Man vs Machine

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As the technology revolution continues and machines become increasingly more sophisticated, blue-collar jobs are susceptible to the threat of automation. Coming from a place where many of my family members make a living doing blue-collar work, I find the concept of automation very interesting. I am going to be entering the world of software engineering where I may contribute to the progress of automation, so will I be putting some of my family members out of work? I have always had a family first type of attitude, so I would certainly not be content knowing my occupation served as a threat to my family. After reading more about the consequences of automation, I have been inclined to side with the idea that individuals who are smart enough to replace jobs with machines are also smart enough to create new jobs for the workers they have uprooted.

I believe the creation of new jobs would follow with increased automation because I think human nature lends itself to altruism. I believe the top engineers and businessmen who propel automation forward will also be concerned for the people that will lose their jobs. This intelligent group of people should be able to understand that negative consequences of putting millions of people out of work. Before deploying enhanced automation, I believe this intelligent group of people should at least consider potential solutions for the displaced work force. With respect to the capitalistic market in America, I do not believe there exists an obligation to account for the displaced working class; however, I believe their exists an obvious ethical responsibility to care for fellow human beings. In a sense, I believe the best solution in a potential society where automation eliminates millions of jobs is human nature influencing those in charge to find ways to accomodate the resulting jobless population.

The concept of a society with basic income intrigues me, and I don’t think it suits the nature of human beings. I support the concept that human beings are (usually) driven by ambition to achieve some goal and work provides a path for pursuing those goals. In our society, work is not always just a way to make money – even for people who hate their jobs. Work provides satisfaction and fulfillment when tasks are completed as well as social interactions that are critical for human life. If basic income became a part of society, then I believe there would have to be some other outlet created for the social interactions that take place at work. Ideally, people would be able to creatively pursue their own ambitions and that instinct alone would prevent couch potato apathy. In my opinion, the missing part is a feedback loop. At work, people complete tasks which lead to increased wages, promotions, and the periodic paycheck. In a society where no one is held accountable for completing tasks and the paycheck is received regardless, would people truly be motivated to work?

I am not convinced citizens of a basic income society would be motivated to work. Part of my skepticism results from no incentive to pursue higher education which I believe is often the source of ambition. Without tertiary education, I think people are less likely to be driven to acquire jobs that are often associated with degrees. If blue-collar jobs are being done by machines, then a basic income lifestyle seems like a viable option. However, I may be underestimating the natural desire to work, in which case I could see a Luddite style revolt reoccuring. I can picture modern day Luddites raiding technology offices with power washers destroying all computers in sight, soaking servers and smashing laptops. Pardon my hyperbole, I do believe this is a serious matter that should be considered. I can at least affirm that if my software engineering career were to ever put me in a position where my work would displace humans, then I would place higher priority on the potential threat to working class Americans than the profitability of my work.

ZJL

Net Neutrality

I have heard the term “net neutrality” many times but never fully understood what it represented. For readers in the same boat as I was, net neutrality is the idea that companies which provide consumers with access/connection to the internet should not discriminate based on the sites we choose to visit. The clearest example, in my opinion, is a hypothetical situation where Comcast limits Xfinity wifi subscribers’ connection to content providers like Netflix who compete with the Comcast subsidiary, NBCUniversal. This example really brought me back to the days where my big brother would keep a toy from me simply because he didn’t want me to have it. Obviously, that is just not cool, but should my parents (the FCC of my analogy) have established a rule that my brother could no longer do that? Or, would it have been more effective to have provided me access to a bunch of other toys providing the same function, thus making my brother’s actions harmful only to himself resulting in an unhappy brother (consumer) who could just switch to another toy and be content?

I have always been a defender of capitalism and I am typically not in favor of big government, so I prefer the latter scenario. While I support the idea and noble intentions of the FCC’s attempts to enforce net neutrality, I agree with Jeffrey Dorman’s point of view that more choices would be more effective than more regulations. A rule stating “don’t do that” will not be any more effective in preventing Comcast from justifying its actions than my parents scolding my brother for withholding toys. One thing that will certainly stop Comcast from being selfish is the loss of customers. I think I can speak for most consumers and say that when faced with the decision between two Internet Service Providers (ISPs), if my ISP noticeably restricts my Netflix (or comparable content provider) stream quality and a competitor exists that would not, then you can count on me to switch providers. I think there exists an attraction to creating legislation which explicitly says a company cannot do something because the document can be held and referenced. However, I believe the less attractive option of letting natural laws of capitalism take over would be much more effective.

Supporting my belief are the weaknesses of the Open Internet Order highlighted in an article published by the Electronic Frontier Foundation, “Why the FCC Can’t Actually Save Net Neutrality.” To start, the FCC claims to have ancillary authority which may seem fine for now, but what happens when they decide to enforce policies that are not as widely accepted as net neutrality? Also, the law included exceptions which enables the FCC to cooperate with law enforcement agencies upon request. I find this troubling that a federal organization can bypass its own order if a request is made by a different federal organization. Finally, how can the public check the power of the FCC that has proclaimed ancillary authority over the internet? Consumers would then be faced with powerful media conglomerates that act as ISPs and a federal regulatory agency that proceeds unchecked by the public.

To conclude, I would like to acknowledge that I do not believe there is a straightforward solution to the enforcement of net neutrality. Also, I consider myself a defender of net neutrality, but I do not agree with the current strategies in place to protect this idea. I believe that competition is the best way to ensure providers are held accountable for their decisions and consumers are positioned to find the best available package to fit their needs.

ZJL

Right to Encryption?

I do believe we, as citizens of the United States, have a right to encryption. At a high level, you could describe encryption as a form of privacy. The ability to prevent other people from reading private messages between yourself and your family, friends, colleagues, etc. definitely falls under the category of privacy. In this day and age, the process which ensures that ability generally requires encryption because so much of our communication is done via networks that are susceptible to unwanted listeners. It is true that we knowingly take that risk each time we send a text message or e-mail, especially if it contains sensitive material. However, should we not be able to minimize our risk by utilizing advance encryption software developed by companies that specialize in this area? I certainly believe every American has the right to purchase a product that further enhances their ability to protect that unalienable right to privacy, and I extend that position to support companies that develop encryption algorithms which help to separate the average consumer from hackers with criminal motivations.

As you can see, I believe encryption is an important topic that should be debated. I value the ability to protect my data because between nearly everyone I communicate with and myself there exists bits of information representing our conversation someone on a server. As a result, I ardently support the use of encryption despite having nothing to hide. Even though I have a clean record and don’t partake in criminal communication, I still have no desire to accept vulnerabilities in the technology that I use which could allow someone to take a peek at my private life. I would say my stance on encryption is predominantly social. I believe the idea of privacy is a social issue and natural aggregation of humans in societies creates dialog and intrigues some members to participate in dialog without permission. I suppose this means I am financially in favor of supporting companies like Apple, Google, and smaller information security providers. On the other hand, I oppose the political stance that decrypting devices should be mandatory for companies on the basis of a judge claiming that national security is at risk, especially after the fact. I do hope, sometime in the near future, companies like Apple and organizations like the FBI can find a way to cooperatively gather evidence in important cases without posing a threat to many Americans’ right to privacy.

In my opinion, the fight between national security and individual privacy will not be settled anytime soon. I find it interesting that the Republican and Democratic stances on this particular issue are somewhat aligned The majority of both parties is demanding that Apple develop the backdoor and provide the evidence the FBI needs because the actions of Syed Farook are classified as terrorism. Particularly, I am surprised that so many Republicans are in favor of extending the government’s reach. The GOP typically opposes anything related to the expansion of government powers, but it seems as though the threat of terrorism exceeds the desire for small government and has aligned many Republicans with policies that hinder certain features of capitalism!

Personally, I will continue to support the viewpoint of protecting individual liberties. However, I will avoid making the claim that “individual liberty > national security.” I don’t believe Apple’s encryption poses a threat to national security in any way. The existence of Farook’s iPhone encryption is not what allowed him to carry out a terrorist attack on American soil. I think other factors involved were more important to his success, but I am open to discussion.

ZJL

Letter to the Editor

To the Editor of the Observer:

Recently, the FBI has requested that Apple develop a backdoor into their encryption software so attempts can be made to unlock terrorist Syed Farook’s iPhone without potential loss of information. Currently, the FBI faces a dilemma because they do not have an adequate strategy to break into Farook’s phone because the version of iOS installed will erase the encrypted data after repeated incorrect guesses. In addition, the FBI finds itself very near the border of human rights and Apple, a progressive technology company, wants no part in helping the FBI cross that border.

This letter will present a defense for Apple’s position and advocate that Observer articles covering this event do the same. While pursuit of justice for Syed Farook’s abominable acts of terrorism should not be obstructed, a fear of terrorism should not influence decisions regarding legislation that violates the right to privacy. We do not believe that Apple’s refusal to create a backdoor is an obstruction of justice. Rather, we support Apple’s decision on the basis that they are protecting our right to privacy by denying the FBI a backdoor to all iPhones.

The implications of a security backdoor for the iPhone should be examined closely when choosing a side of this debate. Once software is created, it exists. As noted by John Oliver on Last Week Tonight, Apple is certainly not writing code on paper they can be burned in the fire once the FBI is done hacking Farook’s phone. If the code Apple creates for the FBI were to get into the wrong hands, then millions of iPhone users around the world would be vulnerable to a loss of privacy. We align our concern with the CEO of Apple, Tim Cook, who suggests that creating one master key that can turn millions of locks around the world is a dangerous proposition. As citizens, who can we trust to hold a key that powerful?

Also, do we truly believe the FBI and other investigative authorities plan on letting Apple destroy code that could potentially uncover evidence in major crimes? No, plenty of authorities such as the Manhattan District Attorney have phones lined up to be unlocked by Apple’s backdoor software. While the idea of uncovering evidence in many cases is attractive, this is only one potential consequence. There are many inevitable consequences that seemed to be ignored – security risks, extending government capabilities, and flooding requests for Apple to decrypt iPhones for less serious cases. I stress “potential consequence” because Syed Farook and his terrorist network could have certainly been utilizing a third party application with its own encryption algorithm that would render the Apple backdoor useless.

Finally, I would like to acknowledge the threat this mandate poses to innovation. One of the most lucrative results of capitalism is the increasingly complex technology companies produce in order to remain competitive in a packed market. Apple targets a high end segment which requires their product to be superior to similar products in multiple areas. A significant strength of the Apple suite of products is reliable security features that ensure consumers their data is protected. When the government begins passing legislation that inhibits companies from maximizing the quality of their products, advances in technology will decelerate; thus, end users and the government will also be on the losing end.

In short, we advocate that the Observer support Apple in its efforts to stand up against government action that reaches too far. Let us not fear terrorism so much that we accept invasive legislation by our own government.

Zachary LeBlanc and Matt McKenzie

Run DMC(A)

The Digital Millennium Copyright Act, passed in 2000, contains two controversial
provisions – “anti-circumvention” and “safe-harbor”. The DMCA was intended to tackle the issue of internetpirate piracy which involves the illegal downloading of music, videos, books, and other copyrighted material. Piracy is the chief target of the DMCA, but the law has had little success in actually deterring pirates from accessing copyrighted material for free. In fact, the DMCA provisions have had some negative effects on fair use and competition within affected industries.

The “anti-circumvention” provision of the DMCA aimed to stop copyright pirates from circumventing the locks in place that protect copyrighted material. While the intention is understandable, the effects haven’t been quite so straightforward. The provision has impeded competition by essentially ignoring fair use and over protecting copyrighted material. If a person circumvents copyright restrictions for purposes that fall under the category of fair use, he or she can still be prosecuted on the basis that circumvention has occurred. In addition, developers of tools that provide the ability to circumvent the locks in place are also liable to be prosecuted without even performing the act of circumvention. As a result, the DMCA “anti-circumvention” provision has extended the arm of the law enough for legislators to circumvent inherit freedoms that are protected by fair use.

The “safe-harbor” provision appears to be both helpful and harmful with respect to the copyright dilemma. While this provision allows companies like YouTube to create an open space for the sharing of content, the language is subject to abuse. For instance, the takedown policy can be abused to restrict material on the web that may not be in violation of copyright laws. For instance, the mother’s video of her daughter singing a song by Prince should never have been able to be taken down, but a request by Universal Music was enough to force YouTube to remove the video until legal actions were pursued. Since the video was obviously in compliance with fair use, the fact that YouTube was legally bound to take it down because of Universal Music’s request is absurd. Universal Music even claimed that they did not take into account fair use before requesting the take down. On the other hand, the “safe-harbor” provisions allow spaces like YouTube to exist because they are not liable for the instances in which users upload copyrighted material as long as they comply with take down requests. Therefore, I am understanding of the necessity of this provision despite the negative consequences that can result from abuse of its language.

I personally do not think it is ethical to download copyrighted material from the internet. The sampling/testing excuse is not valid, in my opinion, because most sites that provide legal purchasing of copyrighted material allow you to sample the content. If you use a site that does not provide content samples, then you should look for another online vendor. I believe that copyrights should be respected by consumers because in many cases artists make a living on the copyright protection of their work. Admittedly, I was an avid user of LimeWire as a kid, downloading any song I wanted to at the expense of rapidly decreasing my computer’s performance over time. At the time, my excuse was that I could not afford to pay 99¢ a song and the rich musicians were not even remotely affected by my decision. However, I now understand that large scale piracy does affect the prosperity of musicians, especially up and coming artists who may rely on early revenues to jump start their careers. Looking back, I wish I would have been more respectful of copyrighted material.

I believe the emergence of streaming services such as Netflix, Spotify, and Pandora will reduce the amount of piracy. Personally, I have benefitted from these technologies because of the affordable, quality streams they provide. Since Netflix and can provide high-definition streams at such a low price, I believe this discourages individuals from using free streaming websites that provide less than desirable video quality. In addition, the abundance of content available on Spotify and Pandora allows for users to have the wide variety of music they desire but do not own. Unless you desperately need to listen to Taylor Swift, I think Spotify is adequate… plus her claim to be defending up and coming artists is nonsense – she’s just maximizing her profits (pardon the aside).

To wrap this blog up, I’d like to acknowledge the usefulness of the DCMA while also recognizing the flaws in its language. Like many other laws, the DCMA has been subject to abuse, but overall I believe it has been effective in created open spaces for sharing such as YouTube and discouraging piracy.

ZJL

IMO: Online Ads

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Nobody likes too much advertising, but everybody likes a great deal. Consumers often take for granted the ability of companies to target their individual interests and to expose them to relevant ads. At the same time, people tend to despise the idea that tech companies like Facebook and Google are aggregating data about us behind the scenes. I personally don’t care and I defend my position by saying that I choose to participate in online sites that aggregate information and rewards programs that can link together my purchasing activity because it often benefits me. For example, I am a frequent user of Finish Line’s website because they always have great shoes on clearance. I discovered this site because I clicked on a Facebook ad that showed a cheap pair of basketball shoes that piqued my interest.

Why are people against companies aggregating public data? Most the data mentioned in the articles was a result of public activity such as shopping, Facebook likes, and birth records. All the data is public, so why should a company be at fault for using this information to make a profit? I recently read The Signal and the Noise by Nate Silver and I have become increasingly interested in data analytics ever since. Statisticians like Andrew Pole of Target have an incredible skill that brings value to large companies. I personally disagree with the argument that this aggregation of personal data is invasive because we make it public by participating in social media and signing up for rewards programs. If you do this because you are attracted to the incentives, then you can’t complain that companies track activity to enhance the effectiveness of their strategy. We often benefit from optimized strategies because random ads that are meaningless to us individually do not show up, and ads that bring value to our lives show up everywhere. If all ads annoy, then use AdBlock!

That brings us to the question – is the use of ad blockers such as AdBlock ethical? I say yes. If companies aggregate data about us constantly, then why does it matter if we choose to use an ad blocker? It’s kind of a win-win, companies still get to gather useful information about our consumer activity and we can choose to block ads if we don’t want to see them. It’s no secret that many people use ad blockers, and some companies identify this on their sites. I have visited websites that require you to turn of ad blockers, and I have also visited sites that respect the use of ad blockers and ask for donations to replace lost revenue. I favor this approach as a consumer because it makes me aware of the effects of using ad blocker while respecting my decision to remove advertising from my browsing experience.

Now what happens when companies sell this data… well, I still don’t care. Like I said earlier, most of it is public! If the companies purchasing this data had the technical ability to gather such information, then they would surely have access to it. In addition, this method of generating profit helps to cancel out the common use of ad blockers. For instance, we can choose to keep them from effectively using the data to expose us to target ads, so they can sell the information to other companies and make money that way.

The point I am trying to make here is that the information is public, so if someone develops an efficient method for aggregating such large amounts of data, then more power to ’em. I am content seeing a few ads every once in awhile especially when they are relevant to me. I am always down for a cheap new pair of basketball shoes.

ZJL

Expelliarmus

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I am a supporter of Apple’s decision to refuse to comply with the FBI’s request for a backdoor into iOS. If Apple were to cooperate with the FBI, our government would then wield a tool similar to Harry Potter’s Expelliarmus with the power to disarm Americans by filing some paperwork. While the intended purpose may be to protect national security, the legal precedents being employed by the Department of Justice are outdated. I see a major flaw in the government’s use of a law enacted in 1789, the All Writs Act. In 1789, cybersecurity did not even exist, so how can we justify using a legal precedent from centuries ago to discern appropriate actions regarding a modern issue. If the All Writs Act indeed provides enough power to civil magistrates, then should we start applying other 1789 laws to contemporary cases. I certainly don’t think any government officials would agree with that…

Protecting national security can be a powerful phrase when trying to garner support for a controversial decision. While I see the obvious benefits of accessing a terrorist’s means of communication, I would like to push back on the idea that forcing Apple to provide decryption capabilities to the FBI truly protects national security. Earlier this week, I read a blog by Mark Cuban and he made a good point – there is no assurance that a successful hack into Syed Rizwan Farook’s phone would provide any investigative material. If Farook used sophisticated cryptic communication with his terrorist network, the FBI could take years to crack the code. There is also the possibility that Farook used a 3rd party application with its own encryption methods which is not unusual for a terrorist. On the other hand, if Apple develops a decryption method and the software is obtained by any of the talented hackers around the world – national security is certainly at risk. My question for the government would have to be – is the potential for making all iPhone users in the United States vulnerable to the vast criminally minded hacker community worth the possibility of uncovering evidence regarding the San Bernardino shootings?

I consider myself a conservative citizen, but I am not a person who greatly mistrusts the powers of government. However, in this case I do fear the repercussions of a legal precedent that grants government agencies the ability to access any targeted individual’s communication with a search warrant. I don’t use any 3rd party apps with strong encryption and I don’t have anything to hide, but I am not comfortable with the government having the power to access any conversation I take part in, with the exception being a letter I request the recipient to burn after reading. The problem with this power isn’t singularly related to the government obtaining it, but also derived from Bruce Schneier’s argument:

Either everyone gets access or no one does.

Essentially, if the government can hack our phones, then so can anyone smart enough to mimic or illegally obtain the decryption software. Also, the potential for blackmail, spying, and invasion of privacy is too great to justify this action. If you really want to cause a fuss, you could make this a human rights issue. At what point does the government’s reach extend beyond our unalienable rights… if that point is reached we must strip the qualifier unalienable and replace it with conditionalswanson.

My last grievance towards the requested compliance of Apple relates to the coercive nature of this decision. Apple dominates the high end market by developing an impressive suite of gadgets and software which includes their robust encryption. In a free market system, the government cannot be allowed to force a company to essentially nullify one of the greatest strengths of their product. In Apple’s case, this strength is security. I made the switch to Mac from PC because I was tired of dealing with viruses slowing down my computer (admittedly, I should have stopped using LimeWire). If Apple is forced to weaken their security, how can they retain pursuit of providing the highest quality product in the market? In the words of Ron Swanson, “capitalism is the only way.”

ZJL

 

Boisjoly’s Whistle

We all know that one mom or dad that likes to show off their impressive whistling capablities at pee-wee sports games. Unfortunately, Roger Boisjoly’s whistle wasn’t that loud, impressive, or noticeable. Had the spectators at his big league event, the Morton Thiokol and NASA pre-launch teleconference, heeded the importance of his whistle, seven lives could have been saved. I write this blog with reverence for the seven astronauts aboard the Challenger space shuttle and their families.

What really caused the Challenger disaster? Well, literally speaking it was a gas leak that occured due to a weak O-ring seal which can be attributed to the low temperatures in Cape Canaveral. How does a project that requires intense risk assessment overlook something that seems so simple? Management chooses to. The Challenger explosion was the result of a choice made by managment within NASA and its contractor, Morton Thiokol, to overlook an issue brought to their attention by engineers. As evidence has shown, NASA was not unaware of the risks they were taking by launching the Challenger on an unusually cold day in Florida. Despite the persistence of engineers, including O-ring expert Roger Boisjoly, managers made the decision to approve a launch that put the lives of seven Americans at risk. I agree with Neil deGrasse Tyson’s explantion of the motivation for such an irrational decision. Tyson believes the Challenger mission was more of a promotional and propaganda and military tool than a platform for science. Sadly, I also believe NASA succumbed to political pressure and societal expectations when making their decision that led to the loss of human life.

I believe Roger Boisjoly was justified in his decision to release information about Challenger to the public. Boisjoly was careful in choosing appropriate channels to release his information and it seems as though he did not embellish the information. I would not describe his actions as “pointing the finger” because he stood up for what he believed in despite managerial pressures, so he has every right to blame those who were responsible for approving the launch. As far as the sensitivity of the information, I don’t think Boisjoly threatened national security or revealed anything confidential information. In fact, I believe the families of the Challenger astronauts deserved to know the truth about the cause of the accident. In that sense, I think Boisjoly’s decision was noble and brave which makes it very unfortunate that he suffered from the ramifications of exposing powerful people.

Morton Thiokol’s reaction to Boisjoly’s whistleblowing frustrates me to the point of wishing the upper management truly responsible for Challenger were prosecuted and received prison sentences. Mistreating an employee who spoke truthfully about an unethical decision made my his superiors is unacceptable. Boisjoly’s “living hell” at work was a result of embarrassed people with power punishing an honest individual. Now that more time has passed, I hope that all of Boisjoly’s fellow employees and neighbors who treated him with contempt are ashamed of their reactions. Their reaction is one of the most devastating parts of this entire incident because it could potentially deter honest employees from revealing dangerous unethical management practices in the future. As a result, brave Americans, such as the seven astronauts aboard Challenger, could become victims of a preventable tragedy.

While Boisjoly’s story does not have a happy ending, I think his commitment to the truth will inspire honest whistleblowers who’s information could be benefical. I hope that the actions of dishonest whistleblowers who seek attention does not tarnish the value of releasing suppressed truths. I wish there existed a term without such a negative connotation to describe Roger Boisjoly, but until then, consider me a defender of the honest whistleblower.

ZJL