Digest: 30 June 2013


Big data marks a transformation in how society processes information, and in time might change our way of thinking about the world. – Silicon Valley’s smart, wealthy, successful tech leaders should leave their cool headquarters and gorgeous campuses and actually engage if they want to make a difference in terms of policy. — Our physical environments will soon be integrated into programmable systems of interaction, giving rise to further issues of security and privacy but potentially allowing greater efficiency and productivity. The US should cut its losses in the Middle East and concentrate on rebuilding its economic strength, only then will it be in a position to effectively negotiate the far more strategically important relationship with Asia.Google is looking to build a network of communications balloons in the stratosphere, but will likely have a difficult time getting permission to use the airspace of many countries.The maintenance of the US security state should be considered on environmental grounds as well as moral grounds, as the costs to the environment of maintaining the US security apparatus are considerable.Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiations kept secret because of likelihood of major public backlash were they made public, but major corporations have seats at the table. TPP considered a gross abrogation of American sovereignty by US congressman after being given only limited access to classified negotiation documents.


In FISA Court Oversight: A Look Inside a Secret and Empty Process, Glenn Greenwald,(for The Guardian) discusses how various NSA defenders beginning with President Obama have sought to assure the public that NSA surveillance is done under robust judicial oversight.  These claims are highly misleading, and in some cases outright false – as part of the FISA court approval process, the NSA must submit a document describing how communications of US persons are collected and what is done with them, indeed, the purpose of the 2008 FISA Amendment Act was to allow government collection of Americans’ international communications.  The Obama DOJ has repeatedly thwarted any efforts to obtain judicial rulings on whether this law is consistent with the Fourth Amendment.


In The Programmable World, Bill Wasek (for Wired) discusses how technology is advancing towards the programmability of countless aspects of our mundane interaction with our physical environment into a coherent individually customised system. There are three stages to this development: getting more devices onto the network, making those devices rely on one another, programming those devices into a coherent system.  Issues of security and privacy are triggered by these ongoing technological developments.

In The Trans-Pacific Partnership is an Assault on Democracy that Will Undermine the Economy, Kevin Zeese (for Nation of Change) discusses the trade deal currently being negotiated by multiple pacific rim countries including the US.  The TPP has come under fire as a result of the lack of transparency provided as to the terms of the deal being negotiated.  While large corporations have had seats at the table, the public and even members of congress have been kept out of the loop apparently specifically because of the intense public opposition that would be generated were the deal made public.

In Obama Secrecy Hides Assault on Democratic Government, Zach Carter (for Huffington Post) discusses the response of Rep. Alan Grayson (D-Fla.) to the ongoing Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiation process.  Democrats in Congress are ramping up pressure on the Obama administration to release the text of the TPP, a secretive free-trade agreement between 10 Pacific-Rim nations including the US.  Grayson was allowed to view an edited version of negotiation texts, and was concerned at what he saw – a gross abrogation of American sovereignty – but due to the classified designation given to the documents he is not allowed to say much more.


In Storing Data, Burning Carbon, Peter Rugh (for Nation of Change) discusses the energy costs of the modern US security state.  Initially considering the NSA’s Utah Data Facility, a $2 billion facility designed to store 100 years of worldwide communications including phone calls and emails, Rugh points out that the surveillance questions are not the only ones that should be considered.  The environmental costs of the facility are not inconsiderable – the electrical substation that is being built to power it will consume as much as 1.5 million gallons of cooling water in a single day, and this in a region where water is scarce but power is cheap).  Rugh then goes on to consider the costs of a security state more broadly, specifically the carbon costs of maintaining the US military complex in general.


In The Irony of American Strategy, Richard Haass (for Foreign Affairs) discusses American strategy related to the Middle East, specifically how after extensively involving itself when it did not have to it now wants to get out and it is having trouble doing so.  Following the Cold War the US lacked a coherent overall strategy, this changed with 9/11.  The War on Terror provided a banner the country could get behind, and the result was drawn out involvement in two wars of choice.  The US wishes now to distance itself from Middle East issues and redirect its major efforts to Asia, a far more important region economically and politically.  While recent turmoil in the Middle East is proving a distraction, and one difficult to ignore, the US should concentrate on rebuilding its own economic strength.

In Change the World: Silicon Valley Transfers Its Slogans – and Its Money – to the Realm of Politics, George Packer (for The New Yorker) discusses the rise of Silicon Valley, and its initial forays into the world of politics.  For a long time, Silicon Valley didn’t bother much with politics, and in fact strayed from it in the sense of a desire to be left alone to do what it considered far more valuable than anything politics could do.  That position is beginning to change with tech leaders realising that through involvement with politics they can pursue agendas that are important to them, including for example immigration reform.


In Can Google Fly Its Internet Balloons Wherever It Wants?, John Villasenor (for The Brookings Institution) discusses Google’s Project Loon, which seeks to use a network of stratospheric communications balloons to provide internet services (and potentially disaster relief) to underserved people around the world.  Control of the balloons is limited to altitude – to raising or lowering the balloons into different currents of wind. Recent tests have taken place from New Zealand, and the next stage will take balloons over Argentina and Chile.  Getting permission to enter the airspace of countries further north will not be so easy.

In Living With the Surveillance State, Bill Keller (for The New York Times) discusses how by being too complacent regarding our civil liberties we could find them gradually gone in a gradual incremental surrender.  NSA data-mining is only one representation of a larger underlying problem. Developments that each cut into personal privacy can be found in a number of areas – the collection of DNA by local government bodies as well as by the Federal government, the ubiquitousness of CCTV surveillance, the use of spy drones in domestic airspace, the sharing of information with companies on the internet.  The problem is not surveillance itself, nor the collection of information itself, but the potential results of these practices when unmanaged and ungoverned.

In The Rise of Big Data: How It’s Changing the Way We Think About the World, Kenneth Neil Cukier and Viktor Mayer-Schoenberger (for Foreign Affairs) discuss the shifts that have occurred in data collection with the ability to turn huge quantities of information into data through powerful computing geared towards detecting statistical correlation rather than causation.  The applications of this ability are wide. They include the ability to automatically translate documents between languages, predict mechanical failures in vehicles, flu outbreaks, the perpetration of crime, the risk of fire in city apartment buildings, etc.  But with this ability comes a risk of the dehumanization of society, the overlooking of the importance of human traits such as creativity, intuition, and intellect - “Big data is a resource and a tool. It is meant to inform, rather than explain; it points toward understanding, but it can still lead to misunderstanding, depending on how well it is wielded. And however dazzling the power of big data appears, its seductive glimmer must never blind us to its inherent imperfections. Rather, we must adopt this technology with an appreciation not just of its power but also of its limitations.”