Surveillance and Security in an Automated Age

I wrote my Honors thesis on the societal impacts of encryption – the mathematical procedures by which individual and societal data is protected – and the challenges facing privacy today. An individual’s privacy varies widely based on where in the world they live. In Europe, companies are prohibited from collecting private information without express consent from an individual – data is private by default. Most everywhere else in the world, however, individual information is public by default – indeed, the Chinese government can access the private data of any Apple user in the country. However, excessive public or private surveillance is not limited to autocratic governments like China or Russia. In Canada, firms and law enforcement have collected facial biometric data – without regulation[1]. In most of the world, the law has failed to keep pace with emerging automated technologies, and the individual privacy is suffering as a result. 

         While many nations lack sufficient regulation of advanced machine learning technologies and data collection services, I believe the most terrifying examples of systemic overreach emerge from China. Facial recognition software is becoming ubiquitous across China, and using their remarkable ability to surveil their populace, the government is implementing a “social credit score.” While there may be arguments for why such a system is helpful, I believe that deliberately restricting one’s freedoms (e.g., preventing the purchasing of plane tickets) for violating accepted norms (e.g., speaking out against the government) is antithetical to the society we should seek to create. 

         Data privacy should be a pivotal issue for everyone – it’s not a question of whether you “have anything to hide.” Indeed, the foundation of the modern digital world is privacy – you couldn’t shop remotely without it. Data security is an international issue because, unlike your car, food, or any other physical good, data is not guarded by borders or proximity. As Ambassador Lambramidis noted in his address at OU, privacy and personal freedoms and rights are the cornerstones of a democratic society. There are examples from across the world of failures to respect those cornerstones – and these failures demand responses. Privacy cannot be optional, especially in the automated age in which we live. 


[1] https://www.theglobeandmail.com/opinion/editorials/article-who-wants-to-live-in-a-surveillance-state-not-canadians/

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International Interdependencies and Geopolitics

The last two years have been a rough awakening for many industries. We’ve seen severe shortages across consumer goods and correspondingly severe weaknesses in supply chains. These weaknesses – often stemming from excessive reliance on China – continue to be evidenced as China attempts to enforce a zero-COVID policy. Businesses across industries and the globe are beginning to realize that the prior model for efficient supply chains – based heavily out of East Asia – are not resilient in the face of the challenges of the last two years. 

         A Bloomberg article[1] addressing the vulnerability of globalized supply chains notes that backlogs continue to characterize international container shipping. On average, it takes between 110 and 120 days for a product to travel from a Chinese factory to a US or European manufacturer, over double the lag time in 2019. Shortening supply chains is no longer a political stand, for some firms, it’s a business necessity. Tesla lost a month of productivity due to a lockdown in Shanghai, and companies across the US and Europe lack the necessary inventory to produce their needed goods. That relying heavily upon China opens one to vulnerability has already been revealed. I believe, however, that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine will usher in a new era of international trade, one that is willing to sacrifice cost and efficiency in the name of geopolitical stability. 

         Following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the EU committed to eliminating their dependence on Russian oil. While they could not immediately “turn off the tap” for Russian Oil, they’ve committed to bearing the cost of accelerating the transition to green energy and importing oil from the US in the meantime. Similarly, the Bloomberg article notes that many German manufacturers will be reducing their reliance on China to increase supply resilience and geopolitical stability. Throughout the age of globalization, the industrial world has relied on goods supplied from countries and entities with, putting it mildly, poor human rights records. Oil from Russia and Saudi Arabia, semiconductors and computer chips from China, cheap textiles from sweat shops, and rare-earth elements mined by some of the most oppressed workers on planet earth. As with the EU’s dependence on Russian oil, society’s dependence on these goods might be too strong to spontaneously halt demand. However, I believe that the supply chain vulnerabilities highlighted by the pandemic and the philosophical conflicts exemplified by the Russian invasion of Ukraine will begin to usher in a new era of globalization, one in which philosophical and political alignment count for more than a low-cost, high-efficiency process. 


[1] https://www.bloomberg.com/news/features/2022-04-25/china-s-covid-crisis-threatens-global-supply-chain-chaos-for-summer-2022

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“Context”

“You’ll get out what you put in.” The veracity of this statement’s sentiment is undeniable – I can only truly reap benefits from the opportunities with which I’m presented if I invest myself in them. I’ve tried to participate in a wide array of activities over my time at OU, and because of this, I’ve allowed opportunities to enhance my German language and cultural fluency pass me by. 

         Throughout my time at OU, the German Club has supported, hosted, and advertised numerous events dedicated to providing OU students with the opportunity to experience facets of German-speaking cultures. I first had Vanillekipferle (an Austrian cookie) at a German Club event, I’ve seen performances of Kafka’s “The Trial” and Mozart’s “Magic Flute,” and I’ve attended lectures on German’s political climate. Events like these have deepened my appreciation for the German language and culture and enhanced my knowledge of Germany’s present society. While I missed many events this past year, I managed to attend one event this semester, a screening in the Union of the early-2000s German film “The Edukators.”          Viewing this film reminded me of the many aspects of these events that I deeply appreciate. First, films, TV shows, and other media offer accessible, approachable, and engaging opportunities to enhance my German language comprehension. Although I had minimal exposure to German for the last year and a half, I was shocked at how rapidly I was able to pick up words, phrases, and ideas from the film using only German subtitles. Second, many of the German films I’ve seen deviate stylistically from typical American films and TV shows. “The Edukators,” a film about anti-capitalistic revolutionaries, is refreshing both for its variance from traditional American protagonists and its intimate story setting. Third, these events add context to the “hard” skills that I’ve cultivated while at OU. While my time at OU has resulted in increased mathematical competency or German fluency, events like the screening of “The Edukators” increase my cultural appreciation and fluency, ultimately enhancing my appreciation for the world at large and my university experience.

P.S. If you’ve taken Design and Manufacturing Processes II with Dr. Raman, this title might mean something to you. IYKYK.

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US-China Relations: Is there a Security Dilemma?

I find US-China relations fascinating – as the two largest economies on earth, with vastly different governmental structures and philosophies, some level of conflict seems unavoidable. Security dilemmas, unlike outright conflicts, are characterized by uncertainty and misunderstanding between the two nations, particularly relating to whether each side desires to maintain the status-quo. OU’s Center for US-China Relations hosted a lecture on March 30 discussing whether US-China relations indeed qualified as a security dilemma – a state in which two international actors fundamentally misunderstand one another. . 

         Security dilemmas often start with “interactivity” – where an action by one nation (e.g., military investment) is matched or responded to by the other nation. In this instance, China has increased its ability to counter US carriers, and correspondingly, the US has increased its ability to rebuff China’s capabilities. Simultaneously, in security dilemma’s, each side claims that the other is the ‘aggressor’ – the nation violating the status-quo. Indeed, the US claims that China is violating the “rules-based-order” while China frequently accuses the US of hegemony. 

         As tensions increase, each side increasingly develops empirically inaccurate generalizations of one’s own side’s benign intentions and of the antagonist’s aggressive intentions. This characteristic of security dilemmas is certainly present in US-China relations, where both sides view the other as diametrically opposed. The reality is far messier, with the US’ and China’s interest sometimes aligned, sometimes opposed. However, it is inarguable that US and Chinese media have developed an increasingly negative view of the other country in recent years. As these misconceptions grow, both sides tend to dehumanize the actors involved by leaning into negative stereotypes against the “enemy” and empirically false tropes characterizing one’s in-group. In US-China relations, one can see references to COVID-19 as the “Wuhan Virus” as evidence of dehumanizing East-Asian populations, while the Chinese government’s trope of ethnic Chinese having “peace genes” (providing them moral superiority over other races) dehumanizes its own citizens. Finally, security dilemmas involve strict policing of in-group voices, with the counter-cultural voices derided as envoys of the “enemy” state. 

         While it may be impossible to confirm with complete certainty that the US and China are in a security dilemma, it is undeniable that tensions have escalated and may well continue to escalate. As a final comment, while the US may well have a role in perpetuating a security dilemma, I believe there are many features of the Chinese government that are highly concerning, especially the nature of its surveillance systems and severe limitations placed upon freedom of expression.

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A Democratic Dream

Perhaps the most engaging event I’ve had the opportunity to attend while at OU was a speech, given by the ambassador from the European Union (EU) to the US, Stavros Lambrimidis, at OU on April 29. His speech, as one would imagine, focused on the EU’s response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The underlying thread throughout his talk was the “why” behind the EU’s existence – preventing atrocities like the holocaust from recurring and fostering peace, cooperation, and economic wellbeing. At the core of this why, at least for Ambassador Lambrimidis, is democracy, a system that protects rights and offers self-determination. 

         Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is fundamentally undemocratic – Putin believes that “might makes right.” Ambassador Lambrimidis sees the EU combatting this threat on four fronts – economic sanctions, energy policy, security investments, and democratic support. These four factors are key aspects of the EU’s identity and ability to influence the world; and their response to the Russian invasion demonstrates that the EU can, indeed, have real effects. 

         On the economic front, Ambassador Lambrimidis notes that the EU instituted massive sanctions unanimously, demonstrating the potential strength of the union in the face of severe anti-democratic threats. On the energy front, he noted that the invasion has both encouraged Europe to begin cutting off the supply of Russian gas and increased interest and investment in green energy. On the security front, Ambassador Lambrimidis sees the EU investing more heavily in military and cyber security, directing defense funds in more productive ways. Finally, the EU is striving to protect democracy by ensuring the privacy of citizens of member nations and facilitating the process of incorporating Ukraine into the EU. 

         Democracy is the reason behind Ambassador Lambrimidis’ efforts throughout his political career. While the threat posed by Russia is significant, he sees cause for hope in the response, not only from the EU, but from the US in support of Ukraine. The West is invested in protecting democracy – in ensuring individual freedoms, rights, and self-determination. The democratic dream is still alive. 

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