O’Hagan: The Lives of Ronald Pinn

Thanks to a note from Willard on Humanist I came across this essay in the London Review of Books, Andrew O’Hagan · The Lives of Ronald Pinn (LRB 8 January 2015). The author decided to develop a false identity and “legend” by using the name of a dead person (Ronald Pinn) who was born around the time he was. This was in response to stories about how UK police had been going undercover since 1968 to infiltrate political groups. The police had been bringing identities back to life so O’Hagan decided to try it. In the process he explored a lot of the dark web including ordering drugs from the Silk Road, ordering guns, getting false IDs and so on.

The essay or biography is well written and poignant. Just before ends the legendary Pinn he meets the original’s mother.

‘Oh, Ronnie,’ she said. ‘There was nobody like him.’

Trolling and Anonymous

Useful research is finally emerging about trolling in its different forms. The Guardian had a nice overview article by a professor of business psychologies titled Behind the online comments: the psychology of internet trolls. Researchers at the University of Manitoba and UBC have published an article with the title Trolls just want to have fun (PDF preprint) that found evidence that sadists like to troll. They conclude,

The Internet is an anonymous environment where it is easy to seek out and explore one’s niche, however idiosyncratic. Consequently, antisocial individuals have greater opportunities to connect with similar others, and to pursue their personal brand of ‘‘self expression’’ than they did before the advent of the Internet. Online identity construction may be important to examine in research on trolling, especially in terms of antisocial identity and its role in trolling behavior. The troll persona appears to be a malicious case of a virtual avatar, reflecting both actual personality and one’s ideal self . Our research suggests that, for those with sadistic personalities, that ideal self may be a villain of chaos and mayhem – the online Trickster we fear, envy, and love to hate: the cybertroll. (Buckels, E. E., et al. Trolls just want to have fun. Personality and Individual Differences (2014), http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.paid.2014.01.016)

By contrast, McGill professor Gabriella Coleman recently published a book about Anonymous, Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy: The Many Faces of Anonymous. Coleman also compares the trolling of Anonymous to traditions of the trickster, but is far more sympathetic as she tracks the politicization of Anonymous. About trolling she writes,

Trolls enjoy desecrating anything remotely sacred, as cultural theorist Whitney Phillips conveys in her astute characterization of trolls as “agents of cultural digestion [who] scavenge the landscape, re-purpose the most offensive material, then shove the resulting monstrosities into the faces of an unsuspecting populace.” In short: any information thought to be personal, secure, or sacred is a prime target for sharing or defilement in a multitude of ways. Lulz-oriented actions puncture the consensus around our politics and ethics, our social lives, and our aesthetic sensibilities. Any presumption of our world’s inviolability becomes a weapon; trolls invalidate that world by gesturing toward the possibility for Internet geeks to destroy it—to pull the carpet from under us whenever they feel the urge. (Location 491)

She sees anonymous hacking as one of the ways we can resist the blanket surveillance that Snowden revealed. Anonymous may be the future of resistance even as it emerges from the nasty side of trolling. I can’t say that I’m convinced the ends justify the means, at least when you aren’t willing to take responsibility for the means you employ, but, she is right that it has become a form of resistance for the surveillance age.

Anonymous is emblematic of a particular geography of resistance. Composed of multiple competing groups, short-term power is achievable for brief durations, while long-term dominance by any single group or person is virtually impossible. In such a dynamic landscape, it may be “easy to co-opt, but impossible to keep co-opted,” … (Location 5691)

Adobe is Spying on Users, Collecting Data on Their eBook Libraries

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Nate Hoffelder on The Digital Reader blog has broken a story about how Adobe is Spying on Users, Collecting Data on Their eBook Libraries. He and Arts Technica report that the Adobe’s Digital Editions 4 send data home about what you read and how far (what page) you get to. The data is sent in plain text.

Hoffelder used a tool called Wireshark to look at what was being sent out from his computer.

Sensitive Words: Hong Kong Protests

On Thursday I heard a great talk by Ashley Esarey on “Understanding Chinese Information Control and State Preferences for Stability Maintenance.” He has been studying a dataset of over 4,000 censorship directives issued by the Chinese state to website administrators to do things like stop mentioning Obama’s inauguration in headlines or to delete all references to certain issues. I hadn’t realized how hierarchical and human the Chinese control of the internet was. Directives came from all levels and seem to also have been ignored.

In his talk Esarey mentioned how the China Digital Times has been tracking various internet censorship issues in China. At that site I found some fascinating stories and lists of words censored. See:

Exclusive: Hundreds Of Devices Hidden Inside New York City Phone Booths

From The Intercept I followed a link to a Buzzfeed Exclusive: Hundreds Of Devices Hidden Inside New York City Phone Booths. Buzzfeed found that the company that manages the advertising surrounding New York phone booths had installed beacons that could interact with apps on smartphones as the passed by. The beacons are made by Gimbal which claims to have “the world’s largest deployment of industry-leading Bluetooth Smart beacons…” The Buzzfeed article describes what information can be gathered by these beacons:

Gimbal has advertised its “Profile” service. For consumers who opt in, the service “passively develops a profile of mobile usage and other behaviors” that allow the company to make educated guesses about their demographics “age, gender, income, ethnicity, education, presence of children”, interests “sports, cooking, politics, technology, news, investing, etc”, and the “top 20 locations where [the] user spends time home, work, gym, beach, etc..”

The image above is from Buzzfeed who got it from Gimbal and it illustrates how Gimbal is collecting data about “sightings” that can be aggregated and mined both by Gimbal and by 3rd parties who pay for the service. Apple is however responsible for an important underlying technology, iBeacon. If you want the larger picture on beacons and the hype around them see the BEEKn site (which is about “beacons, brands and culture on the Internet of Things) or read about Apple’s iBeacon technology. I am not impressed with the use cases described. They are mostly about advertisers telling us (without our permission) about things on sale. They can be used for location specific (very specific) information like the Tulpenland (tulip garden) app but outdoors you can do this with geolocation. A better use would be indoors for museums where GPS doesn’t work as Prophets Kitchen is doing for the Rubens House Antwerp Museum though the implementation shown looks really lame (multiple choice questions about Rubens!). The killer app for beacons has yet to appear, though mobile payments may be it.

What is interesting is that the Intercept article indicates that users don’t appreciate being told they are being watched. It seems that we only mind be spied on when we are personally told that we are being spied on, but that may be an unwarranted inference. We may come to accept a level of tracking as the price we pay for cell phones that are always on.

In the meantime New York has apparently ordered the beacons removed, but they are apparently installed in other cities. Of course there are also Canadian installations.

 

The Cult of Sharing

Mike Bulajewski has written an excellent critique of the The Cult of Sharing. He describes the way ideas of community and sharing are being exploited by a new type of cult-like company like Airbnb and Uber. Under the guise of sharing and building community these companies are bypassing employment and labor legislation. What’s worse is that they are painting basic labor rights as the outdated way of doing things.

That’s because they’ve adopted a kind of cultural critique of capitalism. For them, the problem with capitalism is not the system itself, but rather depraved contemporary Western culture, which is greedy, individualistic, selfish and acquisitive, and rewards greedy, corrupt, ill-intentioned individuals. The opponents of the so-called culture of greed see the behavior of Black Friday shoppers and Wall Street bankers as equal manifestations of the same general phenomenon, and perhaps believing that we get the leaders we deserve, conclude that the public’s moral flaws makes them in some way responsible for the greed of Wall Street.

The sharing economy is clearly not the kind of economy where wealth and prosperity is shared between rich and poor. On the contrary, it worsens income inequality and concentrates wealth in the hands of those who need it the least. Progressive advocates are well aware of this, but they also see an upside: these startups teach their workers moral lessons about sharing, community, giving and service with a smile.

I’m not sure this is going to be the problem Bulajewski thinks it will be, but he has me worried. I hope that that shine of sharing will wear off and consumers/sharers will begin to treat this as any other industry. I also think the media will soon start reporting the downside of staying on someone’s couch or getting a ride with someone who isn’t licensed. It’s like the internet, which we all thought was a nice sharing community, until it wasn’t.

Weaponizing the Digital Humanities

Jan Christoph Meister has posted a blog about Weaponizing the Digital Humanities. His entry comes from an exchange we had, first around the paper about stylistics to psychologically profile people. (See my conference report on DH2014.) After the session we ended up talking with someone probably from the intelligence community. It is a bit startling to realize that we merit attention, if that is what it is. Certainly research on recognition of typing patterns might be of interest, but it is hard to imagine what else would be of interest.

The other side of intelligence interest in our field is our interest in surveillance. What can we learn from the intelligence agencies and the techniques they develop? I’m certainly intrigued by what they might have been able to do. What responsibilities do we have to engage the ethical and interpretative issues raised by Snowden’s revelations. My blog entry Interpreting the CSEC Presentation: Watch Out Olympians in the House! would be a attempt to interpret Snowden documents – perhaps paleography of the documents.

Meister rightly opens the ethical issue of whether our organization should have a code of ethics that touches on how our research is used. We have a code of conduct, should it extend to issues of surveillance? The humanist in me asks how other fields in the humanities have dealt with the sudden military application of their research. There was/is an issue around the involvement of anthropologists and sociologists in Petagon-funded projects.