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Political Activism as Terrorism

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You, Terrorist

Need a reason to worry about the NSA spying scandal? Try this: you legally protest an oil company in your town, are arrested, and wind up in court facing federal terrorism charges and a personal eternity behind bars. The evidence presented against you was gathered by NSA monitoring of your telephone usage and social media communications, all at the behest of said oil company, which owns every Senator who sits on the Intelligence Committee in Washington DC.
Think it can’t happen?
It is already happening.

Yesterday, @ Truth-out.org.

chilling

Surveillance and the Chilling Effect

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When students ask me why they should care about government surveillance, one of my go to answers has always been the concept of the “chilling effect.” The basic idea is that, when people feel their conversations are being monitored by unseen others, they refrain from talking about ideas that may be controversial or otherwise at the margins of acceptability. This results in a narrowing of social and political discourse and a decrease in the social systems’ available resources for solving problems. This is an important argument, because it offers a counterpoint to the suggestion that intensified surveillance is necessary for our security. Even if dragnet monitoring of US communication did reduce the likelihood of terrorism (and I don’t believe it does), its negative impact on our society’s adaptability in this period of wide-ranging social, political, and technological change will outweigh the benefits.

While I strongly believe this to be true, it’s important to recognize that being silent as a result of this chilling effect is still a choice. The more I learned about US government surveillance over the past several years, the less I have written about it. In part, it felt like all I was doing was chronicling the end of privacy in America. As someone whose research interests often push the margins, I’ve become a textbook example of this chilling effect (as the paucity of posts to this blog attest).

Unfortunately, I don’t think the surveillance story is going to get any better. At least not for a while. But I do have hope for the future. Time to practice some reverse psychology and use the current state of transparency as impetus to say more, not less. Let’s see how it goes.

geming

Three Interesting Takes on Change and Revolution in the Chinese Language

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Three very interesting looks at the evolving state of the Chinese language today:

First, How Technology is Changing Chinese, One Pun at a Time, subject of a PRI story last week, which showed how the mobile Chinese typing interface actually creates more opportunity for Chinese to discover and spread puns:

Wang types the English letters “jintian” on his phone. As he types the first three letters, “jin” a list of Chinese characters pops up on the screen. Each different character sounds just like the word for today, “jin” but means something completely different. Wang points to each possible character and explains its different meaning: gold, clothes, only, and finally 今, the character for “today.”

Everyday, people are typing in a word like “today” and seeing all of the potential homophones for that word. This says David Moser has fueled wordplay like never before.

Second, the radio story on NPR discussing the newest official additions to the (mainland) Chinese dictionary. Words and meanings that got added to the dictionary this year (and those that were left out) give an interesting snapshot of contemporary China. If you speak Chinese, or just want to know what the actual new words are, you’ll need to listen to the audio. The transcript just lists each of them as “foreign words.”

Finally, a review of the (English language) book China in Ten Words by Yu Hua, a collection of lyric essays devoted to each word: People (renmin 人民), Leader (lingshou 领袖), Reading (yuedu 阅读), Writing (xie zuo 写作), Lu Xun (an author 鲁迅), Revolution (geming 革命), Disparity (chaju 差距), Grassroots (caogen 草根), Copycat (shanzhai 山寨), and Bamboozle (huyou 忽悠). The word shanzhai (copycat), once meaning a rebel or bandit stronghold outside of government control, is now used to refer not just to “copycats,” but to fake or pirated, or simply homemade or unbranded products (see here for some humorous examples). Shanzhai has become an important economic phenomenon in China, as many of the fastest growing companies provide technologies like cell phones or other consumer products with the same or better functionality than name brands, at cheaper cost. Booz & Company have an interesting analysis (published in 2009). Rather than simple copycats, they see shanzhai companies as “fearless experimenters” responsible for much of China’s business innovation. Stan Abrams offers a counter point, suggesting that innovation from shanzhai business models is more the exception than the rule.

The Federal Reserve in New York

Does Twitter = Democracy?

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A study released in September by the project on Information Technology and Political Islam at the University of Washington argues that social media including Facebook, Twitter and Youtube played a “central role” in the Arab Spring. They find that a spike in the volume of Tweets in Egypt, for example, anticipated the high volume of physical presence in Tahrir Square just prior to Mubarak’s resignation. There is some very interesting data and analysis here. It is clear that the autocrats in Tunisia and Egypt did not have the technological resources to combat Twitter’s obvious value as a tool for the political opposition. And Twitter’s de-centralized implementation makes it particularly difficult for governments to censor. We must be careful, however, not to read too much into these findings.

There were complaints early this fall among members of the Occupy Wall Street movement that Twitter has been censoring the #occupywallstreet hashtag, not allowing the term to reach the highly visible trending topics section. While Twitter has dismissed these claims, it is important to remember that it’s a private company whose interests do not necessarily resonate with those of the OWS movement. J.P. Morgan reportedly has a 10% stake in Twitter (also, see this and this), though indirectly via the Chris Sacca managed Digital Growth Fund. There is no law preventing Twitter from interfering with Tweet traffic.

Jonathan Albright at the University of Auckland has poked holes in Twitter’s argument that people simply do not understand how their proprietary algorithm works. And there has been enough suspicion on the ground to prompt adoption of Twitter-alternative Vibe. Unlike Twitter, Vibe “tweets” disappear after a fixed time and can be limited to a specific physical radius. Trust doesn’t (and shouldn’t) always scale.

no_pass

Privacy Tip #23378 (on public terminals, logging out is not enough)

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Ever use a computer in a public space or friend’s house to check an account? Although making sure you log out and close the browser window is important, it is often not enough. Make sure that the browser options have not been set to remember passwords for sites. If the option is checked, a subsequent user of the browser could easily gain access to your account even if you have logged out and closed the browser. On Firefox, find Options-Security in the browser menu. Make sure it is unchecked and then choose OK.

MD Researchers on Time Travel, Big Bang

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Recently published at PhysOrg.com, suggesting that the widely accepted Big Bang origin theory precludes time travel.

Science, concepts and the cognitive toolkit

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From the world question center at edge.org: “What scientific concept would improve everybody’s cognitive toolkit?” Interesting contributions from Howard Gardner, George Lakoff and others. Below is from experimental psychologist Bruce Hood:

Haecceity

Understanding the concept of haecceity would improve everybody’s cognitive toolkit because it succinctly captures most people’s intuitions about authenticity that are increasingly threatened by the development of new technologies. Cloning, genetic modification and even digital reproduction are some examples of new innovations that alarm many members of the public because they appear to violate a belief in the integrity of objects

Haecceity is originally a metaphysical concept that is both totally obscure and yet very familiar to all of us. It is the psychological attribution of an unobservable property to an object that makes it unique among identical copies. All objects may be categorized into groups on the basis of some shared property but an object within a category is unique by virtual of its haecceity. It is haecceity that makes your wedding ring authentic and your spouse irreplaceable, even though such things could be copied exactly in a futuristic science fiction world where matter duplication had been solved.

Online Collectivism, Individualism and Anonymity in East Asia

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This is the abstract of a presentation I’ll be giving this spring at a cyber-surveillance workshop at the University of Toronto.

Entering the second decade of the 21st century, anonymity, appears to be under siege. While targeted behavioral advertising continues to expand and personal information becomes increasingly commoditized, government officials around the globe warn us that true anonymity is in conflict with national security goals. Indeed, there appear to be growing questions about its continued viability within the digital environment in the age of terrorism.Will anonymity turn out to be a relic of the 20th century or does it have a future?

As Gary Marx has noted, different contexts and value conflicts make it difficult to take an absolute position for or against anonymity. And while the basic idea is clear, a formal definition of anonymity remains elusive. There are a wide range of approaches to anonymity across the world; some are parts of cultural tradition, while others seem more emergent, less bound by established norms.

This paper, a meta‐analysis drawing data from related academic studies, trade press and mass media, will examine recent variations in the salience, use, and comparative value of anonymity, and its tripartite relationship with individuality and collectivism, across three specific cultural contexts: China, South Korea, and Japan. Anonymity is framed in this investigation as a critical form of “context relative informational norms” within Nissenbaum’s (2010) “contextual integrity” model of social information flows. While data gathering is likely to continue until the end of 2010, some of the intermediate findings are discussed below.

Although the primary subcultures of East Asia share a broad range of social values including Confucian collectivism, they have unique stories to tell about the role and importance of anonymity in their lives.

China, perhaps, is the most surprising, where anonymity, and its affordance of experimentation with alternate online identities, is prized more highly among Chinese youth than their American counterparts. Chinese netizens have continued to push back successfully against PRC government policies to require real name registration for bloggers.

In South Korea, public sentiment is more wary of anonymity, as it is seen to have facilitated extreme and inappropriate crowd behaviors leading to public shaming and a number of suicides. Disparate, nameless crowds combine bits and pieces of knowledge about a target to identify it, a curious case (known in China as the “Human Flesh Search Engine”) in which anonymity in one place can be used to extinguish anonymity in another.

The Japanese seem to value anonymity for different reasons and are less social than the Koreans and Chinese. Their anonymous “2chan” web site was the inspiration for the West’s 4chan. Confucian collectivism expresses itself most as the desire to blend nameless into the crowd.

It is through increased understanding of global cultural contexts that we can better understand the critical role anonymity plays in social systems. Even within a region where collectivism rules over individuality, anonymity plays a surprisingly key role. We must be especially wary about assuming social systems might be better off, more secure, without it.

Ground broken for massive cybersecurity data center

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The federal government has just broken ground on a massive new cybersecurity center in Utah, the “Community Comprehensive National Cyber-security Initiative Data Center .” From the Deseret News story “Utah’s $1.5 billion cyber-security center underway“:

Officially named the Utah Data Center, the facility’s role in aggregating and verifying dizzying volumes of data for the intelligence community has already earned it the nickname “Spy Center.” Its really long moniker is the Community Comprehensive National Cyber-security Initiative Data Center — the first in the nation’s intelligence community.

A White House document identifies the Comprehensive National Cyber-security Initiative as addressing “one of the most serious economic and national security challenges we face as a nation, but one that we as a government or as a country are not adequately prepared to counter.”

The most complete open source information I’ve found to date on the data center can be found at the public intelligence web site.

Washington Post Story on Monitoring America

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A in-depth report today in the Washington Post describes the expanding apparatus of US domestic intelligence since the September 11th Terrorist Attacks, including fusion centers, the new Suspicious Activity Reporting Initiative and the FBI’s Guardian Database. One of the many eye opening findings in this report:

The vast majority of fusion centers across the country have transformed themselves into analytical hubs for all crimes and are using federal grants, handed out in the name of homeland security, to combat everyday offenses.

This article is well worth reading, but it is missing a bit of legal context that is important to an understanding the government policy that is driving the change. US domestic intelligence is being expanded under the authority of the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act (IRTPA) of 2004. This was the first and most comprehensive legal response to the recommendations of the 9/11 Commission. It outlined a wholesale rewiring of the domestic intelligence apparatus and the establishment of an Information Sharing Environment (ISE). The nationwide suspicious activity reporting initiative (NSI), which journalists Dana Priest and William M Arkin mention briefly, is the primary focus of the ISE today. It includes its own federal data standard. The “See something say something” campaign which has been getting so much press recently is simply one facet of the NSI, the focus of which up until recently has been training local and state police to be intelligence agents. For a wide range of public documents that provide coverage of the NSI and ISE, see my isesar.us web site, developed with the support of NYU’s Department of Media, Culture and Communication and a grant from the Department of Defense.

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