The Roundup for May 12-18, 2018 Edition

Soar by Christopher Parsons

It’s become incredibly popular to attribute the activities undertaken by the Facebooks and Googles of the work to ‘surveillance capitalism’. This concept generally asserts that the current dominant mode of economics has become reliant on surveillance to drive economic growth. Surveillance, specifically, is defined as the act of watching or monitoring activity with the intent of using captured information to influence behaviour. In the world of the Internet, this information tends to be used to influence purchasing behaviours.

The issue that I have with the term surveillance capitalism is that I’m uncertain whether it comprehensively captures the activities associated with the data-driven economy. Surveillance Studies scholars tend to apply the same theories which are used to understand CCTV to practices such as machine learning; in both cases, the technologies are understood as establishing feedback loops to influence an individual or entire population. But, just as often, neither CCTV nor machine learning actually have a person- or community-related feedback loop. CCTV cameras are often not attended to, not functional, or don’t provide sufficient information to take action against those being recorded. Nor do individuals necessarily modify their own behaviours in the presence of such cameras. Similarly, machine learning algorithms may not be used to influence all persons: in some cases, they may be sufficiently outside the scope of whatever the algorithm is intended to do that they are not affected. Also, like CCTV, individuals may not modify their own behaviours when machine learning algorithms are working on the data those individuals are generating on the basis of being unaware of machine learning operating on their data.

So, where surveillance capitalism depends on a feedback loop that is directly applied towards individuals within a particular economic framework, there may be instances where data is collected and monetized without clear or necessary efforts to influence individuals. Such situations could include those where a machine learning algorithm is designed to improve a facial recognition system, or improve battery life based on the activities undertaken by a user, or to otherwise very quietly make tools more effective without a clear attempt to modify user behaviour. I think that such activities may be very clearly linked to monetization and, more broadly, an ideology backed by capitalism. But I’m not sure it’s surveillance as it’s rigorously defined by scholars.

So one of the things that I keep thinking about is whether we should shift away from the increasingly-broad use of ‘surveillance capitalism’ to, more broadly, talk about ‘data capitalism’. I’m not suggesting doing away with the term surveillance capitalism but, instead, that surveillance capitalism is a sub-genus of data capitalism. Data capitalism would, I believe, better capture the ways in which information is collected, analyzed, and used to effect socio-technical changes. Further, I think such a term might also capture times where those changes are arguably linked to capitalist aims (i.e. enhancing profitability) but may be less obviously linked to the feedback loops towards individuals that are associated with surveillance itself.


After approximately twenty months of work, my colleagues and myself have published an extensive report on encryption policies in Canada. It’s a major accomplishment for all of us to have finally concluded the work, and we’re excited by the positive feedback we’ve received about it.


Inspiring Quotation of the Week

“Ambition is a noble passion which may legitimately take many forms… but the noblest ambition is that of leaving behind something of permanent value.”

– G.H. Hardy

Great Photography Shots

Some of these storm chaser photos are practically otherworldly.

Music I’m Digging

Neat Podcast Episodes

Good Reads for the Week

Cool Things

The Roundup for May 5-11, 2018 Edition

The Ride by Christopher Parsons

During my Master’s degree I was given the opportunity to provide feedback on early work being written by Jim Tully and Jurgen Habermas. Reading their work and thinking about it seriously and critically so as to suggest improvements taught me the importance of grace in feedback and, also, that even superstar scholars produce first drafts that leave significant room for improvement. Most importantly, it taught me that the finished material that I was reading in journals and books came from authors who’s draft writing was flawed, just like my first drafts.1

Engaging with drafts is probably one of the hardest things that you can do, because you want to be as helpful as possible and — at least in academia — that often means being incredibly critical of the work in question. The intent shouldn’t ever be to ‘kill’ the work; whatever criticism is provided ought to be nuanced with the view of improving it. A reviewer should indicate why a particular section, or paragraph, or sentence is a problem, provide ideas for resolving the tension if any come to mind, and even suggest alternate ways of thinking about the idea, concept, or text under review. At all points the goal should not be to edit and critique, not for the sake of editing and engaging in critique, but instead in the service of supporting the author so that their work communicates their ideas, descriptions, and conclusions in the most concise and illuminating ways possible.

Because the first authors I provided serious feedback to were paragons in my field at the time I had to be careful, nuanced, and generous in my comments. I had to really engage with the work and not give it a quick read and spit out half-baked analyses and critiques. Unfortunately, not enough reviewers of academic texts provide this kind of thoughtful response, likely because most reviewers are rushing to read and review the piece so they can get to their own commitments. As a result, comments and feedback can be abrupt, not engage with core arguments, and be overly brief to the point of being unhelpful to the author.

Reviewing is one of the most thankless jobs in academia, and more broadly in the literary community. Authors know the importance of strong reviewers. But this reviewing element of the writing process is entirely invisible to people who just read the finished work and, by extension, leads to conclusions that authors somehow produce brilliant prose out of nowhere. Lost is the fact that all manuscripts are really multi-authored; it’s just that the ‘lesser’ secondary authors who engage with the author at the earliest stages to course correct the text, to provide suggestions, and to suggest different phrasings, are left off. And that’s perfectly fine. But I think that it’d be a lot less scary for people to start writing if they realized that the process writing almost always involves a large number of non-authors who help to evolve a work from first to final draft, and how significantly ideas and intentions behind a work’s publication can change from inception to conclusion. In effect, I think it’d be useful to know that the ‘stars’ in any given literary field stand at the forefront of a small army of helpers, assistants, and supporters, as opposed to heroically on their lonesome with their finished manuscripts.


The Paywall Craze

Paul Om wrote,

… I think the paywall craze which is sweeping the media herd will be a big reality check for the news and magazine publishers. So many of them are drinking their own spiked kool -aid. They will soon realize the size of their “real audience” and will soon realize that they don’t pass the “value for money” threshold. There are very few publications that have a feeling of must-reads and must-haves.

This feels pretty dead on; the issue, today, is that there is so much content that the act of choosing is the hard part. I think that the only content that is going to be subscribed to is either that which is regarded as essential to someone’s life or that they spend money on in order to focus their time and attention on it. Sure, there’s some popular media that will survive a shift to paywalls but I suspect a lot of organizations will realize just how little their readers actually value what was being produced. And that’s going to hurt for the media organizations and for the writers working there.


Inspiring Quotation of the Week

In many ways, fame is the industrial disease of creativity. It’s a sludgy byproduct of making things.

—Mike Myers

Great Art

I really love these illustration by Jenn Woodall

May banner by Jenn Woodall
Know Your Enemy by Jenn Woodall
Painting for ‘GIRLS GIRLS GIRLS’ who at Northern Contemporary Gallery by Jenn Woodall

Music I’m Digging

Neat Podcast Episodes

Good Reads for the Week

  1. I mean, their work was more complex and nuanced that my work at the time. But in all our cases the first draft was the first stab at explaining and arguing instead of being the first and final word(s).

The Roundup for April 28-May 4, 2018 Edition

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Hoop Dreams by Christopher Parsons

In the wake of the Toronto attack any number of journalists are trying to become experts on the ‘incel’ community, which defines itself as a community of men who are involuntarily celibate and as deserving intercourse with women. It’s led to some suggestions that maybe it’s appropriate to think about policy solutions to the ‘problem’. At issue, of course, is that some persons have failed to recognize the problem itself. Consider Ross Douthat, who links Amia Srinivasan’s ruminations on the links between desire and politics with incels, effectively conjoining a misogynistic subculture with “the overweight and disabled, minority groups treated as unattractive by the majority, trans women unable to find partners and other victims … of a society that still makes us prisoners of patriarchal and also racist-sexist-homophobic rules of sexual desire.” Douthat continues to ultimately argue that a combination of commerce, technology, and efforts to destigmatize sex work will lead to “at a certain point, without anyone formally debating the idea of a right to sex, right-thinking people will simply come to agree that some such right exists, and that it makes sense to look to some combination of changed laws, new technologies and evolved mores to fulfill it.”

Douthat’s entire argumentative structure — that the ‘problem’ to solve in an inability to engage in sexual, if not romantic, relationships — is predicated on the notion that there is such a thing as a legitimate right to intercourse. There is not. There is a legitimate right to safe, respectful, and destigmatized sexual relationships and activities. There is a right to sexual education, to sexual health and wellbeing, but there is no right to intercourse: such a right would imply that the act of penetrating another person is necessary and appropriate. That is clearly not the case.

Instead, the problem with the incel community is linked with misogyny. Specifically, as Jessica Valenti writes, the problem is with misogynist terrorism, a situation where certain men’s disdain towards women drives mass murders. Part of solving this particular problem is linked with addressing the underlying culture in America, and the world more generally. Specifically, she writes:

Part of the problem is that American culture still largely sees men’s sexism as something innate rather than deviant. And in a world where sexism is deemed natural, the misogynist tendencies of mass shooters become afterthoughts rather than predictable and stark warnings.

The truth is that in addition to not protecting women, we are failing boys: failing to raise them to believe they can be men without inflicting pain on others, failing to teach them that they are not entitled to women’s sexual attention and failing to allow them an outlet for understandable human fear and foibles that will not label them “weak” or unworthy.

It’s essential that men, and boys, learn about how to engage with other humans in non-destructive ways. Such a process is borderline revolutionary because it entails reshaping how cultural, social, legal, and economic relationships are structured, and any such restructuring must be motivated by a rebalancing of power relationships across genders and races (and, ultimately, geographies). The outcome will be that the privilege that straight white men have enjoyed for centuries will be diminished and, correspondingly, restrict the social and economic opportunities that some men have enjoyed solely because of their gender and race. But those changes are essential if we’re to actually confront the misogyny and racism that underlies not just incel culture, but that of mainstream society and politics as well.


Inspiring Quotation of the Week

Writing—I can really only speak to writing here—always, always only starts out as shit: an infant of monstrous aspect; bawling, ugly, terrible, and it stays terrible for a long, long time (sometimes forever). Unlike cooking, for example, where largely edible, if raw, ingredients are assembled, cut, heated, and otherwise manipulated into something both digestible and palatable, writing is closer to having to reverse-engineer a meal out of rotten food.

  • David Rokoff

New Apps

Great Photography Shots

I’d never seen x-ray photos of flowers before. It’s an absolutely breathtaking form of image making.

Photo manipulation by Edmanep

Music I’m Digging

Neat Podcast Episodes

Good Reads for the Week

Cool Things

Link

MPs consider contempt charges for Canadian company linked to Cambridge Analytica after raucous committee meeting

Aggregate IQ executives came to answer questions before a Canadian parliamentary committee. Then they had the misfortune of dealing with a well-connected British Information Commissioner, Elizabeth Denham:

At Tuesday’s committee meeting, MPs pressed Silvester and Massingham on their company’s work during the Brexit referendum, for which they are currently under investigation in the UK over possible violations of campaign spending limits. Under questioning from Liberal MP Nathaniel Erskine-Smith, Silvester and Massingham insisted they had fully cooperated with the UK information commissioner Elizabeth Denham. But as another committee member, Liberal MP Frank Baylis, took over the questioning, Erskine-Smith received a text message on his phone from Denham which contradicted the pair’s testimony.

Erskine-Smith handed his phone to Baylis, who read the text aloud.  “AIQ refused to answer her specific questions relating to data usage during the referendum campaign, to the point that the UK is considering taking further legal action to secure the information she needs,” Denham’s message said.

Silvester replied that he had been truthful in all his answers and said he would be keen to follow up with Denham if she had more questions.

It’s definitely a bold move to inform parliamentarians, operating in a friendly but foreign jurisdiction, that they’re being misled by one of their witnesses. So long as such communications don’t overstep boundaries — such as enabling a government official to engage in a public witchhunt of a given person or group — these sorts of communications seem essential when dealing with groups which have spread themselves across multiple jurisdictions and are demonstrably behaving untruthfully.

Link

No: Inheritance

Photo by Andy Tootell on Unsplash

I’ve been slowly listening through The Heart, which is a podcast of personal documentaries and essays. The episode ‘No: Inheritance‘ is a hard listen: it’s the sound of saying, and ignoring, the word “no”‘. The episode is a re-telling of two cases where the host’s utterances were ignored; one is dramatized, the other a recording of the event.

Throughout the episode the host ruminates on what consent is, and was, and how it was understood, and why her consent was ignored. It digs into the anger, shame, and strategies that she and other women adopt in response to men ignoring the word “no”. It sketches out why some women just let things continue and the mental traumas that follow.

These are the kinds of stories that men need to hear. They need to sit and listen, carefully, so that they can appreciate the concerns and traumas that many women have either experienced themselves or worry about experiencing in the future. It’s episodes like this that make it very clear how important it is to regularly obtain consent and to respect the decisions that are made by one’s partner regardless if they’re a partner for a night or for the rest of your life.

Aside

The Roundup for April 23-20, 2018 Edition

Hidden Point by Christopher Parsons

I shifted over to this domain name, and WordPress environment, a little over eight months ago. In addition to moving multiple years of content I also committed to at least one post a week though, ideally, would post many more than that!

I’ve been largely successful with meeting those goals. As such, I’ve been able to maintain a regular personal writing habit. It’s also meant I’ve locked down some of my ruminations and thoughts so that I can reflect on them later on down the line.

However, there are some things that I’m not entirely happy with. First, I’ve been privately writing small ‘reviews’ of books and movies but haven’t gotten around to posting them here. Part of that is wanting to do them ‘well’ and the other reason is that I’m trying to decide if I should have posts and then a master page that links to the posts, or just posts, or just a page. But expect that to be figured out pretty soon.1 I also really like the idea of putting up a gear/software list of things that I routinely use, and want to steal an idea from a friend of mine who posts the podcasts that she’s really into at any given time. And I want to put some thought into developing a public blogroll, likely based on the RSS feeds that I consume, though I admit that I’m not entirely sure of the utility of blogrolls in this day and age.

The reason for contemplating these changes to some of the content and structure? Mostly because I think I can move more of my writing to this location; there’ve only been a few times that I thought I was getting too ‘close’ to mimicking the work on my professional web presence or private journal, and even then the tone was sufficiently different that it belonged here as opposed to those other locations. But I’m also motivated to modify some of the content here because I want what I write to be interesting and useful for other people; I often find that bloggers’ reviews and insights about the things they use are the only way that I discover the existence of certain tools, products, workflows, and cultural items. So I want to give back to others, just as they have freely given to me and everyone else who visits (or has visited) their sites.


I spent some time this week writing about a recent proposal to significantly weaken the security of the devices we carry with us on a daily basis. In short, I think that the proposal:

doesn’t address the real technical or policy problems associated with developing a global backdoor system to our most personal electronic devices. Specifically the architect of the solution overestimates the existent security characteristics of contemporary devices, overestimates the ability of companies to successfully manage a sophisticated and globe-spanning key management system, fails to address international policy issues about why other governments couldn’t or wouldn’t demand similar kinds of access (think Russia, China, Iran, etc), fails to contemplate an adequate key revocation system, and fails to adequately explain why why the exceptional access system he envisions is genuinely needed.

Device security, and especially efforts to weaken it, fundamentally raises technical and policy issues. Neither type of issue can be entirely divorced from the other, and it’s important to recognize that the policy issues are both domestic and international; failing to address them both, at the same time, means that any proposal will almost certainly have terminal weaknesses.


Inspiring Quotation of the Week

“Do not let anything that happens in life be important enough that you’re willing to close your heart over it.”

— Michael A. Singer

Great Photography Shots

The shots from this year’s Sony 2018 World Photography Awards are stunning. Here are some of my favourites:

“Untitled” from the series “Ex-Voto” © Alys Tomlinson, United Kingdom, Photographer of the Year, Professional, Discovery, 2018 Sony World Photography Awards
“Letter of departure” © Edgar Martins, Portugal, 1st Place, Professional, Still Life (Professional competition), 2018 Sony World Photography Awards

Music I’m Digging

Neat Podcast Episodes

Good Reads for the Week

Footnotes

  1. I suspect I’ll opt to a post-per-review, with them aggregated on a distinct page.

Another Bad Proposal to Globally Weaken Security

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Photo by Federica Galli on Unsplash

Steven Levy has an article out in Wired this week in which he, vis-a-vis the persons he interviewed, proclaims that the ‘going dark’ solution has been solved to the satisfaction of (American) government agencies and (unnamed and not quoted) ‘privacy purists’.1 Per the advocates of the so-called-solution, should the proposed technical standard be advanced and developed then (American) government agencies could access encrypted materials and (American) users will enjoy the same degrees of strong encryption as they do today. This would ‘solve’ the problem of (American) agencies’ investigations being stymied by suspects’ adoption of encrypted communications systems and personal devices.

Unfortunately Levy got played: the proposal he dedicates his article to is just another attempt to advance a ‘solution’ that doesn’t address the real technical or policy problems associated with developing a global backdoor system to our most personal electronic devices. Specifically the architect of the solution overestimates the existent security characteristics of contemporary devices,2 overestimates the ability of companies to successfully manage a sophisticated and globe-spanning key management system,3 fails to address international policy issues about why other governments couldn’t or wouldn’t demand similar kinds of access (think Russia, China, Iran, etc),4 fails to contemplate an adequate key revocation system, and fails to adequately explain why why the exceptional access system he envisions is genuinely needed. With regards to that last point, government agencies have access to more data than ever before in history and, yet, because they don’t have access to all of the data in existence the agencies are claiming they are somehow being ‘blinded’.

As I’ve written in a draft book chapter, for inclusion in a book published later this year or early next, the idea that government agencies are somehow worse off than in the past is pure nonsense. Consider that,

[a]s we have embraced the digital era in our personal and professional lives, [Law Enforcement and Security Agencies] LESAs have also developed new techniques and gained additional powers in order to keep pace as our memories have shifted from personal journals and filing cabinets to blogs, social media, and cloud hosting providers. LESAs now subscribe to services designed to monitor social media services for intelligence purposes, they collect bulk data from telecommunications providers in so-called ‘tower dumps’ of all the information stored by cellular towers, establish their own fake cellular towers to collect data from all parties proximate to such devices, use malware to intrude into either personal endpoint devices (e.g. mobile phones or laptops) or networking equipment (e.g. routers), and can even retroactively re-create our daily online activities with assistance from Canada’s signals intelligence agency. In the past, each of these kinds of activities would have required dozens or hundreds or thousands of government officials to painstakingly follow persons — many of whom might not be specifically suspected of engaging in a criminal activity or activity detrimental to the national security of Canada — and gain lawful entry to their personal safes, install cameras in their homes and offices, access and copy the contents of filing cabinets, and listen in on conversations that would otherwise have been private. So much of our lives have become digital that entirely new investigative opportunities have arisen which were previously restricted to the imaginations of science fiction authors both insofar as it is easier to access information but, also, because we generate and leave behind more information about our activities vis-a-vis our digital exhaust than was even possible in a world dominated by analog technologies.

In effect: the ‘solution’ covered by Levy doesn’t clearly articulate what problem must be solved and it would end up generating more problems than it solves by significantly diminishing the security properties of devices while, simultaneously, raising international policy issues of which countries’ authorities, and under what conditions, could lawfully obtain decryption keys. Furthermore, companies and their decryption keys will suddenly become even more targeted by advanced adversaries than they are today. Instead of even attempting to realistically account for these realities of developing and implementing secure systems, the proposed ‘solution’ depends on a magical pixie dust assumption that you can undermine the security of globally distributed products and have no bad things happen.5

The article as written by Levy (and the proposed solution at the root of the article) is exactly the kind of writing and proposal that gives law enforcement agencies the energy to drive a narrative that backdooring all secure systems is possible and that the academic, policy, and technical communities are merely ideologically opposed to doing so. As has become somewhat common to say, while we can land a person on the moon, that doesn’t mean we can also land a person on the sun; while we can build (somewhat) secure systems we cannot build (somewhat) secure systems that include deliberately inserted backdoors. Ultimately, it’s not the case that ‘privacy purists’ oppose such solutions to undermine the security of all devices on ideological grounds: they’re opposed based on decades of experience, training, and expertise that lets them recognize such solutions as the charades that they are.

Footnotes

  1. I am unaware of a single person in the American or international privacy advocacy space who was interviewed for the article, let alone espouses positions that would be pacified by the proposed solution.
  2. Consider that there is currently a way of bypassing the existing tamper-resistant chip in Apple’s iPhone, which is specifically designed to ‘short out’ the iPhone if someone attempts to enter an incorrect password too many times. A similar mechanism would ‘protect’ the master key that would be accessible to law enforcement and security agencies.
  3. Consider that Microsoft has, in the past, lost its master key that is used to validate copies of Windows as legitimate Microsoft-assured products and, also, that Apple managed to lose key parts of its iOS codebase and reportedly its signing key.
  4. Consider that foreign governments look at the laws promulgated by Western nations as justification for their own abusive and human rights-violating legislation and activities.
  5. Some of the more unhelpful security researchers just argue that if Apple et al. don’t want to help foreign governments open up locked devices they should just suspend all service into those jurisdictions. I’m not of the opinion that protectionism and nationalism are ways of advancing international human rights or of raising the qualities of life of all persons around the world; it’s not morally right to just cast the citizens of Russia, Ethiopia, China, India, Pakistan, or Mexico (and others!) to the wolves of their own oftentimes overzealous or rights abusing government agencies.