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Course Review: Stanford’s Surveillance Law

Review by Bobby Brady.  Write a review for Surveillance Law.

When you look at a MOOC or other online learning course, you gauge it’s value based on the relevance it has to the current day. A successful non-introductory level programming course would navigate cutting-edge techniques, frameworks and languages like Golang or Rust, rather than, say, Java or C++.  For a class like Surveillance Law, a successful implementation would require that it focus on current, trending topics in digital law and society. Of course the lecturer or professor teaching the material would also be a defining factor. Coursera & Stanford’s Jonathan Mayer have a clear winner, that needs only a few touch-ups and improvements to make it a cornerstone course.

 Jonathan sets out to debunk a lot of misinformation, and also raises a number important questions regarding undeveloped law. 

Currently there are only a few other law/legal MOOC’s, most notably Harvard’s Copyright course. The first iteration of Surveillance Law is 6 weeks, and unlike most of Coursera’s MOOC’s is self-paced within the constraints of the start and finish dates. It positions itself right alongside some of today’s most burning legal topics surrounding bulk surveillance, foreign policy, spying and wiretaps. It attempts to, and for the most part, succeeds, in providing a neutral explanation of many controversial laws and techniques. Jonathan sets out to debunk a lot of misinformation, and also raises a number important questions regarding undeveloped law.  As an added bonus for those in the legal profession, Surveillance Law is eligible for Minimum Continuing Legal Education credit in California, as well as possibly other states.

Jonathan Mayer

Chicago native, Jonathan Mayer, is a Computer Scientist, Stanford lawyer and named one of Forbes’ 2014 30 under 30. He came to Stanford from Princeton to pursue its first ever JD/PhD in Computer Science.

Impressively, he contributed to the FTC investigation of Google for its circumvention of Apple’s privacy settings, built mobile privacy apps and consulted with Mozilla in the development of their new cookie policy. His research on the NSA’s capabilities was so exceptional that it was included in the White House NSA review panel report. Throughout the entirety of the course he dons what appears to be his trademark bright red “Support Our Unmanned Drones Shirt,” looking more like a representative for the Electronic Frontier Foundation than your stereotypical ambulance-chaser. As it turns out, Jonathan interned with the EFF during the summer of 2010.

Course Up Close

Surveillance Law

Having taken a multitude of information security courses and programs from various platforms, I have come to learn that it is of the utmost importance for security professionals to have a great understanding of cyber law. This was a fantastic supplement to the Homeland Security and Stanford Advanced Computer Security courses I have already completed and forced me to look at things from a different perspective. For students with little to no background in law, Jonathan does a stellar job of providing a bird’s eye view of the constitution, judicial system, and how the U.S. government and all its branches work. It’s easy to jump right in.

Jonathan has also hosted the course on a non Coursera server, as well as a .onion hidden service only accessible through the Tor network. 

In an interesting and welcome twist, Jonathan has also hosted the course on a non-Coursera server, as well as a .onion hidden service only accessible through the Tor network. As mentioned, he makes a pretty good attempt at staying objective and neutral. While there is no downright or obvious criticism of the policies or programs, Jonathan makes it quite clear that there are many areas of the law that are currently very undeveloped. It is easy to derive that this has a direct correlation with the confusion and hysteria surrounding many surveillance practices. He outlines this quite nicely in the syllabus:

“Does the course advocate for or against government surveillance?
Neither. Course staff have worked with law enforcement agencies and civil liberties groups. Our aim is to present the law as it stands, with the best articulation of competing views”

As for the lectures, Mayer talks very slow and precisely, and explains things in multiple ways throughout. He starts out with the legal, explains in one way, and then another. You will hear the phrase “Put differently…” so many times you will start using it yourself in everyday conversation. The slides are terribly basic, but to the point. Some presentations or courses tend to over do the images, transitions and memes, so a lecture series focusing more on the lecture should be a positive mark.

Hypothetical legal situations were created with interactions between judges, law enforcement officials and targets, which forced the student to apply the logic they learned in the applicable section. 

There is no verified certificate for this course. To obtain a statement of accomplishment, you need to receive a final grade of 70% or higher. The only graded material are the weekly quizzes of which you have 100 attempts. This is definitely one of my biggest complaints as there is a serious lack of challenge, outside of simply getting through the material. To keep it fair, I limited myself to three attempts. The quizzes do not auto-rotate the questions as some courses do for wrong answers. Since you are presented with the same questions there is a substantially higher probability you will pass after each additional attempt. One question on each week’s quiz will have you look up court opinions and case law using Google Scholar. Admittedly, I didn’t have much interest in this part, so i skipped over it. The quizzes themselves were amazingly well-constructed. Hypothetical legal situations were created with interactions between judges, law enforcement officials and targets, which forced the student to apply the logic they learned in the applicable section.  Overall, I love this method of a self-paced course. It removes the stress of completing each week on time, the only challenge being that of falling too far behind. Each week took about two hours to get through including detailed note-taking.

Forums

The majority of the students in the forum seem to be very well versed in current law enforcement and surveillance topics. 

The course syllabus page stated “We expect there will be vibrant accompanying discussion”. Vibrant discussion to the say the least! The majority of the students in the forum seem to be very well versed in current law enforcement and surveillance topics. For the most part the forum was surprisingly free of conspiracy theorists, trolls and loudmouths. Jonathan was all over the forums and engaged with many students. The office hours videos supplemented the course by adding up-to-date breaking relevant topics, such as the ability for law enforcement to compel an individual to perform biometric decryption.

Wrap Up

The key goal was provide the average individual with the ability to have an educated discussion about the law as it applies to surveillance

In its current state this course is of great value to better understand very important topics in our digital lives. It is unlikely that you will walk away with an expertise in cyber law or many of the subjects touched upon. I believe the key goal was to provide the average individual with the ability to have an educated discussion about the law as it applies to surveillance. I hope for future iterations, Jonathan and team will make the course more challenging by at least allowing for less attempts on the weekly quizzes.

Classes to consider next

Introduction to American Law: University of Pennsylvania via Coursera
Law and the Entrepreneur – Northwestern University via Coursera
Copyright – Harvard University via edX
Wiretaps to Big Data – Cornell University via edX