On Government Surveillance of Cellular Communications

By Matt Wicker


In some contexts, to keep something secret is to protect or to guard it. Other contexts give secrecy a menacing undertone consisting of lies, denial, and deceit.. Secrecy has become something that often takes on the latter connotation. Terrorist and organized crime groups use the anonymity provided by modern communication technologies to plot attacks against the public. That is not to say that secrecy is inherently bad. Some secrets are necessary for the everyday functionality of society. This duality is what makes secrecy difficult to address through legislation. Just last month, on the 1st of December 2016, the FBI was granted “unprecedented authority to hack into Americans’ personal phones, computers and other devices.” The new abilities of the FBI are a result of the growing opinion that given the threats of terrorism and organized crime, the United States should require providers of communications devices to ensure that the government has (duly regulated) access to any data held on or passing through those devices

I am not convinced that this is a productive line of thinking. While something must be done about the criminal activities, massive surveillance initiatives seem to be a flawed approach. Through the following examination of the risks associated with sweeping surveillance programs in conjunction with the effects of similar legislation and modern technologies, we will better understand why a massive data collection is not an optimal solution.

In order to observe the true ramifications of legislation with respect to terrorism and organized crime we must examine the groups of people it would affect and their likely responses to such a piece of legislation. When considering the case of terrorists and organized crime, it is practical to break the population into two segments: those who are involved in such heinous acts and those who are not.

Innocent People

It is often said that those who are not involved in acts of terrorism or organized crime have “nothing to hide” and therefore nothing to fear. This is plainly untrue. We all have our secrets. It is because of secrecy that our world functions. In business and politics, secrets are a tool that is used to help move along trade agreements. Secrecy allows us, as members of society, to safe guard our opinions or even parts of ourselves. For example, I may very much dislike my boss for personal reasons, and I may express this sentiment to my spouse; however, the fact that my boss is not privy to this secret keeps me from potentially getting fired. Those in the LGBT community might feel uncomfortable revealing their sexuality to strangers, and most would feel uncomfortable revealing the details of their medical history. So to say that the average person has nothing to hide, is inaccurate.  Rather, I think it is more accurate to state that innocent people have nothing malicious to hide.

I think it will prove effective to again group these innocent people into categories based on their potential responses [1] to sweeping surveillance legislation. We will consider the responses of nonchalance and opposition. Those who take an attitude of nonchalance may say that though their secrets are no business of the government’s, the legislation is not likely to affect how they act on a daily basis, for there would certainly be no government intervention in behalf of their non-malicious actions. On the other hand, many may say that the government has no right to learn their secrets as they are their secrets and therefore their property. Both those in opposition and those who take a stance of nonchalance share a common sentiment: the government is wasting their time and resources investigating them, as they have no plots or secrets that would be considered terroristic or criminal.

Despite their common sentiment, the belief that these innocent people would have nothing to fear is historically untrue. Brandon Mayfield is a perfect example of how things can go wrong and how the system does affect people who are innocent. On the fourth of March 2004, there were bombings in Madrid. The FBI pinned Brandon Mayfield as a suspect. Claiming they had a partial fingerprint match, the FBI entered Mayfield’s home without a warrant and made copies of documents and his hard drives, placed him under electronic surveillance, and took DNA samples. Later, he was arrested and detained. Following this accusation, the Spanish could perfectly match the fingerprints to an Algerian man. Mayfield had been wrongly accused of being a terrorist. Though the FBI apologized, the trauma that Mayfield experienced certainly shows that innocent people can and have been impacted by government surveillance. [2] It has been noted that “even the Spanish found [the fingerprint] dubious.” [3] Of course with all of the critical work the FBI does to protect national security there will be instances where things go wrong, and there is a margin of error that is acceptable if it means greater national security, but it seems safe to say that enacting a dramatic increase in government surveillance capabilities would lead to a higher rate of error and no guarantee of increased national security.

Presently, many Americans are less than concerned with government surveillance. A study done by the Pew Research Institute found that 46 percent of Americans “describe themselves as ‘not very concerned’ or ‘not at all concerned’ when asked about surveillance.” On the other hand, 52 percent of Americans consider themselves “very concerned” or “somewhat concerned.” This statistic accurately represents the two camps that I have described, the nonchalant and the opposed. In both cases, we can assume that the government would be wasting their time surveying innocent people and in fact, might have a direct, negative impact on their lives. We can then say that the action of government surveillance would only be warranted in the case that it provided results: the capture of terrorists and criminals.

Terrorists and Criminals

Of course, the failings of similar programs and the fact that a majority of discoveries would be inane personal secrets does not mean that the program is without good intention. After all, we would be attempting to stop very dangerous criminals. This idea brings us to the other side of the populace, the criminals themselves. These are the people who use the power of secrecy to mask their bad intentions.  It is easy to get innocent secrecy confused with deceit since all deception involves some form of secrecy [4]. As we are considering terrorists and criminals we have assumed the groups’ malicious intentions. So, we are faced with the challenge of what to do with their life-threating secrets. The proposition offers a proactive government response.

We know very well that any action—especially such a sweeping political action —does not come without an opposite reaction. Just as the government would be proactive in creating legislation to monitor criminal activity, so would the bad actors become proactive in response to such legislation. Because of its controversial nature, such a law would be the center of attention. In the past month, Great Britain passed the Investigatory Powers Bill, which “among other measures, require[s] websites to keep customers’ browsing history for up to a year.” In the United States, we have seen acts in the past, such as the Patriot Act, that were heavily scrutinized by the public. It is therefore safe to assume that legislation with greater magnitude than its predecessors would receive, at least, similar public attention.

The public concern and scrutiny of such legislation will have at least two significant ramifications. One, it will upset the general public who believes that they are having their property unduly searched, and two, alert those who would be affected by such legislation, terrorists and criminals, to the great extent to which the government would be able to search their cellular devices. In cases of carefully planned terror attacks, we have witnessed how knowledge of the system in place allows it to be circumvented. The attacks in Paris just last year include a tragic example of terrorists who are aware of the counter terrorism infrastructure in place. The Paris attackers used burner phones with prepaid minutes to contact one another, and then following their calls, they would discard the phones or even leave them behind. One terrorist involved in the Paris attacks, Bilal Hidafi, is seen on security camera footage talking on a phone prior to detonating his vest. The burner phone he had been using was activated only an hour prior to his detonation [5]. Burner phones, in some cases, are entirely untraceable and therefore, prove to be an easy way for terrorists to bypass institutional surveillance. In addition to using burner phones, terrorists now have another easy way around the potential legislation: encryption.

FBI director James Comey stated, “encryption threatens to lead us to a very dark place.” Law enforcement agents are very concerned about encryption, and for good reason. Today, encryption is so sophisticated that modern super computers—despite being given unlimited attempts—cannot crack it. This issue surfaced not too long ago in the case of Rizwan Farook who along with his wife, Tashfeen Malik, shot and killed 14 people in San Bernardino. The attacks ended in the death of both Farook and Malik, yet the case was only beginning. The Federal Bureau of Investigation seized Farook’s iPhone 5c, a phone on which all the data was encrypted. The FBI was unable to crack the encryption because of Apple’s security software. This sparked controversy over whether Apple should aid the FBI in cracking the phone’s encryption –which even they could not easily do [6]. Even if Apple were willing to break into the phone, this may not necessarily solve the FBI’s problem. Once the FBI gains access to the phone, there are a bevy of new issues that face them. Should the terrorists in this case, or in any other, be using an app such as Telegram, an end-to-end encryption messenger with over one hundred million users, then the FBI are effectively back at square one. The purpose of applications such as Telegram is to protect user messages from ever being read by any third party, including the company that created the application. This means that being able to access all the content on or passing through someone’s device is not actually a feasible goal, and it’s not just Telegram, more popular applications, like Whatsapp, have also begun to use end-to-end encryption [7].

In summary, the proactive initiative that would be taken by the government represents a noble attempt at providing safety for its citizens; however, we have seen legislation such as the Patriot Act in the past, and these proactive pieces of legislation, just prompted more proactive terrorists and criminals. If a criminal wanted to get around the monitoring capabilities of the government, all he or she would have to do is purchase a burner phone, or if they belong to a small, less organized syndicate, simply download an application that will protect their messages from such monitoring.


Passing legislation that requires cellular providers to give the government access to all the content on or passing through the device is not feasible, would not stop the problem, and would ultimately prove to be a waste of the government’s time and effort. With access to such a massive quantity of data, the government would have to dispatch significant manpower to accurately parse the information. If actions of the past are any indication, human error does exist in the ability to parse through data, and ultimately, those with nothing to hide may still have something to fear. Moreover, as technology advances we are seeing more and more ways to circumvent the monitoring mechanisms put into place by legislation. The use of burner phones and encrypted messengers would allow criminals and terrorists to easily dodge the surveillance of the government. Passing legislation that gives the government such access would make many people very uncomfortable. This would only be warranted if we could say with relative certainty that the legislation would be worth the sacrifices of public, and in this case, we cannot.

The issues created by encryption and burner phones are indeed troubling. We will need to continue addressing them with legislation, but the approach of simply collecting mass data from cellular communication devices seems misguided.  


[1] I use the word nonchalance in lieu of ‘supportive’ or ‘supporting’ because I believe that though some people may not be bothered by the new legislation, they may also not be totally in favor of it.

[2] Quinn, 2005, 317.

[3] Ibid, 318

[4] Bok, 1983, 7.

[5] Moody, 2016.

[6] The ramifications of actions by Apple in this case were the main point against cracking the encryption of the phone; however, this is not entirely relevant to the point.

[7] The government tried system wide reform in the 90’s with the “clipper chip” a piece of hardware that allowed law enforcement an entry point to the information on any computer, but this was quickly hacked by Matt Blaze. After that the project was abandoned.



Opportunity for Whom? Explaining Amendment 1 to the Georgia Constitution

By Emily Maloney

If you were at the homecoming football game against Vanderbilt this year, while looking skyward in despair at the state of the game and UGA football in general this season, you likely glimpsed a plane circling above the stadium pulling a banner reading, “No School Takeover. Vote No on Amendment 1.”

Football woes aside, the proposed Amendment 1 to the Georgia constitution has been controversial, as indicated by the unanticipated political presence at Sanford Stadium, with tensions heating up in the past few weeks leading up to Election Day.

Strongly supported by Governor Nathan Deal, the amendment to the constitution would allow state takeover of schools deemed to be chronically failing by putting them into an Opportunity School District led by a governor-appointed superintendent. That superintendent would have the power to close the school and send the students elsewhere, turn it into a charter school, completely take over the school, or share governance with the local school board.

The ballot language that people will be voting on reads, “Shall the Constitution of Georgia be amended to allow the state to intervene in chronically failing public schools in order to improve student performance?”

Clearly, this is misleading as it obscures information about key details in what a state intervention could and would entail for students, parents, teachers, and administrators of those schools. A class action lawsuit, led by a Georgia parent, reverend, and public school teacher, has been filed, alleging that the wording of the ballot is purposefully deceptive, asserting the opposite of what will happen should this amendment pass.

Some major stakeholders have come out against Amendment 1, including the National Education Association, who donated $4.7 million to the opposition’s campaign, and The Georgia Parent Teacher Association, which has been continually holding press conferences and events educating citizens about Amendment 1.

Why are people so against it?

For one, versions of the Opportunity School District have been implemented in Louisiana, Tennessee, and Michigan, none of which have been successful. While it’s difficult to point at exactly why the model did not work in these states, it’s likely that the change in governance of the schools did not address the actual problem facing these schools and may have exacerbated the issues with institutional turnover that affected the stability of the school.

Additionally, turning schools into charter schools appears to be an attractive option, because they have the ability to implement inventive policies outside of the typical public school norms. However, research on charter schools in action reveals that 15% of charter schools have closed nationally, and many of these closures were on the basis of financial mismanagement and low academic achievement. Furthermore, charter schools have been found to reinforce de facto segregation of schools, with 70% of black charter school students attending schools attending “intensely segregated minority charter schools;” this is twice the amount of black students attending public schools with similar levels of segregation. Other issues with charter schools include the fact that they do not perform better than traditional public schools, in some cases (usually online charters) actually have lower student achievement than traditional public schools, and they typically serve fewer special education students. Lastly, charter schools have become an area in which the profit of a corporation is prioritized over the academic quality of students, leading to multiple instances of charter school fraud in the past few years.

If this were truly about increasing the quality of education Georgia students receive, then Georgia would be implementing a model shown to work, or at least mentioning real, concrete policies that combat the heart of the problem. 

The heart of the problem is that schools with higher proportions of students living in poverty start on a different playing field than schools that have mostly affluent students. Ranking them all based on the same metric, their performance on state standardized tests, is unfair and means that students of color and impoverished students are more likely to face school takeover. There is nothing in the Opportunity School District legislation that mentions policies that work to alleviate the strain of poverty on these schools.

Amendment One to the constitution reads as a state-sponsored move towards the privatization of Georgia’s public schools. Public schools are a hallmark of democracy in the United States, and using this legislation to remove power from local parents, teachers, and school boards is an overreach of the state.

If we really want to help schools in Georgia, let’s give a voice to the teachers, administration, and families who work in and attend those schools every day. Let’s begin addressing the effects of poverty on education by supporting wrap-around services that address the non-academic needs of students, such as primary and mental health care, family engagement programs, after school and summer initiatives, and before and after-school food programs, at the schools that need it most. Let’s look at how we fund schools and how we can make funding more equitable when we consider the high levels of segregation across race and class lines you can clearly see in and around Atlanta. The bottom line is that our local schools deserve to be heard by our state government. They deserve a better policy than what Amendment 1 has to offer.   

The Need to Expand Medicaid in the State of Georgia

By Jessica Pasquarello

This article was originally published in the Georgia Political Review.

Miranda, a single, 52-year-old daycare employee, has been coughing and feeling fatigued for weeks; her co-workers urge her to visit a primary care physician, but without insurance, the phrase “I simply cannot afford it” has become her standard response.

Meanwhile, just a few miles away, Steve, a 27-year-old truck driver, faces similar problems. He severely hurt his back two months ago while lifting heavy boxes on the day he moved into a new apartment with his girlfriend, but like Miranda, he lacks the insurance coverage to visit a doctor.

Yet, for thousands of Georgians – 300,000 of them to be exact – these imaginary scenarios above have been an everyday reality, as a result of the “coverage gap” that has emerged in our post-Obamacare world. 19 states, Georgia included, have not yet opted to expand Medicaid for their residents as the Affordable Care Act initially stipulated.

However, by choosing not to expand Medicaid, Georgia lawmakers are not only exacerbating the burden of those low-income individuals who are directly affected, but are also severely hindering the state’s economy.

Let me explain.

In the state of Georgia, Medicaid is restricted primarily to low-income families, pregnant women, seniors, and disabled individuals. Yet, even individuals within those categories are forced to meet very stringent income requirements in order to reap the benefits of Medicaid, as Georgia has some of the strictest provisions in the nation. For example, under current regulations, a family of three in Georgia must earn $7,600 or less in order to be deemed eligible for Medicaid. Such an income is well below the Federal Poverty Level (FPL), meaning that families who earn even slightly more than the state-regulated baseline and are still technically under the federal poverty level are nevertheless deemed ineligible to receive Medicaid.

To make matters worse, low-income single adults between the ages of 19 and 65 are completely left in a lurch, as they are banned under state regulations from reaping any of the benefits that Medicaid could offer, despite meeting the aforementioned strict income regulations.

So what could be done to alter this problem? The 2010 Affordable Care Act initially required that each state provide Medicaid to all individuals who earned an income up to 138 percent of the Federal Poverty Level. This would mean that, if, for example, the federal poverty line for a household of two is $16,020, any families of two earning up to 138 percent of that amount would be eligible for Medicaid. This would have greatly expanded the number of persons eligible for Medicaid. However, in 2012, although the Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act, it denied the ability of the federal government to force states to adhere to it.

Since then, 32 states (including the District of Columbia) have expanded Medicaid to the extent the Affordable Care Act originally stipulated, but Georgia is one of the 19 states that has failed to do so, an interesting fact considering that Georgia consistently ranks among the states with the highest numbers of uninsured residents.

State officials often argue that they do not want to expand Medicaid for fear that it would be too expensive. However, such a claim lacks validity. The federal government has stated that it would permanently pay no less than 90 percent of the costs of expansions, while paying even slightly more than that during the initial years of expansion.

Most taxpayers would argue that they would prefer to see the majority of their federal tax money returned to their state, and expanding Medicaid would funnel approximately $33 billion of that money directly back into Georgia. In broad terms, by refusing to expand Medicaid, the state is turning down an extensive government subsidy– essentially, for every $100 that a state spends on Medicaid, the federal government would provide $900. These new federal dollars would be passed through multiple hands, from physicians to employees to local shops, providing a broad impact on the economy.

Pumping this much money into the Georgia economy would result in new jobs, as studies have found that Medicaid-expansion states experienced 30 percent faster growth in health sector jobs in 2014 in comparison to states that have not expanded Medicaid.

Although there has not been extensive research specifically related to the consequences of potentially expanding Medicaid in Georgia, similar studies have been undertaken in regards to other states. For example, the consulting firm Deloitte issued a report stating that expanding Medicaid in Kentucky would result in over 40,000 new jobs and an $820 million budget gain for state and local governments. While further studies have not yet taken place to see if this economic growth has actually happened since expansion, countless other reports have been written discussing potentially similar positive impacts in other states, such as Florida, Alabama, and Missouri.

Aside from focusing on economic data, supporters of Medicaid also advocate moral and ethical arguments. Expanding Medicaid would ensure that the 300,000 Georgians in the current “coverage gap” could finally receive the insurance that they need (Figure 1). When the Affordable Care Act was created, it was assumed that all of the states would have to enforce Medicaid expansion, and when certain states such as Georgia did not, countless individuals were left uninsured. These people do not earn an income large enough to be eligible to make purchases in the Healthcare marketplace (where the federal government lists subsidized insurance options), but they also do not earn an income small enough to be considered eligible for Medicaid under current state conditions. Expanding Medicaid would provide the coverage that the uninsured in this “gap” were originally supposed to have.

Expanding Medicaid would also improve the standard of living for many women, as well as members of the LGBT community and racial minority groups, whom studies have shown are at greater risk for being uninsured.  

In summary, the need for expanding Medicaid is palpable. For some Georgia lawmakers, the issue is beginning to cross over partisan lines: although expansion has typically been associated with the Democratic Party, now even Republicans such as Georgia State Senator Renee Unterman have described[KG1]  the need to accept the proposed federal funding for expansion, saying, “We can no longer close our eyes and hope this problem of accessibility goes away…We can no longer prop up our current budget with only state medical care dollars.”

This matter should also be of particular interest to college students who, while drowning in the seas of student debt, may be potentially eligible to receive Medicaid benefits as an alternative to paying the traditionally extravagant costs of health care. However, as stated before, Medicaid expansion would be a boon affecting a wide range of public interests – providing a stage in which the economy could flourish, hundreds of new jobs could be created, and the thousands of individuals like Miranda and Steve who have been left in the coverage gap could finally receive the medical care that they need.


Human Costs of a Warming World: Disaster and Displacement in the Face of Climate Change - Part 1

By Jonah Driggers

The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees found this year that by the end of 2015, 65.3 million people — a group that if taken as a whole would form the 21st-largest nation on Earth — were forcibly displaced worldwide. This enormous population was swollen by record rates of displacement: 24 people displaced per minute in 2015 and 30 per minute in 2014.

Large populations of displaced persons and refugees are testing the capacity and willingness of the international community to respond and fueling nationalist movements around the world. These movements — driven in part by mistrust of outsiders and anger at economic gains of ethnic minorities in light of continuing economic stagnation for large portions of the traditional majority — have contributed to major events such as Brexit and the success of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign. These events have significant implications and should not be ignored. But this extraordinary crisis of refugees and displacement is only a fraction of what is to come.

As global temperatures continue to rise — global mean temperature in 2015 measured about 1.57 degrees fahrenheit above the 1951-1980 average — sea level rises; droughts and heat waves increase in length and intensity; and hurricanes become stronger, more frequent, and longer-lasting. These effects will worsen in the future, with forecasts predicting a cumulative increase in temperatures of 2.5 to 10 degrees fahrenheit over the next century.

Already, entire nations such as Kiribati and the Maldives seek international assistance and asylum as their coastlines are subsumed by rising tides. Recent estimates have shown that by 2100 as many as 180 million people may be displaced by sea-level rise alone. These predictions dwarf the present refugee crisis and do not even begin to account for displacement by other climate impacts such as drought, famine, and scarcity-driven conflict.

In light of an ongoing refugee crisis that has already stretched the resource capacity and political willingness for response of countries around the world, we must consider large-scale displacement due to climate change as a severe threat to geopolitical stability and an immediate humanitarian crisis of the utmost concern.

We must act with urgency, scope, and intentionality to build resilience to climate impacts in communities around the world, and we must respond with compassion to those whose displacement we cannot prevent. Not to do so means acceptance of an unacceptable reality — destruction of billions or trillions of dollars in physical capital, significant threats to geopolitical stability, and countless affronts to human rights and dignity. This is a future we cannot afford.

This is the first post of four dealing with climate-driven displacement to be featured on Roosevelt at UGA’s blog, “Three Pillars: New Policy Perspectives From Under the Arch.” Future posts will explore the lack of internationally recognized status for climate refugees, ongoing response efforts by the United States Government to internal displacement due to domestic climate impacts, and the need for resilience-building on the Georgia coast.


Jonah Driggers is a senior at the University of Georgia pursuing an M.S. in Conservation Ecology and Sustainable Development and a B.A. in Geography. He is the national Policy Coordinator for Energy and the Environment at the Roosevelt Institute Network.

Greeting to the Reader

By Mitra Kumareswaran

Welcome to Three Pillars: New Policy Perspectives from under the Arch, Roosevelt @ UGA’s premier blog!

Three Pillars provides a platform for students at The University of Georgia to publish policy pieces and opinion editorials in a variety of areas, including healthcare, education, equal justice, energy, and international diplomacy. Dating back to 1785, the UGA arch marks the entrance of the country’s oldest public university, home to both tradition and innovation. The three pillars of the arch symbolize wisdom, justice, and moderation -- three characteristics that embody UGA student and academic life and the future Roosevelters aim to write.

Every month, Three Pillars: New Policy Perspectives from under the Arch will feature a “Policy Issues Forum Series” or “PIF Series” highlighting monthly roundtable discussions (PIFs) hosted by the UGA Honors Policy Scholars Course. Students in the course, Roosevelt, and other organizations across campus come together to analyze policy alternatives to pressing local, state, national, or international issues. And, those who attend are invited to write short pieces on main talking points and the policy solution they most strongly support. Students also have the opportunity to publish pieces on other events or issues relevant to their individual work and interests.

Roosevelt @ UGA challenges and enables students to voice their visions of a better society and works towards a common good. As the Editors of Three Pillars: New Policy Perspectives from under the Arch, we are committed to ensuring that this platform will inspire thinkers to become doers, to not only write policy, but to rewrite the rules.


Thank you and Go Dawgs!

Mitra Kumareswaran, Executive Editor, Roosevelt @ UGA

Vineet Raman, Tech Editor, Roosevelt @ UGA