Friday 7 February, 2020

The Digital Dictators: How technology strengthens autocracies

Sobering reading for recovering Utopians (like me). From Foreign Affairs:

Led by China, today’s digital autocracies are using technology—the Internet, social media, AI—to supercharge long-standing authoritarian survival tactics. They are harnessing a new arsenal of digital tools to counteract what has become the most significant threat to the typical authoritarian regime today: the physical, human force of mass antigovernment protests. As a result, digital autocracies have grown far more durable than their pre-tech predecessors and their less technologically savvy peers. In contrast to what technology optimists envisioned at the dawn of the millennium, autocracies are benefiting from the Internet and other new technologies, not falling victim to them.

Long essay. Worth reading in full.


Why do people buy SUVs?

I’ve often wondered about this, and concluded that SUV owners are either arrogant or frightened, or both. An interesting piece in Vice suggests that I was on the right track. It draws on Keith Bradsher’s examination of “how the auto industry convinced millions of Americans to buy vehicles that were more dangerous (for themselves and other people on the road), got worse gas mileage, were worse for the environment, and got them to pay a premium for the privilege of doing so.“ It succeeded because the industry mounted “quite possibly the most sophisticated marketing operations on the planet.” The image of prospective SUV purchasers that emerged from the research was deeply unattractive — and, reassuringly, correlated with my own hunches. That portrait is largely the result of one consultant who worked for Chrysler, Ford, and GM during the SUV boom: Clotaire Rapaille.

Rapaille, a French emigree, believed the SUV appealed—at the time to mostly upper-middle class suburbanites—to a fundamental subconscious animalistic state, our “reptilian desire for survival,” as relayed by Bradsher. (“We don’t believe what people say,” the website for Rapaille’s consulting firm declares. Instead, they use “a unique blend of biology, cultural anthropology and psychology to discover the hidden cultural forces that pre-organize the way people behave towards a product, service or concept”). Americans were afraid, Rapaille found through his exhaustive market research, and they were mostly afraid of crime even though crime was actually falling and at near-record lows. As Bradsher wrote, “People buy SUVs, he tells auto executives, because they are trying to look as menacing as possible to allay their fears of crime and other violence.” They, quite literally, bought SUVs to run over “gang members” with, Rapaille found.

And it turned out that the auto industry’s own studies agreed with this general portrait of SUV buyers. Bradsher described that portrait, comprised of marketing reports from the major automakers, as follows:

Who has been buying SUVs since automakers turned them into family vehicles? They tend to be people who are insecure and vain. They are frequently nervous about their marriages and uncomfortable about parenthood. They often lack confidence in their driving skills. Above all, they are apt to be self-centered and self-absorbed, with little interest in their neighbors or communities.

I knew it! It’s always nice to have one’s prejudices confirmed.


Remembering George Steiner

George died last Monday at the ripe old age of 90. I knew and liked him and have written an appreciation which is coming out in next Sunday’s Observer. Adam Gopnik has a nice tribute to him on the New Yorker site:

It was part of the genuine, and not merely patrician, seriousness of his view to see the war years as a fundamental rupture not just in history but in our faith in culture: educated people did those things to other educated people. It was not ignorant armies clashing by night that shivered George Steiner’s soul; it was intelligent Germans who listened to Schubert murdering educated Jews who had trusted in Goethe, and by the train load. This recognition of the limits of culture to change the world was the limiting condition on his love of literature, and it was what gave that love a darker and more tragic cast than any mere proselytizing for “great books” could supply.

May he rest in peace.


How public intellectuals can extend their shelf lives

Useful rules from Tyler Cowen, who knows a thing or two about this.


Why I won’t be upgrading to Catalina any time soon

From Jon Gruber:

Then I think about software. And that means thinking about MacOS 10.15 Catalina. And those thoughts are not good. Off the top of my head I’m hard pressed to think of anything in Catalina that’s an improvement over 10.14 Mojave, and I can think of a lot of things that are worse. I get it that security and convenience are at odds, and it’s a difficult job for Apple to find the balanced sweet spot between the two. But Catalina clearly bends too far in the direction of security. By design, it’s just too inconvenient, with apps generating system-level alerts prompting for permission for things as rudimentary as being able to see the files on my desktop — sometimes when those apps are in the background, and I know that at the moment the alert appears those apps are not trying to read files on my desktop. But why in the world is the desktop treated as some sort of sensitive location?

Back in 2007 Apple ran a “Get a Mac” commercial mocking Windows Vista for this exact same sort of overzealous permission nagging. That’s exactly what Catalina feels like.

I think I’ll sit this upgrade out and wait for the next one.


Tuesday January 21, 2020

Mark Knopfler musing about guitars

This is one of my favourite YouTube videos. Shows you what real mastery is like. Unshowy but unforgettable.


Clearview: the astonishing (but predictable) story

The New York Times had a great story the other day about a tiny firm called Clearview AI which had crafted a program to scrape images of people’s faces from across the Web — employment sites, news sites, educational sites, and social networks including Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, Instagram, etc. — and built a facial recognition algorithm that derived from academic papers. When a user uploads a photo of a face into Clearview’s system, it converts the face into a vector and then shows all the scraped photos stored in that vector’s neighborhood — along with the links to the sites from which those images came. Basically, you upload a photo and in many cases you get a name — often from a social-media posting.

Not surprisingly, police forces seem to like Clearview. One possible reason for that is that its service seems to be unique. Would-be imitators May have been deterred by the fact that the main social-media sites prohibit image-scraping, something that doesn’t seem to have bothered Clearview. Either that or they had a lawyer who knew about the LinkedIn case in which LinkedIn tried and failed to block and sue scrapers. The company lost the case and the judge said that not only could they not sue, but also that they’re not even allowed to try to block scraping by any technical means. As Ben Evans, observed, “Some people celebrated this as a triumph for free competition and the open web – welcome to the unintended consequences”. This case also confirms that facial-recognition technology is becoming a commodity.

Interestingly, Peter Thiel is an investor in, and a board member of, Clearview.


There’s a subreddit Reading Group for Alfred Marshall’s Principles of Economics (1920 edition)

Marks the centenary of the edition. Find the Reading Grouo here


UK government policy on electric vehicles is based on magical thinking

Take, for example, the UK pledge to move entirely to electric vehicles by 2050. I’ve been puzzled for a while about the electricity-generation capacity that would be needed to charge all those vehicles. And then I stumbled on a remarkable letter from a group of relevant scientific experts about the resource implications of such a commitment which was sent to the IPCC in June last year. And I realised that generation is only a smallish part of the story.

It’s well worth reading in full, but here are some of the highlights. To meet UK electric car targets for 2050 the UK would need to produce or acquire just under two times the current total annual world cobalt production, nearly the entire world production of neodymium, three quarters the world’s lithium production and at least half of the world’s copper production. Oh – and 20% increase in UK-generated electricity would be required to charge the current 252.5 billion miles to be driven by UK cars.

Like I said, magical thinking. Wishing doesn’t make something happen.


Could Mike Bloomberg beat Donald Trump?

Maybe. At least he’s rich enough. But be careful what you wish for. As Jack Shafer neatly points out, Bloomberg is a surveillance addict. A guy who amassed a $54 billion fortune by collecting petabyte upon petabyte of sortable data, would be very keen on enhancing a high-tech surveillance state that would collect personal data as aggressively and as expansively as he and his company do financial data.


Linkblog

Democratic oversight?

Here’s my summary of what we learned from Ed Snowden’s revelations in 2013 and the official responses to them in Western democracies:

  1. There was astonishingly intensive and comprehensive state surveillance under inadequate democratic oversight in these democracies.
  2. There then followed various official and semi-official inquiries in the US, the UK and elsewhere.
  3. In some cases, these inquiries led to limited reforms. The US Oversight system remained broadly untouched. The UK had three separate inquiries, followed by a new Investigatory Powers Act, which enhanced some kinds of Judicial oversight, but also added new powers for the security services (e.g. ‘equipment interference’ and warrantless clickstream logging).
  4. The result: comprehensive state surveillance continues, under slightly less inadequate democratic oversight.

Now comes yesterday’s US Inspector General’s report into the FBI’s Russia investigation. It provides a peek under the hood of how the secret FISA Court process works, post-Snowden. “ At more than 400 pages”, says the New York Times, “the study amounted to the most searching look ever at the government’s secretive system for carrying out national-security surveillance on American soil. And what the report showed was not pretty”…

That’s putting it mildly. The Justice Department’s independent inspector general, Michael E. Horowitz, and his team uncovered a staggeringly dysfunctional and error-ridden process in how the F.B.I. went about obtaining and renewing court permission under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, or FISA, to wiretap Carter Page, a former Trump campaign adviser.

“The litany of problems with the Carter Page surveillance applications demonstrates how the secrecy shrouding the government’s one-sided FISA approval process breeds abuse,” said Hina Shamsi, the director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s National Security Project. “The concerns the inspector general identifies apply to intrusive investigations of others, including especially Muslims, and far better safeguards against abuse are necessary.”

Congress enacted FISA in 1978 to regulate domestic surveillance for national-security investigations — monitoring suspected spies and terrorists, as opposed to ordinary criminals. Investigators must persuade a judge on a special court that a target is probably an agent of a foreign power. In 2018, there were 1,833 targets of such orders, including 232 Americans.

Most of those targets never learn that their privacy has been invaded, but some are sent to prison on the basis of evidence derived from the surveillance. And unlike in ordinary criminal wiretap cases, defendants are not permitted to see what investigators told the court about them to obtain permission to eavesdrop on their calls and emails.

According to the Times’s account, the inspector general found major errors, material omissions and unsupported statements about Mr. Page [the target of the surveillance] in the materials that went to the court. F.B.I. agents cherry-picked the evidence, telling the Justice Department information that made Mr. Page look suspicious and omitting material that cut the other way, and the department passed that misleading portrait onto the court.

Lots more in that vein. The surprising thing is that anybody should be surprised. That’s not to say that Carter was not a legitimate target for surveillance, by the way. But democracy dies in darkness.

Networked totalitarianism, contd.

From today’s New York Times:

“Ying shou jin shou” — “Round up everyone who should be rounded up.”

The echo of “1984,” “Brave New World” or “Fahrenheit 451” is unmistakable. But this is not dystopian fiction. It’s a real bureaucratic directive prepared by the Chinese leadership, drawing on a series of secret speeches by Xi Jinping, China’s authoritarian leader, on dealing ruthlessly with Muslims who show “symptoms” of religious radicalism.

There’s nothing theoretical about it: Based on these diktats, hundreds of thousands of Uighurs, Kazakhs and other Muslims in the western Xinjiang region have been rounded up in internment camps to undergo months or years of indoctrination intended to mold them into secular and loyal followers of the Communist Party.

And further to the revelations discussed in yesterday’s post,

Should students ask whether their missing parents had committed a crime, they are to be told no, “it is just that their thinking has been infected by unhealthy thoughts. Freedom is only possible when this ‘virus’ in their thinking is eradicated and they are in good health.”

The Times comments:

That someone from within the unforgiving, secretive Chinese leadership would take the enormous risk of leaking 403 pages of internal documents to a Western newspaper is in itself amazing, especially since the documents include an 11-page report summarizing the party’s investigation into the activities of Wang Yongzhi, an official who was supposed to manage a district where Uighur militants had staged a violent attack but who eventually developed misgivings about the mass detention facilities he had built. “He refused,” said the report, “to round up everyone who should be rounded up.” After September 2017, Mr. Wang disappeared from public view.

Why WhatsApp might be suing NSO

Screenshot of the message from WhatsApp to Nihalsing Rathod, a lawyer representing some of the activists accused of fomenting a protest last year in Bhima Koregaon, in India, and plotting to kill Prime Minister Narendra Modi in 2017. The message is alerting him to the fact that WhatsApp suspect that his smartphone has been infected with NSO spyware.

Source

DNA databases are special

This morning’s Observer column:

Last week, at a police convention in the US, a Florida police officer revealed he had obtained a warrant to search the GEDmatch database of a million genetic profiles uploaded by users of the genealogy research site. Legal experts said this appeared to be the first time an American judge had approved such a warrant.

“That’s a huge game-changer,” observed Erin Murphy, a law professor at New York University. “The company made a decision to keep law enforcement out and that’s been overridden by a court. It’s a signal that no genetic information can be safe.”

At the end of the cop’s talk, he was approached by many officers from other jurisdictions asking for a copy of the successful warrant.

Apart from medical records, your DNA profile is the most sensitive and personal data imaginable. In some ways, it’s more revealing, because it can reveal secrets you don’t know you’re keeping, such as siblings (and sometimes parents) of whom you were unaware…

Read on

Facial recognition technology — to ban or regulate it are the only options

This morning’s Observer column:

On 18 July, the House of Commons select committee on science and technology published an assessment of the work of the biometrics commissioner and the forensic science regulator. My guess is that most citizens have never heard of these two public servants, which is a pity because what they do is important for the maintenance of justice and the protection of liberty and human rights.

The current biometrics commissioner is Prof Paul Wiles. His role is to keep under review the retention and use by the police of biometric material. This used to be just about DNA samples and custody images, but digital technology promises to increase his workload significantly. “It is now seven years,” observes the Commons committee, “since the 2012 high court ruled that the indefinite retention of innocent people’s custody images was unlawful and yet the practice is continuing. A system was meant to have been put in place where any custody images were kept for six years and then reviewed. Custody images of unconvicted individuals at that point should be weeded and deleted.”

But they haven’t: photographs of innocent people remain on the police national database…

Read on

Networked totalitarianism, courtesy of Western tech companies

Nice investigation by The Intercept:

AN AMERICAN ORGANIZATION founded by tech giants Google and IBM is working with a company that is helping China’s authoritarian government conduct mass surveillance against its citizens, The Intercept can reveal.

The OpenPower Foundation — a nonprofit led by Google and IBM executives with the aim of trying to “drive innovation” — has set up a collaboration between IBM, Chinese company Semptian, and U.S. chip manufacturer Xilinx. Together, they have worked to advance a breed of microprocessors that enable computers to analyze vast amounts of data more efficiently.

Shenzhen-based Semptian is using the devices to enhance the capabilities of internet surveillance and censorship technology it provides to human rights-abusing security agencies in China, according to sources and documents. A company employee said that its technology is being used to covertly monitor the internet activity of 200 million people…

Usual story. When it comes to it, there is no technology that Western tech companies won’t sell to the Chinese.

Networked totalitarianism

My Observer review of Kai Strittmatter’s remarkable new book.

Kai Strittmatter is a German journalist who writes for Süddeutsche Zeitung and is currently based in Copenhagen. From 1997 until recently, he had been a foreign correspondent in Beijing. Prior to those postings, he had studied sinology and journalism in Munich, Xi’an and Taipei. So he knows China rather well. Having read his remarkable book, it’s reasonable to assume that he will not be passing through any Chinese airport in the foreseeable future. Doing so would not be good for his health, not to mention his freedom.

We Have Been Harmonised is the most accessible and best informed account we have had to date of China’s transition from what scholars such as Rebecca MacKinnon used to call “networked authoritarianism” to what is now a form of networked totalitarianism. The difference is not merely semantic. An authoritarian regime is relatively limited in its objectives: there may be elections, but they are generally carefully managed; individual freedoms are subordinate to the state; there is no constitutional accountability and no rule of law in any meaningful sense.
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Totalitarianism, in contrast, prohibits opposition parties, restricts opposition to the state and exercises an extremely high degree of control over public and private life…

Read on

Toxic tech?

This morning’s Observer column:

The headline above an essay in a magazine published by the Association of Computing Machinery (ACM) caught my eye. “Facial recognition is the plutonium of AI”, it said. Since plutonium – a by-product of uranium-based nuclear power generation – is one of the most toxic materials known to humankind, this seemed like an alarmist metaphor, so I settled down to read.

The article, by a Microsoft researcher, Luke Stark, argues that facial-recognition technology – one of the current obsessions of the tech industry – is potentially so toxic for the health of human society that it should be treated like plutonium and restricted accordingly. You could spend a lot of time in Silicon Valley before you heard sentiments like these about a technology that enables computers to recognise faces in a photograph or from a camera…

Read on