Monthly Archives: November 2015

Encryption and Terrorism in the Post-Snowden Era

9609572241_d02bd5cbf2_oIn the wake of the horrific terrorist attacks that occurred in Paris last weekend, the question hanging in the air is whether or not there is anything that can be done to prevent such tragedies. Foreign policy and attitudes towards refugees have taken center stage, eclipsing what could become a very serious issue: encryption.

Ever since the Snowden revelations, it seems that regulators are desperately grasping for justifications for snooping into data, even as companies have sought to demonstrate their commitment to providing security for consumers. I wrote an article last month which tackled Apple’s policy on encrypting data. The recent attacks look like fertile ground in which to sow the seeds of such a justification. But even the truly awful nature of the terrorism occurring overseas does not convince me to relax my stance on what I see as one of the most important policy issues of our day.

Policy makers have sought to blame the effectiveness of the terrorist attacks on the use of encrypted communication, causing Russia to push for a ban on encrypted services like Telegram. In the U.S., Silicon Valley is beset by politicians from all sides. Pavel Durov of Telegram skillfully set forth his opposition with an incisive and sarcastic quip for the Moscow Times ‘I propose banning words. There’s evidence [to suggest] that they’re being used by terrorists to communicate.’

I would hope that government officials’ arguments in support of creating backdoors are due to ignorance. The worst thing that could come of tragedies like the Paris attacks would be that they be used manipulatively. In the words of Chris Riley of Mozilla to International Business Times, ‘creating policy from a reactive posture is inherently problematic.’ I couldn’t agree more. The same IBT article mentions a letter signed by several leaders in the tech industry, including Mozilla, asking Obama to reject any proposals requiring backdoors to encrypted data. Such a proposal could set dangerous precedents, not only in the U.S., but worldwide. This includes countries with governments that have a history of gross violations of the trust and rights of their citizens. Once a backdoor exists, there is no way of controlling how or when it is used or by whom.

The idea that Durov so insightfully set forth in the above quote is an essential part of the debate that is obscured by the reactionary sensationalism prone to set in after such events as these attacks. If encryption is banned or companies are forced to provide backdoor keys to the government, terrorists and criminals will find other means of executing their goals.

Encryption is a technique, and it is not something that can be fully legislated against. It’s impossible for any government to prevent everyone from using encryption. It can be banned and made illegal, but that does not stop people from using it or putting it in place. After all, bombing cities and killing innocent people is also illegal, but terrorists continue to perform such acts. Only those already willing to cooperate with regulation would comply with providing backdoors to encrypted data. The government would be no closer to hamstringing terrorists.

Even if the government was somehow able to successfully breach all encryption, terrorists would only find other means of communicating, just like they did before encryption was accessible. By making encryption essentially useless – and just as easy for hackers, criminals, and oppressive regimes to break as it is for whoever it is that’s supposed to be protecting us from terrorism – policies that require backdoors wouldn’t hurt anybody as much as they would hurt average citizens.

We can only hope that the tech companies defending data encryption, and those aware of the dangers inherent in allowing for backdoors, can convince politicians to reconsider the matter. We should not let more corruption and injustice come of the evil that we currently mourn.

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Three Cheers For Craft Beer!

red_ales

A flight of red ales from craft brewery, Black Shirt Brewing Company

I’ll admit it. I’m a complete sucker for craft beer and all the hype surrounding it. Beer has been a mainstay beverage in global civilizations for centuries. Everybody knows that there’s no better way to spend a friday night than enjoying an amber pint at your favorite pub with a couple of friends, relaxing after a grueling week of work. So what’s the big deal with craft beer, and why are so many willing to pay more for it than the Big Beer brands? The answer to those questions depends upon whom you ask. I can’t speak for everyone, but I can detail a few of the commonly given answers and explain why I enjoy drinking craft beer.

Some see it as a moral battleground. A theme commonly discussed among craft beer nerds (but little talked about by anyone else) is the fact that most of the beer consumed in the world is produced by a handful of giant corporations. Anheuser-Busch (AB inBev), one of these titan brewers, has recently been bidding on a merger with one of their biggest rivals, MillerCoors (SABMiller). The merger would purportedly make AB inBev the brewer of a third of the world’s beer.

Should You Buy A Home You Can’t Afford?

mansion-875094_1920Is there ever a situation where buying an unaffordable house makes sense? A new report by real estate service Trulia seems to suggest so. The report notes that in some cities, Millennials should consider buying a house that is a little beyond their budget, given that they are likely to receive promotions and raises that will make it more affordable down the road. About the only worse advice I can think of would be for you to stick your hand in a rattlesnake’s nest.

The report is based on the assumption that in 30 years time, today’s 25 year-olds will be earning the same as today’s 55 year-olds, assuming a certain level of inflation. For example, the typical Millennial in New Haven, CT, can expect to spend 37% of their income on housing in the first year of a mortgage but, three years later, this will drop to 31% or less.

Ralph McLaughlin, a housing economist at Trulia, is quoted as saying, “There’s a sweet spot  of metros where a mortgage looks obtainable but unaffordable, and yet it shouldn’t take long to become affordable.” In other words, it’s obtainable in the sense the person can get the loan, but unaffordable because it currently swamps their budget.

Given that mortgage payments are usually level payments spread out over the term of the loan, the actual mortgage payment doesn’t go down (and neither will maintenance costs or property taxes). Consequently, McLaughlin is assuming some significant promotions and raises for today’s Millennials.

But even if McLaughlin’s assumption is correct, and you can reasonably plan for a climb up the corporate ladder, does this mean you should buy a home today that you can’t really afford? Absolutely not.

Tipping the Scales

14876811184_e694b850bb_oJoe’s Crab Shack has just decided to experiment with forgoing tips at a few of its locations. Tipping is a longstanding American practice that has recently been called into question. It has been largely done away with in other parts of the world, but has been standard practice at sit-down restaurants in America for a very long time. But some people are now starting to question the practice, with many taking to social media and posting opinions and anecdotes about their tipping experiences. As you can imagine, the debate has been lively and passionate.

A criticism raised against tipping is that it usually correlates with employees being paid very low wages, leaving them to fend for themselves to make much needed extra money. The meritocratic logic in support of tipping says that good employees will be rewarded for their work and earn a lot from tips, and that bad employees will be incentivized to work harder to earn more in tips.

Those in favor of tipping would argue that it encourages good service because employees are forced to earn tips. It also teaches customers to evaluate their service and reward good service when they get it. Common sense suggests this should promote good service. The counter-argument is that employees are completely at the mercy of unpredictable customers and their varied moods. A customer who might have had a particularly glum day, and is in a bad mood (or who is just a jerk), might decide not to give a tip, whether or not they were actually provided good service.

Hyperloop: Speed Into The Future

hyperloop-new-ftHype About Hyperloop

In 2013, Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla Motors and Space X, revealed a high-speed ground transport concept called Hyperloop. This announcement came shortly after the California high-speed rail car plans were unveiled. California’s bullet train is reported to cost a minimum of $70 billion to link Sacramento to San Diego. Musk, among others, found California’s

Practicing Sound Money: Can the UnBanked Participate?

IMG_4608It’s shocking when you hear of someone functioning day-to-day without a bank account. But according to the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, this trend is not all that uncommon.

The FDIC reports that nearly 17 million Americans are unbanked, limiting them in their ability to execute financial transactions and accumulate wealth-building assets. Moreover, 51 million are referred to as underbanked, meaning that they may have to rely on options like check-cashing services and high-interest lending, just to make ends meet.

There are myriad reasons behind this lack of engagement with traditional banking systems. For starters, a growing number of Americans, particularly African-Americans, have grown leery of banks due to predatory lending and excessive fees. Others are simply unable to obtain even a basic checking or savings account, due to a tarnished financial history.

One Pew study found that a third of all households that closed their bank accounts did so because of unexpected or unexplained fees.

Then there is the case of growing numbers of young Americans who have voluntarily chosen to self-select out of financial institutions. FDIC data shows that a surprising 50% of those between the ages of 18 to 24 are unbanked or underbanked.