Thursday, October 8, 2015

My Wacky Ideas Published Elsewhere

I've gotten a few requests from people interested in my other writings.
So, for those of you trying to follow my publications (like the intriguingly large number of you from Ukraine,) I should mention a few other places where I've written about them.
My article in tech magazine The Stack, "How corporate data brokers sell your life, and why you should be concerned" is probably the single most comprehensive analysis of the data broker industry available on the Internet (or at least that's what I've been told.)
My article in RealClearTechnology, "Data Brokers: Resolving the National Security Threat" elaborates on how data brokers pose a major national security concern, and my proposal as to how it can be resolved in a way that the data brokers would actually be willing to back (as opposed to the impractical proposals tightening privacy laws.)
There's also my related articles in Foreign Affairs and most prestigious of all: Cracked.
More to come.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

A (Pretty) Complete History of Palantir

I originally published this article at Maus Strategic Consulting on 4/27/2014. To my knowledge it remains the most complete publicly available history of Palantir.

Fairly eccentric near-billionaire CEO Alex Karp
Palantir Technologies is the darling of the U.S. intelligence community, the terror of many privacy advocates, and most recently the fascination of many high-end investors.

Despite being in the spotlight among such groups, much of the information on it is fragmentary or highly speculative. This history unites those fragments into a coherent whole, probably the most complete publicly available history of Palantir ever assembled.

When Palantir spokeswoman Lisa Gordon was reached for official  comment on the history below, she examined it and replied (with characteristic Palantir casualness) "I don't really have anything to add. Looks pretty complete."

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Modeling and Covertly Manipulating Societies at London Tech Conference

I presented a paper at the Science and Information 2015 Conference in London last week.
The provocative title Decoding, Hacking, and Optimizing Societies: Exploring Potential Applications of Human Data Analytics in Sociological Engineering,both Internally and as Offensive Weapons caught a fair bit of attention.
Pictured: You
Providing an overview of current research on extrapolating personal data, forecasting actions, modeling large groups, and subtly influencing behavior, the paper lays out how the data that we give off every day through passive methods could be used to build up models of societies and then covertly nudge them into convenient formations. Though this has many applications for many different groups, the paper particularly focuses on how this could provide governments with new tools to mold their societies (potentially increasing economic productivity, improving social harmony, reducing crime, or--more ominously--fostering obedience to the government) as well as covertly influencing other societies. (After all, that's the most eye-catching application.)
Suffice to say, it's concerningly close to what generations of tinfoil hat-wearers have been warning us about.*

If you can't slog through the excitingly dense academic prose, then don't worry, as I came up with an analogy for my presentation that explains it all rather neatly (with pretty pictures!)
I'll post it at a later date, but here's a teaser: You are a billiard ball.

*Bonus tangential ramble: amusingly enough, conspiracy theorists would be just as effective tools for societal manipulations along these lines as anyone else, possibly more so in some circumstances such as spreading paranoia. (Just check out how RT/RussiaToday loves them!)

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Somebody Hears You, Part 2: The Data Brokers

          For all the attention that the NSA has gotten for its bulk data collection, there is a silent behemoth that has been collecting huge amounts of personal information with even less transparency, oversight or accountability.
Nothing in all of creation is hidden from data brokers.
          To reiterate from Part 1 The private data broker industry trades in nearly every type of personal FTC's 2014 Report lists many of the categories of information that the brokers use--at least those categories that the FTC was able to pry from the companies, which the report notes was difficult to the firms' strong insistence on their own privacy.
information. They have access to information just about everywhere your name has been written down (including most government records), online activity, financial transactions, etc. The
One of the slightly more transparent firms in the (pathologically secretive) industry, Acxiom stated in their 2013 Annual Report that they had in their databases "Over 3,000 propensities for nearly every U.S. consumer" and globally “Multi-sourced insight into approximately 700 million consumers”. They update the data regularly, with the same report estimating that they had updated 25 trillion elements in consumer records in the previous year alone.
Capabilities like this are why it's creepily effective to compare Acxiom to an omniscient God:

Brokers buy this information from the groups mentioned in Part 1 or each other. They then aggregate it, analyze it, and repackage it to be sold or leased to buyers. The amount of traffic is huge. Acxiom alone handled nearly 60 trillion transactions for over 7,000 clients in 2013 (23).
So how much money is involved in this? 

Thursday, July 9, 2015

Corrupting the Cyber-Commons by Seva Gunitsky

Seva Gunitsky at the University of Toronto recently sent me his article (which he has graciously allowed me to link here) about how autocratic governments are using social media as a tool to maintain control over their countries.
Published in the journal Perspectives on Politics this Spring, the article exhaustively examines how autocratic governments are provably currently using social media and divides these uses into four categories:
  1. Counter-mobilization: coordinating the regime's support base among the general populace
  2. Discourse framing: shaping the narrative of public discussion
  3. Preference divulgence: getting people to reveal how they feel about issues so that minor issues can be resolved if they're not against the regime's interests
  4. Elite coordination: helping central government officials bypass how local elites try to frame themselves and their locales, creating internal transparency for more effective governance
Particularly interesting is his argument that social media gives people enough of a sense of freedom that they might not demand further reforms or actual democratization. Essentially, he argues, people will be more likely to settle for non-democratic governments if those governments give the appearance of responding to the demands of online groups expressing their grievances.
Overall he makes a very firm, well-documented case against those who hold that social media is invariably a tool for democratization.
I recommend it if you're at all interested in the relationship between social media and democracy, which I would consider one of the most defining issues of international politics for this decade and probably the next.
I am strongly inclined to agree with Seva, though as I've covered both elsewhere on Social Calculations and in my recent Foreign Affairs article, I think that the current uses are merely a preamble to how autocracies will truly wield these tools to analyze and preempt dissent, perhaps ultimately molding their societies into hands-off police-states whose resilience is unprecedented.

Thursday, July 2, 2015

Eye in the Skynet Published in Foreign Affairs

Wikimedia Commons
Pictured: An Agent of the Chinese Government

Foreign Affairs just published an article of mine they've (cleverly) dubbed Eye in the Skynet: How Regimes Can Quell Social Movements Before they Begin.
It goes into detail about how authoritarian governments can (and quite possibly already do) use advances in data analytics to better monitor, analyze, and crush dissent before it has the chance to grow.
Though I don't mention it in the article, the title is especially appropriate considering that Chinese officials have actually used the term Skynet (apparently unironically) as the name for both their recent program to arrest allegedly corrupt officials who have fled overseas, as well as their nation-wide video surveillance program.
If you're just landing here from there and you're concerned about totalitarian regimes creating inescapable omniscient nightmare-states, don't worry! It gets worse.
As will be covered in the series Somebody Hears You, even democratic states have their own major issues with huge swathes of deeply personal data being collected by pathologically secretive private companies with all the transparency, oversight, and accountability of your typical black market bazaar. Indeed, much of the data they collect actually has shown up in explicitly criminal online markets for identity theft and fraud.
In addition to threatening the well-being of the people from whom it's been stolen, the porousness of personal data collection could pose a major national security threat in a new, more reliable ways to fight across the battlefield of hearts and minds.
As I've touched on previously and will elaborate upon in future articles, my proposal to mitigate these threats is to bring these bulk personal data transactions out of the shadows and into transparent data markets where the watchers can be much more easily watched.

Somebody Hears You, Part 1: The Age of Omniscience

If you’re reading this then you probably own a smartphone.
I know this partially because the site's analytics tells me that people read it on smartphones, but the simple fact is that a strong majority of the adult populations in developed countries have smartphones (58% in the U.S. as of January 2014) (1) and even in developing countries that number is rising rapidly, especially among the youth (by spring 2013 69% of 18-29 year-olds in China owned one.) (2)
You’ve probably noticed your smartphone providing suggestions to you based on where you’ve been: how long it will take to get to work or home in current traffic, deals at retailors near you, events at your university, etc. Our nonchalant acceptance that most of us are constantly carrying devices that track our every movement says a great deal about the age we’re living in.
A White House’s report describes it as “a world of near-ubiquitous data collection”, (3) but my personal favorite description of it comes from Federal Trade Commission commissioner Julie Brill, who goes so far as to say that we are at the dawn of what she calls the “Age of Omniscience.”
The appropriateness of the name becomes apparent when one starts to consider just how much of our daily actions are recorded in so many different ways.

Let's start with using phones to track people's locations.
Unless you're using special software to stay off the radar, this site's analytics tells me where the readers are located. I don't even pay for the service--that's how easy it is. A little investment can get one a lot more data.