Digest: 17 June 2014




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In Obama Will Propose Vast Expansion of Pacific Ocean Marine Sanctuary, Juliet Eilperin (for The Washington Post) discusses the political machinations surrounding the Obama administration’s various efforts to protect natural environments, in this case marine environments. The plan is to expand the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument from 87,000 square miles to 782,000 square miles, making those waters off-limits to fishing, energy exploration and other activities; the administration is also looking to combat seafood fraud and black market seafood fraud. Various private interest groups and Republicans on Capitol Hill are providing opposition.




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In Powering the Pentagon, Sharon E. Burke (for Foreign Affairs) discusses efforts by the Pentagon to make the military more energy efficient. The Department of Defense last year consumed $15 billion in fuel.  Armies generally are ineffective without fuel and with the US military operating in hostile territory far from home it relies on an intact infrastructure for resupply. That infrastructure can be vulnerable to attack by irregular forces, protecting it increases the cost of every gallon of fuel that arrives at forward bases. The strategic response is to increase energy efficiency, and to diversify fuel sources away from fossil fuels. Research investment in both areas may prove beneficial not only for the military but also for the private sector which will be able to apply some of the new technology in commercial markets.


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In How Google Could End Democracy, Robert Epstein (for US News & World Report) discusses his research into how internet search engines can be used to manipulate elections, and how his findings show that Google’s virtual monopoly of internet searches places it in a key position to do just that.  Epstein and his colleagues have demonstrated both in laboratory and real work election settings that voters can be swayed by the results of their online searches leading up to the election. In close electoral battles this can be enough to shift the result one way or the other. On a large scale, Google has the ability and the economic incentive to act in this way on multiple fronts, gradually shifting over time the entire electoral process towards its own interests. There are no regulations in place to prevent this manipulation of the democratic process.

In Interview with UN Peace Envoy Brahimi: ‘Syria Will Become Another Somalia’, Susanne Koeldl (for Der Spiegel) interviews former UN Peace Envoy Lakhdar Brahimi about his choice to step down from his UN position as a result of the failure of efforts to find a viable solution to the crisis in Syria. Brahimi fears Syria will become another Somalia, a failed state ruled by competing warlords, and further that it will cause material regional destabilization. The two sides to the issue, President Assad and the rebels who wish to overthrow him, are in deadlock over whether Assad can possibly remain. Unless a political solution can be found the conflict, which is already destabilizing Lebanon, will spill over into the region as a whole. The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS), one of the many players amongst the Syrian rebels, is active in Iraq and Turkey in their quest to establish a new Islamic order in the region.

In Social Media Mass Surveillance is Permitted by Law, Says Top UK Official, Owen Bowcott and James Ball (for The Guardian) discuss the legal rationale used by the UK government in protecting its power to scoop up private data that it would otherwise need a warrant for.  The government relies on a loophole in the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA) which provides that a warrant is required to intercept domestic communications, but not for external communications. Based on that reading, the government feels free to collect all information that passes through foreign companies – such as Google and Facebook for example. Because those companies are based in the US any data that passes over them, even if a communication between two people in the UK, is fair game.  The rationale came to light as a result of a lawsuit by Privacy International, Liberty, Amnesty International and other civil rights groups against the intelligence services. Such groups and others are calling for RIPA to be updated to take account of the nature of modern online communication.

In Trickle Down Surveillance, Nathan Freed Wessler (for Al Jazeera America) discusses how military surveillance technology is being passed down to local law enforcement in the US. Wessler considers in particular a technology called “stingrays”, which allow the user to trick nearby cellphones into giving away both location and personal information such as call logs. Attempts by the American Civil Liberties Union to get law enforcement agencies in Florida to make public their records on stingray use were thwarted by the sudden arrival of US Marshals who took the records away to an unknown location. The FBI and local police forces have been opposing efforts to make such records public, just as their use of the technology seems to be increasing.


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In Neuroscience’s New Toolbox, Stephen S. Hall (for MIT Technology Review) discusses optogenetics, a new branch of behavioral neuroscience that has discovered a tiny part of the hypothalamus that correlates with aggression and mating instincts.  By inserting light sensitive genes into specific cells in the brain they have found they are able to induce certain behavior merely by a flash of light. Such a burst of light could change a mild mannered mouse into attacking whatever happened to be nearby. Sex had the effect of diminishing the influence of the light. Mice nearing consummation were the most impervious. Whereas before the ability was there to observe brain activity, now there is the ability to effect behavior through brain manipulation. Further advances in other related areas are increasing the speed of the development of these capabilities.

In Actually, Miss USA is Right: Self Defense Can Prevent Sexual Assaults, Lauren R. Taylor and Lynne Marie Wanamaker (for The Washington Post) discuss the controversy that arose in response to Nia Sanchez’s statement in the context of the Miss USA competition that teaching self defense to women could help reduce sexual assaults on college campuses. Critics complained that such a view places too much emphasis on the woman as having responsibility over sexual assaults instead of on the perpetrator. But the authors (themselves women’s self defense instructors) argue that Sanchez was right to promote self defense among women, that teaching martial arts to women empowers women in very real ways from conflict avoidance to conflict resolution. It doesn’t shift responsibility for the attack to the woman, but it does provide her with tools by which to exert her interests. It is unfortunate the Obama administration didn’t include self-defense in its prevention recommendations to college campuses.