Catch-Up

Since I have three weeks of class done (and, miraculously, some free time), I thought I should sit down and write a bit about how my classes are going so far this semester. As a reminder, I’m taking Intro to Journalism, Great Ideas in Mathematics, Privacy in Media and Technology, and Gender and Communication.

IMG_0266In many ways, I feel that this semester is giving me an academic lens with which to look at areas I’m already interested in (mass communication, privacy, gender). I always knew that there was a phalanx of scholars writing about these topics, but which ones are the seminal works? What should I be paying attention to? These are questions I could probably have asked Google, but studying them at college gives me an academic rigor I didn’t previously have. It also gives me a sounding board (the professor) I can bounce ideas of and develop more informed opinions.

I’m still very much undecided as to what I want to major in. Part of it is being interested in a lot of different things — I like journalism, but I also like media criticism (“hatin’ on media,” as John once called it) and I also like gender and sexuality studies, computer science, economics, history, and politics. I’m not sure if this is just me, or just NYU, or just the subset of New Yorkers I hang out with, but I’m getting the impression that you’re very much supposed to know what you’re doing by this stage. Not only are my options closing down (I can no longer do the required journalism double-major with either politics or computer science), but I feel like the only one of my friends with no clear idea and no clear path. I’m still choosing classes on a semester-by-semester basis, not working towards anything concrete. 10570048_675366539224188_1760168947_nfine with it (a lot of my friends are doing-just-fine college dropouts) but I get the distinct impression that this is not how the US college industrial complex wants me to work.

One of the most interesting classes I’m taking this year is what I call a conceptual math course. It’s certainly not computational (here are some problems, go forth and find solutions), and it’s billed as an introduction to the great ideas behind mathematics. To me, it’s more interested in giving us a frame of reference with which to attack math problems — if 100 people drive to work between 7:30 and 8:00am and arrive 30 minutes later, why must two people always arrive at work at the same time, within a minute? I spent my freshman year taking history and literature classes, and so these lectures feel a lot like rewiring my brain.

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Teaching a student how to use encryption, September 2014.

I feel busier outside of class than in it. As well as a full course load, I’m the communications director for Tech@NYU, the university’s design/entrepreneur club, working as a volunteer for the LGBTQ society, holding semi-regular encryption events and talks on privacy, volunteering at the New School on sexual assault prevention workshops, trying to write as much on this blog, on Medium, or for other news sites, and trying to read as much nonfiction as humanly possible. Also, have a life.

But all in all, life is good, and even if I consider it a good night where I sleep for 7 hours, I’ve never been happier.

You should follow me on Twitter.

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Impromptu NYC Crypto-Party/Hangout Tonight at 8.30pm

Hey all — if you’re around NYC at 8.30 tonight, a bunch of us from NYU and its surrounds are gathering at Brad’s in Greenwich Village. Bring your laptop. If there’s interest, I’ll do a quick encryption how-to. Mostly, we’re just going to be hanging out, tinkering on our respective projects.

More crypto-party news coming up soon — waiting on confirmation from various sources. If you’re a student interested in digital rights, check out the Student Net Alliance!

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I Don’t Miss W.

After getting frustrated with the bullshit, pandering tone of DCCC e-mails, I subscribed to GOP e-mails to see what being a young supporter of the Republicans was like. Today, this gem arrived in my inbox. I find it interesting because, according to politically-minded friends of mine, Bush was a dirty word after the 2008 election, and so hearing the GOP look on him so nostalgically is apparently an about-face.

[FNAME],

President George W. Bush was committed to protecting our freedom, promoting peace throughout the world, and advancing the ideals and principles that make America so great.

He said it best when he proclaimed: “We will not waver, we will not tire, we will not falter, and we will not fail. Peace and Freedom will prevail.”

It’s a good reminder of who we are and what we stand for as Americans.

Stand with us and get a limited-edition, American-made “I Miss W.” t-shirt today.

President George W. Bush provided the kind of leadership America needs right now, and that’s why we’re working so hard to win back the Senate in 2014 and the White House in 2016.

When you order your t-shirt from the GOP today, not only will you make a statement, but you will also double your impact on Republican victories because your contribution will be matched by a group of donors.

Get your exclusive “I Miss W.” t-shirt by contributing $27 to the GOP today.

Thanks,
Katie Walsh
RNC Finance Director

 

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Internet Policy Gradebook

10615509_1552831074947201_6669117917728540060_nIn the spring, I joined the Student Net Alliance (SNA) as a policy analyst and then as a board member. I jumped at the chance to work with a bunch of driven student activists who wanted to make the Internet a more open and accepting place, especially on college campuses.

Universities should be strongholds of open communication, where the free flow of information is encouraged, but a student’s ability to learn, grow, and try new things is severely hampered when governments monitor our communications and social media activity.

As one of our fall projects, the Student Net Alliance announced a campus internet policy gradebook, where we’ll assign each university a letter grade based on privacy criteria such as whether the university alerts students when their data is requested by government, whether they have support systems in place if students are threatened by (often archaic) computer crime laws such as the CFAA, and whether their university (institutions which often function as their own ISP) runs a TOR relay network.

In addition, the Student Net Alliance is going to host a Q&A discussion on student data, institutional relationships with the NSA and other government agencies, free speech protections (both on- and off-line), student intellectual property rights, transparency reporting, and the encryption of data.

Joining us for this digital hangout will be April Glaser, a staff activist with the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF). As support systems go, April’s been a huge help, offering advice and covering earlier SNA campaigns, such as studentsagainstsurveillance.com.

If you want to join us to learn more about the digital rights of students, you can RSVP to tommy@studentnetalliance.org for information on how to join. The event’s scheduled for Sept. 17 at 8pm EST.

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Academic Literature on Privacy

I’ll post something longer about the semester, but in lieu of a longer report, here’s an excerpt from a Columbia Law Review article from 1966. Looking at it today, it’s disheartening to see that nothing has changed. It’s early, but I think this semester’s going to be great because I’ll get to look at areas of interest (journalism, privacy, gender) with an academic rigor that I haven’t yet experienced. More to come, but here’s Alan Westin:

Psychological distance is also used in crowded settings, to provide privacy for the participantsin group and public encounters; a complex but well-understood etiquette of privacy is part of our social scenario. Bates remarked that “we request or recognize withdrawal into privacy in facial expressions, bodily gestures, conventions like changing the subject, and by exchanging meaning in ways which exclude others present, such as private words, jokes, winks, and grimaces.” We learn to ignore people and be ignored by them as a way of achieving privacy in subways, on streets, and in the “non-presence” of servants or children. There are also social conventions within various sub-groups in the population establishing fairly clearly the proper and improper matters for discussion among intimates, workmates, persons on a bus, and other groups. And, as James Thurber showed so engagingly, the individual can simply go off into mental privacy when he needs to, as the Walter Mittys of society work off their aggressions and dream their fantasies.

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Digital Circle

This week, the app Circle of 6 was featured on WIRED.com:

Schwartzman is the CEO of Tech 4 Good, the tiny three-person startup behind Circle of 6, an app that makes it easy for users to choose six trusted friends who they can automatically alert in the event of an emergency. Users preprogram their contacts into the app, and with the press of a button, the app will automatically text those contacts. Users can choose a text that asks members of their circle to come get them, to call them, or to give them advice. The app also connects users to national rape support lines.
— This App Is a 21st Century Rape Whistle, by Issie Lapowsky

I didn’t know the article was going to be in WIRED when I wrote about activists and technologists earlier yesterday, but the two are related.

People sometimes think that Silicon Valley creates things that don’t solve genuine problems, and while that’s sometimes true, it’s also important to remember that a lot of meaningful change has come out of the Valley. Twitter has been used to organize protests in Egypt, Tunisia, Iran, and Moldova, and when it comes to getting news, I couldn’t imagine being an activist without it.

Instead of assuming every shiny new app is useless and shaming developers for not working on “real problems,” it’s time to recognize that the line between technologist and activist is blurring.

At the LGBTQ center at NYU, one of the projects we’re considering taking on this year is a map app which shows the user the location of the closest gender-neutral bathrooms around campus. Its market is small, its stated goal narrow, you can’t apply traditional metrics of success to it (it’s probably not going to be downloaded a million times), but it would make a meaningful difference in the lives of the students and faculty-members who would use it.

Technology is not going to solve every social problem ever, or negate the institutional and interpersonal problems of oppressed groups in society. But it’s not nothing that smartphones and the Internet are now part of the daily lives of millions of people. The Internet allows us to advocate like never before, even if living in a digital society comes is something that comes with its own set of challenges.

I like Circle of 6 precisely because it fits so seamlessly with your everyday life, and Corbett et al. saw that. Going out for the night? You were probably going to have your cellphone with you anyway — after initially setting up the app (choosing your six friends), it’s ready to go as soon as you open it. You don’t have to add anything to your routine, but you’re that much safer because the app exists.

Technology itself isn’t going to change the world, but increasingly the people who will change the world are going to be using technology.

Tommy Collison is an activist and writer studying at New York University. He tweets as @tommycollison.

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Activists and Technologists

I came across the Indie Tech Manifesto via Frederic Jacobs, a security researcher. In large part, I agree with what they’re putting forward:

Our fundamental freedoms and democracy are under threat from the monopoly of a business model called corporate surveillance. As concerned individuals and organisations, we are working to change this status quo by shifting the ownership and control of consumer technology and data from corporations to individuals. To achieve this goal, we will create new organisations that are independent, sustainable, design-led, and diverse.

The manifesto and the Indie Tech Summit are both great projects — corporate interests should affect the tools we use to store and access information as little as possible. The first time I wrote about advocacy and the Internet (which really wasn’t that long ago), I noted that I grew up the younger brother of two programmers, which colored how I saw politics and civic participation. I used to joke that, when I hear about advocacy issues, I’d silently think to myself “that’s all very well, but where do computers come into this?”

Sometimes they’re central to the debate (net neutrality) and sometimes they just enable other kinds of social change. You can’t believe that all communication should be equal without thinking that all people are equal, and you certainly can’t advocate and associate freely if the government is monitoring and storing your online communications. The threat of what you write today being taken out of context and used against you in years to come is a very real one for many activists. The internet allows us to advocate like never before, but that doesn’t come without its own set of challenges.

In large part, I agree with Arnaud Bénard’s essay on the Indie Tech Summit:

Politicians need to hear the reality of the products people are using everyday. I strongly believe that you have better chance changing the world by being politically active than spending your nights coding. Maybe it’s time for technologists to close their laptop and start becoming activists.

I qualify that agreement because I feel that the Internet’s strength is that one person can broadcast and effect change on a scale that was previously impossible, even unconscionable. Technology itself isn’t going to change the world, but in the year 2014, the people who will change the world are going to be using technology. As was noted on Twitter, maybe it’s time for technologists to open their laptops and start becoming activists.

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The Logistics of Surveillance

August 31, 2014,
New York, NY.

The Fourth Amendment ensures that people feel secure that their physical mail and personal possessions are safe from unwarranted search and seizure, so why are the same rights not afforded to e-mail?

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Founded in 1950, the Stasi (East Germany’s secret service) was known as one of the world’s most wide-reaching and repressive secret services. At its height, the organization employed thousands of people to run a network of informants who would report on people deemed “suspicious.”

The amount of manpower required was incredible: mail had to be individually steamed open and phone conversations had to be manually listened to. there were no computers to pick out phrases of interest and certainly no storage system that could siphon up the audio of every cellphone call into and out of entire countries [0].

Technology facilitates the creation of large intrusive databases while simultaneously enabling the existence of advocacy groups such as the Guerrilla Open Access Movement, which calls for an end to academic journal paywalls. As far as individual activism goes, the Internet has revolutionized how we advocate for change. Now, individuals can effect change on a grander scale than was ever possible thanks to distributed systems and the falling cost of getting online.

To get news on Arab Spring or the riots in Ferguson, we no longer have to depend on the mainstream media. Now, we can ferret out the best sources of news, which are often people on the ground who, thanks to this new technology, can broadcast to millions in real-time from their cellphones.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), two organizations to the fore of the dragnet surveillance debate, were both founded and active long before the Internet became a ubiquitous part of both our business and private lives. (The EFF was founded in 1990, the ACLU in 1920.) These organizations promote norms such as a free and open internet and frame the ensuing surveillance debate, ensuring that fear and ignorance are not motivating forces for unjust or unconstitutional behavior.

Some governments want to harness the internet as a tool to crack down on dissent. “Only criminals want anonymity online,” they tell us, even though victims of domestic abuse or LGBTQ teenagers both extensively use anonymous online message-boards for support. “If you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear,” they tell us, even though both the founding fathers and the United Nations have continually affirmed the human right to privacy. “Phone metadata isn’t intrusive,” they tell us, even though much can be inferred by someone calling an abortion clinic late at night or a suicide hotline from the Golden Gate Bridge.

In particular, the gathering of metadata directly violates a US citizen’s right to privacy and infringes on their ability to associate freely, without fear of retribution. The staffers of Diane Feinstein, a congresswoman who has continuously dismissed the notion that metadata is intrusive, refuse to give in to activists’ calls for Feinstein to release her call-sheets, documents listing who the congresswoman talked to, and which are made up exclusively of metadata. They believe, rightly, that this is private information, so why does the congresswoman continue to ignore the legitimate concerns of US citizens?

The ostensible reason for intrusive surveillance is that such monitoring ultimately makes us safer. It is important, however, to distinguish between what provides physical safety versus the perception of same. But as the numerous attempted terrorism plots since 9/11 prove security theaters at airports do not, in fact, do a particularly good job of keeping weapons and illicit objects off airplanes. In tests between November 2001 and February 2002, screeners missed 70% of knives, 30% of guns, and 60% of fake bombs [1]. Airport security provides the appearance of safety, but this is ultimately a mirage. As security expert Bruce Schneier has noted:

“The way to prevent airplane terrorism is not to keep objects that could fall into the wrong hands off of airplanes; a better goal is to keep those with the wrong hands from boarding airplanes in the first place.” [2]

While it’s hard to argue with the alleged objective of national security, it’s become apparent in the last year or two that the US government wants more than to just secure its own safety. When NSA slides with stated motives like “collect it all, know it all, process it all, exploit it all, partner it all, sniff it all” become public, it becomes apparent that the US government wants to go further than ensure its own security, it wants to create a system worldwide where no communication or action takes place online without it being “collected”, exploited”, and sniffed” for the benefit of the USA.

Collect

In short, the NSA wants an end to private internet usage to the economic and diplomatic benefit of the USA and its allies.

The Snowden leaks, for example, revealed that the NSA engages in what can only be described as economic espionage: electronic eavesdropping and e-mail interception of Brazilian oil giant Petrobas to the benefit of the Canadian oil and mining sector. During the fifth Summit of the Americas, a conference where economic accords are negotiated, a 2009 letter from Assistant Secretary of State Thomas Shannon to then-NSA chief Keith Alexander stated that “the NSA gave us deep insight into the plans and intentions of other Summit participants.”

Clearly, neither of these examples have anything to do with counterterrorism objectives.

As mass surveillance continues to be an issue to the fore of public consciousness, perhaps in the next few years we as a society will decide that the privacy infringements are a cost we are willing to pay in a more secure society. At the very least, however, this will require public debate that is both rigorous and well-informed.

If the NSA is allowed to eliminate anonymity online, the results will be catastrophic. Around the world, journalists, lawyers, doctors, activists, and human rights workers would be unable to do their jobs. Doctor-patient confidentiality would be eradicated, journalists would no longer be able to guarantee source anonymity, and the safety of activists working to subvert oppressive regimes would be in jeapordy.

We have a responsibility to the 3 billion internet users who will come online in the next 6 years. We have to act as responsible stewards, ensuring that future users have access to an open and trustworthy internet. Overzealous legislators can’t be allowed to dismantle the internet of today in their misguided attempts to ensure national security.

Tommy Collison is an activist and writer studying at New York University. He tweets as @tommycollison.

[0] https://firstlook.org/theintercept/2014/05/19/data-pirates-caribbean-nsa-recording-every-cell-phone-call-bahamas/
[1] https://www.schneier.com/blog/archives/2006/03/airport_passeng.html
[2] Schneier, Bruce. “Beyond Fear: Thinking Sensibly About Security in an Uncertain World.” Copernicus, 2003.

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Protected: Settling In

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Thoughts on the Outing of the NYU Secrets Admin

Background: NYU has two main newspapers — the print Washington Square News and the digital NYU Local. NYU Secrets is a Facebook page where anonymous “secret” updates were posted, written by members of the NYU community. The page is curated by an anonymous administrator, and given that NYU is a decentralized, campus-less university, the NYU Secrets page did serve as something of a community.

Today NYU Local This Is The Man Behind NYU Secrets:

The founder and administrator of NYU Secrets is senior Aristotelis “Aristo” Orginos. A frequent Redditor, Orginos also participates in the Men’s Rights movement.
[...]
Outside his duties as administrator, Orignos posts in the Reddit group r/mensrights. The men’s rights movement argues that men are oppressed and disadvantaged by women, a view that lends itself to bitter misogyny in some circles and has led the Southern Poverty Law Center to describe the movement as a hate group.

The discussion that the NYU Local article prompted has centered on two main areas: whether the admin being an MRA makes him a bad fit for NYUS admin, and whether or not the journalist had any right to out his identity. I’m more interested in the latter question, because it has to do with journalism ethics.

The NYU Secrets page, which has 30,000 likes, is a public page. The identity of the admin, who periodically would comment on secrets and make announcements, was of much interest and debate. To my knowledge, the page isn’t sanctioned by NYU but the administration has been known to follow the page and look into particular secrets. Considering that the topic of cheating on finals comes up, this doesn’t surprise me.

But the NYUS admin has no fundamental right to privacy. Whether or not his identity remained a secret seemed largely contingent on how good his operating security was. I’m sure I’m not the only one who did some digging to find his identity and satisfy my curiosity. It’s the classic game of cat-and-mouse — the admin wanted to remain anonymous, the NYU Local journalist wanted to find out his identity. Hackers and infosec types play these sorts of games all the time.

The NYU Secrets guy has no fundamental right to keep his identity anonymous. The journalist owes him nothing, and certainly has no responsibility not to publish. Questions of whether or not the journalist should have done it is a totally different question, but even there I’m leaning towards the school of thought that says, hey, they had a good story and they’re rightfully getting attention for it.

In debating this on Facebook the afternoon, I was asked why I held the above views considering I’m so privacy-conscious. Of course people don’t have a fundamental right to privacy — it’d be a different question if the journalist posted the contents of the admin’s e-mails, or his medical records. Those are details the NYU Secrets guy, since he’s a private citizen, does have a fundamental right to keep private.

To briefly touch on whether a supporter of such an odious movement deserves to edit a page famed for diversity and inclusion, I largely agree with the NYU Local journalist:

“But the fundamental problem with a college secrets page remains the same: in filtering the voices of a diverse student population through a single anonymous administrator, the results are necessarily limited by what that anonymous administrator (in this case, a white man) chooses to publish. We’re drawn in by the illusion of vox populi, the voice of the people, when in fact what we see is “10-20%” of that voice, as curated by one person with their own biases — intentional or not.”

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