The National Institute of Standards and Technology have recently released new security guidelines for protecting digitally stored information from intrusions.  NIST security guidelines represent a collection of the best company practices, and in the past have represented industry standards for digital information security.  When so much of the onus of keeping individual’s personal data private and secure falls on the companies themselves, these guidelines become an incredibly important gauge of the trustworthiness of the companies holding your data.  Avoid dealing with businesses not conforming to the NIST’s recommendations.

Last week, ex-CIA contractor Edward Snowden came forward to tell America that the NSA has been conducting a secret, nationwide surveillance campaign in the wake of the Boston Marathon Bombings this past April.  Details of the campaign are slowly coming to light, but suggest that the NSA demanded from Verizon telephone data on individual American citizens, and has developed a data mining program with direct access to emails, chat logs and other data stored on the servers of Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Yahoo, AOL and Apple.  In leaking this information, classified top-secret by the NSA, Edward Snowden chose to face decades in jail to bring to light what he considers an Orwellian breach of American privacy.

While many applaud his decision as an act of self-sacrifice protecting Americans from abuse by their own government.  A recent poll by the Washington Post revealed that a slim majority of Americans are willing to accept the NSA’s surveillance of their personal emails and phone calls, if conducted in the name of a terrorist investigation.  The poll also shows that Democrats are much more willing to choose security over privacy now than during the Bush era.  One must wonder whether such surveillance would have been as well received if the Boston Marathon Bombings were not so fresh in everyone’s mind.  Having watched the military style police vehicles roll past my Boston apartment with the city in lockdown, I have seen how willingly people forsake their liberties when they perceive a threat.  It is unfortunate then that no matter how secure our countermeasures are, we can never become fully protected from all threats.

It is not paranoia to say that there are groups “out there” trying to know everything they can about you all of the time.  It is more terrifying to realize that so much of your most personal data is collected and aggregated into databases ripe for the picking. We are often lured into a false sense of security with the knowledge that there exist laws and privacy policies ostensibly designed to keep our information secret.  However, these protections are deceptively weak, especially in the face of new methods of data reconstruction.

For example, HIPAA is a piece of federal legislation designed to protect the privacy of patient’s medical records.  It demands certain methods be taken when collecting and handling data, but also that such data is “anonymized” before being released. Under certain circumstance, the law allows anonymized data to be sold for research purposes, essentially to anyone seeking to buy.  Unfortunately, recent research is revealing that supposedly anonymized data can be combined with other public records to fill in the blanks, thereby linking you to your sensitive information.  Jordon Robertson’s recent article for Bloomberg News highlights the frightening implications of this process.  In light of last week’s NSA snooping scandal, it is shocking to consider how exposed Americans really are.

The internet places a massive amount of information at our fingertips, and it can seem at times as if, with the right Google search, we can learn anything.  Until relatively recently, this freedom of knowledge was limited to what the curious web surfer was willing to teach themselves.  Information was out there for discovery, but there were few way to find instruction, and even fewer ways to have one’s work evaluated.  Frequently, the best one could hope for was to find a “how to” article written by some hopefully reputable source.  Recently however, the MOOC (massively open online course) threatens to make formal instruction available en masse to all those seeking it.

MOOCs are web courses accepting tens of thousands of students at any given time being taught by some of the most distinguished professors the world has to offer.  For those interested in free distribution of information, MOOCs represent a huge step forward.  Theoretically, anyone in their living room could receive the same instruction as a freshman at Harvard or Yale.  However, as noted in Douglas Belkin and Melissa Korn’s New York Times article “Web Courses Woo Professors”, many professors at less renowned intuitions fear the possible effects which MOOCs would have on their livelihoods.  If everyone can receive an Ivy League course experience for free, who would choose to attend their local university?  As of yet however, MOOCs suffer some serious limitations which keep local university enrolment stable for now.

A. J. Jacobs wrote about his MOOC  experience in an article entitled “Grading the MOOC University.”  He found that MOOCs lacked many of the core aspects which people seek in traditional college classes.  Most notably, there was almost no student to teacher interaction by which a student could get his questions answered.  It is not surprising that one on one time would be scare when the students outnumber the professor by thousands to one.  Additionally, assignments were limited to computer graded multiple choice tests and peer reviewed projects, both administered through the honor system.  While these limitations far from render MOOCs useless, they at least must be surmounted before the formal university system has anything real to fear.  It is more likely that MOOCs will supplement rather than supplant formal education as the concept progresses.

Image provided by Northeastern University Graduate School of Engineering.

In yesterday’s NY Times, available here, there is a scathing op-ed by wikileaks founder Julian Assange premised on a critique of the new book by Google CEO Eric Schmidt and former State Dept. official, and current head of Google Ideas, Jared Cohen, but more appropriately characterized as Assange’s attempt to throw up a large warning sign with regards to this partnership and its vision for America going forward. Of my favorite snippets-

“Commodities just become more marvelous; young, urban professionals sleep, work and shop with greater ease and comfort; democracy is insidiously subverted by technologies of surveillance, and control is enthusiastically rebranded as “participation”; and our present world order of systematized domination, intimidation and oppression continues, unmentioned, unafflicted or only faintly perturbed.”

While Assange is correct to point out the ever more cozy relationship between Washington and Silicon Valley (at least for finding jobs!), his piece is missing a key recent news item in the union of the west coast techies and east coast pseudo-technocrats: Google challenging the governments National Security Letters (NSLs) requests. You can read more about this here-

And last week, a US District Court judge ordered Google to comply with the NSLs, although she left open the opportunity for Google to continue its challenge with a more direct attack on the specific NSLs that it was presented.

No doubt that Google and the gov are buddies, and to some degree thats a good thing, but the kind of BFFs that Assange portrays is a bit of a stretch.