Made in China, exported to the world: The surveillance state


The New York Times reports:

The squat gray building in Ecuador’s capital commands a sweeping view of the city’s sparkling sprawl, from the high-rises at the base of the Andean valley to the pastel neighborhoods that spill up its mountainsides.

The police who work inside are looking elsewhere. They spend their days poring over computer screens, watching footage that comes in from 4,300 cameras across the country.

The high-powered cameras send what they see to 16 monitoring centers in Ecuador that employ more than 3,000 people. Armed with joysticks, the police control the cameras and scan the streets for drug deals, muggings and murders. If they spy something, they zoom in.

This voyeur’s paradise is made with technology from what is fast becoming the global capital of surveillance: China.

Ecuador’s system, which was installed beginning in 2011, is a basic version of a program of computerized controls that Beijing has spent billions to build out over a decade of technological progress. According to Ecuador’s government, these cameras feed footage to the police for manual review.

But a New York Times investigation found that the footage also goes to the country’s feared domestic intelligence agency, which under the previous president, Rafael Correa, had a lengthy track record of following, intimidating and attacking political opponents. Even as a new administration under President Lenín Moreno investigates the agency’s abuses, the group still gets the videos.

Under President Xi Jinping, the Chinese government has vastly expanded domestic surveillance, fueling a new generation of companies that make sophisticated technology at ever lower prices. A global infrastructure initiative is spreading that technology even further. [Continue reading…]

China’s application of facial recognition technology may begin a new era of automated racism

The New York Times reports:

The Chinese government has drawn wide international condemnation for its harsh crackdown on ethnic Muslims in its western region, including holding as many as a million of them in detention camps.

Now, documents and interviews show that the authorities are also using a vast, secret system of advanced facial recognition technology to track and control the Uighurs, a largely Muslim minority. It is the first known example of a government intentionally using artificial intelligence for racial profiling, experts said.

The facial recognition technology, which is integrated into China’s rapidly expanding networks of surveillance cameras, looks exclusively for Uighurs based on their appearance and keeps records of their comings and goings for search and review. The practice makes China a pioneer in applying next-generation technology to watch its people, potentially ushering in a new era of automated racism.

The technology and its use to keep tabs on China’s 11 million Uighurs were described by five people with direct knowledge of the systems, who requested anonymity because they feared retribution. The New York Times also reviewed databases used by the police, government procurement documents and advertising materials distributed by the A.I. companies that make the systems. [Continue reading…]

How an aging, digitally semi-literate population is reshaping the internet and politics

BuzzFeed reports:

Although many older Americans have, like the rest of us, embraced the tools and playthings of the technology industry, a growing body of research shows they have disproportionately fallen prey to the dangers of internet misinformation and risk being further polarized by their online habits. While that matters much to them, it’s also a massive challenge for society given the outsize role older generations play in civic life, and demographic changes that are increasing their power and influence.

People 65 and older will soon make up the largest single age group in the United States, and will remain that way for decades to come, according to the US Census. This massive demographic shift is occurring when this age group is moving online and onto Facebook in droves, deeply struggling with digital literacy, and being targeted by a wide range of online bad actors who try to feed them fake news, infect their devices with malware, and steal their money in scams. Yet older people are largely being left out of what has become something of a golden age for digital literacy efforts.

Since the 2016 election, funding for digital literacy programs has skyrocketed. Apple just announced a major donation to the News Literacy Project and two related initiatives, and Facebook partners with similar organizations. But they primarily focus on younger demographics, even as the next presidential election grows closer. [Continue reading…]

Technology in deep time: How it evolves alongside us

Tom Chatfield writes:

Plenty of creatures can communicate richly, comprehend one another’s intentions and put tools to intelligent and creative use: cetaceans, cephalopods, corvids. Some can even develop and pass on particular local practices: New Caledonian crows, for example, exhibit a “culture” of tool usage, creating distinct varieties of simple hooked tools from plants in order to help them feed.

Only humans, however, have turned this craft into something unprecedented: a cumulative process of experiment and recombination that over mere hundreds of thousands of years harnessed phenomena such as fire to cook food, and ultimately smelt metal; as gravity into systems of levers, ramps, pulleys, wheels and counterweights; and mental processes into symbolic art, numeracy, and literacy.

It is this, above all, that marks humanity’s departure from the rest of life on Earth. Alone among species (at least until the crows have put in a million years more effort) humans can consciously improve and combine their creations over time – and in turn extend the boundaries of consciousness. It is through this process of recursive iteration that tools became technologies; and technology a world-altering force.

The economist W Brian Arthur is one of the most significant thinkers to have advanced this combinatorial account of technology, especially in his 2009 book The Nature of Technology. Central to Arthur’s argument is the insight that it’s not only pointless but also actively misleading to do what most history books cannot resist, and treat the history of technology as a greatest-hits list of influential inventions: to tell stirring tales of the impact of the compass, the clock, the printing press, the lightbulb, the iPhone.

This is not because such inventions weren’t hugely important, but because it obscures the fact that all new technologies are at root a combination of older technologies – and that this in turn traces an evolutionary process resembling life itself.

Consider the printing press, the invariable poster-child for anyone wanting to offer a quasi-historical perspective on the dissemination of information. The German inventor Johannes Gutenberg was, famously, the first European to develop a system for printing with movable type, in around 1440. Yet he was far from the first person to realise that using individual, movable components for each character in a sentence was a good way to speed up printing (as opposed to laboriously carving every page of text onto wood or metal).

Printing using individual porcelain characters had been developed in China in the 11th Century, and using metal character in Korea in the 13th Century. Gutenberg benefited, however, from the far smaller number of letters in German; from his knowledge of metal-smelting as a blacksmith and goldsmith, which helped him create a malleable-yet-durable alloy of lead, tin, and antimony; and from his insight that the kind of wooden presses used for centuries in Germany to make wine could be repurposed for pressing type against paper (itself a technology developed in China 1,500 years previously).

Wooden wine-presses, metal alloys, the Roman alphabet, oil-based ink, paper – every piece of the puzzle assembled by Gutenberg and his collaborators was based in a pre-existing technology whose origin could itself be traced back through previous technologies, in unbroken sequence, to the very first tools. [Continue reading…]

Speed kills

When Evan Williams created Blogger and triggered the social media revolution of push-button publishing, an unquestioned presupposition underpinning the creation of the platform was that there was inherent value in reducing the temporal distance between authorship and publication.

Supposedly, if anyone, anywhere, could broadcast their words to the world without any barriers standing in the way, this would represent the greatest leap forward in communication since Gutenberg.

That turns out to have been a false presupposition for several reasons.

What from one perspective might look like communication barriers, turn out more often to function as de facto forms of quality control.

Back in the 1400s, when Johannes Gutenberg created movable type, he opened the door to mass communication in a way that the handwritten manuscript would never allow, but this still involved filtered access. The time, effort, and cost required in typesetting and printing necessitated the application of some notion of what was worthy for print and what text might retain its value as durably as its binding.

Social media has not only removed the barriers to mass communication; just as significantly, it has removed or corroded many of the internal filters that would otherwise inhibit the public expression of private experiences. At the same time as expanding the spheres of communication, it has helped dump into those spheres a landfill of babble and vitriol.

Social media has fueled a contagious desire for being heard and seen, creating a rush onto a public stage where presence takes on more importance than performance.

Worst of all, the pathological effect of narrowing the gap between thought and expression is that belief, through its effortless immediacy, is erasing the willingness to engage in the quiet and sometimes arduous work of reflection.

Arguably, people have always found it easier to believe than to think. What is new, is that communities of opinion are now emerging in which incoherent amalgams of beliefs can be bound together and sustained in echo chambers that give succor to feeble minds oblivious to the mishmash.

In the strange terrain of social media it’s possible to believe in a flat earth and climate change; to marvel at DNA while rejecting evolution; and to construct the perverse ideology of an “anti-imperialist eco-fascist.”

Thus out of the swamps of online bigotry there emerges with increasing frequency the likes of Brenton Tarrant, the Christchurch gunman.

Today, the social media giants are once again in damage control, issuing statements about doing everything in their power to prevent the promotion of hatred even when acts of violence have been conceived and carried out as social media events.

At this point, Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube are sounding increasingly like Philip Morris and R.J. Reynolds — purveyors of products that their makers insist don’t harm most users. How many massacres will be too many?

In the libertarian world of social media, freedom is another name for lack of accountability. From boardrooms down to individual users, there is a deficit of social responsibility — corporate responsibility and personal responsibility.

The reluctance of the social media corporations to confront the monster they have created hinges on a single fact: any measure that diminishes the volume and speed of online interactions will diminish advertising revenue.

Social media capitalizes on maximizing the reactivity of its users.

But suppose that the pursuit of profit was not the sole guiding principle in the operations of Facebook et al. There is one very simple technical measure that would serve these platforms well (and also could have applications in other digital environments, such as automated stock market trading): continuous forced delays.

Instead of insisting that speed has inherent value, we need to recognize that there are countless situations where there is greater value in having to wait.

Having to wait, opens a space for second thoughts and second thoughts often have more depth than their impulsive precursors.

Suppose that each time you hit share/tweet/send/publish, you then had to wait 60 seconds for anything to happen.

Which of these online communications is actually so urgent that it cannot bear the strain of behind withheld just for a minute?

Wait a minute is a well-worn phrase for good reason: it encapsulates a timeless truth. Life needs to be punctuated with pauses.

Were we all forced to wait a minute and during that interval have the opportunity to retract our own words, how much venom, bile, and vacuous chatter might be aborted before it got inflicted on friends and strangers through social media?

The times online when we must speak now or forever hold our peace are almost non-existent. (With the rare exceptions where seconds do count – like sharing a tsunami warning – a temporary technical override on the one-minute delay wouldn’t be difficult to implement.)

If everyone’s speech was being tethered in the same way, no one would be disadvantaged.

The cultural ramifications for this paradigm shift in the way we are conditioned to value time — recognizing that in so many ways, slower can be better than faster — could (there’s a small chance) begin to break the spell of technical innovation.

For so long, commerce has insisted that speed improves, extends, and expands life, even while experience consistently points in the opposite direction.

Slowing down may be the only way we can start to reclaim life and no longer remain enslaved to fictitious technological imperatives.

America last: After 42 other countries put safety first, U.S. finally joins ban on flights of Boeing 737 Max aircraft

The New York Times reports:

President Trump announced that the United States was grounding Boeing’s 737 Max aircraft, reversing an earlier decision by American regulators to keep the jets flying in the wake of a second deadly crash in Ethiopia.

The Federal Aviation Administration had for days resisted calls to ground the plane even as safety regulators in some 42 countries had banned flights by the jets. As recently as Tuesday, the agency said it had seen “no systemic performance issues” that would prompt it to halt flights of the jet.

“The safety of the American people, of all people, is our paramount concern,” Mr. Trump told reporters in the White House.

The crash of Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 killed all 157 people on board, and took place just minutes after takeoff. In October, a 737 Max 8 operated by Lion Air, an Indonesian carrier, crashed in similar circumstance and 189 people were killed.

The order came hours after Canada’s transport minister said that newly available satellite-tracking data suggested similarities between the crash in Ethiopia and another accident last October. In a statement released after Mr. Trump’s announcement, the F.A.A. also cited “newly refined satellite data” as supporting the decision to ground the jets. [Continue reading…]

U.S. pilots filed complaints about Boeing 737 Max 8 months before Ethiopia crash — manual ‘criminally insufficient’

NBC News reports:

Several American pilots submitted complaints about the Boeing 737 Max aircraft months before the same aircraft model crashed in Ethiopia on Sunday, killing 157 people.

The complaints, first reported by the Dallas Morning News, were revealed as the Federal Aviation Administration doubled down on its decision to continue flying the Max 8 and Max 9 in the United States.

At least five complaints about the Max 8 were made in October and November of 2018, and most mention issues with the aircraft model’s autopilot and the plane going nose down shortly after takeoff. One pilot wrote that the Max 8’s aircraft manual was “criminally insufficient.”

“I think it is unconscionable that a manufacturer, the FAA, and the airlines would have pilots flying an airplane without adequately training, or even providing available resources and sufficient documentation to understand the highly complex systems that differentiate this aircraft from prior models,” one pilot wrote about the lack of instructions regarding the aircraft’s Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System (MCAS). [Continue reading…]

Trump’s defense secretary faces ethics complaint over Boeing promotion

Military Times reports:

A government watchdog group has asked the Department of Defense Inspector General to investigate whether Acting Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan violated ethics rules by promoting Boeing weapons systems while serving as a government official.

Shanahan, 56, worked at Boeing for more than 30 years prior to being tapped by President Donald Trump to serve as deputy secretary of defense under former Defense Secretary Jim Mattis. When Mattis submitted his resignation in December, Shanahan was named by Trump as acting defense secretary.

Since coming to the Pentagon, Shanahan has faced criticism over reports that he has touted Boeing’s line of aircraft over rival Lockheed Martin. In the fiscal year 2020 budget released Tuesday, the Air Force is set to purchase up to 80 F-15Xs over the next five years — a system, made by Boeing, that the Air Force has said it does not want. [Continue reading…]

Ties between Trump and Boeing run deep

Reuters reports:

Trump has used Boeing products and sites as a backdrop for major announcements over the course of his presidency. In March 2018 he touted the impact of his tax overhaul bill as he visited a plant in St. Louis.

Before joining the Pentagon, acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan, who is expected to be named to the post, worked for 31 years at Boeing, where he was general manager for the 787 Dreamliner passenger jet.

Boeing has nominated Nikki Haley, Trump’s former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations who continues to be a close ally, to join its board of directors at the company’s annual shareholders meeting on April 29.

Trump has also put pressure on U.S. allies to buy products from Boeing, the country’s second largest defense contractor which received $104 billion in unclassified defense contracts between 2014 and 2018. [Continue reading…]

Companies use your data to make money. California thinks you should get paid

CNN reported in February:

People give massive amounts of their personal data to companies for free every day. Some economists, academics and activists think they should be paid for their contributions.

Called data dividends, or sometimes digital or technology dividends, the somewhat obscure idea got a boost on Feb 12 from an unexpected source: California’s new governor, Gavin Newsom.

“California’s consumers should … be able to share in the wealth that is created from their data. And so I’ve asked my team to develop a proposal for a new data dividend for Californians, because we recognize that your data has value and it belongs to you,” said Newsom during his annual State of the State speech.

The concept is based in part on an existing model in Alaska where residents receive payment for their share of the state’s oil-royalties fund dividend each fall. The payouts, which can vary from hundreds of dollars to a couple thousand of dollars per person, have become a regular part of the state’s economy. [Continue reading…]