Panopticon Creep: UK Edition

Once upon a time, London was the world’s most-surveilled city. This position has since been usurped by Chongqing, a city in the Sichuan province which boasts one hundred sixty-eight cameras per one thousand people. Perhaps upset over the loss of their title, Boris Johnson has decided it’s high time that the UK began compiling records of its citizens’ web traffic.

tl;dr: Here’s an executive summary based on my reading of the linked article.

  • Currently, the various parts of the government collect analytics on how people use their websites.
  • BoJo would like to combine all of this data, creating profiles of how each individual uses the whole government’s online offerings.
  • This is to be done ASAP and in secret. The rationale for this is mumble mumble Brexit.
  • This data will be “anonymized”, which is not particularly meaningful at this level of specificity. While an analyst armed with this database would not be able to find a person’s usage by searching for their name, the same analyst could easily derive a person’s name from their usage.

Drilling into some detail now:

Boris Johnson has secretly ordered the Cabinet Office to turn the government’s public internet service into a platform for “targeted and personalised information” to be gathered in the run-up to Brexit, BuzzFeed News has learned.

In a move that has alarmed Whitehall officials, the prime minister has instructed departments to share data they collect about usage of the GOV.UK portal so that it can feed into preparations for leaving the European Union at the end of next month.
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Trump all up in the tubes

This White House proposal to regulate social media moderation could be one of the bloated, mangy shitgibbon’s mock-charges (via MIT Technology Review):

The news: A draft executive order would give the FCC oversight over how social-media platforms like Facebook and Twitter moderate their sites, according to CNN, which obtained a copy. Dubbed “Protecting Americans from Online Censorship,” the order calls for the FCC to develop new rules to define when the law protects tech firms’ decisions to take down content—and when it doesn’t. It also demands that the Federal Trade Commission take those new rules into account when investigating potential malpractice by companies.

The politics: This represents a major escalation in the Trump administration’s campaign against social- media firms, which he claims are biased against conservatives (despite a lack of evidence), and would be a vast expansion of the FCC’s responsibilities.

There’s a sound argument that Big Tech needs regulation to prevent bad things, such as social media being weaponized to subvert democracy or platforms chewing up user data to become marketing panopticons. But that’s not what this is about.

The proposed oversight is theater in response to made-up conservative grievances, like Trump-supporting clowns Diamond & Silk’s claim that Facebook was shadow-censoring them, which a Congressional hearing revealed was based on the sister-grifter duo’s ignorance about how user settings work. And Trump’s own periodic squealing about Twitter interfering with his follower count, which happened to coincide with Twitter’s occasional purges of bot accounts.

Anyhoo, let’s hope this is much ado about nothing. The last thing we need is that moron all up in the tubes. Speaking of moronic, Trump staged a taxpayer-funded MAGA rally in Pittsburgh a while ago and said an appallingly stupid thing about wind power:

“Some day the environmentalists are going to tell us what’s going on with that. And then all of the sudden it stops — the wind and the televisions go off.”

Jesus take the wheel.

Liz Warren: Let’s Break Up Big Tech

Senator Warren announced yesterday morning that she thinks we should break up the big tech monopolies. She focuses on Google, Facebook, and Amazon in particular, though there are obviously other companies that would also fit this description.

Today’s big tech companies have too much power — too much power over our economy, our society, and our democracy. They’ve bulldozed competition, used our private information for profit, and tilted the playing field against everyone else. And in the process, they have hurt small businesses and stifled innovation.

One focus is on how companies use mergers and acquisitions to limit competition, like how Facebook snaps up every available messaging company. This seems pretty self-explanatory. The other main focus of her Medium post, which I find more interesting, is that companies which own networks should not be allowed to participate in those networks. This one’s a little less clear to the layperson, so she lays on some history.

But where the value of the company came from its network, reformers recognized that ownership of a network and participating on the network caused a conflict of interest. Instead of nationalizing these industries — as other countries did — Americans in the Progressive Era decided to ensure that these networks would not abuse their power by charging higher prices, offering worse quality, reducing innovation, and favoring some over others. We required a structural separation between the network and other businesses, and also demanded that the network offer fair and non-discriminatory service.

Her plan:

My administration would restore competition to the tech sector by passing legislation that requires large tech platforms to be designated as “Platform Utilities” and broken apart from any participant on that platform.

[…] Amazon Marketplace, Google’s ad exchange, and Google Search would be platform utilities under this law. Therefore, Amazon Marketplace and Basics, and Google’s ad exchange and businesses on the exchange would be split apart. Google Search would have to be spun off as well.

This is an interesting idea! And it’s high time we had this conversation at a presidential-campaign level. (I’m sure this was eaten by various shitstorms in yesterday’s news, but still.)

She sort of talks about how we also need to deal with privacy, but it’s not included in this plan, which is fair. The post says the same about preventing foreign tampering. To me, the big thing that’s actually missing is how to handle the infrastructure platforms like Amazon Web Services and Google Cloud Platform. Those two service umbrellas undergird a great deal of the world’s technological infrastructure, including that of the American government. In the case of Amazon, they also provide most of the actual corporate profit, I believe. The cheapish, on-demand infrastructure they provide is actually pretty helpful to small innovators too.

Anyway, this, the co-determination bill, the CFPB, are all good examples of what I love about Warren. Her “making capitalism work for everybody” shtick just really resonates with this neoliberal shill.

I was originally going to post this yesterday afternoon, but my flight had terrible wifi, so now you’re getting it after dinner from Tokyo.

Klobuchar Takes on Big Tech

Finally got an opportunity to watch Amy Klobuchar’s campaign launch speech yesterday. I thought it was a pretty good speech overall, and if she wanted to convey grit and toughness by talking for 25 minutes in a howling blizzard, mission accomplished. I was shivering all the way down here in Florida:

One thing that struck me about the speech was Klobuchar’s focus on Big Tech. The Post noticed that too:

Klobuchar’s decision to make privacy and Internet connectivity a central focus of her campaign could elevate tech policy issues during the Democratic primary. By touting these issues during her first major speech as a 2020 contender, Klobuchar is making a big bet that privacy and other digital concerns are increasingly important to American voters.

It’s especially striking since tech policy is not generally an issue that drives voters’ feet to the polls. In a survey about voter priorities ahead of the 2018 midterm elections, Gallup listed health care, the economy and immigration as the top concerns among voters. Technology wasn’t even included in the 12 issues on the list. Yet if Klobuchar shows Democratic voters — especially key demographics like millennials — are paying attention, other politicians may start to prioritize issues like privacy and net neutrality in campaigns.

I also saw a GMA clip from yesterday of Klobuchar talking to George Stephanopoulos, and she elaborated a bit on her approach to Big Tech when asked what she specifically brings to the 2020 race:

“I don’t think anyone is talking enough about the challenges of our day, like digital disruption and the changes it’s making to the workforce and the need for privacy laws. No one’s willing to take on the tech companies, and I am.”

Klobuchar was on Maddow last night, and she talked about the Russians using technology to fuck with our elections in refreshingly clear terms. She, Mark Warner and John McCain sponsored the sorely needed Honest Ads Act to bring online political advertising regulation in line with print, TV and radio ads.

Maddow asked about the reports from disgruntled employees. I thought Klobuchar handled that pretty well. She owned up that she could be “too tough” and push people “too hard” sometimes but also pointed out that there are people who’ve been with her for many years, including those who went on to work for President Obama and then returned to staff her office after his terms were up.

Maddow also asked about how Klobuchar is handling what Maddow characterized as the unusual circumstance of a run of negative press, and Klobuchar pointed out that she’d dealt with that before as a DA and senator and said she’s plenty tough enough to weather a presidential run. From what I’ve seen so far, I believe her.

I haven’t ruled out supporting any declared candidates for the Democratic nomination — except Gabbard, who is a kook and thankfully going nowhere. I don’t know who’s gonna catch fire in the primary or who has what it takes to win the general.

But I’m glad Elizabeth Warren is in the race elevating economic issues, and I’m happy Klobuchar is bringing workforce dislocation, online manipulation, data and privacy issues to the fore. I think people care about the issue more than the polling suggests. If they don’t, they damn well should.

Open thread!

Secrecy Isn’t What It Used To Be

Results of CIA investigations continue to be leaked. Concern was expressed at this norm-breaking. The norms exist for a reason, though. The CIA’s reason for existence is national security.

The President of the United States is acting in conflict with the recommendations of his national security agencies and in conflict with national security. Sending troops to the border for political effect. Sharing another nation’s highly classified intelligence with an adversary. Bragging about a plane that he believes is invisible. Failing to visit the troops in war zones. And more.

This is a conundrum for the national security agencies. The internet and the availability of information are changing their roles too.

Information once of limited availability is now on the internet. Some are free, some for sale. Overhead satellite photos, court documents, historical archives, social media that inadvertently shows significant features. Read more