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Saturday, June 15, 2013

NSA: The Real Question

There has been a lot of hysteria over the recent revelations about secret NSA programs. Some of the most frantic protests from the more libertarian and technically minded organizations on the web have suggested that the NSA programs are illegal. Unfortunately, much of the sentiment behind these protests are missing the real question.

We know that the government and police are allowed to spy on citizens if there is good enough cause. The classic example are phone wiretaps performed under warrant. Few people are against these legal, law enforcement tools. And few people would be against similar means on electronic communication, such as e-mail.

Unlike phone taps, which requires a technician to fiddle directly with wires, technology makes spying on individuals very easy in the internet age. This is good in some ways, because it makes the government's job easier, and we want government to be efficient. It is also bad in other ways, because if spying is so trivial, it becomes more open to potential abuse.

For example, consider the subject of PRISM. If the current descriptions are true, the PRISM project is of breathtaking scope. That said, has anyone found any evidence that information from PRISM has been used illegally to harass any citizen? Anything at all?

I personally want the NSA to work as effectively as possible, and use the latest technology to perform it's duty. The real question we should be asking is not some much how the NSA collects information, but what administrative and legal controls are used to access that information. If those administrative controls are found lacking, then they should be fixed. Otherwise, let the government do its job.

Posted at: 5:13 PM (Edited: June 15, 2013, 7:18 PM)
Categories: Science and Policy

Sunday, March 04, 2012

The New Age of Electronic Activism

Unless you have been hiding under a rock, you have probably heard of the latest offense from Rush Limbaugh. Rush is constantly and deliberately pushing the boundary of decency, but in the case, he travelled so far over the line that just about no one is defending his remarks.

Rush Limbaugh putting his foot in his mouth is by no means new and interesting news, given how often it has happened. What is interesting this time is the response. A public movement was organized from such popular online sites such as Reddit and Twitter with the goal of shaming advertisers away from Limbaugh's radio show. This movement has been remarkably effective at getting some major companies to pull their ads.

Of particular note was Carbonite, a popular online backup service. The initial and somewhat tepid response from Carbonite's CEO was conciliatory but ambiguous, and not nearly enough to halt the protests. It only took one day for the company to completely cave to the pressure.

I think this is only the beginning of the age of electronic activism. Immensely popular social web sites provide the manpower, and the internet provides instant access to the bare facts to fuel the flames. Old-fashioned media personalities like Rush Limbaugh who built their empires based on lies and hyperbole are just no match.

Posted at: 4:04 PM
Categories: Science and Policy

Saturday, January 28, 2012

The Wall Street Journal, Brought Down to the Level of a Tabloid Rag

Here are two recent letters on global warming:

Which sounds more reasonable to you?

Now the big question: why was the first letter published in the Wall Street Journal in the first place? Either the editors are morons, or they are pushing a specific agenda. And I sort of doubt they are morons.

Posted at: 8:40 PM (Edited: January 28, 2012, 8:51 PM)
Categories: Science and Policy

Sunday, January 15, 2012

The PROTECT IP Act and Why Politics Still Surprises

I was a little surprised to learn the other day that my two senators, Diane Feinstein and Barbara Boxer are both on record supporting the PROTECT IP Act. This bill, along with the better known house version Stop Online Piracy Act, or SOPA, are incredibly poorly thought out and, from a technological prospective, utterly naive. And, yet, the PROTECT IP Act currently has the bipartisan support of over 80 US senators.

The remarkable question is: how can two bills that are so woefully inept garner so much support? I don't expect every congressman to have an technical understanding of the internet, but don't they have any staff? Is this simply a case of, for all practical purposes, outright bribery? Is the political system this corrupt?

I can understand why the media moguls would like to destroy the Internet. They want everyone to obtain their media the old fashioned way, strictly under the control of their business interests. I just don't understand why our politicians, who are supposed to be working for the general good, would give them any help.

Today I took the time to compose a nice, old fashioned, but firm postal letter to my senators explaining my opposition. If you care at all about the internet, contact your legislators and let them know. If your legislator is a SOPA or PROTECT IP Act supporter, maybe you can even ask why they would collude with big business to dismantle the Internet. Just don't expect to get an answer.

Posted at: 3:33 PM
Categories: Science and Policy

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

The Danger of a Self Fulfilling Prophecy
Sybil poster

I am often surprised by the interesting things I hear on NPR , which I regularly listen to while commuting. I was not disappointed earlier this week when I heard a review of a new book by Debbie Nathan on the Sybil story that made multiple personality disorder a household word. According to Nathan, Sybil never had the real disorder and the entire story was a fraud.

News like this might not be very surprising to psychologists, since multiple personality disorder has been controversial from the start. What surprised me in the review of Nathan's book was how Sybil's psychoanalyst (Dr. Connie Wilbur) was so keen on diagnosing multiple personalities and how Sybil (whose real name was Shirley Mason) took advantage of this need. Here is a quote from NPR:

"Shirley feels after a short time, that she is not really getting the attention she needs from Dr. Wilbur," Nathan explains. "One day, she walks into Dr. Wilbur's office and she says, 'I'm not Shirley. I'm Peggy.' … And she says this in a childish voice. … Shirley started acting like she had a lot of people inside her."

—Real 'Sybil' Admits Multiple Personalities Were Fake, NPR, October 20, 2011

So, now Dr. Wilbur gets to study an interesting, new, diagnosis of a disorder of particular interest and Mason gets all of the attention she craves from the doctor. And so the fiction continued as Dr. Wilbur started injecting Mason with sodium pentothal and more and more personalities were "uncovered".

How long was Dr. Wilbur fooled? Nathan doesn't say, but suggests that once the book was drafted, the potential financial reward was so big that Wilbur couldn't turn back even as it became clear the personalities weren't real. Plausible, I suppose, but I wonder if Wilbur knew in the back of her mind that she was accidentally manufacturing the whole diagnosis from the start.

Posted at: 10:07 PM
Categories: Science and Policy