All posts by The Good Doc

Data security and surveillance legitimacy

To no-one’s surprise, the Department of Homeland Security and the Customs and Border Patrol have become victims of successful hacks of the biometric data they mass-collect at the border. The usual neoliberal dance of private subcontracting of public functions further exacerbated the problem. According to the DHS Office of the Inspector General,

[t]his incident may damage the public’s trust in the Government’s ability to safeguard biometric data and may result in travelers’ reluctance to permit DHS to capture and use their biometrics at U.S. ports of entry.

No kidding. Considering the oft-documented invasiveness of data harvesting practices by the immigration-control complex and the serious real-world repercussions in terms of policies and ordinary people’s lives, the problem of data security should be front-and-center in public policy debates. The trade-off between the expected value to be gained from surveillance and the risk of unauthorized access to the accumulated information (which also implies the potential for the corruption of the database) must be considered explicitly: as it is, these leaks and hacks are externalities the public is obliged to absorb because the agencies have scant incentive to monitor their data troves properly.

Media manipulation

Earlier, I attended an online workshop organized by the Harvard Kennedy School’s Technology and Social Change Project on media manipulation in the context of the 2020 US presidential campaign. Very productive conversation on the tailoring of disinformation memes to the various minority communities. I also learned about the Taiwanese “humor over rumor” strategy…

Long-term erosion of trust

Interesting article on Slashdot about the historical roots of the weaponization of doubt and scientific disagreement by special interests.

It is notable that these phenomena start at scale with the pervasive political engagement of corporations with American politics in the 1970s and ’80s: this is the moment in which business as a whole detaches from automatic support for a particular political party (choosing its battles and the champions for them –whether financing an insurgent movement, litigation, legislative lobbying, and so forth– on a case-by-case basis), and also the dawn of the end-of-ideologies era. These themes are well discussed by Edward Walker in Grassroots for Hire (2014).

As for the present predicament, one is reminded of an NYT op-ed from last year by William Davies, “Everything Is War and Nothing Is True” on public political discourse:

Social media has introduced games of strategy into public discourse, with deception and secrecy — information warfare — now normal parts of how arguments play out

or of a similarly-dated piece by Z. Tufekci on the commercial side of things:

The internet is increasingly a low-trust society—one where an assumption of pervasive fraud is simply built into the way many things function.

There definitely seem to be systemic aspects to this problem.

Surveillance acquiescence conundrum recently ran an interview with Ciaran Martin, the outgoing chief of the UK’s National Cyber Security Centre. In it, Martin raises the alarm against Chinese attempts at massive data harvesting in the West (specifically in regard to the development of AI). This issue naturally dovetails with the US debate on the banning of TikTok. Herein lies the problem. Both national security agencies and major social media companies have endeavored to normalize perceptions of industrial data collection and surveillance over the past decade or two: that public opinion might be desensitized to the threat posed by foreign actors with access to similar data troves is therefore not surprising. The real challenge in repurposing a Cold War mentality for competition with China in the cyber domain today, in other words, is not so much a lag in Western –especially European– ICT innovation (Martin is himself slipping into a pantouflage position with a tech venture capital firm): it is a lack of urgency, of political will in the society at large, an apathy bred in part of acquiescence in surveillance capitalism.

The Social Dilemma

I have belatedly joined the masses in seeing the Netflix documentary. I was surprised that throughout the presentation the issue was framed as one of individual (recreational) choice and of manipulation of interests and inclinations: such a way of seeing the dilemma completely elides the extent to which the platforms have penetrated the workplace, providing compelling market incentives in favor of participation for work reasons to those who are perfectly aware of what the tech companies are doing. Much like the rebuttals to Zuboff’s Surveillance Capitalism argue, the problem with the analysis is not technological, but social and economic.