Cambridge Analytica and the Other Turing Test.

Not even scripted.

Not even scripted.

Near the end of the recent German movie “Er Ist Wieder Da” (“Look Who’s Back”), Adolph Hitler— transported through time to the year 2015— is picking up where he left off. On the roof of the television studio that fueled his resurgence (the network thought they were just exploiting an especially-tasteless Internet meme for ratings), the sad-sack freelancer who discovered “the world’s best Hitler impersonator” confronts his Frankenstein’s monster— but Hitler proves unkillable. Even worse, he makes some good points:

“In 1933, people were not fooled by propaganda. They elected a leader who openly disclosed his plans with great clarity. The Germans elected me… ordinary people who chose to elect an extraordinary man, and entrust the fate of the country to him.

What do you want to do, Sawatzki? Ban elections?”

It’s a good movie, hilarious and scary and sociologically plausible (hell, maybe sociologically inevitable), and given that one of Hitler’s lines is “Make Germany Great Again” it’s not surprising that it’s been rediscovered in recent months. Imagine a cross between “Borat”, “The Terminator”, and “Springtime for Hitler”, wrapped around a spot-on re-enactment of that Hitler-in-the-Bunker meme.

But that rooftop challenge: that, I think, really cuts to the heart of things: What do you want to do, Sawatzki? Ban elections?

I feel roughly the same way every time I read another outraged screed about Cambridge Analytica.

The internet’s been all a’seethe with such stories lately. The details are arcane, but the take-home message is right there in the headlines: The Rise of the Weaponized AI Propaganda Machine; Will Democracy Survive Big Data and Artificial Intelligence?; Robert Mercer: the big data billionaire waging war on mainstream media.

The executive summary goes something like this: An evil right-wing computer genius has developed scarily-effective data scraping techniques which— based entirely on cues gleaned from social media— knows individual voters better than do their own friends, colleagues, even family. This permits “behavioral microtargetting”: campaign messages customized not for boroughs or counties or demographic groups, but at you. Individually. A bot for every voter.

Therefore democracy itself is in danger.

Put aside for the moment the fact that the US isn’t a functioning democracy anyway (unless you define “democracy” as a system in which— to quote Thomas Piketty— “When a majority of citizens disagrees with economic elites and/or with organized interests, they generally lose”). Ignore any troublesome doubts about whether the same folks screaming about Cambridge Analytica would be quite so opposed to the tech if it had been used to benefit Clinton instead of Trump. (It’s not as though the Dems didn’t have their own algorithms, their own databased targeting systems; it’s just that those algos  really sucked.) Put aside the obvious partisan elements and focus on the essential argument: the better They know you, the more finely They can tune their message. The more finely They tune their message, the less freedom you have. To quote directly from Helbing et al over on the SciAm blog,

The trend goes from programming computers to programming people.” [breathless italics courtesy of the original authors]

Or from Berit Anderson, over at Medium.com:

“Instead of having to deal with misleading politicians, we may soon witness a Cambrian explosion of pathologically-lying political and corporate bots that constantly improve at manipulating us.”

You’d expect me to be all over this, right? What could be more up my alley than Machiavellian code which  treats us not as autonomous beings but as physical systems, collections of inputs and outputs whose state variables show not the slightest trace of Free Will? You can almost see Valerie tapping her arrhythmic tattoos on the the bulkhead, reprogramming the crew of the Crown of Thorns without their knowledge.

And I am all over it. Kind of. I shrugged at the finding that it took Mercer’s machine 150 Facebook “Likes” to know someone better than their parents did (hell, you’d know me better than my parents did based on, like, three), but I was more impressed when I learned that 300 “Likes” is all it would take to know me better than Caitlin does. And no one has to convince me that sufficient computing power, coupled with sufficient data, can both predict and manipulate human behavior.

But so what? ‘Twas ever thus, no?

No, Helbing and his buddies assert:

“Personalized advertising and pricing cannot be compared to classical advertising or discount coupons, as the latter are non-specific and also do not invade our privacy with the goal to take advantage of our psychological weaknesses and knock out our critical thinking.”

Oh, give me a fucking break.

They’ve been taking advantage of our psychological weaknesses to knock out our critical thinking skills since before the first booth babe giggled coquettishly at the Houston Auto Show, since the first gurgling baby was used to sell Goodyear radials, since IFAW decided they could raise more funds if they showed Loretta Swit hugging baby seals instead of giant banana slugs. Advertising tries to knock out your critical thinking by definition. Every tasteless anti-abortion poster, every unfailing-cute child suffering from bowel disease in the local bus shelter, every cartoon bear doing unnatural things with toilet paper is an attempt to rewire your synapses, to literally change your mind.

The face of the enemy (figure: J. Albright)

The face of the enemy (figure: J. Albright)

Ah, but those aren’t targeted to individuals, are they? Those are crude hacks of universal gut responses, the awww when confronted with cute babies, the hubba hubba when tits are shoved in the straight male face. (Well, almost universal; show me a picture of a cute baby and I’m more likely to vomit than coo.) This is different, Mercer’s algos know us personally. They know us as well as our friends, family, lovers!

Maybe so. But you know who else knows us as well as our friends, family and lovers? Our friends, family, and lovers. The same folks who sit across from us at the pub or the kitchen table, who cuddle up for a marsupial cling when the lights go out. Such people routinely use their intimate knowledge of us to convince us to see a particular movie or visit a particular restaurant— or, god forbid, vote for a particular political candidate. People who, for want of a better word, attempt to reprogram us using sound waves and visual stimuli; they do everything the bots do, and they probably still do it better.

What do you want to do, Sawatzki? Ban advertising? Ban debate? Ban conversation?

I hear that Scottsman, there in the back: he says we’re not talking about real debate, real conversation. When Cambridge Analytica targets you there’s no other being involved; just code, hacking meat.

As if it would be somehow better if meat were hacking meat. The prediction that half our jobs will be lost to automation within the next couple of decades is already a  tired cliché, but most experts don’t react to such news by demanding the repeal of Moore’s Law. They talk about retraining, universal basic income— adaptation, in a word. Why should this be any different?

Don’t misunderstand me. The fact that our destiny is in the hands of evil right-wing billionaires doesn’t make me any happier than it makes the rest of you. I just don’t see the ongoing automation of that process as anything more than another step along the same grim road they’ve been driving us down for decades. Back in 2008 and 2012 I don’t remember anyone howling with outrage over Obama’s then-cutting-edge voter-profiling database. I do remember a lot of admiring commentary on his campaign’s ability to “get out the vote”.

Curious that the line between grass-roots activism and totalitarian neuroprogramming should fall so neatly between Then and Now.

Cambridge Analytica’s psyops tech doesn’t so much “threaten democracy” as drive one more nail into its coffin. For anyone who hasn’t been paying attention, the corpse has been rotting for some time now.

‘Course, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t fight back. There are ways to do that, even on an individual level. I’m not talking about the vacuous aspirations peddled over on SciAm, by folks who apparently don’t know the difference between a slogan and a strategy (Ensure that people have access to their data! Make government accountable!) I’m talking about things you can do right now. Easy things.

The algos eat data? Stop feeding them. Don’t be a Twit: if all Twitter’s other downsides aren’t enough to scare you off, maybe the prospect of starving the beast will lure you away. If you can’t bring yourself to quit Facebook, at least stop “liking” things— or even better, “Like” things that you actually hate, throw up chaff to contaminate the data set and make you a fuzzier target. (When I encounter something I find especially endearing on Facebook, I often tag it with one of those apoplectic-with-rage emojis). Get off Instagram and GotUrBalls. Use Signal. Use a fucking VPN. Make Organia useless to them.

What’s that you say? Thousands of people around the world are just dying to know your favorite breadfruit recipe? Put it in a blog. It won’t stop bots from scraping your data, but at least they’ll have to come looking for you; you won’t be feeding yourself into a platform that’s been explicitly designed to harvest and resell your insides.

The more of us who refuse to play along— the more of us who cheat by feeding false data into the system—  the less we have to fear from code that would read our minds. And if most people can’t be bothered— if all that clickbait, all those emojis and upward-pointing thumbs are just too much of a temptation— well, we do get the government we deserve.  Just don’t complain when, after wading naked through the alligator pool, something bites your legs off.

I’m going to let Berit Anderson play me offstage:

“Imagine that in 2020 you found out that your favorite politics page or group on Facebook didn’t actually have any other human members, but was filled with dozens or hundreds of bots that made you feel at home and your opinions validated? Is it possible that you might never find out?”

I think she intends this as a warning, a dire If This Goes On portent. But what Anderson describes is  the textbook definition of a Turing Test, passed with flying colors. She sees an internet filled with zombies: I see the birth of True AI.

Of course, there are two ways to pass a Turing Test.  The obvious route is to design a smarter machine, one that can pass for human. But as anyone who’s spent any time on a social platform knows, people can be as stupid, as repetitive, and as vacuous as any bot. So the other path is to simply make people dumber, so they can be more easily fooled by machines.

I’m starting to think that second approach might be easier.

This entry was written by Peter Watts , posted on Wednesday March 29 2017at 07:03 am , filed under Big Brother, politics, rant . Bookmark the permalink . Post a comment below or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

99 Responses to “Cambridge Analytica and the Other Turing Test.”

  1. Lol, that opening quote from the movie probably blows a lot of people’s minds who have looked down dismissively at the alt right crowd, but have forgotten their history, or more accuratly, was never taught it. After all, all of our text books come from Texas.

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  2. “as the latter are non-specific and also do not invade our privacy with the goal to take advantage of our psychological weaknesses and knock out our critical thinking

    Kinda hard to imagine someone stating this with a straight face.

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  3. The other thing you can do is develop and maintain critical analysis skills, and apply them to everything.

    The problem with trying to fake the machines is that humans are inherently bad at true randomness, and I don’t believe that a machine that can learn what my buttons are in 300 likes, can’t learn to see through the pattern of my attempted deception in 450.

    Unless we’re going to hook up bots to our facebook to randomly like, share, etc – feed bots to the bots.

    You could do the math (I’m casting my mind back to Neil Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon here) of how many interactions the bot would have to carry out on your behalf in order to successfully mask your own input – a bell curve high and broad enough to entirely overstand your own.

    But at that point when you went on facebook, all you’d see would be a bunch of generic, random crap posted by all of your friend’s bots, with no way to tell what was really theirs.

    And disconnecting over all is hardly a solution either – unless you’re going to give up your cell phone, your bank cards and a whole bunch of other stuff.

    It’s doable, but is it worth it?

    I contest that you can retain all those benefits, and that the correct response is to run countermeasures inside your head: critical analysis, deconstruction of the media you consume to identify the agenda behind it.

    Structured thought patterns like this are artificial intelligence (as opposed to ‘natural’/inherent intelligence, as if there’s actually any difference) – a set of rules to be followed to produce a result that satisfies certain conditions.

    To defeat your enemies you have to do what they will not do.
    If they want to convince us that they’re human, we should become machines to defeat them.
    Critical analysis machines.

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  4. Several paragraphs in, I am reading along to the ear-worm theme from one (both?) of Terry O’Reilly’s CBC radio shows about the pervasive influence of marketing…

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  5. A minor quibble, but one could argue how muchHitler was elected:

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/German_federal_election,_November_1932

    The NSDAP got most of the votes, but was far from a majority. It took some of our conservative pundits to build a coalition with the Nazis, with an actual quote to the effect Hitler would be mugged by reality in one month. Just to even out the blame.

    Also note there are indications voters saw the contradictions in the Nazi programme and thought actual rule would be more moderate. Now what does this remind me of…

    On another note, have fun in Poznań. Actually, I have been thinking about paying Pyrkon a visit this year(I have some paternal relatives in Poznań), but at the moment it seems unlikely…

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  6. “People worry that computers will get too smart and take over the world, but the real problem is that they’re too stupid and they’ve already taken over the world.”

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  7. Peter Watts:

    The algos eat data? Stop feeding them.

    Oh to live in a land where such a quaint notion was still plausible. But I live in the U.S. where the Trumpian congress just this week voted not only to repeal the protections granted to the FCC against ISPs selling consumer data to advertisers, but to prohibit the FCC from ever being able to extend similar protections in the future. Guess which party lines that one broke across.

    Meanwhile some idiots are still chortling about the public failure of the Afordable Care Act repeal while the Right and the Trump admin continue to quietly dismantle the government.

    How far off the grid do you expect people to live? Data is mined at the ISP level, and with a casual search you can find plenty of articles detailing how VPNs offer limited protection to most consumers. Individual sites track your unique browser footprint now based on system data, not cookies. The days of disabling or purging cookies, or interfering with google scripts from firing and thinking yourself clever are over. You can choose not to spoonfeed the Algos, but they will have their dinner regardless.

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  8. To this argument, I’d add that just as these techniques have existed for a while, so too has the ability of people to resist and adapt against them. People sniff out social cues to identify when someone speaking to them is lying. They learn to ignore emails from Nigerian Princes. The ability of people to adapt is limited, of course, but it’s a moderating influence on technology that deserves to be mentioned so that the conversation isn’t one-sided hysteria. The ancestral environment didn’t properly prepare us for modern life, but it didn’t leave us totally naive, either. Especially worth mentioning is the role that technology can play in mitigating the negative influences of technology, as in the case of tools like TOR.

    Overall, I agree with the articles that this is something to be concerned about, but wish they’d present a more balanced picture.

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  9. 27chaos,

    Problem is in most ancestral environments[1] problematic traits were even selected for in some cases.

    Demonstrate status? Brag about it, tell bards to brag about it or post on facebook.

    See big masses of people behave in a certain way and follow the leader? Assume they have better information, or at least try not to appear as too much of an outsider.

    BTW, it’s not just we were selected for in certain environments, but said environments were also shaped by preexistent humanity. And quite a bit of random constraints. But that’s another story.

    [1] A short look at lactase activity should make everyone very wary of any “basically still hunters and gatherers dyed in the wool”-claims.

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  10. Advertising, conventional or machine-driven, relies on the listener granting their attention to the message.

    Your attention is a priceless gift, and it seems careless and stupid to give it to advertisers simply because there’s a show you want to watch or a group your want to talk with. Use DVR software. Use an ad-blocker.

    You can’t drive the advertising completely to zero, but you can reduce it tons. This makes it much easier to ignore whatever leaks through.

    https://www.amazon.com/Attention-Merchants-Scramble-Inside-Heads/dp/0385352018

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  11. ,

    Kelly: Your attention is a priceless gift, and it seems careless and stupid to give it to advertisers simply because there’s a show you want to watch or a group your want to talk with. Use DVR software. Use an ad-blocker.

    Your attention is not a priceless gift. It’s a commodity. People price it out routinely with exact monetary values. Setting aside the point that that show you want to watch probably wont continue to exist without advertising, as people need to pay content production staff salaries somehow, the issue at hand is not advertising in itself, but the advent of increasingly inescapable data collection and the ways it can be abused.

    In my country, my browsing history can now be sold to anyone without notice and advertisers are not the only buyers. This has wide ranging applications beyond mere targeted ads.There are algorithms that determine what kind of credit risk you are based on what webpages you visit. It certainly has political applications. How long before employers are using that data to screen employees for whatever criteria they deem fit?

    Also, the idea you can escape advertising in the long run seems a bit naive. The effectiveness of ad blockers is already on the wane. All they will do is drive tech to develop in ways that circumvent them. We’ll see ad-delivery and data collection built in at the hardware level eventually. It’s already built in at the OS level. New tech will make ads increasingly pervasive in every aspect of your life, and they wont always look like ads.

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  12. DA,

    I get that the advertisers and the show producers put a (low) price on the viewer’s attention, and I get that they don’t value it highly. But *I* value *my* attention very highly. I imagine that *you* value *your* attention highly.

    My basic point is that, if a person values their own attention, then they can take any of several positive steps to claw back their attention from the advertisers. No one approach is perfect, and as you say, ads will always sneak through.

    You’re probably right about the domestic US shows – hard to avoid the advertising if you watch them. Personally, I don’t watch them – I watch Netflix and BBC imports, plus way too much YouTube :) So far, I’m getting a small enough dose of advertising that I can ignore it. Easier for me since I don’t care about professional sports and avoid airports and their nonstop CNN babble.

    The major source of advertising in my life is probably the FM broadcast radio I listen to in the car – four different local stations all owned by IHeartMedia mean that I can’t escape their synchronized commercial breaks unless I hit the local jazz station. Luckily, I like jazz.

    As for credit scores and HR hiring decisions based on my internet browsing data – I say go for it. I am fortunate to live in a big job market, and not rely on bank loans (I rent, I own my car). Companies that use that kind of silly data will fail, over time, and I don’t want to deal with them. Smarter companies will be built on their ashes.

    That said, it sounds like there’s going to be a market for tools that generate a ‘high quality’ fake browsing history for consumers who want the benefits of a good looking history without wasting their own time to generate it. Shouldn’t take more than a python script and a big library of ‘high quality’ web sites that companies like to see in a history. I’m looking for angel investors… :)

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  13. Kelly:
    DA,

    My basic point is that, if a person values their own attention, then they can take any of several positive steps to claw back their attention from the advertisers.No one approach is perfect, and as you say, ads will always sneak through.

    Your basic point and my basic point seem to be talking across each other.

    You keep framing this in terms of being able to skip ads–which is the least troubling aspect of all of this. If you’re ok with people being able to buy information about your political activities, your medical issues, your personal fiances, as well as whatever more adventurous uses you may put the internet to, to be used to whatever ends they see fit, and you dont see any way that could be used against your interests—well then, more power to you. You’re better equipped to live in the near future than I am.

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  14. A few comments:

    I always find the perception of free will and democracy as such mystical things to be intriguing.
    Consider that the ideal concept of democracy is simply following a plain idea, that if you’re making a decision for many people, you should get at least a majority of them to agree, making it moral. More subtly, it can be argued to be a clever way of minimizing violent (expensive) revolt. By ensuring that more people will be (or at least appear to be) for something than against, you have a low-cost way of forcing a government’s decisions.
    So I greatly agree with you on your points on the silliness of these arguments. If a person was convinced by a machine over a person (or more often just a voice or face, already quite a seperation from flesh), nothing is different with their belief.
    But on a similar note, this is part of why I feel free will can be said to exist. Sentience itself is a phenomena of our brains, as I’m sure you’ve heard and spoken countless times. If a person exhibits this phenoma due to a mystical soul or the more probable mix of proper hardware and software, their actions are still based on a kind of awarenesss, balanced by firmware programming from genetics and more “true” software from learned experiences.

    All of this is stuff you’v

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  15. The other Turing test? Brilliant. What a brave new world we live in.

    Maybe for our social media replacement, we could turn to, you know, being social. And talking to people. In person. Join some clubs, do some charity, organize some politics, form a gang, whatever.

    I prefer my techno dystopias in scifi books.

    I now code ML systems for a living, which means the shark has been jumped.

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  16. I’ve been watching the contortions of Trump foes with a vast sense of amusement over the last several months.

    The pointless exercise in pageantry that passes for an election in the US inserted a freakish, orange narcissist into the Whitehouse and now all the Hillary supporters are desperately trying to blame the outcome on anything and everything but the most salient point.

    Namely: Hillary Clinton was such an awful candidate that she lost to Trump.

    They can’t handle it. When the candidates in the Pageant were finalized, I likened the election as a choice between Satan and Cthulhu. One candidate will bring the Evil You Know, more drone strikes, more bank deregulation &tc. The other will bring complete unforeseeable lunacy. And it looks like people who did show up on voting day decided to go with the unforeseeable. And now the HRC crowd are looking for any reason at all. Their first (and ongoing) response was a hilarious throwback to the worst of Cold War paranoia of The Manchurian Candidate. Followed by Everyone is Racist! And now added into the mix is Evil Billionaires Have Taken Over Our Minds!

    When in actual fact it’s: Hillary Clinton was such an awful candidate that she lost to Trump.

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  17. DA,

    Thanks for stating it clearly – I wasn’t seeing that your position is about the aggregation of my internet footprint and subsequent sale and abuse based on it. I agree with you – it’s pernicious and the recent FCC and congressional decisions are making it worse.

    All the more reason to use ad-blockers, torrents, and VPNs.

    I still think there’s a market for ‘fake internet histories’. I’d be surprised if they don’t already exist someplace. I can’t imagine that one could buy a quality fake passport but not have a fake social media footprint to go along with it.

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  18. Gotta agree with Definitely not Tim. There’s no way you could create enough noise to hide the actual trends and patterns. Even if you somehow did it, it would just look like meaningless noise to everyone else, so it’s functionally the same as not using the likes system at all. And even if you do stop using likes, there are a whole lot of other data sources that can show your true preferences. The links you click, the time you spend reading certain posts, the pages that stay open for longer, where you stop scrolling… I don’t believe for a second that Facebook and all the other information giants don’t hoard all that data. Hell, they technically wouldn’t even need to reveal your identity. Just like you can target an ad so precisely that it only gets shown to a single person, you can also say “This behavior pattern is typical for people who live in San Diego, California, are 29, studied architecture, single, with divorced parents, [insert 50 other descriptors here]”.

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  19. Anonymous,

    Sorry, broken post. Will keep it short.

    All of this stuff, you’ve really said quite plainly above, but what is mis-realized is the concept of fighting back by tricking the monitoring.
    Acting within these systems, at best you keep the advertising about as effective as it already is, and at worst help make them more competent. What one needs isn’t to “fight back” by making google analytics think they prefer this porn over that, or floor tile accesories over neckties. People, those capable of realizing it, at least, need to realize that their actions are worth spying and on manipulating, not because political leadership cares per se, but because its profitable.
    When more people can see that they’re cash cows because they fall into patterns, accept an easy life and cease to question themselves and their beliefs, perhaps then will there be some positive change in this matter. But just combating the bots, even if it was successful, doesn’t really address the root of the issue, and it will forever crop up if people let themselves become predictible beasts.

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  20. Greggles, You’re the only one to mention a Clinton in this thread. Why won’t you let her go?

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  21. Kelly: All the more reason to use ad-blockers, torrents, and VPNs.

    Of those, ad blockers and VPNS wont help you, and the mention of torrents suggests to me you’re conflating a separate set of issues. People use all sorts or reasons to rationalize their torrenting activity, but it doesn’t really apply here. Game of Thrones is not ad-supported content, but is still the most torrented show on the internet. If it helps you sleep at night though, then great.

    Ad Blockers and VPNs. Ironically, it’s your ad blocker that helps make you more traceable. People used ad blockers and anti-script plug ins to subvert advert ad tracking, so tech just went around them. Now sites track your individual unique browser footprint, based on system configuration and distinguishing features–for instance which plug-ins you have installed. It doesn’t matter how you get to a site–through a VPN tunnel or otherwise–once you get there an algorithm recognizes your browser to a degree of certainty and starts compiling information. The more your system configuration differs from vanilla, the more easily identifiable you are.

    There are ways to thwart it, but it’s becoming increasingly difficult and tedious to do so. There are no magic button protections. That trend will continue. The technological elite will always be able to do something, but real evasion will be out of reach for the vast majority of the population. Right now you may be content to simply disrupt the display of targeted ads, but dont for a second think that means information isn’t being compiled about you, and the applications for that information wont continue to evolve beyond targeted car commercials and credit offers.

    Since the ISPs themselves are in bed with Big Data, Im not sure any of it matters anymore. While they aren’t explicitly selling your browsing history matched to a name currently–the information they sell is more generic at present–the idea that someone who has your credit card and home address is compiling and selling such extensive information about you is a massive conflict of interest and security violation (everyone gets hacked eventually). Even if they aren’t broadcasting your personal history matched to your name at present, eventually there will be algorithms capable of matching the generic data to a name and face.

    Commercial VPNs do not protect in meaningful ways against data gathering at that level (see the above link), save for the technological elite that can successfully configure something to do so. Even if they did, we use so many more devices beyond personal computers now, and VPNs have limited availability outside that platform.

    Granted, The U.S. is farther gone than other smaller economies that have escaped this sort of thing for the time being. But they’ll come for your data eventually. The idea that you can avoid it through use of consumer tools or “not liking things on Facebook” is dangerously naive. The only thing you can hope to do is legislate the hell out of it, and pray that at least deters those willing to play by the rules.

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  22. Kelly,

    Fake social media accounts with friends, likes, posts, etc are absolutely available for sale.

    I am aware of marketing agencies buying them, or buying services from the creators of them – to like and repost their marketing content.

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  23. Anonymous: But just combating the bots, even if it was successful, doesn’t really address the root of the issue, and it will forever crop up if people let themselves become predictible beasts.

    The problem, as the material referenced in Dr. Watts posts shows, is that people *are* predictable beasts to any sufficiently sophisticated model with enough data whether they “let themselves” or not. The flattering notion that one can avoid being manipulated by simply being clever enough or having enough discipline is just another way you can have your strings yanked.

    Recognizing that you *will* be predicted and that you *can* be manipulated regardless of any amount of discipline, is the important first step in limiting the ways they can come at you.

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  24. Definitely not Tim: I contest that you can retain all those benefits, and that the correct response is to run countermeasures inside your head: critical analysis, deconstruction of the media you consume to identify the agenda behind it.

    Maybe I was giving the software too much credit— my understanding was that they were going for manipulation without the recipient knowing they were being manipulated. This would presumably include countermeasures against skepticism; if The Machine knew you were a highly-educated science major, for example, it would compromise you with citations from Science and Nature.

    I don’t think we’re there yet, and at this point we hardly need to be– there are more than enough ignorant idiots out there to more-crassly manipulate into swinging any election, so Mercer’s Mercenaries don’t have to worry about appealing to truly critical thinkers. But in theory, no one’s immune.

    In the meantime, of course: I would never argue against critical thinking. (I do argue against online convenience, though.)

    DA: How far off the grid do you expect people to live?

    Pretty far. I still send my royalty cheques to the bank via snailmail.

    Data is mined at the ISP level, and with a casual search you can find plenty of articles detailing how VPNs offer limited protection to most consumers. Individual sites track your unique browser footprint now based on system data, not cookies.

    Sure, big-picture-wise. But CA’s pitch— and certainly what most people seem to be clutching their pearls most tightly over— is the sort of personal insight the code can glean from social media platforms explicitly designed to elicit psychological info from its users. I haven’t read about anyone bragging they know me better than my spouse does because they can see past my VPN; they brag because they get those insights from Facebook “Likes”. Those appear to be CA’s bread and butter, at least; and those are things we have some control over.

    Unless they don’t use FB likes at all, and the whole thing is simply a clever way of manipulating me into thinking I’ve covered my ass while they actually come at me sideways…

    The days of disabling or purging cookies, or interfering with google scripts from firing and thinking yourself clever are over.

    I disagree. Why, here I am right now, feeling clever!

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  25. Peter Watts

    DA: How far off the grid do you expect people to live?

    Pretty far. I still send my royalty cheques to the bank via snailmail.

    Heh. I suspect if people ever really got a look a the data that’s been collected about them, they’d rip their cables out of the wall, and have a bonfire for all their devices. Unfortunately, the internet is no longer a luxury and yet there is no realistic expectation of privacy at the consumer level. If you’re online, something somewhere is taking note of something that you’re doing.

    Peter Watts

    I disagree. Why, here I am right now, feeling clever!

    Touché. I suppose I could have made that assertion with a bit more clarity.

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  26. 27chaos: To this argument, I’d add that just as these techniques have existed for a while, so too has the ability of people to resist and adapt against them. People sniff out social cues to identify when someone speaking to them is lying. They learn to ignore emails from Nigerian Princes.

    Agree, and so far that’s the best defense we have. But sufficiently subtle software can produce countermeasures to our countermeasures. (One primitive example is that recent phishing campaign where the scammers claimed to be operating on behalf of a committee providing compensation to those who had been victimized by the Nigerian Prince scam; but more sophisticated strategies are bound to be out there.)

    DA: You keep framing this in terms of being able to skip ads–which is the least troubling aspect of all of this. If you’re ok with people being able to buy information about your political activities, your medical issues, your personal fiances, as well as whatever more adventurous uses you may put the internet to, to be used to whatever ends they see fit, and you dont see any way that could be used against your interests—well then, more power to you.

    Yeah, this. The inescapability of ads probably predates ads themselves; a strong case has been made that rhetoric itself, the ability to argue and reason amongst one another, derives not from any truth-seeking motives but was simply selected for as a means of social control— to use words and passion to sway other members of the tribe to your way of thinking. I can live with ads getting in my face. What bothers me is the increasing sophistication of the machinery that targets those ads specifically to me, and the other uses to which those insights can be put.

    Ads are a symptom. You don’t cure measles by scraping off the scabs.

    Anonymous: More subtly, it can be argued to be a clever way of minimizing violent (expensive) revolt. By ensuring that more people will be (or at least appear to be) for something than against, you have a low-cost way of forcing a government’s decisions.

    Of course, now that drones and robots are increasingly charged with defending the one-percenters, you could argue that they no longer have to worry about “the people” turning against them. Why bother trying to win hearts and mines when you can take out both with a few extrajudicial drone strikes— either overseas, or just down the street?

    Greggles: When in actual fact it’s: Hillary Clinton was such an awful candidate that she lost to Trump.

    You know, that actually kinda gives me hope. Clinton would have continued to turn up the heat under the saucepan by gentle, indiscernible degrees, so that we frogs would barely even notice we were being boiled alive. We would’ve died slowlier, but we still woulda died.

    Now, Trump; he just set the pot to Maximum Boil on Day 1. Maybe, just maybe, a few of the frogs will now be motivated to jump out of the fucking pot.

    Kelly: I still think there’s a market for ‘fake internet histories’. I’d be surprised if they don’t already exist someplace.

    Awesome. Must look for that.

    Simon: Even if you somehow did it, it would just look like meaningless noise to everyone else, so it’s functionally the same as not using the likes system at all.

    True. But I don’t think that’s entirely a bad thing.

    And even if you do stop using likes, there are a whole lot of other data sources that can show your true preferences. The links you click, the time you spend reading certain posts, the pages that stay open for longer, where you stop scrolling… I don’t believe for a second that Facebook and all the other information giants don’t hoard all that data.

    Also true. But if you appear to live in Belarus, it’s that much trickier to trace the data specifics back to you as an individual.

    I’m actually okay with the collection of massive statistical data sets; I cheered when Trudeau brought back the long-form census. You can’t make informed decisions if you don’t have any stats on the subject matter. My problem is not that Facebook knows that 60% of its users want to move to Iceland; my problem is that Facebook knows that Peter Watts is addicted to Furry Porn, and his wife finds Furry Porn disgusting, and when the local Police want to lean on Peter Watts because he may have seen a bunch of them beating the shit out of a homeless guy for shits and giggles last Saturday, they have the power to end his marriage if he doesn’t keep his fucking mouth shut.

    Not that any of the above details are true in real life, of course. I don’t even know what Furry Porn is.

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  27. Just wait till the spammers get access to this technology

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  28. Peter Watts: Maybe I was giving the software too much credit— my understanding was that they were going for manipulation without the recipient knowing they were being manipulated. This would presumably include countermeasures against skepticism; if The Machine knew you were a highly-educated science major, for example, it would compromise you with citations from Science and Nature.

    I’m not even certain why they think they need to be so clever with targeted messages on the political side. Few if any people actually use critical thinking in an election. Skepticism never really comes into it. People have their tribes, and they simply filter any info that isn’t helpful. They will change their opinions to accommodate the most implausible info, if it’s cognitively rewarding and tribably beneficial to do so. You can get just as far with obvious bullshit as clever bullshit, as long as it’s the right color of turd and you fart loud enough.

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  29. Greggles: And it looks like people who did show up on voting day decided to go with the unforeseeable.

    Well, no, actually, they didn’t. They voted for the Evil You Know, just like they have been doing for as long as we’ve had elections. Also “unforeseeable lunacy” looks pretty much like the Evil You Know thus far, only with a few flavor elements thrown in for comic relief and/or to entice the neo-Nazi-curious.

    I mean, you have stuff like White House Does Not Believe Microwaves Are “Sound Way Of Surveilling Someone”. A few years ago, the Onion would have hesitated to run an article with the same headline. Now it’s just an everyday thing.

    Peter Watts: Of course, now that drones and robots are increasingly charged with defending the one-percenters, you could argue that they no longer have to worry about “the people” turning against them.

    Wage slavery and middle-class complacency eliminated any fear of “the people” turning against anybody long before the first drone took flight. Why bother with winning hearts and minds, or with this messy killing business, when all you have to say is “brown people are coming to take your jobs/social security” to accomplish the same?

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  30. DA: I suspect if people ever really got a look a the data that’s been collected about them, they’d rip their cables out of the wall, and have a bonfire for all their devices.

    Now, think of the much-prophetised “internet of things”, to make it even more funny. From your shower habits to the ways of your laundry including a detour through your abuse of the microwave and the one time you used the electric high-pressure cooker.

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  31. Personally, I’m doubtful about Cambridge’s claims. Just based on the ‘personalized’ ads I get from Amazon, which aren’t any more suited to me than random ads on TV. And Amazon actually has genuine data about me.
    Unlike Facebook, everyone lies on Facebook, not deliberately but because its a social media website. And when someone you know socially shows you their baby pictures, the correct answer is to like them. Looking at my history, an algo could correctly predict that I would like the next baby picture posted. But if it then concluded that I liked babies, it would be wrong. The same applies to everything on Facebook, the idea that someone’s Facebook persona is more authentic is just ridiculous.
    And if Facebook knew that Peter Watts was addicted to Furry Porn, it would already have shared that information with his wife and friends.

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  32. Peter Watts: [Re: Trump beating Clinton] You know, that actually kinda gives me hope. Clinton would have continued to turn up the heat under the saucepan by gentle, indiscernible degrees, so that we frogs would barely even notice we were being boiled alive. We would’ve died slowlier, but we still woulda died.

    Now, Trump; he just set the pot to Maximum Boil on Day 1. Maybe, just maybe, a few of the frogs will now be motivated to jump out of the fucking pot.

    Exactly my thoughts throughout the campaign. Clinton would have marched to the same tune as Reagan, WJC, Bush, and Obama. Trump, on the other hand, marches to a tune of his own making (which is worrisome albeit in the short-term, but I submit that so much power in the hands of one man is always worrisome).

    His election has prompted so-called Liberals to rediscover the virtues of political decentralization, which is phenomenal! Liberals actually being liberal, image that.

    It’s almost as though Trump–or rather Bannon–turned the knob to Max Boil on purpose, with the intent of alerting the frogs to the existence of the knob.

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  33. “She sees an internet filled with zombies: I see the birth of True AI.”

    Whereas I am not entirely sure that these are, or ought to be, two necessarily different cases.

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  34. EMP: Clinton would have marched to the same tune as Reagan, WJC, Bush, and Obama. Trump, on the other hand, marches to a tune of his own making

    Ah. Yes. A tune that once the nonsensical lyrics are filtered, is mostly indistinguishable from the explicit and implicit agenda of the Republican party for the last two decades. A regular John Phillip Sousa, that one.

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  35. Mr Teufel,

    Good point! Part of what motivated me is that the information about Cambridge Analytica came to light after the most recent Electoral Pageant in the US. It was after #fakenews, and Russian Hacks were proposed. For me, the stuff about C.A. is all of a piece. So many members of the Democratic party are in such denial about what a horrible campaigner HRC was is a little frightening, to be honest. Language like they’re using can lead to a coup and a witch hunt for traitors.

    Peter Watts, You know, that actually kinda gives me hope. Clinton would have continued to turn up the heat under the saucepan by gentle, indiscernible degrees, so that we frogs would barely even notice we were being boiled alive. We would’ve died slowlier, but we still woulda died.

    Now, Trump; he just set the pot to Maximum Boil on Day 1. Maybe, just maybe, a few of the frogs will now be motivated to jump out of the fucking pot.

    That’s what keeps me from collapsing into a ball of whimpering despair. Of course, HOW resistance occurs is just as important as THAT resistance occurs.

    Will the Politically Correct Brigade launch an offensive against the Patriotically Correct Phalanx? Or will it be something a little more social, and less totalitarian?

    I’m not feeling good about that one.

    Fatman: Well, no, actually, they didn’t. They voted for the Evil You Know, just like they have been doing for as long as we’ve had elections. Also “unforeseeable lunacy” looks pretty much like the Evil You Know thus far, only with a few flavor elements thrown in for comic relief and/or to entice the neo-Nazi-curious.

    I’ll have to disagree with you on this point. You’re already looking back on the Trump Presidency with hindsight here. He was incredibly inconsistent and self contradictory during his campaign, to the point where his policies were truly unknowable to people who bothered to show up and vote for him (all time low presidential vote turnout)

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  36. And one day I’ll figure out how to format these posts correctly.

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  37. Avoiding online tracking is a bit of a hobby of mine. I’ll list some advice for software to use, etc.

    -do not use google, facebook, twitter, linkedin, netflix, etc. The fewer such accounts you have, the better off you are.

    -strictly seperate all online accounts: no account should have a complete view of your identity, likes, dislikes, opinions, etc. This takes some of self-discipline.

    -assume your emails are being scraped by your email provider unless you encrypt all of them locally with pgp. I highly recommend enigmail for this purpose.

    -install umatrix, it’s basically adblock on steroids, but takes a bit of work to get working properly. If you really want to stay untracked, disable *all* non-first-party content, and disable scripts, plugins, and XHRs by default. Most sites can be made to work by enabling only a very small amount of things, but it can be tedious(I have a separate browser profile for when I want to order off of newegg or something that has no addons). It can also be used to spoof your useragent and clear cookies on a regular basis, all of which you should do.

    -use the right browser. Chrome and Chromium send information to google, so if you want anything chrome like you’ll have to use Iridium. Firefox is good but one has to do some manual editing. Tinfoil can do most of that work for you. Opera, Safari, and IE are lost causes.

    –There are lots of settings that need to be turned off in all browsers. They are too numerous to list here, but 90% of them are blocked by disabling javascript and 5% of them can’t be blocked. JonDoNym has a pretty good rundown.

    -use the right OS. Microsoft and basically every android phone manufacturer almost certainly sells your data to advertisers, and it is probable that Apple does the same. Open-source operating systems, like Mint, are the only really safe options on this front.

    -install and use dnscrypt. This encrypts your DNS traffic, which can be used to track you pretty easily. Unfortunately it’s a bit finnicky, if you’re not an advanced user it might not be worth the effort.

    -use a VPN that you trust for all traffic. If I remember correctly, PrivateInternetAccess was unable to comply with a subpoena for their user’s records. riseup.net also runs a VPN service that I trust completely, but you probably shouldn’t use it for streaming video or downloading anything big, they provide the service for free after all.

    As you can see, the rabbit hole goes deep. And unless you know someone who works in the industry, you don’t really know your opponents’ capabilities, and you don’t really know if your profiling-avoidance worked fully or not.

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  38. “Are you going to ban advertising?” Well, why not?

    I gather I got here a bit late to participate much, but that’s my immediate reaction. If giving some substance to a person causes them to do things that, without that substance, they wouldn’t have done, we tend to forbid doing this. Advertising should be banned approximately on the same reasoning.

    How do we distinguish it from discussion and “normal” human interaction? Profit motive is one way, scale is another (broadcast versus narrowcast), directionality (is it one-way flow or two-way?).

    Theoretically there could be someone who is so persuasive that they should be banned from having large public meetings, or to address people in their own words (they would need a normalising script or interpretor to make them harmless), and I could live with this.

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  39. David: “Are you going to ban advertising?” Well, why not?

    Well, for one, it’s a nonstarter in countries with strong freedom of speech protections like the U.S. First Amendment. By the time something like that is overturned, we’ll either have a new system of government that no longer incentivizes pervasive advertising and it will fade of its own accord, or we’ll have much larger problems altogether.

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  40. I am going to make the case for using facebook and liking and reposting things. I have flipped a lot on this, especially after the election.

    I have a relatively low threat model. Right now, due to network effects, twitter and facebook are how disadvantaged people get the word out about events, surveil the state, find out about each other, and get jobs. This is the reality people have to work with for now.

    Twitter and Tear Gas: The Power and Fragility of Networked Protest
    Zeynep Tufekci
    http://yalebooks.com/book/9780300215120/twitter-and-tear-gas

    This book is going to cover the intersection of modern protest and resistance with technology, and meanwhile I have her talks to listen to and a paper to read. (Plus I follow her oldschool blog and mailing list in addition to twitter).

    Engineering the public: Big data, and computational politics
    http://firstmonday.org/article/view/4901/4097

    Talk transcripts (yes, I’m linking to Ted. bite me.)

    Machine intelligence makes human morals more important
    https://www.ted.com/talks/zeynep_tufekci_machine_intelligence_makes_human_morals_more_important/transcript?language=en#t-1050190

    Online social change: easy to organize, hard to win
    https://www.ted.com/talks/zeynep_tufekci_how_the_internet_has_made_social_change_easy_to_organize_hard_to_win/transcript?language=en

    “Now, compare that to what the Civil Rights Movement had to do in 1955 Alabama to protest the racially segregated bus system, which they wanted to boycott. They’d been preparing for many years and decided it was time to swing into action after Rosa Parks was arrested. But how do you get the word out — tomorrow we’re going to start the boycott — when you don’t have Facebook, texting, Twitter, none of that? So they had to mimeograph 52,000 leaflets by sneaking into a university duplicating room and working all night, secretly. They then used the 68 African-American organizations that criss-crossed the city to distribute those leaflets by hand. And the logistical tasks were daunting, because these were poor people. They had to get to work, boycott or no, so a massive carpool was organized, again by meeting. No texting, no Twitter, no Facebook. They had to meet almost all the time to keep this carpool going.”

    Anyway, back to online social media and the internet of poop and stuff. People will learn about security culture.

    https://crimethinc.com/2004/11/01/what-is-security-culture

    If you’re in the habit of not giving away anything sensitive about yourself, you can collaborate with strangers without having to agonize about whether or not they are informers; if everyone knows what not to talk about over the telephone, your enemies can tap the line all they want and it won’t get them anywhere.

    I am an idiot with a mental illness. I let people know that I have no opsec skills to speak of and that they should not talk to me about things I don’t need to know.

    Meanwhile, I’m going to do my part to participate in community defense networks, but in a low tech way where I meet people face to face and learn about things I can do on my block to be of help to people. I’m not the person to run an underground railroad, but I can help move chairs around for “know your rights” meetings or whatever.

    There is a limited time window where people can run an underground railroad on facebook. and then they’ll have to use some other means.
    https://crimethinc.com/2017/02/13/the-syrian-underground-railroad-migrant-solidarity-organizing-in-the-modern-landscape#the-network

    “The Net interprets censorship as damage and routes around it.” When the internet no longer does that then sneakernet will have to do until something else comes along.

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  41. And speaking of threat models, James Mickens is fucking hilarious about everything, including threat models. Basically you should read his backlog of usenix articles and enjoy this excerpt from “This World of Ours”.

    https://www.schneier.com/blog/archives/2015/08/mickens_on_secu.html

    My point is that security people need to get their priorities straight. The “threat model” section of a security paper resembles the script for a telenovela that was written by a paranoid schizophrenic: there are elaborate narratives and grand conspiracy theories, and there are heroes and villains with fantastic (yet oddly constrained) powers that necessitate a grinding battle of emotional and technical attrition. In the real world, threat models are much simpler (see Figure 1). Basically, you’re either dealing with Mossad or not-Mossad. If your adversary is not-Mossad, then you’ll probably be fine if you pick a good password and don’t respond to emails from ChEaPestPAiNPi11s@virus-basket.biz.ru. If your adversary is the Mossad, YOU’RE GONNA DIE AND THERE’S NOTHING THAT YOU CAN DO ABOUT IT. The Mossad is not intimidated by the fact that you employ https://. If the Mossad wants your data, they’re going to use a drone to replace your cellphone with a piece of uranium that’s shaped like a cellphone, and when you die of tumors filled with tumors, they’re going to hold a press conference and say “It wasn’t us” as they wear t-shirts that say “IT WAS DEFINITELY US,” and then they’re going to buy all of your stuff at your estate sale so that they can directly look at the photos of your vacation instead of reading your insipid emails about them. In summary, https:// and two dollars will get you a bus ticket to nowhere. Also, SANTA CLAUS ISN’T REAL. When it rains, it pours.

    Meanwhile, follow basic advice like https://techsolidarity.org/resources/basic_security.htm and I’m sure they’ll have something out for mundane people soon too.

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  42. Greggles: He was incredibly inconsistent and self contradictory during his campaign, to the point where his policies were truly unknowable to people who bothered to show up and vote for him (all time low presidential vote turnout)

    The people who showed up to vote for Trump did not understand his policies (what little of them he opted to speak about), nor were they swayed by the obvious self-contradictions. Here is what Trump’s voters heard: Build the Wall. Lock her up. Drain the swamp. I love the poorly educated. Rampaging blacks in inner city wastelands. Whenever he was caught in a contradiction or an outright lie, it was the fault of the evil librul media for pointing out the lie.

    Trump’s messaging was very clear and targeted at those who were meant to hear it. All this boring talk about policies and statistics is for fake Republicans like Romney or Jeb or that Godless librul-in-sheep’s-clothing Kasich. Career politicians trying to fool us by sounding smart, who failed to thwart the agenda of the Evil Black President and now we have sodomites getting married in church and Obamacare (which is something bad because first five letters, obviously).

    Also the ‘low voter turnout’ claim is just nonsense. Turnout in 2016 was 0.2% lower than in 2012, significantly lower than in 2004 and 2008 but on par with or much higher than the general trend from 1980 to 2000.

    DA: Ah. Yes. A tune that once the nonsensical lyrics are filtered,is mostly indistinguishable from the explicit and implicit agenda of the Republican party for the last two decades.

    Could not agree more. Trump is simply saying out loudly what civilized Republicans have been couching in more PC terms publicly and discussing behind closed doors for years.

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  43. Sheila,

    That quote is funny, but I think it’s kind of incorrect. It takes lots of effort to stay off the Mossad/NSA/ThreeLetterAgency’s radar, but it can be done.

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  44. First, let us not forget MINERVA:

    Mass Civil Breakdown. The banks nearly destroy the economy and DoD turns its guns on the poplulace. Have a hard time disagreeing with your decades/road point.

    And the JTRIG slides v Snowden which makes it quite clear UK gov wants to control people via the Internet, subterfuge, and the social sciences.

    Re bad data, once took a FB political test back in 2007 I think and answered the questions the way I imagined Hitler or some totalitarian reactionary would. Came up Ron Paul, which threw me at first having listened to his speeches and got the buzzwords of freedom, Constitution, etc., but didn’t realize what those words meant to him as opposed to what they mean to a non-social dominator. Fuzzy words have often provided unity, it’s just that the multinationals’ PR/legal departments all realize that now.

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  45. Three Dead Trolls in a Baggie nailed it in 2002:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7eIUOUfhoJ8

    (“The Privacy Song”)

    “But whatever you do when they’re talking to you, for God’s sake lie”

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  46. DA: Of those, ad blockers and VPNS wont help you,

    That article is pretty confused. A VPN does what it does and will protect you against your ISP all else equal, obviously you would have to trust your VPN provider more than your ISP for it to be any benefit. There are some hypothetical timing attacks if your opponent control both endpoints, that might become practical against a NSA level opponent. But if you are playing at that level…

    Ad Blockers and VPNs. Ironically, it’s your ad blocker that helps make you more traceable. People used ad blockers and anti-script plug ins to subvert advert ad tracking, so tech just went around them. Now sites track your individual unique browser footprint, based on system configuration and distinguishing features–for instance which plug-ins you have installed. It doesn’t matter how you get to a site–through a VPN tunnel or otherwise–once you get there an algorithm recognizes your browser to a degree of certainty and starts compiling information. The more your system configuration differs from vanilla, the more easily identifiable you are.

    So a significant enough portion of users use adblock it for them to develop counter measures, but using it still makes a footprint “unique”?

    I went to a site who claimed to check my browser footprint, I have everything you mentioned ad-block, script-block, block extra everything. They claimed that they got 10 bits of information from my browser. Thus best case they can distinguish me from 1024 others. And even if I give you 20 bits, that’s 1 in a million, how many hits per second does google ad-sense get or facebook?

    Commercial VPNs do not protect in meaningful ways against data gathering at that level (see the above link), save for the technological elite that can successfully configure something to do so.

    Do you have any sources to actual/practical “attacks” on the scale we are talking about here?

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  47. Quellist: So a significant enough portion of users use adblock it for them to develop counter measures, but using it still makes a footprint “unique”?

    It’s simply an additional differentiating factor. Yes, if everyone in the world used the exact same ad blocker with the exact same settings, it would lose its power to mark you out. But not everyone does, and plug-ins/extensions are far from the only part of your configuration tracked. Some sites, for instance, can look at the fonts you have installed. If you’ve ever added another font, that’s another elimination hurdle and degree of certainty.

    Quellist: That article is pretty confused.

    I’ll take your word for it–I’m no expert. It’s only one of several I’ve read over the past week that say basically the same thing, and was the first one I found when looking for something to cite. Feel free to Google for yourself to find one you feel more comfortable with. Most seem to agree that that VPNs only offer limited protection from data gathering at the ISP level for the average consumer that lacks the technical sophistication to configure something more rigorous. ISPs are capable of some really intrusive stuff, and even if you thwart yours, the same data can still be tracked by another.

    Plus, we’re on the blog of a science fiction author. I’m assuming you have some ability to speculate. Taking a snapshot of where things are right now and assuming that tech wont continue to aggressively attack these things is probably not wise. There is simply more money to be made by harvesting this data than by defending against it, and that is a losing equation for citizens.

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  48. @Quellist

    One of the sources linked by the article I cited is more technical in nature, and may be more acceptable to you.

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  49. Quellist: I went to a site who claimed to check my browser footprint, I have everything you mentioned ad-block, script-block, block extra everything. They claimed that they got 10 bits of information from my browser. Thus best case they can distinguish me from 1024 others.

    Re: Browser Fingerprinting and Speculation

    Ok, let’s assume that all Browser Fingerprinting mechanisms are the same, and that no other model would ever turn up more or less information about you based on a page hit. Let’s remember that the topic at hand is about predictive algorithms able to sort through vast amounts of data to find patterns with a high degree of efficacy.

    Browser fingerprinting is a simple, dumb elimination process. A 1 in 1024 base would be child’s play for a sufficiently advanced algorithm to identify you based on patterns of behavior, and any other available network data, of which fingerprinting is only a part. Eventually, they will be able to put a name and face with that browser footprint even if ISPs never resort to selling anything more than generic traffic data.

    I was just reading an article by some Stanford and Cornell grads that claim they have an algo that predicts online trolling at an 80% success rate. It’s an interesting claim that inspires some fun, Minority Report-esque speculation about a possible future where trolls are banned before they even get around to calling you a Cuck.

    Point is, if we’re even anywhere in the ballpark of something like that, the idea that you can prevent tracking much longer with the comparatively crude countermeasures available to consumers is rapidly fading. It wont solely be about what data your connection and software may or may not be broadcasting. It will be about when and where you broadcast it, and what you do while you’re there. Our very language patterns on the ‘Crawl make us traceable.

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  50. @Quellist

    Addendum: I bungled your phrasing in my previous post that is currently stuck in the mod queue. You didn’t say there was a 1 in 1024 chance of identification. You estimated 1 in a million.

    I’d caution you to read the phrasing of whatever site you used closely, however. If it’s like the one I just tested, it phrased it as “only 1 in X browsers have the same fingerprint as yours”. If only 1 in 1024 browsers in their database have the same fingerprint as yours, it means you’re fairly distinguishable from the crowd. The usefulness of that estimation varies with the size of their database, and also the knowledge that people using a site like that are likely to be ones concerned about this issue, and therefore more likely to have a similar configuration to yours. You’d probably stand out even more compared to the entire general public.

    Regardless, my point stands. Any amount of dumb elimination only makes it easier for the smarter mechanisms out there to connect the rest of the dots.

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  51. DA: more comfortable with. Most seem to agree that that VPNs only offer limited protection from data gathering at the ISP level for the average consumer that lacks the technical sophistication to configure something more rigorous.

    Note, I’m not doing this (because I don’t want to be on pager duty for myself) but for those of you who know how to set up things using ansible,

    Quick and Dirty VPN Advice

    If you have sufficient technical skill, you may choose to run Algo. I don’t recommend this for general users because of its complexity, and frankly you get the same technology with a Cloak subscription, at a comparable or better price point, with a better UI, and somebody else on pager duty.

    The rest of that article is interesting, and I like that he is starting to maintain a dataset of vpns (provisio, I hope people can manage to populate it and keep it up to date ymmv)

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  52. If you liked the movie, the book it is based on by Timur Vermes is well worth a read. As a german, i really enjoyed it, especially the very last sentence, the slogan for Adolf´s soon to be founded new party: “Es war nicht alles schlecht.” (Not everything was bad)

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  53. OK, before someone else throws that quote at me, let me walk it back a bit. When I said that “…VPNs won’t help you”, that was clearly me getting swept up in the heat of my argument with an overstatement. The more accurate thing to say is that “VPNs may help you to some degree if you have the expertise to use them correctly”. Many things may help to *some* degree, but the significance of that degree is questionable, and in my opinion, rapidly diminishing. They are simply coming at you from too many different directions now. There are no magic buttons, save for the off button on your device (maybe not even then).

    VPNs also fucking suck, if you’ll indulge me while I rant based on something as useless as principle. They’re fidgety to use, they dont play nice with every website, they slow your browsing down, and commercial VPNs theoretically have even less oversight than ISPs. The majority of the population cannot be expected to use them successfully.

    That’s the real problem. Advocating the use of commercial VPNs as some sort of fix, even if they were infallible, is just surrendering another nail in the Net Neutrality coffin. It accepts the idea that you should have to pay more for your data to be treated the same as someone else’s. It leaves the poor out in the cold to be picked clean because they cant afford the same protections. Even the technical knowledge to successfully use these protections tends to be over-represented in certain socioeconomic classes with regard to education and expertise.

    It’s almost certainly a losing battle, but I refuse to do their work for them by accepting the premise.

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  54. DA:
    I’m leaning your way in this, mostly because I don’t think people in general care enough about the issues to even bother. And bear in mind that unless you use a VPN or something similar your IP will be in plain view which likely ends the game there and then. Same goes if you let them leave persistent cookies or similar on your system. My gut feeling is that at least 95% of all users never get past this point.

    Ok, let’s assume that all Browser Fingerprinting mechanisms are the same, and that no other model would ever turn up more or less information about you based on a page hit. Let’s remember that the topic at hand is about predictive algorithms able to sort through vast amounts of data to find patterns with a high degree of efficacy.

    Browser fingerprinting is a simple, dumb elimination process. A 1 in 1024 base would be child’s play for a sufficiently advanced algorithm to identify you based on patterns of behavior, and any other available network data, of which fingerprinting is only a part. Eventually, they will be able to put a name and face with that browser footprint even if ISPs never resort to selling anything more than generic traffic data.

    Addendum: I bungled your phrasing in my previous post that is currently stuck in the mod queue. You didn’t say there was a 1 in 1024 chance of identification. You estimated 1 in a million.

    Sorry, I was unclear and/or assumed some common ground. Assuming they get 10 bits of information, that gives them 1024 buckets to put a user in, when the 1025:th user shows up he will have to live with someone else and as such is indistinguishable from that other user within the given 10 bits of data.
    In that scenario, when you have a million users, best case for the bad guy, there would be 1000 users in each bucket. So the best they can do is at that point is, “we think this new connection belongs to someone in this bucket”.

    The risk of being identifiable in this scenario would depend on the number of users/connections, if less than 1000 bad, if greater than a billion good.

    So when I give them 20 bits I give them more information, and under those assumptions they can best case identify a million users before they get duplicates, i.e. their position is stronger than with just 10 bits.

    And “sufficiently advanced algorithm” looks like hand-waving, the theoretical groundwork goes back to Claude Shannon at least, and in this case it seems it is about the number of bits of information that can be gleaned from a users connection to a site, including time of day, “network data” and so forth, not the “advanceness” of their algorithms.

    I was just reading an article by some Stanford and Cornell grads that claim they have an algo that predicts online trolling at an 80% success rate. It’s an interesting claim that inspires some fun, Minority Report-esque speculation about a possible future where trolls are banned before they even get around to calling you a Cuck.

    What was their false positive rate? (And thus, what does Bayes have to say, https://www.math.hmc.edu/funfacts/ffiles/30002.6.shtml)

    Point is, if we’re even anywhere in the ballpark of something like that, the idea that you can prevent tracking much longer with the comparatively crude countermeasures available to consumers is rapidly fading. It wont solely be about what data your connection and software may or may not be broadcasting. It will be about when and where you broadcast it, and what you do while you’re there. Our very language patterns on the ‘Crawl make us traceable.

    TOR has this concept of a global adversary, that it doesn’t offer protection against, you seem to be working your way towards something similar in this regard. It is not clear that such entity exists or is even close to being
    realizable. But if your premise is something similar to that, yeah, then there is nowhere to hide. You could train similar neural nets that does language identification to let you know what word/sentence idiosyncrasies you would need to change to blend in. And Bayes might strike here as well.

    I’d caution you to read the phrasing of whatever site you used closely, however. If it’s like the one I just tested, it phrased it as “only 1 in X browsers have the same fingerprint as yours”. If only 1 in 1024 browsers in their database have the same fingerprint as yours, it means you’re fairly distinguishable from the crowd. The usefulness of that estimation varies with the size of their database, and also the knowledge that people using a site like that are likely to be ones concerned about this issue, and therefore more likely to have a similar configuration to yours. You’d probably stand out even more compared to the entire general public.

    I used the EFF one (https://panopticlick.eff.org/), the estimation of leaked bits is the part I found most relevant, but yes there might be a bias. That’s part of why I doubled the number of bits to 20 above.

    Regardless, my point stands. Any amount of dumb elimination only makes it easier for the smarter mechanisms out there to connect the rest of the dots.

    Pruning the search space might make the problem “easier”, it doesn’t neccesarily make it solvable. And there is a hard limit on how much you can do with a given amount of information, no matter how smart your smart mechanisms are. This really is about the amount and quality of information they can get from a connection and your activity at their site.

    And a counter point, straight from the EFF (https://panopticlick.eff.org/about),
    Disable JavaScript

    Disabling JavaScript is a powerful defense against browser fingerprinting, because it cuts off the methods that websites can use to detect plugins and fonts, as well as preventing the use of most kinds of supercookie.
    Unfortunately, JavaScript is necessary to make a lot of sites work well.

    So script blocking seems to be a net win in this battle and not as you claimed, a loss. Unless you have better sources?

    It is an arms race, but in my opinion things are not as bleak as you make them out to be and the biggest problems are with the general public not caring rather than with what technology provides. Any adversary have limits of their own both information theoretical and possibly they might run into P vs NP (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/P_vs_NP) issues. You’ve ignored all practical aspects, costs, storage, computing power and what the expected monetary returns would be after the costs of everything is deducted.

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  55. Peter WattsMaybe I was giving the software too much credit

    On reflection, I think that you were not, and that I was giving people too much credit – in general people do not display the levels of scepticism and suspicion that would be necessary to make this work, which is why all the other ways that they’re being influenced already work.

    Only those of us who, for whatever reason, suspect more or less anything to be an attempt to manipulate us, are going to have a hope of doing this inside our own brains, and that stance often leads to a high degree of social isolation anyway.

    What I do wonder, though, is how difficult it would be to set up a machine learning system not to fake your output, but to analyse the content served to you to attempt to recognise which pieces were driven by a specific agenda of manipulation.
    If Cambridge Analytica can train a machine using ~300 signals from social media, how much better could you train a machine that you gave access to your activity history?
    If that machine could make predictions, then, about the best ways to influence you, could it perhaps start to monitor your intake to try and identify such attempts?
    Could it start looking for the tells in the content that would allow it to learn the mechanism that was being used at the other end, especially if users pooled their resources, giving the machine a bigger data set to learn from?

    The automation of scepticism…

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  56. DA,

    Is not the recognition and limitation of one’s flaws, even in such a form as simply “limiting the ways they can come at you” a discipline in itself?
    Of course one can be predicted and manipulated, but there’s a reason that there’s a game-theory of pure theory, of a logical world alone, and one of a more realistic observation. I disagree with the anon you’re referring to as to whether “people” could ever be unpredictable, but I think its rather self evident that the predictability of people tends to be due to a mix of similar thinking, limited information, and attempting to follow a natural logic.
    If one wonders whether there is randomness, it’s not difficult to argue for an entirely deterministic world, one can claim that for all the hawking radiation and atmospheric noise, it’s still a mostly closed system with limited total energy. But even in a deterministic universe, randomness can exist, for there is limited computational power and thus limited ability to predict properly.
    With all of this, i conclude in pointing out that with the randomness of an uncomputed future from our standpoint can come predictability. Perhaps with the increasingly powerful computers and the kinds of superior beings that Watts envisions this will cease for most baseline humans, but I do suspect that even sufficiently abstract thinking could provide some reprieve, as would the increase of intelligence and knowledge.
    A person acting with the knowledge of their predictability in mind can start to act against it, when they’re cognizant of it, at least.

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  57. Anonymous:
    DA,

    A person acting with the knowledge of their predictability in mind can start to act against it, when they’re cognizant of it, at least.

    I thought I said as much. But perhaps my grip on the discussion is not as tight as I imagine it, as Quellist just demonstrated while he spanked me on a few points above.

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  58. Definitely not Tim: Only those of us who, for whatever reason, suspect more or less anything to be an attempt to manipulate us, are going to have a hope of doing this inside our own brains, and that stance often leads to a high degree of social isolation anyway.

    I hadn’t thought about the social isolation. Interesting point.

    I’m actually coming in to throw some pessimism on one’s attempt to judge attempts to manipulate. I think most people will over estimate their ability due to self-serving biases. We’re all doomed.

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  59. I’m with TechSolidarity in wishing that technology folks in big companies would form unions so that they could apply pressure to their tops to stop doing odious things. Imagine if all the ops people working at Facebook went on strike.

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  60. Quellist: I’m leaning your way in this, mostly because I don’t think people in general care enough about the issues to even bother. And bear in mind that unless you use a VPN or something similar your IP will be in plain view which likely ends the game there and then. Same goes if you let them leave persistent cookies or similar on your system. My gut feeling is that at least 95% of all users never get past this point.

    I’ve even started shuffling my system fonts regularly. As a graphic designer I tend to have large and highly distinctive font collections.

    Quellist

    Assuming they get 10 bits of information, that gives them 1024 buckets to put a user in, when the 1025:th user shows up he will have to live with someone else and as such is indistinguishable from that other user within the given 10 bits of data. In that scenario, when you have a million users, best case for the bad guy, there would be 1000 users in each bucket. So the best they can do is at that point is, “we think this new connection belongs to someone in this bucket”

    I wouldn’t presume to debate you here. The dusty, withered part of my brain that makes any claim to be able to do anything constructive with numbers just looked at the 1 in 1000 browsers example, out of a database that claims “hundreds of thousands”. Assuming a database of 500,000, I figured that meant they had whittled you down to 1 of 500 possible users from a half a million with nothing more than a page hit with full anti-script running. That alone is enough to make me want to scream into a pillow.

    Quellist
    .And “sufficiently advanced algorithm” looks like hand-waving,

    Guilty. I’m moving freely between what I know of the present and fevered speculation.

    Quellist
    So script blocking seems to be a net win in this battle and not as you claimed, a loss.

    I’m inclined to agree here, if only because I tried using that site *without* script blocking, and your distinctiveness shoots up *drastically* for each additional script you enable. Try it–it’s terrifying. I’m convinced that script blocking should come with Firefox by default now to at least eliminate the distinctiveness of using a third party plugin.

    Quellist
    It is an arms race, but in my opinion things are not as bleak as you make them

    Seems safer to assume they’re even worse.

    Quellist
    You’ve ignored all practical aspects, costs, storage, computing power and what the expected monetary returns would be after the costs of everything is deducted.

    I haven’t ignored them so much as I don’t know what they are. I claim these assumptions:

    1) It’s clearly highly profitable, so people will keep doing it in increasingly effective ways.

    2) The applications for data harvesting are likely to increase, not decrease over time, further increasing profitability.

    3) Moore’s Law may or may not be literally true any longer depending on how you reckon it, but processing power is likely to continue to become less and less scarce.

    ***

    @Quellist

    You’re skeptical and you want numbers, and that’s a fine stance on anything. I can’t give them to you. As @Popefucker stated in his useful rundown of measures to take (which was dispiriting because I noted a number were beyond my ken or will to implement), we don’t know the capability of the adversary. Even that site you used states that it does not use every known method to ID.

    I’ve since walked back my overstatement on VPNs, even though I maintain they still suck for any number of other reasons. My intent was to argue against complacency from using these tools, and that their use not only doesn’t address the core problems, they can even worsen them in some respects.

    As the tangential link from that article about Verizon actively modifying user data to be identifiable, and the advent of browser fingerprinting shows, the trend is currently moving toward more connection-agnostic methods of tracking. I have every reason to believe that these methods will continue to improve, and much the way commercial anti-virus have become almost irrelevant ( most of any benefit derived from AV can be replicated by avoiding high risk behavior, and the estimate of their effectiveness against actual threats continues to plummet), any commercial protections available to the average consumer will not be able to keep up.

    That’s even assuming we want to surrender the internet to be another place that inherently favors the wealthy by constantly demanding more and more money paid to have your data treated the same as other people, which is a whole other kettle of worms.

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  61. A note about fingerprinting based on adblock: I know for a fact that adblock detection can be avoided with extensions that give you fine-grained blocking control, like umatrix or policeman.

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  62. “Not liking things” on Facebook doesn’t really address the massive amount of data they’re already buying about you. I avoid Facebook completely, even though it cripples me professionally to do so. The professional price you pay for unplugging from a tool like Facebook in modern society can be considerable, and there’s no way to opt out of the price you pay by embracing it.

    ***

    Speaking of the “Internet of Things” point that @Michael Carradice made above, this gentleman just had his garage door switched off by the company remotely in retaliation for posting a negative review on Amazon.

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  63. I’d be careful about trying “to contaminate the data set”. People have already ended up in court for “liking” the wrong thing on Facebook.

    It’s not just about ads, it’s about propaganda. And propaganda is everywhere: in the news, on TV, on the radio, in movies, on YouTube, it’s inescapable and it’s contaminating everything. Last season of “Broad City” had blatant Clinton propaganda in it although it’s usually more subtle than a presidential candidate appearing in a comedy show.

    “Millions of Facebook users have no idea they’re using the internet.” Article from Quartz magazine. Scary.

    “A Western leader showed class and clarity in the face of Assad’s chemical attack, but it wasn’t Donald Trump” Another article from Quartz magazine. You think that’s not propaganda?

    The media landscape has become a total quagmire and it has effectively become impossible to differentiate between valid and invalid information.

    You think Google does not have an agenda?

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  64. fons: it’s about propaganda. And propaganda is everywhere

    Indeed. We live in a sea of propaganda. The classic 1948 book by Paul Linebarger (a.k.a. Cordwainer Smith) still enlightens the novice:

    https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/10105969-psychological-warfare

    Learn everything about white, black and grey operations.

    If you are reading this blog, chance is you like SF and know about Cordwainer Smith. Still, if you did not, The Dead Lady of Clown Town, A Planet Named Shayol or Norstrilia may blow your mind, just to mention two stories and a novel. But you already know about him, probably.

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  65. fons: The media landscape has become a total quagmire and it has effectively become impossible to differentiate between valid and invalid information.

    I disagree. Not necessarily about the quagmire bit, but the “impossible to differentiate” bit. That would seem to be playing right into the hands of those responsible for spreading the most disinformation. If you accept the premise that all information is agenda driven and therefore worthy of rejection based on your own subjective whims, then you’ve handed them their victory. Climate change deniers and those with an aggressive agenda of disinformation would like nothing better than for you to give up on rigorously processing information because you feel all of it is equally invalid.

    It’s also really lazy. Information can be sourced. Those sources can be evaluated. Common sense can be applied to whether one thing is more or less likely to be true than another. A preponderance of evidence can be assembled lending more credibility to one set of information over another. You may never reach 100% certainty, but few things ever do. You’re still capable of making mostly good decisions based on lower thresholds of certainty, unless you do the work of the other side by throwing your hands up in the air and declaring everything unknowable.

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  66. fons: You think Google does not have an agenda?

    Every living thing has an agenda. These agendas are mostly knowable, and therefore predictable in many cases. It is within your ability to predict when something else’s agenda may conflict with your own interests, and when it may not, leading you to be able to weigh information from a source differently depending on the context.

    Even a tabloid can mostly be relied upon to report the baseball scores accurately.

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  67. fons: You think Google does not have an agenda?

    They make their money with internet ads. As target-oriented as possible on a per user basis.

    They still don’t address you by your name in videos, but give them time.

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  68. DA: These agendas are mostly knowable, and therefore predictable in many cases.

    I don’t share your optimism.

    Concerning Google; the article “Google Is Not What It Seems” by Julian Assange delves a bit into their backstory, it’s an interesting read.

    DA: Even a tabloid can mostly be relied upon to report the baseball scores accurately.

    Baseball scores are not used to establish an Orwellian surveillance state or to launch wars. Talking of wars: was Assad responsible for a chemical attack a few days ago? Good luck finding the real facts. What we do know for a fact is that the US used it as an excuse to launch a bombing strike on Syria. Just a day after I (randomly) mentioned it in my previous comment.

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  69. fons: Baseball scores are not used to establish an Orwellian surveillance state or to launch wars.

    It was obviously just an expression to show that intelligent decisions can still be made about whether information, even from a dubious source, can ever be trusted.

    fons: Good luck finding the real facts.

    OK, well now you’re speaking about scarcity of information. Transparency in government has always been a problem (although personally I don’t find the motivations for Trumps conveniently narrative-shifting military strike particularly mysterious).

    What I addressed my disagreement to was your previous statement that it was impossible to tell good information from bad. I personally find that alarming, because it’s the sort of thing that people often say right before they use it to disregard good information in favor of letting bad information benefit from some sort of false equivalency.

    When the Climate Change Denier in Chief stands up and says “Nobody knows if climate change is real” as an excuse to not address the issue, that information can be scrutinized for the lie that it is with a high degree of certainty. The disinformer *wants* you to accept the premise that something is unknowable. They want to delegitimatize sources of information other than their own, or failing that, to delegitimatize all information.

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  70. ‘Crawl ate my first post, had to type it twice. Apologize for any dupes.

    fons: Baseball scores are not used to establish an Orwellian surveillance state or to launch wars.

    This was clearly just an expression to show that intelligent decisions about information can be made, even from dubious sources.

    fons: Good luck finding the real facts.

    You’re speaking about scarcity of information now. Transparency in government has always been a problem, and is not unique to this age. One could argue that in the digital age governments have never been *more* transparent, willingly or otherwise. Personally, though, I don’t find the reasons for Trump’s conveniently narrative-shifting military strike on Syria to be especially mysterious.

    Your previous statement that I aimed my disagreement at, was that it was “impossible” to sort good information from bad. In my experience, this is often something that people say just prior to dismissing some source of good information in order to allow bad information to benefit from some sort of false equivalence.

    When the Climate Change Denier in Chief stands up and says,”Nobody really knows if Climate Change is real”, as an excuse to justify acting as if it isn’t, that information can be scrutinized and revealed for the lie that it is to a high degree of certainty. The disinformer wants to delegitimize sources of information they dont control, or failing that, to deligitimize all information. Don’t do their work for them.

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  71. DA: The disinformer wants to delegitimize sources of information they dont control, or failing that, to deligitimize all information. Don’t do their work for them.

    Agreed. Except that I didn’t think I was doing their work for them, I was just pointing it out.

    Apologies for re-using the same example again but it happens to be very topical and it illustrates perfectly what I was saying: currently the whole world thinks Assad was responsible for a chemical attack a few days ago when information to the contrary actually does exist.

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  72. I’d like to think that if Google was so good at identifying everyone from their browser settings alone I wouldn’t have to let them know it was me and I don’t need to change my password just because I logged in to check my mail while forgetting I was using a VPN to watch something that’s region locked.

    Maybe it’s all camouflage to disguise their creepy analytics, but considering everyone apparently already knows about their creepy analytics and is giving a collective shrug, they could at least throw in some increased utility.

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  73. fons: currently the whole world thinks Assad was responsible for a chemical attack a few days ago when information to the contrary actually does exist.

    Information to the contrary exists about everything, and always has. There are people that still believe the earth is flat. They have a website. This is hardly a new phenomenon in the modern era. Ideally, we sift what information there is based on on quality, credibility, and likelihood until we reach a degree of certainty we’re comfortable with.

    Sometimes there isn’t much quality information, but I hardly see how situation was any better in any previous era. People today have greater information tools at their disposal than at any other time in history, and it is harder and harder to keep information secret.

    If it makes you feel better, you don’t need to have reached a degree of certainty about the supposed motivation for Trump’s illegal, blatant attempt to change the narrative of issues surrounding his administration, to condemn it.

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  74. Peter D:
    I’d like to think that if Google was so good at identifying everyone from their browser settings alone I wouldn’t have to let them know it was me and I don’t need to change my password just because I logged in to check my mail while forgetting I was using a VPN to watch something that’s region locked.

    As far as I understand it, which may not be very far, fingerprinting is done on more of a website by website basis. Google probably has some algorithm that can tell how much quality time I spent with Lesbian Spank Nuns last night based on the migratory pattern of birds.

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  75. DA: Google probably has some algorithm that can tell how much quality time I spent with Lesbian Spank Nuns last night based on the migratory pattern of birds.

    I thought you looked familiar…

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  76. DA, why do I have this feeling you want to whitewash everything I’m saying? It’s not that I necessarily disagree with all of your points, but you keep reframing things slightly it seems to me.

    DA: Sometimes there isn’t much quality information, but I hardly see how situation was any better in any previous era.

    So? The past was bad so we should just accept the shit we’re in today?

    The world has changed; some for the better, some for the worse. Example: digital currency: useful yes, but also a massive tool of control that didn’t exist in the past.

    You mentioned flat earth. The way that stuff has taken off… Modern times!

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  77. Peter D:
    considering everyone apparently already knows about their creepy analytics and is giving a collective shrug

    That’s the danger right there; giving a collective shrug.

    Independant journalism is important to keep a functioning democracy. Can we agree on that? If you cannot bring into the open the things the government is doing wrong, you’re living in a dictatorship. Now go listen to journalists who want to write about corruption and the like, see what they have to deal with.

    It’s gotten so bad that many journalists refuse to use encryption -the very thing you’d think they should be doing to protect themselves- because that signal would stand out as a big red flag and mark them for surveillance.

    People are changing their behaviour and self censoring because they know they are being monitored. Ask Peter Watts and how free he feels to travel.

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  78. fons: DA, why do I have this feeling you want to whitewash everything I’m saying? It’s not that I necessarily disagree with all of your points, but you keep reframing things slightly it seems to me.

    […]So? The past was bad so we should just accept the shit we’re in today?

    I’m sorry. I wasn’t aware of doing that. I was trying to steer you back to the original statement I took issue with when you would deviate from it, which was:

    fons: The media landscape has become a total quagmire and it has effectively become impossible to differentiate between valid and invalid information.

    I disagree with the term “impossible”, and I disagree with the way it was phrased (“has become”), suggesting that that these are recent issues that were somehow better previously.

    Now that we know we disagree, we don’t have to discuss the issue any further if you don’t wish to.

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  79. Fatman: Why bother with winning hearts and minds, or with this messy killing business, when all you have to say is “brown people are coming to take your jobs/social security” to accomplish the same?

    For one thing, at some point said brown people might decide that since they’re being vilified anyway, they might as well start shooting back. Plus the fact that the point at which brown people comprise the nation-wide voting majority is already edging into hold-your-breath territory, and it’s going to get increasingly difficult to keep disenfranchising such a huge chunk of the population without resorting to violence to keep them in line.

    But maybe I’m just being naively optimistic. Wouldn’t be the first time.

    Michael Carradice: Now, think of the much-prophetised “internet of things”, to make it even more funny.

    It’s getting more and more difficult to even find a non-“smart” TV on the showroom floor these days. When it becomes impossible, I guess I’ll just go back to using a very large dumb monitor.

    bookworm1398: And if Facebook knew that Peter Watts was addicted to Furry Porn, it would already have shared that information with his wife and friends.

    Actually, that would explain a few things…

    mindbound: Whereas I am not entirely sure that these are, or ought to be, two necessarily different cases.

    Point!

    popefucker: I’ll list some advice for software to use, etc.

    Thanks, popefucker. I hadn’t heard of some of this.

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  80. David: Theoretically there could be someone who is so persuasive that they should be banned from having large public meetings, or to address people in their own words (they would need a normalising script or interpretor to make them harmless), and I could live with this.

    And I could write a story about it…

    The K:
    If you liked the movie, the book it is based on by Timur Vermes is well worth a read. As a german, i really enjoyed it, especially the very last sentence, the slogan for Adolf´s soon to be founded new party: “Es war nicht alles schlecht.” (Not everything was bad)

    Huh. As I recall, the last line in the subtitled version I saw was “I can work with this.”

    DA: It leaves the poor out in the cold to be picked clean because they cant afford the same protections. Even the technical knowledge to successfully use these protections tends to be over-represented in certain socioeconomic classes with regard to education and expertise.

    It’s almost certainly a losing battle, but I refuse to do their work for them by accepting the premise.

    While I concede this, my main concern is to keep the panopticon from watching me (let us leave aside for the moment the question of how likely they are to do that to a convicted felon who has openly, and under his own name, called for the assassination of sitting heads-of-state, no matter how rhetorically). In that sense, from a purely cold-blooded POV, the more people who can’t afford even token security, the better for those who can. It means there’s more low-hanging fruit out there for thhe bad guys to go after.

    Anonymous: But even in a deterministic universe, randomness can exist, for there is limited computational power and thus limited ability to predict properly.

    It’s also worth emphasizing that perfect prediction isn’t necessary; all you need is enough predictable/manipulable people to swing a federal election. So already you can write off 80% of the population as acceptable losses.

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  81. fons: People have already ended up in court for “liking” the wrong thing on Facebook.

    Details? Link?

    DA: Information can be sourced. Those sources can be evaluated. Common sense can be applied to whether one thing is more or less likely to be true than another. A preponderance of evidence can be assembled lending more credibility to one set of information over another. You may never reach 100% certainty, but few things ever do.

    I cling to this belief myself. Let’s hope it continues to be true. Let’s hope it still is.

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  82. fons: It’s gotten so bad that many journalists refuse to use encryption -the very thing you’d think they should be doing to protect themselves- because that signal would stand out as a big red flag and mark them for surveillance.

    Where did you hear this?

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  83. Peter Watts: Details?Link?

    Search for “Swiss man sued for liking Facebook posts”, you should find some articles. It involves a man called Erwin Kessler, it’s recent.

    The above is still exceptional but people getting into trouble for the stuff they do on social media happens all the time so I think the concern is valid.

    (For the record: the case involves antisemitism which -let me be clear- I DO NOT condone, just in case anybody gets the wrong idea.)

    I also found this: “Facebook like on trial in Virginia”, an article from 2013 at Salon.
    Or “Facebook’s like is on trial, so think twice before liking this article”, an article from 2013 at Quartz.

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  84. DA: Information can be sourced. Those sources can be evaluated. Common sense can be applied to whether one thing is more or less likely to be true than another. A preponderance of evidence can be assembled lending more credibility to one set of information over another. You may never reach 100% certainty, but few things ever do.

    Let me try to explain my point of view better.

    Verifying scientific claims is one thing, when it comes to social issues, politics, world events etc journalism is what we have to rely on for the most part. Sourcing stuff in that context is often very hard if not impossible, you have to trust the journalist at some point. No matter how deep you dig, how do you know a certain source can be trusted or that evidence has not been tampered with or fabricated? Just to illustrate that nothing is as easy as it might seem, particulary when it comes to things that are not reproducible in a laboratory experiment.

    Why are people still discussing what really happened with the assassination of John F. Kennedy or with 9/11? Why don’t we know the truth about these things? Or do we?

    Most people are not researchers. They turn on the news and that is where they get their “facts”.

    I already hinted earlier at why Google should not be trusted so blindly as most people seem to do. It doesn’t help that they have a de facto monopoly on search, which is never a good thing. It’s also worrying that they now seem to want to assume the position of Ministry of Truth in response to this “fake news” meme that’s been trumped up.

    Also this development where you type in a question into your phone or ask some gizmo and they give you the one and only answer; downright scary if you ask me.

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  85. fons: It’s gotten so bad that many journalists refuse to use encryption -the very thing you’d think they should be doing to protect themselves- because that signal would stand out as a big red flag and mark them for surveillance.

    Sheila: Where did you hear this?

    Where I heard it was on the YouTube channel from ‘Freedom of the Press Foundation’ where they posted three (hour-long) videos from a panel discussion on security and encryption for journalists. The videos are very interesting in their own right.

    I don’t exactly remember in which of the three it was that they talked about what I mentioned but they’re all very enlightening if you want to learn more about how journalists try to deal with this stuff. Keep in mind that -as far as I remember- the journalists present did in fact all use encryption in one form or another for the most part, after all it was a panel on that very subject.

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  86. fons: Let me try to explain my point of view better.

    Fons, believe it or not, I understood your original point of view, as well as the expanding number of tangential issues you keep raising that illustrate how it can be difficult to parse information in modern society. I only chose to take issue with a couple specific points:

    1) The idea that it’s “impossible” to sort good information from bad “these days”.

    2) Your phrasing that suggests that scarcity/contradiction of information is some sort of modern phenomenon.

    ***

    Of course, all of this requires that we accept the premise that people are even capable of processing good information anywhere on the conscious level. The real thing you should be worried about is that even in the event that all available information was certified 100% valid, whether it would really matter. Earlier in the thread I pondered why CA felt it necessary to custom tailor smart political bullshit, when people are so eager to accept garden variety bullshit so long as it benefits whatever tribal flag they’re waving. As Cuccurullo and the Bozzios ask, “What are words for, when no one listens anymore ?”

    If you do accept the notion of the human potential for critical thinking, then there’s no escaping the fact that in the history of the world, people have never had access to better informational tools than they do right now, period. In comparatively “free” countries, even the lowliest citizens can access something rapidly approaching the sum of human knowledge. With a finger tap, you can assemble context on the source of an extraordinary claim, see who made it, what history they have, whether it’s corroborated elsewhere, to decide how much weight you want to give that information. If you have enough wealth and want to know whats going on someplace in the world, you can pay to drop someone on the ground overnight in a plane, and have them report to you in real time (spoiler–wealthier people have access to better information).

    If it is truly “impossible” to tell good info from bad to a degree of certainty about a great many subjects with the tools we have right now, then it never really was possible to begin with.

    ***

    Obviously there’s never as much information as you’d like. Obviously with greater influx of data, there is a lot of “noise” that comes with it. Obviously, it provides new opportunities for people to continue manipulating information as they’ve done since the dawn of civilization. Obviously, it requires you to have some degree of trust in some sources based on patterns of behavior, or consensus, and simple faith that conspiracies are increasingly difficult to pull off, and that better information comes out over time as bad info fades due to ongoing scrutiny.

    Same as it ever was. I was watching “Five Came Back” on Netflix over the weekend. Filter out the usual cloying Hollywood sentimentality, and it was actually a pretty interesting look at informational warfare. During WW2, the only consistent pre-television sources of information for the US citizenry were newspapers (subject to all their human bias and corporate interest), and the cinematic info-features produced by a Hollywood that had been weaponized by the U.S Military. Setting aside the de-humanizing jingoism and lack of scrutiny of what the U.S. was doing to their own citizenry at the time, what struck me was how many of those features were completely fabricated. Not even for nefarious reasons neccesarily–maybe the light wasn’t right–but they’d still stage completely fabricated set pieces presented as reality.

    Limited info, lots of noise, bad data, and they had far more limitations than we do in terms of communication, travel, and info sharing. Still possible to form degrees of certainty based on what good data there is, and better information comes out over time as bad information is subject to scrutiny.

    How far back do you want to go–the town crier in the Roman plaza, uttering what the powerful want him to say under penalty of death or enslavement, in a time where travel was scarce, and information precious? Of course, then I’d be at risk of you asking:

    fons: So? The past was bad so we should just accept the shit we’re in today?

    …er, no. But if certain things were never historically possible, I have to ask what you’re basing your expectations on. It’s like saying, “We’ve become a society where human beings can’t flap their arms and take flight–are you gonna just accept that shit?” It sounds increasingly like you’re laying out the limitations of the human condition, rather than making a meaningful critique of modern society.

    The good news is, despite the ongoing difficulties people have trying to reach some degree of certainly based on imperfect information, things have never been better than they are right now. The very fact that you’re *aware* of the contradictory information of the subject you cited earlier, is probably a good sign. It is increasingly difficult to keep information secret. Communication tools are powerful, and easily accessible to many. One could argue that the vast uptake in available information, even though it allows for the transmission of more bad data, also allows a greater store of good information to be available than ever before. The opportunities for abuse are abundant, but they always are. For every foul, there is usually someone out there trying to blow the whistle.

    If we “have become” anything, it’s closer than at any point previously to breaking the stranglehold of the powerful on our information, as evidenced by how furiously they keep trying to plug their fingers into the dam. If you want to find something out, you have a better shot now than at any point in the past. Run and find out young mongoose, the garden has never been more open, and there are many snakes to hunt.

    Don’t mistake that for optimism. It probably doesn’t matter. At the end of the day we’re still the common denominator, and our ability to weigh information leaves much to be desired, regardless of quality. The best data in the world wont help you when people dont want to hear it.

    Dale, play me out.

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  87. Eep! Sorry about the previous Wall of Text. My own ability to filter my informational output leaves much to be desired.

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  88. Sheila: Where did you hear this?

    About the ‘Freedom of the Press Foundation’ videos.

    I rewatched the whole thing just to check. Turns out it was sources rather than journalists they were referring to. (Primarily in the first of the three videos.)

    So I stand corrected. Though it would surprise me if some journalists are not following the same logic as well. But ok, I don’t have evidence for that.

    Regardless; it’s still remarkable that we have to worry about such things. We shouldn’t have to be afraid of our goverment, something we now take for granted apparently. The government exists to serve the people, not the other way around.

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  89. DA, you write well and I appreciate your efforts. I must confess that after such a long and well worded comment I hesitate to respond in what might appear as dismissive, disrespectful, obtuse or something along those lines. That is not my intention so apologies just in case.

    DA: 1) The idea that it’s “impossible” to sort good information from bad “these days”.
    2) Your phrasing that suggests that scarcity/contradiction of information is some sort of modern phenomenon.

    You keep hammering the same point and I keep wondering why this seems so important to you. 😉

    Yes we have better tools of information at our disposal. So do the propagandists.

    You seem to be of the opinion that the balance between these two has gotten much better or is largely in our favor, I’m more inclined to think the opposite. I suppose we can agree to disagree on this.

    But ultimately the precise nature of this balance isn’t so important to my overall view because even if we assume the best case it seems to me that it’s not enough: propaganda is winning. The individuals who are able to see the light -the undeceived if you will- are not making much of a difference.

    DA: If we “have become” anything, it’s closer than at any point previously to breaking the stranglehold of the powerful on our information, as evidenced by how furiously they keep trying to plug their fingers into the dam.

    Until I see this reflected in what actually happens in the real world, I don’t share your optimism. 😉

    DA: Don’t mistake that for optimism.

    Err..

    DA: It probably doesn’t matter.At the end of the day we’re still the common denominator, and our ability to weigh information leaves much to be desired, regardless of quality. The best data in the world wont help you when people dont want to hear it.

    Ok, agreed. Not sure what we’re arguing about anymore.

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  90. fons: You keep hammering the same point and I keep wondering why this seems so important to you.

    Because it’s the only point I disagreed with, and haven’t successfully gotten you to address it, either through succinct posts summing up the issue with an offer to drop the discussion entirely, or failing that, long winded blathergasms.

    If you want to walk back the word “impossible” to something like “it can be difficult at times”, then we have no disagreement. Though “it can be difficult at times to tell good information from bad” is a truism about human existence, and not an insight into the digital age. Claiming a blanket impossibility gives license to the lazy or the tribals not to seek out the good information on any number of subjects that it is capable to discern a degree of certainty about.

    I’ll reiterate– in my experience people who cite the fact of the potential for disinformation as an excuse not to believe *anything*, are often using it as a preamble to justify disregarding something they don’t want to believe, often in favor much flimsier information. About a great many things, there can be no absolute certainty–we simply hope to weigh information on the basis of what is more likely to be true.

    ***

    Likewise, if you want to frame your issue with the information landscape as a problem with the continuing fallibility of *people*, and not an issue with the age per se, then we have no real argument. Despite the potential for abuse, in terms of information we’ve never had it so good.

    ***

    fons: DA: If we “have become” anything, it’s closer than at any point previously to breaking the stranglehold of the powerful on our information, as evidenced by how furiously they keep trying to plug their fingers into the dam.

    Until I see this reflected in what actually happens in the real world, I don’t share your [REDACTED].

    Aren’t you the guy that keeps citing Wikileaks and Assange? Aren’t we in a thread discussing how increasingly difficult it is to keep information secret because we leave data everywhere? Politicians can’t even keep some comment they made in the back of a bus years ago secret–but it doesn’t matter, because people.

    Are you not familiar with with how frantically certain countries are trying to clamp down on the internet because our informational tools are so potent they threaten that government’s control of information? They may succeed for a time, but ultimately the information will win free. You can’t put the genie back in the bottle. Well, you can if you reduce the infrastructure to rubble, but at that point we’ll have bigger problems.
    .

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  91. fons: So I stand corrected. Though it would surprise me if some journalists are not following the same logic as well. But ok, I don’t have evidence for that.

    No worries, I think it is plausible there is a chilling effect, but I was curious about the particulars with journalists.

    tangent:

    one of the items of advice for journalists from TechSolidarity: “If you believe your hotel room is monitored, work under the covers on the bed. It is less conspicuous, and prevents video surveillance of what you’re typing and viewing.” I had not thought of that.

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  92. Ok DA, now you are putting all sorts of words into my mouth. I believe I do have addressed your initial rejoinder, if you don’t want to see it that way, so be it.

    Sheila: One of the items of advice for journalists from TechSolidarity: “If you believe your hotel room is monitored, work under the covers on the bed. It is less conspicuous, and prevents video surveillance of what you’re typing and viewing.” I had not thought of that.

    What has the world come to. Freedom of the Press Foundation also has a whole bunch of incredibly useful guides here: freedom.press/training/

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  93. fons: Ok DA, now you are putting all sorts of words into my mouth. I believe I do have addressed your initial rejoinder, if you don’t want to see it that way, so be it.

    I’m sorry you think that. My recollection is I have quoted the exact words I took issue with on multiple occasions, and done nothing but address that assertion and the specific aspects about it I find troubling. In return you offered a number of arguments for why people can sometimes be presented with challenging or contradictory information, but nothing, in my opinion, that makes the following statement literally true, or true of this specific era and not of any other:

    fons: The media landscape has become a total quagmire and it has effectively become impossible to differentiate between valid and invalid information.

    Emphasis mine.

    I’m content to disagree and move on. I said as much several posts ago, but you wanted to “explain” more, which I took as inviting further discussion.

    DA: Now that we know we disagree, we don’t have to discuss the issue any further if you don’t wish to.

    Thanks for tolerating some of my more verbose postings.
    .

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  94. Peter Watts: it’s going to get increasingly difficult to keep disenfranchising such a huge chunk of the population without resorting to violence to keep them in line

    Well, then you flip the playbook and disenfranchise the new minority. Or find some innovative way to manipulate the non-white majority.

    Our capitalist overlords don’t really care about skin color, ethnic origin, religion, etc. Racism is simply a very convenient tool to distract the serfs from issues that actually matter (such as the fact that they are serfs).

    Poor people tend to be more racist than middle-income people because: a) it feels good to have someone below you on the food chain, even if neither of you are really eating much, and b) it feels good to have someone to blame for your low status in society other than yourself. “I’m not poor because I’m uneducated, incompetent, and (likely) addicted to meth, I just never got a chance because the sinister Judeo-Masonic globalist system unfairly favors X and Y”. Change that up a bit and you have a formula that keeps on winning. Ditto gun rights, anti-intellectualism and freedom to discriminate (a.k.a. ‘freedom of religion’).

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  95. whelp, I still haven’t caught up on the fiblet blog post (keeping htem unread in my news reader until I have some nice relaxing leisure time to enjoy a story) but some things keep reminding me of this entry, and here is a new talk by Maciej C. that people who think about technology and ethics and doom might enjoy.

    http://idlewords.com/talks/build_a_better_monster.htm

    With a paragraph like,

    A question few* are asking is whether the tools of mass surveillance and social control we spent the last decade building could have had anything to do with the debacle of the 2017 election, or whether destroying local journalism and making national journalism so dependent on our platforms was, in retrospect, a good idea.

    * not pertinent to y’all but definitely to silicon valley investors

    If you enjoy video of a talk more, it is not up yet.

    I like this hopeful claim: “I contend that there are structural reasons to worry about the role of the tech industry in American political life, and that we have only a brief window of time in which to fix this.”

    Meanwhile, the Twitter and Teargas book shipped early! and I have a copy in hand. Every paragraph slows me down in a good way. This is going to take a while to read. …and also impulse-bought Hegemony How-To: A Roadmap for Radicals for more of the same discussion.

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  96. Fatman: Our capitalist overlords don’t really care about skin color, ethnic origin, religion, etc. Racism is simply a very convenient tool to distract the serfs from issues that actually matter (such as the fact that they are serfs).
    Poor people tend to be more racist than middle-income people because […]

    I don’t want to dig deeply in to a discussion with you, but I just don’t want to implicitly allow this part of your post to go by without registering my dissent. and I want to take this opportunity to provide pointers to quiet bystanders who may be interested in these topics.

    0. Racism is a thing that actually matters. The fact that people are serfs matters but it’s ignorant to claim that racism does not. Denying racism isn’t going to fix the system.

    1. It’s hard to believe that capitalist overlords don’t really care about skin color when they claim to, and I’m not talking about this latest set. If you are interested, you can watch the free documentary, 13th. available on netflix. The New Jim Crow also covers this and more. As for the latest set, I just assume they are telling the truth when they espouse white nationalist views. I’d love to be embarrassed by over-reacting to that. my time is well spent regardless, since anything I do to try and dismantle racism will also dismantle serfdom.

    2. It’s likely that capitalist overlords drove a wedge between working poor and black people until we are where we are now. see, The the above documentary and book for pointers to primary sources.

    3. Gun rights have shifted from republicans being against them; one example, the Black Panthers asserting their right to carry. Don’t think that left wing progressives have always been against gun rights. Identities shift and then those in power get to use identities to polarize people due to our cognitive biases. refer to research discussed in previous blog posts.

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  97.   (Quote)  (Reply)

  98. Fascist overlords, people.

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