The Land of the Free?

May 14, 2020

The so-called Land of the Free just got a little bit less free.  The US Senate approved amendments to the Patriot Act that allows law enforcement agencies to search your internet browsing history without a warrant.

“The power grab was led by Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell as part of a reauthorization of the Patriot Act, which gives federal agencies broad domestic surveillance powers …

Dayton Young, director of product at Fight For the Future, told Motherboard. “Any lawmaker who votes to reauthorize the PATRIOT Act is voting against our constitutionally-protected freedoms, and there’s nothing patriotic about that.”

Moves like this are just the tip of the iceberg. Fascist-leaning dictators and institutions around the world have used the covid-19 pandemic as a cover to vastly increase their powers over ordinary citizens. While this movement is overt in such countries as Hungary, Turkey, and Brazil, it is no less prevalent in the US, the UK, and Canada where subtle (or not so subtle) shifts in the dynamics of power tend to happen without a lot of fanfare.

We are on a slippery slope to totalitarianism.


What Market Are You Exactly?

April 16, 2020

Marketing is an art that requires a solid foundation of science for ultimate success.  If you are a marketer and don’t know your market, you have failed at the very core of your business and success will depend on ephemeral luck.  None of that is new, of course; Edward Bernays codified it in the 1920s, but it had been well understood for a very long time.

The micro-collection of marketing data — from grocery till receipts to phone use, google searches and online buying, twitter comments, FaceBook likes, and employment patterns, surveys and polls — has become a part of all our lives.  To service a mass market efficiently, this enormous breadth of data has to be analyzed, compared, and condensed into marketing packages or groups.  That’s part of the art.

The industry in the following image, taken from Visual Capitalist, is of less interest than the breakdown of the market into what the industry considers manageable groups from a marketing perspective.  Select the image to get a closer view.

 

You can already see some of the key words and phrases that marketers will use to aim at a particular segment.

The real point to make here is that every large company in every industry is conducting this kind of detailed research into you and your habits every hour of every day.  I recognise the value that some of that brings to some, perhaps all.  But I also recognize and have concerns about the dangers that arise when someone else has so much information about you that you can be manipulated to do things you would really rather not do — like vote for Trump, or sacrifice your rights for some petty convenience.


A New Post-Virus World Order

April 7, 2020

Many of us, I know, have been contemplating the societal changes that could come about as a result of the devastation of covid-19. This disaster, horrible though it is, is an opportunity to step away from some of the bad decisions and policies we have followed for so long.

While some of us have thought and written about the possibility of a progressive — not to say revolutionary — future (guaranteed annual incomes, medical services for all, a rebalancing of corporate-human interaction, a fostering of community, etc), Politico has been looking at a decidedly more prosaic and worrisome set of possibilities. The following is from their email of today:

Regular checkups — Singapore and other Asian countries adopted widespread fever testing in the aftermath of the SARS epidemic. After coronavirus, the same could become the norm in the U.S. Before someone enters a store, office building, school, stadium, airport or other public space, they could be subject to thermal scans to check for an elevated temperature, much like they sometimes have to go through a metal detector to check for guns today.

Tracking — China and South Korea are already using apps to trace people’s movements and record symptoms in order to track the next hotspots. Americans may have to get more accustomed to logging and sharing their movements to help officials track and contain the virus spread. Rhode Island Democratic Gov. Gina Raimondo is urging residents to keep a daily log of where they have been in case they become infected. She suggested today that such logs could become a requirement for coronavirus testing in the state. “There is going to be a discussion about how to manage security and privacy concerns while meeting this gargantuan challenge of tracking sick patients in any given community,” said Dan Hanfling, an emergency room physician and vice president of In-Q-Tel, which invests in security technology.

Random sampling — Ohio and Masschussets are planning to randomly test people in order to get a better handle on case counts and virus spread. Until widespread testing is available, random testing could allow a region to track the virus spread and know when to re-impose stay at home orders.

Certifications — Germany is already creating certificates for people who have recovered from the virus, which confers on them at least short-term immunity. The certificates allow people to sidestep lockdown restrictions. If antibody testing becomes more widespread, the idea of certifying the recovered could take off here as well.

Staggered seatings and at home services — Restaurants, museums and concert venues could offer staggered seatings and shows with smaller, separated crowds. Painted lines on floors could help people appropriately space. In addition, hairdressers, manicurists and other service providers could move to home services that limit customers’ contact with one another.

More public spaces and micro-transit — Cities could accelerate new forms of transit and rethink public spaces, said Steven Pedigo, a University of Texas urban affairs researcher. More cities could build bike lanes or widen the ones they already have. Wider sidewalks, too, could help people commute without contact. Cities won’t disappear as the result of the pandemic, but they could become less dense.”

What do we think of those as the future we grow into?


Big Brother IS Watching #2

February 25, 2020

Do you remember Foursquare? I guess it is still around but I haven’t heard of it for quite a while. It was an app that directed you to stores and restaurants close to where you were physically located based on the GPS data supplied by your mobile phone. I was reminded of it when I read this article from Creative Review called Creativity and Programmatic Advertizing.  The article might be a bit inside-the-beltway for those not in the advertising and marketing business, but it includes some extraordinary insights into the kind of information databanks that corporation compile about you and me.

First of all, the definition of “programmatic advertizing”:

“Programmatic advertising offers the chance to connect with the right consumer at the right place and time … Programmatic allows you to run segmented work that will appeal to all of your audiences – it then optimises the creative to the version that best suits a media channel’s audience.”

There is nothing new about the first sentence.  If you are placing ads on the TV show “Sesame Street” you are no doubt aiming at a different audience than if you place the same ad on “The Batchelor,” for example.  Even the second sentence is unoriginal: the ad you place on “The Batchelor” will (or should be) different than the ad you used on “Sesame Street“.

The difference today is the matter of scale.  Old campaigns may have had half-a-dozen different sets of copy and images for various market segments.  Today, technology has exploded that almost infinitely.

“Unilever’s Axe brand in Brazil … recently used programmatic adverts to serve online viewers with up to 100,000 variations of its Romeo Reboot ad.”

The particular variation you get to see is not random, of course. It is designed to appeal specifically to characteristics about you that the advertiser already knows from your purchase history, demographics, browsing profiles, and a million other data points that you don’t even recognize you are giving away.

I have no doubt that within a few years almost every ad will say something like “Hello Jak, here’s a piece of cookware that we know you’ve been thinking about.”  We already get this from Amazon.

I don’t need or want that kind of omniscience from corporations. And it sure makes me think more fondly of those quaint old Foursquare days.


You Can’t Hide

November 22, 2019

Over the years I have written quite a bit about government and corporate surveillance, and the ability of massive computing power to digest and process multitudes of data from that surveillance to produce individualized profiles of every single person on the planet — no matter how far off the grid you think you are.  Here is an article from this month’s New AtlantisAll Activities Monitored by Jon Askonas — that tracks the history of, and warns of the implications of, the modern wave of surveillance and processing technologies.

He cites the US military’s “Gorgon State” operation in Iraq:

Gorgon Stare and several other programs like it allowed American forces in Iraq to continuously surveil cities in their entirety, unblinkingly and without forgetting. After an IED attack, analysts could look back over the video to find the insurgents who had placed the bomb, and then further to find all of the places they had visited. Analysts could also cross-reference this data to other intelligence or surveillance, and build up lists of likely insurgent hideaways. Algorithms could trace individual cars or people over time, and even highlight suspicious driving activity for further investigation, like cars that did U-turns or followed other cars. Operators of the system could do this work in real time as well, coordinating with troops on the ground to pass on fresh intelligence or transmit the live images …

“Big data analytics, persistent surveillance, and massive increases in computing power enabled more sophisticated ways of … fusing intelligence from all kinds of sources. Social media, cell phone intercepts, captured documents, interrogations, and Gorgon Stare’s aerial surveillance could be used to build a nigh-inescapable net.”

Gorgon State was directly inspired by the 1998 movie Enemy Of The State, and its potential for use outside the military sphere was obvious.

“Programs like Gorgon Stare were, strikingly, inspired by a movie about government abuse of surveillance power. From the beginning, all involved understood exactly what they were trying to build, its power, and its potential for abuse. As a noted philosopher of science once warned: “Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could that they didn’t stop to think if they should …

“Like so many other technologies created for war, this type of surveillance has come home, and early adopters have found many inventive uses.

Security companies have used it to protect events like NASCAR races — in one case, the surveillance system allowed a security team to quickly track back a hostile fan to his trailer to eject him from the event.

The Forest Service deploys wide-area surveillance to monitor potential forest fire zones.

And of course, a number of law enforcement agencies, ranging from the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security to local police departments, have experimented successfully, if controversially, with using the technology to fight crime …

Beginning in early 2016, … cameras were flying above crime-ridden Baltimore, with knowledge only of the police department — even the city government at first didn’t know about it…”

[I]nsurance companies will be, and in some cases already are, eager to use these systems to examine disaster areas and detect fraud, as aerial images can help them to compare claims against visible damage…

Other uses are still in the planning phase: Retail stores might want to track traffic around them to know where their customers come from and where they go; major utility companies might want to observe construction activities along underground pipelines.

These new abilities in the hands of the few have shifted

“the balance of power between citizen and state, between individual and corporation, and have eroded to the point of extinction what little remained of the natural rights of privacy, all around the world. For the masses, the feeling that technology develops along an inevitable path reflects their lack of agency — the fact that the crucial decisions about the technological conditions of society will be made by a largely self-regulating confraternity of elites. For engineers and scientists, technological development appears to be driven by a combination of what they can imagine, what is technically feasible, and what governments or markets demand.”

Well worth reading.


The Modern Workplace (or Prison)

October 15, 2019

The modern workplace is becoming more like a prison every day, with total surveillance systems as thorough as anything in China.  Just a couple of examples. The first, from the Economist:

Run the short movie. It is worth it and no-one’s watching you do it — maybe.

The Guardian has a broader take, featuring a pizza checker from Domino’s that is, of course, only for training not punishment (right!).

Whatever happened to trust?  That goodness I am retired!