ST112 A Fall 2018

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Climate Change and the Two Cultures

C.P. Snow’s identified philosophical divide between scientists and what he terms “literary humanists” has been the basis for many methods of education. The attempts to bridge the gap have included new ways of teaching, a “third culture,” and even Snow himself. Recently, a new potential bridge between the cultures has surfaced: a common goal. There is no question that climate change has effects that apply to everyone inhabiting Earth. Science has shown for decades that humans will suffer dire consequences if we do not implement sustainable practices and decrease our overall carbon footprint. Now, the question is not whether climate change exists, but how to combat the effects of a rising global temperature. So, how does climate change bridge the gap between cultures in terms of mutual collaboration? In what ways do scientists tend to approach the problem, and does that differ from their humanist counterparts? At the surface, the simplest and most logical answer would be that scientists and engineers utilize their backgrounds and respective fields to develop sustainable technologies. On the other hand, literary humanists may exercise their positions and educations to write policy, produce news, and educate the masses. Their writing craft makes it easy to relate scientific data to the general public and inspire change through persuasive pieces. While these approaches differ fundamentally, overlap between the two occurs surprisingly often, which reflects the necessary collaboration between the two cultures in facing the problem of climate change. Continue reading

Digital Security in the Information Age

Late 2015 saw tragedy in San Bernardino, California, as gunman, Syed Rizwan Farook and his wife, Tashfeen Malik, shot into a crowd, killing 14 and injuring 22,  marking one of the deadliest terror attacks in the United States since September 11th and the worst mass shooting since Sandy Hook. The perpetrators were killed in a subsequent chase and shootout with law enforcement, but Farook’s iPhone was retrieved by authorities. Wishing to bypass the phone’s onboard security features, the Federal Bureau of Investigation ordered Apple engineers to create a workaround so that the agency could access whatever crucial information may be on the terrorist’s device. They believed that the device possibly held digital data that would provide evidence regarding the attack or maybe even expose other terrorist rings. Apple refused on the basis that they did not want to establish precedent for increasingly expansive government domain over personal digital data, and they feared the consequences of creating a key to their digital safe. A legal battle ensued and Apple was prepared to take the case to the supreme court, but it was eventually dropped after the FBI received assistance from an unnamed third party. The issue, however, still remains to be fought in the future over whether or not the government has the authority to demand access to anyone’s digital data. With the explosive development of the world wide web and rapid implementation of smart devices in our society, information is increasingly being stored on “the cloud” rather than on physical documents, and being encrypted with technology more advanced than federal authorities can keep up with. Our government functions sluggishly by design, but the growth of technology is faster than ever, leaving regulatory measures lagging behind. At the moment, with our technologically ignorant federal government, consolidating regulations with the accelerating growth of technology will be impossible without more informed and efficient lawmakers. Although there are substantial arguments that granting the government domain over digital data would keep everyone safer, when we consider the consequences of legislation passed following other terror attacks like 9/11 and explore the perspectives of experts within the tech field, we can see that the Federal Government is not currently qualified to regulate digital data due to an inherent knowledge gap that legislators possess regarding technological concepts.

In 2016, the year following the attack, lawyers from the Obama Administration and Apple held tense discussions for several months regarding the iPhone of one of the shooters, Syed Rizwan Farook. The FBI wanted to access the phone to retrieve potentially crucial information regarding the recently committed terror attack or possible others. The only problem was that the iPhone’s security features were designed to erase all onboard data after 10 failed attempts at the passcode. The Bureau turned to Apple and demanded a one-time backdoor workaround be provided for the government to bypass this security feature and essentially allow them unlimited tries at hacking into the phone. Apple refused, citing the ethics of handing over domain of personal data to the government and jeopardizing the privacy of many more Apple devices in the future. On February 16, 2016, amid heavy backlash, Apple CEO Tim Cook released a letter to the public titled “A Message to Our Customers” addressing the company’s stance on the order by the federal government. In the letter he reiterates Apple’s support for the victims of the horribly shooting and the company’s disdain for terrorism, but most importantly he maintains that even a one-time break into their encryption is far too dangerous for the future of cyber-security than the public is even aware of. Cook appeals to the consumer’s desire for privacy and security against a government that he believes is overstepping its boundaries with this order. He relates the situation to terms that the less technologically literate could understand– “In the physical world, it would be the equivalent of a master key, capable of opening hundreds of millions of locks — from restaurants and banks to stores and homes. No reasonable person would find that acceptable.”  Cook says in his letter, “Opposing this order is not something we take lightly. We feel we must speak up in the face of what we see as an overreach by the U.S. government.” The issue, in Cook’s eyes, is that the government is trying to extend its power far beyond its duty to serve and protect the people, largely because it does not yet fully grasp the implications of a digital “backdoor”. In an age where cellular networks and the storage of trillions of bytes of data on digital clouds are relatively new, a governmental body that is mostly out of touch with the latest technology may not be the most qualified to make a decision that could affect all smartphones in the country.

“The FBI may use different words to describe this tool, but make no mistake: Building a version of iOS that bypasses security in this way would undeniably create a backdoor. And while the government may argue that its use would be limited to this case, there is no way to guarantee such control.”, argues Cook.  President Barack Obama voiced his support for the FBI and their pursuit of security in a public appearance saying “If technologically it is possible to make an impenetrable device or system where the encryption is so strong that there is no key, there’s no door at all, then how do we apprehend the child pornographer, how do we solve or disrupt a terrorist plot?”. The posts had been set for a nationwide legal battle for the future of digital encryption.

The issue became highly contentious at the time and had the potential to set incredible precedent as many police stations around the country eagerly observed, all in possession of hundreds of iPhones with potentially incriminating evidence to rapes, murders, or even future terrorist attacks locked away on them. If Apple could be forced to unlock Farook’s phone, who’s to say it can’t unlock any other one if there is reason to believe it would benefit national security. Experts on digital encryption and hacking voiced their predictions that, like Cook suggested, a digital bypass for the iPhone’s encryption can never truly disappear, and it can very likely fall into malintending hands. Public opinion about the issue was split. Polls taken primarily online with no scientific selection of participants were overwhelmingly in support of Apple refusing to unlock the phone, while a poll done by Pew Research using peer-reviewed methodology to obtain a more representative sample of the American electorate churned out results slightly more in favor of the FBI and national security (51% support FBI, 38% support Apple, 11% don’t know). Supporters of Apple were labeled as “anti-American” while supporters of the FBI were accused of being short-sighted and tolerating increasing authoritarianism. There was little room for a middle ground between the two sides.

Americans are no stranger to reactive government overreach. In October of 2001, just a month after the horrifying terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center, a bill known later as the PATRIOT ACT was introduced to congress. As a counterweight to the intense emotions and reactions directly after the event, the bill included several extreme measures for the sake of “protection”, including allowing warrants to be issued without probable cause, allowing private property to be searched with notifying the owner, and removing judicial authority to challenge unlawful searches. Sitting president George W. Bush labeled any opposition to the bill as being negligent to terrorist threats and the PATRIOT ACT passing the house by 357-66 votes and the senate by 98-1. Such radical legislation being passed with this much bipartisan support was, and still is, unprecedented, underlining the incredible sense of unity that the entire nation felt following the attacks. Despite all that, as the country began to run normally again and people started resenting each other again, support for the law that was just passed began to dwindle. When there was no longer a looming threat of another foreign attack, Americans began questioning why so many of their rights had been given up.

A poll taken by the ACLU in May of 2015, 7 months before the Bernardino attack, found 60 percent of respondents desiring a change with the Patriot Act compared to 34 percent wanting to keep it as is (N=1,001, MoE ±3). Desire for change was especially strong amongst those who identified as either “very liberal” or “very conservative”, and 82 percent of all respondents said they felt at least “somewhat concerned” that the government is “collecting and storing the personal information of Americans.” We can compare this data with that of a Gallup poll fro 2003-04 and see that at one point in 2004, 22 percent of respondents believed that the Patriot Act goes too far in restricting people’s civil liberties, while 69 percent believed that it was about right or didn’t go far enough. Why would, in a little more than ten years time, public opinion switch so drastically on this issue? While this may partially be due to the public slowly relaxing its reactive emotions regarding the 9/11 terrorist attack, much of it may be due to our society’s rapidly increasing relationship with and dependance upon technology and digital networks.

In 2001, Americans hardly had use for the internet and calls were made almost exclusively on landlines which were generally known to be accessible to the government anyway. Within a remarkably short period of time, accessible internet, personal computers, and cell phones hit the market hard. 2001 saw about 86 million cell phone users in the United States, while 2015 saw that number more than triple to about 288 million. Internet usage among adults also soared in that same time period, rising from about 55 percent in 2001 to 84 percent in 2015. In that meantime, emails moved from singular networks to multiple networks among different domains, corporate intelligence started being stored in digital form rather than hard copy, and a flourishing, inescapable wave of social media established gigantic hubs for communication, networking, and entertainment across the country.

Legislation, crafted by aging politicians with minimal to no expertise in the digital field, is slow to react to these changes and often overcompensates in response to what it does not know with extreme policy. This is what occurred with the PATRIOT act, borne from a frenzied government with little foresight for potential consequences and minimal consideration for the liberties of individual American citizens. Although the conflict between Apple and the FBI has been resolved (thanks to an anonymous third party which helped the bureau crack into the phone using an alternative method), this fight over government domain of digital space is far from over. The clearest, most recent example of the technological illiteracy of the Federal Government was observed earlier this year when Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook testified in front of the Senate committee of Commerce, Science, and Transportation, and the judiciary committee, regarding his treatment of user data. Elderly senators on the two committees befuddled Zuckerberg with nonsensical questions which he could not answer, and little actually useful information was able to be gathered from the entire testimony. When 68% of Americans use Facebook and stand to be affected by legislation regarding it, there cannot be such a jarring disconnect between technology and the government. One solution, that may take some time, would be to begin to elect legislators who are more up-to-date on science and technology. Congress does not need to be filled with scientists and software developers, but having at least enough members to either increase the technological literacy of existing committees, or to even create new committees that can better focus on issues of science and technology. We may also want to integrate strategies within Congress to educate the current legislators on these topics so that they will not be so uninformed when making laws about them. Technology is integral to our society now, and it is time for the bodies that govern us to change so that they will be better fit to coexist with technology without damaging the rights of citizens.

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