Tuesday, August 27

Legacy

The Linda Norgrove Foundation, based in Scotland, will partner with Canadian Women for Women in Afghanistan to develop literacy programs for girls and women and expand the Afghan library network.

"Some 840 women will receive literacy classes and more than 20,000 people are expected to use the community libraries being set up by Afghanistan Reads, a community literacy project supported by the Norgrove Foundation," reports David Ross for HeraldScotland.com.

USAID has contributed funds for the programs. Norgrove, an aidworker in Afghanistan, was kidnapped and later killed during a failed rescue attempt.

John Norgrove, her father, maintains that education is "fundamental to the future of Afghanistan." 

Photo of Afghan girl reading from a comic book distributed by Afghan soldiers, courtesy of  US Sgt. Daniel P. Shook and Wikimedia Commons.

Wednesday, August 21

Privacy

At least one major telecommunications firm - the one I depend on - has changed its privacy policy to advise customers that they must comply with government requests to collect our connections and data.  The privacy policy was updated soon after a former National Security Agency contract worker exposed secret surveillance programs involving telecommunications firms.

Siobahn Gorman and Jennifer Valentino-DeVries report for the Wall Street Journal: 

"The National Security Agency - which possesses only limited legal authority to spy on U.S. citizens - has built a surveillance network that covers more Americans' Internet communications than officials have publicly disclosed, current and former officials say. The system has the capacity to reach roughly 75% of all U.S. Internet traffic in the hunt for foreign intelligence.... The programs, code-named Blarney, Fairview, Oakstar, Lithium and Stormbrew, among others, filter and gather information at major telecommunications companies. Blarney, for instance, was established with AT&T Inc., T -0.92%former officials say."

So I called AT&T today, introduced myself as a customer and asked if my data had been passed on to the NSA. My call was forwarded to the president's office and customer service.

"Customer service has no way of finding this out," responded the young man. "This is way beyond the scope of customer service." He added it was his understanding that the company was complying to "a legal request" of a government agency.  "The company has no choice but to participate and we can't share with you the level of participation."

As explained in previous blog entries, a mystery author who researches and writes about Afghanistan and terrorism and women's rights has reason to be concerned about compromised data and content. Notably, the new contract with my publisher prohibits submission of manuscripts by email and requests submission by physical disk and mail. Authors, business owners and anyone who prepares creative content can no longer trust that their trade and creative secrets are safe from government prying or abuse of unscrupulous government employees.  

The privacy policy is an eyeopener:

We may provide Personal Information to non-AT&T companies or other third parties for purposes such as:
  • Responding to 911 calls and other emergencies;
  • Complying with court orders and other legal process;
  • To assist with identity verification, and to prevent fraud and identity theft;
  • Enforcing our agreements and property rights; and
  • Obtaining payment for products and services that appear on your AT&T billing statements
 The policy also points out it collects "anonymous and aggregate data" from customers on its own, separate from government surveillance requests:

  • We collect some information on an anonymous basis. We also may anonymize the personal information we collect about you.
  • We obtain aggregate data by combining anonymous data that meet certain criteria into groups.
  • When we employ non-AT&T companies to anonymize or aggregate data on our behalf, the requirements for sharing Personal Information with non-AT&T companies apply.
  • We may share aggregate or anonymous information in various formats with trusted non-AT&T entities, and may work with those entities to do research and provide products and services.

The policy also allows the company to keep "information about you in our business records while you are a customer, or until it is no longer needed for business, tax, or legal purposes." We cannot say we weren't warned, and we deserve as much for years of ignoring terms of agreement for software and services.

One contradictory aspect of the policy, though, is under the section on Customer Privacy Controls and Choices: "You can review and correct your Personal Information collected by us."  But how can we manage that if the company is prohibited from telling us what is being collected and how it is interpreted?


In calling AT&T corporate offices, the phone message responds: "Our vision is to connect people with their world and to do it better than anyone else."

AT&T: Your World Delivered. To the NSA?

Monday, August 19

Life is good


Nature and the fruits of labor from farming stand in formation, demanding our respect and attention and, like a beautiful choir, sing to us. Such are the late summer scenes off a highway in central Michigan.  (Photo by Susan Froetschel)

Women readers

Women led 58 percent of book spending in 2012, reports Bowker as reported by GalleyCat. Bowker also points out that ebook sales continue to take a larger share of the market, 44 percent in 2012: "The growth of ebooks varies widely among the different publishing categories with their deepest penetration focused in fiction, particularly in the mystery/detective, romance, and science fiction categories, where ebooks accounted for more than 20 percent of 2012 spending."

Sisters in Crime monitors reviews for authors' gender: "Coverage of women writers’ mysteries still lags in traditional newspapers, where fewer mysteries are reviewed, but is stronger in traditional pre-publication review sources and in born-digital book review blogs and websites, which publish three to four times as many reviews as the newspapers monitored."

Women do relish reading - but many will discontinue subscribing to and reading newspapers and magazines if they perceive coverage is imbalanced and unfair.

Woman With a Book, portrait by Istv├ín Nagy; photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. 

Tuesday, August 13

Core values

The National Security Agency website includes a section on its core values, and this provides a hint of what’s gone amiss in recent weeks after a young contract worker revealed the extent and names of secret surveillance programs.

The NSA approach detailing core values is unusual, largely relying on an interview with an individual to detail an organization's core values. The interviewer is anonymous, presumably posing questions that typically would come from the public. Anyone familiar with procedures of US government offices knows that the interview was not spontaneous. Questions were carefully selected, the webpage and the interview drafted, then reviewed by dozens of employees besides Deputy Director John C. Inglis, the lead senior civilian NSA employee, and revised numerous times. So readers should bear this in mind in reading the quotations attributed to Inglis.

At any rate, the interview lists NSA's core values – law, honesty, integrity and transparency – in text and video. Inglis' responses on core values emphasize "law," and this may explain the tension  between the NSA and privacy advocates, between NSA and congressional critics like Ron Wyden of Oregon, between the NSA and former contract employee Edward Snowden.

Strict adherence to the law is by no means a guarantee of morality. "Moral integrity and responsible citizenship, understood merely as “good heartedness”, are themselves susceptible to manipulation by propaganda," explains an abstract of an essay by R. Paul posted by the Critical Thinking Community. "The human mind, whatever its conscious good will, is subject to powerful, self-deceptive, unconscious egocentricity of mind. The full development of each characteristic - critical thought, moral integrity, and responsible citizenship - in its strong sense requires and develops the others, in a parallel strong sense. The three are developed together only in an atmosphere, which encourages the intellectual virtues: intellectual courage, intellectual empathy, intellectual good faith or integrity, intellectual perseverance, intellectual fair-mindedness, and faith in reason. The intellectual virtues themselves are interdependent." 

The Inglis interview includes several references to law and adherence: 


“The word compliance has many meanings, but at the National Security Agency, we try to effect that the following way: we first hire people who understand that lawfulness is a fundamental attribute. We ensure that the people that we bring enjoy the values that we hold near and dear. We then understand what the rules are that pertain to our business, and we try to master the spirit and the mechanics of those rules, in all of the procedures that we bring to bear.”
 

“Respect for the law at NSA means that we understand both the spirit and mechanics of the law, and that we fully embody in our actions a respect for both.”
 

“….from the moment we design our systems, to employing those systems, to sorting through, sifting through what we might get from those systems, ensure that at every step of the process we worry not simply about what we've obtained, but whether we had the authority to obtain it and whether we've treated it in exactly the right way.”
 

“The oversight that's in place to make sure that the Agency does not cross the line, that it is entirely lawful in the conduct of its activities, is multifaceted and overlapping. First we ensure that we hire employees that have a respect for the law. We don't hire just anyone; we're not simply after people who have technical competence; we want to make sure we hire people who enjoy our values, who will support fully the Constitution.”
 

To his credit, Inglis touts respect for "both spirit and mechanics of the law."  But can NSA activities meet the letter of the law if most citizens, and even most legislators, are kept ignorant of what the law entails? If most employees, let alone contract workers, do not understand the exact nature of their duties before entering these positions and there is no clear, non-punitive path for discussing the most troubling aspects? Can the activities satisfy the law if attorneys and administrators search for loopholes, twisting policy interpretations in ways that weaken or circumvent original intentions?

As we know, many laws – especially those that once mandated discrimination and criminalized the people who battled that discrimination, and this history is relevant to NSA policies and profiling methods – do not stand the test of time.  In the span of less than fifty years, Martin Luther King went from being a target of FBI investigations to having the honor of a national holiday.  The government has not learned that ignorance and stubborn pushback will only spur more activism, investigative reporting and debate.

NSA officials should take note and move carefully and deliberately with their investigations, avoiding sweeping collections. In a democracy, the targets can emerge as heroes.

~~~

Information is essential for democracy. "Poor public access to information feeds corruption," suggests Laura Neuman in "Access to Information: Key to Democracy," for the Carter Center:  "Secrecy allows back-room deals to determine public spending in the interests of the few rather than the many. Lack of information impedes citizens’ ability to assess the decisions of their leaders, and even to make informed choices about the individuals they elect to serve as their representatives." Of course, security is an area where access to information is limited, but citizens have the right to set the parameters to the actions undertaken in their name and expect those parameters to be respected and enforced.

The essay goes on to suggest that "blanket exemptions – that is to say, an exemption that covers, automatically, a category or type of information – are unwelcome, often unnecessary, and risks serious abuse."

Abuse is inevitable in surveillance systems, especially when "low-level NSA workers can initiate the collection of any U.S. citizen's electronic communications on a whim." Just as one man accessed documents inappropriately and released them to the world, another employee could just as easily have used surveillance equipment to target a personal enemy or listen to conversations about secret business deals and then make investments based on the inside information. We simply do not know. But imaginations are running wild among novelists and screenwriters. 

~~~

Strict adherence to law does not necessarily coincide with morality. Morality is not blind adherence to some dogma, but rather the lifelong acquisition of a conscience, the ability to sense right from wrong and understand the nuances of intention. Often the most skilled investigators are those who decline to simply accept orders and have the ability to analyze laws, policies, cases and context. Independent judgment is required in every task of high-level security employees, as they collect data, decide which connections warrant further scrutiny, examine intentions and context, and follow up.  

Both law and morality channel individual behavior, explains Steven Shavell in his 2002 essay “Law Versus Morality as Regulators as Conduct” in American Law and Economic Review. In several sections, he addresses how information influences the application of moral versus legal rules: 

“In the application of legal rules, certain information is needed. But information can be difficult to acquire or verify, such as that concerning whether a person committed a crime and, if so, what exactly the circumstances were. The difficulty associated with substantiation of information has two disadvantageous implications. One is that errors may be made…. The other is that legal rules are sometimes designed ina less refined manner than would be desirable if more information were available…. In summary, it seems that the informational burdens associated with the application of legal rules may constitute a significant disadvantage, leading to error and to use of simpler-than-otherwise-desirable rules. Application of moral rules with internal moral sanctions does not suffer from these problems, as individuals cannot hide from what they know about themselves.”
 

“Law may enjoy advantages over morality due to the ease with which legal rules can be established, the flexible character of law, and the plausibly greater magnitude of legal sanctions over moral sanctions. Also,the presence of amoral individuals can be a factor of significance favoring law, as can be the presence of firms, for whom moral forces are likely to be relatively weak. However, morality may possess advantages over law,because moral sanctions are often applied with higher likelihood than legal ones (notably, internal moral sanctions apply with certainty), may reflect superior and more accurate information about conduct, and may involve lower costs of enforcement and of imposition.”
 


Shavell also points out that, internally or externally, "moral incentives may be diluted" within firms and organizations:

"Internal moral incentives may be less effective in the setting of the firm because decisions within firms are often made jointly by groups, or influenced by orders from above, or acted upon and influenced by subsequent decisions made below. This may serve to attenuate the sense of personal responsibility for one's acts and may reduce the sharpness of moral incentives." An organization's employees can follow orders and trust assurances from superiors that the law is being followed.

"external moral incentives have unclear force in relation to employees of firm. [Again,] responsibility within a firm is often diffused, so that there often will not be specific individuals within firms whom outsiders to firms will want to punish for wrongful behavior. Also, a firm may have an incentive to conceal the identity of responsible individuals within just so they can escape external social sanctions."


We know little about the chain of authority for Snowden, his employer Booz Allen Hamilton or the NSA. Arrangements with contractors only muddy procedures and dilute responsibility. So far, no one in power has offered a detailed, appropriate path that someone like Snowden could have taken when troubled by agency processes. He could have approached Senator Ron Wyden's office, but the most likely scenario is that Snowden would have been ignored. The public release of the surveillance programs have instigated review and revived debate over the value of contractors for public service and morality of the Patriot Act and NSA surveillance.  

Someday we might learn if Snowden even tried to approach a supervisor or government official. Of course, contracting firms are notoriously keen on ignoring individual concerns and preserving the flow of federal dollars that come their way. And while some government administrators are superb in accepting criticism, too many others are selfish, ambitious, fearful bureaucrats who take any question or criticism as a direct attack on their own judgment. Employees who dare suggest improvements or raise questions quickly learn to expect an ugly backlash.

So many whistleblowing cases might be avoided if the US Government Accountability Office conducted serious study of employee morale in federal offices, applying special scrutiny to offices and programs with high turnover rates. Emerging moral dilemmas would be identified more quickly with regular employee evaluations of office procedures and supervisors, preventing retaliation from supervisors. The US Office of Personnel Management should end immediately the irresponsible, unethical practice of supervisors conducting exit interviews for employees.


~~~

Later in NSA core-values interview, Inglis is asked, “What are the rules for retaining data on a US person?”  He focuses on “what are the rules that allow me to get that data in the first place?” He goes on to compare explicit authority with implied authority, the need for individual judgment, and the obligation to purge data that did not meet the rules around authorization: 

“Those rules are very carefully constructed; we have to have explicit authority, not implied authority, but explicit authority to go after anything in cyberspace, and therefore, if I was to target communications, I need to make sure that I can trace that authority back to an explicit law or court warrant. At that point, I have to make a decision as to whether this in fact was responsive to the explicit authority that I had; I may collect information that's incidental to that. It may have seemed to me up front that I would get information responsive to my authority, but I didn't. I have an obligation to purge that data, I have an obligation to not retain that data. So that at the end of the day, those things that I've gone after I simply didn't have the authority for, but it's the authority plus… it played out just the way I had imagined, I got exactly what I was authorized to get, and I retain only that data.”

It appears the agency retains non-content data for much longer periods than indicated in this interview, and that should end, at least according to the American Civil Liberties Union, which describes data being "dumped into something called the 'corporate store,'" for later access. In the least, Congress must ensure a firm end date on data storage. No one should be judged or investigated based on comments they made years or even months earlier if no illegal activity ensued. Citizens have a constitutional right to free speech (first amendment), and they also have a right to change their mind (fourth amendment).   

~~~


Among the more troubling aspects of the NSA debacle is a prevailing US attitude on human rights – with suggestions by even the president that expectations for privacy are reserved for US citizens. Inglis is more specific on this point than the president:  “The intelligence that we are authorized to collect, and that we report on, is intelligence that bears on foreign adversaries, foreign threats, more often than not, located therefore in foreign domains.”

Human rights are universal, and the US legislators and courts will debate and decide if privacy of ordinary phone calls and emails is such a right.

The United States stood as a beacon to the world, regarded as exceptional by global citizens, not because of its military capability or the ability to keep secrets, but because of economic opportunity, innovation, respect for openness, individualism and freedom. US citizens or foreign visitors suddenly feel the need to engage in self-censorship. Until political leaders can assure global citizens that the NSA has ended the intrusive data collection and storage efforts, internet users should click with caution.   

The Inglis interview was posted on the NSA website in 2009 and last modified in January 2013, before Edward Snowden exposed NSA programs. Photo of empty computer lab, courtesy of Shirley Ku and Wikimedia Commons.

Sunday, August 11

Meaning of success?

It's sensible and rewarding to study and reflect on how to live one's life. Mark Edmundson, author of Why Teach, suggests that the humanities can offer insights in his beautiful Washington Post essay:

"But the humanities are not about success. They’re about questioning success - and every important social value. Socrates taught us this, and we shouldn’t forget it. Sure, someone who studies literature or philosophy is learning to think clearly and write well. But those skills are means to an end. That end, as Plato said, is learning how to live one’s life. “This discussion is not about any chance question,” Plato’s Socrates says in The Republic, “but about the way one should live.”

"That’s what’s at the heart of the humanities - informed, thoughtful dialogue about the way we ought to conduct life."

People so often work, live and act by rote. They follow orders, routines and social convention - and can handily recite dogma. Yet their actions take demonstrate the opposite stance - and without reflection, few in society may take notice. It's the renegades among us who step off these paths and suggest more deliberate choices are available.

Edmundson questions a movement emerging within the humanities that such studies are ideal for the writing skills, analysis, the ability to argue and careers in law, business or medicine.  While that may be true, the humanities, schools and parents must encourage individuals to continue using these skills to test rather than reinforce tradition and convention. Relentless testing is the best hope for enduring traditions and values.

And in Fear of Beauty, that's what Sofi can't help do - question her community and its values - after the death of her oldest son. 

Photo of Socrates sculpture in the Louvre, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons and CherryX.

 

Thursday, August 8

Abandoned

Marine Corporal Dakota Meyer won the Medal of Honor for his service in Afghanistan. All along Meyer has insisted the honor associated with that medal - when US troops were ambushed by Taliban fighters in September 2009 - should be shared by many. "Four years ago, an Afghan translator known as 'Hafez' charged into enemy fire to help Marine Corporal Dakota Meyer rescue wounded American soldiers during one of the most famous battles in the Afghanistan war," reports Alana Goodman for The Washington Free Beacon.

Goodman reports the translator applied for US visas for him and his family three years ago and is still waiting.

The US State Department refuses to discuss the case, The Beacon notes, as “Section 222 (f) of the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA) prohibits us from disclosing details from individual visa cases.” State Department website notes in bold: "You should NOT make any travel arrangements, sell property, or give up employment until and unless you are issued a U.S. visa."

The commander of US forces in Afghanistan has approved the visa application, but the list of requirements from the US State Department is long.

"Meyer said he will not stop working to help his friend, who he said never stopped working to help U.S. troops," Goodman concludes.

The role of Afghan translators, support staff and many citizens goes forgotten by many in the US media and government offices of Washington, DC, and no one understands this better than members of the US Armed Services, like the fictional Army Ranger Major Joey Pearson in Fear of Beauty.

Photo, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons, ISAF and Staff Sgt. Jeffrey Duran, US Army: British Sgt. Rab McEwan is assisted by a translator and Afghan National Army soldier during a patrol north of the Kajaki Dam in 2008.

Tuesday, August 6

Age discrimination

Afghanistan's success hinges on success for its citizens - all citizens. That is the rationale behind directing foreign aid toward women, as suggested by the July 18 announcement from the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) on a new $200 million program.

Yet there's a catch to the Promoting Gender Equality in National Priority Programs: "The five-year plan, called Promote, is expected to increase economic, social, and political participation of women between the ages of 18 and 30 through education, job training, microfinance and credit for female entrepreneurs, and training for policymaking."

The purpose of an age limit for the USAID program is unclear and could contribute to uneven development in a country where resentment already runs high.

Meanwhile, US laws protect USAID employees and contract employees from age or gender discrimination, as outlined in Promote's request for proposals. Likewise, assessment criteria for funding programs, such as those of the United Nations, often encourage inclusiveness. Despite laws and protections, discrimination, particularly age discrimination, can go unchecked and unreported even in the United States because of lack of awareness about laws or embarrassment.

Age discrimination is linked with gender discrimination, suggests the UN Women Coordination Division in its report Between Gender and Aging:

"Inequalities in income, education, and employment across the life cycle expose many women to poverty in old age," the executive summary notes. "As the status of women in many societies is linked to having a husband, widows are particularly vulnerable to poverty." The UN report goes on to report that "older women have not benefited equally from the progress that has made in tackling violence and abuse, often failing to be accounted for in both gender and ageing research and policies" – and suggests that "concerns over the situation of older women have largely been ignored."

To counter the challenges for older women, the UN Women Coordination Division recommends a lifelong approach to education, support for empowerment and priority for "the needs of rural older women in public policy."

The design of USAID's Promote program focused on young, urban women counters these recommendations from the UN Women Coordination Division and could add to Afghan divisions. Granted, 68 percent of the Afghan population is under the age of 25, yet 77 percent live in rural areas. The 365-page request for proposals from USAID vaguely connects youth with education by explaining that the Promote program will "invest in opportunities that enable educated women (i.e, women between 18 and 30 years of age who have at least a secondary education) to enter and advance into decision-making positions in Afghanistan's public, private and civil society sectors."

The request stresses an expectation that selected participants will "work towards ensuring the welfare, rights and opportunities for all Afghan women." To its credit, the USAID request for proposals suggests a program risk is failure to garner support of male family and community members and it seeks to ensure that "skills and knowledge imparted to beneficiary organizations and their staff are sustained and replicated/ disseminated to others."

That is not enough. USAID coordinators should know that many applicants already self-select in not pursuing jobs and other opportunities. Coordinators could have emphasized diversity, eliminating age, gender and urban requirements – and ensured welfare, rights and opportunities for all Afghans. The criteria could have been left at attainment of a secondary education – thus targeting men and women of all ages who support fair policies and women’s rights.

Donors should be commended for targeting vulnerable groups that have been historically neglected, yet program exclusions should be crafted with great care based on sound research and good reasons. World Bank research in Afghanistan suggests that development programs mandating female participation can increase mobility and income for women, but may “not change female roles in family decision-making or attitudes toward the general role of women in society.” And a study cited in the USAID request for proposals notes that “the Afghan culture places a considerable emphasis on respecting elders because of their knowledge, wisdom, and experience, which explains why older transformational leaders are usually more successful in influencing the Afghan population.”

Expanding the pool of applications can add to an organization’s workload and costs, yet exclusion without good reason can neglect individuals of great talent, including the Afghan men who support women's rights and are also essential for the national stability. To ensure social cohesion, USAID should revise the conditions and open the program to more applicants.

Photo of entrepreneur at women's bazaar, arranged to allow women to sell handicrafts to NATO troops, courtesy of Maj. Meritt Phillips, US Army, and Wikimedia Commons. The woman's age is unknown, but if she's under 30 she's out of luck for the new USAID program.