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Blurred Lines: The NSA’s Cyber Surveillance and Security

July 15, 2014

Andrea Buchanan ’15

A year ago, Edward Snowden rocked the foundational trust of the public with when he exposed documents that showed that the phone records of millions of Americans had been collected by the National Security Agency (NSA). Snowden’s disclosures also exposed that the U.S. was spying on foreign leaders, as well as tapping into U.S. internet companies, such as Google and Facebook, to collect data. Though the U.S. government took steps to calm the public and reassure them that their privacy was not being breached, the NSA and the issue of cyber security have become prominent fixtures of concern in minds of Americans.

Snowden’s revelations started with phone data but have since spurred deeper investigation into other forms of digital communication, mainly the internet. A panel sponsored by the New America Foundation titled “National Insecurity Agency: How the NSA’s Surveillance Programs Undermine Internet Security,” effectively captured the feelings of insecurity that many Americans now feel towards the internet and the federal government in general. The event, which included opening remarks from both Congresswoman Zoe Lofgren (D-CA) and Congressman Alan Grayson (D-FL) and a panel composed of several policy experts, highlighted the concerns that both businesses and the public share in regards to national security. Panelist Amie Stephanovich, Senior Policy Counsel at Access, emphasized the fact that the NSA actually has two missions: surveillance and information assurance, and security. What was made clear during the course of the discussion is that it is obvious to the American public that surveillance is part of national security and that is the job of the NSA. But what is often forgotten is the security component of the NSA’s mission. At what point does surveillance breech security? Does the NSA fulfill one goal better than the other?

Bruce Schneier, a security technologist and author who is a fellow at OTI and Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society, does not seem to think that the NSA does a good job balancing its two objectives. Schneier stated, the NSA “undermines fundamental trust to achieve security,” specifically in reference to the NSA’s use of “backdoors” in widely used technology programs that allow the NSA to “eavesdrop” on users of any kind. The fact that the NSA has the ability to have backdoors built in for them to spy and gather information demonstrates how large the reach of the NSA really is and how far they are willing to stretch the constructs of surveillance to fit under the guise of security.

Possibly one of the more recent discoveries about the NSA is that no one is safe. When the Patriot Act was signed in 2001, the public generally accepted wide sweeping surveillance measures because it believed that it was more important to spy and stop terrorists before something like the tragedy of 9/11 occurred again. After the Snowden revelations – over a decade after the attacks of September 11 – the public has become increasingly outraged at the government’s surveillance overreach. What has changed in that time? Well for starters, most people do not believe they are terrorists and should not be targeted. And while the NSA might agree that the overwhelming majority of citizens are not terrorists, it is easier for them to cast a wide surveillance net over everyone rather than focusing their efforts on a targeted population. Schneier emphasized this point during his speaking points on the panel, and also noted that with its power over companies and ability to take advantage of vulnerabilities in software security, the NSA is willing to compromise the privacy of everyone in order to make their target larger.

A recent article in the Washington Post echoed Schneier’s points. The Post’s four-month investigation discovered that most of the information captured by the NSA serves little to no purpose for the NSA nor does it constitute a national security threat. This calls into question the effectiveness of the NSA and their current strategies to combat cyber threats at the expense of the American people.

Since the Snowden revelations and more recent disclosures by media outlets and whistleblowers have shed new light about the true tactics of the NSA, Congress has decided to act to increase security for the average citizen. Recently, on July 8, 2014, the Cyber Information Sharing Act (CISA) was cleared from the Senate Intelligence Committee to be debated by the full chamber. However, in an article by The Economist, the CISA bill does little to corral the surveillance powers of the NSA or other government agencies. The article also notes that the bill could allow for collected information pertaining to cyber-threats to be used for other purposes “including things such as criminal cases that have nothing to do with the original cyber-threat.” Mark Jaycox of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, who is quoted in the article, points out that “any cyber security bill must acknowledge what we’ve learned by incorporating robust privacy protections,” a statement that would be agreed upon by all of the panelists of the aforementioned New America Foundation panel.

In today’s modern age, the cyber arena is widely considered the fifth domain of warfare and has the potential to become the most debilitating. It is true that our cyber security measures need to be on point and effective. However, compromising the privacy of everyone through the overreach of federal government agencies does little to build strength and trust from those that are supposedly being protected. Furthermore, the NSA’s current tactics are arguably unconstitutional- a possible violation of the 4th Amendment, which ostensibly protects all Americans from “unreasonable searches and seizures.” Constitutional questions pertaining to cyber security will undoubtedly be posed to Supreme Court in the near future.

The New America Foundation panelists advocated for political action, as changing the cyber security laws and the domain of the NSA will require existing laws and policies to change. We are living in a world where we now have hundreds of passwords to remember to log into our digital lives – our emails, bank accounts, social media, and everything else. There’s a reasonable amount of surveillance we can accept, but it is not unreasonable to believe that when we key in our password, we are unlocking our digital private vault just for ourselves, and not opening the door for a cyber Big Brother to be watching our every move.

College Ratings: A Good, Fair or Poor Idea to Increase Completion and Lower Student Debt?

June 17, 2014

Andrea Buchanan ’15

Back in February 2014, President Obama made it clear in his State of the Union speech that he was going to make full use of his executive order privileges and dubbed 2014 “a year of action”-with or without the support of Congress. One of his commanding points and areas of focus was education, specifically higher education. Now, Obama seeks to improve college completion and accessibility through a college rating system. He announced in his 2013 State of the Union address that his administration would be rolling out a College Scorecard, which would help students and families compare schools so they would get the “most bang for [their] educational buck.” While this tool is helpful in comparing schools based on cost, Obama is now trying to push it one step further and actually develop a ranking system for colleges and universities.

In a recent article published by the New York Times, college and university presidents expressed their growing concern over the development of a college rating system. They claim that rating colleges is not the solution needed to help more students graduate, and with less debt. According to the article, the rating system would be based on “graduation rates, student debt accumulated while in school, and what students earn after they graduate.” Congress would then give out federal aid to schools based on how they scored, leaving low scoring schools little to offer in terms of financial aid. College presidents predict that this model – putting financial concerns ahead of academics – could cause harm to exceptional schools that fall under the liberal arts category or have a high proportion of programs such as drama and theater that produce degrees that tend to be less profitable immediately after graduation. Additionally, since less federal aid for students may be appropriated to schools based on ratings, it may limit the number of students who apply to colleges or even prevent students from going to their “dream” school. This seems counter-intuitive to Obama’s goal of increasing both college access and affordability.

Despite the outcry from college presidents, the Obama administration is pushing forward with the college rankings, looking to extend the executive branch into a system that is currently dominated by private firms. But the rankings put out by the Princeton Review or U.S. World & News do not come with any penalties, such as loss of funding, at least from the federal side. In addition to the college ranking system, Obama is also using an executive order to help lower student debt. His order, known as “Pay-As-You-Earn,” caps student loan payments at 10% of a borrower’s monthly income. While this makes it easier for those who are already incurring student loan debt, it does not really do anything to encourage more students to attend and complete school, nor does it make college more affordable. It is a half measure that fails to address the larger problem created by limited federal aid to education and a slow, lagging economy that has yet to see the job creation needed to satisfy the students who are graduating with degrees and encumbered with thousands upon thousands of dollars of debt.

Obama’s proposals for high education sound eerily familiar to the controversial No Child Left Behind policy (NCLB) and the belief that ranking schools and making them compete for funding would result in better academic results. In the case of college and universities, giving them rankings of “poor, satisfactory, good, and excellent” linked to funding can only produce the same, failed, result NCLB did. Schools, both primary and secondary education, need to receive funding and aid to help their students be able to graduate and afford to continue their education. They do not need that taken away. Students should receive more help on the front end of college, no matter what school they want to attend, and not wait until graduation to receive any sort of relief. This approach would incentivize students to go to college and also make it more affordable for them, thus achieving President Obama’s ultimate education goals in a more realistic way.

Andrea Buchanan ’15 is a political science and public policy major at Gettysburg College, currently interning at the Eisenhower Institute’s Washington, DC office.

The Confidence Gap

May 6, 2014

Hannah Barnett ‘16  Women In Leadership

A recent book emerged by Claire Shipman, a reporter for ABC News, and Katty Kay, the anchor for BBC World America, that brings into consideration a new divide amongst men and women besides that of wage. The book, The Confidence Code: The Science And Art of Self-Assurance—What Women Should Know, discusses the confidence gap between men and women through research and interviews conducted with women in politics, sports, and the military. The book asks questions such as: Is confidence genetic? Is confidence more vital for success than expertise? Why do some women, even at the highest levels in professions, continue to grapple with bouts of self-doubt?

Shipman and Kay’s research produced studies that showed that women underestimate themselves while men tend to overestimate their abilities and performance. One study, conducted by professor Marilyn Davidson from the Manchester Business School in England, asked her students what they expected and deserved to earn five years after graduation. Professor Davidson reported that her male students averaged $80,000 in their responses, while female students averaged $64,000 or less. In applying for job positions, it was found that women applied for promotions solely when they believed the qualifications were met 100 percent while men applied when 60 percent of qualifications were fulfilled.

Since the unveiling of the book, several articles were published with lists and suggestions on how to proceed in closing the confidence gap. The suggestions ranged from building confidence in minors aged 4 to 14 instead of in adults to speaking in lower tones instead of a nervous high-pitched voice to sound more confident. Another article from The Federalist recommended women take more assertive decisions in their everyday lives, such as buying their own birth control or choosing between working at home or in an office, but above all, owning the decisions and pushing through without doubts.

A critique of the book holds that Kay and Shipman focus on the self-doubt that some women harbor inside of themselves and ignore that idea that self-doubt stems from societal issues. The article reads, “While Kay and Shipman give a nod to ambitions women who are judged more harshly than their male peers, they seem to have no solution—other than putting the onus on women to change.” The article goes on to outline that the confidence gap is a societal problem and that not only women need to change their mentality for the gap to become non-existent.

Kay and Shipman’s information may have kinks to work out in how to implement closing the gap, but it is a stepping-stone in identifying the issues men and women can address while working to find solutions in building confidence levels.

Senators Taking on Sexual Assault

May 5, 2014

Nicole Giles ’15  Women in Leadership

New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand has spent most of the last year in a major fight over how the U.S. military deals with cases of sexual assault. The Congresswoman has recently announced that the next issue she plans to tackle is one of rising concern in this country: sexual assault on college campuses. However, Senator Gillibrand is not alone in this new focus; fellow Democrat Senator Claire McCaskill is attacking this topic of controversy as well. With the beginning of Sexual Assault Awareness Month of April, the senators began to research further into the issue. McCaskill requested data from U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. This data would be used to show the specifics of what she called the “disturbing” lack of action on the part of the colleges and universities regarding on-campus sexual assaults.

According to a recent press release on April 7, Gillibrand and McCaskill have released a letter to the Senate Appropriations Committee requesting $109 million in new federal funds to be used for the Clery Act and Title IX enforcement on campuses. However, this is merely a first step for the duo. Gillibrand’s communications director, Glen Caplin, said Gillibrand will introduce legislation about sexual assault on college campuses by the end of the year. Gillibrand has also said in a statement that the requested funds would go through the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights that handles over 10,000 complaints a year, but has no staff member dedicated to complaints relating to sexual assault cases under Title IX.

All Clery Act complaints also go through the Office of Federal Student Aid’s Compliance Division, which stated in the press release that it was unable to investigate 63 percent of schools that violated the Act. In addition, around one third of the sexual assault policies at nearly 300 college campuses do not comply with the Act. On Tuesday, April 15th, Senator Claire McCaskill announced the release of an extensive survey that was sent to 350 colleges and universities nationwide as a means to further look into how these campuses handle reports of sexual assault. She hopes to obtain the results by May as a basis to access this current problem in the country.

This topic is extremely relevant to all young women in the U.S., particularly those that are in higher education. By numerous senators focusing on this problem, it confirms that it is a priority for the government. These actions are sent into motion as a means to make our colleges safer, and therefore, make women feel more comfortable attending them. However, this also confirms that the current legislation to combat sexual assault on college campuses has flaws. Despite VAWA, the Clery Act, and Title IX, the statistics of assaults on college campuses are on the rise. This shows that there is still work to be done in order to create the ideal learning environment in which women do not feel like they need to be the only ones preventing rape.

Instead of focusing on teaching girls how to protect themselves from rape, the country needs to focus on teaching men, and women, not to rape. The high statistics of this problem leads to the belief that it is a societal problem for the U.S. that could stem from a number of problems such as the prevalent “rape culture” in the country. To have this type of culture present is to present the idea that sexual assault is accepted by society because society is blind to the facts about the issue. Under a “rape culture,” society is taught that rape is only when a stranger attacks a random female walking by or that if a girl is dressed provocatively that she is asking for misfortune to fall upon her. Hopefully, with the new focus of some of the female senators in office, this topic can be discussed and a plan of action can be put in place to eliminate these injustices to young woman across the country.

“It’s Not A Myth. It’s Math.” President Obama

April 21, 2014

Erin McGoldrick ’14  Women in Leadership

Women on average earn 77 cents for every dollar that men make, inspiring the holiday Equal Pay Day.  This is an alarming statistic in present day America and has become a hot button topic in politics this April.  Obama recently signed two executive measures with the purpose of assisting in closing the pay difference between men and women.  The executive orders included barring federal contractors from retaliating against employees who discuss their salaries and an instruction to the Labor Department to collect statistics on pay for men and women from the Federal contractors.

Pay disparities exist in all areas of the American workforce, whether it be the women making up 4.6 percent of Fortune 500 CEO positions, top actresses in Hollywood or even teachers.  The steps being taken to enforce equal pay have sparked a political debate.  The Democrats, who have more women in the Senate and House, are being seen by Republicans as capitalizing on the gender-gap advantage.  As President Obama pushes for equal pay, it is worth noting that pay disparity even exists in the White House.  Members of the Republic National Committee have been pointing to pay disparity that exists in the offices of several Democrats.  The push for equal pay has brought the faults of Democrats and Republicans into the light in terms of gender-gap and pay-gap.

The proposed legislation, the Paycheck Fairness Act, was intended to be an extension to the Equal Pay Act of 1963. The Paycheck Fairness act has three main components, the first being to make wages more transparent.  The second factor is requiring that employers prove that wage discrepancies are tied to legitimate business qualifications rather than gender.  The third component is to prohibit companies from taking retaliatory action against employees who raise concerns about gender-based wage discrimination.  The bill has been brought before Congress in the past, making it passed the House of Representatives but stopped by the Senate.  On April 9, 2014 the Senate Republicans blocked the proposed legislation.

The proposed legislation received immense support from the National Women’s Law Center, stating that requiring employers to give a “factor other than sex” for pay differences prevents the employer from determining pay based on factors that have no relevance to the job being performed.  The act does not prevent employers from giving different salaries based on merit and seniority or quantity and quality of production.

Critics of the Act, such as Daniel Fisher from Forbes magazine, have stated that the “factor other than sex” reasoning would make employers appear discriminatory, when the wage difference may be due to the individual’s salary history and negotiating skills.

Before the Paycheck Fairness Act was shot down, Obama had staged a ceremony where he was introduced by Lilly M. Ledbetter.  Ms. Ledbetter was part of a high profile Supreme Court case in which she sued Goodyear Tire for being paid significantly less than her male colleagues.  Unfortunately, the Supreme Court ruled that her case had been filed after the statute of limitations.  To date, this deadline for filing a discrimination suit has been changed by Congress and became the first bill signed by President Obama.

The Paycheck Fairness Act ultimately did not make it through the Senate; however, the discussion on equal pay is far from over.  As Senator Barbara Mikulski said, the Paycheck Fairness Act is worth getting emotional over.  The attempt to begin debate on the Act failed 53-44.  All Republicans voted against the cloture motion and all Democrats voted in favor of advancing the bill.  Despite the failure to pass, Mikulski’s comments still ring throughout Congress and the drive to end pay disparity continues to progress.

The Paycheck Fairness Act: Blocked by Republican Senators Again

April 16, 2014

Micaela Edelson ’17 Inside Politics

On April 9, 2014, the motion to reintroduce the Paycheck Fairness Act was blocked by the U.S. Senate Republicans. Two days prior, President Obama signed an executive order that would encourage federal contractors to make salary information more accessible, so women and minorities would be able to know if they were being paid unfairly.

However, the Senate did not agree with President Obama’s advancements toward gender pay equality. The Washington Post states that the Paycheck Fairness Act would have allowed employees to inquire about another employee’s wages in a complaint or investigation without the risk of employer retaliation. Thus, female employees would be allowed to check if they are receiving the same wages as their male counterparts. This act would also require employers to provide the Department of Labor with wage data, organized by race and gender, as well as display the wage differentials between males and females in the same job position. April 9th was the third time this act has been blocked in Congress; it was only six votes short of being open for debate.

In 2009, President Obama signed the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, which extended the period of time available for women to sue on the basis of gender discrimination. This law allows the 180-day time period to file a lawsuit be reset with every paycheck that is affected by the discrimination. However, this act did little to stifle the evermore present gender pay inequality. Currently, females receive an average of seventy-seven cents for every dollar a male earns. This disparity is even present in the President’s administration. In 2011, female federal workers received an average salary of 93% of what their male colleagues received.

Gender wage equality falls under the category of civil rights. An employee should not be discriminated against based on gender, race, religion, sexuality, and numerous more defining characteristics. However, President Obama argues that “this is not just an issue of fairness…it’s also a family issue and an economic issue.” As women consist of half of the workforce, the disparity just decreases the amount of economic activity in the market.

One argument in opposition of this act that has been made all three times it has been rejected, is that one of the only results would be an increase in lawsuits against employers. Some Republican senators have even argued that this law is condescending to women. Senator Lynn Jenkins (R-KS) states, “Many ladies I know feel like they are being used as pawns, and find it condescending [that] Democrats are trying to use this issue as a political distraction from the failure of their economic policy.”

The significance of this vote is that the act was not even opened for debate. If Senate Democrats and Republicans cannot even agree to debate the gender pay gap, it is unlikely that an agreement regarding the best approach to address the inequality will be reached anytime soon.

Ready For Hillary, But Is Hillary Ready For Us?

April 11, 2014

Spencer Bradley ’16  Women in Leadership

“I’m ready for Hillary,” was the campaign slogan for Hilary Clinton’s campaign slogan in 2012. But are we ready for Hillary Clinton anymore today than we were eight years ago? While considered the front runner of the Democratic Party, should she choose to accept the nomination, Hillary Clinton faces challenges to her potential presidential run. First and foremost is the double edged sword of her tenure as the Secretary of State.

Clinton’s foreign policy record has left a massive mark in the eyes of the voters, with the Huffington Post stating that, “Clinton even surpassed her former boss, President Obama, by 14 percentage points in the category of ‘strong and decisive’ leader.” The population is backing Hillary’s credentials, as indicated by her service in the ending of the Iraq war, the Arab Spring and the strengthening of American international reputation. The philosophy of the state department was extension of American friendship, which for the most part worked well with our allies. However, Clinton’s foreign policy record is tainted by two State Department legacies that will impact her potential of taking the election for the Democrats: Benghazi and missing funds.

Benghazi was a devastating event for the State Department, as well as the Obama administration, giving Republicans the ability to call for restructuring of the State Department for, “competency issues.” Bear in mind that, “Benghazi was a tragedy for which the State Department bore much responsibility; but, after the Bush years, the rest of the Administration’s record is no minor achievement.” The State Department was faced with the removal from the Middle East conflicts, as well as other engagements within the region. Clinton’s policy as Secretary of State was characterized as clean up of the Bush years. If Clinton can use that momentum against the war and conflicts in the region, then Benghazi may be hand waved away in the eyes of Independents and Democrats. If anything, as characterized by her strategy as Secretary enacting Obama’s policy to the letter, Clinton may run against her party’s image. However, what is dangerous to her potential as president is missing funds from the State Department.

A recent report found that six billion funds went unaccounted for during Clinton’s tenure. The six billion in unaccounted funds poses a “significant financial risk and demonstrates a lack of internal control over the Department’s contract actions,” according to the report. The loss of funds in a recession is troubling to any candidate and calls into question Clinton’s ability to lead her own department and manage her house. This will prove to be the second challenge to Clinton.

However, what is of note is the “double standard” applied to women in politics, with Nancy Pelosi agreeing to the views of Clinton,  “If Hillary Clinton thinks there is a double standard – she’s been in the main event, and that is a presidential race – then I respect that.” If Clinton were a man, perhaps the vitriol towards her character would be focused on the overall State Department, rather than one human being. Whether Clinton was personally involved is currently irrelevant, but until the loss of funds is explained, this will be the weakness that could prevent Clinton from carrying the Democrats to victory during the 2016 election.

Americans want a more transparent government. Missing funds does not speak highly of competency in government. What Clinton must do, in order to alleviate the concerns about her department’s transparency, is to go on the offensive. The longer this goes undisclosed, the more likely Republicans will mobilize this as a quality against her credentials. If she takes a page out of Chris Christie’s recent handling of his own scandal and let an investigation clear her, she would speak volumes to voters as a trust-worthy politician, a commodity in today’s political climate.