Can’t Get You Out of My Head

I finally finished watching the BBC documentary series Can’t Get You Out of My Head by Adam Curtis. It is hard to describe this series which is cut entirely from archival footage with Curtis’ voice interpreting and linking the diverse clips. The subtitle is “An Emotional History of the Modern World” which is true in that the clips are often strangely affecting, but doesn’t convey the broad social-political connections Curtis makes in the narration. He is trying out a set of theses about recent history in China, the US, the UK, and Russia leading up to Brexit and Trump. I’m still digesting the 6 part series, but here are some of the threads of theses:

  • Conspiracies. He traces our fascination and now belief in conspiracies back to a memo by Jim Garrison in 1967 about the JFK assassination. The memo, Time and Propinquity: Factors in Phase I presents results of an investigative technique built on finding patterns of linkages between fragments of information. When you find strange coincidences you then weave a story (conspiracy) to join them rather than starting with a theory and checking the facts. This reminds me of what software like Palantir does – it makes (often coincidental) connections easy to find so you can tell stories. Curtis later follows the evolution of conspiracies as a political force leading to liberal conspiracies about Trump (that he was a Russian agent) and alt-right conspiracies like Q-Anon. We are all willing to surrender our independence of thought for the joys of conspiracies.
  • Big Data Surveillance and AI. Curtis connects this new mode of investigation to what the big data platforms like Google now do with AI. They gather lots of fragments of information about us and then a) use it to train AIs, and b) sell inferences drawn from the data to advertisers while keeping us anxious through the promotion of emotional content. Big data can deal with the complexity of the world which we have given up on trying to control. It promises to manage the complexity of fragments by finding patterns in them. This reminds me of discussions around the End of Theory and shift from theories to correlations.
  • Psychology. Curtis also connects this to emerging psychological theories about how our minds may be fragmented with different unconscious urges moving us. Psychology then offers ways to figure out what people really want and to nudge or prime them. This is what Cambridge Analytica promised – the ability to offer services we believed due to conspiracy theories. Curtis argues at the end that behavioural psychology can’t replicate many of the experiments undergirding nudging. Curtis suggests that all this big data manipulation doesn’t work though the platforms can heighten our anxiety and emotional stress. A particularly disturbing part of the last part is the discussion of how the US developed “enhanced” torture techniques based on these ideas after 9/11 to create “learned helplessness” in prisoners. The idea was to fragment their consciousness so that they would release a flood of these fragments, some of which might be useful intelligence.
  • Individualism. A major theme is the rise of individualism since the war and how individuals are controlled. China’s social credit model of explicit control through surveillance is contrasted to the Western consumer driven platform surveillance control. Either way, Curtis’ conclusion seems to be that we need to regain confidence in our own individual powers to choose our future and strive for it. We need to stop letting others control us with fear or distract us with consumption. We need to choose our future.

In some ways the series is a plea for everyone to make up their own stories from their fragmentary experience. The series starts with this quote,

The ultimate hidden truth of the world is that it is something we make, and could just as easily make differently. (David Graeber)

Of course, Curtis’ series could just be a conspiracy story that he wove out of the fragments he found in the BBC archives.

Addressing the Alarming Systems of Surveillance Built By Library Vendors

The Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition (SPARC) are drawing attention to how we need to be Addressing the Alarming Systems of Surveillance Built By Library Vendors. This was triggered by a story in The Intercept that LexisNexis (is) to provide (a) giant database of personal information to ICE

The company’s databases offer an oceanic computerized view of a person’s existence; by consolidating records of where you’ve lived, where you’ve worked, what you’ve purchased, your debts, run-ins with the law, family members, driving history, and thousands of other types of breadcrumbs, even people particularly diligent about their privacy can be identified and tracked through this sort of digital mosaic. LexisNexis has gone even further than merely aggregating all this data: The company claims it holds 283 million distinct individual dossiers of 99.99% accuracy tied to “LexIDs,” unique identification codes that make pulling all the material collected about a person that much easier. For an undocumented immigrant in the United States, the hazard of such a database is clear. (The Intercept)

That LexisNexis has been building databases on people isn’t new. Sarah Brayne has a book about predictive policing titled Predict and Surveil where, among other things, she describes how the LAPD use Palantir and how police databases integrated in Palantir are enhanced by commercial databases like those sold by LexisNexis. (There is an essay that is an excerpt of the book here, Enter the Dragnet.)

I suspect environments like Palantir make all sorts of smaller and specialized databases more commercially valuable which is leading what were library database providers to expand their business. Before, a database about repossessions might be of interest to only a specialized community. Now it becomes linked to other information and is another dimension of data. In particular these databases provide information about all the people who aren’t in police databases. They provide the breadcrumbs needed to surveil those not documented elsewhere.

The SPARC call points out that we (academics, university libraries) have been funding these database providers. 

Dollars from library subscriptions, directly or indirectly, now support these systems of surveillance. This should be deeply concerning to the library community and to the millions of faculty and students who use their products each day and further underscores the urgency of privacy protections as library services—and research and education more generally—are now delivered primarily online.

This raises the question of our complicity and whether we could do without some of these companies. At a deeper level it raises questions about the curiosity of the academy. We are dedicated to knowledge as an unalloyed good and are at the heart of a large system of surveillance – surveillance of the past, of literature, of nature, of the cosmos, and of ourselves.

What Sky Bet, The Gambling App, Knows About You

Sky Bet, the most popular one in Britain, compiled extensive records about a user, tracking him in ways he never imagined.

The New York Times has a good story about What Sky Bet, The Gambling App, Knows About You. It talks about the profile that Sky Bet in the UK built on a customer who had an addiction problem with gambling.

The company, or one of the data providers it had hired to collect information about users, had access to banking records, mortgage details, location coordinates, and an intimate portrait of his habits wagering on slots and soccer matches.

We tend to focus on what the big guys have and forget all the lesser known information aggregators and middlemen who buy and sell data. This story also provides an example of how valuable data can be to a business like online gambling that wants to attract the clients who are likely to get addicted to gambling.

Freedom Online Coalition joint statement on artificial intelligence

The Freedom Online Coalition (FOC) has issued a joint statement on artificial intelligence (AI) and human rights.  While the FOC acknowledges that AI systems offer unprecedented opportunities for human development and innovation, the Coalition expresses concern over the documented and ongoing use of AI systems towards repressive and authoritarian purposes, including through facial recognition technology […]

The Freedom Online Coalition is a coalition of countries including Canada that “work closely together to coordinate their diplomatic efforts and engage with civil society and the private sector to support Internet freedom – free expression, association, assembly, and privacy online – worldwide.” It was founded in 2011 at the initiative of the Dutch.

FOC has just released Joint Statement on Artificial Intelligence and Human Rights that calls for “transparency, traceability and accountability” in the design and deployment of AI systems. They also reaffirm that “states must abide by their obligations under international human rights law to ensure that human rights are fully respected and protected.” The statement ends with a series of recommendations or “Calls to action”.

What is important about this statement is the role of the state recommended. This is not a set of vapid principles that developers should voluntarily adhere to. It calls for appropriate legislation.

States should consider how domestic legislation, regulation and policies can identify, prevent, and mitigate risks to human rights posed by the design, development and use of AI systems, and take action where appropriate. These may include national AI and data strategies, human rights codes, privacy laws, data protection measures, responsible business practices, and other measures that may protect the interests of persons or groups facing multiple and intersecting forms of discrimination.

I note that yesterday the Liberals introduced a Digital Charter Implementation Act that could significantly change the regulations around data privacy. More on that as I read about it.

Thanks to Florence for pointing this FOC statement out to me.

Why basing universities on digital platforms will lead to their demise – Infolet

I’m republishing here a blog essay originally in Italian that Domenico Fiormonte posted on Infolet that is worth reading,

Why basing universities on digital platforms will lead to their demise

By Domenico Fiormonte

(All links removed. They can be found in the original post – English Translation by Desmond Schmidt)

A group of professors from Italian universities have written an open letter on the consequences of using proprietary digital platforms in distance learning. They hope that a discussion on the future of education will begin as soon as possible and that the investments discussed in recent weeks will be used to create a public digital infrastructure for schools and universities.

Dear colleagues and students,

as you already know, since the COVID-19 emergency began, Italian schools and universities have relied on proprietary platforms and tools for distance learning (including exams), which are mostly produced by the “GAFAM” group of companies (Google, Apple, Facebook, Microsoft and Amazon). There are a few exceptions, such as the Politecnico di Torino, which has adopted instead its own custom-built solutions. However, on July 16, 2020 the European Court of Justice issued a very important ruling, which essentially says that US companies do not guarantee user privacy in accordance with the European General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). As a result, all data transfers from the EU to the United States must be regarded as non-compliant with this regulation, and are therefore illegal.

A debate on this issue is currently underway in the EU, and the European Authority has explicitly invited “institutions, offices, agencies and organizations of the European Union to avoid transfers of personal data to the United States for new procedures or when securing new contracts with service providers.” In fact the Irish Authority has explicitly banned the transfer of Facebook user data to the United States. Finally, some studies underline how the majority of commercial platforms used during the “educational emergency” (primarily G-Suite) pose serious legal problems and represent a “systematic violation of the principles of transparency.”

In this difficult situation, various organizations, including (as stated below) some university professors, are trying to help Italian schools and universities comply with the ruling. They do so in the interests not only of the institutions themselves, but also of teachers and students, who have the right to study, teach and discuss without being surveilled, profiled and catalogued. The inherent risks in outsourcing teaching to multinational companies, who can do as they please with our data, are not only cultural or economic, but also legal: anyone, in this situation, could complain to the privacy authority to the detriment of the institution for which they are working.

However, the question goes beyond our own right, or that of our students, to privacy. In the renewed COVID emergency we know that there are enormous economic interests at stake, and the digital platforms, which in recent months have increased their turnover (see the study published in October by Mediobanca), now have the power to shape the future of education around the world. An example is what is happening in Italian schools with the national “Smart Class” project, financed with EU funds by the Ministry of Education. This is a package of “integrated teaching” where Pearson contributes the content for all the subjects, Google provides the software, and the hardware is the Acer Chromebook. (Incidentally, Pearson is the second largest publisher in the world, with a turnover of more than 4.5 billion euros in 2018.) And for the schools that join, it is not possible to buy other products.

Finally, although it may seem like science fiction, in addition to stabilizing proprietary distance learning as an “offer”, there is already talk of using artificial intelligence to “support” teachers in their work.

For all these reasons, a group of professors from various Italian universities decided to take action. Our initiative is not currently aimed at presenting an immediate complaint to the data protection officer, but at avoiding it, by allowing teachers and students to create spaces for discussion and encourage them to make choices that combine their freedom of teaching with their right to study. Only if the institutional response is insufficient or absent, we will register, as a last resort, a complaint to the national privacy authority. In this case the first step will be to exploit the “flaw” opened by the EU court ruling to push the Italian privacy authority to intervene (indeed, the former President, Antonello Soro, had already done so, but received no response). The purpose of these actions is certainly not to “block” the platforms that provide distance learning and those who use them, but to push the government to finally invest in the creation of a public infrastructure based on free software for scientific communication and teaching (on the model of what is proposed here and
which is already a reality for example in France, Spain and other European countries).

As we said above, before appealing to the national authority, a preliminary stage is necessary. Everyone must write to the data protection officer (DPO) requesting some information (attached here is the facsimile of the form for teachers we have prepared). If no response is received within thirty days, or if the response is considered unsatisfactory, we can proceed with the complaint to the national authority. At that point, the conversation will change, because the complaint to the national authority can be made not only by individuals, but also by groups or associations. It is important to emphasize that, even in this avoidable scenario, the question to the data controller is not necessarily a “protest” against the institution, but an attempt to turn it into a better working and study environment for everyone, conforming to European standards.

CEO of exam monitoring software Proctorio apologises for posting student’s chat logs on Reddit

Australian students who have raised privacy concerns describe the incident involving a Canadian student as ‘freakishly disrespectful’

The Guardian has a story about CEO of exam monitoring software Proctorio apologises for posting student’s chat logs on Reddit. Proctorio provides software for monitoring (proctoring) students on their own laptop while they take exams. It uses the video camera and watches the keyboard to presumably watch whether the student tries to cheat on a timed exam. Apparently a UBC student claimed that he couldn’t get help in a timely fashion from Proctorio when he was using it (presumably with a timer going for the exam.) This led to Australian students criticizing the use of Proctorio which led to the CEO arguing that the UBC student had lied and providing a partial transcript to show that the student was answered in a timely fashion. That the CEO would post a partial transcript shows that:

  1. staff at Proctorio do have access to the logs and transcripts of student behaviour, and
  2. that they don’t have the privacy protection protocols in place to prevent the private information from being leaked.

I can’t help feeling that there is a pattern here since we also see senior politicians sometimes leaking data about citizens who criticize them. The privacy protocols may be in place, but they aren’t observed or can’t be enforced against the senior staff (who are the ones that presumably need to do the enforcing.) You also sense that the senior person feels that the critic abrogated their right to privacy by lying or misrepresenting something in their criticism.

This raises the question of whether someone who misuses or lies about a service deserves the ongoing protection of the service. Of course, we want to say that they should, but nations like the UK have stripped citizens like Shamina Begum of citizenship and thus their rights because they behaved traitorously, joining ISIS. Countries have murdered their own citizens that became terrorists without a trial. Clearly we feel that in some cases one can unilaterally remove someones rights, including the right to life, because of their behaviour.

MIT apologizes, permanently pulls offline huge dataset that taught AI systems to use racist, misogynistic slurs

Vinay Prabhu, chief scientist at UnifyID, a privacy startup in Silicon Valley, and Abeba Birhane, a PhD candidate at University College Dublin in Ireland, pored over the MIT database and discovered thousands of images labelled with racist slurs for Black and Asian people, and derogatory terms used to describe women. They revealed their findings in a paper undergoing peer review for the 2021 Workshop on Applications of Computer Vision conference.

Another one of those “what were they thinking when they created the dataset stories” from The Register tells about how MIT apologizes, permanently pulls offline huge dataset that taught AI systems to use racist, misogynistic slurs. The MIT Tiny Images dataset was created automatically using scripts that used the WordNet database of terms which itself held derogatory terms. Nobody thought to check either the terms taken from WordNet or the resulting images scoured from the net. As a result there are not only lots of images for which permission was not secured, but also racists, sexist, and otherwise derogatory labels on the images which in turn means that if you train an AI on these it will generate racist/sexist results.

The article also mentions a general problem with academic datasets. Companies like Facebook can afford to hire actors to pose for images and can thus secure permissions to use the images for training. Academic datasets (and some commercial ones like the Clearview AI  database) tend to be scraped and therefore will not have the explicit permission of the copyright holders or people shown. In effect, academics are resorting to mass surveillance to generate training sets. One wonders if we could crowdsource a training set by and for people?

Obscure Indian cyber firm spied on politicians, investors worldwide

A cache of data reviewed by Reuters provides insight into the operation, detailing tens of thousands of malicious messages designed to trick victims into giving up their passwords that were sent by BellTroX between 2013 and 2020.

It was bound to happen. Reuters has an important story that an  Obscure Indian cyber firm spied on politicians, investors worldwide. The firm, BellTroX InfoTech Services, offered hacking services to private investigators and others. While we focus on state-sponsored hacking and misinformation there is a whole murky world of commercial hacking going on.

The Citizen Lab played a role in uncovering what BellTroX was doing. They have a report here about Dark Basin, a hacking-for-hire outfit, that they link to BellTroX. The report is well worth the read as it details the infrastructure uncovered, the types of attacks, and the consequences.

The growth of a hack-for-hire industry may be fueled by the increasing normalization of other forms of commercialized cyber offensive activity, from digital surveillance to “hacking back,” whether marketed to private individuals, governments or the private sector. Further, the growth of private intelligence firms, and the ubiquity of technology, may also be fueling an increasing demand for the types of services offered by BellTroX. At the same time, the growth of the private investigations industry may be contributing to making such cyber services more widely available and perceived as acceptable.

They conclude that the growth of this industry is a threat to civil society.

What is it became so affordable and normalized that any unscrupulous person could hire hackers to harass an ex-girlfriend or neighbour?

Is this crisis a turning point?

The era of peak globalisation is over. For those of us not on the front line, clearing the mind and thinking how to live in an altered world is the task at hand.

John Gray has written an essay in the New Statesman on Why this crisis is a turning point in history. He argues that the era of hyperglobalism is at an end and many systems may not survive the shift to something different. Many may think we will, after a bit of isolated pain, return to the good old expanding wealth, but the economic crisis that is now emerging may break that dream. Governments and nations may be broken by collapsing systems.

The tech ‘solutions’ for coronavirus take the surveillance state to the next level

Neoliberalism shrinks public budgets; solutionism shrinks public imagination.

Evgeny Morozov has crisp essay in The Guardina on how The tech ‘solutions’ for coronavirus take the surveillance state to the next level. He argues that neoliberalist austerity cut our public services back in ways that now we see are endangering lives, but it is solutionism that constraining our ideas about what we can do to deal with situations. If we look for a technical solution we give up on questioning the underlying defunding of the commons.

There is nice interview between Natasha Dow Shüll Morozov on The Folly of Technological Solutionism: An Interview with Evgeny Morozov in which they talk about his book To Save Everything, Click Here: The Folly of Technological Solutionism and gamification.

Back in The Guardian, he ends his essay warning that we should focus on picking between apps – between solutions. We should get beyond solutions like apps to thinking politically.

The feast of solutionism unleashed by Covid-19 reveals the extreme dependence of the actually existing democracies on the undemocratic exercise of private power by technology platforms. Our first order of business should be to chart a post-solutionist path – one that gives the public sovereignty over digital platforms.