Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Say Goodbye to Privacy, Citizens of the World!

Anthony Fontana
Say Goodbye to Privacy, Citizens of the World!

The world in the year 1984 was scary place. Apple released its first Macintosh computer, the deadly disease, AIDS, was identified, there was widespread famine in Ethiopia, and there was even a deadly shooting in a California McDonald’s. Wait a Minute. That’s not the 1984 I meant to talk about. I intended to speak to George Orwell’s 1984, a dystopian world where citizens are constantly under surveillance. Everything they say and do is recorded by the government. One of the events that actually happened in 1984 doesn’t fit with the others and I think you can tell which it is. The Macintosh computer, today, is coincidentally helping push society closer and closer Orwell’s 1984, where there are people that we’ve never met before that know everything about us. Now I know you’re thinking that what I’m suggesting is absolutely preposterous. The world we live in could never end up like that, right? Wrong! We actually aren’t headed towards that world; we’re already living in it.
Now that I’ve successfully scared the hell out of you, let me explain. In our world, the government isn’t the only reason for this lack of privacy like it is in Orwell’s dystopia. It is one of the main groups that are creating this world, but that’s a topic for another day. We’re going to focus on the industrial groups. In industry, the people that are ruining our chances at privacy can be broken up into two groups: data brokers and the very manufacturers you and I buy products from.
Starting with the less obvious of the two, data brokers are companies that essentially follow people around the internet and collect information based on the websites that each person visits. On March 9th, 2014, 60 minutes aired a special exposing data brokers which gave people a sense of what exactly is going on. According to the special, “they are collecting, analyzing and packaging some of our most sensitive personal information and selling it as a commodity...to each other, to advertisers, even the government, often without our direct knowledge”. What they are collecting about you, me and millions of others is, at least to me, very concerning. This information includes, “…our likes and dislikes, our closest friends, our bad habits, even (our) daily movements, both on and offline.”  The method data brokers use to essentially sit on a website and wait for their prey is by exploiting your internet browser. In the 60 minutes piece, correspondent Steve Kroft spoke with former google engineer Ashkan Soltani who developed a software program called Disconnect. Soltani went on to any particular website and turned on his program which he designed to show who was lurking in the shadows of the websites on the internet. Soltani went onto the New York Times website and revealed the more than a dozen third parties sitting on the website, waiting for him to click on a link or move onto another website.
So why are they doing this? Like everything in today’s world, they’re doing this in the name of money, and very large quantity of it at that. Eventually, once data brokers have collected a sufficient amount of information about you, they create a profile with your name attached with all kinds of information attached to it.  They then turn it into a profit by selling it to someone else, and that can be other brokers, companies looking to sell you a product based on your interests or even the government, as mentioned in the special.
The scariest part about this kind of data collection, for me personally, is the manufacturers that we’re buying products from, some of whom we trust with our personal information, are doing the exact same thing as the data brokers. The problem here is that they have access to an even larger collection of data to profit from.  The manufacturers aren’t even trying to hide the fact that this is going on. In November of 2011, CNN Money reported how Verizon had revised its privacy policy, “to allow the company to record customers’ location data and web browsing history, combine it with other personal information like age and gender, aggregate it with millions of other customers’ data and sell it on an anonymous basis.” I did something a few weeks ago with respect to this topic. I looked for, found and then read the privacy policy on my Motorola smart phone. Motorola literally tells me and all of its other users that it can collect information like, “your voiceprint (a literal recording of your voice), your calls and text messages, and information from your calendar and address book.” So how many of you have actually read this policy, be it on your iPhone or Android. No problem, I’ll wait. That’s the gimmick with data collection by both manufacturers and data brokers. They tell you that they’re doing it, but they don’t put it in a place that you or I will look. A perfect example of this is downloading applications from the app store (iPhone) or the play store (Android). To download the next title in a seemingly endless string of Angry Birds games, a little window pops up that forces you to accept the conditions of the app before proceeding with the download. No one reads this. I certainly don’t. All I’m concerned with is shooting little animated birds at green pigs. If you actually read these conditions, the manufacturer tells you exactly what they’re doing and it’s actually rather frightening. The required permissions for the newest installment in the series, Angry Birds Go!, include access to your location, your camera, and your phone calls. So in exchange for all of this personal information, we are given the privilege of racing cute little birds in animated vehicles. Seems fair, right?... Anyone?..... Buehler?... This kind of behavior isn’t going away. In fact, the next wave of technology that is coming is actually making it worse.
A lot has been made recently about the internet of things. The internet of things is the term coined that encompasses the recent influx of common household devices that are becoming connected to the internet. Everything from the thermostat in your home to the toothbrush in your bathroom is becoming connected. The technology research company, Gartner, says the internet of things, “will result in 1.9 trillion in global economic value add through sales into diverse end markets.” The reason this is relevant in the discussion of privacy is because, according to technology journalist John Paul Titlow, the same companies like Verizon that are collecting personal data about their customers are the same companies that are leading the smart device “wave”. These companies, who already have access to a large collection of personal data, will now begin to add to that collection and make it more expansive than ever. Just imagine this. Your smart thermostat will tell manufacturers how efficiently you use energy. Your smart coffee maker will tell manufacturers how at risk you are for the adverse effects of caffeine. Even your toothbrush will have the capabilities to tell companies how effectively you brush your teeth. Maybe this doesn’t scare you. Okay fine, they know all this stuff, who cares? Would you care if it was costing you? Insurance companies are always looking to make money. They raise prices and deny claims wherever possible. So let’s say the dental insurance company A goes to Oral B to buy information about their customers using their new internet connected Smart Series toothbrush. They see that these 200 customers aren’t brushing their teeth very well, making them susceptible to a multitude of oral problems. The insurance company sees these customers as probable costs to the company so they raise the premium for those unlucky 200.
This example wasn’t concocted in my na├»ve brain, but rather by Dr. Sven Dietrich’s. Dr. Dietrich is a Stevens Institute of Technology professor that researches computer and network security, anonymity, cryptographic protocols and cryptography. I spent about 40 minutes with Dr. Dietrich and the overwhelming sense I got about him was that he was incredibly concerned about this issue that not many have even thought about. At one point, he pulled out his laptop and said, “how do I know I’m not being watched?” He then pointed to the camera on his MacBook that had a small plastic cover over it just in case someone was interested in accessing his camera to spy on him. His views on our privacy were incredibly pessimistic as well, saying things like, “we’re doing it to ourselves,” and “the users enslave themselves to providers.” He blames the people simply because we don’t put the time in to do the necessary research on the privacy and security policies for the smart devices we purchase. In response to whether this kind of data collection will end, he asked why would it stop? In a society driven by the dollar, in an industry where is no regulation, why would companies not try to make as much money as possible? Companies have the tendency to exploit something they make money off of until they’ve literally squeezed every drop of it. So one would have to think that companies are going to try to work their way into every aspect of our lives and collect as much information as possible.

So what do you think? Is 2014 starting to sound like 1984 yet?

Agroindustry’s Transparency Dilemma

Agroindustry’s Transparency Dilemma
                In 1962 Rachel Carson published her controversial book “Silent Spring”, in which she outlined the environmental degradation caused by the overuse of pesticides.  Monsanto, an agricultural corporation and former manufacturer of the insecticide DDT, retaliated by publishing their parody article “The Desolate Year”, in which they created a dystopian image of the world over run by insects after the ban of pesticides.  Monsanto organized a massive advertising campaign aimed at discrediting and invalidating Carson and her work, but outside research proving DDT’s toxicity confirmed Carson’s finding, and in 1972 the EPA banned DDT in the United States.  It’s almost difficult to grasp that at one point acclaimed scientist, writer, and igniter of the environmental movement, Rachel Carson, had her credibility under attack because a billion dollar company was doing whatever it had to do to protect its assets.  Monsanto is only one example of a company that has a long record of going after its critic, and Carson at the time of her criticism asked “When the scientific organization speaks, whose voice do we hear – that of science? Or of the sustaining industry?”
                Now these same companies are incharge of a fast growing technology, genetically engineered seeds.  Genetically engineered (or modified) crops are crops grown from seeds that have been engineered to internally generate pesticide or internally resist pesticide.  This engineering is achieved by introducing a gene, segment of DNA, to the seeds genome, that codes for these traits.  A common example is Monsanto’s “Roundup Ready” crops, which is genetically modified to resist the herbicide glyphosate. 
                Genetically modified (GM) crops can potentially be engineered to increase yields, even under harsh conditions, as well as decrease pesticide use because of built in resistance.  This means we can feed an overpopulated, starving, warming planet, while decreasing the amount of chemicals we pour into it.  It sounds promising but with any new technology comes controversy – scientific, political, economic, philosophical, ethical controversy.  
This agronomical controversy stems from a struggling scientific community handicapped by political inadequacy.   Do GM companies have enough political power to control research and information about their products? 
                GM seeds are patented technologies, and because of intellectual property rights the owners of these technologies, including Monsanto, Syngenta, and DuPont, have what they call “Technology/Stewardship Agreement”.  This agreement specifies how seeds can be used, where they can be grown, where they can be sold (because of international governments disallowing them), which brand of herbicide can be used (essentially the company’s), and under what terms can research be conducted.  The latter is the most controversial because it restricts independent research that test under what conditions seeds thrive or fail, that compare seeds from different companies, and that test for unintended environmental side effects.  Even if research is conducted it’s difficult to reach peer reviewed journals without company approval. 
                Concerned about these controls, a group of two dozen scientists sent a statement to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) saying that “as a result of restricted access no truly independent research can be legally conducted on many critical questions regarding the technology.”  As a result the GM seed industry’s American Seed Trade Association met with scientists at the corn entomologist meeting in Ames, Iowa, and companies entered an Academic Research License agreement with public institutes.  Research could now be conducted on agronomic and yield comparison, comparative efficacy studies, pest biology and resistance management studies, and interactions of introduced traits in the seeds with the environment studies.  But studies concerning the patented protected genetics of the plant, like breeding, reverse gene engineering, and modification to the genetic traits, are not up for examination.  However, research conditions are contingent on companies’ voluntary cooperation, and as senior Scientist Doug Gurian-Sherman of the Union of Concerned Scientist’s Food and Environment Program and a former reviewer for the EPA said “It’s voluntary, and there’s no meaningful enforcement.”
                What this agreement seems to have done is remove the blatant restriction on independent research and assume in its place an illusion that research is now open to all scientists.  As Cornell University entomologist and spokesperson of the two dozen concerned scientists Elson J. Shields wrote in letter to the EPA in 2009, “It is important to understand that it is not always simply a matter of blanket denial of all research requests, which is bad enough, but selective denials and permissions based on industry perceptions of how ‘friendly’ or ‘hostile’ a particular scientist may be toward [seed-enhancement] technology.”  With this issue it doesn’t matter if you are pro or anti GM crop technology, what is happening is “… that with no independent voice on either the positive aspects of genetic studies or the negative, the public gets PR from the companies or spin from activist groups.  As a result the issues around GM crops become more complicated and divisive than necessary,” says chief scientist of the Organic Center Charles Benbrook. 
                However, not everyone is concerned.  New York based freelance journalist Keith Kloor finds security in organizations like Biology Fortified, an independent non-profit pro-GMO website not affiliated with any company, or the National Academy of Scientists (NAS), a private, non-profit society established by an Act of Congress in 1863 that provides “independent, objective advice to the nation on matters related to science and technology”, who consider GM crops to “pose no new or different risks than any other crop, and there is no scientific reason to believe they would be any more risky.” 
                Writer and contributing editor to OnEarth magazine Bruce Stutz in his article “Companies Put Restriction on Research into GM Crops”, written for the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies Yale Environment 360, said that the research environment is “rife with obstruction and suspicion”.  Some scientists, including the two dozen that sent the statement to the EPA, were concerned of the reprisal that might follow a “non-friendly” GM crop research.   
As federal funding becomes more scarce many scientists find themselves increasingly dependent on private funding, and when it comes to agricultural research big chemical,”agritech” companies are heavy funders.   In their letter to the EPA, the 2 dozen scientists asserted that “virtually all of us require cooperation from industry at some level to conduct our research”.  If privately funded research proves to be unfavorable towards a company and its products, these companies can withdraw their participation, both product and capital.  Meaning, there’s no guarantee that a multiyear study or a follow up to unexpected finding would be supported.  As any university scientist knows, if a lab is out of funding it shuts down, and a collapsed lab provides no jobs.  Gurian-Sherman believes that “scientists are clearly intimidated” and microbial ecologist Ignacio Chapela from the University of California, Berkley, thinks that this intimidations might push away young scientists from entering careers in biotech research. 
                The extortion isn’t just monetary, like in Carson’s case scientists have claimed to have their reputation tampered because big agribusinesses were irked by the scientist’s unflattering conclusions.  Biologist Tyrone Hayes of the University of California, Berkley, found his reputation under attack by Syngenta after he published data that suggested that their herbicide atrazine may be impeding the sexual development of frogs and causing birth defects in other animals, including humans. The company’s communications manager at the time had a list of ways to discredit him that included “have work audited by 3rd party”, “ask journalist to retract”, “set trap to entice him to sue”, “investigate funding”, “investigate wife”, and conducting “systematic rebuttals of all TH appearances”, according to the New Yorker article that followed his story.  The articles sites two more scientists, Jason Rohr, an ecologist of the University of South Florida and former E.P.A. panelist, and Deborah Corey-Slechta, a professor at the University of Rochester Medical Center and former employee of the E.P.A.’s science advisory board, who’ve claimed that Syngenta tried to undermine and invalidate their research as well.  Whether this behavior is done based on research concerning chemicals or GM crops, the same companies are in charge of both, so it is not unparalleled to think that the same can be done concerning any of their products. 

                What it comes down to is that this “monopolization” of technology and information by big agribusinesses in regards to GM crop seeds is counterintuitive to scientific inquiry.  Information and products should be accessible to independent researchers and available to regular scientific scrutiny. There needs to be stricter government guidelines and regulation concerning the transparency of data and information from these companies.  Independent research needs to be a part of regulating decision making because leaving GM research to those who have the most to gain or lose (agribusinesses) seems to me as an exploitation of our system. 


Thursday, May 1, 2014

Tom's River

Pulitzer prize winner Dan Fagin definitely inspired some people to be more concerned about the environment when he spoke at Stevens. Not me, but definitely some people. Don't get me wrong, he's a very effective communicator; I found myself trying to critique his style, but every time, I would think back to something Professor Horgan told us and reconsider. His content, despite the time limitation, was fully fleshed out and relatively concise. However, some of his asides would feel vaguely preachy at times. I understand why he'd include these comments, but they do next to nothing for the cynical audience I consider myself a part of. Regardless, I'd say I, overall, enjoyed Fagin's talk, if only from a communicator's perspective.