Edward Snowden on Privacy, Values, and Government Surveillance

John Oliver’s recent interview with Edward Snowden is circulating widely online, but given the ignorance displayed in “man on the street” segments it deserves more attention. Those segments are included in the video below, and misapprehensions range from the belief that Snowden sold secrets to associating him with WikiLeaks (that’s not Snowden, it’s Julian Assange).

To be clear, this is not a sympathetic interview. There are some humorous parts, but Oliver is not tossing softballs. He asks Snowden difficult questions about whether he understood the implications of the information he released, and whether turning it over to journalists was a responsible decision. As a Snowden supporter some parts of the conversation were frustrating to me, but that probably means that it was a fair interview.

The most important part of the video below concerns Section 215 of the Patriot Act, which allows government collection of “any tangible thing” that is “relevant to” a terrorism investigation. That’s an unbelievably broad provision, and one that its author James Sensenbrenner claims has been misinterpreted by lenient FISA courts and should be put out of business. We must have a very serious national conversation about this bill before its renewal on June 1 of this year.

There were several good quotes from Edward Snowden in the interview. Here are my two favorites:

You will never be completely free from risk if you’re free.

You shouldn’t change your behavior because a government agency somewhere is doing the wrong thing. If we sacrifice our values because we’re afraid, we don’t care about those values very much.

Schneier on Data and Power

Data and Power is the tentative title of a new book, forthcoming from Bruce Schneier. Here’s more from the post describing the topic of the book:

Corporations are collecting vast dossiers on our activities on- and off-line — initially to personalize marketing efforts, but increasingly to control their customer relationships. Governments are using surveillance, censorship, and propaganda — both to protect us from harm and to protect their own power. Distributed groups — socially motivated hackers, political dissidents, criminals, communities of interest — are using the Internet to both organize and effect change. And we as individuals are becoming both more powerful and less powerful. We can’t evade surveillance, but we can post videos of police atrocities online, bypassing censors and informing the world. How long we’ll still have those capabilities is unclear….

There’s a fundamental trade-off we need to make as society. Our data is enormously valuable in aggregate, yet it’s incredibly personal. The powerful will continue to demand aggregate data, yet we have to protect its intimate details. Balancing those two conflicting values is difficult, whether it’s medical data, location data, Internet search data, or telephone metadata. But balancing them is what society needs to do, and is almost certainly the fundamental issue of the Information Age.

There’s more at the link, including several other potential titles. The topic will likely interest many readers of this blog. It will likely build on his ideas of inequality and online feudalism, discussed here.

Inequality, Feudalism, and the Internet

Bruce Schneier speaks at Google on the nascent feudalism in computer security:

Highlights of the talk (some paraphrased and elaborated):

  • There is major inequality in the ability to provide security. Most individual users cannot provide it for themselves. But some big companies can. In fact, the companies are so good that they can provide it for others and bring individuals up to at least a minimal level of security.
  • This is the feudal model of security. Lords provided a minimal living standard in return for labor. They guaranteed that their peasants would survive, and the peasants worked a set number of days or provided a share of their crops as rent.
  • Typically we think of paying for security, but can we stretch the feudal model a bit further? What if users computers (while in screensaver mode or whatever) were used to help with security?
  • When people are afraid they are willing to make interesting bargains.
  • Everyone predicted that automobiles would make transportation faster. No one predicted the suburbs. Second-order social changes are hard to predict.

Doublespeak: A Chrome App for the Orwellian Web

tl;dr: Doublespeak is a new Chrome web extension that replaces political doublespeak with plain English. It’s open source so you can help expand the dictionary of terms. 

George Orwell is well-known for introducing the terms “newspeak” and “doublethink” in his novel 1984. A portmanteau of the two, doublespeak, is more common in our modern lexicon–and unfortunately, so is the term that it represents. Another of Orwell’s works, “Politics and the English Language,” explains doublespeak using examples that seem almost quaint today (1946):

In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible. Things like the continuance of British rule in India, the Russian purges and deportations, the dropping of the atom bombs on Japan, can indeed be defended, but only by arguments which are too brutal for most people to face, and which do not square with the professed aims of the political parties. Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness. Defenseless villages are bombarded from the air, the inhabitants driven out into the countryside, the cattle machine-gunned, the huts set on fire with incendiary bullets: this is called pacification.

Although Orwell is gone, the problems he describes are not. If anything, doublespeak has gotten worse in this age of “rendition,” TSA security theater, and PRISM.

Tim Lynch addressed this problem in the context of the War on Terror in 2006:

By corrupting the language, the people who wield power are able to fool the others about their activities and evade responsibility and accountability. Professor William Lutz, author of The New Doublespeak, notes: “Doublespeak is language that pretends to communicate but really doesn’t. It is language that makes the bad seem good, the negative appear positive, the unpleasant appear attractive or at least tolerable. Doublespeak is language that avoids or shifts responsibility, language that is at variance with its real or purported meaning. It is language that conceals or prevents thought; rather than extending thought, doublespeak limits it.”

It is true, of course, that dishonesty has always been a part of the human experience, but doublespeak is a pernicious variation of dishonesty. Doublespeak perverts the basic function of language, which is to facilitate a common understanding between human beings.

1984-posterLynch goes on to list several examples: “stop-loss” orders as a stand-in for conscription, the replacement of warrants by “national security letters,” and the renaming of Guantanamo prisoner suicides as “asymmetrical warfare.”

A–perhaps the–key point of Orwell’s conception of doublespeak is that words have meaning. Although this runs counter to postmodernism, it points out that language is a key front in the battle for ‘hearts and minds.’ Witness the recent discussion between a well-spoken University of Wisconsin student (‘Madiha’) and an on-campus recruiter for the NSA:

NSA RECRUITER 1: I’m focusing on what our foreign intelligence requires of [us], so…you can define ‘adversary’ as [an] enemy and clearly, Germany is not our enemy, but would we have foreign national interest from an intelligence perspective on what’s going on across the globe? Yes, we [would].

MADIHA: So by “adversary”, you actually mean anybody and everybody. There’s nobody, then – by your definition – that is not an adversary. Is that correct?

NSA RECRUITER 1: That is not correct.

Doublespeak has the power of the state behind it, which includes a great deal of technological sophistication. Until recently, I was more optimistic about the power of the internet to oppose conventional sources of political power. Although the recent Snowden revelations have diminished my confidence in technology as a political force, we can still use it as a tool to take back language.

To that end, I have developed a simple tool that you can use to counter doublespeak in your web viewing experience. It known as Doublespeak and is available as a Chrome web extension. Right now it has a small dictionary of three terms that it replaces, but can easily be extended for more. The code is also open-source on Github. When you install the extension, clicking its icon in the browser window will open a duplicate of the current page in a new tab, but with doublespeak terms replaced by their plain English equivalents.

Here are a few examples of the Doublespeak extension at work on these three pages:













Obviously it does not replace the text in images, but I think that makes the last example all the more striking. The extension should respond to titleized words, but some other special cases (e.g. all uppercase) are not handled in the current version (0.1).

If you have suggestions for new additions to the dictionary or other features, please let me know.

Podcasts I Like

Apologies for the silence here lately. I have been working on a couple of longer-than-average posts, as well as some fun projects that I will hopefully be able to share with you here soon. Part of the influence in those upcoming posts is from podcasts I have enjoyed. (Readers of the tipping post may have noticed that two of the main references there were to podcasts as well.)

Ben Franklin Koss HeadphonesThus, I thought readers of this blog might enjoy some of my favorites. There are likely some that I have omitted because I listened to all of their episodes some time ago. Below are those that have stood the test of time or that I am listening to currently.

Economics/Social Science

  • Analysis: Half-hour episodes on current events with a social scientific perspective.
  • Data Stories: As you might expect, an audio podcast about data visualization has some weak points. However, this is useful as a who’s-who of the visualization community.
  • Econtalk: My absolute favorite podcast. Each week, Russ Roberts and a guest discuss research or current events using economics as a lens on the world. Sometimes I think Russ is too hard on statistical methods, but every episode is worth a listen.
  • Great Economists: Originally a MOOC from MRUniversity, the audio from this course is now available as a condensed series of podcasts.
  • History of Rome: History’s greatest empire in 170-odd episodes. Although new episodes are no longer being produced, host Mike Duncan has a new project in the pipeline that is expected in September.
  • Loopcast: DC WarKids and their guests discuss national security and international relations.
  • More or Less: Tim Harford takes quantitative headlines and questions them, often finding more than meets the eye.
  • Planet Money: My second-favorite podcast, after Econtalk. The hosts explain current events or applied economics lessons in accessible language with fun examples. A podcast like this focused on politics would immediately become my all-time favorite.
  • Pop-Up Ideas: Another Tim Harford podcast, this one covers big ideas in social science in a short and punchy manner.


  • Accidental Tech Podcast: Marco Arment, Casey Liss, and John Siracusa discuss Apple and web technology. This podcast originated as outtakes of their casual car show, Neutral. A very enjoyable listen every week.
  • Bitsplitting: Daniel Jalkut  interviews technology professionals, many of them entrepreneurs.
  • CMD+Space: Myke Hurley interviews guests who “do great things.”
  • Giant Robots Smashing into Other Giant Robots: Discussions of software design and development, hosted by Thoughtbot’s Ben Orenstein.
  • Ruby Rogues: Although originally a Ruby-focused program, after over 100 episodes the rogues now delve into other issues including education, cognition, and the politics of software communities.

Risk, Overreaction, and Control

11-M_El_How many people died because of the September 11 attacks? The answer depends on what you are trying to measure. The official estimate is around 3,000 deaths as a direct result of hijacked aircraft and at the World Trade Center, Pentagon, and in Pennsylvania. Those attacks were tragic, but the effect was compounded by overreaction to terrorism. Specifically, enough Americans substituted driving for flying in the remaining months of 2001 to cause 350 additional deaths from accidents.

David Myers was the first to raise this possibility in a December, 2001, essay. In 2004, Gerd Gigerenzer collected data and estimated the 350 deaths figure, resulting from what he called “dread risk”:

People tend to fear dread risks, that is, low-probability, high-consequence events, such as the terrorist attack on September 11, 2001. If Americans avoided the dread risk of flying after the attack and instead drove some of the unflown miles, one would expect an increase in traffic fatalities. This hypothesis was tested by analyzing data from the U.S. Department of Transportation for the 3 months following September 11. The analysis suggests that the number of Americans who lost their lives on the road by avoiding the risk of flying was higher than the total number of passengers killed on the four fatal flights. I conclude that informing the public about psychological research concerning dread risks could possibly save lives.

Does the same effect carry over to other countries and attacks? Alejandro López-Rousseau looked at how Spaniards responded to the March 11, 2004, train bombings in Madrid. He found that activity across all forms of transportation decreased–travelers did not substitute driving for riding the train.

What could explain these differences? One could be that Americans are less willing to forego travel than Spaniards. Perhaps more travel is for business reasons and cannot be delayed. Another possibility is that Spanish citizens are more accustomed to terrorist attacks and understand that substituting driving is more risky than continuing to take the train. There are many other differences that we have not considered here–the magnitude of the two attacks, feelings of being “in control” while driving, varying cultural attitudes.

This post is simply meant to make three points. First, reactions to terrorism can cause additional deaths if relative risks are not taken into account. Cultures also respond to terrorism in different ways, perhaps depending on their previous exposure to violent extremism. Finally, the task of explaining differences is far more difficult than establishing patterns of facts.

(For more on the final point check out Explaining Social Behavior: More Nuts and Bolts for the Social Sciences, which motivated this post.)

Kurds and Statelessness

Kurdish peshmerga--literally "those who face death"--standing guard at Shenarwe Mountain

Kurdish peshmerga–literally “those who face death”–standing guard at Shenarwe Mountain

Last week one of my academic heroes, James C. Scott, came to Duke to give two talks. The first was a lunchtime discussion of his recent book, Two Cheers for Anarchism. The second was a lecture elaborating on The Art of Not Being Governed. We have discussed the argument of the latter book here before. To oversimplify quite a bit, Scott says that the upland peoples of Southeast Asia consciously evaded the intrusion of lowland governments into their lives.

Scott recognizes that his argument applies outside of Asia as well, but does not delve into specifics. My favorite example of this is the Kurdish people, who are located in the mountainous region of northern Iraq, southern Turkey, northeastern Syria, and northwestern Iran. As Scott would say, they are at the periphery of several states and the center of none. It is also an increasingly strategic region, and Kurds find themselves in a position to shape the balance of power:

After decades of persecution and genocide, the Kurds have found a way to operate in a neighborhood where clear-cut borders can often be more of a nuisance than a boon. Loosely promised a state by the 1920 Treaty of Sèvres, the Kurdish people have learned the hard way that maps don’t necessarily dictate facts on the ground, as any observer of Mideast history and politics can attest. “Though the Kurds are said to be the world’s largest stateless people,” writes Time contributor Pelin Turgut, “Kurdish leaders … say they are no longer interested in a single Kurdish state but in a loose federation that spans various national borders.” Rather than waiting for Mideast leaders or the international community to make a deal for a state, the Kurds seem to be playing a regional game of “Let’s Make A Deal.”

With the recent call for a ceasefire by PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan, Kurdish-Turkish relations appear to be improving. This is an important transition since until now Kurdish leaders have been closer to Baghdad than Ankara. Bashar al-Assad has recently increased Kurdish autonomy as he seeks their support in Syria’s civil war. To take an optimistic view, this stateless people may soon find themselves playing kingmaker in the region.

See also: The Kurdish Factor” by Matthieu Akins

Hackers vs. Diplomats

XKCD's Map of the Internet, 2006

XKCD’s Map of the Internet, 2006

Katherine Maher’s Foreign Policy piece got a lot of (deserved) attention last week. If the topic interests you, go read the whole thing. I’ll highlight the parts that are most relevant to our recent conversations on internet politics.

On the web as geography:

Like all new frontiers, cyberspace’s early settlers declared themselves independent — most famously in 1996, in cyberlibertarian John Perry Barlow’s “A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace.” Barlow asserted a realm beyond borders or government, rejecting the systems we use to run the physical universe. “Governments of the Industrial World,” he reproached, “You have no sovereignty where we gather.… Cyberspace does not lie within your borders.” …

Barlow was right, in part. Independence was a structural fact of cyberspace, and free expression and communication were baked into the network. The standards and protocols on which the Internet runs are agnostic: They don’t care whether you were in Bangkok, Buenos Aires, or Boise. If they run into an attempt to block traffic, they merely reroute along a seemingly infinite network of decentralized nodes, inspiring technologist John Gilmore’s maxim: “The Net interprets censorship as damage and routes around it.”

On the promise of the internet for promoting freedom:

Information has always been power, and governments have long sought to control it. So for countries where power is a tightly controlled narrative, parsed by state television and radio stations, the Internet has been catastrophic. Its global, decentralized networks of information-sharing have routed around censorship — just as Gilmore promised they would. It gives people an outlet to publish what the media cannot, organize where organizing is forbidden, and revolt where protest is unknown.

On the changing reality–increasingly state-based control:

Recently, the network research and analytics company Renesys tried to assess how hard it would be to take the world offline. They assessed disconnection risk based on the number of national service providers in every country, finding that 61 countries are at severe risk for disconnection, with another 72 at significant risk. That makes 133 countries where network control is so centralized that the Internet could be turned off with not much more than a phone call.

It seems our global Internet is not so global.

From my perspective I can only hope that we will find the equivalent of “internet mountains” that will remain hard to govern. It is possible that some nation states will even facilitate this. (I am thinking here of The Pirate Bay’s move from a US-based .com domain to a Swedish .se address.) The emperor may still be far away, but he’s getting closer.

The German Tank Problem

Restored Panther tank, recovered from a Polish swamp. Private collection of the late Jacques Littlefield, Portola Valley CA.

Restored Panther tank recovered from a Polish swamp. Private collection of the late Jacques Littlefield, Portola Valley CA.

A few weeks ago I was talking with Kieran Healy about the impact the Second World War had on social science research. Specifically we discussed Machine Dreams and Keep from All Thoughtful Men. The conversation became less esoteric more interesting when he brought up the German tank problem, which I had not heard before in this particular form.

Richard Ruggles of Harvard and Henry Brodie of the State Department wrote the original statement of the problem in a 1947 JASA article:

In early 1943 the Economic Warfare Division of the American Embassy in London started to analyze markings and serial numbers obtained from captured German equipment in order to obtain estimates of German war production and strength….

Various kinds of captured enemy equipment were studied by this technique. The first product to be so analyzed was tires, and after this tanks, trucks, guns, flying bombs, and rockets were studied. Aircraft markings were not studied by the Economic Warfare Division, since, by previous agreement, the British Air Ministry bore the responsibility for all estimates on aircraft production. The uses of the intelligence derived from the markings were varied. At times it helped decide the target systems of the air forces; on other occasions it gave indications of German strength in weapons such as tanks and rockets.

The Allies needed to estimate German manufacturing capacity for a number of reasons. That information would give them a sense of how quickly the needed to produce to keep up. It would also let them know about how many factories would need to be targeted for air raids. This could also allow US and British forces to estimate whether the raids were effective at reducing German production.

So how did they do it? Well, in typical German fashion the Axis powers were quite organized, and many vehicle components bore markings that revealed information about their provenance. The Allied researchers used a bit of intuition (month codes should have more variance than year codes, for example) coupled with solid statistical know-how. Back to Ruggles and Brodie:

[A]ll Mark I tanks fell in the series 0 to 20,000, all Mark IIs in the series 20,000 to 30,000, and so on. When the cases in any particular series were arranged in an array, it became evident that some central authority had allotted the various producers one or more bands of numbers within the series.

Oversimplifying just a bit, the serial numbers were quasi-random draws from a uniform distribution. If each number revealed information about the date and place of manufacture, the Allies could estimate the rate at which Germany was producing tanks and the number it currently had. In statistical terms the problem is to estimate the maximum of a uniform distribution. (Perhaps I found Kieran’s example so interesting because I have been asked to solve this problem in a number of ways in statistics homework assignments but never with such a real-world motivation.)

After the war actual production data became available, allowing us to see how good the estimates actually were. I’ll omit the technical details of estimation for now, but they are available in the paper and at the Wikipedia article linked above. In short the statistical analysis was pretty darn good–much better than any of the guesses by field agents at the time:


Allied estimates of German war production tended to be fairly accurate. The use of statistical methods greatly improved the accuracy of estimates of human intelligents agents.

For tanks specifically, estimation accuracy increased as the war went on. Analysts were even able to approximate the proportion of tanks produced by each manufacturer.



Not bad! I hope you have enjoyed this bit of history as much as I did. It’s a nice motivation for estimating the maximum of a discrete uniform distribution. More than that, though, it’s a testament to the applicability of statistical know-how to potentially life saving problems.

(NB: This is my 300th post on YSPR since we got started nearly two years ago. Thanks for being part of the conversation!)

The Economist on Internet Politics

PoliticalProgressInternetOn Monday I gave a round-up of my posts on internet politics over the past year or so. Recently The Economist wrote a similar review. It is worth reading in full if this topic interests you. In this post we will discuss a few key points from that article, demonstrating the increasing relevance of politics online.

SOPA was not the only bill introduced that would have infringed on internet freedoms:

The success at the ITU conference in Dubai capped a big year for online activists. In January they helped defeat Hollywood-sponsored anti-piracy legislation, best known by the acronym SOPA, in America’s Congress. A month later, in Europe, they took on ACTA, an obscure international treaty which, in seeking to enforce intellectual-property rights, paid little heed to free speech and privacy. In Brazil they got closer than many would have believed possible to securing a ground-breaking internet bill of rights, the “Marco Civil da Internet”. In Pakistan they helped to delay, perhaps permanently, plans for a national firewall, and in the Philippines they campaigned against a cybercrime law the Supreme Court later put on hold.

The internet is indeed developing its own political culture:

The internet is nothing if not an exercise in interconnection. Its politics thus seems to call out for a similar convergence, and connections between the disparate interest groups that make up the net movement are indeed getting stronger. Beyond specific links, they also share what Manuel Castells, a Spanish sociologist, calls the “culture of the internet”, a contemporary equivalent of the 1960s counter-culture (in which much of the environmental movement grew up).

There are even political parties who make advocating for internet freedoms a key part of their platform:

In some countries the nascent net movement has spawned “pirate parties” that focus on net-policy issues; the first, in Sweden, was descended from the Pirate Bay, a site created to aid file sharing after Napster, a successful music-sharing scofflaw, was shut down. Pirate Party International, an umbrella group, already counts 28 national organisations as members. Most are small, but Germany’s Piratenpartei, founded in 2006, has captured seats in four regional parliaments.

One of the leaders of the German Pirate Party, Marina Weisband, even used a computing metaphor when asked about her party’s platform: “We don’t offer a ready-made programme, but an entire operating system.” This is similar to an idea from Reid Hoffman that we have discussed before.

Political parties and international treaties are not the only signs of a political life on the internet. Like any venue in which people have to develop a common life, norms and expectations of behavior have already begun to form. In the coming years and decades it will become even more evident that the internet is another area in which the politics of everyday life will play out. We should pay attention.