Why the FBI vs. Apple Matters

iphone-6s-tear-downTo most Americans, Apple’s refusal to unlock the San Bernadino shooter’s iPhone seems an untenable position. After all, Farook is a known terrorist who committed a horrific crime. That a legal warrant should be issued to search his every sock drawer and hard drive to uncover links to other terrorists or plots is patently obvious. Clearly Apple should just give the FBI what they want. So why is Apple balking? And why does most of the tech community side with them?

The facts are a bit confusing to those outside the tech community. The average American doesn’t (and probably doesn’t want to) understand the intricacies of data encryption and security. With that in mind, I’m going to try to make a more real-world analogy that everyone can relate to, but still illustrates the problem at hand. To do that, let’s assume that this is the 1960s. “Ivan” has just committed an act of terror in the name of the USSR. He was killed in the event, but police suspect he may have had microfilmed plans and lists of other Soviet agents inside the US.

The FBI discovers Ivan has a safety deposit box at the local bank. They go to the court and get a warrant, present it to the bank, and the bank manager opens the box inside the vault and surrenders the contents inside to the authorities.

This situation is similar to requests Apple has responded to many times before. It is a request for something Apple has possession of (e.g. iMessage conversations on its servers) which are turned over willingly with the proper legal authorization. This is how most people seem to be thinking of the Farook iPhone case, but it is not similar to the current case at all.  For that, let’s move on to the next scenario.

Police then discover that Ivan has an ACME Self Destructing Safe in his basement. The feds know this safe is equipped with an acid release failsafe inside the unit such that if the wrong combination is tried too many times or they attempt to force open the safe, the acid is released and all contents of the safe are destroyed.

The FBI then goes to the ACME company and asks them to open the safe. But ACME explains that even they don’t have the combination. Only Ivan did, and he’s gone. ACME doesn’t own the safe or any of its contents. It just designed and built it. Then the FBI comes back to ACME with a new plan and a court order to make ACME implement it. They want ACME to build them a device that can neutralize the acid failsafe so that the police can then just crack the safe.

However, ACME is aware that this acid neutralizing device will actually work on any of their safes, not just Ivan’s. Further, they know their safes are the bane of the FBI, and that police have hundreds of these legally confiscated safes from other crimes stored in evidence lockers across the country. The FBI would love to open them all.

ACME is worried that eventually one of the neutralizing devices or the plans for one will get out in the public or on the black market, and once that horse is out of the barn, there’s no putting it back. They realize that what the FBI is asking them to do is effectively remove the acid failsafe as a security feature from everyone’s safe, not just Ivan’s. This compromises the safety of ACME’s many legitimate customers who have trusted them to secure their belongings.

Further, the security industry as a whole is worried that if ACME yields, it sets the precedent that no one can build and sell uncrackable safes or unbreakable locks. Every security system must be penetrable by the police without the owner’s cooperation. But such a built in weakness is also exploitable for nefarious purposes, both by corrupt government agents as well as theives and spies.

This is the situation Apple finds itself in with the locked iPhone. Once it builds the crack tool, there is no reality under which it would be used just once and destroyed. Even if that tool was safely destroyed, the FBI would be back next week with another warrant for another iPhone, and they would be forced to build it again. Eventually, it becomes impractical to destroy and rebuild the tool each time, so the issue becomes about controlling access to the tool.

Therein lies the weakness. In a world where horses don’t exist, no one has to worry about watching the barn door. But once you create a horse, then the door becomes a liability. And because horses are useful, eventually you have multiples… then multiple barns… and multiple doors. It’s only a matter of time before one gets loose. After all, no security system is perfect.

It’s the health care costs, stupid

Health care costs are the elephant in the room (Photo by Lauren Nelson on Flickr)

As Democrats and Republicans continue their budget dance over non-military discretionary spending, the elephant in the room remains the rising cost of health care.  The Congressional Budget Office estimates that over the next 25 years, the percent of GDP spent on Medicare and Medicaid will double.  And these cost increases will not be limited to government programs.  Private and employer based costs will rise at the same rate—costs that will be reflected in higher prices and lower wages. Simply put, if you’re serious about the economy, then you are serious about long term containment of medical costs. Clearly, Congress is not serious about the economy.

According to Kaiser Health News, Republicans mocked proposals to improve the use of Medicare and Medicaid funds. They declared spending money on prevention was just a “slush fund,” and research on innovation was “an oxymoron.”  Further, there was no cause to pay for “so-called effectiveness research.”

Meanwhile, two House Democrats have signed onto a Republican bill to repeal a health reform provision for the Medicare payment board, which fast-tracks cuts to Medicare payments when spending reaches a pre-determined target. The CBO estimated the board would save $28 billion through 2019.

GOP 2012 hopeful Mike Huckabee attacked the Obama stimulus because it included funds for comparative effectiveness research saying, “The stimulus didn’t just waste your money; it planted the seeds from which the poisonous tree of death panels will grow.”

The proposals opposing efforts to reign in escalating health care costs may be partly political opportunism run amok, but likely also reflect a broad ignorance about the state of medicine as currently practiced. A panel of experts convened in 2007 by the prestigious Institute of Medicine estimated that “well below half” of the procedures doctors perform and the decisions they make about surgeries, drugs, and tests have been adequately investigated and shown to be effective. The rest are based on a combination of guesswork, theory, and tradition, with a strong dose of marketing by drug and device companies. (reference—subscription required)

In fact, the reliance of doctors on companies marketing treatments is downright frightening. In many cases, physicians perform surgeries, prescribe drugs, and give patients tests that are not backed by sound evidence because most doctors are not trained to analyze scientific data, says Michael Wilkes, vice dean of education at U.C. Davis. “Most medical students don’t learn how to think critically.”  The reality is that doctors are human. They trust what they are told, especially by their peers. Yet, a 2002 study in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) found that 87 percent of guideline authors received industry funding and 59 percent were paid by the manufacturer of a drug affected by the guidelines they wrote. Their peers, it seems, are largely bought and paid for by companies trying to sell something.

The holes in medical knowledge can have life-threatening implications, according to an Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality report published in 2001: More than 770,000 Americans are injured or die each year from drug complications, including unexpected side effects, some of which might have been avoided if somebody had conducted the proper research. Meaningless or inaccurate tests can lead to medical interventions that are unnecessary or harmful. And risky surgical techniques can be performed for years before studies are launched to test whether the surgery is actually effective.

Getting health care costs under control requires government sponsored comparative effectiveness research.  This is research aimed at determining what treatments actually work, and educating doctors.  Doctors and hospitals do not have the resources to self-fund this research.  And private companies are incented to sell drugs, devices, and treatments rather than cure patients.

Doctors are smart people. But they are only as good as the information they have available to them. Comparative effectiveness research will allow doctors to make better choices, reduce costs, and have healthier patients.  That’s money well spent. Money that is an investment in not only our health, but our economic future.

Our generation’s Sputnik moment finds few science students ready to answer the call

Sputnik means nothing if we don't go all Apollo on it

President Obama’s State of the Union address last night reminded Americans that our future depends on research and innovation.  The same day that results of the 2009 National Assessment of Educational Progress were released showing that only 21% of graduating high school seniors ranked proficient in science.  Moreover, only 1% ranked at the advanced level, deemed appropriate to pursue science at the college level.  Fourth and eighth graders were also evaluated, and the results were similarly disappointing.

Obama made repeated appeals in his State of the Union speech to the need for a workforce skilled in science and technology:

This is our generation’s Sputnik moment. Two years ago, I said that we needed to reach a level of research and development we haven’t seen since the height of the space race. In a few weeks, I will be sending a budget to Congress that helps us meet that goal. We’ll invest in biomedical research, information technology, and especially clean-energy technology – an investment that will strengthen our security, protect our planet and create countless new jobs for our people.

We’re telling America’s scientists and engineers that if they assemble teams of the best minds in their fields and focus on the hardest problems in clean energy, we’ll fund the Apollo projects of our time.

Maintaining our leadership in research and technology is crucial to America’s success. But if we want to win the future – if we want innovation to produce jobs in America and not overseas – then we also have to win the race to educate our kids.

Over the next 10 years, with so many baby boomers retiring from our classrooms, we want to prepare 100,000 new teachers in the fields of science, technology, engineering and math.

These are noble and vital aspirations. Yet the current state of our educational pipeline indicates we may be a decade or more away away from having students prepared to pursue STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) based careers.  Only 1% of our graduates are prepared to go on to study in scientific fields in college.  Fixing that is not merely a matter of funding or focus.  Even with the retooling of educational programs and an Apollo-level political will, it will take years and years to reeducate the current generation of students, or a decade to refill the educational pipeline with students who are properly prepared.

Achieving the economic goals outlined by President Obama are very much contingent on becoming a scientifically competent society.  As he said, “The world has changed.”  The days of toiling on an assembly line are gone.  Jobs that will allow our children to achieve the American dream require STEM skills and knowledge, and the foundation for that has to be laid in our schools.

This is not a path we are on.  And the results of our national school report card indicate it’s also not a path we are remotely prepared to travel.  This leaves us in grave danger of having our Sputnik moment sputter out and stall unless we unite behind this cause as one nation with one purpose, and hold that course for a generation.  Surely, this is a challenge worthy of the American spirit.

Cantor’s YouCut program invites public to judge merit of NSF programs

Mad Scientist
Science looks so much easier on TV (Photo by Stephen Edmonds on Flickr)

House Majority Leader-Elect Eric Cantor wants you to know he’s serious about cutting the deficit.  That’s why he’s initiated the YouCut website where ordinary folks can make recommendations for cutting wasteful government spending.

The principle is simple.  Each week a different target will be put up on the website and informed citizens can submit their opinions on government largess.  After all, “The American People” clearly know best how to spend every dime.

This week’s target is the National Science Foundation (NSF).  In a video at the top of the site, Rep. Adrian Smith (R-Neb) admits that NSF funds some good stuff, and that 150 Nobel Prizes have been awarded to people who have received NSF grants since 1950.  But he contends there’s lots of silly stuff there as well.  One of the examples he cites is a grant to study on-field contributions of soccer players, which arguably sounds funny when explained in those terms.

The actual study is a wee bit more complex than that.  It does involve a study of how soccer players are ranked in effectiveness in contributing to the team goal, but this is primarily a study within a field called complex systems.  The goal of this field of study is to be able to model systems where lots of independent contributors have both individual motivations and team goals.  Being able to model relatively simple systems like a soccer game might one day lead to the ability to model and predict military tactics, stock markets, or ecosystems.  Does it still seem so trivial and irrelevant?

The problem is, the vast majority of visitors to Cantor’s site haven’t the slightest clue about any of this.  Most of the grant proposals listed on the referenced site have names like “Integrated investigation of inertial particle pair dynamics in turbulence”, and “Shear thickening and defect formation in chemical mechanical polishing slurries”. This is even abstruse stuff to scientists not working in those fields. This is why the NSF has a vigorous review process where proposals are evaluated by experts in the domain of the proposal and are judged not only on their intellectual merits, but on the broader impact such research might have in the specific field.

It passes from arrogance to sheer folly to think that the average, or even above average, voter or Congressman is in a position to make an informed choice here. It would be like disassembling your car on the front lawn and then asking your neighbors to identify the non-essential bits. The government still controls the NSF funding and the process by which programs get approved. But once set up, this is a case where the execution of the process is beyond most citizens.  You wouldn’t hold direct votes on military tactics or monetary policy.  NSF funding isn’t different.  There are just some decisions that require specific expertise.

It’s important to put this in context.  The proposed NSF funding for 2011 is $7.424B.  This money is allocated to over 10,000 programs amounting to an average of just over a half-million dollars each.  The total is less than half of 1% of the projected $1.3T deficit, so even eliminating the entire NSF (which no one is proposing) doesn’t put a dent in the debt.  Eliminating a few million dollars of programs is simply noise, and is wasting time relative to the structural debt problem the USA faces. Cantor voted just this past week for adding an additional $858B to the deficit with the tax cut bill.  So his credibility for being a deficit hawk is already badly tarnished. Him taking a few whacks at the lab coat clad is nothing more that posturing.

New technologies breed new products, new cures, and new markets.  That’s new jobs and new hope for America as a 21st Century economic power.  But none of that happens without fundamental science research.  On TV, science is often the product of a lone genius on a intellectual weekend bender.  Real science is tedious, collaborative, and just damn hard.  And without public funding, much of that research will not occur.  Granted, not all paths yield results.  That’s the nature of the game.  Do NSF projects get funded that turn out to be dead-ends or silly endeavors?  Sure.  But those are the exceptions and not the rules.  No process prevents everything from falling through the cracks.  But there’s no evidence to suggest the NSF process is broken.

In the meantime, unless you feel qualified to weigh the merits of “Shear Transformational Zones in Amorphous Granular Packings” against the need for “Engineering magnetorheological fluids by controlling nonmagnetic particle interactions”, maybe we should just let the experts do their jobs and focus on the real problems Congress might actually solve.

GOP promises a return to the dark days of science

phrenology-head (by DoubleM2 on Flickr)
Phrenology Head (Photo by DoubleM2 on Flickr)

Next week, voters are widely expected to give the House back to Republicans.  There’s also a reasonable chance the Senate will change hands as well.  One of the areas that will suffer the most if and when this happens is science and technology.

It’s not just that science based programs and research funding will be cut. Those programs were slashed dramatically under the Bush Administration, and the weak economy has not allowed Obama to restore many of them.  Rather, it is the country as a whole that will suffer.

Under President Bush, science was repeatedly purged, censored, twisted, and manipulated to back politically motivated objectives.  Scientists were fired or defunded for not reaching conclusions that were ideologically aligned with the administration.  Science was not seen as a quest for objective understanding and technological progress, but at a means to a pre-defined end.  It’s no wonder scientists hailed the election of Barack Obama who promised that scientific thought and research would play a crucial role in his government.

Yet the going into the mid-term election, the GOP continues to promise that they will return the country to the dark days of science where profit and religious doctrine will hold sway and data can stay in the back room with the geeks.

This is seen most clearly in the denial of anthropogenic global warming.  While 92% of climate scientists find the data supporting man-made warming credible, exactly 0% of current or prospective Republican Senators or Congressmen do.  As a result, they’ve vowed to not only kill any sort of carbon based energy policy, but have promised to hog-tie the EPA so they will be unable to regulate carbon dioxide under existing laws despite the Supreme Court ruling that not only is it legal for them to do that, it is their obligation.  This position is not motivated by science, but rather by profit for the existing industries.

Republicans have promised to block any attempts at net neutrality regulations despite evidence that such policies would foster innovation and spur development of new technology based industries.  The reason being that such regulations might erode profits for existing business models.  Something the current corporate titans don’t want to have to deal with.

The GOP has more recently come out against funding development of rare earth minerals outside of China.  This despite the dependence of high tech devices and projects on such minerals.  The danger being that China currently produces 97% of the world’s supply of rare earths, and has strongly indicated that it will hold them hostage should countries such as ours demand currency adjustments or changes meant to create a fairer trade balance between China and the rest of the world.  In this case, the motive for stalling the initiative is purely political, as it thwarts a potential accomplishment the Democrats might claim.

In addition, the Republicans have their unfounded morality based opposition to stem cell research.  And further still, the desire to teach our children that science is only useful when it doesn’t lead you to uncomfortable conclusions like evolution or the big bang.

This is not a condemnation of conservatives.  By definition, conservatives are disposed to preserve the existing condition.  They are the natural political brake assuring that choices are made carefully and cautiously.  But the current GOP position is not really conservative at all.  They want to take us backwards.  Back to the dark ages of reason where superstition reigned.

Many on both sides of the aisle pine for the time when the economy ran strong, the middle class flourished, and the US was an unquestioned superpower on the world stage.  All those things are directly attributable to this country being the science and technology powerhouse on the planet. Those days are behind us… and the Republicans seem intent on keeping it that way.