Tag Archives: Readings

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.

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

Politico.eu 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.

Disinformation and hacking the power grid

Interesting study (via Schneier) on how to use disinformation to attack the power grid. In essence, one is trying to game the profit-maximizing behavior of consumers (in this case, through fake information on discounts in electricity used during peak times), nudging them in precisely the opposite direction of market signals, hence overloading the grid. The general obscurity of electricity pricing for the consumer (much of which may be by design) is an important enabler of this hack.

Inter-institutional trust deficit

Piece in Axios about tech companies’ contingency planning for election night and its aftermath. The last paragraph sums up the conundrum:

Every group tasked with assuring Americans that their votes get counted — unelected bureaucrats, tech companies and the media — already faces a trust deficit among many populations, particularly Trump supporters.

In this case it is not even clear whether a concurrence of opinion and a unified message would strengthen the credibility of these actors and of their point of view or rather confirm sceptics even further in their conspiracy beliefs.