1. Data Theft Today Poses Indefinite Threat of “Future Harm”
FYI. You can get a new Social Security Number for free from the SSA but the follow-on ramifications of doing so are unclear.
Benjamin Nuss was one of the nearly 80 million people whose social security number and personal information were compromised in this year’s Anthem data breach. He seems to have taken things in stride, continuing his daily routine of sharing computer time with his brother, eating healthy snacks and making crafts. Benjamin is four years old.
While it may seem trivial to think about the harm a preschooler will suffer from a data breach, the question is not what happens to him now, but what will happen years from now. Data theft poses an indefinite threat of future harm, as birthdate, full name and social security number remain a skeleton key of identity in many systems.
Benjamin’s mother, Jennifer Nuss, gave birth while the family had Blue Cross insurance, which was linked to Anthem’s databases. “They sent us a letter saying that Benjamin’s information may have been compromised. All they offered is, ‘We can watch Ben’s credit for you,’” she says. “But you can check that yourself for free.” A stay-at-home mother of two and an accounting student, Nuss is disciplined about family finances and checks her and her husband’s credit records and accounts regularly. “With Benjamin,” she adds, “well, we’re going to have to watch his information forever.”
While data breach victims like Nuss and his adult counterparts face open-ended questions about what lies ahead, the data wars are running hot, with each week seemingly bringing news of vast new breaches, victims and potential victims gripped with anxiety, and debate raging about the vulnerability of companies and government. All the uncertainty is raising thorny legal questions. The Supreme Court is readying to hear a case that could set new precedent on whether data breach lawsuits can be based on future harm.
[And] data breach victims aren’t only concerned with the financial bottom line. Many are more worried about doing the digital-era equivalent of constantly looking over their shoulder, waiting for someone to appropriate their identity, or dredge up some intimate, haunting secret they thought was long buried. It’s not likely that legislation or the courts can fix that.
Outsiders often make the mistake of perceiving Washington’s technical problems as the result of a dearth of engineering talent. This makes it tempting to frame the current wave of hires from Google and elsewhere as a wartime tactical team moving in to save us from the city’s existing coding barbarians. But this is not quite correct. For one thing, the people Park and Dickerson are luring here aren’t just software engineers; they’re data scientists, user-experience gurus, product managers, and design savants. For another, these people are being matched with government insiders who can advise them on how to deploy private-sector tools like Amazon Web Services, for instance, that have long been considered forbidden within the Beltway, or how the procurement of contractors can be improved. Usually this involves cutting a jungle path through thousands of pages of overgrown government regulations. As Park says, “We need both kinds: people who can hack the technology, as well as people who can hack the bureaucracy.”
The complexity is formidable. If you put your engineer’s hat on, Dickerson says, you can look at government’s approach to tech and decide that it’s pretty much insane. But if you consider it as an anthropologist might (“If you’re studying this alien culture,” he says, “and you ask, Why do they behave so strangely?”), you see that D.C. has developed its dysfunctions for deep, structural reasons. For instance, Washington has plenty of smart people, Dickerson says. But they have been removed from the extraordinary growth—only occurring during the past decade, really—of the handful of West Coast companies that can now manage “planet-scale websites,” as Dickerson puts it.
Above all, there is the inertia of the past. One of the first lessons Dickerson learned about D.C. when he arrived was that the city traditionally conflates the importance of a task with its cost. Healthcare.gov ultimately became an $800 million project, with 55 contracting companies involved. “And of course it didn’t work,” he says. “They set aside hundreds of millions of dollars to build a website because it was a big, important website. But compare that to Twitter, which took three rounds of funding before it got to about the same number of users as Healthcare.gov—8 million to 10 million users. In those three rounds of funding, the whole thing added up to about $60 million.” Dickerson believes that the Healthcare.gov project could have been done with a similar size budget. But there wasn’t anyone to insist that the now-well-established Silicon Valley practice of building “agile” software—rolling out a digital product in stages; testing it; improving it; and repeating the process for continuous improvement—would be vastly superior to (and much, much cheaper than) a patchwork of contractors building out a complete and monolithic website. In his Fast Company interview, President Obama remarks that he made a significant mistake in thinking that government could use traditional methods to build something—Healthcare.gov—that had never been built before. “When you’re dealing with IT and software and program design,” the president explains, “it’s a creative process that can’t be treated the same way as a bulk purchase of pencils.”
Obama says. “And my pitch is that the tech community is more creative, more innovative, more collaborative and open to new ideas than any sector on earth. But sometimes what’s missing is purpose. To what end are we doing this?” As the president explains, he asks potential recruits, “Is there a way for us to harness this incredible set of tools you’re developing for more than just cooler games or a quicker way for my teenage daughters to send pictures to each other?”
“How do you fix a broken system that isn’t yours to repair?” That’s the question that motivated the researchers Lilly Irani and Six Silberman to create Turkopticon, and it’s one that comes up frequently in digital environments dominated by large platforms with hands-off policies. (On social networks like Twitter, for example, harassment is a problem for many users.) Irani and Silberman describe Turkopticon as a “mutual aid for accountability” technology, a system that coordinates peer support to hold others accountable when platforms choose not to step in.
Academics advancing the idea of digital commons have tended to focus on how to prevent or regulate these problems—after they’re identified. In Code and Other Laws of Cyberspace, Larry Lessig describes software design as a kind of regulation separate from top-down policies or community norms. Sixteen years after Lessig’s book, belief in the power of code and social psychology to shape successful online communities is widespread among the design teams who govern our digital lives. Their growing toolbox of design options is detailed in a recent law review article by James Grimmelman, who covers everything from banning and shaming to reputation and rewards.
What might it mean for digital citizens to play a greater role in the long term operation of online platforms? In Europe, lawmakers and courts have a history of regulating the details of algorithms like Google search. Another idea is a Magna Carta for “consent of the networked,” according to the journalist and anti-censorship advocate Rebecca MacKinnon. This idea, backed by the web’s creator Tim Berners-Lee, might bind platforms to the consent of their users, even when companies span multiple countries and jurisdictions. One example of this might be the Wikimedia Foundation, which reserves half of its board positions for elected Wikipedians. Wikimedia also leaves many governance details to its community in each of its language groups, like a federal government comprised of many states.
Managing a commons is more complex than users versus platforms. In cases like Mechanical Turk, Amazon helps its users hold each other accountable by sharing data with systems like Turkopticon. Perhaps similar data sharing could help researchers and citizen groups audit algorithms from the outside. Nor does this work need to happen entirely outside platforms. Public research like Facebook’s recent study on political bias helps the public understand and debate the state of our shared digital lives.
TWENTY years ago, kids in preschool, kindergarten and even first and second grade spent much of their time playing: building with blocks, drawing or creating imaginary worlds, in their own heads or with classmates. But increasingly, these activities are being abandoned for the teacher-led, didactic instruction typically used in higher grades. In many schools, formal education now starts at age 4 or 5. Without this early start, the thinking goes, kids risk falling behind in crucial subjects such as reading and math, and may never catch up.
The idea seems obvious: Starting sooner means learning more; the early bird catches the worm.
But a growing group of scientists, education researchers and educators say there is little evidence that this approach improves long-term achievement; in fact, it may have the opposite effect, potentially slowing emotional and cognitive development, causing unnecessary stress and perhaps even souring kids’ desire to learn.
The stakes in this debate are considerable. As the skeptics of teacher-led early learning see it, that kind of education will fail to produce people who can discover and innovate, and will merely produce people who are likely to be passive consumers of information, followers rather than inventors. Which kind of citizen do we want for the 21st century?
“Our destiny is frequently met in the very paths we take to avoid it.” – Jean de La Fontaine
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