Allison's Reflections

Just another Weblogs at Harvard site

Blog #1000: Human Rights in Cyberspace

Filed under: Uncategorized — allee at 5:44 pm on Friday, October 28, 2016

In “A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace”, Barlow asserts that “[Government’s] legal concepts of property, expression, identity, movement, and context do not apply to [Cyberspace]. They are all based on matter, and there is no matter here.” Moreover, he contends that “we are creating a world where anyone, anywhere may express his or her beliefs, no matter how singular, without fear of being coerced into silence or conformity.”

Am I the only one who feels like this laissez-faire-esque approach to the internet is not necessarily as positive as Barlow makes it out to be?

As I’ve brought up in past blog posts, I’ve experienced “flaming” firsthand while playing eSports. Freedom of speech in real life is, of course, guaranteed by the First Amendment, but that doesn’t mean that anyone can say anything with no repercussions. Especially because of the anonymity granted in Cyberspace, I find that many people are willing to express hurtful or derogatory sentiments without fear of consequence. I think that especially as there have been tragic cases related to cyberbullying recently, there need to be some ground rules. The question is, do those need to be set by a country’s government, or is there another body that can take care of this? I looked into whether the IETF had anything to say about this, as it seems that they are a prevalent community when it comes to the evolution of the internet.

There seem to exist a lot of groups within the IETF that handle matters relevant to human rights and freedom of speech. There’s the Human Rights Protocol Considerations Research Group, which is “chartered to research whether standards and protocols can enable, strengthen or threaten human rights included not limited to the right to freedom of expression and the right to freedom of assembly”. I found it intriguing that these two rights are actually guaranteed by Amendments to our Constitution. The next thing I wondered was how effective the IETF is in managing human rights-related issues.

As usual, a simple Google search turned up a multitude of results. One that I found particularly intriguing was this article. It recounts some of the key points made at IETF 91, which was held in Hawaii in November 2014. The Human Rights Protocol Considerations Research Group was created as a result of this meeting; however, the article mentions that considerable concerns were raised regarding the potential for the politicization of the IETF if human rights were even researched. At the meeting, one respondent stated, “we have to stop pretending that technology is a nonpolitical decision”.

Talk about controversial.

I think one of the largest issues with the relatively decentralized structure of the IETF is that because it’s so open, there’s not really anyone making executive decisions regarding human rights. While that’s also a beauty of an open community, I think that it can be harmful. Clearly, flaming and cyberbullying continue to be unfortunately omnipresent. At what point, if any, would it be appropriate for the government to step in? Or would government intervention completely stem the freedom associated with the internet, as Barlow would no doubt suggest? I’d love to hear everyone’s opinions on this in seminar soon 🙂


Blog #0111: e-America?

Filed under: Uncategorized — allee at 1:31 pm on Friday, October 28, 2016

After last week’s focus on voting and its potential to transition to becoming an online process, I was left with many doubts regarding the intersection of politics and technology. This week, I was introduced to a very intriguing concept– e-Residency. This is offered to every world citizen by the country of Estonia. It allows e-Residents to sign official documents, conduct monetary business, and even declare taxes all online. The website writes, “Estonia is proudly pioneering the idea of a country without borders”.

Would a similar system be implementable in the US?

While Estonia’s e-Residency program seems to be geared towards business owners, its existence led me to wonder whether other citizenship-related matters could be transferred online. For example, the process of naturalization is currently a multi-step process in the United States. One question that popped up for me was whether this process (or at least part of it) could be put online. According to the official website of the Department of Homeland Security, this is the current procedure for applying for citizenship:

  1. Prepare the Form N-400, the application for naturalization
  2. Send in the Form N-400 by snail mail to USCIS, located either in Phoenix, AZ or Dallas, TX (which state depends on individual’s state of residence)
  3. Physically go to a biometrics appointment if necessary
  4. Complete an in-person interview at a USCIS office, where a speaking, reading, writing, and civics test will also be administered

Considering this procedure, I see only step 2 as easily transferable to an online method. While not every applicant must go in for a biometrics appointment, those who do get their fingerprints collected, photo taken, and name signed for electronic capture. This doesn’t seem like something that could be done via the Internet without compromising the security of the current system. Moreover, the speaking, reading, writing, and civics tests seem like they could be cheated on if they took place online.

However, while naturalization may not seem feasible online, surely there are ways to implement some degree of digital citizenship in the US. Also, as the world becomes increasingly interconnected, I wonder if there will ever be a point where separate countries choose to pool some of their government data on citizens in one database (say, to check whether an applicant for naturalization is being truthful about their records), and if so, what information they’d be willing to put out. I’d love to discuss what could potentially be done online in terms of digital citizenship specifically within the US next week. 🙂

Blog #0110: Russia and the 2016 US Election

Filed under: Uncategorized — allee at 2:45 pm on Friday, October 14, 2016

I remember sitting with my fellow interns on a sweltering July afternoon, finishing up our soft serve ice creams with the TV on in the background. We were silent, as we usually were on days when the dessert was particularly good. But then we heard a recently all-too-familiar voice declare:

“Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing.”

Needless to say, the rest of our lunch break was filled with exclamations of disbelief, wry laughter, and heated discussion. Admittedly, I’m not the most well-versed in politics. But from my peers’ reactions, I know I’m not the only person who did a double-take at Trump’s words. It was the first time that we had heard a political figure ask for a foreign power to breach our national security measures. (Here’s a video of the occurrence for anyone who feels like they haven’t heard Trump’s voice enough yet.)

Whether or not Trump was joking (which I really hope he was, as I do with most of what he says), his words emphasized the reality of Russia altering our political matters via the Internet to me. In one of the articles we read– “When Will We Be Able to Vote Online?” by David Pogue— online voting was argued to be infeasible with current security measures. But I think it’s important to recognize that even without online voting, there are still ways for other countries to influence the 2016 elections. If Facebook is able to manipulate a statistically significant number of voters (as shown in the article by Micah Sifry we read), then there are surely ways for Russia to change the outcome of our elections even if we are not using the Internet to directly vote.

So how exactly would foreign powers do this? I decided that a little Google searching would yield the answer. I ended up on an article from the Huffington Post. In it, the author, Michael Gregg, asserts that Russia or any other hackers could change our election results in the following ways:

  • Hacking a voting machine
  • Shutting down the voting system or election agencies
  • Deleting or altering election records
  • Hijacking a candidate’s website
  • Organizational doxing (publishing private information– essentially what Trump encouraged Russia to do with Clinton’s emails)
  • Targeting campaign donors

I’m sure there are other ways for our election results to be changed, too. I explored other essays written by Bruce Schneier, the author of one of the essays we were assigned this week. In many of them (such as this article published around the same time the aforementioned Trump incident happened), he argues that such hacks are a national threat to our democratic country. I agree with this, but what might be done to protect our election? What measures are already in place, and why aren’t they effective? Are there new measures being formulated now? But would extra security measures compromise individual privacy? How might this conflict of interest play out? This intersection of politics and technology is fascinating but also scary to me, so I’d love to discuss them in seminar soon. 🙂

Blog #0101: 2045: A New Odyssey?

Filed under: Uncategorized — allee at 1:46 pm on Wednesday, October 12, 2016

“I’m sorry Dave, I’m afraid I can’t do that.”

Those are the words from the iconic movie 2001: A Space Odyssey that many of us sci-fi nerds reference. But I’ve never paused to consider what I would do if my phone or laptop consciously disobeyed a “command”, or user input. The Singularity seems to make that a very real possibility.

While whether the Singularity will actually happen in the near future is hugely up for debate– after all, Ray Kerzweil and Paul Allen’s opinions seem to be in direct opposition with each other– the potential repercussions of it taking place seem immeasurable. For me, it isn’t a HAL-esque situation of artificial intelligence consciously harming a human being that I realistically fear the most. Maybe it’s because my sci-fi-loving father has made me sit through too many robot attacks with him, but I feel like there is a substantial amount of distress regarding that threat already. Thus, when the point where artificial intelligence gains autonomy arrives, I think innovators and the public alike will be meticulously accounting for it. Because it’s such an obvious potential design flaw, wouldn’t it have been tirelessly addressed ahead of time?

The consequence I feel trepidation towards is perhaps more subtle, but more probable in my opinion. In my Expository Writing class, we are currently studying antimodernism. We read from T.J. Jackson Lears’ No Place of Grace, which discusses the rise of antimodernism during the turn of the 20th century. During this time, Lears asserts that it was common for people to feel “weightless”– driven only by a clock and the promise of capitalism, they were bound to a stifling mold of their own “commodified selves”. Many felt that autonomy, the fulfillment of self and risk-taking, and most of all, the intensity of life were gone. As the Singularity approaches, this same problem, which has continued to exist since, might be exacerbated.

After all, what do artificial intelligence bots know of spontaneity? They are programmed, and that makes everything seem predictable. Thus, “weightlessness” would be built into their systems. And even if AI bots were able to feel emotions, wouldn’t they inherently feel “commodified”, which is a root of weightlessness? If they became members and therefore influences on human society, this feeling might permeate non-AI subjects– us– as well. Even now, our generation is constantly told to “unplug”. I always interpret as an urge to truly live– to never let living vicariously through our screens become a substitute for genuine human connection and feeling. Would this even be an option with omnipresent AI in our lives?

Of course, it’s hard to judge how the Singularity (or even really advanced AI) might psychologically and emotionally impact people. But in a society that’s already so fixated on efficiency and the clock, I can’t imagine this problem being worsened. Would we increasingly suffocate from a lack of meaningful living as we know it today? Or would there be a certain point where we would revert to some of our old ways, even if it meant regressing technologically? Would we even want to after establishing so much reliance on AI by that point in time? I’d love to discuss this idea in our seminar next week. 🙂 Until then!