I taught my two last classes of the winter quarter this week. In each of the courses, students made “executive presentations” of their long papers. In the information ethics, policy and law course the topics reflect both the readings we’ve done, the discussions we’ve had, but also what many of us have been thinking about as we move further forward into a new administration. The subject area most frequently addressed is the Fourth Amendment and one form or another of surveillance. The next most popular topic area was intellectual property, ranging from copyright protection for information professionals to digital rights management, followed closely by papers that examine digital divides in China and Africa and another that looks at types of whistleblowers. Intriguing topics around ethics – spying on children with digital tools and another on ethics and artificial intelligence (AI) -- were complemented by an examination of the consequences of mindless automation, and another that looks at our fractured digital attention spans. I would say that, almost without exception, the question asked in each of these papers is “Do we know what we are doing? Do we need a course correction? Do I have a recommendation?”
As my students presented and then analyzed complex issues, the theme from the White House continued to be significant disruption, not just of our working assumptions, but also disruption of people’s lives -- low income citizens’ expectation, for example, that health care will continue to be available. Of course, repeal and passage of a new health insurance program assumes that the various Republican factions can be united behind a plan that both AARP and the American Medical Association have spoken against. While the legislative process plays out and anxiety levels rise, we see actual disruption of families ICE and CBP agents move into action to enforce immigration laws that have been on the books for years, but in a way we have never previously felt. (There is no policy yet, so whether or not mothers are separated at the border from their children depends on the agents involved in the case.) We have moved from an immigration policy that said deport hardened criminals to one that says deport them when you can find them. In the meantime, the White House finally released a revised version of its immigration order and it will go into effect this week, unless either the ACLU or the Washington State Attorney General go back into court to argue that it is a prettified version of the original order with the same intent (ban Muslims). Disruptions have been felt across most federal departments, including the Justice Department where all U.S. Attorneys have now been asked to resign, leaving each of the state offices in the hands of career prosecutors who are already overburdened. Even if Jeff Sessions were not the Attorney General, we would have to conclude with this action that much of the ongoing work will be shelved and that business in many federal departments (Education, Environmental Protection Agency, and Treasury, for example) will enjoy reduced funding and staffing. We’ve seen that same effect in other appointments have not yet been made, and may not be made, to shrink the budget and the work effort.
In true “monkey see/monkey do” fashion, conservatives have refined their manners to behave more like the president. Because his behavior has been egregious in so many respects, it’s hard to believe he has a real interest in the new African American History Museum or in the rising level of attacks on Jews and Muslims alike around the country. So what we are seeing in unexpected places, including universities, is the rise of pockets of unabashed nationalism, hate speech, and us vs them behavior.
How far can our great institutions, whether courts of law, public libraries or even universities go to preserve the values and freedoms most of us have enjoyed? If the three branches of government were designed to provide a system of checks and balances on power, then where are we on the spectrum right now? How much worse will it get before course corrections begin?
Some of that answer lies in the ongoing investigation of the role of Russia in our last presidential election, which along the way will surely turn over some related problems. But more of the answer lies in the often painful education of our citizens once they see how presidential directives can impact their own lives.
I’m teaching a course on information and operational risk next quarter and students will analyze and present risk mitigation recommendations so that we learn from historical events like the London Transit Bombings (2005), Paris ISIS attacks (2015), the Wells Fargo $185M fraud fine (2016), the Deepwater Horizon oil spill (2010), destruction of the World Trade Center (9/11/2001), the Yahoo data breaches and Verizon acquisition (2014-2017), Apple vs. FBI (2016), or the State of Washington vs. Trump (2017). This course is one I designed and first taught in 2012, that I update each time I teach it for relevance, so that it qualifies for what Nelson Mandela meant when he said “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.”
“Reprinted with permission from ASA News & Notes, March 2017 issue.”
Annie Searle is Principal of Annie Searle & Associates LLC – also known as ASA Risk Consultants – an independent consulting and research firm, serving businesses and organizations that are part of the nation’s critical infrastructure.