Saturday, September 16, 2017

Are Our Laptops And Smartphones Spying On Us? Why? And For Whom?

Beginning a few years ago we began to feel like our laptops could read our mind. We'd be on social media and something we'd talked about recently would pop up in our newsfeed, as if someone creating that newsfeed had been listening in.

Our laptops gave us the tool we needed to investigate this bizarre suspicion and we found articles about it at ComputerWorld, the BBC, and WebProNews. Funny, though, articles relating to this conversation did not begin appearing in our newsfeed. There are some theories and investigations the gods of the internet do not want circulated.

How does our Facebook feed know what we’ve been thinking? It collects all our clicks and our likes and feeds them into computers to create algorithms that organize how the newsfeed works, but it seemed like someone was listening to our conversations too.

Thinking and behavior are the products that Facebook sells to its paying customers. (We are not FB’s paying customers, we are the product FB sells.) Facebook sells their product widely, not just to clothing stores and car dealers and treatment centers and plastic surgery clinics. They sell it to whoever has money to buy that information. How raw is that data? Is it fully targeted? Are that data and the algorithms that sort that data user friendly enough that a 400 lb. man on his bed in Macedonia or Hungary or Belarus or Russia can climb inside the heads of millions of Americans from halfway around the globe? What other players helped Russia and the Trump campaign weaponize our personal computers against our democracy?

Facebook might not be the main spy. They might be the main evidence that spying is going on. Which is the tail and which is the dog? Facebook might only be the weapon the manipulators are using. How firm a hold does Facebook have on how its algorithms are used? The only real criterion it seems to focus on before enabling a manipulation of the newsfeed is this: has the manipulator paid to use the Facebook algorithm; if so they get permission to go ahead.

When Trump happened it seemed creepily possible that a new force was abroad in the world upsetting the usual ways consensus is created and public decisions are made. Surprising upsets had exploded key western alliances. In the months since it became evident that those upsets had been engineered in very cynical, undemocratic ways. Russia had helped hack the Democratic Party in this country, but there were other operators involved.

Multiple bad actors working toward one goal = Conspiracy.

The multinational Big Data corporation Cambridge Analytica began to pop up in news stories from The Guardian, the DailyKos and others. There was concern and speculation about their manipulations of their Big Data because of what was known about the man who owned the company.

Since Brexit and Trump, Russian meddling was evident in the Netherlands and in France, failing in both elections. Then, this summer, the BBC reported Cambridge Analytica has been busy in the Kenyan election.

Cambridge Analytica is just one of the companies devoted to reading our minds and manipulating our behavior for profit. CA is owned by right wing libertarian/authoritarian Robert Mercer, one of the biggest supporters of Trump, a Bannon patron and mentor, a backer of Breitbart, America’s leading purveyor of right wing memes and falsehood. The president’s son-in-law Jared was Trump’s deputy for this kind of online mischief during the campaign. (He may be more puppet than tech wizard, but a puppet is more useful to the Russians than a wizard would be.)

Late this week Vanity Fair reported a story that tried to sort out the relationships between Kushner and Mercer and Russia and how our election was manipulated.

We have big data companies messing with our minds via our laptops which are weaponized to spy on us. What do we do to keep ourselves safe? We buy software from cybersecurity companies. The dominant player in this field is located where?

The world’s leading cybersecurity software company, Kaspersky Labs, is located in Russia, founded and built into a global software giant by a Russian computer wiz. Kaspersky Labs is also cozy with the Russian government’s spy agencies. (No one becomes a billionaire in Russia today without being cozy with Putin and his spy agencies.)

This article from Bloomberg explains some of the worries about the Kaspersky/Putin relationship which Kaspersky says does not exist.

Before we jump to too many conclusions (half of the conclusions would be enough to worry about if they are correct) this article in Wired says it wouldn’t have been necessary for the Russians to have American collaboration to hack our election, but they say they still may have had that collaboration. And a U.S. citizen acting as a co-conspirator is just as culpable if he is only a puppet.

Targeting has been the keyword as the Russian election hack has been reported. For Trump to run the table on an election that every poll said he had no chance of winning required some incredible luck, incredible assistance from bad actors, or else incredible sophistication in operation and targeting, and the best description of the Trump campaign was “seat of the pants” and “ad hoc.” The candidate’s message was undisciplined and bizarre. There were none of the traditional deployments, none of the usual planning, none of the kinds of organization and structure that successful campaigns need to win. This was why the result smelled so fishy. Maybe it required a crib––having all the answers beforehand. The how and by whom part of this story has been unfolding all summer. We know the Russians hacked computers and flooded the voters with falsified news stories, lurid rumors, and counterfeit reporting. But how was it targeted. The targeting required deep understanding of how Americans think and behave and how to manipulate that thinking and behavior.

This is how the picture was coming together in July:

Newsweek: Did Russia use Kushner's data operation to target Democratic voters?

Philadelphia Inquirer: to understand the Russian hacking of our election follow the data

The National Memo reports some of the details of how Trump and Russian election strategies were aligned

I get angry to think that the useful public utility developed with our tax-funded research and launched to make it easier for everyone to participate on a level basis (see Net Neutrality) with quick and easy and fair access has been turned against us, turned into a tool to manipulate us and subvert our democracy, weaponized against us. And that this has happened with the willing and profitable cooperation of our new president and his allies foreign and domestic.

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