The Roundup for November 1-30, 2019 Edition

(Hero Pose by Christopher Parsons)

Welcome to this edition of The Roundup! Enjoy the collection of interesting, informative, and entertaining links. Brew a fresh cup of coffee or grab yourself a drink, find a comfortable place, and relax.


For the past many years, each month has come with a set of recurring expenses: reducing the debts of various kinds that were incurred as a result of pursuing my education (and current career). These debts have been a millstone hanging from my neck and, at different times, were the first and last things I thought of each and every morning. They’ve cost me dearly both in terms of finances, in terms of lost opportunities, and in terms of personal loses and sacrifices. They have also formed a core element of my ‘financial identity’ for many years and, with their payment, I’m left struggling to determine what that identity should ‘be’ going into the future. Is my future to (probably without effect) save for a down payment on a property (this is functionally impossible in the city in which I live) or save for retirement (in the hopes that’s even possible) or something else entirely? I don’t know what that identity becomes but I am curious, trepidatious, and somewhat excited to see what the future may hold.


Inspiring Quotation

“Being a strong man includes being kind. There’s nothing weak about being honorable and treating others with respect.”

  • Barack Obama

Great Photography Shots

I found Tom Hegen’s shots to be really eerie this month. He has a series of photos that capture Holland’s LED greenhouses, which I find to be incredibly dystopic. Our future as a species: growing our foods indoors because we have so damaged the natural environment that this is all that’s left for us.

Music I’m Digging

  • Gang Starr-One of the Best Yet // Created using bits and pieces of music that survived from Premier’s death (and acquired following considerable legal contestations), the songs are not all equal. But this by-and-large sounds like a definitive Gang Starr album and it’ll be last we likely ever received.
  • Beck-Hyperspace // Beck’s most recent album is, like most, a partial re-invention of what he is and sounds like. In many respects it’s almost like there’s an element of the Chemical Brothers throughout the tracks, in tandem with Beck’s typical lyrical talents. Well worth the listen.
  • Leonard Cohen-Thanks for the Dance // If you like Cohen’s albums as he aged—namely, as he shifted more to spoken word accompanied with instrumentals—then you’re in for a (last) treat from one of Montreal’s best. The tracks are lyrically held together by Cohen’s sexual interests in the last days of his life, and the emphasis on what he wanted and which was forever slightly beyond him.
  • DJ Shadow-Our Pathetic Age // This is really a two-‘disc’ album, with the first predominantly instrumentals and the second more typical DJ Shadow fare. I’m not the biggest fan of the former, whereas the latter is absolutely amazing. The range of classic hip hop talent on the tracks, combined with Shadow’s beats, are absolutely to die for.

Neat Podcast Episodes

  • TVO—Why Conservatives and Liberals Think Differently // Research showcases that there are differences between the tendencies in how persons of different political persuasions think, and not at the level of who they support politically but in how they interpret risk, friendship preferences and more. The guests are clear that some liberals hold some conservative values and vice versa, but nonetheless it’s interesting to have research actually showcasing that some differences are very real and may not be solved by just talking through things.
  • The Current—Ambassador Susan Rice // Rice was comparatively hawkish as compared to Obama, yet showcases how advisors can disagree with their President and still acknowledge that the finals decisions were competent and reflective of different policy preferences. Notably, Rice joins the chorus of senior current and former American national security staff who warn that Canada choosing to permit Huawei into 5G networks will threaten Canada’s ongoing welcome into the Five Eyes intelligence sharing alliance.

Good Reads

  • Climate Change Is Breaking Open America’s Nuclear Tomb // The Marshall Island, where the USA conducted a vast number of nuclear tests in the 40s and 50s, is threatening to spill contained radioactive contaminants into the Pacific Ocean. Not only is the US government not doing anything to mitigate these risks, but also have only provided $4 million of the $2 billion owed to the Marshall Islands in damages for the government’s experiments. The costs of nuclear conflict, even in the absence of a shooting war, are born very unequally by persons around the world.
  • China’s Internet Is Flowering // Reporting for the New York Times Magazine, Yiren Lu explores just how the Chinese Internet is growing and its implications for Internet developments and culture in the Western world. Key to all of this is, in effect, the mass adoption of WeChat and WeChat Pay by customers and businesses alike. Something that is raised repeatedly in the article is how the business developments in China are linked to at least two key features, only one of which is truly shared by Western regulators. First, there was generally a forbearance on interfering with Internet companies and, as such, WeChat grew to provide a comprehensive platform and accompanying set of services. Second, and unlike in the West, the government has itself sought to encourage the development of e-commerce on WeChat itself. Looking to North America, we can see that efforts by Facebook to develop similarly integrated services are being stymied and, thus, raises the question of whether is is truly possible to integrate the lessons from WeChat into a Western experience.
  • It’s so much more than cooking // I’ve not previously contemplated that cooking is more than preparing the food at hand but, also, the mental labour that precedes the act of cooking: the planning, evaluation of nutrient quotas, shopping, etc. It’s a good and very fair point. And while I agree that women do tend to be engaged in more of the cooking responsibilities than men, at least when in relationships, I do wonder what the shift in demographics in countries like Canada will do for this: given that more people live alone than ever before, will this result in more men cooking than women? And a shift in the equality of shared household tasks?
  • Inside Facebook’s efforts to stop revenge porn before it spreads // While I’m sure this is meant to be a ‘good news’ Facebook story about how they’re trying to combat revenge porn that isn’t the message I take away from actually reading the article. Instead, I get something like: “We tried something to address revenge porn, without consulting anyone, and that didn’t work. Then we had an utterly innovative idea to actually do research to understand the problem. And while we’ve been told that what we’re doing won’t work, and can’t work, and that we need to hire staff to deal with this, that’s not economically feasible so Facebook is instead mostly ignoring that critique and will be relying on a really small product team to solve a problem for which there are no clear solutions. And doing it with machine learning.”
  • A Montreal Bagel War Unites Rival Kings // While the question of whether to restrict how Montreal bagel shops can make their bagels is relatively well known to Montrealers, I suspect this is the first time that the international audience has been exposed to the debate over whether bagel shops should be permitted to continue releasing the particulate from their ovens into the surrounding neighbourhoods. To my mind, it makes sense to require filters and/or systems that capture the particulate smoke elements that are aggravating health issues such as asthma. But, similarly, asserting that the bagel shops should ‘go green’ and get rid of wood burning would fundamentally transform how the Montreal bagel tastes and most likely not for the better.
  • The surveillance industry is assisting state suppression. It must be stopped // This call to regulate the commercial spyware industry, by the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression, is a poignant and direct assessment of the harms that this industry inflicts on those whom democracies ought to be protecting. I emphatically agree that our governments are failing to protect those who advocate for, and defend, human rights and the rule of law abroad. Western governments can at least start by preventing businesses in their own backyard from facilitating and enabling such oppression and illegitimate prosecution.
  • Tinder Lets Known Sex Offenders Use the App. It’s Not the Only One. // Deliberately failing to protect women across all of Match’s platforms demonstrates a shocking degree of moral turpitude that is underscored by deliberate policy failures in the company. All bad people can’t be stopped from using the apps but surely Match can work to ensure that the meagre protections is has in place on some of its apps are deployed across them all.
  • 7 Rules for Shooting More Interesting Travel Photos // I really appreciate how accessible these ‘rules’ are, and how easy they would be to implement. It also explains how to take some shots—using props—that I’ve been trying to visually figure out for a few months, which nicely explains the magic tricks taken in some of the photos I’ve been reviewing!

Cool Things

  • I am “A Too Much” Woman // Reading this bit of spoken word and all I could think was how well it captured the amazing, powerful, smart, brilliant women I have the privilege to be around, learn from, and stand in awe of.
Quote

The fact that it was [sic] responsibility not of the RCMP but of the employer, whether government department or private company, to actually remove a security risk from employment, that is, to exercise direct coercion, is precisely in line with the panoptic element. The RCMP merely watched, gathered information, and provided advice, silently and in the shadows. The effect was to induce political discipline through pervasive, diffuse fear of the consequences of risky ideas, friends, or associations. Totalitarian states enforced political discipline through cruder forms of police state coercion. In fighting the Nazi state, Canada was also groping towards a more effective, non-coercive, form of discipline. The RCMP provided to be able students of the new science of political surveillance.

  • Reg Whitaker et al, Secret Service: Political Policing in Canada from the Fenians to Fortress America

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

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

In western China, thought police instill fear

From the Associated Press:

Southern Xinjiang, where Korla is located, is one of the most heavily policed places on earth.

In Hotan, police depots with flashing lights and foot patrols are set up every 500 meters. Motorcades of more than 40 armored vehicles rumble down city boulevards. Police checkpoints on every other block stop cars to check identification and smartphones for religious content.

Xinjiang’s published budget data shows public security spending this year is on track to increase 50 percent from 2016 to roughly 45 billion yuan ($6.8 billion) after rising 40 percent a year ago. It’s quadrupled since 2009, when a Uighur riot broke out in Urumqi, killing nearly 200 people.

But much of the policing goes unseen.

Shoppers entering the Hotan bazaar must pass through metal detectors and place their national identification cards on a reader while having their faces scanned. AP reporters were stopped outside a hotel by a police officer who said the public security bureau had been remotely tracking the reporters’ movements by watching surveillance camera footage.

The government’s tracking efforts have extended to vehicles, genes and even voices. A biometric data collection program appears to have been formalized last year under “Document No. 44,” a regional public security directive to “comprehensively collect three-dimensional portraits, voiceprints, DNA and fingerprints.” The document’s full text remains secret, but the AP found at least three contracts referring to the 2016 directive in recent purchase orders for equipment such as microphones and voice analyzers.

The extent of the of technical and human surveillance, and punishments that are meted out for failing to adequately monitor family members and friends, is horrifying.1 And while the surveillance undertaken in this area of China is particularly severe, the kinds of monitoring that occur in China is more extensive and ever-present throughout the country than many people who haven’t travelled into China can appreciate. The Chinese surveillance infrastructure is the kind of apparatus that exists to sustain itself, first and foremost, by ensuring that contrary ideologies and philosophies are threatened and — where possible — rendered impotent by way of threats and fear.

  1. While much of the contemporary surveillance is now provided by Chinese-based companies it’s worth remembering that, historically, this equipment was sold by Western companies.
Link

How to protect yourself (and your phone) from surveillance

I understand what the person interviewed for this article is suggesting: smartphones are incredibly good at conducting surveillance of where a person is, whom they speak with, etc. But proposing that people do the following (in order) can be problematic:

  1. Leave their phones at home when meeting certain people (such as when journalists are going somewhere to speak with sensitive sources);
  2. Turn off geolocation, Bluetooth, and Wi-fi;
  3. Disable the ability to receive phone calls by setting the phone to Airplane mode;
  4. Use strong and unique passwords;
  5. And carefully evaluate whether or not to use fingerprint unlocks;

Number 1. is something that investigative journalists already do today when they believe that a high level of source confidentiality is required. I know this from working with, and speaking to, journalists over the past many years. The problem is when those journalists are doing ‘routine’ things that they do not regard as particularly sensitive: how, exactly, is a journalist (or any other member of society) to know what a government agency has come to regard as sensitive or suspicious? And how can a reporter – who is often running several stories simultaneously, and perhaps needs to be near their phone for other kinds of stories they’re working on – just choose to abandon their phone elsewhere on a regular basis?

Number 2 makes some sense, especially if you: a) aren’t going to be using any services (e.g. maps to get to where you’re going); b) attached devices (e.g. Bluetooth headphones, fitness trackers); c) don’t need quick geolocation services. But for a lot of the population they do need those different kinds of services and thus leaving those connectivity modes ‘on’ makes a lot of sense.

Number 3 makes sense as long as you don’t want to receive any phone calls. So, if you’re a journalist, so long as you never, ever, expect someone to just contact you with a tip (or you’re comfortable with that going to another journalist if your phone isn’t available) then that’s great. While a lot of calls are scheduled calls that certainly isn’t always the case.

Number 4 is a generally good idea. I can’t think of any issues with it, though I think that a password manager is a great idea if you’re going to have a lot of strong and unique passwords. And preferably a manager that isn’t tied to any particular operating system so you can move between different phone and computer manufacturers.

Number 5 is…complicated. Fingerprint readers facilitate the use of strong passwords but can also be used to unlock a device if your finger is pressed to a device. And if you add multiple people to the phone’s list of who can decrypt the device then you’re dealing with additional (in)security vectors. But for most people the concern is that their phone is stolen, or accessed by someone with physical access to the device. And against those threat models a fingerprint reader with a longer password is a good idea.