Sunday, August 2, 2015
Private schools are booming in poor countries. Governments should either
help them or get out of their way
Aug 1st 2015
ACROSS the highway from the lawns of Nairobi's Muthaiga Country Club is
Mathare, a slum that stretches as far as the eye can see. Although Mathare
has virtually no services like paved streets or sanitation, it has a
sizeable and growing number of classrooms. Not because of the state--the
slum's half-million people have just four public schools--but because the
private sector has moved in. Mathare boasts 120 private schools.
This pattern is repeated across Africa, the Middle East and South Asia.
The failure of the state to provide children with a decent education is
leading to a burgeoning of private places, which can cost as little as $1
a week (see article).
The parents who send their children to these schools in their millions
welcome this. But governments, teachers' unions and NGOs tend to take the
view that private education should be discouraged or heavily regulated.
That must change.
Chalk and fees
Education in most of the developing world is shocking. Half of children in
South Asia and a third of those in Africa who complete four years of
schooling cannot read properly. In India 60% of six- to 14-year-olds
cannot read at the level of a child who has finished two years of
Most governments have promised to provide universal primary education and
to promote secondary education. But even when public schools exist, they
often fail. In a survey of rural Indian schools, a quarter of teachers
were absent. In Africa the World Bank found teacher-absenteeism rates of
15-25%. Pakistan recently discovered that it had over 8,000 non-existent
state schools, 17% of the total. Sierra Leone spotted 6,000 "ghost"
teachers, nearly a fifth the number on the state payroll.
Powerful teachers' unions are part of the problem. They often see jobs as
hereditary sinecures, the state education budget as a revenue stream to be
milked and any attempt to monitor the quality of education as an
intrusion. The unions can be fearsome enemies, so governments leave them
to run schools in the interests of teachers rather than pupils.
The failure of state education, combined with the shift in emerging
economies from farming to jobs that need at least a modicum of education,
has caused a private-school boom. According to the World Bank, across the
developing world a fifth of primary-school pupils are enrolled in private
schools, twice as many as 20 years ago. So many private schools are
unregistered that the real figure is likely to be much higher. A census in
Lagos found 12,000 private schools, four times as many as on government
records. Across Nigeria 26% of primary-age children were in private
schools in 2010, up from 18% in 2004. In India in 2013, 29% were, up from
19% in 2006. In Liberia and Sierra Leone around 60% and 50% respectively
of secondary-school enrolments are private.
By and large, politicians and educationalists are unenthusiastic.
Governments see education as the state's job. Teachers' unions dislike
private schools because they pay less and are harder to organise in. NGOs
tend to be ideologically opposed to the private sector. The UN special
rapporteur on education, Kishore Singh, has said that "for-profit
education should not be allowed in order to safeguard the noble cause of
This attitude harms those whom educationalists claim to serve: children.
The boom in private education is excellent news for them and their
countries, for three reasons.
First, it is bringing in money--not just from parents, but also from
investors, some in search of a profit. Most private schools in the
developing world are single operators that charge a few dollars a month,
but chains are now emerging. Bridge International Academies, for instance,
has 400 nursery and primary schools in Kenya and Uganda which teach in
standardised classrooms that look rather like stacked shipping containers.
It plans to expand into Nigeria and India. Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook's
founder, Bill Gates and the International Finance Corporation, the World
Bank's private-sector arm, are among its investors. Chains are a healthy
development, because they have reputations to guard.
Second, private schools are often better value for money than state ones.
Measuring this is hard, since the children who go to private schools tend
to be better off, and therefore likely to perform better. But a rigorous
four-year study of 6,000 pupils in Andhra Pradesh, in southern India,
suggested that private pupils performed better in English and Hindi than
public-school pupils, and at a similar level in maths and Telugu, the
local language. The private schools achieved these results at a third of
the cost of the public schools.
Lastly, private schools are innovative. Since technology has great (though
as yet mostly unrealised) potential in education, this could be important.
Bridge gives teachers tablets linked to a central system that provides
teaching materials and monitors their work. Such robo-teaching may not be
ideal, but it is better than lessons without either materials or
Critics of the private sector are right that it has problems. Quality
ranges from top-notch international standard to not much more than cheap
child care. But the alternative is often a public school that is worse--or
no school at all.
Those who can
Governments should therefore be asking not how to discourage private
education, but how to boost it. Ideally, they would subsidise private
schools, preferably through a voucher which parents could spend at the
school of their choice and top up; they would regulate schools to ensure
quality; they would run public exams to help parents make informed
choices. But governments that cannot run decent public schools may not be
able to do these things well; and doing them badly may be worse than not
doing them at all. Such governments would do better to hand parents cash
and leave schools alone. Where public exams are corrupt, donors and NGOs
should consider offering reliable tests that will help parents make
well-informed choices and thus drive up standards.
The growth of private schools is a manifestation of the healthiest of
instincts: parents' desire to do the best for their children. Governments
that are too disorganised or corrupt to foster this trend should get out
of the way.
Greg SuhrJul 30th, 18:35
In the United States, education spending is roughly $11,000 per student
per year. Those $1 per week rates seem pretty attractive in comparison. I
know this article is about 3rd world education but the following quote
hits pretty close to home.
"Powerful teachers' unions are part of the problem. They often see jobs as
hereditary sinecures, the state education budget as a revenue stream to be
milked and any attempt to monitor the quality of education as an
intrusion. The unions can be fearsome enemies, so governments leave them
to run schools in the interests of teachers rather than pupils."
And, that is not to say individual teachers are bad people, my mother was
a teacher, but she was not a fan of the teachers unions either for the
Rafael.SJul 30th, 12:33
I grew up in Brazil, where private schools existed in a large scale ever
since long before I was born (in 1984.)
Coming from a middle class family, our parents spent around 30% of their
income on private school for their 3 children. Most of what the article
says is spot on, in general, from low end to high end, quality of private
education is consistently better than public.
The real problem of this system is inequality. Children of middle class
and up that went to private schools will most likely become richer than
their parents, while the opposite is more often true for kids that went to
OhioJul 30th, 16:41
One of the key poor assumptions in developing world education systems is
that they should be modeled on successful rich world systems. Yet no
amount of money will turn Kenya into Finland overnight. Being open to
frugal solutions is essential if development aid is to actually help poor
nations, rather than simply make the donor country feel good about itself.
The rather expensive rich-world idealism of the UN, various aid agencies,
and the rich-world education establishment makes progress difficult where
limited resources call for inventive solutions.
ray_blockJul 30th, 15:18
As Long as development aid and education is tightly Held by socialist
Hands there won't be much development. In this case it seems to be a good
Thing, that the 3rd world is so unorganized.
If they had tar roads and a sewersystem in that Slum in Nairobi, there
probably wouldn't be a private School sector.
One day in the future, they will look back and realize, it was European
socialists who doomed Africa to be the planets sh*thole for a whole
Here my 2 Cents about how to fix education profitably (sry for the poor
And the whole thing in slightly better German:
sybariteJul 30th, 18:41
The failed schools that are referenced in the article are but a symptom of
a larger issue. They exist mostly in failed states. The root of the
problem with bad public education is a total lack of governmental
accountability to their people. Whether the school is in Dhaka or Detroit
failed schools are result of waste, corruption, fraud and the protection
of entrenched interests. TE seems giddy about the great advances and
efficiencies that small private schools bring vs. state bureaucracies - I
say let's have some perspective. There is nothing wrong with private
education- it should be a choice not the only option.
loonie-economistin reply to Medicine4theDeadJul 30th, 17:53
Actually absentee teachers do exist, but don't show up. Corrupt teacher.
Ghost teachers don't exist. Corrupt official (or intermediary).
Pretty smooth glib cover for faulty logic.
OJFLJul 30th, 18:06
If only governments learned that pushing decisions closer to the people do
not reduce the efficiency of the system or degrades the results.
Politicians need to learn to trust the people. I like this revolution.
JamesK16Jul 30th, 19:40
Private-sector unions have done great things for workers' standards of
living. Public-sector unions on the other hand, by definition serve at the
expense of the entire public save themselves.
homocidalmaniacJul 30th, 16:19
Any attempt to improve the lot of citizens is likely to be impaired by the
intervention and interference of politics. With politics comes corruption
and there be the rub. Money becomes the driving force for doing anything,
without heed for the people who should benefit.
Corruption nurtures incompetence. The developing world is not alone in
The best healthcare system in which I worked was a private, not for profit
enterprise in a middle-income country, which thrived on innovation, a will
to achieve, and to do what was right.
I arrived in Canada, hoping for excellence, only to find a health system
corrupted by selfishness, where it is everyman for himself, how much money
one is able to drain from the system for oneself and the patient is a last
thought. Ethics is something of a bygone age and one must protect oneself
from the vagaries and unpredictabilities of humans.
The education system is no different.
Until the power, the decision making, the responsibility, and the
financial resources are provided to the people who require an education or
healthcare, nothing will be achieved.
Good luck to that!
Christopher DJul 30th, 15:11
This makes a handsome case for direct education subsidy to parents in
general. Where local politics prevent effective support of universal
education by the government, the dollar-vote places high relative value on
buying education for the kids. As noted, at times the government's best
play is to allow to do.
The vendor-client relationship with the school may not be ideal but it
engages both parties in the business of deciding how to educate the kids.
I think this article provides a solid case that an invisible hand is
propelling the vendor (school), client (parents), and most happily the
children to a more prosperous future, thanks to good old-fashioned
Imagination WorkerJul 31st, 16:41
It is obvious that private education should replace public education. The
real question is whether that should be private for-profit or private
The article confuses these questions, falsely equating opposition to
for-profit education with opposition to private sector education
generally. The authors seem in places to recognize the distinction
("investors, some in search of a profit"), but focus their criticisms
entirely on public sector education, leaving us in the dark as to whether
private, not-for-profit education might achieve the ends they desire,
while steering clear of the criticisms of for-profit education such as
that quoted from Mr. Singh.
The authors should straighten out their reasoning and then replace the
malawiman34Jul 30th, 20:32
I welcome the likes of Bridge and ITeach coming into this market and
offering something that the poor so often lack - a choice. Now they can
choose something that is fundamentally different, not just the same old
same old taught by teachers who sometimes deliberately under-teach in
order to build up lucrative "tutoring work" on the side. Yes, this is not
the complete or final answer, but as a good stepping stone that can be
rolled out quickly, it has to be celebrated. We can deliberate from the
West all we like, but on the ground this is there now and helping to teach
children something other than rote learning and passing exams that do not
fit them for the challenges they face. Problem solving capabilities,
questioning what is around them and creative thinking are all needed.
mtnhikerJul 30th, 20:20
Government education in America is a joke - because of the labor unions,
administrations (and their labor unions - who donate to their elected
protectors) and the legal industry (which will not allow discipline and
whose members (judges and lawyers) donate to their protectors) all in the
name of control and money - with actual education being far down on the
list of priorities (and not even on the list of priorities for teacher
unions and teacher associations).
Some things are common between America and the "third world" - unions
siphoning off tax money and thwarting students getting a real education.
Privatizing all schools may be the way to go - less expensive and better
education - in American that would mean the unions would sue and the
Democrat party would not get near as many donations, but someone has to
lose - maybe it will not be the students for a change.
BizytrackerJul 31st, 06:35
Thank you for publishing a well researched article with unbiased opinion.
It would have been interesting to name some of the NGOs too. I am a bit
surprised how "ideology" driven NGOs can stop progress in a key sector -
education, which is tilted obviously in favor of the consumer - Children
and their parents.
tryworkingforalivingin reply to guest-osesassJul 30th, 19:22
Let me guess.....Venezuela ??
FrenchDriverJul 30th, 18:03
We need this in America. Schools and colleges have become too expensive
and are a drain on the middle classes.
Albert995Jul 30th, 17:10
Getting out of the way does not automatically mean that the way will lead
to where you want to go. This is the real issue to be addressed, namely,
you should know where you are going.
ceezmad358in reply to truetoolJul 30th, 16:29
I assume they mean cheaper in costs, as in running a for profit may be
cheaper than running a government school.
At least that is how I understood this, but yes, government education
tends to be free, so in terms of tuition, hard to get cheaper than free
unless government schools or private hit you up with tons of fees.
MacrolJul 30th, 11:50
Assisting private schools makes a lot of sense if you have some sort of
minimum standards. Standards would help counter teacher union opposition
and allow a registration and appraisal of these schools.
Minimum standards and the occasionall spot check would go a long way to
reducing fraud and child abuse. It might also give something for parents
to compare schools on- graduation rate, test scores, etc.
Some form of competition is badly needed in certain areas where it is
impossible to fire bad teachers.
guest-oaiilewJul 31st, 11:17
This is quite an elaborate opinion on the state of primary education in
the developing world. However, I am of the opinion that most of the
private schools are in shambles as much as the public schools are. They
have several problems ranging from poor facilities, to unqualified
teachers, to inadequate and sub-standard teaching materials; so much so
that one can take most of the schools for a children refugee camp (no pun
intended). The few good ones are rather too expensive for poor parents to
The government still has a lot at stake in improving primary education. I
opine that a public private partnership will be the way forward.
Government should be involved in making policies and regulations that
enhance standards while encouraging private involvement at the same time.
Private school children should have access to free/subsidised public
materials and NGOs should be encouraged to allocate their resources in a
way that is non-discriminatory. Most private schools are closer to the
homes of this poor children than the public schools are, so parents will
have the option of doing a tradeoff between different parameters such as
proximity, cost and quality. A healthy competition will create a thriving
environment. Investment in primary education should be encouraged and the
government needs to step up her 'game'. A government that cannot improve
primary education is no government at all.
Swiss ReaderJul 31st, 08:21
I am all for private enterprise and parents' choice, but there is a risk
the article seems to overlook. What if private schools are run by
religious, ethnical or ideological hardliners? Would it be good if kids
from Muslim families would be educated by schools paid by Saudi Arabia and
according to Saudi values? Is there any guarantee that private schools in,
say, Kenya won't teach tribalism and ethnical hatred? In a fractured
society there is something to be said for a common, public education for
everybody as a means of promoting national cohesion and peace.
AtlantisKingin reply to Medicine4theDeadJul 30th, 21:46
Actually the evidence of teacher absenteeism and ineptitude in public
schools is so copious that hardly requires individual examples to be
offered. Since you ask, here go a few articles on the subject:
Now, one can accept the evidence or deny it (as the unions always try to
do), but referencing The Donald is a novel approach - I wonder how
effective it is.
BTW, have you noticed that no one comments on the absenteeism of engineers
or accountants. That's because they work in the private sector and are
swiftly fired if they start to lose working days - the union is not there
to run interference, even when there is an union. And THAT is one of the
reasons why private schools are so compelling.
AtlantisKingin reply to OJFLJul 30th, 20:47
Politicians are less concerned about efficiency than losing power or,
Heaven forbid, losing union votes...
loonie-economistin reply to Medicine4theDeadJul 30th, 17:56
Again - a logical flip. Just because competitive, higher education is
getting more expensive doesn't mean it is not seeing better "education
guest-osesassJul 30th, 15:19
Private schools are a racket in my country. They are designed to take
advantage of government tax breaks and to fleece parents. The quality of
education is quite poor.
The article talks about how exam results are better for private school
students. In my country private schools bribe officials to give their
students higher marks in board exams. Good results then become a bragging
point that they can use in their advertising. Students from public schools
have no hope of getting good results.
Medicine4theDeadJul 30th, 13:42
As is typical with the Economist these days, it is long on wind and short
on substance. You made several baseless accusations against teachers
unions. Was actually providing facts and evidence a bit too much work for
you? No quotes. No names of any real teacher's unions or teachers. Is the
Economist the Donald Trump of journalism?
Absenteeism and ghost teachers are indicative of a corrupt government
official. Absentee teachers obviously don't actual exist except on paper.
Nice try Trump.
Mr. MarcusJul 30th, 11:28
An anecdotal comparison of attitudes here in the UK to public (private
schools) and the attitude of the local community to the private school in
their midst in a town in Nepal where I taught is interesting, at least to
The Nepalese I talked to in the community, those whose children I taught
and the teachers were very proud of their school. It charged the
equivalent of the rates discussed in this article.
The UK generally speaking loathes those very same institutions. Various
Governments, mostly of the pink/red variety have acted in morally
questionable ways. Adding VAT to education was a disgusting act wrapped up
in the talk of social fairness.
It isn't just developing countries that stand in the way of progress in
Al The Plumber of the Depths of Lunacyin reply to Sola StellaJul 31st,
Excuse me, that's a lie!
Washington, DC is at best a fourth world country!
Sola Stellain reply to Greg SuhrJul 30th, 23:45
In Washington DC, another third world country, spending per pupil broke
the $30,000 mark a few years back and with nothing but continued failure
to show for it. Democrats and their union allies are poisonous for the
public purse as well as the children that the data shows they falsely
claim to champion.
OJFLin reply to AtlantisKingJul 30th, 21:47
Sadly I think I agree with you completely.
AtlantisKingin reply to guest-osesassJul 30th, 20:51
Looks like your country have other serious problems besides education
Macrolin reply to Medicine4theDeadJul 30th, 19:25
I am referring to teacher's unions which oppose just about any form of
meaningful education reform. These include firing incompetent, non-present
teachers that they refer to in the article.
Probably the number one thing holding back Mexico's development is not the
drug cartel or government corruption but the teachers union (SNTE). This
union is not imaginary though many of its teachers are (phantom teachers
is still a major issue). Teachers in Mexico have astonishing salaries and
the best pensions of any profession. Even with these incredible salaries
Mexican kids in public schools receive miserable educations. Their private
school counterparts pay far lower salaries but give a much better
education. That is competition.
I worked in a DC charter school and as bad as my school was it was far
better than the standard public school equivalents and parents were
desperate to win the lottery to move their kids out of the public schools.
Competition is needed in many places. Some public schools have excellent
teachers but they usually have the right to fire bad ones. That is
competition of a different sort.
Higher education is very different than public education.
truetoolJul 30th, 14:01
Private schools are not cheaper than public(government run) schools in
India. Infact, the government often subsidises education in public schools
to the point where they are almost free.
There are two main factors why private schools have proliferated in India:
Firstly, since public schools are cheap, there is intense competition for
a limited number of seats. Those who can't get in are then left with no
alternative but to seek private education.
Secondly, although there are exceptions(such as the one mentioned in this
article) the quality of education imparted in public schools leaves much
to be desired. With private schools, one may expect better education if
one is willing to spend more. In such a situation, many parents from
humble backgrounds would rather put their kids in private schools and
scrape through, than put their future on the line in a public school.
guest-onlsslsin reply to Realist364Aug 1st, 14:34
Not to worry. If a nearly illiterate 3rd grade dropout and single mother
like Sonya Carson in one of the poorest and most violent areas of the
nation in Detroit's slums, can raise her boy become a pediatric
neurosurgeon, then the children who depend on their parents' decisions for
their education have a much better hope than government indoctrination
More at www.trutherator.wordpress.com
Because "free" government schools are not free at all. They come at a cost
of an education in the real world. The cost is to the generation that they
indoctrinate. The government in those books is always the best one you can
have (wink wink) and the rulers look out for you (wink wink).
USA gov centers spend twice per student over private schools average, with
much better consistent scores. Minneapolis, D.C., and Florida with
vouchers programs showed that the effect has nothing to do with them being
better students, they became better students.
Jaime Escalante showed that too. His calculus students were accused of
cheating in the AP test because the rulers couldn't believe it. The
Teachers Unions went to war against him till he finally returned to
My youngest boy's kindergarted teacher taught her students as much as they
could learn her first year, she told me. The next year the principal told
her to slow down, the first grade teacher had nothing to teach them they
didn't already know.
Gov propaganda training? OUT!
Felix Quiin reply to Swiss ReaderJul 31st, 11:38
I would suspect that a healthy variety of competing private schools are
far more likely to foster pluralism than is any monolithic state education
system intent on indoctrination. It is perhaps the lust to indoctrinate
that too often prompts state spending on education. The appalling state of
what passes for education in Thailand being an excellent example of the
evils that can result from trusting the state to educate.
uadi5kPYREJul 31st, 04:31
I am from India and am aware of the pathetic condition of the public
education and even private.
I know that the teachers are the most valuable instruments of learning.
However the child and his learning has to be above all. I feel strongly
that not doing their job is as heinous a crime as a doctor neglecting his
Teacher's absenteeism should be punishable crime. That is the only way to
change this whole system.
Walker RoweJul 31st, 03:20
Don't the Brits at the Economist know their own history as they sing the
praises of for-profit education. Maybe they need to go back and read
Orwell's "A Clergyman's Daughter" to see that public education is a
relatively new idea and that for-profit schools are not the answer to bad
Here in Chile the dictator privatized education. Now the public schools
are the dumping ground for those who cannot pay for private or subsidized
private schools. The public teachers just ended a 57 day strike because
the do not want to have to take certification tests. Sound familiar?
Sounds like Mexico where teaching jobs are hereditary as you said.
Education should be free. The OECD says that Africa and Latin America have
the worst schools, Not Asia or the Middle East. It's clear what is needed:
higher pay attracts better students to the field. And there needs to be a
willingness to face down the unions.
QcAGPDNAa2in reply to truetoolJul 31st, 02:26
Govt schools are utterly useless in India.
Absentee teachers, dilapidated buildings, apathetic administrators, no
textbooks, no technology to speak of.
All this inspite of huge funds supposedly allocated for it and a dedicated
education cess on service tax.
There is a reason that people scrimp and save and do anything they can to
get their kids into english medium private schools using the central govt
ICSE or CBSE syllabus.
Many good friends of mine are spending 50% or more of their salaries on
private school fees and capitation fees (bribes).
John C.in reply to guest-onlmiooJul 31st, 00:36
The US government should be embarrassed by its educational system.
AtlantisKingin reply to Rafael.SJul 30th, 22:06
I also grew up in Brazil and am acquainted with the educational system.
Actually, inequality is NOT the problem - it is just an undesired
The real problem is that the quality of public schools is way below
dismal. And there is no way to improve them because the entire education
system lacks accountability:
1. Parents cannot force schools to improve, even if they know enough to
try - a rare event since many are not educated enough to assess quality.
2. Politicians either fear the unions or, more often, use them as
3. And the unions are very effective selling the notion that they need
more money, even though Brazil spends more in education than China, Korea
and Finland as proportion of GDP
There is a solution and it is spelled in this article: give money to the
parents and let them choose where to educate their children. Heaven knows
we spend enough money already - in the hands of the parents, it offers
them the opportunity to demand quality or vote with their feet.
Unfortunately, this will never happen because the unholy alliance of
unions, left ideologues and political opportunists will squash any
discussion of it...
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Saturday, August 1, 2015
U.S. Decides to Retaliate Against China's Hacking
By DAVID E. SANGER
The Obama administration has determined that it must retaliate
against China for the theft of the personal information of more than
20 million Americans from the databases of the Office of Personnel
Management, but it is still struggling to decide what it can do
without prompting an escalating cyberconflict.
The decision came after the administration concluded that the
hacking attack was so vast in scope and ambition that the usual
practices for dealing with traditional espionage cases did not
But in a series of classified meetings, officials have struggled to
choose among options that range from largely symbolic responses--
for example, diplomatic protests or the ouster of known Chinese
agents in the United States--to more significant actions that some
officials fear could lead to an escalation of the hacking conflict
between the two countries.
That does not mean a response will happen anytime soon--or be
obvious when it does. The White House could determine that the
downsides of any meaningful, yet proportionate, retaliation outweigh
the benefits, or will lead to retaliation on American firms or
individuals doing work in China. President Obama, clearly seeking
leverage, has asked his staff to come up with a more creative set of
"One of the conclusions we've reached is that we need to be a bit
more public about our responses, and one reason is deterrence," said
one senior administration official involved in the debate, who spoke
on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal White House plans.
"We need to disrupt and deter what our adversaries are doing in
cyberspace, and that means you need a full range of tools to tailor
In public, Mr. Obama has said almost nothing, and officials are
under strict instructions to avoid naming China as the source of the
attack. While James R. Clapper Jr., the director of national
intelligence, said last month that "you have to kind of salute the
Chinese for what they did," he avoided repeating that accusation
when pressed again in public last week.
But over recent days, both Mr. Clapper and Adm. Michael S. Rogers,
director of the National Security Agency and commander of the
military's Cyber Command, have hinted at the internal debate by
noting that unless the United States finds a way to respond to the
attacks, they are bound to escalate.
Mr. Clapper predicted that the number and sophistication of hacking
aimed at the United States would worsen "until such time as we
create both the substance and psychology of deterrence."
Admiral Rogers made clear in a public presentation to the meeting of
the Aspen Security Forum last week that he had advised President
Obama to strike back against North Korea for the earlier attack on
Sony Pictures Entertainment. Since then, evidence that hackers
associated with the Chinese government were responsible for the
Office of Personnel Management theft has been gathered by personnel
under Admiral Rogers's command, officials said.
Admiral Rogers stressed the need for "creating costs" for attackers
responsible for the intrusion, although he acknowledged that it
differed in important ways from the Sony case. In the Sony attack,
the theft of emails was secondary to the destruction of much of the
company's computer systems, part of an effort to intimidate the
studio to keep it from releasing a comedy that portrayed the
assassination of Kim Jong-un, the North Korean leader.
According to officials involved in the internal debates over
responses to the personnel office attack, Mr. Obama's aides explored
applying economic sanctions against China, based on the precedent of
sanctions the president approved against North Korea in January.
"The analogy simply didn't work," said one senior economic official,
who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal White
House deliberations. North Korea is so isolated that there was no
risk it could retaliate in kind. But in considering sanctions
against China, officials from the Commerce Department and the
Treasury offered a long list of countersanctions the Chinese could
impose against American firms that are already struggling to deal
The Justice Department is exploring legal action against Chinese
individuals and organizations believed responsible for the personnel
office theft, much as it did last summer when five officers of the
People's Liberation Army, part of the Chinese military, were
indicted on a charge of the theft of intellectual property from
American companies. While Justice officials say that earlier action
was a breakthrough, others characterize the punishment as only
symbolic: Unless they visit the United States or a friendly nation,
none of them are likely to ever see the inside of an American
"Criminal charges appear to be unlikely in the case of the O.P.M.
breach," a study of the Office of Personnel Management breach
published by the Congressional Research Service two weeks ago
concluded. "As a matter of policy, the United States has sought to
distinguish between cyber intrusions to collect data for national
security purposes--to which the United States deems
counterintelligence to be an appropriate response--and cyber
intrusions to steal data for commercial purposes, to which the
United States deems a criminal justice response to be appropriate."
There is another risk in criminal prosecution: Intelligence
officials say that any legal case could result in exposing American
intelligence operations inside China--including the placement of
thousands of implants in Chinese computer networks to warn of
Other options discussed inside the administration include
retaliatory operations, perhaps designed to steal or reveal to the
public information as valuable to the Chinese government as the
security-clearance files on government employees were to Washington.
One of the most innovative actions discussed inside the intelligence
agencies, according to two officials familiar with the debate,
involves finding a way to breach the so-called great firewall, the
complex network of censorship and control that the Chinese
government keeps in place to suppress dissent inside the country.
The idea would be to demonstrate to the Chinese leadership that the
one thing they value most--keeping absolute control over the
country's political dialogue--could be at risk if they do not
moderate attacks on the United States.
But any counterattack could lead to a cycle of escalation just as
the United States hopes to discuss with Chinese leaders new rules of
the road limiting cyberoperations. A similar initiative to get the
Chinese leadership to discuss those rules, proposed by Mr. Obama
when he met the Chinese leader at Sunnylands in California in 2013,
has made little progress.
The United States has been cautious about using cyberweapons or even
discussing it. A new Pentagon strategy, introduced by the secretary
of Defense, Ashton B. Carter, in the spring, explicitly discussed
retaliation but left vague what kind of cases the United States
viewed as so critical that they would prompt that type of
In response to the Office of Personnel Management attack, White
House officials on Friday announced the results of a 30-day
"cybersecurity sprint" that began in early June after the federal
personnel office disclosed the gigantic theft of data.
Tony Scott, the government's chief information officer, who ordered
the review, said in a blog post that agencies had significantly
ramped up their use of strong authentication procedures, especially
for users who required access to sensitive parts of networks.
By the end of the 30th day, officials said that more than half of
the nation's largest agencies, including the Departments of
Transportation, Veterans Affairs and the Interior, now required
strong authentication for almost 95 percent of their privileged
For Mr. Obama, responding to the theft at the Office of Personnel
Management is complicated because it was not destructive, nor did it
involve stealing intellectual property. Instead, the goal was
espionage, on a scale that no one imagined before.
"This is one of those cases where you have to ask, 'Does the size of
the operation change the nature of it?' " one senior intelligence
official said. "Clearly, it does."
Michael D. Shear contributed reporting.
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We Should Not Ban 'Killer Robots,' and Here's Why
By Evan Ackerman
Posted 29 Jul 2015 | 2:25 GMT
Yesterday, an open letter was presented at the International Joint Conference on Artificial Intelligence in Buenos Aires, Argentina, calling for a "ban on offensive autonomous weapons." A bunch of people signed it, including "more than 1,000 experts and leading robotics researchers." And I mean, of course they'd sign it, because who would seriously be for "killer robots?"
Here's the letter in full:
Autonomous Weapons: an Open Letter from AI & Robotics Researchers
Autonomous weapons select and engage targets without human intervention. They might include, for example, armed quadcopters that can search for and eliminate people meeting certain pre-defined criteria, but do not include cruise missiles or remotely piloted drones for which humans make all targeting decisions. Artificial Intelligence (AI) technology has reached a point where the deployment of such systems is — practically if not legally — feasible within years, not decades, and the stakes are high: autonomous weapons have been described as the third revolution in warfare, after gunpowder and nuclear arms.
Many arguments have been made for and against autonomous weapons, for example that replacing human soldiers by machines is good by reducing casualties for the owner but bad by thereby lowering the threshold for going to battle. The key question for humanity today is whether to start a global AI arms race or to prevent it from starting. If any major military power pushes ahead with AI weapon development, a global arms race is virtually inevitable, and the endpoint of this technological trajectory is obvious: autonomous weapons will become the Kalashnikovs of tomorrow. Unlike nuclear weapons, they require no costly or hard-to-obtain raw materials, so they will become ubiquitous and cheap for all significant military powers to mass-produce. It will only be a matter of time until they appear on the black market and in the hands of terrorists, dictators wishing to better control their populace, warlords wishing to perpetrate ethnic cleansing, etc. Autonomous weapons are ideal for tasks such as assassinations, destabilizing nations, subduing populations and selectively killing a particular ethnic group. We therefore believe that a military AI arms race would not be beneficial for humanity. There are many ways in which AI can make battlefields safer for humans, especially civilians, without creating new tools for killing people.
Just as most chemists and biologists have no interest in building chemical or biological weapons, most AI researchers have no interest in building AI weapons — and do not want others to tarnish their field by doing so, potentially creating a major public backlash against AI that curtails its future societal benefits. Indeed, chemists and biologists have broadly supported international agreements that have successfully prohibited chemical and biological weapons, just as most physicists supported the treaties banning space-based nuclear weapons and blinding laser weapons.
In summary, we believe that AI has great potential to benefit humanity in many ways, and that the goal of the field should be to do so. Starting a military AI arms race is a bad idea, and should be prevented by a ban on offensive autonomous weapons beyond meaningful human control.
The main point in the body of this letter seems to be that unless we outlaw autonomous weapons right now, there will be some sort of arms race that will lead to the rapid advancement and propagation of things like autonomous "armed quadcopters," eventually resulting in technology that's accessible to anyone if they want to build a weaponized drone.
The problem with this argument is that no letter, UN declaration, or even a formal ban ratified by multiple nations is going to prevent people from being able to build autonomous, weaponized robots. The barriers keeping people from developing this kind of system are just too low. Consider the "armed quadcopters." Today you can buy a smartphone-controlled quadrotor for US $300 at Toys R Us. Just imagine what you'll be able to buy tomorrow. This technology exists. It's improving all the time. There's simply too much commercial value in creating quadcopters (and other robots) that have longer endurance, more autonomy, bigger payloads, and everything else that you'd also want in a military system. And at this point, it's entirely possible that small commercial quadcopters are just as advanced as (and way cheaper than) small military quadcopters, anyway. We're not going to stop that research, though, because everybody wants delivery drones (among other things). Generally speaking, technology itself is not inherently good or bad: it's what we choose to do with it that's good or bad, and you can't just cover your eyes and start screaming "STOP!!!" if you see something sinister on the horizon when there's so much simultaneous potential for positive progress.
"What we really need is a way of making autonomous armed robots ethical, because we're not going to be able to prevent them from existing"
What we really need, then, is a way of making autonomous armed robots ethical, because we're not going to be able to prevent them from existing. In fact, the most significant assumption that this letter makes is that armed autonomous robots are inherently more likely to cause unintended destruction and death than armed autonomous humans are. This may or may not be the case right now, and either way, I genuinely believe that it won't be the case in the future, perhaps the very near future. I think that it will be possible for robots to be as good (or better) at identifying hostile enemy combatants as humans, since there are rules that can be followed (called Rules of Engagement, for an example see page 27 of this) to determine whether or not using force is justified. For example, does your target have a weapon? Is that weapon pointed at you? Has the weapon been fired? Have you been hit? These are all things that a robot can determine using any number of sensors that currently exist.
It's worth noting that Rules of Engagement generally allow for engagement in the event of an imminent attack. In other words, if a hostile target has a weapon and that weapon is pointed at you, you can engage before the weapon is fired rather than after in the interests of self-protection. Robots could be even more cautious than this: you could program them to not engage a hostile target with deadly force unless they confirm with whatever level of certainty that you want that the target is actively engaging them already. Since robots aren't alive and don't have emotions and don't get tired or stressed or distracted, it's possible for them to just sit there, under fire, until all necessary criteria for engagement are met. Humans can't do this.
The argument against this is that a robot autonomously making a decision to engage a target with deadly force, no matter how certain the robot may be, is dangerous and unethical. It is dangerous, and it may be unethical, as well. However, is it any more dangerous or unethical than asking a human to do the same thing? The real question that we should be asking is this: Could autonomous armed robots perform better than armed humans in combat, resulting in fewer casualties (combatant or non-combatant) on both sides? I believe so, which doesn't really matter, but so do people who are actually working on this stuff, which does.
In 2009, Ronald C. Arkin, Patrick Ulam, and Brittany Duncan published a paper entitled "An Ethical Governor for Constraining Lethal Action in an Autonomous System," which was about how to program an armed, autonomous robot to act within the Laws of War and Rules of Engagement. h+ Magazine interviewed Arkin on the subject (read the whole thing here), and here's what he said:
h+: Some researchers assert that no robots or AI systems will be able to discriminate between a combatant and an innocent, that this sensing ability currently just does not exist. Do you think this is just a short-term technology limitation? What such technological assumptions do you make in the design of your ethical governor?
RA: I agree this discrimination technology does not effectively exist today, nor is it intended that these systems should be fielded in current conflicts. These are for the so-called war after next, and the DoD would need to conduct extensive additional research in order to develop the accompanying technology to support the proof-of-concept work I have developed. But I don't believe there is any fundamental scientific limitation to achieving the goal of these machines being able to discriminate better than humans can in the fog of war, again in tightly specified situations. This is the benchmark that I use, rather than perfection. But if that standard is achieved, it can succeed in reducing noncombatant casualties and thus is a goal worth pursuing in my estimation.
One way to think about this is like autonomous cars. Expecting an autonomous car to keep you safe 100 percent of the time is unrealistic. But, if an autonomous car is (say) 5 percent more likely to keep you safe than if you were driving yourself, you'd still be much better off letting it take over. Autonomous cars, by the way, will likely be much safer than that, and it's entirely possible that autonomous armed robots will be, too. And if autonomous armed robots really do have at least the potential reduce casualties, aren't we then ethically obligated to develop them?
If there are any doubts about how effective or ethical these systems might be, just test them exhaustively. Deploy them, load them up with blanks, and watch how they do. Will they screw up sometimes? Of course they will, both during testing and after. But setting aside the point above about relative effectiveness, the big advantage of robots is that their behavior is traceable and they learn programmatically: if one robot does something wrong, it's possible to trace the chain of decisions that it made (decisions programmed into it by a human, by the way) to find out what happened. Once the error is located, it can be resolved, and you can be confident that the robot will not make that same mistake again. Furthermore, you can update every other robot at the same time. This is not something we can do with humans.
"I'm not in favor of robots killing people. If this letter was about that, I'd totally sign it. But that's not what it's about; it's about the potential value of armed autonomous robots, and I believe that this is something that we need to have a reasoned discussion about rather than banning."
I do agree that there is a potential risk with autonomous weapons of making it easier to decide to use force. But, that's been true ever since someone realized that they could throw a rock at someone else instead of walking up and punching them. There's been continual development of technologies that allow us to engage our enemies while minimizing our own risk, and what with the ballistic and cruise missiles that we've had for the last half century, we've got that pretty well figured out. If you want to argue that autonomous drones or armed ground robots will lower the bar even farther, then okay, but it's a pretty low bar as is. And fundamentally, you're then placing the blame on technology, not the people deciding how to use the technology.
And that's the point that I keep coming back to on this: blaming technology for the decisions that we make involving it is at best counterproductive and at worst nonsensical. Any technology can be used for evil, and many technologies that were developed to kill people are now responsible for some of our greatest achievements, from harnessing nuclear power to riding a ballistic missile into space. If you want to make the argument that this is really about the decision to use the technology, not the technology itself, then that's awesome. I'm totally with you. But banning the technology is not going to solve the problem if the problem is the willingness of humans to use technology for evil: we'd need a much bigger petition for that.
I want to be very clear about this: I'm not in favor of robots killing people. If this letter was about that, I'd totally sign it. But that's not what it's about; it's about the potential value of armed autonomous robots, and I believe that this is something that we need to have a reasoned discussion about rather than banning. I'm open to the fact that I might be quite wrong about every point that I've made here, but the important thing is to be able to reach an informed decision rather than just demanding to outlaw "killer robots."*