Month: October 2019

Writing 05: Privacy vs Security

It’s funny how the tv seriesĀ Black Mirror is supposed to be dystopian, yet some of the technologies described are already becoming a reality. In particular, one episode details a social rating system where participants can give each other ratings which ultimately will affect other areas of life, such as getting apartment applications or job opportunities. While such an idea is scary, it also seems somewhat far off, yet in place like China such a technology is becoming a reality, and China is able to look into the private lives of individuals.

Where then should technology draw the line? How far is too far when it comes to individuals? In recent times, privacy has become an important topic, particularly when it comes to social media and online technology that can gather information from its users. An important legal example however is that of the Apple vs FBI case, where the FBI attempted to compel Apple to install a “backdoor” of sorts to ease the breaking into of Iphones. Apple appealed, and ultimately the FBI dropped the case, but this case is worth looking into as it raises interesting points on the balance of privacy and national security.

Consider the arguments from both sides. First, the FBI, who argues that they should be able to have relatively easy access to data stored in an iphone owned by a shooter in San Bernardino. The FBI wanted an OS to be installed that is easier to break into such that the new OS could be side loaded into an Iphone and thus the information stored inside could be accessed. The argument is that having such a way of entering would increase national security, and would allow the FBI to more effectively track down potential security threats, as well as locate threats at large.

On the other hand, Apple stood up and said “no”, as they felt the existence of such a “backdoor” is a danger in itself, as it may fall into the wrong hands. They argued that if such software existed, the privacy of all iphone users would be threatened, and so they stood up for their customers’ privacy. From the surface, it may seem that Apple was in the right, as they appealed to the ideas of privacy as a right.

If we look deeper however, there are some interesting points to gleam. First of all, the FBI backdoor was arguably sensationalized. What the government really wanted was an easier way to brute force through the possible combinations of an iphone lock. While it is true that such technology could fall into the wrong hands, it is hardly an easy backdoor to take advantage of, and if such software existed, there are ways for Apple to keep the software under wraps and in check. Thus, the backdoor may not be as dangerous as it was made out to be.

Additionally, it is interesting to see how Apple “benefitted” from this case, as they constantly put out advertisement citing their willingness to defend privacy, in contrast perhaps to other tech firms like google or facebook. Yet, if we look at Apple in other areas of the world, the values they cite hardly seem to hold true. Consider Apple in China, who actively works with the Chinese government to maintain a database of all iphone users. That, quite frankly, is the opposite of privacy.

In this light then, it may seem that Apple was mainly using this case as a PR boost, as defending privacy would enhance consumer opinion. In a way, this reflects how sensitive the privacy topic is nowadays, and perhaps how oversensationalized it has become. People are more willing to defend privacy at any cost, even to the point where iphones lock and become completely unusable, as in the case with more recent iphones.

It is important to acknowledge though that having such strong privacy measures threatens national security. After all, there may in fact be important info stored on an iphone, such as a password to defuse a bomb. If there was no way to open it, then lives may be lost. It is justifiable then to defend privacy in the face of human lives lost? That is why I believe it is irresponsible to create a lock without a key, as in the case with newer iphones. Apple should be able to unlock any iphone, which is important because there may be cases where unlocking an iphone would contribute important information in solving a case or saving a life. Now granted, it is important to keep such unlock methods under wraps, but Apple could put together a series of checks and preventive measures to reduce the chance of such methods leaking. As a company who sells in the US and appeals to US values, it is important to be able to help the government solve crimes in reasonable situations, and to create a way for potential threats to securely protect information runs counter to that duty.

Writing 04: Whistleblowing

Whistleblowing is a contentious subject. Some would say that whistleblowing is akin to being a “traitor,” or even in some cases equivalent to being a “spy,” while others will say that whistleblowers are heroes who make sacrifices for the common good. I believe the question is more nuanced than that, because we have to weigh the potential dangers of whistleblowing and the potential benefits.

First, to highlight the benefits, and why whistleblowing is often an important thing to do. Whistleblowing is sometimes the only way important information can come to light and helps us keep groups accountable for actions that are not reviewable by the public. In fact, whistleblowers are important for that reason, as the act of whistleblowing sparks discussions about what is really going on in an organization. Even if the organization is not sanctioned in any way, there is at least pressure to change for the better, which is inherently a good thing.

On the other hand, whistleblowing has its dangers. For example, the leaking of government secrets is often a a dangerous act due to the complicated nature of politics. Additionally, it is possible that revealing dangerous facts might be misleading, or that people may draw incorrect conclusions due to not knowing the full story. Thus, a whistleblower also has the responsibility of making sure the information revealed will lead to more benefit than harm, especially as the whistleblower is in a better position than the general public is to interpret the released data.

The latter point still has its dangers however. Consider the question: should a whistleblower have an agenda, or should the released facts stand for itself? There is some appeal to the objective idea of “facts stand for themselves,” but in reality it is often impractical. On the other hand, whistleblowing with a strong agenda may cause a strong bias towards inaccurate representations, which may cause unjust harm to the reputation of the organization, or perhaps harm to other groups.

Another point that should be made on the subject of whistleblowing is the way information is released. I am of the opinion that it is never proper to go directly to the media, and that the media is a source of last resort. There are proper channels for which whistleblowing can go through, and by going through these channels first, we may be able to reduce the harm that whistleblowing may cause, as well as provide better context for the interpretation of information. Going straight to the media opens up the information to the general public, and the general public is not always the best group to interpret information, especially in an objective manner.

As can be seen, there are many many nuances to what justifies “proper” whistleblowing. To provide an example of how these nuances may play out, let us consider the subject of Chelsea Manning. First, let’s weigh the benefits and negatives of the case. First, Chelsea released a video allegedly showing an Apache Helicopter opening fire on and killing potentially innocent citizens, which sparked debate on what our military is doing in the Middle East and how the military makes decisions. This can be considered a benefit, as the debate sparked could help educate citizens, while also putting pressure on the military to review decisions made. On the other hand, the video was very shocking to citizens who are unused to seeing combat, and so the reaction may have been more emotionally charged than objective, which may have caused more harm than good.

Additionally, what is less known perhaps is that Chelsea had also released a bulk of other information, including some diplomatic cables, and the manner in which she released information was haphazard at best: she simply released as much info as she could. This is an extremely irresponsible way of whistleblowing, as the information released could potentially endanger political relationships without having a positive benefit as the released cables did not spark any meaningful discussion as the attention was focused on the video.

As another consideration, Chelsea did not seem to have a good reason to release the files she did, judging from her haphazard nature. In fact, from a documentary on Chelsea, it appeared she may in fact have released the files out of spite, which is certainly not a good reason. All in all, while her whistleblowing did create some solid discussions, her haphazard methodology and lack of a clear intent would make me question whether or not the action was justified, and to me Chelsea Manning is not the hero that others may think.