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…]

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Why the human brain is so efficient

Liqun Luo writes:

An important difference between the computer and the brain is the mode by which information is processed within each system. Computer tasks are performed largely in serial steps. This can be seen by the way engineers program computers by creating a sequential flow of instructions. For this sequential cascade of operations, high precision is necessary at each step, as errors accumulate and amplify in successive steps. The brain also uses serial steps for information processing. In the tennis return example, information flows from the eye to the brain and then to the spinal cord to control muscle contraction in the legs, trunk, arms, and wrist.

But the brain also employs massively parallel processing, taking advantage of the large number of neurons and large number of connections each neuron makes. For instance, the moving tennis ball activates many cells in the retina called photoreceptors, whose job is to convert light into electrical signals. These signals are then transmitted to many different kinds of neurons in the retina in parallel. By the time signals originating in the photoreceptor cells have passed through two to three synaptic connections in the retina, information regarding the location, direction, and speed of the ball has been extracted by parallel neuronal circuits and is transmitted in parallel to the brain. Likewise, the motor cortex (part of the cerebral cortex that is responsible for volitional motor control) sends commands in parallel to control muscle contraction in the legs, the trunk, the arms, and the wrist, such that the body and the arms are simultaneously well positioned to receiving the incoming ball.

This massively parallel strategy is possible because each neuron collects inputs from and sends output to many other neurons—on the order of 1,000 on average for both input and output for a mammalian neuron. (By contrast, each transistor has only three nodes for input and output all together.) [Continue reading…]

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The battle to ban plastic bags

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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…]

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Apple now runs completely on renewable energy. Here’s how it got there

Fast Company reports:

You have to see Apple’s Reno, Nevada, data center from the inside to truly understand how huge it is. It’s made up of five long white buildings sitting side by side on a dry scrubby landscape just off I-80, and the corridor that connects them through the middle is a quarter-mile long. On either side are big, dark rooms–more than 50 of them–filled with more than 200,000 identical servers, tiny lights winking in the dark from their front panels. This is where Siri lives. And iCloud. And Apple Music. And Apple Pay.

Powering all these machines, and keeping them cool, takes a lot of power–constant, uninterrupted, redundant power. At the Reno data center, that means 100% green power from three different Apple solar farms.

The nearest one, and the first one built, is the Fort Churchill solar farm an hour southeast in desolate country near the town of Yerington, Nevada, where there’s nothing but flat, dry land bordered by low, jagged hills and blue desert sky. From the main road you can walk up to the fence and look down the seemingly endless lines of solar modules on the other side, with long concave mirrors catching and focusing the sun’s energy into the line of small black photo cells sitting just behind them.

Churchill is representative of the growing number of renewable energy sources that have popped up around Apple’s data centers in recent years. Since these massive computing machines use more power than any other kind of Apple facility, the company worked hard to get them powered by 100% renewable energy, reaching that goal in 2014.

Now Apple says it’s finished getting the rest of its facilities running on 100% green power–from its new Apple Park headquarters, which has one of the largest solar roofs on the planet, to its distribution centers and retail stores around the world. Though the 100% figure covers only Apple’s own operations–not those of of the suppliers and contract manufacturers which do much of the work of bringing its ideas to life–it’s also convinced 23 companies in its supply chain to sign a pledge to get to 100% renewable energy for the portion of their business relating to Apple products.

The achievement is the culmination of a furious effort over the past six years that involved financing, building, or locating new renewable energy sources, such as solar and wind farms, near the company’s facilities Apple says it now has 25 operational renewable energy projects–with 15 more now in construction–in 11 countries. Just eight years ago, only 16% of its facilities were powered by renewable energy. By 2015 that number had increased to 93%, then to 96% in 2016. [Continue reading…]

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

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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…]

Are today’s teenagers smarter and better than we think?


Tara Parker-Pope writes:

Today’s teenagers have been raised on cellphones and social media. Should we worry about them or just get out of their way?

A recent wave of student protests around the country has provided a close-up view of Generation Z in action, and many adults have been surprised. While there has been much hand-wringing about this cohort, also called iGen or the Post-Millennials, the stereotype of a disengaged, entitled and social-media-addicted generation doesn’t match the poised, media-savvy and inclusive young people leading the protests and gracing magazine covers.

There’s 18-year-old Emma González, whose shaved head, impassioned speeches and torn jeans have made her the iconic face of the #NeverAgain movement, which developed after the 17 shooting deaths in February at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla. Naomi Wadler, just 11, became an overnight sensation after confidently telling a national television audience she represented “African-American girls whose stories don’t make the front page of every national newspaper.” David Hogg, a high school senior at Stoneman Douglas, has weathered numerous personal attacks with the disciplined calm of a seasoned politician.

Sure, these kids could be outliers. But plenty of adolescent researchers believe they are not.

“I think we must contemplate that technology is having the exact opposite effect than we perceived,” said Julie Lythcott-Haims, the former dean of freshmen at Stanford University and author of “How to Raise an Adult.” “We see the negatives of not going outside, can’t look people in the eye, don’t have to go through the effort of making a phone call. There are ways we see the deficiencies that social media has offered, but there are obviously tremendous upsides and positives as well.” [Continue reading…]

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Attack on Atlanta one of the most sustained and consequential cyberattacks ever mounted against a major American city

The New York Times reports:

The City of Atlanta’s 8,000 employees got the word on Tuesday that they had been waiting for: It was O.K. to turn their computers on.

But as the city government’s desktops, hard drives and printers flickered back to life for the first time in five days, residents still could not pay their traffic tickets or water bills online, or report potholes or graffiti on a city website. Travelers at the world’s busiest airport still could not use the free Wi-Fi.

Atlanta’s municipal government has been brought to its knees since Thursday morning by a ransomware attack — one of the most sustained and consequential cyberattacks ever mounted against a major American city.

The digital extortion aimed at Atlanta, which security experts have linked to a shadowy hacking crew known for its careful selection of targets, laid bare once again the vulnerabilities of governments as they rely on computer networks for day-to-day operations. In a ransomware attack, malicious software cripples a victim’s computer or network and blocks access to important data until a ransom is paid to unlock it.

“We are dealing with a hostage situation,” Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms said this week.

The assault on Atlanta, the core of a metropolitan area of about 6 million people, represented a serious escalation from other recent cyberattacks on American cities, like one last year in Dallas where hackers gained the ability to set off tornado sirens in the middle of the night. [Continue reading…]

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‘Weapons of math destruction’: The era of blind faith in big data must end

 

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China’s new frontiers in dystopian tech

Rene Chun writes:

Dystopia starts with 23.6 inches of toilet paper. That’s how much the dispensers at the entrance of the public restrooms at Beijing’s Temple of Heaven dole out in a program involving facial-recognition scanners—part of the president’s “Toilet Revolution,” which seeks to modernize public toilets. Want more? Forget it. If you go back to the scanner before nine minutes are up, it will recognize you and issue this terse refusal: “Please try again later.”

China is rife with face-scanning technology worthy of Black Mirror. Don’t even think about jaywalking in Jinan, the capital of Shandong province. Last year, traffic-management authorities there started using facial recognition to crack down. When a camera mounted above one of 50 of the city’s busiest intersections detects a jaywalker, it snaps several photos and records a video of the violation. The photos appear on an overhead screen so the offender can see that he or she has been busted, then are cross-checked with the images in a regional police database. Within 20 minutes, snippets of the perp’s ID number and home address are displayed on the crosswalk screen. The offender can choose among three options: a 20-yuan fine (about $3), a half-hour course in traffic rules, or 20 minutes spent assisting police in controlling traffic. Police have also been known to post names and photos of jaywalkers on social media.

The system seems to be working: Since last May, the number of jaywalking violations at one of Jinan’s major intersections has plummeted from 200 a day to 20. Cities in the provinces of Fujian, Jiangsu, and Guangdong are also using facial-recognition software to catch and shame jaywalkers.

Across the country, other applications of the technology are proliferating. [Continue reading…]