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Surveillance and Security in an Automated Age

I wrote my Honors thesis on the societal impacts of encryption – the mathematical procedures by which individual and societal data is protected – and the challenges facing privacy today. An individual’s privacy varies widely based on where in the world they live. In Europe, companies are prohibited from collecting private information without express consent from an individual – data is private by default. Most everywhere else in the world, however, individual information is public by default – indeed, the Chinese government can access the private data of any Apple user in the country. However, excessive public or private surveillance is not limited to autocratic governments like China or Russia. In Canada, firms and law enforcement have collected facial biometric data – without regulation[1]. In most of the world, the law has failed to keep pace with emerging automated technologies, and the individual privacy is suffering as a result. 

         While many nations lack sufficient regulation of advanced machine learning technologies and data collection services, I believe the most terrifying examples of systemic overreach emerge from China. Facial recognition software is becoming ubiquitous across China, and using their remarkable ability to surveil their populace, the government is implementing a “social credit score.” While there may be arguments for why such a system is helpful, I believe that deliberately restricting one’s freedoms (e.g., preventing the purchasing of plane tickets) for violating accepted norms (e.g., speaking out against the government) is antithetical to the society we should seek to create. 

         Data privacy should be a pivotal issue for everyone – it’s not a question of whether you “have anything to hide.” Indeed, the foundation of the modern digital world is privacy – you couldn’t shop remotely without it. Data security is an international issue because, unlike your car, food, or any other physical good, data is not guarded by borders or proximity. As Ambassador Lambramidis noted in his address at OU, privacy and personal freedoms and rights are the cornerstones of a democratic society. There are examples from across the world of failures to respect those cornerstones – and these failures demand responses. Privacy cannot be optional, especially in the automated age in which we live. 


[1] https://www.theglobeandmail.com/opinion/editorials/article-who-wants-to-live-in-a-surveillance-state-not-canadians/

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International Interdependencies and Geopolitics

The last two years have been a rough awakening for many industries. We’ve seen severe shortages across consumer goods and correspondingly severe weaknesses in supply chains. These weaknesses – often stemming from excessive reliance on China – continue to be evidenced as China attempts to enforce a zero-COVID policy. Businesses across industries and the globe are beginning to realize that the prior model for efficient supply chains – based heavily out of East Asia – are not resilient in the face of the challenges of the last two years. 

         A Bloomberg article[1] addressing the vulnerability of globalized supply chains notes that backlogs continue to characterize international container shipping. On average, it takes between 110 and 120 days for a product to travel from a Chinese factory to a US or European manufacturer, over double the lag time in 2019. Shortening supply chains is no longer a political stand, for some firms, it’s a business necessity. Tesla lost a month of productivity due to a lockdown in Shanghai, and companies across the US and Europe lack the necessary inventory to produce their needed goods. That relying heavily upon China opens one to vulnerability has already been revealed. I believe, however, that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine will usher in a new era of international trade, one that is willing to sacrifice cost and efficiency in the name of geopolitical stability. 

         Following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the EU committed to eliminating their dependence on Russian oil. While they could not immediately “turn off the tap” for Russian Oil, they’ve committed to bearing the cost of accelerating the transition to green energy and importing oil from the US in the meantime. Similarly, the Bloomberg article notes that many German manufacturers will be reducing their reliance on China to increase supply resilience and geopolitical stability. Throughout the age of globalization, the industrial world has relied on goods supplied from countries and entities with, putting it mildly, poor human rights records. Oil from Russia and Saudi Arabia, semiconductors and computer chips from China, cheap textiles from sweat shops, and rare-earth elements mined by some of the most oppressed workers on planet earth. As with the EU’s dependence on Russian oil, society’s dependence on these goods might be too strong to spontaneously halt demand. However, I believe that the supply chain vulnerabilities highlighted by the pandemic and the philosophical conflicts exemplified by the Russian invasion of Ukraine will begin to usher in a new era of globalization, one in which philosophical and political alignment count for more than a low-cost, high-efficiency process. 


[1] https://www.bloomberg.com/news/features/2022-04-25/china-s-covid-crisis-threatens-global-supply-chain-chaos-for-summer-2022

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“Context”

“You’ll get out what you put in.” The veracity of this statement’s sentiment is undeniable – I can only truly reap benefits from the opportunities with which I’m presented if I invest myself in them. I’ve tried to participate in a wide array of activities over my time at OU, and because of this, I’ve allowed opportunities to enhance my German language and cultural fluency pass me by. 

         Throughout my time at OU, the German Club has supported, hosted, and advertised numerous events dedicated to providing OU students with the opportunity to experience facets of German-speaking cultures. I first had Vanillekipferle (an Austrian cookie) at a German Club event, I’ve seen performances of Kafka’s “The Trial” and Mozart’s “Magic Flute,” and I’ve attended lectures on German’s political climate. Events like these have deepened my appreciation for the German language and culture and enhanced my knowledge of Germany’s present society. While I missed many events this past year, I managed to attend one event this semester, a screening in the Union of the early-2000s German film “The Edukators.”          Viewing this film reminded me of the many aspects of these events that I deeply appreciate. First, films, TV shows, and other media offer accessible, approachable, and engaging opportunities to enhance my German language comprehension. Although I had minimal exposure to German for the last year and a half, I was shocked at how rapidly I was able to pick up words, phrases, and ideas from the film using only German subtitles. Second, many of the German films I’ve seen deviate stylistically from typical American films and TV shows. “The Edukators,” a film about anti-capitalistic revolutionaries, is refreshing both for its variance from traditional American protagonists and its intimate story setting. Third, these events add context to the “hard” skills that I’ve cultivated while at OU. While my time at OU has resulted in increased mathematical competency or German fluency, events like the screening of “The Edukators” increase my cultural appreciation and fluency, ultimately enhancing my appreciation for the world at large and my university experience.

P.S. If you’ve taken Design and Manufacturing Processes II with Dr. Raman, this title might mean something to you. IYKYK.

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US-China Relations: Is there a Security Dilemma?

I find US-China relations fascinating – as the two largest economies on earth, with vastly different governmental structures and philosophies, some level of conflict seems unavoidable. Security dilemmas, unlike outright conflicts, are characterized by uncertainty and misunderstanding between the two nations, particularly relating to whether each side desires to maintain the status-quo. OU’s Center for US-China Relations hosted a lecture on March 30 discussing whether US-China relations indeed qualified as a security dilemma – a state in which two international actors fundamentally misunderstand one another. . 

         Security dilemmas often start with “interactivity” – where an action by one nation (e.g., military investment) is matched or responded to by the other nation. In this instance, China has increased its ability to counter US carriers, and correspondingly, the US has increased its ability to rebuff China’s capabilities. Simultaneously, in security dilemma’s, each side claims that the other is the ‘aggressor’ – the nation violating the status-quo. Indeed, the US claims that China is violating the “rules-based-order” while China frequently accuses the US of hegemony. 

         As tensions increase, each side increasingly develops empirically inaccurate generalizations of one’s own side’s benign intentions and of the antagonist’s aggressive intentions. This characteristic of security dilemmas is certainly present in US-China relations, where both sides view the other as diametrically opposed. The reality is far messier, with the US’ and China’s interest sometimes aligned, sometimes opposed. However, it is inarguable that US and Chinese media have developed an increasingly negative view of the other country in recent years. As these misconceptions grow, both sides tend to dehumanize the actors involved by leaning into negative stereotypes against the “enemy” and empirically false tropes characterizing one’s in-group. In US-China relations, one can see references to COVID-19 as the “Wuhan Virus” as evidence of dehumanizing East-Asian populations, while the Chinese government’s trope of ethnic Chinese having “peace genes” (providing them moral superiority over other races) dehumanizes its own citizens. Finally, security dilemmas involve strict policing of in-group voices, with the counter-cultural voices derided as envoys of the “enemy” state. 

         While it may be impossible to confirm with complete certainty that the US and China are in a security dilemma, it is undeniable that tensions have escalated and may well continue to escalate. As a final comment, while the US may well have a role in perpetuating a security dilemma, I believe there are many features of the Chinese government that are highly concerning, especially the nature of its surveillance systems and severe limitations placed upon freedom of expression.

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A Democratic Dream

Perhaps the most engaging event I’ve had the opportunity to attend while at OU was a speech, given by the ambassador from the European Union (EU) to the US, Stavros Lambrimidis, at OU on April 29. His speech, as one would imagine, focused on the EU’s response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The underlying thread throughout his talk was the “why” behind the EU’s existence – preventing atrocities like the holocaust from recurring and fostering peace, cooperation, and economic wellbeing. At the core of this why, at least for Ambassador Lambrimidis, is democracy, a system that protects rights and offers self-determination. 

         Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is fundamentally undemocratic – Putin believes that “might makes right.” Ambassador Lambrimidis sees the EU combatting this threat on four fronts – economic sanctions, energy policy, security investments, and democratic support. These four factors are key aspects of the EU’s identity and ability to influence the world; and their response to the Russian invasion demonstrates that the EU can, indeed, have real effects. 

         On the economic front, Ambassador Lambrimidis notes that the EU instituted massive sanctions unanimously, demonstrating the potential strength of the union in the face of severe anti-democratic threats. On the energy front, he noted that the invasion has both encouraged Europe to begin cutting off the supply of Russian gas and increased interest and investment in green energy. On the security front, Ambassador Lambrimidis sees the EU investing more heavily in military and cyber security, directing defense funds in more productive ways. Finally, the EU is striving to protect democracy by ensuring the privacy of citizens of member nations and facilitating the process of incorporating Ukraine into the EU. 

         Democracy is the reason behind Ambassador Lambrimidis’ efforts throughout his political career. While the threat posed by Russia is significant, he sees cause for hope in the response, not only from the EU, but from the US in support of Ukraine. The West is invested in protecting democracy – in ensuring individual freedoms, rights, and self-determination. The democratic dream is still alive. 

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Shimmering Lights

I remember growing up, after church on Wednesday or Sunday evenings, looking into the sky and picking out constellations of stars out of the sky. Even though I certainly couldn’t see all the stars, I remember being able to easily spend 5 minutes just looking up, observing what can only be described as a universal marvel. Sadly, due to the light pollution around Norman (and really most of the US and urban areas), looking into the sky, marveling at the stars, just isn’t really an option anymore. I might be able to pick out a handful of the brightest stars in the sky, but the rest are obscured, hidden by the luminescent excesses emitted by our cities.

            While I could consider myself impressed and engaged by the stars as a child, that wonder pales when compared to the importance of the astronomical bodies in Inka society. Steven Gullberg, an OU professor who has spent years researching how Inka architecture was influenced by the positions and movements of cosmological phenomena, gave a summary of his research on October 15 over Zoom. Within this presentation, it was remarkable to observe just how much of Inka culture was centered around the sky. For example, some of the Inka’s major cities, including Machu Picchu, were oriented with respect to each to mirror how the sun’s position would change throughout the year. The equinoxes were days of celebration for the Inka, and the sun was used to track when both agricultural and religious activities ought to occur. While today perhaps the starts hold more allure, for the Inka, the sun was both the literal and metaphorical bringer of life, and therefore occupied an incomparable position within society.

            While the sun was the most important astronomical body for the Inka, the Milky Way could, perhaps, be described as the most fantastically significant. It was a visual representation of parts of the Inka’s mythology of the cosmos and is clearly a magnificent representation of the beauty one can find in nature. I’ve never seen the Milky Way, but I hope I get the chance one day, maybe while hiking an ancient Inka road through the depths of the Andes.

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How the IMF and World Bank Can Help Developing Countries, for Free

I think there’s a human tendency to focus on what’s wrong – we see this in the news (especially in American news), and frequently also in the analysis of global financial institutions like the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank. Now certainly, both these institutions have problems – when distributing loans to countries in need, both institutions require that a variety of economic changes be implemented (e.g., privatization of water, privatization of health care / health insurance). Besides infringing on the sovereignty of the nations in question, these demands often have deleterious effects on the population of the country, in the cases listed above, by making the cost of essential goods prohibitively high for the poorest members of the population. However, to paint the IMF and World Bank as purely ineffectual or perhaps even corrupt or malevolent is, at best, an incomplete picture, as argued by Mark Weisbrot of the Center for Economic and Policy Research. Mr. Weisbrot discussed one of the lesser-known tools of the World Bank, special drafting rights (SDRs).

            SDRs are fairly complicated to explain, which partially explains why they’re not frequently talked about in popular discussions about the World Bank. These assets can be incredibly useful for developing countries – buffering potentially weak or sluggish economies (e.g., by keeping borrowing costs down) and can be exchanged for liquid currency. However, and this is a crucial point – they don’t actively cost the US or any other nation capital. Unfortunately, during the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the US Congress blocked the World Bank from issuing SDRs using the dollar as currency, effectively blocking the World Bank’s efforts to blunt the economic devastation wrought by COVID.

            While the World Bank and IMF both need to change their policy approach moving forward, Weisbrot saw reasons for optimism. First, the emergency SDRs that the World Bank sought to distribute were not according to the IMF’s quota system, a complex computation that dictates how, in general, these must be distributed (frequently disproportionately benefiting already wealthy countries). And while these changes might not be happening as rapidly as one might like, there is also evidence that popular opinion has, and will continue, to guide the IMF’s actions and steer them toward a more equitable and beneficial policy stance in the future.

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Germany’s Multi-Party State

2021 marked the end of an era within the German government, as Angela Merkel stepped down from the chancellorship after 16 years in office, beginning in 2005. Merkel gained international recognition for her calm demeanor under stress and an analytical approach to problem solving. I remember during the beginning of the COVID pandemic, when I was interning with the US State Department in Germany, hearing her give a speech to the German people. While so much of the world seemed to be in disarray – dazed, confused, terrified – Merkel was composed, action-oriented, and, to such a degree as was possible, confident. With her retirement, the governing coalition of Bundestag (the German Parliament) had to be reorganized.

            While America operates on a strictly two-party system, the German political scene is far more diverse, with no single party ever holding a majority of the popular support. Thus, for a political group to hold a majority sway in parliament, multiple parties must come together to form a leading coalition. This process involves a detailed agreement between multiple parties, with the key offices of government, such as Chancellor, the finance and foreign ministers, being distributed among the member parties of the coalition. The coalition set to take power in the coming days, comprised of center-left, environmentally focused, and business-oriented parties, has been praised for its willingness to compromise in setting a progressive, action-oriented agenda for Germany. While this coalition-based governmental system is not without its challenges, I believe that it speaks to the value to be gained by creating a greater diversity of opinions at the decision-making table and the manifold benefits to be gained by a willingness to compromise. If the coalition succeeds over the coming years, I believe it will be testament to these virtues, and perhaps can begin to influence the polarization and bickering that seems to characterize American politics today.

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Afghanistan: The Right Thing to Do

I doubt that many would argue that the US has ever implemented an effective, helpful, or productive policy with respect to Afghanistan. Indeed, it seems like any choice between actions in Afghanistan is a lose-lose scenario. And while policy analysis is certainly critical, I need to remind myself to consider the human cost of decisions as well. It’s easy to focus on numbers, on comparatively abstract outcomes – and miss out on what the people who are living these statistics experience. With the removal of US troops from Afghanistan and the consequent take-over of the Taliban inducing political and economic chaos, Afghanistan is experiencing a tremendous humanitarian crisis. A severe drought has prompted many rural farmers to give up attempting to cultivate their land and foreign aid, that supported the Western-backed government, has evaporated, causing food prices to skyrocket and leaving many without wages.

            It’s understandable that many western nations, and most notably the US, do not want to legitimize the Taliban’s government. But the famine, compounded with severe sanctions, are leaving millions in severe danger of death from famine and malnourishment – with the potential of killing more civilians this winter than died throughout the entire 20 years of war in Afghanistan. An article by the New York Times chronicles the dire situations of many women and children in an affected province of Afghanistan – the images and stories are tragic and moving. There are many factors to consider, but I don’t believe that blaming a foreign government for the poverty-stricken situation of its citizens is an appropriate response. The US should act swiftly, while there’s still time, to avert the humanitarian catastrophe ongoing in Afghanistan. For no other reason than because it’s the right thing to do.

Source: https://www.nytimes.com/2021/12/04/world/asia/afghanistan-starvation-crisis.html

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The Economic Fall-out from COVID, Seen in Tourism

It’s no secret that the COVID-19 pandemic has been devastating to national economies around the world. Mark Weisbrot (again, of the Center for Economic and Policy Research) noted that the deaths due to the economic recession caused by the pandemic far outstrip the deaths caused by the virus itself. This startling statistic highlights how fragile the livelihoods of many around the world are. Indeed, while developed economies have certainly experienced negative repercussions from the recession, these burdens have disproportionately impacted the delicate economic situations of many developing countries. One market that has been particularly affected is tourism.

            Prior to the onset of the pandemic, Chinese tourists accounted for $260 billion in tourism revenue in a year – outstripping the revenue generated by any other nationality. While their tourism had a globe-spanning scope, it was concentrated in Southeast Asia – a region that is feeling the loss of Chinese business significantly. Local markets have all but shut down in absence their foreign (largely Chinese) customers. In Vietnam, over 95% of tourism-focused businesses have been forced to permanently close or at least temporarily suspend their operations, undoubtedly impacting many thousands of workers.

            Much of this loss has been driven, at least in 2021, by China’s “zero-COVID” policy – an arguably unsustainable and far too costly approach to managing the pandemic. The bureaucratic challenges of leaving or entering the country are tremendous, and as discussed above, clearly have repercussions on millions in the surrounding region, to say nothing of the citizens within the country. As the world continues to battle new variants like the Omicron, determining how to balance safety with economic well-being is critical. Because economic security is not just a matter of comfort, as it’s easy to assume in the US – it’s a question of survival.

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