Software as a black box

From Good Morning Silicon Valley

In what has become an increasingly familiar ritual, Google said this week that it was “appalled and genuinely sorry” after its new Google Photos image-recognition software labeled a Brooklyn computer programmer and his friend — both of them black — as “gorillas.”

Magna Quacka

Magna_Quacka

Sick of the appropriation of Magna Carta by clueless and authoritarian British governments? So am I. And so is Tom Ginsburg:

Magna Carta has everything going for it to be venerated in the United States: It is old, it is English and, because no one has actually read the text, it is easy to invoke to fit current needs. A century ago, Samuel Gompers referred to the Clayton Act as a Magna Carta for labor; more recently the National Environmental Protection Act has been called an “environmental Magna Carta.” Judges, too, cite Magna Carta with increasing frequency, in cases ranging from Paula Jones’s suit against Bill Clinton to the pleas of Guantánamo detainees. Tea Party websites regularly invoke it in the battle against Obamacare.

Americans aren’t alone in revering Magna Carta. Mohandas K. Gandhi cited it in arguing for racial equality in South Africa. Nelson Mandela invoked it at the trial that sent him to prison for 27 years. We are not the only ones, it seems, willing to stretch old legal texts beyond their original meaning. Like the Holy Grail, the myth of Magna Carta seems to matter more than the reality.

PS You can buy the Magna Quacka rubber duck from — I kid you not — the British Library.
PPS The Economist takes it seriously, though.

“ISIS Is Winning the Social Media War”

… is the headline on a NYT story. Well, of course it is, given what we now know as a result of a leaked State Department memo which gives a frank assessment of the fiasco so far.

WASHINGTON — An internal State Department assessment paints a dismal picture of the efforts by the Obama administration and its foreign allies to combat the Islamic State’s message machine, portraying a fractured coalition that cannot get its own message straight.

The assessment comes months after the State Department signaled that it was planning to energize its social media campaign against the militant group. It concludes, however, that the Islamic State’s violent narrative — promulgated through thousands of messages each day — has effectively “trumped” the efforts of some of the world’s richest and most technologically advanced nations.

It also casts an unflattering light on internal discussions between American officials and some of their closest allies in the military campaign against the militants. A “messaging working group” of officials from the United States, Britain and the United Arab Emirates, the memo says, “has not really come together.”

“The U.A.E. is reticent, the Brits are overeager, and the working group structure is confusing,” the memo says. “When we convened meetings with our counterparts, I am certain we all heard about various initiatives for the first time.”

The trouble with science

From an article by the Editor of The Lancet after attending a symposium last week on the reproducibility and reliability of biomedical research organised by the Wellcome Trust.

“The case against science is straightforward: much of the scientific literature, perhaps half, may simply be untrue. Afflicted by studies with small sample sizes, tiny effects, invalid exploratory analyses, and flagrant conflicts of interest, together with an obsession for pursuing fashionable trends of dubious importance, science has taken a turn towards darkness. As one participant put it, “poor methods get results”. The Academy of Medical Sciences, Medical Research Council, and Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council have now put their reputational weight behind an investigation into these questionable research practices. The apparent endemicity of bad research behaviour is alarming. In their quest for telling a compelling story, scientists too often sculpt data to fit their preferred theory of the world. Or they retrofit hypotheses to fit their data. Journal editors deserve their fair share of criticism too. We aid and abet the worst behaviours. Our acquiescence to the impact factor fuels an unhealthy competition to win a place in a select few journals. Our love of “significance” pollutes the literature with many a statistical fairy-tale. We reject important confirmations. Journals are not the only miscreants. Universities are in a perpetual struggle for money and talent, endpoints that foster reductive metrics, such as high-impact publication. National assessment procedures, such as the Research Excellence Framework, incentivise bad practices.”

Criminality, banker style

Criminal_banks

From a New York Times editorial:

“As of this week, Citicorp, JPMorgan Chase, Barclays and Royal Bank of Scotland are felons, having pleaded guilty on Wednesday to criminal charges of conspiring to rig the value of the world’s currencies. According to the Justice Department, the lengthy and lucrative conspiracy enabled the banks to pad their profits without regard to fairness, the law or the public good.”

The Times goes on to point out, however, that besides the criminal label and the fines, nothing much has changed for the banks. In a memo to employees this week, the chief executive of Citi, Michael Corbat, called the criminal behavior “an embarrassment” — a euphemism for crime that wouldn’t pass muster if it were to be expressed by a person accused of benefit fraud, say.

“As a rule”, the Times continues,

“a felony plea carries more painful consequences. For example, a publicly traded company that is guilty of a crime is supposed to lose privileges granted by the Securities and Exchange Commission to quickly raise and trade money in the capital markets. But in this instance, the plea deals were not completed until the S.E.C. gave official assurance that the banks could keep operating the same as always, despite their criminal misconduct.”

Nor do regulators propose to investigate further, to see if individual members of the banks’ staffs can be identified as perpetrators of the crimes.

It stinks to high heaven. As usual.

More on this

Will Hutton: “Criminal bankers have brazenly milked the system. Let’s change it”
Observer Editorial: “Making bankers pay for their misdeeds”

The Internet as a mirror for human nature

From the Guardian today:

Hot_tech

I gave a lecture recently in Trinity College, Dublin, in which I said, en passant that the Net holds a mirror up to human nature and what we see in it is pretty unedifying. Items 1, 2 and 4 of this list of what the Guardian team regard as “hot tech stories” makes that point rather well, don’t you think?

Hypocrisy on stilts

One of the more nauseating aspects of the US response to Edward Snowden’s revelations is the constant refrain about how he is supposedly damaging the national interest and giving succour to its enemies by revealing how the US does its surveillance. And yet, as TechDirt reports,

Over the weekend, the US government announced that special forces soldiers entered Syria to conduct a raid that killed an alleged leader of ISIS, Abu Sayyaf. In the process, anonymous US officials leaked classified information to the New York Times that’s much more sensitive than anything Edward Snowden ever revealed, and it serves as a prime example of the government’s hypocrisy when it comes to disclosures of secret information.

Here’s how the New York Times described how the US conducted this “successful” raid:

“The raid came after weeks of surveillance of Abu Sayyaf, using information gleaned from a small but growing network of informants the C.I.A. and the Pentagon have painstakingly developed in Syria, as well as satellite imagery, drone reconnaissance and electronic eavesdropping, American officials said. The White House rejected initial reports from the region that attributed the raid to the forces of President Bashar al-Assad of Syria.”

Read that carefully and pretend it was Snowden who leaked this information, instead of nameless Pentagon spokesmen. US officials would be screaming from the rooftops that he leaked extremely timely and sensitive intelligence (it was literally only hours old), that he will cause specific terrorists to change their communications behavior, and most importantly, he put the lives of informants at risk. (Note: none of Snowden’s leaks did any of these things.)

Yet despite the fact that the ISIS raid was discussed on all of the Sunday shows this week, no one brought up anything about this leak. Contrast that with Snowden’s revelations, where government officials will use any situation to say the most outlandish things possible in an attempt to smear his whistleblowing—regardless of their basis in reality. Take former CIA deputy director and torture advocate Mike Morrell, for example, who is currently on a book promotion tour and has been preposterously suggesting that Snowden’s leaks somehow led to the rise of ISIS.

Why data is political

Intriguing piece in Slate:

Imagine visiting Yellowstone this summer. You wake up before dawn to take a picture of the sunrise over the mists emanating from Yellowstone hot springs. A thunderhead towers above the rising sun, and the picture turns out beautifully. You submit the photo to a contest sponsored by the National Weather Service. Under a statute signed into law by the Wyoming governor this spring, you have just committed a crime and could face up to one year in prison.

Wyoming doesn’t, of course, care about pictures of geysers or photo competitions. But photos are a type of data, and the new law makes it a crime to gather data about the condition of the environment across most of the state if you plan to share that data with the state or federal government. The reason? The state wants to conceal the fact that many of its streams are contaminated by E. coli bacteria, strains of which can cause serious health problems, even death. A small organization called Western Watersheds Project (which I represent pro bono in an unrelated lawsuit) has found the bacteria in a number of streams crossing federal land in concentrations that violate water quality standards under the federal Clean Water Act. Rather than engaging in an honest public debate about the cause or extent of the problem, Wyoming prefers to pretend the problem doesn’t exist. And under the new law, the state threatens anyone who would challenge that belief by producing information to the contrary with a term in jail.

Now, why would that be?

The reason is pure politics. The source of E. coli is clear. It comes from cows spending too much time in and next to streams. Acknowledging that fact could result in rules requiring ranchers who graze their cows on public lands to better manage their herds. The ranching community in Wyoming wields considerable political power and has no interest in such obligations, so the state is trying to stop the flow of information rather than forthrightly address the problem.

Ah! Why does this remind me of Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People?

Magical thinking in surveillance circles

This morning’s Observer column:

The power of magical thinking – the notion that you can make something happen merely by thinking about it – has been much in evidence in the current election campaign. And that’s not entirely surprising, because as politicians get desperate, rationality goes out of the window. What is surprising, however, is when high government officials – for example, heads of intelligence and law-enforcement agencies – begin to show clear signs of the syndrome.

Exhibit A in this respect is James Comey, the current director of the FBI. Mr Comey has become so exercised by the decisions of Apple and Google to implement strong encryption in their devices and services that he appears to have lost his marbles. “I am a huge believer in the rule of law,” he told reporters last September, “but I am also a believer that no one in this country is above the law. What concerns me about this is companies marketing something expressly to allow people to place themselves above the law.”

It’s good to know that the FBI director believes that nobody should be above the law. Except, of course, for his colleague, the former NSA director, James Clapper, who lied under oath to the US Congress about the existence of bulk data collection programs and yet remains at large. But we will let that pass: after all, as Oscar Wilde observed, consistency is the last refuge of the unimaginative, and Mr Comey is nothing if not imaginative….

Read on

Our fragile, incomprehensible networked world

This morning’s Observer column:

At first sight, it looked like an April Fools’ story. The US Department of Justice is seeking to extradite a day-trader from Hounslow to stand trial on charges that he brought the US stock market briefly to its knees on 6 May 2010. Navinder Singh Sarao is accused of using a computerised share-trading program to manipulate the market for S&P 500 futures contracts on the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, thereby adding (so the prosecution alleges) to wider selling pressure that caused the Dow Jones industrial average to plunge briefly by 6% before bouncing back.

In that short interval, stocks in huge companies such as Procter & Gamble dropped by 25% and established companies such as General Electric and Accenture briefly traded as penny shares. The British courts, not to mention the rest of us, are invited to believe that this mayhem was caused by a 36-year-old geek in the bedroom of his parents neat semi-detached house under the Heathrow flight path.

There are, it seems to me, only two possible interpretations of this. One is that Mr Sarao is indeed responsible for the chaos. The other is that the US authorities have no real idea who is responsible, but need to make an example of somebody and Mr Sarao will do nicely. Either way, we are left with a really alarming conclusion, namely that we have constructed a world that is totally dependent on systems that are a) astonishingly fragile and unpredictable, and b) incomprehensible not only to the average citizen but to those who are supposed to regulate them…

Read on