Facebook, Cambridge Analytica and the Zuckerberg Congressional Hearings

On April 10th and 11th Congress held two days of questioning for Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of Facebook, over user privacy. The two days of questioning were scheduled due to recent concern over how Facebook handles and lets third party users handle user data. This followed a purchase of user data by Cambridge Analytica, a political ad firm. Facebook claimed this sale was a violation of their terms about third party use of Facebook user’s data.

The story begins in 2015 with a psychologist named Alex Kogan, who, while working at the university of Cambridge created an app called thisisyourdigitallife that collected users’ Facebook data in exchange for a psychological evaluation. He used this data to create a psychometric algorithm, that is, an algorithm that could provide a psychological evaluation of an individual based on a set of data. 270,000 users signed up for the evaluation. The agreement these users signed, however, allowed Kogan to scrape not only extended data from the participants themselves but a more limited set of data points from their friend list.  This second data set included about 87 million people.

From the 270,000 users’ psychological evaluations and the profiles he generated from their data, Kogan generated a model that could be used to predict a psych evaluation given a similar data profile of another Facebook user. He applied his model to the larger set of 87 million people, generating a predicted score for each of them, and sold the scores to Cambridge Analytica, which was at the time working for the 2016 Trump campaign.  

Facebook claimed that the data collection was in line with their rules, but selling it to Cambridge Analytica was not. After this alleged breach of terms, Facebook insisted that Cambridge Analytica erase all copies of the scraped data. However, Christopher Wiley, who was the first to leak this incident, claimed that many copies of the data are still circulating and that some are likely in Russia.

This incident has raised questions about Facebook’s role in restricting access to its users’ data by third parties, as well as how to communicate to its users the nature of its user agreements more clearly. In the hearing, members of Congress questioned the accessibility of the user agreement to the average user, noting the difficulty for users to know exactly what data was being collected and in what way it was being used.

Another concern for some members was whether there was any systematic silencing of religious or conservative opinions by the algorithms tasked with sorting and presenting content on Facebook’s platform. Zuckerberg responded that despite his own and Silicon Valley’s left leaning inclinations, specific measures had been taken to combat those concerns and commented that he values an open space for the exchange of ideas. The only sort of content that is removed, he said,  is one that calls for violence.

The questions at the hearing varied in relevance, but in general Zuckerberg was well prepared, openly acknowledged that some change in policy and content management was necessary and forthcoming. Legislation to regulate Facebook seems unlikely.

Tighter Security Causes Student Frustrations

Over the course of the past few weeks, Yeshiva University’s security guards have been more persistent in asking to see university identification upon entering the school’s building.

The Yeshiva University Security Department sent an email to University faculty and students addressing the security measures: “In the past week, as we are sure you have noticed, the Yeshiva University Security Team has stepped up security measures around the campuses. This is out of an abundance of caution, not as a result of any particular problems.”

The “stepped up security measures” entail more security personnel by the entrances of the University’s buildings. The additional guards ask to see University identification upon entry. If an individual doesn’t possess the proper identification, they will not be permitted to enter the building. Other new security measures described in the email include “additional patrols for the exterior of our buildings.”

Although the intensified security measures are for the safety of the students, nevertheless, the students themselves are frustrated with them. When asked about the new measures, Izzy Feman, a senior majoring in biology, said: “It’s annoying. Anytime I’m walking to and from classes I have to stop, get my wallet out and then show my idea to security guards. Sometimes it causes me to come late to class.”

Moshe Weiser, a senior majoring in accounting, noted: “Why is this happening now? There was nothing wrong with the old procedures and everyone felt relatively safe.”

Betzalel Rosenwasser, another senior majoring in accounting, said: “At least be consistent about it. Sometimes I am asked for my ID and sometimes I’m not. Then when I walk into a building and don’t show my ID I get yelled at!”

Alas, it is the poor Yeshiva University security guard who is the “fall guy” for all these complaints. Students are constantly getting frustrated with the guards for being troubled to show their ID’s. The guards are just following the orders given to them by their superiors (the phrase “don’t shoot the messenger” is clearly not being used here).

One security guard, who asked not to be identified for this story, said: “I totally hear it can be frustrating, but these guys have to understand we are just doing our jobs here and we are doing to this to protect them and keep them safe.”

Requesting of identification upon entry and increasing security personnel is only the beginning of what seems to be a new chapter in Yeshiva University Security. The email also described new programs the University’s Security Department will be offering: “The Yeshiva University Security Team is now offering a workplace security assessment program and additional active shooter training for all of our students and staff.” Essentially, campus security will come to different departments on campus and after asking some questions and assessing the area and design a customized security protocol to prepare for the unfortunate event of an active shooter.

Ultimately, although the new security measures may be annoying, students must understand that these policies are only being implemented for their protection. As Naftali Ginsburg, a senior in Yeshiva University majoring in accounting commented “I am happy the school’s security is finally being strengthened. It was honestly a joke before.”

A Higher Loyalty or Loyalty for Hire?

James Comey’s new tell-all book, A Higher Loyalty: Truth, Lies, and Leadership, riddled the White House with anxiety when it was introduced to the nation this week, and it had nothing to do with the title’s use of the Oxford Comma. The book was expected to expose Comey’s true feelings about the character of the President, and whether he felt Trump was qualified specifically in his duty as Commander-in-Chief. But as the first snippets of the book were released to the press, and Comey began his introductory book tour, it took on a different tone than what people were expecting.

Scan the media outlets across the spectrum, and you can tell that Comey’s book left a sour taste in their mouths. Nearly all pieces highlight Comey’s opening description of Trump. It wasn’t about his off-the-cuff policy announcements, or his egocentric decision making tactics. Comey got personal: “[Trump’s] face appeared slightly orange, with bright white half-moons under his eyes where I assumed he placed small tanning goggles, and impressively coiffed, bright blond hair, which upon close inspection looked to be all his.”

If anyone was wondering if this characterization was or wasn’t central to Comey’s book, they need look no further than his ABC interview, where he was explicitly asked again — as if to clear up the impressions from the book — what his first impression of Donald Trump had been. Comey answered, “My impression was he looked exactly like he did on television, except he looked shorter to me than he did on television, but otherwise exactly the same. And the reason I say that is most people look slightly different in person. I don’t know whether that’s bad or good, but he looked the way I’d seen him look on television.”

George Stephanopoulos, who interviewed Comey seemed puzzled by this response and asked, “you even clocked the size of his hands?”

So there you have it, folks. Comey was in the unique position, as an FBI Director who served under both Obama and Trump, to give the electorate an expert account of Trump’s fitness to be President. Sure, the book was assumed to be a bit slanted from the outset, given he was fired by Trump, but his respect in the intelligence community could have gotten him past that.

No longer. Comey’s decision to focus on these types of portrayals was met with widespread criticism. As Frank Bruni of the New York Times writes, “to watch him promote it [the book] is to see him [Comey] descend.” Jake Tapper grilled Comey when interviewing him about the book after Comey said it’s “possible” the Russians have compromising material on Trump but “unlikely.” Tapper asked why he would suggest it is possible if he has no reason to believe it to be true, arguing this was “unfair to President Trump.” Comey responded that his suspicions were based on “common sense.”

This is not what we needed from James Comey. We needed a book that would give the American people an inside account of Trump’s policy decisions or lack thereof, not another celebrity appealing to gossip looking for a lucrative book deal. It’s a loyalty to one’s pocket, not the American people, which drove him to write this book.

Students Bring Mental Health Awareness to Campus

On Monday, the Yeshiva University “Active Minds” club, a group dedicated to raising mental health awareness, brings their largest event of the year to campus.

Their “Stomp Out The Stigma” event is dedicated to challenging the taboo of mental health and educating people that struggling with mental health is not something they should be ashamed of.

The event invitation states, “Despite being a problem that affects 20% of Americans and millions more indirectly, mental illness is viewed by many as strange and insignificant.” This event serves to “normalize and destigmatize mental health and show us all that mental health is absolutely nothing to be ashamed of.”

The event taking place on the Wilf Campus of Yeshiva university will feature 3 different students who will speak out about their personal struggle with mental illness.

Student Shanee Markovitz spoke at this year’s event: “Mental illness and mental health is extremely taboo, especially in the Jewish community, it’s something we don’t speak about,” she says. “There is a heavy stigma, and that’s extremely sad because we are leaving people behind and feeling stuck and it’s something we need to end.”

Shanee is no stranger to being a warrior for mental health illness. After she tragically lost her mom to suicide last year, Shanee began speaking out about mental health. She was studying in Israel where she teamed up with refuat hanefesh, a group dedicated to bringing mental health awareness with a special focus Jewish orthodox community. Dr. Ariel Mintz, the head and founder of the organization brought her on as vice president. Although stepping away from her role as vice president while coming to study at Yeshiva University, she is still a strong advocate for mental health awareness.

She is excited that she will be speaking on Monday. “I think it’s a really great opportunity,” she says.  “Active Minds is giving me the chance to speak about mental health in the environment that I live in and the society that I belong to right now, which is Yeshiva University. I think it’s really important for people to break the silence within their respective communities. I hope that others can relate to me and feel like they are less alone in this process.”

Eitan Neiman, former president of the YU group, recounted his experience in a video released by the club.  “Speaking at ‘Stomp Out The Stigma’, seeing all those people there, getting the opportunity to look directly in the eye of somebody who has concerns maybe about themselves, a family member or somebody they know, to be able to give them hope I don’t think there is a more meaningful thing, I could’ve hoped to do.”

“The stigma is strong and the stigma is real.” Neiman says. “People prefer not to get treatments for fear that they will be somehow shown as weaker or inferior. We’re here to tell them no, there is no weakness about having a mental illness.”

The event will take place on Monday April 16th, at 8:00 pm, on Wilf campus in the Furst building, room 501.



Liefer Leads Maccabees To March Madness

Sophomore Gabriel Liefer led the Yeshiva University Maccabees over The Purchase College Panthers, 87-81.

The win not only secured the Maccabees first ever Skyline Conference Championship, but also advanced them to their first ever March Madness Tournament. The Maccabees will start off their tournament run by playing against York College in Pennsylvania this coming Friday.

Leading the Maccabees to their first ever tournament appearance was sophomore Gabriel Liefer. Liefer, who joined the team this past January after returning from studying in Israel, was a tremendous acquisition. The Maccabees were six and eight before Liefer showed up. After acquiring him, they proceeded to finish off the season with an eighteen and ten record (twelve and two with Liefer). Liefer, who is 6”5, adds size to a particularly small Maccabees team by bringing a presence downlow to intimidate opponents and to get rebounds, as he did on Sunday grabbing ten of them.

Jack Ganchrow, one of the head online broadcasters for YU Basketball noted “Gabe Liefer has added a whole new dynamic to the team when he came in January. The rebounding by the youngster has really changed the whole team’s dynamic.” Liefer’s ability to knock down 3-pointers also helped spread the floor and allow the Maccabees to attack the basket more easily.

The Maccabees were able to outplay The Panthers due to their significantly better three-point shooting by shooting an impressive sixteen for thirty from deep. Junior guard Justin Hod himself knocked down six in the first half. The Maccabees held a commanding lead throughout most of the game.

However, The Panthers did go on a run later in the game and eventually took the lead. The Maccabees fought hard and had smart shot selection and eventually took the lead back. Tyler Hod, a starting guard , gave some insight in what he was thinking during that time: “After the opposing team went on a run to take the lead late in the game, we could’ve gave into the pressure and lost the game. We chose otherwise.”

Josh Kaszovitz, a Senior in Yeshiva University, expressed: “It really is an exciting time for all of us here in YU. I’m proud to be a Maccabee” Cheering and singing were heard throughout Washington Heights on Sunday. I myself heard the cheering from my apartment, a couple blocks away, late Sunday night.

The winning of the championship not only brought joy to Yeshiva University students but also brought a sense of pride to Jews on a global level. Jews across the world went to social media to express the pride they felt in their fellow Jewish brethren. Jack Ganchrow added: “It is amazing how a bunch of 20-year old’s have made such an impact on not only the Yeshiva University campus but the city and really the entire Jewish people around the world.”

The current future for Yeshiva University Basketball looks bright as well. With a particularly young team, the team will only be expected to grow and become better. As Max Hoffman, a Senior in Yeshiva University, observed: “These are the some of the ‘Heights’ of Jewish basketball. The Macs are up and coming and primed to be a contender in the division for the next few years with the core of sophomores Aluf, Leifer, Halpert and incoming freshman Ryan Turrell of Valley Torah in California.”

Understanding the drop in gun sales and the rise in NRA membership

It is perplexing that as gun sales in the United States decrease, membership in gun advocacy groups is on the rise. How do we reconcile these seemingly opposing trends?

The apparently contradictory implication of these metrics is the result of a rise of gun owners that had as of yet simply owned guns but now also align themselves with gun-advocacy groups. What has compelled gun owners to take this step from ownership to advocacy?

Throughout the Obama administration, there was a steady rise in guns sales across the country. This rise was amplified following mass shootings due to a fear of legislation for stricter gun laws. [1][2]

This rise, however, has not continued into the Trump administration. [2] Gun sales have decreased, and this decline holds even following mass shootings. As Alvin Chang from Vox reports, there has even been no spike in gun sales following the shooting at Stoneman Douglas. [3]

This ‘Trump slump’ is surprising considering that President Trump and other Republicans have displayed an openness to reform gun laws. But it is this very openness to change by Republicans that Alana Abramson from TIME considers the cause for the rise in applications to gun rights advocacy groups. [4]

What emerges is that while gun sales are down, there is a portion of gun owners that are now, instead of stockpiling in response to a fear of losing gun rights, joining organizations like the NRA.

The NRA, the National Association for Gun Rights and some other more local organizations that are state specific, have been reporting a large increase in applications in the wake of Stoneman Douglas.

Charles Cotton, a member of the NRA board of directors, has encouraged members of an online forum for firearms information to recruit others to the NRA because as he says “The NRA better be 15 million strong or this is only going to get worse.”

He may be right. Pew research contributes a number of illuminating figures to this discussion.  First, that roughly one-third of Americans own a gun, and second, that the majority of gun owners own multiple guns. [5]

This implies that during the Obama Administration gun sales were not being made to people outside the set of existing gun owners but rather to a smaller subset of the population that has been ‘stockpiling’. Following this decline in sales, some gun owners have shifted focus to advocacy.

At the same time, Pew research indicates that most people favor the adoption of certain legislative restrictions on gun purchases, the most ubiquitous of which are, limiting access to mentally ill individuals and background checks for private and gun show sales. [5]

They also report that even for the following divided policies: a federal database that tracks gun sales, banning of assault weapons and banning of high capacity magazines, that gun owners’ acceptance of them ranges in the fairly high 44 % to 54%. [5]

When I asked Nolan Edmonson, Co-President of YU College Republicans whether he thought that restrictive legislation was likely to be passed in the near future and if yes, how he thought existing gun owners might react he said “I certainly think that restrictive legislation will be passed in the very near future.”

“However, I am very skeptical that any restrictive legislation will be passed on the federal level but it is realistic to assume laws will be passed on the state level. “Edmonson said. “Florida is a promising example of Republican leaders, common-sense, gun laws. I suspect any further actions by those in Congress to enact stricter gun measures will be met with quite some opposition from the NRA.”





The NRA’s Charm Offensive

Whenever mass shootings happen in America—something that has become all too familiar in this country—we wait to see how the NRA will respond.

Compare the NRA’s response to Sandy Hook with their response to the most recent mass school shooting at Stoneman Douglas and you get two very different stories.

Following the shooting at Sandy Hook the NRA remained quiet for about a week. Wayne Lapierre pointed this out proudly a week later when he stated, “Out of respect for the families and until the facts are known, the NRA has refrained from comment.” He then went on to defend the NRA’s work and the NRA crept back into keeping their own base energized.

But something changed this time around. This time, while the NRA did wait a week to respond publicly, it brought it’s message to the broader public, playing offense and not defense. As the Washington Post’s headline a week after the shooting stated, “NRA Goes on the Offensive After Parkland Shooting, Assailing Media and Calling for More Armed School Security.”

In addition to criticizing law enforcement for failing to identify that telltale signs of a mass killer, NRA Spokeswoman Dana Loesch joined a CNN Town Hall to sympathize with the victims and to lay out the NRA’s approach to gun rights and gun control in the country.

Why the sudden change in tactic and was this a successful move by the NRA?

For one thing, the response by the public to this mass shooting has been nothing like we have seen in the past. CNN pointed out that a week after the shooting, the tragedy was still in the headlines, something which has not happened in the past. Students have been organizing protests and meeting with lawmakers to finally change the country’s gun laws. If the NRA were to stay in the shadows, there would be little to no hope of any successful counterpressure for the gun lobby.

But there is another reason why the NRA went on the offensive this time around. Three weeks prior to the mass shooting at Stoneman Douglas, the New York Times ran a feature titled, “The NRA’s Telegenic Warrior.” The article was about Loesch, who joined the CNN Town Hall and received raving reviews from both sides on her demeanor and composition throughout the Town Hall. You see, the NRA finally has a powerful yet pleasant voice to get their message across and likely feels they can lose some of their redneck image. Even the New York Times gave Loesch positive coverage. In the past they may not have felt safe taking their message to the public, but with Loesch they do.

Even those with a negative impression of the NRA can see the talent Loesch brings to the table. Eli Schwartzblatt, a politically engaged YU student watched Loesch at the town hall with skepticism. However following the completion of the moving event he noted, “sending Dana Loesch was a brilliant and bold move. I think Dana’s presence put a compassionate human face behind an organization that was being compared to ISIS.”

The question remains whether Loesch’s charisma can turn the tide and paint the NRA in a different light in the media and to the American public. If these shootings continue, the organization may need to hire a few more Loesches.