Wednesday, July 23, 2014

The Value of Privacy

“All human beings have three lives: public, private, and secret.”
Gabriel Garcia Marquez 

There has been much furor and attention in the news regarding the NSA’s blatant overreach and invasion of privacy but the reality is that the manner in which the private sector has been invading our personal lives is far more intrusive and concerning. What’s more, nobody really knows how much is actually being collected, which companies are doing the collecting or the methods they are using. In this regard the internet remains the Wild West. In the words of Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the World Wide Web, “A digital Magna Carta is required if we are to stand any chance of halting the Internet’s steady infringement of our right to privacy.” What is scarier is that the information being collected, on each of us, is also being compiled and sold to third parties without our knowledge or consent. 

For many years we were assured that the information we shared via online searches, sites we visited and ads we clicked was being collected and stored in a non-personally identifiable manner. And that it was being collected with the intention of improving our online experiences and adding a greater degree of personalisation for marketing to us. It turns out that this is far from the truth. Today, there are numerous companies compiling dossiers on us; gleaned not only from our online behaviours and habits, but then supplemented with information from the real world. Frighteningly, these dossiers are not anonymous. They identify us by name and contain comprehensive profiles that include everything from political and religious affiliations to medical and criminal histories to shopping and surfing habits. These dossiers are being openly sold to everyone from prospective employers and research companies, to marketers and financial institutions. Watch 60 Minutes report: “The Data Brokers” 

The argument used by marketing companies, internet firms and these so called data brokers, to defend this gross invasion of privacy, is to say that anything we disclose on the internet (as well as data that exists in the public domain) should be considered fair game. They argue that people are fully aware of the information they are sharing online, doing so willingly, and free to read the terms and conditions on each website about how their data is being handled. In their estimation, consumers are willingly parting with all this personal information. They further contend that the internet is a marketing medium, so people need to accept that information gleaned off it can and will be used not only to personalize experiences, but also to better advertise and market to us. Based on this flimsy argument they also staunchly believe that there is no need for government regulation to prevent anyone willing to pay money to know more about us, than a spouse or parent ever would. Then there are those who argue that if we have nothing to hide, why should we be concerned?  They ask why we care if every term we search, product we buy, page we visit, prescription we fill and gift we send is tracked by companies or sold on to third parties. To me this is a totally false argument because an individual’s right to privacy has nothing to do with having something to hide. Everyone has a reasonable expectation to privacy in a democratic society. It is a fundamental right. 

Think about a really simple analogy in the real world. Imagine you walk out of your house to run some errands on a beautiful Saturday morning. You stop at Starbucks on the corner for a latte and doughnut. Next you cross the street to go over to the pharmacy to pick up the prescriptions your doctor called in. The pharmacist asks you to verify your home address. On your way home you decide to run a few more errands. First, you stop at another drugstore to talk to their pharmacist about recommending something for a nasty rash you have on your inner thigh (Note: you choose not to ask your regular pharmacist who knows your whole family by name, because you are feeling embarrassed and not because you have something to hide). Then it’s a stop at the local grocery store, where you use some email coupons on your phone. You then make a quick stop at the wine store to pick up a nice bottle of wine for yourself and a few bottles of bubbly for the party you are attending this weekend. You spend some time browsing at your favourite local boutique, on your way to the final stop at the dry cleaner. The clerk at the dry cleaner asks for your home phone number to look up your account. Arguably, you have been in what can be described as the 'public domain' while running all your errands. Much like if you had stayed home and transacted entirely on the internet. In both cases, you were required to divulge and share various bits of personal and private information, including your home address, phone number, medical history and credit card information in order to complete your transactions. 

Now imagine that you are running through the same schedule, except that from the moment you leave your home, you have a dozen random strangers physically following you around and secretly take down all the little bits of information you are legitimately required to and willing to divulge along the way. These strangers would be doing this without your prior consent or knowledge. These shadowy figures are simply leaning in closer as you give the pharmacist your insurance information and prescription list, or peering over your shoulder to look at your grocery cart, trying to determine if you are gluten intolerant. In fact, they are keeping track of everything you say, see and do. Now imagine that these strangers follow you around every day for months or even years collecting, storing and then combining this data with every other bit of information they can find from public records. They include your past employers, home addresses, credit history, political and charitable donations, etc. and then they put it all together to create a file on you that they can legally sell to any third party willing to pay for it.  

These exact dossiers compiled by data brokers are now being used by many financial institutions to gauge your 'social' ranking and credit-worthiness, based on who your Facebook friends are. Such compilations are even being used by prospective employers to determine your character. This gross violation of trust is actually happening today, completely in the shadows and without our consent. I understand that technology has reshaped our lives in many ways and with these conveniences there is a reasonable and necessary loss of privacy. With this I don’t believe anyone has an issue. However, to say that if we are bothered by the extent to which we have lost control over our private information, and the solution is to simply stop using the internet or sharing personal information on it (which is impossible) – it is akin to saying we should not leave the house if we are worried about getting mugged. It is a totally nonsensical argument and an unrealistic expectation in a world that has become completely dependent on technology. The point is not to have zero, or even total, privacy, but that information gathering should not be done surreptitiously. It should be conducted in a way that clearly informs us, gives us the choice to participate or not, and allows us to limit the amount of information we are willing to share.

It is an absolute right to expect privacy and be aware of how our information is being used and by whom; especially when sharing information in a specific situation for a very specific purpose, e.g. at a pharmacy to get a prescription filled. It is not unreasonable to expect that the same pharmacy will never share this information or start to combine it with other habits, behaviours, etc. and then sell the information to a third party. Equally, it would be ludicrous to try to regulate the entire internet by creating even more complex and detailed privacy laws that cover every possible situation or transaction; not to mention trying to do this globally in some uniform way. 

The solution is to make the whole process completely transparent and allow people to make the choices regarding information they are willing to share. Make it simple and clear about how and for what purpose our information will be used on every site. For example, if you shop on Amazon. then the baseline should be that this site alone would have access to only the most basic information required (name, address, credit card) for someone to complete a transaction; and this information would never be shared or sold to a third party without our prior consent. Amazon should also allow us to delete personal browsing and shopping history, if I choose not to save it or be marketed to more accurately. Further, Amazon could build incentives for people who are willing to share more of their shopping history, or even more detailed information about themselves, their habits and behaviours; even around the rest of the web. The same should hold true for tracking companies; they too can create incentives for people willing to sign up and give them permission to follow them across the web, on their mobile phones, etc. 

Finally, every company that sells and profits off individual data should also share that revenue with the individual; creating a sort of human-information exchange. However, the default on the web and every site should always be that people are opted out and not the other way around, as it is today.

Friday, June 27, 2014

Cricket, 464 yrs; Demise of a Gentleman’s Sport


Born: 1550 (approx.) in Surrey, England
Died: 26th June, 2014 in Melbourne, Australia

On a sunny afternoon of June 26, 2014, the great sport of Cricket passed away after a long battle with corrupt administrators. In her last hours she was surrounded by the three men responsible for her demise: Narayanaswami Srinivasan, Giles Clarke and Wally Edwards, as well as extended family from the various governing bodies. The families, whose avarice led to their selling out without so much as putting up a fight to save the sport that they had sworn to uphold, protect and serve.

Cricket is said to have had her beginnings in the town of Guildford, Surrey in England, as early as 1550*; thought to have been originally conceived as a game for young children. From these humble beginnings she grew into a great global sport often referred to as a Gentleman’s game. The same sport that has now been consumed by three corrupt old men who stand against all that she once represented: fair play, integrity, honour and chivalry.

In India, the current mecca of cricket, she held greater sway than religion and was one of the few things that united the entire country. Indians cricketers are held in higher esteem than Bollywood stars and Gods. Cricket pitches were the only places where caste, religion, language, education and wealth never mattered. Such was once the power of cricket and that is why her demise should concern us all, greatly.

Her rich and storied life includes Articles of Agreement being written as early as 1727* to guide the conduct of matches between teams. The first recorded women’s county match was played in 1811* between Surrey and Hampshire at Ball's Pond in London. England in what was still otherwise completely a man’s world. Over the centuries cricket has produced legendary figures from the likes of WG Grace, Sir Donald Bradman and Sir Garfield Sobers to modern day heroes who have been great ambassadors of the sport, both on and off the field, like Brian Lara, Rahul Dravid and Sachin Tendulkar. These men inspired generations of young impressionable minds to strive for greatness through integrity, dignity and the ethics of hard work. (*sources: ESPN cricket and Wikipedia)

Today, a few wealthy men have hijacked our great love and turned it into their personal fiefdom. One where a ruthless, unethical few will now be able bend the rules with complete impunity to enable their thirst for power and single-minded pursuit of money. Cricket, who once nurtured the souls of the young, all over the world, will now feed the hunger of three corrupt boards at the expense of the sport and all her adoring fans.

In lieu of flowers, comments and support may be offered at Save Cricket in India

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Bush and Cheney’s Iraq Legacy


“Where there is no vision, the people perish.” 
Proverbs 29:18 

Bush and Cheney spent more than $870 billion of our tax dollars to fund their Iraq War; the stated objective of which was to make America safer by toppling an evil dictator with a massive arsenal of weapons of mass destruction, and one who was harboring and providing material support to Al-Qaeda. Of the total spent, about $41 billion was spent on reconstruction and foreign aid, and a staggering $28 billion on local security (source: “The Cost of Iraq, Afghanistan, and Other Global War on Terror Operations Since 9/11” prepared by the Congressional Research Service). Also, consider that in addition countless American lives were lost training and equipping the very same Iraqi army that recently ran with its tail tucked between its legs at the first sign of trouble.

If the latest developments in Iraq were not so worrying and potentially dangerous, within an already volatile region, we could laugh at the irony that neither Al-Qaeda nor any other terrorist organisation had operated or been given safe haven inside Iraq under Saddam Hussein’s regime. In fact, it was not until a year and a half after the US invasion that Al-Qaeda officially formed in Iraq. Even so, Bush and Cheney had told us on numerous occasions in the lead-up to their invasion that their primary objective was to break the very dangerous nexus between Saddam Hussein and Al-Qaeda before he gave them access to weapons of mass destruction. The truth is that the sectarian chaos and power vacuum created by the overthrow of Saddam gave Al-Qaeda the perfect breeding ground for recruitment and for establishing their very first base of operations in Iraq. The Islamic State of Iraq and Al Sham (ISIS), the terrorist group that has overrun major cities and now controls large swaths of the country, was formerly known as Al-Qaeda in Iraq. 

“We know that Iraq and Al-Qaeda have had high level contacts that go back a decade…We've learned that Iraq has trained Al-Qaeda members in bomb-making and poisons and deadly gasses."  
-President Bush, Speech in Cincinnati, 7th October, 2002* 

“We learned more and more that there was a relationship between Iraq and Al-Qaeda that stretched back through most of the decade of the 90’s, that it involved training, for example, on BW and CW, that Al-Qaeda sent personnel to Baghdad to get trained on systems that are involved.” 
-Dick Cheney, Meet the Press, 14th September, 2003* 

(*source: United States Congressional Serial Set, Serial No. 14876, Senate Report No 301). 

As for Cheney and Bush’s smoking gun, independent reviews of the millions of documents seized from across Iraq all reached the same conclusion: “The U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency had by 2006 translated 34 million pages of documents from Hussein's Iraq and found there was nothing to substantiate a "partnership" between Hussein and Al-Qaeda (source: “Bush's toxic legacy in Iraq” CNN). In fact, the same report stated that there was “no ‘smoking gun’ (i.e. direct connection) and that “the predominant targets of Iraqi state sponsored terror were Iraqi citizens, both inside and outside Iraq.” [source: Institute for Defense Analyses – ‘Iraqi Perspectives Project. Saddam and Terrorism: Emerging Insights from Captured Iraqi Documents’, Volume 1 (Redacted)].

While we can sit here and argue about the justification for the US invasion of Iraq and never agree on it, what cannot be refuted is that the US never established a single credible link between Saddam and Al-Qaeda or produced a shred of evidence that Saddam possessed any weapons of mass destruction; and Al-Qaeda did not exist in Iraq before the invasion. Another dangerous unintended consequence has been that Iran is now the most dominant power in the region with Iraq no longer being able to serve as strong counter-balance. So in sum total, not only did Cheney and Bush’s war make the region less safe than it was in 2003, but it has also spawned a totally new and deadly terrorist organisation called ISIS; one that Al-Qaeda officially broke ties with, for being too brutal.

Conveniently, the Republicans are now trying to blame Obama for the mess Cheney and Bush are responsible for creating. If one were to examine the facts, we should start with the much maligned Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA). It is the document which dictated the timing for full US military withdrawal from Iraq. SOFA was negotiated and signed by George W. Bush in 2008 and not Barrack Obama, as many Republicans will have us believe. Bush agreed to all of Nouri al-Maliki demands, which included getting all US forces out of Iraq by December 31, 2011, and leaving no permanent military presence or bases in the country. Turns out that Bush’s ‘liberating’ forces were so unpopular that no Iraqi leader was willing to risk having them stay on with “… several rounds of upcoming elections and an intensely strong popular Iraqi hostility to the U.S. occupation under any name.” (source: ‘Bush's finest moment on Iraq: SOFA, not the surge’ – Foreign Policy). Republicans are now blaming him for not trying hard enough to re-negotiate the terms Bush agreed to; the same Republicans who - at the time it was signed - were proclaiming victory in Iraq.

The truth is that Iraq has been and remains a big mess ever since the illegal US invasion, which left both a major power vacuum in the center and a government without civil institutions or strong leadership. Another lie that Republicans are good at spreading has to do with General Petraeus’ surge; which was responsible for preventing the total disintegration of Iraq, and cleaning up Rumsfeld and Cheney’s unmitigated disaster and a lack of plan for Iraq, post invasion. Listening to Republicans, one would believe that it was the additional boots on the ground that led to the success of the surge. This is totally untrue, as Petraeus himself has repeatedly made clear. The cornerstone of Petraeus’ success and surge strategy was based on facilitating peace between the Sunni and Shia factions, which in turn led to a disarming of the powerful Shiite militia. It was this peace he helped broker that was also responsible for removing Al-Qaeda’s key weapon: fanning sectarian flames in Iraq. In addition, Petraeus forced the government to focus on developing local institutions, employment programs and on improving the daily life of Iraqi citizens. The final part of his strategy involved a dramatic surge in the boots on the ground, deployed to the most troubled parts of the country in order to dramatically enhance the presence and perception of security. So it is totally disingenuous to say that if Obama had tried harder to find a way to re-negotiate Bush’s SOFA, which never included immunity from prosecution for troops, and left behind a few hundred US troops, that this would have prevented the rise of ISIS in Iraq.

There are many things I am critical of when it comes to Barack Obama’s leadership, but his stance on Iraq it absolutely right. Obama understands what Bush and Cheney never will: that democracy is a grass roots movement that must be started by the people, who must also be willing to fight and die for their freedom. It is always bloody and it is always messy, and the hard work always begins once the freedom has been won. It takes a few generations for democratic values and institutions to take root; the country needs to build civil institutions, infrastructure, write laws, agree on a constitution, etc. Where there are long-running sectarian divides, blood will be spilled before wounds can be healed and a country unite. Inevitably, the early leaders are also corrupt and tyrannical, from having grown up without the benefit of ever experiencing liberty or democratic freedoms themselves. The current crisis is not something that has happened overnight;. it is a direct result of the sectarian Pandora’s Box opened by the illegal US invasion. One that left no power structure in the center and a weak and divided nation that is open to manipulation by its various Sunni and Shiite neighbours that include Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Iran.

This crisis also has a lot to do with Nouri al-Maliki wanting to consolidate his corrupt hold on power by creating a Shiite-dominated government and country. He has been slowly and systematically replacing the competent army generals, commanders and police officers (trained by the US), as well as other government officials and filling these posts with incompetent Shiite cronies who would never threaten him. He has made no effort to form a unity government that is inclusive of the Sunni minority or the Kurds, which was central to how Petraeus won the peace. Instead, Al-Maliki has helped re-ignite the old sectarian divides, and as a result allowed ISIS to slowly and systematically re-build their presence and base in Iraq by recruiting from within an excluded and disenfranchised Sunni community. 

So while there is no question that the Bush and Cheney invasion is single-handedly responsible for creating the massive void that will leave a weak Iraq in turmoil for many decades to come, it is equally true that the only path out is for Iraqis to figure out how to get along, by pursuing the true tenets of democracy; which are reconciliation and inclusiveness. No amount of US intervention on the ground or from the air can help fix this fundamental problem; and I doubt US taxpayers have the appetite for yet another misguided and fruitless effort at nation building. So even though America created this mess, only Iraq has the ability to fix it. Until Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds come together and realise that their real enemies are the terrorists, the world will have to wait and remain a much less safe place. This is Bush's and Cheney’s Iraq legacy.