(Against) Virus as Metaphor

Our fondness for viruses as metaphor may have kept us from insisting on and observing the standards and practices that would prevent their spread.

Paul Elie in the New Yorker has a comment (Against) Virus as Metaphor (March 19, 2020) where he argues that our habit of using viruses as a metaphor is dangerous. He draws on Susan Sontag’s Illness as Metaphor to discuss how using the virus as metaphor can end up both misleading us about what is happening on the internet with ideas and memes, but can also cast a moral shadow back onto those who have the real disease. It is tempting to blame those with diseases for moral faults that presumably made them more vulnerable to the disease. The truth is that diseases like viruses pay no attention to our morals. There is nothing socially constructed or deconstructed to the Coronavirus. It wasn’t invented by people but it has real consequences for people. We have to be careful not to ascribe human agency to it.

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Adventures in Science Fiction Cover Art: Disembodied Brains, Part I | Science Fiction and Other Suspect Ruminations

Gerard Quinn’s cover for the December 1956 issue of New Worlds

Thanks to Ali I cam across this compilation of Adventures in Science Fiction Cover Art: Disembodied Brains. Joachim Boaz has assembled a number of pulp sci-fi cover art showing giant brains. The giant brain was often the way computing was imagined. In fact early computers were called giant brains.

Disembodied brains — in large metal womb-like containers, floating in space or levitating in the air (you know, implying PSYCHIC POWER), pulsating in glass chambers, planets with brain-like undulations, pasted in the sky (GOD!, surprise) above the Garden of Eden replete with mechanical contrivances among the flowers and butterflies and naked people… The possibilities are endless, and more often than not, taken in rather absurd directions.

I wonder if we can plot some of the early beliefs about computers through these images and stories of giant brains. What did we think the brain/mind was such that a big one would have exaggerated powers? The equation would go something like this:

  • A brain is the seat of intelligence
  • The bigger the brain, the more intelligent
  • In big brains we might see emergent properties (like telepathy)
  • Scaling up the brain will give us artificially effective intelligence

This is what science fiction does so well – it takes some aspect of current science or culture and scales it up to imagine the consequences. Scaling brains, however, seems a bit literal, but the imagined futures are nonetheless important.

Here’s the File Clearview AI Has Been Keeping on Me, and Probably on You Too – VICE

We used the California Consumer Privacy Act to see what information the controversial facial recognition company has collected on me.

Anna Merlan has an important story on Vice, Here’s the File Clearview AI Has Been Keeping on Me, and Probably on You Too (Feb. 28, 2020). She used the California privacy laws to ask Clearview AI what information they kept on her and then to delete it. They asked her for a photo and proof of identification and eventually sent her a set of images and an index of where they came from. What is interesting is that they aren’t just scraping social media, they are scraping other scrapers like Insta Stalkers and various right wing sources that presumably have photos and stories about “dangerous intellectuals” like Merlan.

This bring back up the question of what is so unethical about face recognition and the storage of biometrics. We all have pictures of people in our photo collections, and Clearview AI was scraping public photos – is it then the use of the images that is the problem? Is it the recognition and search capability.

When Coronavirus Quarantine Is Class Warfare

A pandemic offers a great way to examine American class inequities.

There have been a couple of important stories about the quarantine as symbolic of our emerging class structure. The New York Times has an opinion by Charlie Warzen on When Coronavirus Quarantine Is Class Warfare(March 6th, 2020)

That pleasantness is heavily underwritten by a “vast digital underclass.” Many services that allow you to stay at home work only when others have to be out in the world on your behalf.

The quarantine shows how many services we have available for those who do intellectual work that can be done online. It is as if we were planning to be quarantined for years. The quarantine shows how one class can isolate themselves, but at the expense of a different class that handles all the inconveniences of material stuff and physical encounters of living. We have the permanent jobs with benefits. They deal with delivering food and trash. We can isolate ourselves from diseases, they have to risk disease to work. The gig economy has expanded the class of precarious workers that support the rest of us.

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It’s the (Democracy-Poisoning) Golden Age of Free Speech

And sure, it is a golden age of free speech—if you can believe your lying eyes. Is that footage you’re watching real? Was it really filmed where and when it says it was? Is it being shared by alt-right trolls or a swarm of Russian bots? Was it maybe even generated with the help of artificial intelligence?

There have been a number of stories bemoaning what has become of free speech. Fore example, WIRED has one title, It’s the (Democracy-Poisoning) Golden Age of Free Speech by Zeynep Tufekci (Jan. 16, 2020). In it she argues that access to an audience for your speech is no longer a matter of getting into centralized media, it is now a matter of getting attention. The world’s attention is managed by a very small number of platforms (Facebook, Google and Twitter) using algorithms that maximize their profits by keeping us engaged so they can sell our attention for targeted ads.

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Eyal Weizman: The algorithm is watching you

The London Review of Books has a blog entry by Eyal Weizman on how The algorithm is watching you (Feb. 19, 2020). Eyal Weizman, the founding director of Forensic Architecture, writes that he was denied entry into the USA because an algorithm had identified a security issue. He was going to the US for a show in Miami titled True to Scale.

Setting aside the issue of how the US government seems to now be denying entry to people who do inconvenient investigations, something a country that prides itself on human rights shouldn’t do, the use of an algorithm as a reason is disturbing for a number of reasons:

  • As Weizman tells the story, the embassy officer couldn’t tell what triggered the algorithm. That would seem to violate important principles in the use of AIs; namely that an AI used in making decisions should be transparent and able to explain why it made the decision. Perhaps the agency involved doesn’t want to reveal the nasty logic behind their algorithms.
  • Further, there is no recourse, another violation of principle for AIs, namely that they should be accountable and there should be mechanisms to challenge a decision.
  • The officer then asked Weizman to provide them with more information, like his travel for the last 15 years and contacts, which he understandably declined to do. In effect the system was asking him to surveil himself and share that with a foreign government. Are we going to be put in the situation where we have to surrender privacy in order to get access to government services? We do that already for commercial services.
  • As Weizman points out, this shows the “arbitrary logic of the border” that is imposed on migrants. Borders have become grey zones where the laws inside a country don’t apply and the worst of a nation’s phobias are manifest.

Show and Tell at CHRIN


Stéphane Pouyllau’s photo of me presenting

Michael Sinatra invited me to a “show and tell” workshop at the new Université de Montréal campus where they have a long data wall. Sinatra is the Director of CRIHN (Centre de recherche interuniversitaire sur les humanitiés numériques) and kindly invited me to show what I am doing with Stéfan Sinclair and to see what others at CRIHN and in France are doing.

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Facebook to Pay $550 Million to Settle Facial Recognition Suit

It was another black mark on the privacy record of the social network, which also reported its quarterly earnings.

The New York Times has a story on how Facebook to Pay $550 Million to Settle Facial Recognition Suit (Natasha Singer and Mike Isaac, Jan. 29, 2020.) The Illinois case has to do with Facebook’s face recognition technology that was part of Tag Suggestions that would suggest names for people in photos. Apparently in Illinois it is illegal to harvest biometric data without consent. The Biometric Information Privacy Act (BIPA) passed in 2008 “guards against the unlawful collection and storing of biometric information.” (Wikipedia entry)

BIPA suggests a possible answer to the question of what is unethical about face recognition. While I realize that a law is not ethics (and vice versa) BIPA hints at one of the ways we can try to unpack the ethics of face recognition. The position suggested by BIPA would go something like this:

  • Face recognition is dependent on biometric data which is extracted from an image or in other form of scan.
  • To collect and store biometric data one needs the consent of the person whose data is collected.
  • The data has to be securely stored.
  • The data has to be destroyed in a timely manner.
  • If there is consent, secure storage, and timely deletion of the data, then the system/service can be said to not be unethical.

There are a number of interesting points to be made about this position. First, it is not the gathering, storing and providing access to images of people that is at issue. Face recognition is an ethical issue because biometric data about a person is being extracted, stored and used. Thus Google Image Search is not an issue as they are storing data about whole images while FB stores information about the face of individual people (along with associated information.)

This raises issues about the nature of biometric data. What is the line between a portrait (image) and biometric information? Would gathering biographical data about a person become biometric at some point if it contained descriptions of their person?

Second, my reading is that a service like Clearview AI could also be sued if they scrape images of people in Illinois and extract biometric data. This could provide an answer to the question of what is ethically wrong about the Clearview AI service. (See my previous blog entry on this.)

Third, I think there is a missing further condition that should be specified, names that the company gathering the biometric data should identify the purpose for which they are gathering it when seeking consent and limit their use of the data to the identified uses. When they no longer need the data for the identified use, they should destroy it. This is essentially part of the PIPA principle of Limiting Use, Disclosure and Retention. It is assumed that if one is to delete data in a timely fashion there will be some usage criteria that determine timeliness, but that isn’t always the case. Sometimes it is just the passage of time.

Of course, the value of data mining is often in the unanticipated uses of data like biometric data. Unanticipated uses are, by definition, not uses that were identified when seeking consent, unless the consent was so broad as to be meaningless.

No doubt more issues will occur to me.

Avast closes Jumpshot over data privacy backlash, but transparency is the real issue

Avast will shutter its Jumpshot subsidiary just days after an exposé targeted the way it sold user data. But transparency remains the bigger issue.

From Venturbeat (via Slashdot) the news that antivirus company Avast closes Jumpshot over data privacy backlash, but transparency is the real issue (Paul Sawers, Jan. 30, 2020). Avast had been found to have been gathering detailed data about users of its antivirus tools and then selling anonymized data through Jumpshot. The data was of sufficient detail (apparently down to an “all clicks feed”) that it would probably be possible to deanonymize data. So what was the ethical problem here?

As the title of the story advertises the issue was not that Avast was concealing what it was doing, it is more a matter of how transparent it was about what it was doing. The data collection was “opt out” and so you had to go find the setting rather than being asked if you wanted to “opt in.” Jumpstart was apparently fairly open about their business. The information the provided to help you make a decision was not particularly deceptive (see image below), but it is typical of software to downplay the identifiability of data collected.

Some of the issue is around consent. What realistically constitutes consent these days? Does one need to opt-in for there to be meaningful consent? Does one need sufficient information to make a decision, and if so, what would that be?

There are 2,373 squirrels in Central Park. I know because I helped count them

I volunteered for the first squirrel census in the city. Here’s what I learned, in a nutshell.

From Lauren Klein on Twitter I learned about a great New York Times article on  There are 2,373 squirrels in Central Park. I know because I helped count them. The article is by Denise Lau (Jan. 8, 2020.) As Klein points out, it is about the messiness of data collection. (Note that she has a book coming out on Data Feminism with Catherine D’Ignazio.)