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Posts Tagged ‘surveillance

“Surveillance is permanent in its effects, even if it is discontinuous in its action”*…

 

Facial recognition

China’s facial recognition technology identifies visitors in a display at the Digital China Exhibition in Fuzhou, Fujian province, earlier this year

 

Collective wisdom is that China is becoming a kind of all-efficient Technocratic Leviathan thanks to the combination of machine learning and authoritarianism. Authoritarianism has always been plagued with problems of gathering and collating information and of being sufficiently responsive to its citizens’ needs to remain stable. Now, the story goes, a combination of massive data gathering and machine learning will solve the basic authoritarian dilemma. When every transaction that a citizen engages in is recorded by tiny automatons riding on the devices they carry in their hip pockets, when cameras on every corner collect data on who is going where, who is talking to whom, and uses facial recognition technology to distinguish ethnicity and identify enemies of the state, a new and far more powerful form of authoritarianism will emerge. Authoritarianism then, can emerge as a more efficient competitor that can beat democracy at its home game (some fear this; some welcome it).

The theory behind this is one of strength reinforcing strength – the strengths of ubiquitous data gathering and analysis reinforcing the strengths of authoritarian repression to create an unstoppable juggernaut of nearly perfectly efficient oppression. Yet there is another story to be told – of weakness reinforcing weakness. Authoritarian states were always particularly prone to the deficiencies identified in James Scott’s Seeing Like a State – the desire to make citizens and their doings legible to the state, by standardizing and categorizing them, and reorganizing collective life in simplified ways, for example by remaking cities so that they were not organic structures that emerged from the doings of their citizens, but instead grand chessboards with ordered squares and boulevards, reducing all complexities to a square of planed wood. The grand state bureaucracies that were built to carry out these operations were responsible for multitudes of horrors, but also for the crumbling of the Stalinist state into a Brezhnevian desuetude, where everyone pretended to be carrying on as normal because everyone else was carrying on too. The deficiencies of state action, and its need to reduce the world into something simpler that it could comprehend and act upon created a kind of feedback loop, in which imperfections of vision and action repeatedly reinforced each other.

So what might a similar analysis say about the marriage of authoritarianism and machine learning? Something like the following, I think. There are two notable problems with machine learning. One – that while it can do many extraordinary things, it is not nearly as universally effective as the mythology suggests. The other is that it can serve as a magnifier for already existing biases in the data. The patterns that it identifies may be the product of the problematic data that goes in, which is (to the extent that it is accurate) often the product of biased social processes. When this data is then used to make decisions that may plausibly reinforce those processes (by singling e.g. particular groups that are regarded as problematic out for particular police attention, leading them to be more liable to be arrested and so on), the bias may feed upon itself.

This is a substantial problem in democratic societies, but it is a problem where there are at least some counteracting tendencies. The great advantage of democracy is its openness to contrary opinions and divergent perspectives. This opens up democracy to a specific set of destabilizing attacks but it also means that there are countervailing tendencies to self-reinforcing biases. When there are groups that are victimized by such biases, they may mobilize against it (although they will find it harder to mobilize against algorithms than overt discrimination). When there are obvious inefficiencies or social, political or economic problems that result from biases, then there will be ways for people to point out these inefficiencies or problems.

These correction tendencies will be weaker in authoritarian societies; in extreme versions of authoritarianism, they may barely even exist…

In short, there is a very plausible set of mechanisms under which machine learning and related techniques may turn out to be a disaster for authoritarianism, reinforcing its weaknesses rather than its strengths, by increasing its tendency to bad decision making, and reducing further the possibility of negative feedback that could help correct against errors. This disaster would unfold in two ways. The first will involve enormous human costs: self-reinforcing bias will likely increase discrimination against out-groups, of the sort that we are seeing against the Uighur today. The second will involve more ordinary self-ramifying errors, that may lead to widespread planning disasters, which will differ from those described in Scott’s account of High Modernism in that they are not as immediately visible, but that may also be more pernicious, and more damaging to the political health and viability of the regime for just that reason.

So in short, this conjecture would suggest that  the conjunction of AI and authoritarianism (has someone coined the term ‘aithoritarianism’ yet? I’d really prefer not to take the blame), will have more or less the opposite effects of what people expect. It will not be Singapore writ large, and perhaps more brutal. Instead, it will be both more radically monstrous and more radically unstable…

Henry Farrell (@henryfarrell) makes that case that the “automation of authoritarianism” may backfire on China (and on the regimes to which it is exporting it’s surveillance technology): “Seeing Like a Finite State Machine.”

See also: “China Government Spreads Uyghur Analytics Across China.”

* Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison

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As we ponder privacy, we might recall that it was on this date in 1769 that the first patent was issued (in London, to John Bevan) for Venetian blinds.  Invented centuries before in Persia, then brought back to Venice through trade, they became popular in Europe, then the U.S. as both a manager of outside light and as an early privacy technology.

venetian blinds source

 

Written by LW

December 11, 2019 at 1:01 am

“I never said, ‘I want to be alone.’ I only said ‘I want to be let alone!’ There is all the difference.”*…

 

moshed-1

 

Someone observing her could assemble in forensic detail her social and familial connections, her struggles and interests, and her beliefs and commitments. From Amazon purchases and Kindle highlights, from purchase records linked with her loyalty cards at the drugstore and the supermarket, from Gmail metadata and chat logs, from search history and checkout records from the public library, from Netflix-streamed movies, and from activity on Facebook and Twitter, dating sites, and other social networks, a very specific and personal narrative is clear.

If the apparatus of total surveillance that we have described here were deliberate, centralized, and explicit, a Big Brother machine toggling between cameras, it would demand revolt, and we could conceive of a life outside the totalitarian microscope. But if we are nearly as observed and documented as any person in history, our situation is a prison that, although it has no walls, bars, or wardens, is difficult to escape.

Which brings us back to the problem of “opting out.” For all the dramatic language about prisons and panopticons, the sorts of data collection we describe here are, in democratic countries, still theoretically voluntary. But the costs of refusal are high and getting higher: A life lived in social isolation means living far from centers of business and commerce, without access to many forms of credit, insurance, or other significant financial instruments, not to mention the minor inconveniences and disadvantages — long waits at road toll cash lines, higher prices at grocery stores, inferior seating on airline flights.

It isn’t possible for everyone to live on principle; as a practical matter, many of us must make compromises in asymmetrical relationships, without the control or consent for which we might wish. In those situations — everyday 21st-century life — there are still ways to carve out spaces of resistance, counterargument, and autonomy.

We are surrounded by examples of obfuscation that we do not yet think of under that name. Lawyers engage in overdisclosure, sending mountains of vaguely related client documents in hopes of burying a pertinent detail. Teenagers on social media — surveilled by their parents — will conceal a meaningful communication to a friend in a throwaway line or a song title surrounded by banal chatter. Literature and history provide many instances of “collective names,” where a population took a single identifier to make attributing any action or identity to a particular person impossible, from the fictional “I am Spartacus” to the real “Poor Conrad” and “Captain Swing” in prior centuries — and “Anonymous,” of course, in ours…

There is real utility in an obfuscation approach, whether that utility lies in bolstering an existing strong privacy system, in covering up some specific action, in making things marginally harder for an adversary, or even in the “mere gesture” of registering our discontent and refusal. After all, those who know about us have power over us. They can deny us employment, deprive us of credit, restrict our movements, refuse us shelter, membership, or education, manipulate our thinking, suppress our autonomy, and limit our access to the good life…

As Finn Brunton and Helen Nissenbaum argue in their new book Obfuscation: A User’s Guide for Privacy and Protest, those who know about us have power over us; obfuscation may be our best digital weapon: “The Fantasy of Opting Out.”

* Greta Garbo

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As we ponder privacy, we might recall that it was on this date in 1536 that William Tyndale was strangled then burned at the stake for heresy in Antwerp.  An English scholar and leading Protestant reformer, Tyndale effectively replaced Wycliffe’s Old English translation of the Bible with a vernacular version in what we now call Early Modern English (as also used, for instance, by Shakespeare). Tyndale’s translation was first English Bible to take advantage of the printing press, and first of the new English Bibles of the Reformation. Consequently, when it first went on sale in London, authorities gathered up all the copies they could find and burned them.  But after England went Protestant, it received official approval and ultimately became the basis of the King James Version.

Ironically, Tyndale incurred Henry VIII’s wrath after the King’s “conversion” to Protestantism, by writing a pamphlet decrying Henry’s divorce from Catherine of Aragon.  Tyndale moved to Europe, where he continued to advocate Protestant reform, ultimately running afoul of the Holy Roman Empire, which sentenced him to his death.

 source

 

Written by LW

October 6, 2019 at 1:01 am

“Outward show is a wonderful perverter of the reason”*…

 

facial analysis

Humans have long hungered for a short-hand to help in understanding and managing other humans.  From phrenology to the Myers-Briggs Test, we’ve tried dozens of short-cuts… and tended to find that at best they weren’t actually very helpful; at worst, they were reinforcing of stereotypes that were inaccurate, and so led to results that were unfair and ineffective.  Still, the quest continues– these days powered by artificial intelligence.  What could go wrong?…

Could a program detect potential terrorists by reading their facial expressions and behavior? This was the hypothesis put to the test by the US Transportation Security Administration (TSA) in 2003, as it began testing a new surveillance program called the Screening of Passengers by Observation Techniques program, or Spot for short.

While developing the program, they consulted Paul Ekman, emeritus professor of psychology at the University of California, San Francisco. Decades earlier, Ekman had developed a method to identify minute facial expressions and map them on to corresponding emotions. This method was used to train “behavior detection officers” to scan faces for signs of deception.

But when the program was rolled out in 2007, it was beset with problems. Officers were referring passengers for interrogation more or less at random, and the small number of arrests that came about were on charges unrelated to terrorism. Even more concerning was the fact that the program was allegedly used to justify racial profiling.

Ekman tried to distance himself from Spot, claiming his method was being misapplied. But others suggested that the program’s failure was due to an outdated scientific theory that underpinned Ekman’s method; namely, that emotions can be deduced objectively through analysis of the face.

In recent years, technology companies have started using Ekman’s method to train algorithms to detect emotion from facial expressions. Some developers claim that automatic emotion detection systems will not only be better than humans at discovering true emotions by analyzing the face, but that these algorithms will become attuned to our innermost feelings, vastly improving interaction with our devices.

But many experts studying the science of emotion are concerned that these algorithms will fail once again, making high-stakes decisions about our lives based on faulty science…

“Emotion detection” has grown from a research project to a $20bn industry; learn more about why that’s a cause for concern: “Don’t look now: why you should be worried about machines reading your emotions.”

* Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

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As we insist on the individual, we might recall that it was on this date in 1989 that Tim Berners-Lee submitted a proposal to CERN for developing a new way of linking and sharing information over the Internet.

It was the first time Berners-Lee proposed a system that would ultimately become the World Wide Web; but his proposal was basically a relatively vague request to research the details and feasibility of such a system.  He later submitted a proposal on November 12, 1990 that much more directly detailed the actual implementation of the World Wide Web.

web25-significant-white-300x248 source

 

“The city’s full of people who you just see around”*…

 

An archaeologist’s reconstruction of Dvin, one of the most ancient settlements of the Armenian Highland and an ancient capital of Armenia [source], and modern day New York City [source]

Much of the history of the city—its built forms and its politics, the urban experience, and the characteristic moral ambivalence that cities arouse—can be written as a tension between the visible and the invisible. What and who gets seen? By whom? Who interprets the city’s meaning? What should remain unseen?

Rulers of cities have always had an interest in visibility, both in representing their power and in controlling people by seeing them. The earliest cities emerged out of the symbiosis of religion and political power, and the temple and the citadel gave early urbanism its most visible elements…

Warren Breckman‘s  fascinating history of the city as a place to see and be seen: “A Matter of Optics.”

* Terry Pratchett, Men at Arms

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As we wonder, with Juvenal (and Alan Moore), who watches the watchmen, we might recall that it was on this date in 1752 that Benjamin Franklin and his son tested the relationship between electricity and lightning by flying a kite in a thunder storm.  Franklin was attempting a (safer) variation on a set of French investigations about which he’d read.  The French had connected lightning rods to a Leyden jar, but one of their experiments electrocuted the investigator.  Franklin– who may have been a wastrel, but was no fool– used a kite; the increased height/distance from the strike reduces the risk of electrocution.  (But it doesn’t eliminate it: Franklin’s experiment is now illegal in many states.)

In fact, (other) French experiments had successfully demonstrated the electrical properties of lightning a month before; but word had not yet reached Philadelphia.

The Treasury’s Bureau of Engraving and Printing created this vignette (c. 1860), which was used on the $10 National Bank Note from the 1860s to 1890s

 source

Written by LW

June 15, 2018 at 1:10 am

“Why do people respect the package rather than the man?”*…

 

Alphonse Bertillon’s Tableau synoptic des traits physionomiques was essentially a cheat sheet to help police clerks put into practice his pioneering method for classifying and archiving the images (and accompanying details) of repeat offenders, a system known as bertillonage. Beginning his career as a records clerk in the Parisian police department, Bertillon, the child of two statisticians and endowed with an obsessive love of order, soon became exasperated with the chaos of the files on offenders. The problem was particularly acute when it came to identifying offenders as repeat offenders (recidivists), given that the person in question could simply provide a false name. Before Bertillon, to find the files of the accused (or if there was even one already existing) the police would have to sift through the notorious “rogues’ gallery”, a disorganised mess of photographic portraits of past offenders, and hope for a visual match.

Bertillon’s solution was to develop a rigorous system of classification, or “signalment”, to help organise these photographs. This involved — in addition to taking simple measurements of the head, body, and extremities — breaking down the criminal’s physiognomy into discrete and classifiable elements (the curl of ear, fold of brow, inclination of chin). What in other contexts might be the much loved (or reviled) expressions of a personality, in Bertillon’s world become simply units of information. Taking a note of these, as well as individual markings such as scars or tattoos, and personality characteristics, Bertillon could produce a composite formula that could then be tied to a photographic portrait and name, all displayed on a single card, a portrait parlé (a speaking portrait). These cards were then systematically archived and cross-indexed, to make the task of linking a reticent offender with a possible criminal past, infinitely easier. Put into practise in 1883, the system was hugely effective and was soon adopted by police forces across the channel, before spreading throughout Europe and the Americas, (though without Bertillon’s obsessive eye overseeing proceedings, its foreign adventures were not a complete success).

Key to the whole endeavour, of course, was the new exactitude of representation afforded by photography, though this was still an exactitude limited to a particular moment. Over time faces change, a fact which rendered Bertillon’s system less than perfect. With the call for an identifier more fixed than the measurements of an inevitably changing face, and a system less complex, bertillonage was eventually, by the beginning of the 20th century, supplanted by the new kid on the forensic science block — fingerprinting

An early ancestor of today’s Age of Surveillance: “Alphonse Bertillon’s Synoptic Table of Physiognomic Traits (ca. 1909).”

* Michel de Montaigne

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As we try on a Privacy Visor, we might recall that it was on this date in 1814 that London suffered “The Great Beer Flood Disaster” when the metal bands on an immense vat at Meux’s Horse Shoe Brewery snapped, releasing a tidal wave of 3,555 barrels of Porter (571 tons– more than 1 million pints), which swept away the brewery walls, flooded nearby basements, and collapsed several adjacent tenements. While there were reports of over twenty fatalities resulting from poisoning by the porter fumes or alcohol coma, it appears that the death toll was 8, and those from the destruction caused by the huge wave of beer in the structures surrounding the brewery.

(The U.S. had its own vat mishap in 1919, when a Boston molasses plant suffered similarly-burst bands, creating a heavy wave of molasses moving at a speed of an estimated 35 mph; it killed 21 and injured 150.)

Meux’s Horse Shoe Brewery

source

 

Written by LW

October 17, 2017 at 1:01 am

“A lot of people don’t realize what’s really going on”*…

 

While public debate about the license reading technology has centered on how police should use it, business has eagerly adopted the $10,000 to $17,000 scanners with remarkably few limits…  But the most significant impact is far bigger than locating cars whose owners have defaulted on loans: It is the growing database of snapshots showing where Americans were at specific times, information that everyone from private detectives to ­insurers are willing to pay for…  Unlike law enforcement agencies, which often have policies to purge their computers of license records after a certain period of time, the data brokers are under no such obligation, meaning their databases grow and gain value over time as a way to track individuals’ movements and whereabouts…

Read more about this nebulous network and how it’s being used at “A Vast Hidden Surveillance Network Runs Across America, Powered By The Repo Industry.”

[TotH to Dave Pell]

* “Miller” (Tracey Walter) in Alex Cox’s wonderful Repo Man

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As we reconsider public transit, we might recall that it was on this date in 1818 that Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein was published.  Shelley had begun writing the story two years earlier, when she was 18 and on vacation near Geneva with her husband (the poet Percy) and their friend Lord Byron.  The house party set itself the task of each writing a gothic story; only Mary finished hers.  The first edition was published anonymously; Shelley was first publicly identified as the author on the title page of the 1823 second edition.

The work has, as Brian Aldiss argues, a strong claim to being the first true science fiction novel.  As the sub-title– “The Modern Prometheus”– suggests (and like all great sci fi), it treats the philosophical, cultural, and psychological ramifications of scientific and technological progress.

 source

 

How to be noticed…

The world now has access to a list of words and phrases that the U.S. Department of Homeland Security uses to monitor social networks and news article comments for terrorism and general threats against the country.

The list was part of a 39-page “2011 Analyst’s Desktop Binder” document that was released due to a Freedom of Information Act request by privacy watchdog organization Electronic Privacy Information Center. The list contains references to all the related governmental agencies, obvious references to threats (attack, nuclear threat, etc.) and then some pretty generic words like pork, cloud, electric, port, dock, and many others…

Read the full story– and the DHS document– on VentureBeat.

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As we reckon that we’ve already been fingered, we might send tuneful birthday wishes to Woodrow Wilson “Woody” Guthrie; he was born on this date in 1912.  Guthrie traveled with migrant workers from Oklahoma to California and learned their traditional folk and blues songs. Many of his own songs are about his experiences in the Dust Bowl era during the Great Depression– and earned him the nickname, “Dust Bowl Troubadour.”

‘This Land is Your Land (in D)’By Woody Guthrie

CHORUS: This land is your land, this land is my land
From California to the New York island
From the Redwood forest to the Gulf Stream waters
This land was made for you and me

CANADIAN CHORUS:

This land is your land, this land is my land
From Bonavista to Vancouver Island
From the Arctic Circle to the Great Lake Waters
This land was made for you and me

SANIBEL CHORUS:

This land is your land, this land is my land
From California to Sanibel Island
From the Redwood forest to the Gulf Stream waters
This land was made for you and me

As I was walking that ribbon of highway
I saw above me that endless skyway
I saw below me that golden valley
This land was made for you and me

I roamed and rambled and followed my footsteps
O’er the sparkling sands of her diamond deserts
While all around me, a voice was saying
This land was made for you and me

When the sun came shining and I was strolling
And the wheat fields waving and the dust clouds rolling
As the fog was lifting, a voice was chanting
This land was made for you and me

As I went walking, I saw a sign there
On the sign it said NO TRESPASSING
But on the other side it didn’t say nothing
That side was made for you and me!

In the squares of the city, in the shadow of the steeple
In the relief office, I seen my people;
As they stood there hungry I stood there asking,
Is this land made for you and me?

Nobody living can ever stop me
As I go walking that freedom highway
Nobody living can make me turn back
This land was made for you and me

 source

Written by LW

July 14, 2012 at 1:01 am

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