Foster's Daily Democrat of Dover (N.H.), June 21, 2013
Earlier this week, Gen. Keith B. Alexander testified before Congress that the government's wholesale collection of email and phone data had foiled "potential terrorist events over 50 times since 9/11."
What the head of the National Security Agency did not make clear was exactly what portion of the data was responsible for savings lives and how it was acquired.
Casting a wide net, as the government has done by collecting email and phone data en masse, was bound to capture some bad guys. It's a bit like admitting a broken clock reads correctly at least twice a day. Historically, however, that is not justification for trampling the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
But for those who believe it is and that only the bad guys will get hurt, we direct reader attention to an article in the June 15 issue of The Wall Street Journal, penned by Carl Bialik and headlined: "Ethics Aside, Is NSA's Spy Tool Efficient?" (http://tinyurl.com/ethics-aside).
He begins: "Reports about the National Security Agency's program to collect vast amounts of data on personal electronic communications have created an uproar about the implications for privacy. But some statisticians and security experts have raised another objection: As a terror-fighting tool, it is highly inefficient and has some serious downsides."
Bialik goes on to discuss the work of Bruce Schneier, a security technologist, who explains that even a very accurate algorithm for identifying terrorist communications could produce about 10,000 false positives for every real "hit," creating a haystack of false leads to chase in order to find every needle.
The algorithm to which Schneier refers is something the government would need to analyze the technical data gathered while collecting the nation's email and telephone traffic. NSA officials and President Obama have emphasized that no one is reading those emails or listening in to our calls. It is that the government is simply collecting data to be analyzed when and if a threat is detected. But once that detection switch goes off, it would appear all that amassed data becomes fair game.
So, based on Schneier's premise how many "innocents" have had their email and phone data scrutinized due to false positives?
Alexander reports "over 50" plots foiled. If they involved the calls and emails of one person each, that would be 50,000 innocents who were suspects at one time. But terror plots are not often lone ventures. Extrapolate the number of those involved and the number of innocent bystanders whose information was analyzed on the way to foiling those 50 plots would well be in the hundreds of thousands, if not more.
Bialik continues: "Even if the NSA's algorithm 'is terribly clever and has a very high sensitivity and specificity, it cannot avoid having an immense false-positive rate,' said Peter F. Thall, a biostatistician at the University of Texas' M.D. Anderson Cancer Center. In his arena, false positives mean patients may get tests or treatment they don't need. For the NSA, false positives could mean innocent people are monitored, detained, find themselves on no-fly lists or are otherwise inconvenienced, and that the agency spends resources inefficiently."
In the remainder of his report Bialik offers challenge to some of these notions. But we would argue the challenge is weak and that Big Brother is doing more than just collecting data and analyzing the information of a few, as NSA chief Alexander would have us believe.
The Boston Globe, June 21, 2013
Unless Congress intervenes, interest rates on new government-subsidized Stafford Loans will double on July 1, leaving low-income students to foot an extra charge of roughly $1,000. Republicans, congressional Democrats, and the Obama administration have competing proposals to head off the hike. A bipartisan deal to find a market-based fix would be preferable to what happened last June, when the decision was simply pushed off by a year.
The best answer may require some give-and-take. The first priority should go to taking control of rates out of the hands of Congress. Pegging interest to a market rate — for instance, the 10-year Treasury note, as President Obama and House Republicans have proposed — would prevent what has become a frustrating annual standoff.
Under the House-passed bill, the rate of each student loan could rise or fall over time, as the 10-year Treasury rate fluctuated. Under Obama's proposal, the going rate for new loans would vary, but an individual borrower could lock in a rate for the life of the loan. More certainty about rates would help borrowers make life decisions, such as buying a home or getting married. But the GOP plan has an advantage: It caps rates at 8.5 percent, while Obama's has no cap.
A third bill, backed by Democrats including Massachusetts Representative John Tierney, would reset rates annually to the 3-month Treasury bill — considerably lower than the 10-year note — plus a percentage, estimated to be about 2 percent, to cover the government's costs. That would keep rates lower than the House version — the government subsidy effectively would be higher — but ultimately wouldn't do enough to reduce volatility.
In practice, the government actually profits from its subsidized-loan plans. Sen. Elizabeth Warren has rightly questioned whether it's fair for the government to make some $50 billion from student borrowers. Her proposal to set the rate at 0.75 percent for one year, to imitate a rate that the Federal Reserve charges banks for emergency loans, raises a provocative question: Does the government care more about banks or students? But as a policy prescription, it mixes apples and oranges: Students aren't banks, and the Education Department isn't the Federal Reserve.
Ideally, a compromise would provide for a rate that is pegged to the market but has an upper limit, and give students an option to lock in a low rate. Instinctively, most Democrats would be just as happy for Congress to simply write a fixed rate into law. Many prefer yet another Senate bill to keep the interest rate fixed at 3.4 percent for at least two more years. Yet that would cost over $8 billion, while once again leaving families in limbo.
Students need more certainty. Only a market-based rate will provide that assurance — and a long-term solution to a complex debate.