content, while others they have a moral imperative not to. The general rule I would propose is that tech companies have an obligation to filter out directly harmful messages. I’ll define directly harmful to be encouraging physical violence against a non-aggressor in a physical sense or targeted and emotionally hurtful messages without an attempted logical argument. A racial slur falls under this directly harmful, as it doesn’t express an argumentative viewpoint, and is targeted to create a hostile environment for leaders. Terrorist recruitment also falls under this category, as it encourages physical violence against groups of people who pose no physical threat. Examples of permissible speech is that I think Twitter shouldn’t have shut down includes that from the “alt-right movement … [who] are generally outspoken in their attacks on multiculturalism, globalisation and immigration”. As long as the alt-right isn’t pushing for physical violence against non-whites and is trying to convince with logic (even badly flawed logic), they are in their right to be heard. They should be allowed to write volumes arguing for the removal of all non-white citizens from the U.S, and no one should filter their speech. This facilitates conversation and doesn’t fall under the category of directly harmful. Presumably, this should lead to conversation against this viewpoint and the public will hash out a prevailing viewpoint. Some people have a fear that even discussing something very evil (like turning America into a white’s only club) will give it credence and the ability to gain followers. I think this is the price we have to pay if we care about an open society with a free exchange of ideas. We’re going to have some terrible ideas on the shelves that get a lot of thinking. They will even convince some people, maybe a lot of people.  But having an open exchange of ideas mean the good ones are out there too, and over time they should build a critical mass.

It is also important that tech companies are very transparent about what they are choosing to censor, since there can definitely be some gray area in this topic of what is and what is not acceptable to censor. One of the articles discusses a black woman who was censored on Facebook when posting about her standoff with police. Her 5 year old child was eventually shot by the officers. Rashad Robinson,  who is “the executive director of Color Of Change, an online organization focused on racial issues” said of the case that “the lack of transparency is part of the problem”. When people are unaware of what they aren’t seeing, it creates an ignorance that we don’t want in our society. If tech companies choose to censor certain things, they should at least let us know what kind of information they are refusing to show us.

Being transparent about filtering content is part of what makes it morally permissible to operate in countries with heavy handed censorship laws. “Lee Rowland, a senior staff attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union, says companies should generally submit to governments’ requests for censorship, if it means they can keep delivering their services. But when they take down content from their platform, Rowland says, the company must be transparent.” People knowing what they are ignorant of is better than not knowing you are missing out at all. It at least allows people to understand that they may be missing parts of the puzzle when they are making decisions or forming opinions about certain topics.

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Blog Post 11: Corporate Conscience

Corporate person hood is giving the same rights to a company as you would to a person, in both the eyes of the law and morally. In legal terms, corporate person hood is when “for-profit corporations are entities that possess legal interests and a legal identity of their own—one separate and distinct from their shareholders”. Socially and morally, this is a little bit more difficult to define. It means we as a society recognize corporations and their actions to be of equivalent status as those undertaken by people. If we buy into corporate person hood, it requires that corporations have the same ethical responsibilities that people do. Choosing to give corporations person hood means they are treated as people in all aspects. They take on the personal, social, and legal responsibilities that a citizen would.

I believe that IBM was acting in an unethical manner by dealing with the Nazis. I should preface this by saying I am a proponent of corporate person hood. Corporations and employees have a mnemonic relationship where people shape a corporation and the corporation shapes people in a cyclic manner. It’s like a feedback loop of thought between individuals and a collective conscience of the company. So while a corporation may not be a person, treating corporations in any other manner than a person denies this cyclic link. Corporate person hood is necessary because of the fact that people hold responsibility to shape corporations, even though a corporation may be exerting a shaping influence on them. Although it is impossible for humans to think independently of the thought environment surrounding them, a corporation is still an extension of human action. This requires corporations to be treated as people would be.

Proponents against corporate person hood might argue that corporations don’t have the same rights as people, because as president Obama says “Corporations aren’t people. People are people.” While this is certainly a true statement, it also hints at a flawed understanding of the social structure in corporations. It disembodies a corporation from the people that make it up, ignoring the influence people have on corporations. This is to deny one of the two links of influence in a corporate social structure. It treats corporations as a naturalist phenomena against which average humans must struggle. The underlying reason for the movement to strip corporations of their person hood is that while legally we have chosen to give corporations person hood, often corporations fail to uphold the moral responsibilities that are required when holding this status. Because of the inextricable connection between human and corporation, it is impossible to divorce moral culpability of employee from corporation. Like a social sin, all share in the blame for unethical actions taken by a larger community they participate in. Consequently, corporations must be held to their moral responsibility by actions of their employees as well as through the law.

An argument against corporate person hood would be the lack of influence employees can have on a corporation. In other words, the naturalist view point is correct because there is no link of people influencing corporations. This might be a more reasonable argument for a company like Walmart, but in most tech companies, this doesn’t hold much water, so I’ll leave out discussion of that case. It’s hard to argue that employees at Google or Facebook aren’t influencing the company either through design decisions, discussion among employees, or direct high level decision making power. While it may not feel like a lot of power, it still is influence in one form or another on culture and business decisions.

If corporate person hood is to be believed, companies have an obligation to take reasonable measures to limit misuse of the fruits of their labor just as individuals have an obligation not to work towards evil means. Because the Nazis clearly had evil intentions, it was wrong of IBM to provide material support.

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Blog Post 10: Cloud Computing

Cloud computing is simply distributing tasks among multiple computers. Whether it be storage or computationally intensive tasks, cloud computing can make tasks infeasible by a single computer doable. Normally cloud computing implies renting out other people’s computers.

In terms of deciding whether to use cloud computing or not, there are multiple things to consider. If you need to scale up and down computing resources,  cloud computing can be a big money saver since you only pay for computers you are currently using. You also offload the burden of hardware maintenance and security concerns. Sometimes people have concerns about the privacy of cloud computing, but I believe for most cases it is very secure. Major cloud providers have a dedicated security team with far more expertise about secure server development than a lot of companies provide. Even though there have been some high profile security issues, for a lot of companies this is probably a more secure option. In terms of risk, you need to consider potential issues migrating legacy code to a cloud environment. You also are giving up a level of control by using someone else’s computers, which can be a problem depending on your application. Often times you might not be doing development on the cloud, only deployment, so you need to carefully consider environment differences causing problems. “Five Advantages and Disadvantages of Cloud Storage” mentions many of the pros and cons I have just outlined.

I’ve had some experience developing with AWS. I was led to use it for a lot of the positive reasons I listed in the paragraph above. Cloud computing has become very popular for these reasons and I intend to continue using services like AWS in the future when the positives outweigh the negatives.

As a consumer, there are some nice parts of using the cloud. It means you have access to your data from any device connected to the internet. Also, since data on your personal devices is far more likely to be lost to hardware failure than data in the cloud, your data is less likely to be lost. One of the negatives of cloud computing for consumers is privacy. Putting data on the cloud as opposed to personal computers means that companies have greater access to data and service usage information. Companies can predict scary things about people from big data. The article titled “Facebook Knew I was Gay Before my Family Did” is telling about the power of data. “Not Ok, Google” describes how Google is attempting to up the amount of data it collects by extending its hardware sales. Collecting and analyzing data like this would not be possible without cloud computing.

I do use multiple cloud products. I have a Google drive, use Google docs, and access financial information through the internet. At the end of the day, I do trust the cloud. I understand that my data is being used, but I view this as my payment for the convenience and free usage of many cloud products.

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Project 2 Post: Immigration

I think when considering whether or not to allow immigrants to come work in a country, we need to consider Catholic social teaching. We need to build an economy that serves humans and also maintains a preferential option for the poor and vulnerable. Often times, immigration discussions are framed in two extremes. On one side, preventing immigration is seen as the wealthy U.S ignoring the plight of the poor in vulnerable and an affront to solidarity. On the other side, immigration is seen as harming the economy and state that is working to serve its citizens effectively. Foreign workers replacing tech workers at Disney is a prime example of this.

An immigration system that respects both the rights of immigrants and the rights of native born workers is very difficult to achieve. I think the idea of H1-B visas where you can hire a worker if no one in the U.S is qualified to do the job respects both native and foreign workers, when the system isn’t being subverted. Similarly, low wage immigrant workers who take jobs native citizens aren’t interested in doing is a system that builds an economy working for everyone. I would love to see an option for immigrants who are coming to the U.S to open a new business, as they are building an economy that works for both them and native citizens. But in our not so ideal world, we struggle to balance respecting the economic rights of native and foreign workers.

I do not think a global meritocracy system for jobs and completely open borders achieves an economy that strikes this balance. For instance, Forbes notes that Indian tech workers brought in through H1-b visa loopholes “were paid “significantly less” than the New York market rate”, which New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman says “undercuts New York workers”.  The corrupted H1-b visa program turns the U.S into an open border system. It may help immigrant workers, but at the expense of native workers. This is unjust. The economy and tech companies may be getting good labor at a lower rate, but they are undercutting their purpose of supporting their workers and communities when they take actions like these. Companies have a moral obligation to care for the communities they are involved in. One level of community certainly is the national community. They can also choose to support the international communities and workers in different ways besides displacing workers. Collaborating on projects and sharing knowledge so Indian workers can make their communities a better place is a superior option.

It’s often noted how much immigrants contribute to the U.S economy. The Atlantic writes that ” immigration, on the whole, bolsters the workforce and adds to the nation’s overall economic activity”. They also note that “immigration isn’t without its negative effects, especially on Americans who lack a high school diploma”.  This just demonstrates how difficult striking a balance is. We also need to remember that these immigrants could be working to improve the communities they are from. While they are leaving for better opportunities, this is still lost production for the places they leave. In short, immigration is a difficult balancing game to make an economy that works for everyone.

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Blog Post 9: Government Survelliance

I am a proponent of strong government surveillance, particularly the mass surveillance of U.S citizens data conducted by the NSA. It is an important tool for understanding state actors and terrorists that might pose a threat to lives of U.S citizens. Michael Hayden, an ex-director of the CIA, writes that “50% to 60% of American intelligence day in and day out is provided by signals intelligence” that agencies like the NSA collecting. Although the majority of us will never know how effective or important surveillance programs might be, I’ll trust the director of the CIA if he believes it is necessary.

We are often left in the dark as to the effectiveness of these programs. A Propublica article complains of a lack of evidence that NSA surveillance has helped thwart terrorists. They say that the “agency has often made hedged statements that avoid any sweeping assertions about attacks thwarted”. Of course an agency that must collect messages in secret doesn’t want to give specifics of their tactics and results. It could hamper the effectiveness of their mission. And why would we not surveil U.S citizens when, according to Forbes, “every single jihadist who conducted a lethal attack inside the U.S. in the post 9/11 era was either a citizen or legal resident”. I think an important piece of evidence we do have though is that we haven’t had a single foreign terrorist attack in the U.S since 9/11 while they almost seem routine in Europe now. While there are certainly other factors that are contributing to the rise of European attacks and fall of U.S attacks, it’s easy to conjecture our intelligence agencies may have something to do with this.

Another attack against data collections like this is that “to conduct mass surveillance to locate something that simply doesn’t happen all that often (terrorism) is largely pointless” and costs far too much money. This is a paraphrased opinion held by Bruce Schneier, a well respected computer security expert. While Bruce has some fantastic insights into security, I disagree with this one. This may be a great strategy if we’re trying to defend a computer network. But when it comes to terrorism, I don’t think the public would accept a yearly terrorist attack as acceptable. It’s highly unlikely you would be one of the fifty people killed in the attack, but humans have a bad intuition for probability. It will still shake the national psyche. And I suspect the families of those killed won’t be comforted by the money we saved.

Of course, you can still argue that privacy is a right the government shouldn’t be breaching in such a manner. I don’t really think it’s that much of a breach though. No agency could possibly have the resources to save my e-mail conversation with my professor from last year. I imagine all computer memory manufacturers in the world combined can’t make enough memory to save all the data the NSA looks at in a day. A more realistic scenario is filtering the data quickly and saving select information and summary statistics. Unless you’re having some very strange conversations, the average citizen only is likely included solely in summary stats. I think most people would agree this is far from an egregious breach of privacy. And even if you’re data is saved, I suspect the chances of actually having any human look at your conversation are small.

I think it is also telling that the U.S government so overwhelmingly supports programs like these. Micheal Hayden writes that “it takes a special kind of arrogance … to believe that [your] moral judgment on the dilemma suddenly trumps that of two (incredibly different) presidents, both houses of the U.S. Congress, both political parties, [and] the U.S. court system.” While an opinion of the masses (and especially the government masses) doesn’t mean something is right, there are a lot of government officials who largely made their decisions about this outside of political pressure due to the secrecy of intelligence. They have a more complete picture than I or anyone else outside of government might of the problems. I tend to trust thoughtful people, with a complete picture, who are likely to be making this decision free of political pressure.

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