NYU News: Ally Week Ideals Must Go Further

by Tommy Collison in

My column this week for the Washington Square News, NYU's student newspaper. 

Last week, NYU held Ally Week, five days of programming designed to encourage students and faculty to support marginalized communities and to challenge stereotypes. The initiative acted almost as a recruitment drive for the wider NYU community to stand against injustice. Pledge stations were set up around campus where students were encouraged to educate themselves and others about being an ally to marginalized communities. The organizers should be commended for a comprehensive week of events, but it is important to remember that the twin issues of racial justice and violence against LGBTQ individuals cannot be clearly delineated.

During one of the week's main events on Tuesday night, CeCe McDonald, an activist who was imprisoned for manslaughter after being attacked outside a bar in 2011, spoke about allyship with black and transgender communities. She addressed the fact that transgender individuals and people of color are disproportionately targeted. Violence towards LGBTQ communities in 2013 disproportionately targeted transgender individuals and people of color. Transgender women were 72 percent of LGBTQ homicide victims, while 89 percent were people of color. The issues Ally Week confronted — racial justice, transgender rights, the prison-industrial complex — cannot be easily distilled or separated.

College activism often crystallizes into single-issue politics, becoming blind to overlaps. McDonald, a trans woman, was forced to serve time in a men’s prison after a man she injured in self-defense died from his wounds. It was reported that the attack was motivated by transphobia, and that the man reportedly had a swastika tattooed on his chest. The  racial and gender-based underpinnings to this attack are undeniable. The attack highlights the fact that events cannot be distilled down to a single issue. McDonald stated emphatically last week that transgender women of color must not be excluded from the Black Lives Matter movement, which is itself a combination of racial violence and a U.S. prison complex which sees black bodies as inherently inferior. It is good when college activists fight individual struggles — such as Fight for 15 — but success will only come when it links with other issues.

Ally Week provided NYU students with a framework to discuss important social justice issues. While this year’s gold and black T-shirts focused on the idea of allyship as a verb rather than a noun, the shirts in previous years stated unequivocally that “I am here to recruit you.” Calls for more education are needed, and the wider NYU community must be made aware of issues such as LGBTQ violence and racial dynamics. More can and must be done. These recruits must be called on to link up with wider campaigns and show their allyship throughout the year, not just during university-organized campaigns.

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Brain Dump

by Tommy Collison in

It's that weird part of the semester where it feels like the semester has flown and also has been dragging on for forever. I think this was undoubtably my toughest college semester so far. I learned a lot, worked my ass off, and while it would have been nice to have more opportunities to relieve some of the pressure, I feel pretty accomplished having mostly gotten through it. I'm in that calm period before the final storm of finals: one 10-page essay, one final piece for journalism (with rewrites. I might pitch it somewhere too -- if my sources come through and I do it right, it should be a solid piece), and two short papers are all that's between me and the summer. 

I took 16 credits towards my journalism major this semester, which was a lot of fun most of the time but also a very tough workload. Only one of the classes was a straight up reporting class but it was very pressuring sometimes. Generally, I like producing content, but the deadline of a story a week really drained me, especially when due dates for that class would coincide with other deadlines. (As far as college work goes, when it rains, it's a motherfucking downpour.) One class on the Middle East was probably my favorite class I took all semester. The readings, with names like "Mantle of the Prophet: Religion and Politics in Iran," were interesting enough to make me scrap my four year plan and swap Politics for Middle East & Islamic Studies as my second major. The major's 10 classes long, 6 content and 4 language, which will give me a chance to learn Arabic. It'll mean another tough semester (languages are hard, Arabic is harder) but I'll be able to free up time in other spots, so I'm confident it'll be manageable.

I also worked 10 hours a week with NYU's LGBTQ Center. It was an emotionally draining place to be at times, and it felt hard to disconnect from, which is, as I write it, an interesting complaint. Talking to other people who work in social justice circles, they alternatively laud and curse working somewhere where their identity is so bound up in their work -- being queer and working at an LGBTQ center, for instance. I didn't find that part to be too bad (HTML code doesn't care if you're queer) but a lot happened this semester. The center I work at now isn't the center I joined, which isn't definitionally a bad thing. College offices have a pretty high turnover, and that's okay, but while it was rewarding and getting to work with awesome people was great, it was definitely a slog sometimes, especially when I'd be preoccupied with center stuff during class or at the Washington Square News, NYU's student daily, where I started work as a deputy opinion editor.

Speaking of, work at the WSN gave me some of my favorite and most rewarding memories from this semester. With one week off, I produced an edited, 450-word ops piece each week, on topics mostly about technology and LGBTQ issues. I love the newsroom environment, especially as I get to know folks there better. It's separate enough from the LGBTQ Center that I felt happy working there (I think I do better with buffer space between various aspects of my life, although I did write about being queer for another section of the paper) but I was definitely working on something that I feel very positively towards. 

Avoiding burnout was really, really hard. I feel sort of conflicted about myself this semester because on the one hand I know, objectively, that I got a lot done and I achieved things. On the other hand, I lived in a near-constant state of tiredness and could only budget mental space for the next 48 to 72 hours, which is neither desirable nor healthy. Last semester, after I was offered the job with the center, I sat down with a spreadsheet and budgeted time for sleep, swimming, class, homework, chilling with friends, and everything else I could think of. That was how I decided I'd have enough time to do everything I wanted to do. I learned this semester that sort of logical time budgeting isn't quite the whole story, and that's probably my biggest takeaway from the semester. 

I'm moving into an apartment over the summer, which I'm really fucking excited for. More to come on that soon. Also, more to come on classes for next semester after I register next week. 

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Stuxnet: Critically Examining International Coverage of a Targeted Cyber Attack

by Tommy Collison in

This was a midterm paper I did for a class at NYU. The brief was to write a critique of media coverage of an important political or historical development in the region.

In the summer of 2010, software experts began to analyze a new computer worm that had appeared around the world. The virus targeted a vulnerability in Microsoft Windows and was aimed at Iran, in the hopes of delaying the country’s nuclear proliferation. The virus was named ‘Stuxnet’ by researchers who analyzed how it worked.

This paper will examine coverage of the Stuxnet virus as it first appeared in several newspapers around the world. Centering on a number of articles published between September 1 and October 31, 2010, it will look at how coverage differed between the New York Times and two Iranian newspapers: Iran News and the Tehran Times. The differences in coverage include the number of articles and their length, word choice, type of source used and how the reporters chose to express what they know. The fact that the Iranian newspapers published so many more short news pieces is reflective of their over-reliance on official sources and the fact that they talked to fewer third-party sources, relying instead on quoting other pieces published online, such as blogposts posted by security firms. The New York Times lived up to its journalistic reputation on this subject, providing readers with deeper coverage despite publishing fewer articles. Having said that, the coverage from both countries fell short of consistent, in-depth reporting on the technical aspects of the virus. In addition, I found that Iranian papers covered computer viruses very differently when the accused perpetrator was Iran, such as in 2012 when Saudi Arabian computers were struck by a virus thought to have originated from Iran itself. Despite Iranian coverage not being as technically detailed as The New York Times articles, I found that they were the only opportunity I had to hear what Iranian officials were saying. It is a mistake to rely too heavily on officials, but their relative absence is a fault in The New York Times’s coverage. Overall, the Iranian newspapers produced more articles on Stuxnet, but these articles fell short of the comprehensiveness and depth of The New York Times’s coverage. The paper of repute did a good job of informing its readers of the matter at hand, even if the finer points of the technical reporting was lacking from both Iranian and New York Times coverage.

During the 2-month period between September 1 and October 31, the three Iranian newspapers ran 18 articles. In comparison, The New York Times ran eight articles: six in print and two online. The Iranian newspapers focused on official reaction, often reporting an official statement or leading with the warnings of anonymous computer experts. The New York Times made more of an effort to contextualize the news, publishing news analyses and pieces in the Week In Review section. This depth is reflected in the fact that The New York Times published 6,200 words in 8 articles compared to 4,800 words across 18 articles from Iran.

Stuxnet targeted programmable-logic controllers (P.L.C.s) — small computers that control machinery, used in power plants and other infrastructural buildings. Once it infected a machine, the virus would check to see if a specific piece of machinery was connected. If the virus found a specific type of computer operating under certain specific conditions, it would inject malicious code and change how the related machinery would function. If the virus didn’t find the conditions it was looking for, it would do nothing, which is how it was able to infect so many computers without notice. (The virus was thought to have infected some 50,000 computers around the world, from Canada to Cambodia.) The virus was discovered to be operating at Natanz, Iran’s central enrichment facility, where it was reportedly slowing the uranium centrifuges. The ostensible aim of such an attack was to delay Iran’s nuclear program — a goal that was apparently successful, as former president Ahmadinejad admitted in November 2010 that Iran’s nuclear program had been delayed. It is thought that the virus entered the Natanz plant when someone plugged an infected USB drive into the network. The virus was discovered in the summer of 2010, but according to a 2011 Vanity Fair article, media outlets such as The New York Times were unwilling to cover Stuxnet without concrete information about the source or purpose of the attack, and so it does not appear in The New York Times until the end of September.

Stuxnet’s debut in The New York Times came on September 24, 2010, in an online article titled “Malware Hits Computerized Industrial Equipment” on the New York Times BITS (Business of Technology) blog. It describes how the tech industry was being “rattled” by a software program that was infiltrating factory computers. Iran is not mentioned until the fourth paragraph down; the article focuses instead on the potential effects of the virus, including its alleged ability to steal documents. (Given that the Afghan and Iraq War Logs were both released by Wikileaks in 2010, this emphasis is perhaps unsurprising). The first news stories that appear in Iranian coverage are cross-posted from Reuters and the Daily Telegraph. This is the first core difference in the coverage: no Iranian newspaper wrote an original news story about Stuxnet until September 26 — as far as the nuclear story goes, The New York Times scooped them by almost two full days. The Tehran Times did run an article in July 2010, two months before the worm’s first mention in The New York Times However, this article does not mention Iran’s nuclear program specifically. Instead, it reports Stuxnet in the context of it being a vulnerability in Windows Microsoft. Given The New York Times’s reluctance to report on the virus before reporters knew what it did, this is particularly interesting.

The first Iranian newspaper article, which appeared in Iran News on September 26, is much more explicit about the purpose of the attack, reporting that Stuxnet was a virus “created to target the controlling systems in Iran, mainly nuclear industry.” The New York Times, on the other hand, describes Stuxnet as a “sophisticated computer worm.” Viruses and worms differ on a technical level (and Stuxnet is, correctly, a worm) but non-technical writing uses the terms interchangeably. While The New York Times is more specific as to Stuxnet’s classification, it hedges its language when describing what the worm does: Iran News reports that it “targets” Iranian controlling systems, “mainly nuclear industry.” The New York Times lede is much softer:

The Iranian government agency that runs the country’s nuclear facilities, including those the West suspects are part of a weapons program, has reported that its engineers are trying to protect their facilities from a sophisticated computer worm that has infected industrial plants across Iran.
— “Iran Fights Malware Attacking Computers.”

The lede focuses on the engineers who are trying to mitigate the effects of a worm which has “infected” (not attacked) industrial plants. It hedges the link between the plants and Iran’s nuclear program in ill-defined and unsubstantiated Western suspicions.

Despite the reluctance of The New York Times to label Stuxnet as an attack early on, the reports show a somewhat typical Times-ian comprehensiveness. In all, the articles published by Iranian news sources in that ten-day period total 921 words. In comparison, The New York Times article on September 25, 2010, where Stuxnet is first mentioned in print, is 899 words long.

The first New York Times article to appear in print is also the first article to mention cyber war. “Iran Fights Malware Attacking Computers” appeared on page A4 on September 25. It immediately creates an oppositional mentality by noting in the first paragraph that the affected nuclear facilities are those “the West suspects are part of a weapons program.” While it does report that Natanz has been the subject of covert operations, the article does not ascribe a value judgment to this statement, continuing the practice of declining to label U.S. cyber offense tactics as terrorism. On the contrary, an Iran News article obliquely refers to Stuxnet as “cyber terrorism” in the very first line.

The New York Times article makes frequent reference to the opinion of experts, especially when talking about the possibility that Stuxnet could have been the work of a state government. On the one hand, this makes The New York Times article read as being far more authoritative than the Iran News article (for which the main sources are Iran’s I.T. and Communications Ministry and a statement from a European security firm). On the other hand, the repeated use of experts gives the impression of kite flying, that the reporter wants to make certain claims but keep the ability to personally distance himself from them if necessary: Anonymous computer experts say that Stuxnet is “a far cry from common computer malware,” in that it is far more targeted and sophisticated than cyber attacks we are already familiar with, such as distributed denial-of-service (D.D.O.S.) attacks.

Similarly, when The New York Times wants to mention the theory that the U.S. may be behind the attack, it allows “one of the leading experts on cyber war intelligence” to do so, and only mentions it over 600 words into an article that runs almost 900 words. On the contrary, the Iran News article quotes a European security firm’s hypothesis that “a state may have been involved in its creation” less than halfway into the 600 word article, quoting an earlier Reuters report. It is clear that, at least in the preliminary stages, both news organizations are unwilling to boldly hypothesize about the origin of the attack, even though neither shies away from referring to it as such.

Despite both publications being slow to blame governments for the attack, the heavy use of other experts on The New York Times’s part allow one theory to be raised in the relative safety of the source’s quotation marks: It is The New York Times, and not the Iran News, who first raises the possibility in readers’ minds that the U.S. could be behind the attack. Not only does The New York Times note that Natanz has been the subject of covert operations already, it goes several steps further:

Based on what he knows of Stuxnet, Mr. Lewis said, the United States is “one of four or five places that could have done it — the Israelis, the British and the Americans are the prime suspects, then the French and Germans, and you can’t rule out the Russians and the Chinese.”

Insofar as the technical aspects of the coverage were involved, I could not find any errors in the Iranian coverage, but a N.Y.T. piece contained two curious errors. On Sept. 26, a news analysis piece appeared on A6, titled “A Silent Attack, but Not a Subtle One”:

The program was splattered on thousands of computer systems around the world, and much of its impact has been on those systems, rather than on what appears to have been its intended target, Iranian equipment.

As far as I can tell, the statement that Stuxnet impacts computer systems that do not fit its designed criteria is simply untrue. According to a 2011 Vanity Fair piece, the virus becomes a non-functioning, dormant part of a computer’s infrastructure unless very definite conditions (the right type of PLC, the right peripherals) are met. The BBC, in an article published Sept. 23, corroborates this, saying that the virus remains “benign” if it doesn’t find the specific configuration. On a slightly more technical point, The New York Times article also erroneously claims that Stuxnet travels via the Internet, something which is disputed by the security researchers who studied Stuxnet in the early days. In a technical analysis published in November 2010, Ralph Langner reported that the virus propagated via “USB stick carrying an infected configuration file for Siemens controllers.” However, given that the Iranian newspapers did not approach this level of detail in their reporting — and these mistakes are quite minor — it is hard to fault The New York Times too strongly.

Another area of comparison is how The Tehran Times and The New York Times reporting differed when reporting a specific development in the Stuxnet story. In early October 2010, Iranian officials arrested an unknown number of nuclear spies in connection to the Stuxnet attack. The Tehran Times gives 162 words to Intelligence Minister Heydar Moslehi’s comments, repeating almost verbatim his assurance to Iranian citizens that officials are in control after Stuxnet. The New York Times, on the other hand, gives 371 words and gives a recap of the situation, even going as far as to repeat the fact that the U.S. and Israel have cyber-warfare programs, even though both governments did not comment on the allegations.

Moving beyond this two-month period, it is also interesting to compare coverage of cyberattacks that aren’t directly related to Stuxnet. In 2012, The New York Times reported that hackers had attacked the computer system of Saudi Aramco in Saudi Arabia, “[erasing] data on three-quarters of Aramco’s corporate PCs — documents, spreadsheets, e-mails, files — replacing all of it with an image of a burning American flag.” The coverage of this cyber-attack differed somewhat from their coverage of Stuxnet in that the language is more incendiary, using the word “hacker” and the phrase “inflicting damage” in the lede. In the two-month period of Stuxnet coverage in 2010, hackers are not mentioned when The New York Times discusses Stuxnet’s perpetrators, only in the comment that the attack seemed more likely to be the work of a state government rather than “independent hackers.” Despite this slight sensationalism, The New York Times’s coverage of the Aramco is largely consistent with the rest of their coverage: the reporting is thorough, experts are quoted and the article is balanced: despite the implication in the headline “In Cyberattack on Saudi Firm, U.S. Sees Iran Firing Back,” the reporter provides balance by noting that the hackers refer to the “Arabian Gulf” while “Iranians refer to that body of water as the Persian Gulf and are very protective of the name.”

The Tehran Times, conversely, leads with an official’s denial rather than a description of the attack, saying that Iran’s National Center of Cyberspace “dismissed” claims that Iran was behind the attack. The article does not give a description of the attack, but instead spends several paragraphs refuting U.S. officials.

Speaking about the possibility of cyber-attacks against the U.S., military chief Leon Panetta warned that the country was facing the possibility of “a cyber-Pearl Harbor.” Indeed, cyber-attacks are the 21st-century version of the atom bomb, in that conflict and war is irreversibly changed because of its existence. Never before has one teenager with a laptop had the ability to derail entire companies by hacking into their systems. If Stuxnet had not been discovered due to a programming error, we may never have known the perpetrator. Anonymous, decentralized warfare that stretches across space and time is now possible and cheap, an avenue open to anyone willing to invest in the technical expertise. In June 2012, The New York Times reported that the cyber-warfare campaign President Bush started — codenamed Olympic Games — has been continued by President Obama. The article mentions Stuxnet by name, describing it unequivocally as “the American and Israeli effort to undermine the Iranian nuclear program.”

Countries around the world are ramping up their cyber-warfare programs. In December 2014, North Korea was implicated in a cyberattack — unique in that it did not target a state company. The fact that these tactics are not just being used in international conflicts, but also as a means of economically damaging private companies or “sending a message” makes technical reporting all the more important. While it is obviously impossible to go into too much detail in a general newspaper, one of my main conclusions from examining this coverage is that neither the Iranian news sources nor The New York Times provided reporting that was technically detailed enough to properly encapsulate the Stuxnet virus or its immediate implications.

Both The New York Times and the Iranian newspapers discussed above relied heavily on quoting experts for their technical coverage, but journalists must go further than this. In the same vein that newspapers employ reporters on the economy or metro beat, they must actively seek to employ journalists with a deep knowledge of computer systems — more than simply working “the technology beat,” which often focusses on areas such as consumer electronics, papers should employ journalists who can understand something like Stuxnet well enough such that they do not have to rely so heavily on quotes from security researchers. After the Sony hack and the Snowden leaks, the minimum amount of technical literacy a journalist should possess has risen dramatically. If this happens, the Stuxnet coverage would not — at least in the case of the Iranian newspapers — have resembled a series of expert opinions stitched together with some rudimentary contextualization.

Tommy Collison is a journalism and Middle East & Islamic Studies student at New York University. He’s also writer interested in privacy and the future of journalism in a post-Snowden world. His columns focus on technology, security, and student life. Originally from rural Ireland, he grew up among cows, computers, and not much else. When not writing, he teaches journalists, activists, and others how to use privacy software. He’s @tommycollison on Twitter.

1. Gross, Michael Joseph. “A Declaration of Cyber-War.” Vanity Fair. Condé Nast, 01 Apr. 2011. Web. 22 Mar. 2015. <http://www.vanityfair.com/news/2011/04/stuxnet-201104>.

2. Madrigal, Alexis C. “Ahmadinejad Publicly Acknowledges Stuxnet Disrupted Iranian Centrifuges.” The Atlantic. Published Nov. 2010. Accessed March 15, 2015. <http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2010/11/ahmadinejad-publicly-acknowledges-stuxnet-disrupted-iranian-centrifuges/67155/>.

3. “How Stuxnet Is Rewriting the Cyberterrorism Playbook.” Podcast transcript interview with Ralph Langner. Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) Spectrum. Published Oct. 13, 2010. Accessed March 14, 2015. <http://spectrum.ieee.org/podcast/telecom/security/how-stuxnet-is-rewriting-the-cyberterrorism-playbook>.

4. Richmond, Riva. “Malware Hits Computerized Industrial Equipment.”. The New York Times, 24 Sept. 2010. Web. 22 Mar. 2015. <http://bits.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/09/24/malware-hits-computerized-industrial-equipment/>.

5. Sanger, David E. “Iran Fights Malware Attacking Computers.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 25 Sept. 2010. Web. 22 Mar. 2015. <http://www.nytimes.com/2010/09/26/world/middleeast/26iran.html>.

6. Markoff, John. “A Silent Attack, but Not a Subtle One.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 26 Sept. 2010. Web. 22 Mar. 2015. <http://www.nytimes.com/2010/09/27/technology/27virus.html>.

7. Yong, William. “Iran Says It Arrested Computer Worm Suspects.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 02 Oct. 2010. Web. 22 Mar. 2015. <http://www.nytimes.com/2010/10/03/world/middleeast/03iran.html?_r=0>.

8. “Iran to Combat “Stuxnet.”” Iran News. Published Sept. 26, 2010. Accessed via Access World News database. March 15, 2015. <http://ezproxy.library.nyu.edu:2410/resources/doc/nb/news/1327D624EB3A0658?p=AWNB>.

9. Perlroth, Nicole. “In Cyberattack on Saudi Firm, U.S. Sees Iran Firing Back.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 23 Oct. 2012. Web. 22 Mar. 2015. <http://www.nytimes.com/2012/10/24/business/global/cyberattack-on-saudi-oil-firm-disquiets-us.html?_r=0>.

10. “Iran arrests nuclear spies: intelligence minister.” The Tehran Times. Published Oct. 3, 2012. Accessed via Access World News database. Mar. 21, 2015. <http://ezproxy.library.nyu.edu:2135/resources/doc/nb/news/132A1C1AB78180D0?p=AWNB>.

11. “U.S. Alarmed by Cyber Pearl Harbor.” Iran News. Published Oct. 13, 2012. Accessed via Access World News database. Mar. 21, 2015. <http://ezproxy.library.nyu.edu:2135/resources/doc/nb/news/141E6DF66FCBF640?p=AWNB>.

12. Sanger, David E. “Obama Order Sped Up Wave of Cyberattacks Against Iran.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 31 May 2012. Web. 22 Mar. 2015. <http://www.nytimes.com/2012/06/01/world/middleeast/obama-ordered-wave-of-cyberattacks-against-iran.html>.

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NYU News: Privacy loss, price discounts do not mix

by Tommy Collison in

My column this week for the Washington Square News, NYU's student newspaper. 

U.S. insurance companies are starting to give discounts to people willing to share their private data with insurers, according to an April 8 New York Times article. When Andrew Thomas, featured in the article, allowed his insurance company to access his location, he received discounts for “healthful behavior” such as using the gym regularly. Several insurance companies around the world are capitalizing on this concept, which is an example of the economic savings possible when data is accessed on a huge scale — it has long been common knowledge that healthy people cost health insurance companies less. These discounts, however, come at the cost of a reduction in personal privacy. Companies need to be more sensitive to consumer privacy, especially considering how hard it is to control what happens to the data once it is collected. Until there are hard and fast rules about how data can and cannot be used, it is reckless of the companies to gather it.

We live in a world where prospective employers Google our names and malicious exes can remotely turn on our webcams. We produce data about ourselves and others at historic rates: 90 percent of the world’s data was created in the last two years.  Americans still have not had an informed public debate on government surveillance. Experts keep saying that privacy is dead and that millennials overshare, but there is a lot of evidence pointing toward the fact that millennials still care very much about their privacy. Snapchat’s meteoric rise is telling, given that 71 percent of its users are under 25 and that photos can only be accessed for a few seconds. This is the state of technology today: we are creating data about ourselves — who we are dating, where we are, what websites we visit — and instead of being sensitive to potential privacy violations, insurance companies are asking for more and more information about us so they can monetize it. 

Benjamin Franklin reportedly once said “three people can keep a secret if two of them are dead.” When there is so much data about us online, it becomes exponentially harder to keep our personal information to ourselves and out of the clutches of advertisers and telemarketers. We are living in a time when our laws and social norms have not quite caught up with the impressive stalking applications of Facebook and Instagram. It makes business sense for insurance companies to harvest as much data as they can about us, which is why they offer price discounts. We are starting to see informal taxes on private information crop up too, when a grocery store gives us membership discounts in return for our email address. The implication is clear: you can be a private individual, but it will cost you. It does not have to be this way — as consumers, we must demand that companies be more responsible with user data.

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Popular movies I haven’t seen in the last 15 years, nicked from Marco Arment

by Tommy Collison in

I read and identified strongly with this post from Marco Arment, and I thought I'd do my own tally on the movies in question. 

Whenever anyone asks me about a popular movie, they’re flabbergasted that I haven’t seen it. You’d think they’d learn to just assume I’ve seen nothing, but they haven’t yet.

In an effort to accelerate that, here’s a list of the Academy Award Best Picture nominees and top 10 highest-grossing films for the last 15 years. 

Key: Seen. Not Seen.


  • Gladiator
  • Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon
  • Traffic
  • What Women Want
  • Meet the Parents
  • Chocolat
  • Erin Brockovich
  • Mission: Impossible II
  • Cast Away
  • Dinosaur
  • How the Grinch Stole Christmas
  • The Perfect Storm
  • X-Men
  • What Lies Beneath


  • A Beautiful Mind
  • Monsters, Inc.
  • Ocean’s Eleven
  • Gosford Park
  • In the Bedroom
  • The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring
  • Moulin Rouge
  • Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone
  • Shrek
  • Pearl Harbor
  • The Mummy Returns
  • Jurassic Park III
  • Planet of the Apes
  • Hannibal


  • Spider-Man
  • Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones
  • Men in Black II
  • Die Another Day
  • Minority Report
  • Chicago
  • Gangs of New York
  • The Hours
  • The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers
  • The Pianist
  • Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets
  • Signs
  • Ice Age
  • My Big Fat Greek Wedding


  • Finding Nemo
  • The Matrix Reloaded
  • The Matrix Revolutions
  • The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King
  • Lost in Translation
  • Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World
  • Mystic River
  • Seabiscuit
  • Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl
  • Bruce Almighty
  • The Last Samurai
  • Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines
  • X2
  • Bad Boys II


  • The Incredibles
  • Ocean’s Twelve
  • Million Dollar Baby
  • The Aviator
  • Finding Neverland
  • Ray
  • Sideways
  • Shrek 2
  • Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban
  • Spider-Man 2
  • The Passion of the Christ
  • The Day After Tomorrow
  • Meet the Fockers
  • Troy
  • Shark Tale


  • Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith
  • Crash
  • Brokeback Mountain
  • Capote
  • Good Night, and Good Luck
  • Munich
  • Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire
  • The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe
  • War of the Worlds
  • King Kong
  • Madagascar
  • Mr. and Mrs. Smith
  • Charlie and the Chocolate Factory
  • Batman Begins
  • Hitch


  • Little Miss Sunshine
  • Casino Royale
  • Cars
  • The Departed
  • Babel
  • Letters from Iwo Jima
  • The Queen
  • Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest
  • The Da Vinci Code
  • Ice Age: The Meltdown
  • Night at the Museum
  • X-Men: The Last Stand
  • Mission: Impossible III
  • Superman Returns
  • Happy Feet


  • No Country for Old Men
  • Juno
  • Ratatouille
  • I Am Legend
  • Atonement
  • Michael Clayton
  • There Will Be Blood
  • Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End
  • Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix
  • Spider-Man 3
  • Shrek the Third
  • Transformers
  • The Simpsons Movie
  • National Treasure: Book of Secrets
  • 300


  • The Dark Knight
  • Quantum of Solace
  • WALL-E
  • Slumdog Millionaire
  • The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
  • Frost/Nixon
  • Milk
  • The Reader
  • Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull
  • Kung Fu Panda
  • Hancock
  • Mamma Mia!
  • Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa
  • Iron Man
  • The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian


  • The Hurt Locker
  • Avatar
  • The Blind Side
  • District 9
  • An Education
  • Inglorious Bastards
  • Precious
  • A Serious Man
  • Up
  • Up in the Air
  • Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince
  • Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs
  • Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen
  • 2012
  • The Twilight Saga: New Moon
  • Sherlock Holmes
  • Angels & Demons
  • The Hangover


  • The Social Network
  • Toy Story 3
  • The Kings’ Speech
  • 127 Hours
  • Black Swan
  • The Fighter
  • Inception
  • The Kids Are All Right
  • True Grit
  • Winter’s Bone
  • Alice in Wonderland
  • Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1
  • Shrek Forever After
  • The Twilight Saga: Eclipse
  • Iron Man 2
  • Tangled
  • Despicable Me
  • How to Train Your Dragon


  • The Artist
  • The Descendants
  • Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close
  • The Help
  • Hugo
  • Midnight in Paris
  • Moneyball
  • The Tree of Life
  • War Horse
  • Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2
  • Transformers: Dark of the Moon
  • Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides
  • The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn, Part 1
  • Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol
  • Kung Fu Panda 2
  • Fast Five
  • The Hangover Part II
  • The Smurfs
  • Cars 2


  • Skyfall
  • Argo
  • Amour
  • Beasts of the Southern Wild
  • Django Unchained
  • Les Misérables
  • Life of Pi
  • Lincoln
  • Silver Linings Playbook
  • Zero Dark Thirty
  • The Avengers
  • The Dark Knight Rises
  • The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
  • Ice Age: Continental Drift
  • The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn, Part 2
  • The Amazing Spider-Man
  • Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted
  • The Hunger Games
  • Men in Black 3


  • Monsters University
  • 12 Years a Slave
  • American Hustle
  • Captain Phillips
  • Dallas Buyers Club
  • Gravity
  • Her
  • Nebraska
  • Philomena
  • The Wolf of Wall Street
  • Frozen
  • Iron Man 3
  • Despicable Me 2
  • The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug
  • The Hunger Games: Catching Fire
  • Fast & Furious 6
  • Man of Steel
  • Thor: The Dark World


  • Birdman
  • American Sniper
  • Boyhood
  • The Grand Budapest Hotel
  • The Imitation Game
  • Selma
  • The Theory of Everything
  • Whiplash
  • Transformers: Age of Extinction
  • The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies
  • Guardians of the Galaxy
  • Maleficent
  • The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 1
  • X-Men: Days of Future Past
  • Captain America: The Winter Soldier
  • The Amazing Spider-Man 2
  • Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
  • Interstellar

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De-anonymizing Tinder

by Tommy Collison in

If you’re on Tinder, someone can use Google’s reverse image search to find your Facebook profile, even though Tinder tries to protect you. Here’s how to prevent this.

After the news that Fetlife, an online community for kinksters, had some of its data leaked, here’s a post about Tinder, how users can be de-anonymized and located, and what to do about it. Longer post below, but tl; dr takeaways:

  • Put the photos you want to have on your Tinder in a Facebook album visible only to you.
  • Only use these hidden photos with your Tinder, since the service forces you to use photos imported from Facebook.

My particular brand of privacy activism seems to be morphing into looking at popular apps and services and how they use and misuse your personal information. In December, I wrote about how you can a stray setting could reveal your home location on Instagram. Today, I want to talk dating apps.

I think the reason Tinder’s so popular on college campuses — it doesn’t feel like you’re using a dating app when you’re swiping left and right on people. Students tend to use it regularly even if they’re a) dating people and b) not remotely interested in meeting someone in real life.

The concept is pretty simple — each profile has up to 6 photos, your first name, your age and relative location (x miles away), and a 500-character section where you can write about yourself. You select your own gender and what gender you’re interested in (men, women, or both) Everything except location (which is taken from GPS) and your “interested in” settings are taken from Facebook, which you have to link to use the app. You can select which photos the app displays, and in what order, but crucially they have to come from Facebook. You can’t upload them.

Once your profile’s set up, you start selecting yes or no on other people’s profiles. If you and another person select yes, Tinder opens a conversation window and you take it from there.

Tinder goes to lengths to protect your privacy: they only show your first name at all times, and only people you’ve matched with can contact you. But that doesn’t really matter.

By taking a screenshot of someone’s profile and cropping the image, you can email the image to yourself and then use a images.google.com to do a reverse image search. With this, you can see the URLs where the image appears. When I did this for one or two Tinder profiles, and each time the list of URLs included a link to facebook.com/$profile. Depending on how locked down the person’s Facebook is, you can get a lot more info from that cross-reference. At the very least, you get a surname, which can be used to springboard further.

I ran this test on a whim, and was somewhat surprised it worked. But more surprising was how different the reactions were when I told some friends. I told some friends who do security research, and they were totally unsurprised that doing this was possible. One mentioned that it’s also possible with Lyft Line. When I mentioned this in my journalism class, to people whose main focus isn’t technology, they were freaked out.

I showed it to one friend whose comment to me afterwards was “I wouldn’t want to have you as an enemy,” which I think is a really interesting comment. Given that I work with groups on LGBTQ rights and the preventing sexual violence on campus, my particular strain of security and privacy research has become how techology can support or be detrimental to marginalized communities.

I don’t fault Tinder here — there’s really nothing they can do about this. Like the Instagram post from December, I’m writing this because people should be aware that this is possible. In terms of mitigating the risk, a good plan might be to keep the photos you use for Tinder private, in an album that’s visible only to you. Overall, though, this fits into the classification of “Potentially harmful but not by design. Proceed with caution.”

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Digital Security for Activism Workshop: April 22 at NYU

by Tommy Collison in

I've teamed up with the Center for Multicultural Education and Programming at NYU to give a digital security training for NYC-based activists on April 22. I've been doing talks and workshops and such for the last year or so, and it's immensely gratifying to be doing one under the auspices of the university. 

The curriculum for the 2-hour workshop is still under review, but I'd say it'll be half behavioral stuff (instead of x, use y, and so on) and half perspective -- digital organizing and agitating requires a completely different mindset than regular social media use.

Check out the blurb below or head over to http://bit.ly/CMEPprivacy to RSVP. You can e-mail tommy@collison.ie with questions. (PGP key.)

The incredible graphic NYU CMEP came up with for the event.

The incredible graphic NYU CMEP came up with for the event.

This workshop will introduce you to resources that will make your online activism and organizing safer and more effective. Learn tools that can help you reclaim your online privacy. 

Today, social media and other digital tools are invaluable for organizing and communicating. However, since the Snowden leaks in 2013 and the Ferguson protests in 2014, journalists, activists, and community organizers have come under increased scrutiny. Increasingly, the technology you rely on can betray you, sending location data or other personal details about you to advertisers or even law enforcement. Some people think that if they have nothing to hide, and therefore they have nothing to lose. They are wrong. In the wake of news stories like the surveillance of #BlackLivesMatter, #Occupy, and the monitoring of Muslim student groups on the East Coast, activists and student leaders are targets of surveillance and big data. 

This will be a practical, hands-on workshop, so bring along your smartphone and your laptop. These tools are for Mac, Windows, Android, iPhone, and almost everything in between, so bring what you've got.

Tommy Collison is a student and writer interested in privacy and the future of journalism and activism in a post-Snowden world. Originally from Ireland, he grew up around cows, computers, and not much else. His work centers on the intersections of student life, marginalized identities, security, and technology. When not writing or studying, he teaches journalists and activists how to use online privacy tools. @tommycollison. http://www.tommycollison.com

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NYU News: Housing Selection Process Broken

by Tommy Collison in

After a cracking April Fools edition, I'm back with regular scheduled programming with my column for the Washington Square News, NYU's student newspaper. The first line, incidentally, was an observation first made by my mother.

The semester often feels like a series of looming deadlines — as soon as classes start, it is midterms season, then gearing up for registration on Albert and, of course, selecting housing for next year. Students who choose to live off-campus have their own set of headaches, but this year more than others, students who chose to live in dorms were subjected to unnecessary stress. Some CAS students were told last Friday that the only available housing was Clark Street in Brooklyn. These are students who will have to commute to Washington Square daily because of NYU’s mismanagement of the housing process. 

Students who receive lower priority in the allocation process received an email saying that, due to demand, some students may not be assigned housing until the summer. The email wrote that “not every student will be able to select a space during Phase 2 of this process.” Year after year, NYU opens housing selection to more students than they can fit, like airlines selling seats on an overbooked flight. This results in increased anxiety on the part of cash-strapped students, and it has to stop.

The reality is that many students at NYU are living on a shoestring budget. Not every student can afford every dorm, especially given that the prices for undergraduate dorms can vary by $10,000 for the academic year. But NYU makes no allowances for these financial realities at the Office of the Bursar, another administrative section of NYU. For students on limited budgets, not getting their first choice could mean the difference between staying at NYU and being forced to drop out. NYU’s promise of guaranteed housing rings hollow when it is deaf to the financial needs of its students.

One possible solution would be an incorporation of students’ financial information into the housing process. Currently, the allocation of housing seems to be based entirely on year, with juniors and seniors traditionally having the latest registration date. This should change, especially because students who receive financial aid give so much information about their financial realities. Even implementing something as simple as the ability to set a rent limit would reduce some of the stress students feel during the selection process. And it is not unreasonable to guarantee that students get housing in the borough they attend classes in. As of Friday, CAS students are facing the prospect of commuting to Manhattan every day as the price of an unlimited monthly MetroCard rises to $116.50. 

NYU is not taking into account what it is like to live in the city on a limited budget. Uncertainty breeds stress, and the administration should do more to diminish the anxiety many students feel as they move through the selection process.

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Upcoming To-Read List

by Tommy Collison in

I just finished Stephen Johnson's Where Good Ideas Come From, where he suggests writing everything down in to encourage your brain to make unconscious connections and form (wait for it!) good ideas. I've always liked that blogs serve part of this function -- I carry a well-worn legal pad around with me for this purpose, but it's fun to share publicly some of what I'm thinking, planning, and working on. 

On that note, I decided to upload the list of books I'm planning on reading next. These books will probably appear on my reading log when I have the time to get through them.

  • Cairo: Memoir of a City Transformed, by Ahdaf Soueif. I picked this up in McNally Jackson when I ducked in there to get a present. ("One for me, one for you" is how this works, right?) As I read more about the Middle East, I'm looking forward to mixing dry historical narratives with more fast-paced as-it-happened reports, which this is.
  • The Mantle of the Prophet: Religion and Politics in Iran, by Roy Mottahedeh. This one's for class. I've been warned it's dense, but I'm looking forward to it.
  • A History of Iran: Empire of the Mind, by Michael Axworthy. I'm not sure how or whether the author being British will weigh in on his view, but it's highly rated, at least.
  • Palace Walk, by Naguid Mahfouz. This author is the first Arabic author to be awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature and, according to an Egyptian friend, this book is one of his best.
  • Among Schoolchildren, by Tracy Kidder. This is regarded as a seminal book about the U.S. education system. Can't for the life of me remember who recommended it to me, but I found a copy for $3 and picked it up.
  • Codes, Ciphers, and Other Cryptic and Clandestine Communication, by Fred B. Wrixon. This tome (it's 700+ pages) was a gift from a friend, and will have pride of place as a coffee-table read in the new apartment.
  • Excluded: Making Feminist and Queer Movements More Inclusive, by Julia Serano. I read Whipping Girl in January and picked this up after a digital freedoms talk in Bluestockings, but midterms and such have stopped me from getting to it before now. 
  • What Should We Be Worried About?: Real Scenarios That Keep Scientists Up at Night, by John Brockton. I think Patrick was the one who recommended this book on Twitter [citation needed]. At first skim through, it strikes me as a little too long for what it is, but we'll see. 

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What Did They Think Of Me? Finding out what admissions officials wrote about your college application.

by Tommy Collison in

This post is inspired by Hannah Weverka’s excellent “How to Find Out What Several Adults Thought of You When You Were Seventeen: A Practical Guide.” I won’t repeat the how-to steps here — go read her walkthrough if you’re interested in reproducing these steps.

Last week, I sent an e-mail to admissions office at NYU to review and get a copy of my admissions records. Most of it would be familiar to me: the college essays I wrote, my high school transcript, but I was particularly interested in the comments the admissions officer made when they recommended me to be admitted here.

In a sense, it felt kind of narcissistic. I know they admitted me, so what’s the worst thing they could say? As interested as I was in what the comments were, it also represented an opportunity to toy around with requesting records from big unwieldy bureaucracies.

Students have a right to access their admissions records under the U.S. Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, and so the admissions officer I spoke to was super responsive when I told her what I was looking for. (Saying this makes me sound very smart about all things FOIA, which is not (yet!) the case — for all FERPA-related parts of this experience, I was just following Hannah’s instructions.)

So, what did they say? Well, my two original beliefs (that it wouldn’t be long, and their comments had to be at least mostly positive, because they ultimately admitted me) were right. There really isn’t much at all:

Recs are all supportive — decent ECAS: passionate about writing. Definitely leaning towards admit here.

(Recs = recommendations, ECAS = extra-curricular activities.)

So there you have it! Ultimately, a pretty straightforward process — thanks to Hannah’s how-to guide. One e-mail, one visit to the office, one phone-call to make an appointment to view the files, and one more visit to the office to view and make a copy of the comments.

Ultimately, I’m with Hannah on this one. This is worth doing because it’s not much effort, and you’re well within your rights to do it:

If nothing else, this is worthwhile not just for the result but also for the process: using the law carefully and correctly in order to make something happen that wouldn’t have happened otherwise is, firstly, a surprisingly empowering feeling, and secondly, good practice for the future. If you’re at college right now, I’d recommend it.

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A Day

by Tommy Collison in

  • 8am: Wake up, check e-mail, shower, get ready for day.
  • 9am: Leave, grab breakfast, walk to class. 
  • 10am-12pm: First class of the day.
  • 12:00pm: Break, write notes for work later, do last-minute skim of reading for second class.
  • 12:30pm: Second class.
  • 3pm: Meet advisor for Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies at NYU. Discuss pros and cons of switching my second major to MEIS from Politics. (First = journalism.) 
  • 4pm: Grab food (veggie burger) from the dining hall, bring to work (deputy opinion editor at student daily), eat while editing pieces. Realize headache of previous few hours is caused by not having had coffee since that morning. Rectify.
  • 10pm: Finish at paper after taking 10 minutes off to chat to parents. Settle in café near paper's office. Due for next week: 1,000-word reported journalism piece, two books, 500 pages of reading. Make headway.
  • Midnight: Café closes. Go home, do half-hour French practice on Duolingo. Bed.

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Here's How It Starts, And Here's How It Ends

by Tommy Collison in

Anthony and I after the show's dress rehearsal.

Anthony and I after the show's dress rehearsal.

Yesterday, If/Then closed after 430 performances on Broadway. I was lucky enough to see the show a handful of times as it moved from its out-of-town tryout in Washington D.C. to New York City. Anthony, who played Lucas in the show, has a friend of mine since we met at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 2012. I'm grateful to be able to call such a talented and caring person my friend.

I know that whatever this terrific and talented cast turn to next, they'll rock it. I wish them all the very best, and look forward to supporting them further. If/Then was the only original musical on Broadway this season — I hope the cast and crew continue to work and take chances on new works.

You & I may disagree on which shows move the art forward, but we all have to agree that without new shows, we will never move the art forward.
— Brian Yorkey, If/Then's writer.

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Upcoming NYC Digital Tools Workshop: April 24

by Tommy Collison in

Everyone has something they want to keep private, and encryption facilitates that. Even if you don't believe you have anything to hide, you have a right to private communication. You should also be using encryption because the NSA thinks it's inherently suspicious to communicate in such a way that they can't read it. Using encryption adds more noise to signal, giving cover to those who need it most.

With this in mind, I'm running a 3-hour workshop with Verso Books on Friday, April 24, 6-9pm on digital security tools. The event's free and open to everyone, and will be held at 20 Jay Street, Suite 1010. Brooklyn, NY 11201

Photo credit: Victor Jeffreys III

Photo credit: Victor Jeffreys III

I'll be teaching people how to use various digital security tools, and answering people's questions. We'll be going through: 

  • Signal, RedPhone, TextSecure
  • Tor Browser Bundle
  • PGP E-mail Encryption
  • Full-Disk Encryption

Please RSVP here, so I have an idea of numbers. Previously, it's been hard to fit everything in to a 2-hour block, so I'm extending it to 3 hours this time. As always, my thanks to Verso Books for sponsoring this workshop.

(Who am I? I'm a student at NYU, a writer, and a privacy activist who runs events where people learn about privacy-enhancing software.)


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NYU News: Students Too Quick To Judge Hamilton

by Tommy Collison in

My column this week for the Washington Square News, NYU's daily student newspaper. I'm actually really excited to see what Hamilton does with Sexton's rampant expansionism.

The search for NYU’s next president ended on Wednesday when the university announced that Andrew Hamilton, the former provost of Yale University and current vice-chancellor of Oxford University, will become president after John Sexton steps down in January 2016. He joins the university at a tumultuous time: application numbers have reached record highs, but the Sexton administration has been criticized for human rights abuses at its portal campuses, mounting student debt and its Greenwich Village expansion plans. In the days since the announcement, many students have expressed their opinion of the incoming president on social media. As a student body, we should withhold judgement and not prejudice ourselves against Hamilton until he has a chance to take the reins himself. 

One of the main criticisms levied against Hamilton stems from a 2013 article in The Guardian, in which he said he expressed support for higher tuition fees for top universities in England. It is important to bear in mind that Hamilton was suggesting that top-tier universities in the United Kingdom should be able to charge above the government-mandated tuition cap, which is not the same as supporting tuition hikes across the board. While some have interpreted this to mean that Hamilton sees education as a commodity, his overall point seemed to have been that raising tuition costs was a reasonable way of bridging a funding “chasm.” 

Whatever the case, U.K. universities are different from U.S. institutions: a year’s tuition at Oxford costs less than $14,000, accounting for only 25 percent of the U.K. average household income. In contrast, a year at NYU represents 61 percent of the U.S. average household income. While his opinions on tuition costs are relevant, it is unfair to judge Hamilton too harshly based on comments made about a different education system on a different country under a different government.

I am hopeful that having an academic at the helm will repair relations between administration and faculty, particularly after their vote of no confidence in Sexton. I am encouraged to read Hamilton called college education a “sound investment.” For too long, the NYU administration has been perceived to make decisions based on what is good business rather than what is good for students. It remains to be seen whether Hamilton will decrease the expansionism that has characterized
Sexton’s tenure. 

It is too early to say whether Sexton will be remembered most for the NYU 2031 plan, contentious financial aid policies or his penchant for hugs. Whatever Sexton’s legacy will be, it will consist of actions and judgments he made during his 14-year tenure as president — not of idle speculation in the months before he took office. Early speculation about what Hamilton will do with NYU’s tuition costs is overly negative and unfair. We owe it to the new president to reserve judgment until January 2016.


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VOIP Bans Don't Constitute Academic Freedom Infringements?

by Tommy Collison in

On March 16, The New York Times ran an article announcing that NYU professor Andrew Ross had been denied entry to the United Arab Eremites (where NYU has a satellite campus) because he spoke out about labor abuses of migrant workers there. A little over halfway through the article, NYU spokesperson John Beckman is quoted:

John Beckman, an N.Y.U. spokesman, said in an email that the university supports the “free movement of people and ideas.” In five years of operation in Abu Dhabi, he said, university students and faculty members had experienced “zero infringements” on academic freedom.
N.Y.U. Professor Is Barred by United Arab Emirates

I disagree with his claim of zero infringement, not least because Skype and other voice-over-IP (VOIP) applications  are currently blocked in by telecoms companies. The censorship of media publications and "abduction-like arrests" of dissenters is also cause for alarm. Given that the government of Abu Dhabi covers "all the costs" associated with NYU's Abu Dhabi, it's clear that "zero infringements," if true, is only the case until the government decides otherwise.

(I'm also deeply uncomfortable to read that the UAE government has promised to finance "a good deal of NYU New York as well.")

President Sexton can talk about "adherence [to] our standards of academic freedom" as much as he wants, but I'm starting to believe that this is an unattainable ideal so long as the NYU administration is in bed with the government of the UAE. 

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So are there anti-aircraft guns around the nuke facility or not?

by Tommy Collison in

I'm really interested in how other students and journalists work, so I'm making a conscious effort to lay out how I research info and confirm things for papers. Here's a brief rundown on a search I was doing earlier today.

I'm writing my first long college paper over Spring Break, looking at the Stuxnet computer worm (a virus which targeted an Iranian nuclear facility) from two perspectives:

  1. How did the coverage differ between the Iranian and U.S. newspapers during the early days of the story? (Currently, I'm confinining "early days" to mean between Sept. 20, 2010 and Oct. 1, 2010.) 
  2. What trade-offs between depth and readability have to be made when reporting in a general newspaper? (As a tech activist but also as a writer, I'm interested in how to explain deeply technical things to a lay audience.)

At a guess, I'll probably put 10-12 hours into this midterm paper, start to finish. I'm still in the research stage, reading everything I can get my hands on to get a feel for the coverage. After reading the Wikipedia article (good for a preliminary source list if nothing else), I noticed a picture of what looks like anti-aircraft guns, with the caption "Anti-aircraft guns guarding Natanz Nuclear Facility."


That struck me as interesting -- security is obviously pretty high at this place. I clicked through to see the original source of the picture and sawa Flickr link that led to gave me a 404, Page Not Found error. Either the link was wrong, or maybe the photo had been deleted. I found the author's Flickr page -- it dates from 2004 and he's got a lot of photos around 2006, so I guessed the photo's been deleted for whatever reason. 

Ok, I thought, let's assume the photo is real. Here's where Google comes in. NYU has a journalism librarian, someone who works with the journalism institute helping students navigate databases and finding sources and everything. We'd talked a lot about search queries and how to search smarter. Here was my first preliminary search: 

"Natanz nuclear facility +gun"

That'd give me all mentions of Natanz and the result would have to include the word gun somewhere. That seemed too broad, so I expanded the query to "anti-aircraft gun." Almost all of the results cited Wikimedia Commons, an online repository of free-use images, or Hamed Saber, the photographer of the original image. So my next search looked something like this: 

natanz nuclear facility +~guns -WikiCommons -"Wiki Commons" -"Hamed Saber"

(The ~ is a recent Google pro-tip I learned from the journalism librarian -- it includes synonyms, so "~college" will also search "university" and "higher education".)

Here, it got interesting. I found a website called IranIntelligence.com which described "50 batteries of anti-aircraft guns." That was what made the page appear in my search, but it was describing the surrounds of Arak, a /different/ nuclear facility in Iran. This originally made me think that there had been a labeling error on Wikipedia somewhere, but then the search turns this up.


Second source confirmation! It's a different angle, but with two independent sources, I'm far more comfortable citing the fact that there are anti-aircraft guns protecting Natenz nuclear facility. 

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What I'm X

by Tommy Collison in

I'm trying to make a conscious effort to include stuff on my blog that isn't just the columns I do for the NYU newspaper. Here's a blogpost idea taken from Freia.

What I'm Reading

My class on Middle Eastern journalism is probably the most interesting one I'm taking this semester, and for that I'm reading "Out of the Ashes: The Resurrection of Saddam Hussein," by Andrew and Patrick Cockburn. 

I was interviewed for a clip last weekend for a PSA-style video on the difference between coming out and outing.

I was interviewed for a clip last weekend for a PSA-style video on the difference between coming out and outing.

The class is fascinating me so much that I'm thinking of changing my second major from Politics to Middle Eastern & Islamic Studies. I think it'll be a worthwhile specialization, and my advisor is behind me on it. I can't really see myself going into politics after college, and the class I've taken so far in the politics major was international politics, which gives me a clue as to where my interests are.

Next on the list —probably over Spring Break, which starts today— is John Brockman's "What Should We Be Worried About?" Patrick recommended it, and I nabbed it for $8 in The Strand last time I was there.

The last book I finished is Agatha Christie's "The Murder of Roger Ackroyd." It's the first piece of fiction I've read in a few weeks. I realized that, for all my love of detective novels, I'd never actually read anything by Christie. Out of the rather wide selection of first picks, I chose this book because it appeared on a list of best Christie novels, and I wasn't disappointed.

Part of my pile of books to read this semester. I'm only halfway through. My original goal of reading 100 books this year looks somewhat unlikely right now, but I might make up time over the summer.

Part of my pile of books to read this semester. I'm only halfway through. My original goal of reading 100 books this year looks somewhat unlikely right now, but I might make up time over the summer.

What I'm Listening To

Taylor Swift's "1989" continues to be a fantastic album. I've also got back into Nine Inch Nails, particularly "Ghosts I-IV." I listen to most of my music these days while studying, so I'm leaning more towards full albums than individual songs.

What I'm Learning

I last did this sort of "What I'm X" post back in January, and for this section I wrote, "Not learning as much as during the semester. Check back in a few weeks!"

I'm happy to report that I'm learning a lot more now than I was back then. As my friend Justine says, journalism ins a skill-set more than a body of knowledge (which is what college is for, really -- this is why NYU requires journalism majors to double-major) and so most of my learning this semester is writing and editing practice. I can really feel and see myself developing a voice, thanks to the column I'm doing.

(As I joked, that I write columns which appear in the paper under the subhead of "LGBTQ Rights" or "Technology" is basically all you ever need to know about me as a person.) 

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NYU News: Sexual Assault Training Must Remain Mandatory

by Tommy Collison in

My column this week for the Washington Square News, NYU's student newspaper. I've worked with groups trying to deal with the problem of sexual assault on campus, and I think the problem mandatory-for-all-students sexual assault trainings is very real. We're picking the least-worst option from a bunch of imperfect solutions.

In an email sent Tuesday night, Senior Vice President of Student Affairs Marc Wais announced an online training course about sexual misconduct that is mandatory for all students. The course being mandatory shows that the administration is taking their responsibility to reduce campus sexual assault seriously. Some students have criticized the course as having the potential to trigger victims of sexual assault, who may traumatically recall the event when reading and listening to discussions of assault and date rape that are part of the course. One possible solution may be to allow victims of sexual assault to opt out of the course, but there are shortcomings to this course of action: students should not be able to opt just because they don’t think the course is important. In the absence of a perfect solution, NYU should keep the course mandatory, and the Wellness Center should continue to work with students who seek assistance with issues surrounding sexual assault.

NYU should always acknowledge the sensitivity required for any discussion about sexual assault, and it is clear that NYU has not simply thrown the course together with no thoughts of repercussions. A trigger warning is featured before the program starts, cautioning students that “some of the information in this course might be difficult to hear” and encouraging them to contact the Wellness Exchange if they need support. While some may disagree with the wording or the decision to include the trigger warning, providing such a notice is a better solution than an opt-out system, which is too porous. It is hard to envision how such a system would work because it cannot express hesitation — it is imperative that students who come forward are not doubted or questioned. However, setting the bar for exemption too low could lead to students withdrawing from the program because they lack the time —  or worse, they lack concern for their fellow students. Given that one in four women is a victim of sexual assault during her academic career and that rape is the most common violent crime on U.S. college campuses, NYU must act quickly and decisively to reach as much of the student body as possible. From this perspective, the implementation of the online training course is a step in the right direction.

No course of action will please everyone, and so we are left searching for the best choice amid a host of imperfect solutions. The debate, which began on social networks in the hours after the program’s announcement, proves that whatever move NYU makes, it will not be met with universal approval. For this reason, it is important that NYU does right by victims of sexual assault. Making students take this course embodies a more proactive approach to preventing rape, akin to the slogan “don’t teach women how to not get raped, teach men not to rape.” That victims of sexual assault will also be asked to complete this training is unfortunate, but if the course were optional it would not reach the audience who need it most — those who wouldn’t voluntarily take it.

Tommy Collison is a writer and activist in New York City. He's @tommycollison on Twitter.

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My Gillette Story: Reflections on Disability

by Tommy Collison in

Three times as a kid, I was treated by the incredible staff at Gillette Children's Hospital in Minnesota. Last week, I wrote something about my experiences for their blog.

June 2014, age 20. San Francisco, CA.

June 2014, age 20. San Francisco, CA.

Originally from rural Ireland, I grew up among cows, computers, and not much else. Now I’m a writer studying journalism and politics at New York University. When I’m not studying, I edit part of the student newspaper. My life today is thanks to the staff at Gillette Children's Specialty Healthcare, who gave me the confidence to move from Ireland to the U.S.

When I was born, my mom thought that my cries had an unusual pitch and worried that something was wrong. In the hospital, she asked the pediatrician about it, but her concern was dismissed. Over the months that followed, I was slow to develop. My parents weren’t overly perturbed, because the doctors had reassured them that the crying was due to colic, and I'd settled down. Plus, I was their third child. By this stage, they were experienced parents who accepted the fact that children develop at their own rate. It wasn’t until my routine 12-month developmental check that I was termed “developmentally delayed.” When I was 18 months old, I was officially diagnosed with cerebral palsy.

My mom became an expert on the subject. She read everything she could find. A physical medicine and rehabilitation specialist gave her a book by James R. Gage, M.D., of Gillette and she read it cover to cover with a medical dictionary by her side. After hearing Dr. Gage speak at a conference, my mom decided that if I should ever need surgery, we would go abroad and ask him for an opinion.

Circa 2004. Note the muddy knees.

Circa 2004. Note the muddy knees.

When I was 9, my parents and I began researching the surgical options at Gillette. My desire was pretty simple — I wanted to be able to stand straighter and walk faster.  A year later, in 2004, I arrived in the U.S. to undergo surgery with Dr. Gage and Tom Novacheck, M.D. I was astounded by how caring everyone was, both inside the hospital and out of it. My dad tells the story of Dr. Gage coming into pre-op to talk to me and ask if I had any questions. My only question was about the color of the teddy bear that the nurses had promised me. I think that’s a pretty good indicator of the standard of care Gillette offers. I was about to undergo single-event multi-level surgery, and yet the teddy bear color was my most pressing concern.

After that initial surgery, I had two follow-up procedures with Dr. Novacheck in 2010 and 2012. During the second one, my brothers came from San Francisco to take care of me, allowing my parents to celebrate their wedding anniversary. They proved themselves totally capable of taking care of their “favorite youngest brother.”  The event sticks out in my mind as not so much a surgery but as a bonding experience.

If I have one piece of advice for other kids or teens who have a “disability,” it’s this: don’t let it define you. I wasn’t a 14-year-old who had cerebral palsy. I was the 14-year-old who loved drums, who read every book he could lay his hands on, and who probably played his music too loud. As people, we’re not defined by our abilities or disabilities. It’s our choices, our aspirations, and our attitudes that define us. So, go out there and discover your passions — as I did.

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NYC Work Café Recommendation: Sunburst Café, 206 3rd Ave

by Tommy Collison in ,

This is not a sponsored post — I get absolutely nothing from writing this. I'm trying to branch out and do more NYC recommendations, so here's the first.

Writing about your favorite haunts in a city is always a dangerous gamble -- part of the reason I like these places is that they're not thronged with people, so why would I write about them? 

Call it spreading good vibes. I love reading people's recommendations, so here's one of my own.

This time (midday, midweek) is the sort of time I'm here — it being bustling but not too busy means I can nab a table for a while without feeling guilty.

This time (midday, midweek) is the sort of time I'm here — it being bustling but not too busy means I can nab a table for a while without feeling guilty.

Sunburst is a café on 3rd Avenue where I get a sizable chunk of work done each week. It's a few blocks where I live and fulfills the basic needs pretty well: the coffee is good and the wifi isn't patchy. They also do a mean breakfast. I've stayed here for 3/4 hours at a time and they haven't kicked me out yet. (I'm also not that asshole who stays for ages without buying anything.)

I don't think I've mentioned this on the blog, but I'm (almost definitely) moving off-campus at the end of this academic year, settling into an apartment that'll hopefully be mine for a while. I've heard the advice that only noobs study and work in their dorm room (go elsewhere, the advice says — too many distractions at home) and so I'm currently a coffee nomad. (Hence the café recommendations.) Moving out is going to be exciting, though — one of the things I'm looking forward to most is getting a decent desk, chair, and coffee-maker and developing a solid workspace/hub for world domination. Will report how it goes.

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