‘Who knew in 2017 you would be marching for truth, justice, and the scientific method?” Assemblyman Andrew Zwicker, pictured at right, told a crowd at the March for Science on April 22 in Trenton. “We must continue to fight. We must continue to resist.”
It’s a battle that Zwicker is fighting on several fronts. The March for Science brought out scientists, politicians, and citizens who are worried that science is under attack both from the culture at large, and from the new Trump administration, which has proposed making heavy cuts to scientific research. Many at the rally, which was one of the hundreds held around the country that day, carried anti-Trump signs.
“With my science background, I’m deeply troubled about many things that I see coming out of this administration,” Zwicker says.
Zwicker wasn’t the only Democratic politician to make an appearance at the rally, nor was he the only scientist, but he is one of the few people who is both. Like former Congressman Rush Holt, Zwicker, whose district includes parts of Hunterdon and Somerset counties as well as Princeton and South Brunswick, is director of education at Princeton Plasma Physics Lab. Zwicker’s scientific background has heavily influenced his political career. He has recently introduced a law that would protect freelance workers, many of whom work in science and technology, and plans to introduce another that would protect the privacy of Internet users.
Scientific issues are more important in politics than ever, with many scientists warning that man-made climate change is causing dire problems that will require political solutions. Few politicians appreciate this more than Zwicker, who spent much of his non-political career working on a project that if successful, would provide the planet with virtually unlimited energy without producing any pollution or greenhouse gas.
Zwicker has been head of the science education department at the Princeton Plasma Physics Lab since 2003. Since the 1950s the lab has been pursuing the goal of using fusion technology to build a reactor that would use fusion — the same kind of reaction that powers the sun — to make a clean, safe kind of nuclear power.
The goal has proved elusive, and scientists have yet to build a device that creates more energy than it uses. However, researchers still believe that with bigger and better machines, it can be done. Along the way they have learned a great deal about physics and inspired new technologies that are used in business and other fields of research. (U.S. 1, December 16, 2015)
Zwicker was born in New York and grew up in Englewood, New Jersey, where his father owned a small food business and his mother was an English teacher. He earned a bachelor’s degree at Bard College in 1986 and then a master’s and doctorate in physics at John Hopkins with a dissertation on plasma physics. Since graduation he has worked on fusion energy research at two of the leading fusion research centers in the country, the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee and the PPPL.
In 2014 Rush Holt decided not to run for re-election, and Zwicker made a bid to replace him in congress. He lost in the primaries but did not give up his political ambitions. Instead, he decided to run the next year for a state assembly seat, where his main opposition would come not from Democrats in a heavily blue district, but from an incumbent Republican, Donna Simon, in a district that had never elected a Democrat in its 42-year history. The race was so close that for three days after the election it was considered “too close to call,” and in the end he prevailed by a mere 78 votes.
Zwicker’s agenda has been heavy on science and technology. In January he introduced a law designed to offer some labor protections for freelance workers. Although the bill affects freelancers regardless of industry, the “professional, scientific, and technical service” sector employs more than 100,000 —the most freelancers of any New Jersey industry, according to Zwicker.
Freelancers are increasingly important to the tech sector. Many smaller companies rely on freelance programmers, writers, and other highly skilled professionals. But according to the New York Freelancer’s Union, more than 70 percent of all freelancers have had difficulty getting paid for their work. On average they lose $6,000 in income per year because of clients not paying them.
Zwicker’s bill would give the Department of Labor and Workforce Development the power to regulate the work agreements that freelancers sign with clients and take action against companies that don’t pay freelancers on time.
“Freelance work isn’t free,” Zwicker says. He says he had the idea for the bill after realizing how important freelancers are to the economy. There are about 600,000 of them in the state, Zwicker says, and they generate $30 billion in revenue. However, people working on their own without legal support tend to be easy victims for unscrupulous employers who want to take advantage of them. “Studies said they tend to lose money because they have no protection,” Zwicker says.
The freelancer issue is also a personal one for Zwicker, going back to his father, who was a commercial artist and graphic designer in his early career. “He always talked to me about the difficulties of getting into the business,” Zwicker says. “He was constantly fighting with clients to get paid.”
Zwicker believes many companies are using freelancers because it is cheaper than hiring a full-time worker with a salary and benefits. “It allows of course a company to save money, and that’s great. But at the same time it’s keeping someone from looking for full-time employment in a place where they don’t have health insurance and they don’t have some of the other perks and benefits that come with being a full time employee. It really is a double-edged sword,” Zwicker says. “Some people are freelancers by choice, and some are freelancers by necessity, but it doesn’t matter in terms of protection. Regardless, if you do the work, you should get paid.”
The bill recently cleared the labor committee and is awaiting a hearing from the appropriations committee. Zwicker expects it to get bipartisan support. “It’s pretty straightforward and simple, but it’s something we should have done a while ago. It will have an impact on hundreds of thousands of New Jerseyans.”
Although Zwicker is a state assemblyman with no influence on the federal government, he believes that if Democrats are going to resist the Trump administration’s agenda, they will have to do so at the state level.
Even on issues like Internet privacy, the state government can play a role. Zwicker plans to introduce a bill in the state legislature that would, for New Jersey residents, override one of Trump’s least popular laws.
On April 4 Trump signed a bill that overruled Obama-era rules by the Federal Communications Commission that would have restricted the ability of Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to collect and sell the personal information of Internet users. The rules would have prevented ISPs from collecting and selling information such as browsing data to third-party companies such as marketers. Trump’s law repealed the FCC regulations before they could take effect.
Zwicker’s law hasn’t been introduced yet, but it would allow the state to step in where the FCC no longer can to restrict this practice.
Some of the top computer privacy experts in the world predict that approaches like Zwicker’s law are likely the best hope for protecting consumers’ privacy against snooping ISPs.
On April 5 Princeton University hosted a panel discussion with computer science experts on the implications of the privacy rule and how ordinary computer users could protect their data.
The legal situation leaves the federal government with few options to protect consumers. Traditionally, the Federal Trade Commission, not the FCC, has been the agency regulating consumer data privacy. However, because of a decision by the Ninth Circuit court, the FTC cannot regulate “common carriers” such as ISPs. It’s possible that existing anti-wiretapping laws would prevent ISPs from selling personal information, but experts are unsure if they would apply.
One of the panelists, Nick Feamster, deputy director of Princeton’s Center for Information Technology Policy (CITP) and professor in the computer science department, said that given such limbo at the federal level, it would be up to the individual states to stop companies like Comcast and Verizon from selling the Web browsing histories of their customers.
Joel Reidenberg, a professor at Fordham Law School and international scholar of Internet law, privacy, and cybersecurity, was on the panel as a visiting professor at Princeton. He said it was well within the states’ rights to protect privacy on behalf of consumers. “Historically, state attorney generals have been stronger enforcers of privacy rights than the FTC,” Reidenberg said.
Ed Felten, CITP director, computer science professor, and former technology advisor to the Obama White House, (U.S. 1, March 8, 2017) said New Jersey would probably need more resources if it were to go after giant telecommunications companies. “Typically states have few resources and few people with expertise,” Felten said. “You can only imagine what they might do in terms of enforcement. The result might be different outcomes in different states.”
But how worried should average Internet users be about a digital Big Brother watching their every move online? According to the ISPs themselves, there is nothing to worry about. In public statements, companies like Comcast, Verizon, and Charter Cable, which effectively hold monopolies or duopolies on high-speed Internet service, have pointed out that Trump’s law doesn’t affect existing privacy protections, only stops new ones from coming into effect.
The ISPs and proponents of the law say it creates a level playing field for ISPs with companies like Facebook and Google, which already collect and sell customer data to advertisers.
Further, no major ISP currently sells browsing data to third parties.
Arvind Narayanan, assistant professor of computer science and leader of the Princeton Web Transparency and Accountability Project, says there is still plenty of reason to worry about the new law.
“My graduate students and I and others here, for the past several years, have been trying to answer the question of, ‘How bad is it that everything you do is being tracked online?’ The answer we’ve come to is, it’s impressively bad.’”
Narayanan said that tremendous amounts of money and brainpower are being poured into the tracking of consumers, all of which could be better used solving real problems. “The best minds of our generation are trying to figure out how to make you click on more ads,” he says.
Narayanan said the biggest change that came with Trump’s privacy repeal is that ISPs can now get into the game of consumer tracking, which he sees as fundamentally different from content providers like Google and Facebook doing the same thing. “This is like the post office reading your mail and using that information for tracking.”
Feamster said users have the option of not using Google or Facebook if they prefer to not be tracked by those companies, but that consumers who want to use the Internet have no choice but to do it through an ISP.
Felten says ISPs can access much more of your personal information because they can see every single bit of traffic that goes in and out of your house.
And just what exactly would companies do if they had access to your entire browsing record? The most likely use for this data is marketing. While some opponents of the privacy repeal law held fundraisers to buy the browsing records of lawmakers who voted for the bill, Felten said that is unlikely to be possible.
“Companies would be unlikely to be dumb enough to sell specific information about individuals,” he said. Instead, they would probably sell descriptive information about individuals for marketing purposes. Even without ISP spying, data brokers already trade in this kind of information, with some companies applying as many as 1,000 different labels to individual consumers based on their buying habits, websites they visit, and a multitude of other data sources. That information could be even more specific if a record of your entire Internet traffic was available. “Think about what your browsing history and what you read and write online says about you. It’s actually a huge amount,” Felten said.
Internet users do have some options for protecting their privacy.
One is to visit encrypted websites. When a user is on an encrypted site, no one in between the user and the website can see the traffic. For example, Google’s e-mail service is encrypted, so an ISP could never read a user’s e-mail even if it wanted to. However, encryption has limitations. Someone spying on encrypted traffic can still gain a lot of information just by knowing that communication is occurring between a user and a certain website, and when the traffic is taking place. Encryption is becoming more and more popular, with currently about half of all websites being encrypted.
A second option is to use a VPN, a virtual private network. A VPN reroutes your Internet traffic so that interlopers can’t see where it’s going. An ISP spying on a user using a VPN could only tell that they are connecting to one, and after that it would have no idea what the user was doing. However, there’s no way to tell whether or not the VPN itself is spying on you. “You are only shifting privacy concerns from the ISP to the VPN provider,” Narayanan said. “There are not a lot of VPN providers with established reputations.”
An extreme privacy option is to use The Onion Router (TOR) a service that anonymizes Internet traffic by sending it to three random computers around the world.
“TOR provides fairly strong anonymity protection against ISPs but it’s also incredibly slow in practice if you actually try to browse or operate online routinely through it,” he says.
“TOR gives you a painful user experience in exchange for less tracking,” Feamster said.
If the world’s top computer science experts have such bleak assessments of the privacy options available, what hope do average Internet users have of protecting their personal information?
Zwicker believes that the state, and the public, can do more to influence policy than most people realize.
“People often overlook the power of the people and the power of the state,” Zwicker says. “Remember that there are plenty of rules and regulations that the state can set to overrule a federal one.”
Andrew Zwicker, Assemblyman, 23 Orchard Road, Suite 170, Skillman 08558. 609-454-3147. www.njleg.state.nj.us.