NSA Overshare

by Sue Halpern

Back in March, in his virtual appearance at a TED conference in Vancouver, Edward Snowden said that the most shocking revelations from the documents he’d taken from the NSA were yet to come. On Monday, Ryan Gallagher and the team at First Look Media made good on that claim. Since at least 2010 and most likely before that, the NSA has been sharing 850 billion surveillance records with a dozen other government agencies including the DEA and the FBI through a Google-like search engine called ICREACH.  When an FBI agent enters a scrap of information like a phone number, for example, the ICREACH search engine sends back everything in the NSA archives associated with that number–private chats, phone logs, photos and so on. According to the Intercept report, “Information shared through ICREACH can be used to track people’s movements, map out their networks of associates, help predict future actions, and potentially reveal religious affiliations or political beliefs.” While the database for ICREACH is, in theory, restricted to material obtained from foreign surveillance operations, in practice many of those operations have netted information on American citizens with no ties to terrorism:

In a statement to The Intercept, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence confirmed that the system shares data that is swept up by programs authorized under Executive Order 12333, a controversial Reagan-era presidential directive that underpins several NSA bulk surveillance operations that monitor communications overseas. The 12333 surveillance takes place with no court oversight and has received minimal Congressional scrutiny because it is targeted at foreign, not domestic, communication networks. But the broad scale of 12333 surveillance means that some Americans’ communication get caught in the dragnet as they transit international cables or satellites—and documents contained in the Snowden archive indicate that ICREACH taps into some of that data.

In the words of Elizabeth Goitein of the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU Law School, “with ICREACH, the government ‘drove a truck’ through loopholes that allowed it to circumvent restrictions on retaining data about Americans”:

A key question, according to several experts consulted by The Intercept, is whether the FBI, DEA or other domestic agencies have used their access to ICREACH to secretly trigger investigations of Americans through a controversial process known as “parallel construction.”

Parallel construction involves law enforcement agents using information gleaned from covert surveillance, but later covering up their use of that data by creating a new evidence trail that excludes it. This hides the true origin of the investigation from defense lawyers and, on occasion, prosecutors and judges—which means the legality of the evidence that triggered the investigation cannot be challenged in court.

Here, again, is yet more evidence that collecting phone and Internet metadata is not a benign activity, as President Obama among others would like us to believe. But we knew that, didn’t we? It should give us pause, if nothing else, that the newly “strengthened” USA Freedom Act proposed last month by Senator Patrick Leahy, is not going to slow down traffic to ICREACH. And those 850 billion records? That number was from back in 2010. As Gallagher notes, “while the NSA initially estimated making upwards of 850 billion records available on ICREACH, the documents indicate that target could have been surpassed… .”

Unliking Facebook

by Sue Halpern

Dislike Facebook

Anyone who has ever read Facebook’s privacy policy–and that probably would not include you–understands that it is not meant to protect your privacy, but provide Facebook and its clients with access to you, your habits, your contacts, your life. This kind of access is the lifeblood of Facebook (read: money), so attempting to indemnify itself against any claims of invasiveness is crucial. This, of course, has not exempted the company from lawsuits, as well as from less formal but no less vociferous user discontent. A quick search on the website of the Electronic Frontier Foundation is a lesson in the thrust and parry around privacy that’s accompanied Facebook’s remarkable insinuation into the culture.

Earlier this summer, a young Austrian law student named Maximilian Schrems filed a class action lawsuit against Facebook which has draw an unprecedented number of claimants.

As Malarie Gokey writes, 60,000 people have now joined young Schrems:

According to the advocate’s site, the Vienna Regional Court in Austria has reviewed the case and commanded Facebook Ireland to respond to the charges within four weeks. Facebook’s international efforts are based in Ireland and serve 80 percent of its users worldwide.

Shortly after Schrems announced the lawsuit and called upon Europeans and anyone outside the U.S. and Canada to join him, the lawsuit reached its maximum number of claimants with 25,000 people joining the suit. An additional 35,000 pledged their support for the privacy lawsuit, should it be expanded to include more claimants, bringing the total number of people suing Facebook for violating privacy laws above 60,000.

Among other things, Schrems is suing Facebook for providing user data (including private messages) to the National Security Agency for its massive, data-mining PRISM program. He is also hoping to hold Facebook’s collective feet to the EU Data-Protection Directive fire, which is meant to protect European Union citizens from the very kinds of intrusive activities practiced by both the NSA and Facebook. (The US has nothing comparable.) “Our aim is to make Facebook finally operate lawfully in the area of data protection,” he said.

Another suit against Facebook, this one closer to home:

A Texas woman is suing Facebook for $123 million dollars. Allegedly, the social media company failed to take down a fake profile that was created with the intent to publicly humiliate her. The woman, Meryem Ali, claims that the profile displayed her name alongside photos of her face photoshopped onto pornographic images.

(Photo by zeevveez.)

The Failure Of Diversity

by Sue Halpern

University Of Birmingham Hold Degree Congregations

Over the past few years we’ve read debate after debate about the value of a college degree, about the value of studying the humanities, about the value–not!–of an Ivy League education. We’ve learned that it still pays to go to college since college grads earn more than those who without a degree. We’ve learned that English majors do better than promoters of STEM education might have us believe. We’ve learned that this bit of information has not been shared with some university administrators and legislators, who would like to eliminate such “useless” degree programs. We’ve learned that there aren’t as many STEM jobs as we’ve been lead to think there are, but we’ve also learned that math and computer science graduates make more money than, say, psych majors. We’ve learned from a former Yale professor (though we’ve heard it before) that his colleagues at big, fancy research institutions don’t really value interacting with students. We’ve learned, from students and alumnae at some of those places, that that’s not always the case. (As I learned yesterday from a video posted on this site, “the plural of anecdote is not data.”)

But what may be the most pertinent piece of information has emerged this summer comes from a pair of government studies, reported yesterday in The New York Times, that show that despite all efforts at “diversity,” American colleges and universities have made essentially no gains in opening their doors to the poor and less-well-off. And this despite the fact that the number of high achieving students from poor families has substantially increased.  

Another study, of the most selective colleges in the country, found that

from 2001 to 2009, a period of major increases in financial aid at those schools, enrollment of students from the bottom 40 percent of family incomes increased from just 10 percent to 11 percent.

Education experts offer numerous explanations for this flat line: these are students without role models and without parents who have attended college so they do not know what is possible; these are families who look at the sticker price–now over $60,000 in some cases–and don’t know that financial aid might knock that down to something reasonable; these are schools that don’t do a great job of seeking out the best-and-the brightest from low income backgrounds. According to Cappy Hill, the president of Vassar, a school that has made an effort to enroll these students, and has succeeded, “There has to be a commitment to go out and find them.”

It may be, though, that it is precisely commitment that is lacking:

“A lot of it is just about money, because each additional low-income student you enroll costs you a lot in financial aid,” said Michael N. Bastedo, director of the Center for the Study of Higher and Postsecondary Education at the University of Michigan. “No one is going to talk openly and say, ‘Oh, we’re not making low-income students a priority.’ But enrollment management is so sophisticated that they know pretty clearly how much each student would cost.”

Colleges generally spend 4 percent to 5 percent of their endowments per year on financial aid, prompting some administrators to cite this rough math: Sustaining one poor student who needs $45,000 a year in aid requires $1 million in endowment devoted to that purpose; 100 of them require $100 million. Only the wealthiest schools can do that, and build new laboratories, renovate dining halls, provide small classes and bid for top professors.

The rankings published by U.S. News and World Report, and others, also play a major role. The rankings reward spending on facilities and faculty, but most pay little or no attention to financial aid and diversity.

Here’s a plan: Next time you hear a college with which you are affiliated touting its diversity statistics, dig deeper. Critical Inquiry: the true value of the liberal arts.

(Photo by Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)

Love In The Ruins

by Sue Halpern

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For the past five years I have spent every Tuesday with my dog at our local public nursing home, and in the time have spent many hours with people with dementia. I say dementia, the generic, rather than Alzheimer’s, because many residents have varying degrees of memory loss, not all of it clinically diagnosed AD, though they often present in the same way: confusion, trouble with the tasks of daily care, disorientation. Until recently, Alzheimer’s was only diagnosed upon death and autopsy, so that it didn’t really matter what you called what was going on. What mattered was that it was going on. I have seen Alzheimer’s brains–they are distinctive, surrounded by what appears to be an ever-expanding moat of cerebral spinal fluid. Brain images often tend to be beautiful, colorful. They look like weather maps, which can be beautiful, too, even as the category five hurricane is approaching.

I would like to say that people with dementia, despite their debilities, retain their essence, and from what I’ve seen, that is true for some. Or, it is true for some, some of the time. What I mean by this is that they can be generous or funny or kind, even when they don’t know who you are, or who they are, or where they are. The dog can help. People touch her and it brings them into the moment and there is a connection, a spark, and for a while there is light.

But of course, over five years, I have watched people lose their words and lose their way. And I have watched, with a kind of displaced gratitude, the devotion of family members, even when that loss encompasses them. I use the words “family members” loosely. I don’t always know how people are related, only that they are in some fundamental way. There are days when I can be slapped out of the  despair that comes from knowing what is going on in the larger world, by watching a man brushing his wife’s hair, or a daughter holding her mother’s hand as they walk down the hall. I don’t doubt for a moment that there isn’t despair there, but tempered by love, it bends.

This is what I see in Banker White’s beautiful rendering of his mother’s early-onset Alzheimer’s. He set out to document her decline, and he does, but all the while another image–a stronger image, of love made tangible–appears in every frame.

Gluten, Free At Last

by Sue Halpern

Sometime before my toddlerhood I became a failure to thrive baby. Food was going right through me; I wasn’t gaining weight. And so my parents took me to the doctor, and tests were done, and I was diagnosed with celiac disease. Certain foods were eliminated from my diet. Others were offered up almost non-stop. If there was ever a good case for sibling jealousy, it was watching my older brother eat apple pie while I got mashed bananas. Again.

Celiac doesn’t go away, but there came a time when I stopped abiding by the rules. What’s a little (or a lot of ) stomach distress when a buttered, toasted bagel is in the offing. Or blueberry pie. Or waffles. It was the celiac’s equivalent of Amish youth’s Rumspringa, and it was great! But having gotten sick once too often, I went back to my old ways, and when I did, I found that the sense memories of what I’d eaten stayed intact. Even now, years later, I can conjure up the taste of that bagel, or pie, or waffles. And because I have been able to do that, I’ve hardly felt deprived.

For the longest time, being wheat-free or gluten-free was an anomaly. But in the past five years or so, as you no doubt know–how could you not?–it has become a thing. Everyone is doing it! Celebrities. Athletes. Regular folk. The word on the street has been that eliminating wheat, or gluten, gives you more energy. That it makes you lose weight. That humans didn’t evolve to eat this stuff, so we can’t fully digest it. And the more it has become a thing, the more products are showing up on the supermarket shelf with the “gluten-free” label, even foods like Cheddar cheese and popcorn and, probably, steak. Which is to say nothing about the specialty products– the gluten-free oatmeals and almond flours and beers.

While none of these appeal to me–I’d rather have my sense-memory of  Toll House cookies not be distorted by some weak imitation–I completely understand why it might seem like a godsend to others, especially parents with celiac children. But to be honest, I’ve felt a little silly recently saying that I can’t eat that pasta or pizza, like I’m part of a cult I never meant to join.

But now begins the backlash. And not from people who are ready to go back to sourdough and cupcakes, but from science. As Luisa Dillner reports in The Guardian, for the past two years, gastroenterologists have been diagnosing people with something called non-celiac gluten sensitivity (NCGS), whose symptoms include “bloatedness and diarrhoea but also fatigue, ‘foggy brain’ and pain and numbness in the arms and legs.” But, she writes,

The research on NCGS is inconclusive and the most recent studies show that carbohydrates called Fodmaps, rather than gluten, may be the cause of symptoms. Fodmaps are fermentable oligo-, di- and mono-saccharides, and polyols – and one of them, fructan, is increasingly implicated in irritating the gut, causing flatulence, diarrhoea and bloatedness. Wheat has Fodmaps but so do other foods such as garlic, artichokes, yoghurt and fruit.

And an editorial in the academic journal Gastroenterology suggests that NCGS may not even exist.

Potentially phantom illnesses aside (and let’s hear it for the placebo effect in any case!), a warning issued by a Kansas State University food safety specialist brings a more serious worry: a popular gluten substitute, lupin “has the same protein that causes allergic reactions to peanuts and soybeans.” Because, until now, lupin has not been used much here in the States, the fear is that people with nut allergies will be unsuspecting consumers, with disastrous results.

But do not expect the recently gluten-free to break out the Mint Milanos any time soon. According to an article in The New York Times:

The portion of households reporting purchases of gluten-free food products to Nielsen hit 11 percent last year, rising from 5 percent in 2010. In dollars and cents, sales of gluten-free products were expected to total $10.5 billion last year, according to Mintel, a market research company, which estimates the category will produce more than $15 billion in annual sales in 2016.

Childhood Memories

by Sue Halpern

Last week, Dr. David Sulzer’s lab at Columbia Medical School reported that researchers were able to reverse the symptoms of autism in mice by administering a drug that prunes synapses. Though scientists have known of the connection between synaptic overload and autism, this was the first time that they have been able to show that pruning synapses is palliative. What might seem counterintuitive that the human brain needs to shed neurons to develop normally, that, in fact, is what needs to happen between birth and puberty. Think of it as clearing out the attic so you can make clear pathways to what you’ve got stored up there. (When you read Bill’s post, One Perfect Thing, you will understand why this analogy seems especially apt to me today.) More to the point, many of the 100 billion neurons we are born with are not yet connected. As neurons are shed, there is more and more room for connections to be made. According to one source I read, at birth, each neuron has about 2500 synaptic connections and by three that number has grown to about 15,000, and continues to increase exponentially.  According to another,

At birth the baby has 50 trillion connections or synapses

In the first three months of life, the synapses multiply more than 20 times

At one year the brain has 1,000 trillion synapses.

The takeaway, here, numbers aside, is that as neurons are shed, connections are made.

So I was particularly interested in Ferris Jabr’s explanation for why we forget childhood memories, which in the end may turn out to be a very good thing:

Studies have shown that people can retrieve at least some childhood memories by responding to specific prompts—dredging up the earliest recollection associated with the word “milk,” for example—or by imagining a house, school, or specific location tied to a certain age and allowing the relevant memories to bubble up on their own.

But even if we manage to untangle a few distinct memories that survive the tumultuous cycles of growth and decay in the infant brain, we can never fully trust them; some of them might be partly or entirely fabricated. Through her pioneering research, Elizabeth Loftus of the University of California, Irvine has demonstrated that our earliest memories in particular are often insoluble blends of genuine recollections, narratives we sponged up from others, and imaginary scenes dreamt up by the subconscious.

In one set of groundbreaking experiments conducted in 1995, Loftus and her colleagues presented volunteers with short stories about their childhood provided by relatives. Unbeknownst to the study participants, one of these stories—about being lost in a mall at age 5—was mostly fiction. Yet a quarter of the volunteers said they had a memory of the experience. And even when they were told that one of the stories they had read was invented, some participants failed to realize it was the lost-in-a-mall story.


by Sue Halpern

Last night our twelve-year-old dog got into the trash. We came home from dinner out and the trash can had been tipped over and a week’s detritus was strewn across the kitchen. Pransky, the offender in question, had her tail firmly between her legs and was looking nervous and, possibly, guilty. If I had taken a picture, she now might be featured on the wonderfully inculpatory Dog Shaming blog. Instead, she is sleeping on the couch, all trespasses forgiven.

Wild Pigs A Growing Problem In BerlinThe question of whether dogs feel guilty, or just look guilty, has been long debated, and the jury remains out. Still, as Professor Marc Bekoff has written “there’s not reason why dogs cannot. And there’s solid, biological/evolutionary reasons to assume dogs can and do.” Of course, there are solid, biological/evolutionary reasons for dogs to raid the trash, too. So much of what we, humans, consider to be “bad” behavior in dogs, is behavior that comes with strong instinctive ties. The term “house breaking” offers a good clue to the power dynamic of domestication. Think about those collars that emit “ultrasonic sounds” to dogs that bark. Or the ones that zap them with a jolt of electricity if they jump. A barking dog! Can you imagine that?

There must be a better way.

Enter, pigs. Or, more accurately, the pig pheromone androstenone, which is secreted by male pigs when female pigs are in heat. Apparently, what turns on female pigs, turns off dogs of either sex. By chance, Texas Tech professor John McGlone happened to have some in his house, a house that also happened to be home to a yappy Cairn Terrier. And then, magic!

So, he gave one little spritz to his dog, Toto, and immediately the dog stopped barking. Right on the spot. ‘It was completely serendipitous,” said McGlone, who works in the Animal and Food Sciences department of the College of Agriculture and Natural Sciences. “One of the most difficult problems is that dogs bark a lot, and it’s one of the top reasons they are given back to shelters or pounds.”

Suddenly, an idea was born. After extensive testing and publishing of the results, and with funding help from Sergeant’s pet care products, Stop That was developed and hit store shelves under the Sentry pet products name about a year ago. It has been met with tremendous success by pet owners who were on their last legs in trying to curtail bad behavior in dogs.

“My dogs were instantly focused and silenced with one spritz,” said one product reviewer on Amazon.com. “It’s changed my life.”

With that, a new term was coined, interone, which McGlone and his colleagues define as a product that is a “pheromone in one species and has a behavioral effect in another species, but we do not know if it is a pheromone (naturally produced) in the other species.”

And what if that other species is…us? According to The Long Term Ecological Network website, humans are also susceptible to the charms of androstenone, which in the UK has been marketed as a porcine aphrodisiac called Boar Mate since 1972.

At Guy’s Hospital in London scientists sprayed chairs in the visiting room randomly with Boar Mate, and when women arrived for treatment they chose those chairs over others. The active ingredient in the pig perfume is androstenone, and other British tests show that men with high levels of this chemical (measured in urine samples) tend to be married, father more children and occupy positions of power in industry. (Aggressive young criminals also have an excess of androstenone.)

Bad dogs to bad boys, and it gives new meaning to “male chauvinist pig,” too.

(Photo of a wild boar from Getty)

And So We Begin

by Sue Halpern

Greetings, People of the Dish. My name is Sue Halpern and I have been one of you for at least a decade, having followed this blog from independence to Time to the Atlantic to the Daily Beast and back to independence. When The New York Review of Books, my spiritual and intellectual home, was in the beginning stages of designing its own blog, I suggested to my friends there that that they take a page or two out of Andrew’s playbook because The Dish, it seemed to me then, as it does to me now, manages to combine the serious and the playful, skips the mean part (no comments, thank you very much), all the while trading on serendipity and engagement. That’s what drew me in as a reader, even though my own unrepentant liberal politics stood at a sharp angle from Andrew’s studied conservatism. But over time there has been an unlikely convergence and the angle has largely collapsed. Not completely, but more often than not.

Pransky At Work
Pransky At Work

Over those same years, though, I’ve found that my “belief” in politics, has diminished. If, before, I thought that electoral politics mattered—and I did; I was the one going door-to-door in swing states—now I have a hard time holding on to that belief. If I thought that government, our government, because it is of and by and for the people—that is, because it is us—existed to make our lives together more tenable, well, let’s just say that with my tax dollars going to support Gitmo, the militarization of the police, subsidies to oil companies, and on and on, I’ve become much more cynical. Wouldn’t it be nice if, when we paid our taxes we could tell the government where we wanted our money to go—to the National Parks, say, and not to those oil companies—but of course that’s not the nature of democracy. If faith is the belief in things unseen, then I guess I will continue to have faith in “we the people,” but it is, and will be, a faith sorely tried by doubt.

Did I say that I have a doctorate in political theory from Oxford? Or that I’m married to a man who has been manically trying to bring together people from all over the world into a concerted movement to redirect the trajectory of climate change? Or that I live in Vermont, where neighborliness is a good part of our politics? Scale, it turns out, matters. Scale things up and no one knows anyone, and decisions are made using algorithms and rubrics. Am I suspicious of big government? I guess by now I am. Are most Americans with me? Not as much as you might imagine. A few weeks ago I wrote a piece for the New York Review of Books about Edward Snowden, Glenn Greenwald, and the NSA, in which I noted that when George W. Bush was in office, the majority of Democrats were opposed to indiscriminate government surveillance and the majority of Republicans were fine with it, while that under Obama, those responses flipped, and Democrats were cool with government spying. To my mind, we maintain a naïve understanding of the power of bureaucracy to direct government when we think it’s okay for one party to do something that we revile if the other party were to do the same.

I’ve been writing about privacy issues, and technology, for a long time, and not always in tandem. I appreciate technology—I am a sucker for the latest Indiegogo gadgetry and know more about the iPhone 6 than I care to admit—but I also appreciate the vigilance it should, but rarely does, inspire in us. Meanwhile privacy, which I have taken as a social good, and as a right, and as a part of my DNA and yours, no longer seems a given. Instinctively I think that’s bad, but I’m willing to consider the opposite.

So let’s talk about dogs. My most recent book, “A Dog Walks Into A Nursing Home,” is about the work my canine partner, Pransky, and I do, as a therapy team at our local public nursing home. (I did an “Ask Anything” about it when the book came out last year.) I am thrilled to be writing for a publication that has a baying beagle as its mascot, so be prepared, over the next seven days, to help me ponder the essential bond we have with our dogs.

I am thrilled, too, to be sharing this virtual space with the man with whom I share real, physical, tangible space. After decades of what the child psychologists call “parallel play,” career-wise, we have spent the past year collaborating on a series of pieces for Smithsonian that combine our passion for ethnic food with our interest in the immigration, and have found that we really like working together. So thank you Andrew and crew for this opportunity to double-team the Dish. And here we go.