The Null Device

Posts matching tags 'postdemocracy'

2018/3/22

So, the Cambridge Analytica revelations: The broader outline (shadowy company, owned by right-wing billionaires and possibly connected to Russian intelligence interests, uses big data, psychological algorithms and targeted ads to fix elections, including the 2016 US Presidential one and the Brexit referendum) had started trickling out since late 2016. They would have remained an ominous undercurrent, known of by the vanquished liberal minority and embellished with layers of speculation, conspiracy theory and fatalistic gallows humour, were it not for a former operative spilling the beans, revealing further details. Details such as that that the data went beyond the usual broad-brush correlations between brand likes one thinks of when considering ad targeting and went into alarmingly intimate data aggregated from sources including Facebook private messages and credit profiles; and that, while the data was taken from Facebook by deception (under the claim that it was to be used for academic purposes; naming one’s company “Cambridge Analytica” can yield dividends, it seems), Facebook did not try particularly hard to enforce the terms of use ostensibly protecting its users (and, it seems, democracy and civil society themselves).

The elephant in the room, of course, is Facebook and its business model, which has been described, aptly, as “surveillance capitalism”. Facebook does not charge for its services, and funds itself through a modest amount of ads. What it does, however, is build up elaborate profiles of its users, sucking up their every online interaction it can to extend them. Where likes, posts, messages and location data don't suffice, it supplements with data from data brokers, gathered from credit ratings, things such as loyalty card programmes, and public-domain data. This yields a vast amount of data, which, when processed with sufficient computing power, can reveal a lot about users: in their less circumspect moments, Facebook's data scientists have revealed that they can tell a lot of things on an individual from their data trail, from political leanings to sexual orientation, to how likely their current relationship is to end; what other things they can determine about an individual given that data is an open question. What is not disputed, though, is that Facebook's very business model depends on using this data to target advertising, and their acuity in doing so to make revenue. In short, everything Cambridge Analytica allegedly did with their haul of illicitly obtained data, Facebook can do, continuously and at far greater scale.

This has not escaped notice, and the backlash has hit Facebook, not helped by Mark Zuckerberg's protracted silence on the matter. The hashtag #DeleteFacebook is trending on Twitter, urging users to nuke their Facebook accounts, and giving instructions on how to actually force Facebook to delete their data permanently, rather than just flagging it as temporarily inactive; the latest to add their name to the chorus is one of the founders of WhatsApp, a messaging system now owned by Facebook. Of course, that is easier said than done.

In some ways, it is easy: the instructions are easy to follow, and involve clicking through a few screens, entering the text in a CAPTCHA and watching one's digital life and/or surveillance dossier go up in virtual flames. What comes after is the hard part. Facebook have worked hard to own the social graph, and to make it difficult to take your friends with you when you leave. (The timeline you see on Facebook is, famously, not a chronological firehose of all your Facebook friends' posts, but a selection of a small proportion of those, chosen by the same all-knowing algorithms that know which ads to show you. It is said—though is, of course, difficult to verify—that those algorithms specifically score posts giving or requesting means of contact outside of Facebook down.) Or course, downloading a list of one's friends' names and email addresses/phone numbers is a nonstarter from the outset, ostensibly for reasons of privacy, so one's only bet is to individually contact the friends one wants to keep, one by one, to exchange details, resigning oneself to losing contact with the rest.

Other than owning the social graph, Facebook have managed to become the hub of socialisation in the 2010s by reducing friction. It is a lot easier to create a Facebook event for, say, a birthday party or an excursion to see a film, than to individually invite people to add the event to their calendars, and conversely socialising without Facebook has been consigned to the realm of Victorian-era calling cards. It is possible to socialise deliberately, with a few close friends one has in one's address book, but this does not scale. Social software such as Facebook has genuinely reduced friction and saved time, allowing people to keep in minimal touch with people they are peripherally connected to, and also reducing the time required to keep in touch with other, less peripheral, friends; the hectic pace of modern life has filled the time thus freed up. Thus, most people have no more time for phoning/texting/emailing non-core friends, who all are on Fscebook anyway, than they do for composing a multi-paragraph blog post which nobody will probably read. The sad reality of the 21st-century human condition is that Mark Zuckerberg owns the space between us, and leaving Facebook (and Instagram and WhatsApp) is, in many ways, to retreat from modern society; a radical, deliberate act, equal parts Ted Kaczynski and Into The Wild.

Perhaps this will change; perhaps Facebook will end up going the way of former unassailable titans such as MySpace, and be replaced by something else. If that something else is run by another venture-capital-funded surveillance-marketing organisation, the situation will not improve. (Facebook itself, at the start, seemed like a much cleaner and less spammy/scammy operation than MySpace.) There are glimmers of hope in the decentralised sphere, where developers are creating open, decentralised alternatives to corporate-owned monolithic silos. One example is Mastodon, a Twitter-like microblogging system. One thing those services don't currently have, though, outside of mass adoption, is granular privacy settings: it is not possible yet to make non-public posts to one, or to filter posts by group. Once this is implemented, in a way that works robustly across instances, and presumably uses cryptography, there might be a system ready to step into the gap when Facebook stumbles that is not inherently predatory on a structural level.

For now, however, those who are not willing to brave the wilderness are more or less stuck with Facebook; however, it is possible to reduce your profile, by reducing the amount of personal data one posts to it, and removing it from one's mobile devices (or, if not possible, revoking the app's permissions to access things like location information). I would add to this list: not logging into Facebook from one's main web browser, keeping a separate browser with separate cookies for using it, ideally running in a separate virtual machine.

cambridge analytica facebook postdemocracy privacy surveillance 0

2016/12/14

Terrible reports from Aleppo as the forces of the tyrant Assad, backed by Russia, take the last pockets of resistance and exact a terrible vengeance on the resisting population. Mass executions of civilians (or, in the official parlance, “terrorists”) ensue, some shot by firing squads, some burnt alive. (The executed “terrorists” include terrorist children, but as the Bolshevik who bayoneted the Romanovs reportedly said, “nits grow up to be lice”.) On Twitter, accounts that have posted from the besieged, bombed city send their desperate last dispatches. If you ever wondered what it would have been like had they had social media during, say, the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, it'd probably have been something like this.

Meanwhile, in the West, we look on, appalled but not surprised, and then, bummed out by the constant torrent of misery coming from those parts of the world, change the channel. How about that Kanye West, right? What a legend/card/asshole/(insert your own assessment).

Here in the liberal-democratic world, with its ideals of universal human rights and general tolerance, we are aghast; not in our name, we say. Though this very world seems to be in the process of being swept away, replaced by something more brutish and atavistically Hobbesian. From 20 January, the massacre of Aleppo, and any similar actions which follow, will have been in our name. The United States will officially approve of Assad's ancient right as sovereign to crush rebellions, and to lay waste to their cities, making examples of entire populations that harbour rebels to deter future rebellions (mercifully preventing more bloodshed in the future!). And as satellites of the Trumpreich, so will the UK (which increasingly rejects the idea of human rights) and Australia (with its own gulag system for brown and/or Islamic refugees) and others. France will almost certainly join the new consensus after the election of their next President, who is tipped to be either an actual fascist or a Catholic reactionary aching to roll back the Enlightenment, but in either case a follower of Putin's ideology of strength. They will join Hungary, Turkey and Poland, already in the growing post-liberal consensus. And so, as the world starts to look more like Russia at any point in history, a place where life is cheap, power is all, and any words that contradict this are lies, the relative stability of what came before (roughly the world from the years after World War 2 to 2016) will recede into myth; part fantastically bright Star Trek utopia, part naïve Weimar-style idealism, and part decadent lie that deserved to die. Indeed, the last citadel of liberalism and human rights may well be Germany, having had totalitarianism and genocide sufficiently close in its past, and sufficient memorials to its terrible toll, to resist desperately.

authoritarianism grim meathook future postdemocracy russia syria war 0

2013/8/23

Architect Richard Rogers alleges that Prince Charles, our infallible future head of state and staunch traditionalist, has a veto over all major new developments in London and the UK, using his influence to scupper any ones which he does not approve of:

Developers must square projects with the heir to the throne first to avoid the financial risk of a major undertaking being scuppered by a direct intervention from the great opponent of architectural novelty, who has succeeded in blocking several building plans.
Architects given the Prince’s blessing for their incorporation of his favoured classical style would be attached to projects. Even when Charles did not succeed in getting a development dropped, his intervention could prompt expensive delays, sometimes for years.
Prince Charles, of course, had Rogers' plans for the Chelsea Barracks site scuppered after petitioning one of his fellow royals, the Emir of Qatar, who was funding the project to intervene; the article enumerates a number of other instances in which the Prince saved the Realm from the spectre of architectural modernism:
Called plans for skyscraper by German-born modernist Mies van der Rohe at One Poultry, London a “glass stump” which would “ruin” the skyline. Plans were replaced by a Sir James Stirling design which Charles said “looks rather like an old 1930s wireless.”
Warned Cardiff Bay redevelopment against replicating London’s Docklands where warehouses were “wantonly destroyed”. Plans for an opera house in the Wales Millennium Centre area by modernist Zaha Hadid were scrapped.
Clarence House, Prince Charles' office, has replied, saying that, while a charity funded by the Prince is “often approached for advice and works with local authorities”, Prince Charles has no formal planning approval powers.

architecture postdemocracy prince charles richard rogers traditionalism uk 2

2013/8/21

A few days ago, David Miranda, a Brazilian man who is the partner of investigative journalist Glenn Greenwald, was detained for nine hours under anti-terrorism legislation whilst passing through Heathrow on the way from Berlin to his home in Brazil. Metropolitan Police threatened him with imprisonment, demanded his passwords and seized all electronic devices on his person; GCHQ have been unable to crack encrypted files seized from him, which could be plans for a doomsday device. Or they might not.

US conservative columnist Andrew Sullivan has compared this incident to events in Putin's Russia:

In this respect, I can say this to David Cameron. Thank you for clearing the air on these matters of surveillance. You have now demonstrated beyond any reasonable doubt that these anti-terror provisions are capable of rank abuse. Unless some other facts emerge, there is really no difference in kind between you and Vladimir Putin. You have used police powers granted for anti-terrorism and deployed them to target and intimidate journalists deemed enemies of the state.
You have proven that these laws can be hideously abused. Which means they must be repealed. You have broken the trust that enables any such legislation to survive in a democracy. By so doing, you have attacked British democracy itself. What on earth do you have to say for yourself? And were you, in any way, encouraged by the US administration to do such a thing?
The Whitehouse "says" "it" "played" "no" "role" "in" the detention, though acknowledged that it was briefed on Miranda's presence on the plane and on the detention, as was PM David Cameron. Which suggests that, unless one makes the extraordinary mental gymnastics of extending the definition of “terrorism” to leaking information embarrassing national security agencies, this was a naked act of intimidation against a journalist by targeting his family, of the sort practiced in China and Iran.

Meanwhile, it emerged that, a month earlier, officers of the security services raided the headquarters of the Guardian and forced staff to destroy hard drives and computers used to store the NSA revelations. Copies apparently exist abroad, for the time being, with Guardian staff working on the case being based in the New York office.

I wonder how long until the Guardian relocates its editorial headquarters to a location that is not a pervasive security state, selling the shiny new building they have at Kings Place (though perhaps keeping a floor as a local bureau and/or for writing whimsical middle-class humour columns for the Saturday supplement) and using part of the undoubtedly hefty profit to buy a block in, say, downtown Reykjavík?

Also, Groklaw founder Pamela Jones has shut the site down, on account of the environment of pervasive surveillance, and is going into internal exile off the internet:

One function of privacy is to provide a safe space away from terror or other assaultive experiences. When you remove a person's ability to sequester herself, or intimate information about herself, you make her extremely vulnerable....
The totalitarian state watches everyone, but keeps its own plans secret. Privacy is seen as dangerous because it enhances resistance. Constantly spying and then confronting people with what are often petty transgressions is a way of maintaining social control and unnerving and disempowering opposition....
And even when one shakes real pursuers, it is often hard to rid oneself of the feeling of being watched -- which is why surveillance is an extremely powerful way to control people. The mind's tendency to still feel observed when alone... can be inhibiting. ... Feeling watched, but not knowing for sure, nor knowing if, when, or how the hostile surveyor may strike, people often become fearful, constricted, and distracted.
My personal decision is to get off of the Internet to the degree it's possible. I'm just an ordinary person. But I really know, after all my research and some serious thinking things through, that I can't stay online personally without losing my humanness, now that I know that ensuring privacy online is impossible. I find myself unable to write. I've always been a private person. That's why I never wanted to be a celebrity and why I fought hard to maintain both my privacy and yours.
And here's Charlie Stross' take, in which he connects the British security state to David Cameron's mandatory anti-porn internet filter plans:
The spooks are not stupid. There are two ways they can respond to this in a manner consistent with their current objectives. They can try to shut down the press — a distinct possibility within the UK, but still incredibly dangerous — or they can shut down the open internet, in order to stop the information leakage over that channel and, more ambitiously, to stop the public reading undesirable news.I think they're going for the latter option, although I doubt they can make it stick. Let me walk you through the early stages of what I think is going to happen.
If you can tap data from the major search engines, how hard is it to insert search results into their output? Easy, it turns out. As easy as falling off a log. Google and Facebook are both advertising businesses. Twitter's trying to become one. Amazon and Ebay both rent space at the top of their search results to vendors who pay more money or offer more profits. Advertising is the keyword. All the NSA needs, in addition to the current information gathering capability, is the ability to inject spurious search results that submerge whatever nugget the user might be hunting for in a sea of irrelevant sewage. Imagine hunting for "Snowden" on Google and, instead of finding The New York Times or The Guardian's in-depth coverage, finding page after page of links to spam blogs.

authoritarianism nsa postdemocracy surveillance the long siege uk 0

2013/7/7

Charlie Stross speculates about the suggestion that, politically, Britain may be functionally a one-party state:

I'm nursing a pet theory. Which is that there are actually four main political parties in Westminster: the Conservatives, Labour, the Liberal Democrats, and the Ruling Party.
The Ruling Party is a meta-party; it has members in all of the three major parties, and probably the minority parties as well. It always wins every election, because whichever party wins (or participates in a coalition) is led in Parliament by members of the Ruling Party, who have more in common with each other than with the back bench dinosaurs who form the rump of their notional party. One does not rise to Front Bench rank in any of the major parties unless one is a paid-up Ruling Party member, who meets with the approval of the Ruling Party members one will have to work with. Outsiders are excluded or marginalized, as are followers of the ideology to which the nominal party adheres.
The Ruling Party Stross posits has a few characteristics: it's comprised of people from a specific background (typically public-school, politics/economics at Oxbridge or LSE, often followed by a career as a barrister), and, as befits entities which have little to fear from public opinion, is not answerable to the general public (who can take their frustration out on whichever of the publicly visible parties nominally forms the government at the moment). The interests they serve are of multinational corporations (which Stross previously equated to a form of alien life which has taken over the Earth) and free-floating elites (i.e., those who stand to benefit from privatisation, the endless trough of contracts or the good old-fashioned Friedman Shock Doctrine). Of course, the problem is that, if democracy becomes increasingly a sham, sooner or later it will lose a crucial advantage it has over other systems, i.e., it offering a mechanism for the peaceful transfer of power:
Moreover, we are now discovering that we live in a panopticon, in houses of glass that are open to inspection and surveillance by the powers of the Deep State. Our only remaining form of privacy is privacy by obscurity, by keeping such a low profile that we are of no individual interest to anyone: and even that is only a tenuous comfort. Any attempt at organizing a transfer of power that does not ring the changes and usher in a new group of Ruling Party faces to replace the old risks being denounced as Terrorism.
My conclusion is that we are now entering a pre-revolutionary state, much as the nations of Europe did in 1849 with the suppression of the wave of revolutions that spurred, among other things, the writing of "The Communist Manifesto". It took more than a half-century for that pre-revolutionary situation to mature to the point of explosion, but explode it did, giving rise to the messy fallout of the 20th century. I don't know how long this pre-revolutionary situation will last — although I would be surprised if it persisted for less than two decades — but the whirlwind we reap will be ugly indeed: if you want to see how ugly, look to the Arab Spring and imagine it fought by finger-sized killer drones that know what you wrote on Facebook eighteen years ago when you were younger, foolish, and uncowed. And which is armed with dossiers the completeness of which the East German Stasi could only fantasize about.

charlie stross oligarchy politics postdemocracy thatcherism-blairism uk 0

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