(Roughly) Daily

Posts Tagged ‘surveillance

“The advance of machine-technique must lead ultimately to some form of collectivism, but that form need not necessarily be equalitarian”*…

Whither our relationship with the technology that’s become so engrained a part of our lives? And what of the companies that provide it? Tim Carmody muses…

The end of the heroic age of the tech giants does not imply that tech giants are in decline, but confusing the two is natural. Observers and analysts usually talk that way about companies, especially tech companies and the platforms they enable: they grow, mature, then decline (in relevance if not in revenue).

In general, what characterizes this phase of the tech giants’ development is a shift from unlocking user creativity and customer value to doubling down on surveillance, usually augmented by AI. Mass surveillance was always an important emergent part of the tech giants’ strategy, but was arguably secondary to delighting users and giving them greater capabilities. Now surveillance and nonhuman solutions are dominant, and the creative possibilities are now almost all residual.

(Yes, this “emergent/dominant/residual” schema is a Raymond Williams reference.)…

… Both of these declines — the decline of the consumer experience and the decline of the market forecasts — are driving tech companies’ retreat from what I’m calling their heroic phase. But neither are identical to it.

We can imagine — in fact, I predict — that these companies’ stock prices will rebound along with the rest of the market. Their profits will soar — the newfound emphasis on profits rather than reinvestment demands that they soar. Their technical innovations will continue, especially in AI, automation, and cloud computing. And yes, customers from you and me to the DoD will continue to shop for, use, and stream their products.

The main difference is that it’s now clearer than ever before that these companies’ interests are not the same as their customers’, or their workers’. There’s nothing universal about the technology revolution, no rising tide that lifts all boats. We have to give up that fiction in order to see things as they really are…

Eminently worth reading in full: “Two ways to think about decline,” from @tcarmody via @sentiers.

* George Orwell, The Road to Wigan Pier

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As we (re-)think tech, we might recall that it was on this date in 1871 that Andrew Smith Hallidie received a patent for an “endless wire rope way” which he then put into practice as the Clay Street Hill Railroad– the start of the San Francisco cable car system.

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A view of the railroad in 1876 (source)

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January 17, 2023 at 1:00 am

“There are no private lives. This a most important aspect of modern life.”*…

The idea that China gives every citizen a “social credit score” continues to capture the horrified imagination of many. But it is more bogeyman than reality. Instead, we should be worrying about other, more invasive surveillance practices – and not just in China, argues MERICS analyst Vincent Brussee

“What if every action that you took in your life was recorded in a score like it was a video game?” … “If your score drops to 950, you will be subject to re-education.” … “It is the beginning of slavery, complete control, and the disappearance of all freedoms … In China, they call it social credit.” These are just some of the statements made in parliamentary debates in Europe and online commentaries about China’s Social Credit System. Given the vehemence of these views, and the attention they attract, it must have come as a real headscratcher to many when China recently pledged that would ban the use of AI for social scoring.  

So, what are the facts relating to China’s Social Credit System (SoCS)? First, a system does exist, but it is very different from what is imagined by many critics outside China. The biggest disconnect is around the notion of scores. Some commentators seem to imagine that a magic algorithm draws from AI cameras and internet surveillance all over the country to calculate a score that determines everyone’s place in society. In reality, the SoCS is not the techno-dystopian nightmare we fear: it is lowly digitalized, highly fragmented, and primarily focuses on businesses. Most importantly, such a score simply does not exist.

… this does not mean that the SoCS is benign. It also does not imply that China’s broader surveillance apparatus is a myth – quite to the contrary. However, public debates typically do not focus on these aspects. Rather, the interest in the system often stems from broader anxieties about digital technologies, as reflected in the UN pledge and similar actions taken by other countries. Often, the SoCS is merely invoked as a metaphor: either to depict some technological threat at home or to portray a techno-dystopian China. 

This is symptomatic of a tendency to see China not as a real place with real people, but as an abstract “negative opposite” of “us.” While our discussions on tech in China remain overshadowed by largely fictional scoring, we ignore real threats of surveillance to exactly those people in China. And when we use the SoCS to invoke the image of a technological threat at home, we lose sight of potentially acute technological threats much closer to reality. 

In both cases, the real losers are the people that those making the claims say they want to protect…

More at “China’s social credit score – untangling myth from reality,” from @Vincent_WDB at @merics_eu.

See also: “China just announced a new social credit law. Here’s what it means- The West has largely gotten China’s social credit system wrong. But draft legislation introduced in November offers a more accurate picture of the reality,” in @techreview.

[Image above: source]

* Philip K. Dick, who also said “There will come a time when it isn’t ‘They’re spying on me through my phone’ anymore. Eventually, it will be ‘My phone is spying on me’.”

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As we ponder the panopticon, we might recall that it was on this date in 1942 that a team of scientists led by Enrico Fermi, working inside an enormous tent on a squash court under the stands of the University of Chicago’s Stagg Field, achieved the first controlled nuclear fission chain reaction… laying the foundation for the atomic bomb and later, nuclear power generation– that’s to say, inaugurating the Atomic Age.

“…the Italian Navigator has just landed in the New World…”
– Coded telephone message confirming first self-sustaining nuclear chain reaction, December 2, 1942.

Illustration depicting the scene on Dec. 2, 1942 (Photo copyright of Chicago Historical Society) source

Indeed, exactly 15 years later, on this date in 1957, the world’s first full-scale atomic electric power plant devoted exclusively to peacetime uses, the Shippingport Atomic Power Station, reached criticality; the first power was produced 16 days later, after engineers integrated the generator into the distribution grid of Duquesne Light Company.

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December 2, 2022 at 1:00 am

“Foresight begins when we accept that we are now creating a civilization of risk”*…

There have been a handful folks– Vernor Vinge, Don Michael, Sherry Turkle, to name a few– who were, decades ago, exceptionally foresightful about the technologically-meditated present in which we live. Philip Agre belongs in their number…

In 1994 — before most Americans had an email address or Internet access or even a personal computer — Philip Agre foresaw that computers would one day facilitate the mass collection of data on everything in society.

That process would change and simplify human behavior, wrote the then-UCLA humanities professor. And because that data would be collected not by a single, powerful “big brother” government but by lots of entities for lots of different purposes, he predicted that people would willingly part with massive amounts of information about their most personal fears and desires.

“Genuinely worrisome developments can seem ‘not so bad’ simply for lacking the overt horrors of Orwell’s dystopia,” wrote Agre, who has a doctorate in computer science from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, in an academic paper.

Nearly 30 years later, Agre’s paper seems eerily prescient, a startling vision of a future that has come to pass in the form of a data industrial complex that knows no borders and few laws. Data collected by disparate ad networks and mobile apps for myriad purposes is being used to sway elections or, in at least one case, to out a gay priest. But Agre didn’t stop there. He foresaw the authoritarian misuse of facial recognition technology, he predicted our inability to resist well-crafted disinformation and he foretold that artificial intelligence would be put to dark uses if not subjected to moral and philosophical inquiry.

Then, no one listened. Now, many of Agre’s former colleagues and friends say they’ve been thinking about him more in recent years, and rereading his work, as pitfalls of the Internet’s explosive and unchecked growth have come into relief, eroding democracy and helping to facilitate a violent uprising on the steps of the U.S. Capitol in January.

“We’re living in the aftermath of ignoring people like Phil,” said Marc Rotenberg, who edited a book with Agre in 1998 on technology and privacy, and is now founder and executive director for the Center for AI and Digital Policy…

As Reed Albergotti (@ReedAlbergotti) explains, better late than never: “He predicted the dark side of the Internet 30 years ago. Why did no one listen?

Agre’s papers are here.

* Jacques Ellul

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As we consider consequences, we might recall that it was on this date in 1858 that Queen Victoria sent the first official telegraph message across the Atlantic Ocean from London to U. S. President James Buchanan, in Washington D.C.– an initiated a new era in global communications.

Transmission of the message began at 10:50am and wasn’t completed until 4:30am the next day, taking nearly eighteen hours to reach Newfoundland, Canada. Ninety-nine words, containing five hundred nine letters, were transmitted at a rate of about two minutes per letter.

After White House staff had satisfied themselves that it wasn’t a hoax, the President sent a reply of 143 words in a relatively rapid ten hours. Without the cable, a dispatch in one direction alone would have taken rouighly twelve days by the speediest combination of inland telegraph and fast steamer.

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“A Room of One’s Own”*…

Interiors of real living and working spaces from an unusual perspective. It seems as if someone has lifted the ceiling and replaced it with a scanner. In fact, the photographs consist of up to a hundred individual shots taken with a remote control and then digitally assembled. One associates doll’s houses and at the same time thinks of surveillance…

Menno Aden‘s photos evoke the spirit of our “Surveillance Capitalist” age: “Room Portraits.”

* An extended essay by Virginia Wolff

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As we duck and cover, we might recall that it was on this date in 1954 that Rosemary Clooney hit the top of the U.S. pop chart with “This Ole House,” which soon topped the British chart as well. Written earlier that year by Stuart Hamblen, it was a #1 hit again in the U.K. in 1981 for Shakin’ Stevens.

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November 6, 2020 at 1:01 am

“All human beings have three lives: public, private, and secret”*…

 

Privacy

A monitor displays the Omron Corp. Okao face- and emotion-detection technology during CES 2020

 

Twenty years ago at a Silicon Valley product launch, Sun Microsystems CEO Scott McNealy dismissed concern about digital privacy as a red herring: “You have zero privacy anyway. Get over it.

“Zero privacy” was meant to placate us, suggesting that we have a fixed amount of stuff about ourselves that we’d like to keep private. Once we realized that stuff had already been exposed and, yet, the world still turned, we would see that it was no big deal. But what poses as unsentimental truth telling isn’t cynical enough about the parlous state of our privacy.

That’s because the barrel of privacy invasion has no bottom. The rallying cry for privacy should begin with the strangely heartening fact that it can always get worse. Even now there’s something yet to lose, something often worth fiercely defending.

For a recent example, consider Clearview AI: a tiny, secretive startup that became the subject of a recent investigation by Kashmir Hill in The New York Times. According to the article, the company scraped billions of photos from social-networking and other sites on the web—without permission from the sites in question, or the users who submitted them—and built a comprehensive database of labeled faces primed for search by facial recognition. Their early customers included multiple police departments (and individual officers), which used the tool without warrants. Clearview has argued they have a right to the data because they’re “public.”

In general, searching by a face to gain a name and then other information is on the verge of wide availability: The Russian internet giant Yandex appears to have deployed facial-recognition technology in its image search tool. If you upload an unlabeled picture of my face into Google image search, it identifies me and then further searches my name, and I’m barely a public figure, if at all.

Given ever more refined surveillance, what might the world look like if we were to try to “get over” the loss of this privacy? Two very different extrapolations might allow us to glimpse some of the consequences of our privacy choices (or lack thereof) that are taking shape even today…

From Jonathan Zittrain (@zittrain), two scenarios for a post-privacy future: “A World Without Privacy Will Revive the Masquerade.”

* Gabriel García Márquez

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As we get personal, we might send provocatively nonsensical birthday greetings to Hugo Ball; he was born on this date in 1886.  Ball worked as an actor with Max Reinhardt and Hermann Bahr in Berlin until the outbreak of World War I.  A staunch pacifist, Ball made his way to Switzerland, where he turned his hand to poetry in an attempt to express his horror at the conflagration enveloping Europe. (“The war is founded on a glaring mistake, men have been confused with machines.”)

Settling in Zürich, Ball was a co-founder of the Dada movement (and, lore suggests, its namer, having allegedly picked the word at random from a dictionary).  With Tristan Tzara and Jan Arp, among others, he co-founded and presided over the Cabaret Voltaire, the epicenter of Dada.  And in 1916, he created the first Dada Manifesto (Tzara’s came two years later).

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February 22, 2020 at 1:01 am

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