Archives for March 2018

Great Pacific Garbage Patch now covers area three times the size of France

The Washington Post reports:

Seventy-nine thousand tons of plastic debris, in the form of 1.8 trillion pieces, now occupy an area three times the size of France in the Pacific Ocean between California and Hawaii, a scientific team reported on Thursday.

The amount of plastic found in this area, known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, is “increasing exponentially,” according to the surveyors, who used two planes and 18 boats to assess the ocean pollution.

“We wanted to have a clear, precise picture of what the patch looked like,” said Laurent Lebreton, the lead oceanographer for the Ocean Cleanup Foundation and the lead author of the study.

The Garbage Patch has been described before. But this new survey estimates that the mass of plastic contained there is four to 16 times larger than previously supposed, and it is continuing to accumulate because of ocean currents and careless humans both onshore and offshore. [Continue reading…]

ALBATROSS (formerly titled Midway) by Chris Jordan



Why Denmark dominates the World Happiness Report rankings year after year

File 20180319 31617 8mfe08.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
Okay, we get it, you’re happy – no need to rub it in.

By Marie Helweg-Larsen, Dickinson College

The new World Happiness Report again ranks Denmark among the top three happiest of 155 countries surveyed – a distinction that the country has earned for seven consecutive years.

The U.S., on the other hand, ranked 18th in this year’s World Happiness Report, a four-spot drop from last year’s report.

Denmark’s place among the world’s happiest countries is consistent with many other national surveys of happiness (or, as psychologists call it, “subjective well-being”).

Scientists like to study and argue about how to measure things. But when it comes to happiness, a general consensus seems to have emerged.

Depending on the scope and purpose of the research, happiness is often measured using objective indicators (data on crime, income, civic engagement and health) and subjective methods, such as asking people how frequently they experience positive and negative emotions.

Why might Danes evaluate their lives more positively? As a psychologist and native of Denmark, I’ve looked into this question.

Yes, Danes have a stable government, low levels of public corruption, and access to high-quality education and health care. The country does have the the highest taxes in the world, but the vast majority of Danes happily pay: They believe higher taxes can create a better society.

Perhaps most importantly, however, they value a cultural construct called “hygge” (pronounced hʊɡə).

[Read more…]

‘Lone DNC hacker’ Guccifer 2.0 exposed as a Russian intelligence officer

The Daily Beast reports:

Guccifer famously pretended to be a “lone hacker” who perpetrated the digital DNC break-in. From the outset, few believed it. Motherboard conducted a devastating interview with Guccifer that exploded the account’s claims of being a native Romanian speaker. Based on forensic clues in some of Guccifer’s leaks, and other evidence, a consensus quickly formed among security experts that Guccifer was completely notional.

“Almost immediately various cyber security companies and individuals were skeptical of Guccifer 2.0 and the backstory that he had generated for himself,” said Kyle Ehmke, an intelligence researcher at the cyber security firm ThreatConnect. “We started seeing these inconsistencies that led back to the idea that he was created hastily… by the individual or individuals that affected the DNC compromise.”

Proving that link definitively was harder. Ehmke led an investigation at ThreatConnect that tried to track down Guccifer from the metadata in his emails. But the trail always ended at the same data center in France. Ehmke eventually uncovered that Guccifer was connecting through an anonymizing service called Elite VPN, a virtual private networking service that had an exit point in France but was headquartered in Russia.

But on one occasion, The Daily Beast has learned, Guccifer failed to activate the VPN client before logging on. As a result, he left a real, Moscow-based Internet Protocol address in the server logs of an American social media company, according to a source familiar with the government’s Guccifer investigation. Twitter and WordPress were Guccifer 2.0’s favored outlets. Neither company would comment for this story, and Guccifer did not respond to a direct message on Twitter.

Working off the IP address, U.S. investigators identified Guccifer 2.0 as a particular GRU officer working out of the agency’s headquarters on Grizodubovoy Street in Moscow. [Continue reading…]

Incoming national security adviser John Bolton played role in NRA-Russian gun rights alliance

NPR reports:

Incoming White House national security adviser John Bolton recorded a video used by the Russian gun rights group The Right to Bear Arms in 2013 to encourage the Russian government to loosen gun laws.

The episode, which has not been previously reported, illustrates the common cause that Russian and American gun rights groups were forming in the years leading up to the 2016 election through former National Rifle Association President David Keene. Keene appointed Bolton to the NRA’s international affairs subcommittee in 2011.

Russian politician Alexander Torshin helped establish The Right to Bear Arms and cultivate ties with American gun rights groups including the NRA. As a Putin ally, Torshin served as the deputy speaker of Russia’s parliament for more than a decade and also spent time on Russia’s National Anti-Terrorism Committee, a state body that includes the director of Russia’s internal security service.

The Bolton video appears to be another plank in a bridge built by Russia to conservative political organizations inside the United States. It’s unclear why Russian leaders wanted to curry favor with the NRA, but Torshin and Keene appeared to have developed close ties in the years prior to the 2016 election. [Continue reading…]

Cory Doctorow on tech industry regulations and Cambridge Analytica


It’s time to regulate the internet

Franklin Foer writes:

As Facebook’s scandals have unfolded, the backlash against Big Tech has accelerated at a dizzying pace. Anger, however, has outpaced thinking. The most fully drawn and enthusiastically backed proposal now circulating through Congress would regulate political ads that can appear on the platform, a law that hardly curbs the company’s power or profits. And, it should be said, a law that does nothing to attack the core of the problem: the absence of governmental protections for personal data.

The defining fact of digital life is that the web was created in the libertarian frenzy of the 1990s. As we privatized the net, releasing it from the hands of the government agencies that cultivated it, we suspended our inherited civic instincts. Instead of treating the web like the financial system or aviation or agriculture, we refrained from creating the robust rules that would ensure safety and enforce our constitutional values.

This weakness has long been apparent to activists toiling on the fringes of debate—and the dangers might even have been apparent to most users of Facebook. But it’s one thing to abstractly understand the rampant exploitation of data; it’s another to graphically see how our data can be weaponized against us. And that’s the awakening occasioned by the rolling revelation of Facebook’s complicity in the debacle of the last presidential campaign. The fact that Facebook seems unwilling to fully own up to its role casts further suspicion on its motives and methods. And in the course of watching the horrific reports, the public may soon arrive at the realization that it is the weakness of our laws that has provided the basis for Facebook’s tremendous success. [Continue reading…]

Mark Zuckerberg in 2009: On Facebook privacy is central


Mark Zuckerberg has been talking about privacy for 15 years — here’s almost everything he’s said.

A history of hype behind Cambridge Analytica

Nigel Oakes, the founder of Cambridge Analytica’s parent company, SCL Group, once described his work in this way: “We use the same techniques as Aristotle and Hitler. We appeal to people on an emotional level to get them to agree on a functional level.”

As an Old Etonian, his ties to royalty, the aristocracy, and the rich and famous, seemed to foster (at least in his own mind) the notion that he had the skills and connections required for shaping global events.

But as Claudio Gatti noted while Donald Trump took office, Oakes’ primary business skill seems to have been identical to Trump’s: the art of self-promotion.

Oakes’ bio in the SCL webpage says that he “was educated at Eton College and UCL, where he studied Psychology”, although according to a 2008 letter the University College London sent to David Miller, a UK sociologist who studies propaganda, there were no records of him ever studying there.

Mr. Oakes official bio continues saying that, “in 1989, he established the Behavioural Dynamics Working Group at University College London and in 1990 the Behavioural Dynamics Institute (BDi) was formed as a centre of excellence and a research facility for strategic communication”. Mr. Oakes also claims that he “began working with Professor Adrian Furnham (UCL) and Professor Barrie Gunter (University of Leicester) to establish a methodology that could integrate social science into the marketing process more effectively”.

Furnham and Gunter are established names in psychometrics, the field of psychological measurements (ironically, Furnham was a follower of Eysenck, the London University psychologist who unwittingly worked for the CIA front SIHE), and their involvement with the Behavioural Dynamics Institute, the body that according to SCL provided the academic backbones for Mr. Oakes’ methodology, clearly injects credibility to his companies and techniques.

But in a parallel with the Project MK-Ultra, the two psychologists say that they were exploited by Nigel Oakes to build credibility for his project. “I believe he is inappropriately using my name and reputation to further his career. He was unreliable and Prof. Gunter and I severed links with him”, Professor Furnham wrote us in an email.

Barrie Gunter was more explicit: “Adrian and I were running our own small company providing consultancy services. Nigel made contact with us while he was working for the corporate event division of Saatchi & Saatchi. As far as we were concerned Behavioural Dynamics was simply the name of a company he founded”, now retired professor Gunter said. “Nigel didn’t have any qualifications in psychology. To have credibility he needed an association with bona fide psychologists, which is part of the reason he brought us on board. But we found that no matter how much we tried to reign him in, he would make all kinds of claims that we felt we could not substantiate, and that is why we stopped working for him”.

Still, years later the BDi methodology has been adopted by NATO and a number of its members and, according to the SCL website, “verified and validated by the US Defense Advanced Research Project Agency”.

In the summer of 2015 SCL Group was in fact paid over $750,000 by the NATO Strategic Communications Centre of Excellence, a research center based in Riga, Latvia, which provides NATO with “StratCom training and research”. The assignment was to design and deliver a 9-week intensive course in Target Audience Analysis, or TAA, a technique that assesses potential target audiences for susceptibility to propaganda that SCL Group traces back to the BDi.

Il Sole 24 Ore was also able to confirm that, as reported in Oakes’ bio, in an official NATO event he “was awarded the ‘RH Foundation Award for Outstanding Achievement to Influence’ by Mark Laity, Head of Strategic Communication NATO”. Although Mr. Laity was unable to explain to us what the RH Foundation exactly did or was.

As it for DARPA, we were told that, “it is inconsistent with Agency policy for the company to claim their technology ‘has been verified and validated’ by DARPA. Such language implies endorsement by the federal government, which we wouldn’t extend to a commercial entity”.

Oakes’ propensity to make exaggerated claims is not confined to the origin of his methodology. Among the “Projects” listed in the SCL webpages, there is one in Indonesia, which states: “SCL was contracted to manage the election campaign of one of Indonesia’s major political parties following the restoration of democracy in 1999. The campaign was extremely complex and needed to appeal to over 200 million people across 40 languages in the Indonesian archipelago”. Above this claim, there is a quote from former President Abdurrahman Wahid, leader of the National Awakening Party, saying, “I am indebted to SCL for their strategic management of my election success”.

But in the June 1999, Wahid’s party did not win the election, managing to get only 12% of the votes, and Wahid was elected President by a parliamentary vote after gaining the support of a majority of representatives from other parties.

Having on various occasions worked with people like Oakes, I would add that Brits of this type who are intent on maximizing the commercial value of their connections, are exceptionally well positioned to dupe Americans — especially those whose craving for the appearance of inherited status leads them to contrive their own fake coat of arms.

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Zuckerberg breaks silence without answering key questions

Alexis C Madrigal writes:

Two years and four months after Facebook found out that Cambridge Analytica might have illicitly pulled user data from its platform, and five days after the latest round of stories about the political consultancy’s electioneering, Mark Zuckerberg finally made a statement about the situation.

Despite Facebook previously contesting that it was a “data breach,” Zuckerberg offered up the exact solutions one might to a breach: assurances, small technical fixes, and some procedural improvements. Among other changes, Facebook will investigate apps that pulled in large amounts of its data in the past and ban those who are found to have misused data. The company will also inform people whose data has been misused, including those in the dataset that got passed to Cambridge Analytica. Zuckerberg introduced a new rule that Facebook will remove developers’ data access to users who haven’t logged in to their apps for three months. And finally, Facebook will place a notice at the top of News Feed, linking people to their app privacy settings.

This is the very minimum that Facebook had to do in this situation. It is impossible to imagine how they could not have taken any of these steps, given the public attention and pressure on the company.

But let’s look at the big questions that the Financial Times raised: “Why did Facebook take so little action when the data leak was discovered? … Who is accountable for the leak? … Why does Facebook accept political advertisements at all? … Should not everyone who cares about civil society simply quit Facebook?”

On every single one of these questions, Zuckerberg offered nothing. [Continue reading…]

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After poisoning of former Russian spy in UK, Trump calls Putin to congratulate him

The Washington Post reports:

President Trump did not follow specific warnings from his national security advisers Tuesday when he congratulated Russian President Vladi­mir Putin on his reelection — including a section in his briefing materials in all-capital letters stating “DO NOT CONGRATULATE,” according to officials familiar with the call.

Trump also chose not to heed talking points from aides instructing him to condemn the recent poisoning of a former Russian spy in Britain with a powerful nerve agent, a case that both the British and U.S. governments have blamed on Moscow.

The president’s conversation with Putin, which Trump described as a “very good call,” prompted fresh criticism of his muted tone toward one of the United States’ biggest geopolitical rivals amid the special counsel investigation into Russia’s election interference and the Trump campaign’s contacts with Russian officials.

Although the Trump administration has taken a tougher stance toward Russia recently — including new sanctions last week on some entities for election meddling and cyberattacks — the president has declined to forcefully join London in denouncing Moscow for the poisoning of Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in Salisbury, England, this month. They remain critically ill.

Trump told reporters that he had offered his well wishes on Putin’s new six-year term during a conversation that covered a range of topics, including arms control and the security situations in Syria and North Korea. White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders told reporters that Skripal’s case was not discussed. [Continue reading…]

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