Palantir knows everything about you

Bloomberg reports:

High above the Hudson River in downtown Jersey City, a former U.S. Secret Service agent named Peter Cavicchia III ran special ops for JPMorgan Chase & Co. His insider threat group—most large financial institutions have one—used computer algorithms to monitor the bank’s employees, ostensibly to protect against perfidious traders and other miscreants.

Aided by as many as 120 “forward-deployed engineers” from the data mining company Palantir Technologies Inc., which JPMorgan engaged in 2009, Cavicchia’s group vacuumed up emails and browser histories, GPS locations from company-issued smartphones, printer and download activity, and transcripts of digitally recorded phone conversations. Palantir’s software aggregated, searched, sorted, and analyzed these records, surfacing keywords and patterns of behavior that Cavicchia’s team had flagged for potential abuse of corporate assets. Palantir’s algorithm, for example, alerted the insider threat team when an employee started badging into work later than usual, a sign of potential disgruntlement. That would trigger further scrutiny and possibly physical surveillance after hours by bank security personnel.

Over time, however, Cavicchia himself went rogue. Former JPMorgan colleagues describe the environment as Wall Street meets Apocalypse Now, with Cavicchia as Colonel Kurtz, ensconced upriver in his office suite eight floors above the rest of the bank’s security team. People in the department were shocked that no one from the bank or Palantir set any real limits. They darkly joked that Cavicchia was listening to their calls, reading their emails, watching them come and go. Some planted fake information in their communications to see if Cavicchia would mention it at meetings, which he did.

It all ended when the bank’s senior executives learned that they, too, were being watched, and what began as a promising marriage of masters of big data and global finance descended into a spying scandal. The misadventure, which has never been reported, also marked an ominous turn for Palantir, one of the most richly valued startups in Silicon Valley. An intelligence platform designed for the global War on Terror was weaponized against ordinary Americans at home.

Founded in 2004 by Peter Thiel and some fellow PayPal alumni, Palantir cut its teeth working for the Pentagon and the CIA in Afghanistan and Iraq. The company’s engineers and products don’t do any spying themselves; they’re more like a spy’s brain, collecting and analyzing information that’s fed in from the hands, eyes, nose, and ears. The software combs through disparate data sources—financial documents, airline reservations, cellphone records, social media postings—and searches for connections that human analysts might miss. It then presents the linkages in colorful, easy-to-interpret graphics that look like spider webs. U.S. spies and special forces loved it immediately; they deployed Palantir to synthesize and sort the blizzard of battlefield intelligence. It helped planners avoid roadside bombs, track insurgents for assassination, even hunt down Osama bin Laden. The military success led to federal contracts on the civilian side. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services uses Palantir to detect Medicare fraud. The FBI uses it in criminal probes. The Department of Homeland Security deploys it to screen air travelers and keep tabs on immigrants.

Police and sheriff’s departments in New York, New Orleans, Chicago, and Los Angeles have also used it, frequently ensnaring in the digital dragnet people who aren’t suspected of committing any crime. People and objects pop up on the Palantir screen inside boxes connected to other boxes by radiating lines labeled with the relationship: “Colleague of,” “Lives with,” “Operator of [cell number],” “Owner of [vehicle],” “Sibling of,” even “Lover of.” If the authorities have a picture, the rest is easy. Tapping databases of driver’s license and ID photos, law enforcement agencies can now identify more than half the population of U.S. adults. [Continue reading…]

Don’t miss the latest posts at Attention to the Unseen: Sign up for email updates.

Leaders worldwide are falling for a ‘deadly illusion’

In an editorial, the Washington Post says:

Although his audience was the European Parliament, French President Emmanuel Macron articulated truths on Tuesday that resonate for the entire globe. Nationalism and authoritarianism are on the march. Democracy as an ideal and in practice seems under siege. The United States, traditionally a beacon for freedom, has dimmed the light, at least for a time.

Mr. Macron filled the gap with a thoughtful and bracing warning.

He declared that Europe is being torn by the rise of “national selfishness and negativity” and a growing “fascination with the illiberal.” In particular, he warned of the kind of anti-migrant authoritarianism on display recently in the Hungarian elections and fashionable among far-right parties in Europe.

But his words also apply more broadly to the surge of illiberalism in Turkey, Egypt, Russia, China, Cambodia, Vietnam, Azerbaijan, the Philippines and Venezuela, among other places, where leaders have actively snuffed out civil society, suborned or faked elections, asphyxiated free expression, ignored rule of law, and repressed basic human rights. Leaders in such countries learn from one another as they refine methods to crush democracy, by banning or restricting nongovernmental organizations, creating laws to single out independent voices as “foreign agents,” imposing censorship on the news and social media, and, most tried and true, jailing those who dissent. They also echo one another’s claims that their imposed order offers a viable alternative to democracy, which can be so unpredictable and messy. [Continue reading…]

Don’t miss the latest posts at Attention to the Unseen: Sign up for email updates.

The internet promised utopia and instead gave us Trump

Noah Kulwin writes:

To keep the internet free — while becoming richer, faster, than anyone in history — the technological elite needed something to attract billions of users to the ads they were selling. And that something, it turns out, was outrage. As Jaron Lanier, a pioneer in virtual reality, points out, anger is the emotion most effective at driving “engagement” — which also makes it, in a market for attention, the most profitable one. By creating a self-perpetuating loop of shock and recrimination, social media further polarized what had already seemed, during the Obama years, an impossibly and irredeemably polarized country.

The advertising model of the internet was different from anything that came before. Whatever you might say about broadcast advertising, it drew you into a kind of community, even if it was a community of consumers. The culture of the social-media era, by contrast, doesn’t draw you anywhere. It meets you exactly where you are, with your preferences and prejudices — at least as best as an algorithm can intuit them. “Microtargeting” is nothing more than a fancy term for social atomization — a business logic that promises community while promoting its opposite.

Why, over the past year, has Silicon Valley begun to regret the foundational elements of its own success? The obvious answer is November 8, 2016. For all that he represented a contravention of its lofty ideals, Donald Trump was elected, in no small part, by the internet itself. [Continue reading…]

Don’t miss the latest posts at Attention to the Unseen: Sign up for email updates.

The battle to ban plastic bags

File 20180411 554 neo4o6.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
A plastic bag floats in the ocean in this 2016 photo.
Creative Commons

By Sylvain Charlebois, Dalhousie University and Tony Robert Walker, Dalhousie University

There are increasing concerns about the use of plastics in our day-to-day lives.

Single-use plastics of any kind, including grocery bags, cutlery, straws, polystyrene and coffee cups, are significant yet preventable sources of plastic land-based and marine pollution.

In Canada, bans on plastics have so far been left up to municipalities, and some are taking action. Both Montreal and Victoria recently decided to ban plastic bags in stores, with business owners subject to huge fines if caught providing these to customers.

Other municipalities and provinces, such as Halifax and Nova Scotia, are contemplating similar bans in the wake of China’s recent ban on the import of certain recyclable products.

Although regulations are cropping up in some places, increasing public awareness appears to be gaining widespread momentum globally and across Canada.

[Read more…]

A suspect tried to blend in with 60,000 concertgoers. China’s facial-recognition cameras caught him

The Washington Post reports:

The 31-year-old man, wanted by police, had thought playing a numbers game would be enough to allow him to fade into anonymity.

The population of China is a staggering 1.4 billion people, give or take a few million.

More than 45 million of them live in Jiangxi province in southeast China, and 5 million of those people are concentrated in Nanchang, the province’s capital.

On the night of April 7, nearly 60,000 people — or roughly 1 percent of the city’s population — had gathered at the Nanchang International Sports Center for a concert by Cantopop legend Jacky Cheung.

Who could ever locate a single person in such a crowd?

And so it was there, amid the sea of faces in a packed stadium, with everyone’s attention presumably turned to the stage, that the fugitive assumed he was safe from authorities. [Continue reading…]

Don’t miss the latest posts at Attention to the Unseen: Sign up for email updates.

In America’s new civil war, one side must win


Peter Leyden and Ruy Teixeira write:

This is no ordinary political moment. Trump is not the reason this is no ordinary time — he’s simply the most obvious symptom that reminds us all of this each day.

The best way to understand politics in America today is to reframe it as closer to civil war. Just the phrase “civil war” is harsh, and many people may cringe. It brings up images of guns and death, the bodies of Union and Confederate soldiers.

America today is nowhere near that level of conflict or at risk of such violence. However, America today does exhibit some of the core elements that move a society from what normally is the process of working out political differences toward the slippery slope of civil war. We’ve seen it in many societies in many previous historical eras, including what happened in the United States in 1860.

America’s original Civil War was not just fought to emancipate slaves for humanitarian reasons. The conflict was really about the clash between two very different economic systems that were fundamentally at odds and ultimately could not coexist. The Confederacy was based on an agrarian economy dependent on slaves. The Union was based on a new kind of capitalist manufacturing economy dependent on free labor. They tried to somehow coexist from the time of the founding era, but by the middle of the 19th century, something had to give. One side or the other had to win.

America today faces a similar juncture around fundamentally incompatible energy systems. The red states held by the Republicans are deeply entrenched in carbon-based energy systems like coal and oil. They consequently deny the science of climate change, are trying to resuscitate the dying coal industry, and recently have begun to open up coastal waters to oil drilling.

The blue states held by the Democrats are increasingly shifting to clean energy like solar and installing policies that wean the energy system off carbon. In the era of climate change, with the mounting pressure of increased natural disasters, something must give. We can’t have one step forward, one step back every time an administration changes. One side or the other has to win.

Another driver on the road to civil war is when two classes become fundamentally at odds. This usually takes some form of rich versus poor, the wealthy and the people, the 1 percent and the 99 percent. The system gets so skewed toward those at the top that the majority at the bottom rises up and power shifts.

The last time America was in that position was in the 1930s, during the Great Depression. We were on the road of severe class conflict that could have continued toward civil war, but we worked out a power shift that prevented widespread violence. Franklin Roosevelt, the so-called traitor to his class, helped establish a supermajority New Deal coalition of Democrats that rolled all the way through the postwar boom. The conservative Republicans who had championed a politics that advantaged the rich throughout the 1920s and promoted isolationism in the 1930s were sidelined for two generations — close to 50 years.

Today’s conservative Republicans face the same risk. Since 1980, their policies have engorged the rich while flatlining the incomes of the majority of Americans, from the presidency of Ronald Reagan through to last December’s tax overhaul, which ultimately bestows 83 percent of the benefits over time to the top 1 percent. Make no mistake: A reckoning with not just Trump, but conservatism, is coming.

The differences between two economic systems or two classes that are fundamentally at odds could conceivably get worked out through a political process that peacefully resolves differences. However, culture frequently gets in the way. That’s especially true when pressures are building for big system overhauls that will create new winners and losers.

Two different political cultures already at odds through different political ideologies, philosophies, and worldviews can get trapped in a polarizing process that increasingly undermines compromise. They see the world through different lenses, consume different media, and literally live in different places. They start to misunderstand the other side, then start to misrepresent them, and eventually make them the enemy. The opportunity for compromise is then lost. This is where America is today.

At some point, one side or the other must win — and win big. The side resisting change, usually the one most rooted in the past systems and incumbent interests, must be thoroughly defeated — not just for a political cycle or two, but for a generation or two. [Continue reading…]

Don’t miss the latest posts at Attention to the Unseen: Sign up for email updates.

The demise of the nation state


Rana Dasgupta writes:

What is happening to national politics? Every day in the US, events further exceed the imaginations of absurdist novelists and comedians; politics in the UK still shows few signs of recovery after the “national nervous breakdown” of Brexit. France “narrowly escaped a heart attack” in last year’s elections, but the country’s leading daily feels this has done little to alter the “accelerated decomposition” of the political system. In neighbouring Spain, El País goes so far as to say that “the rule of law, the democratic system and even the market economy are in doubt”; in Italy, “the collapse of the establishment” in the March elections has even brought talk of a “barbarian arrival”, as if Rome were falling once again. In Germany, meanwhile, neo-fascists are preparing to take up their role as official opposition, introducing anxious volatility into the bastion of European stability.

But the convulsions in national politics are not confined to the west. Exhaustion, hopelessness, the dwindling effectiveness of old ways: these are the themes of politics all across the world. This is why energetic authoritarian “solutions” are currently so popular: distraction by war (Russia, Turkey); ethno-religious “purification” (India, Hungary, Myanmar); the magnification of presidential powers and the corresponding abandonment of civil rights and the rule of law (China, Rwanda, Venezuela, Thailand, the Philippines and many more).

What is the relationship between these various upheavals? We tend to regard them as entirely separate – for, in political life, national solipsism is the rule. In each country, the tendency is to blame “our” history, “our” populists, “our” media, “our” institutions, “our” lousy politicians. And this is understandable, since the organs of modern political consciousness – public education and mass media – emerged in the 19th century from a globe-conquering ideology of unique national destinies. When we discuss “politics”, we refer to what goes on inside sovereign states; everything else is “foreign affairs” or “international relations” – even in this era of global financial and technological integration. We may buy the same products in every country of the world, we may all use Google and Facebook, but political life, curiously, is made of separate stuff and keeps the antique faith of borders.

Yes, there is awareness that similar varieties of populism are erupting in many countries. Several have noted the parallels in style and substance between leaders such as Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin, Narendra Modi, Viktor Orbán and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. There is a sense that something is in the air – some coincidence of feeling between places. But this does not get close enough. For there is no coincidence. All countries are today embedded in the same system, which subjects them all to the same pressures: and it is these that are squeezing and warping national political life everywhere. And their effect is quite the opposite – despite the desperate flag-waving – of the oft-remarked “resurgence of the nation state”.

The most momentous development of our era, precisely, is the waning of the nation state: its inability to withstand countervailing 21st-century forces, and its calamitous loss of influence over human circumstance. [Continue reading…]

The unnoticed rise of America’s white gangs

Donna Ladd reports:

Surveys of young Americans have shown that 40% identifying as gang members are white, but police tend to undercount them at 10% to 14% and overcount black and Hispanic members, says Babe Howell, a criminal law professor at City University of New York who focuses on crime and race.

“Police see groups of young white people as individuals, each responsible for his or her own conduct, and hold young people of color in street gangs criminally liable for the conduct of their peers,” she says.

How law enforcement labels specific gangs may also obscure white membership, a 2012 study published in the Michigan Journal of Race and Law posited.

Jordan Blair Woods researched how the feds had applied the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (Rico) to various gangs. Congress passed Rico in 1970 to target the mafia as organized “criminal enterprises”. In the early 1990s, the attorney general, Janet Reno, started using Rico to charge criminal street gangs.

Woods explains that law enforcement typically splits gang activity into three groups: white supremacist prison gangs, outlaw biker clubs and criminal street gangs. He concluded that systemic racism often keeps white gangs categorized as prison and biker groups instead of street gangs – the category drawing the toughest charges and sentences.

This means white gangs are not typically policed as stringently, he writes, and their members can miss interventions sometimes offered to more publicized gangs of color. That help can include job and life skills training, or interaction with trained “violence interrupters”, who are often former gang members.

Woods blames the media for underreporting white gangs. [Continue reading…]

It’s not my fault, my brain implant made me do it

File 20180329 189810 cbug78.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
Probes that can transmit electricity inside the skull raise questions about personal autonomy and responsibility.
Hellerhoff, CC BY-SA

By Laura Y. Cabrera, Michigan State University and Jennifer Carter-Johnson, Michigan State University

Mr. B loves Johnny Cash, except when he doesn’t. Mr. X has watched his doctors morph into Italian chefs right before his eyes.

The link between the two? Both Mr. B and Mr. X received deep brain stimulation (DBS), a procedure involving an implant that sends electric impulses to specific targets in the brain to alter neural activity. While brain implants aim to treat neural dysfunction, cases like these demonstrate that they may influence an individual’s perception of the world and behavior in undesired ways.

Mr. B received DBS as treatment for his severe obsessive compulsive disorder. He’d never been a music lover until, under DBS, he developed a distinct and entirely new music preference for Johnny Cash. When the device was turned off, the preference disappeared.

Mr. X, an epilepsy patient, received DBS as part of an investigation to locate the origin of his seizures. During DBS, he hallucinated that doctors became chefs with aprons before the stimulation ended and the scene faded.

In both of these real-world cases, DBS clearly triggered the changed perception. And that introduces a host of thorny questions. As neurotechnologies like this become more common, the behaviors of people with DBS and other kinds of brain implants might challenge current societal views on responsibility.

Lawyers, philosophers and ethicists have labored to define the conditions under which individuals are to be judged legally and morally responsible for their actions. The brain is generally regarded as the center of control, rational thinking and emotion – it orchestrates people’s actions and behaviors. As such, the brain is key to agency, autonomy and responsibility.

Where does responsibility lie if a person acts under the influence of their brain implant? As a neuroethicist and a legal expert, we suggest that society should start grappling with these questions now, before they must be decided in a court of law.

[Read more…]

MLK’s vision matters today for the 43 million Americans living in poverty

File 20180330 189830 1qxubg.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. displays the poster to be used during his Poor People’s Campaign in 1968.
AP Photo/Horace Cort

By Joshua F.J. Inwood, Pennsylvania State University

On April 4, 1968, Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis, while fighting for a 10-cent wage increase for garbage workers. These efforts by King were part of a broader and more sustained initiative known as the Poor People’s Campaign.

King was working to broaden the scope of the civil rights movement to include poverty and the end of the war in Vietnam. King and his leadership team planned to bring thousands of poor people to Washington, D.C., where they would camp out on the National Mall until Congress passed legislation to eradicate poverty.

King was convinced that for the civil rights movement to achieve its goals, poverty needed to become a central focus of the movement. He believed the poor could lead a movement that would revolutionize society and end poverty. As King noted, “The only real revolutionary, people say, is a man who has nothing to lose. There are millions of poor people in this country who have little, or nothing to lose.”

With over 43 million people living in poverty in the United States today, King’s ideas still hold much power.

[Read more…]