Occasional reflections on Life, the World, and Mathematics

Posts tagged ‘information technology’

Your shadow genetic profile

So, the “Golden Gate killer” has been caught, after forty years. Good news, to be sure, and it’s exciting to hear of the police using modern data systems creatively:

Investigators used DNA from crime scenes that had been stored all these years and plugged the genetic profile of the suspected assailant into an online genealogy database. One such service, GEDmatch, said in a statement on Friday that law enforcement officials had used its database to crack the case. Officers found distant relatives of Mr. DeAngelo’s and, despite his years of eluding the authorities, traced their DNA to his front door.

And yet… This is just another example of how all traditional notions of privacy are crumbling in the face of the twin assaults from information technology and networks. We see this in the way Facebook generates shadow profiles with information provided by your friends and acquaintances, even if you’ve never had a Facebook account. It doesn’t matter how cautious you are about protecting your own data: As long as you are connected to other people, quite a lot can be inferred about you from your network connections, or assembled from bits that you share with people to whom you are connected.

Nowhere is this more true than with genetic data. When DNA identification started being used by police, civil-liberties and privacy activists in many countries forced stringent restrictions on whose DNA could be collected, and under what circumstances it could be kept and catalogued. But now, effectively, everyone’s genome is public. It was noticed a few years back that it was possible to identify (or de-anonymize) participants in the Personal Genome Project, by drawing on patterns of information in their phenotypes. Here’s a more recent discussion of the issue. But those people had knowingly allowed their genotypes to be recorded and made publicly available. In the Golden Gate Killer case we see that random samples of genetic material can be attributed to individuals purely based on their biological links to other people who volunteered to be genotyped.

The next step will be, presumably, “shadow genetic profiles”: A company like GEDmatch — or the FBI — could generate imputed genetic profiles for anyone in the population, based solely on knowledge of their relationships to other people in their database, whether voluntarily (for the private company) or compulsorily (FBI).

Do loony leftists use the right-hand rule?

So Leave.EU is still active, and apparently last year they were soliciting a graphic to ridicule journalist Carole Cadwalladr:

As a mathematical scientist it strikes me as significant that she is considered to be discredited by association with three images: Flat Earth, Illuminati (though it looks to me like the Masonic eye from the US dollar bill), and what looks like a cheat sheet for an introductory electromagnetism course. Down in the corner we see that she’s been learning the right-hand rule for multiplying vectors. Right above it she has the formula for calculating power, which seems problematic.

Facebook and me

The current Facebook scandal — which is really just like every other Facebook scandal, only bigger and more consequential — has led me to think about my own interaction with Facebook. I was a researcher at UC Berkeley in 2004-5, at the time when Facebook was expanding from the Ivy League out to all universities. I had recently programmed my own personal home page, because that’s what you did then if you wanted to have a space online where you could distribute documents and photos, and generally make yourself available on the Internet. So I thought of Facebook as a template for making web pages. A colleague explained to me that it also had this facility for linking to other people’s accounts.

But fundamentally, a brief look at it really turned me off. Having spent most of my adult life in maths-stats-computing millieus, I’ve known lots of people like Zuckerberg. I never got along with them, and fortunately most of them grow up eventually. Facebook looked to me like an attempt by the Zuckerbergs of the world to get other people to map their lives into a fixed set of categories that would make us sufficiently orderly. It makes social life as much as possible like bookkeeping. So I never signed up. And since then I’ve never had the impression that there were lacunae in my real-world interactions corresponding to Facebook communication.

Of course, this has to do with the fact that I am at least a decade older than the original Facebook target generation. (To judge by my daughters and their friends, Facebook is also far from indispensable for current teens. But Facebook has bought out other platforms, like Instagram, to maintain its hold.) I remember very clearly the first time when I first recognised the overwhelming power of the Facebook phenomenon for Zuckerberg’s generation: In spring 2007 I was sitting in a cafe near the University of Toronto. At a nearby table were half a dozen students whose conversation I couldn’t help but overhear in snippets, and over an hour or so it seemed that everything they had to say was mediated through Facebook: Who had changed their relationship status indicator, and why, and particular decisions to friend or unfriend various individuals. I found it slightly disturbing.

Of course, that was before I knew about the particular egregiously misogynist origin of Facebook. And Mark Zuckerberg’s political ambitions, which frighten me beyond all measure. He is an anti-privacy fanatic, and there is no reason to expect that he would respect citizens’ autonomy, even in principle, any more than he respects Facebook customers. His pattern has always been, push and push and push until a scandal blows up, then reverse the last offensive change and keep on pushing. People are up in arms over Cambridge Analytica’s improper use of Facebook data for the Brexit and Trump campaigns. But if Mark Zuckerberg runs for president I don’t think there is anything to prevent Facebook from donating all of its data to his campaign. Or from using the site to manipulate the information that people see to favour the Zuckerberg campaign. Or their propensity to vote. Or their feelings.

People say, “Just delete your Facebook account.” I don’t have an account, but it doesn’t help me if everyone else is manipulable and half the political leaders are blackmailable through their Facebook data.

Landing the plane

One of the weirder stories to come up right after the 9/11 attacks was that the “20th hijacker” Zacarias Moussaoui  — the Al Qaeda operative who was arrested by the FBI a month before the attack — raised the suspicions of the flight school teacher because he wasn’t interested in learning how to land the plane. In fact, this doesn’t seem to have been true, but the instructor said one of the things that aroused his suspicions was that Moussaoui was interested in how to turn off the oxygen and the transponder. They also thought it was odd that he was starting with learning to fly jumbo jets, which clearly could not part of any rational career strategy.

He also had a weird reason for wanting to learn to fly a jumbo jet, said Nelson — he told them that he merely wanted to be able to boast to his friends that he could fly a 747.

“He was telling us that it’s an ego thing,” Nelson said. “That’s a lot of money to spend to play.”

“I need to know if you can help me achieve my ‘goal,’ my dream,” Moussaoui wrote, listing five types of Boeing and Airbus jets. “To be able to pilot one of these Big Birds, even if I am not a real professional pilot.”

There’s an oddly similar story in The Guardian’s new report on Cambridge Analytica’s possibly even more consequential attack on the British and US elections, facilitated by Facebook. There was this pitch that the company made to the Russian oil conglomerate Lukoil in 2014:

A slide presentation prepared for the Lukoil pitch focuses first on election disruption strategies used by Cambridge Analytica’s parent company, SCL, in Nigeria. They are presented under the heading “Election: Inoculation”, a military term used in “psychological operations” and disinformation campaigns. Other SCL documents show that the material shared with Lukoil included posters and videos apparently aimed at alarming or demoralising voters, including warnings of violence and fraud.

Christopher Wylie, the whistleblower who has come forward to talk to the Observer, said it was never entirely clear what the Russian firm hoped to get from the operation.

“Alexander Nix [Chief Executive of Cambridge Analytica]’s presentation didn’t make any sense to me,” said Wylie, who left Cambridge Analytica soon after the initial meetings. “If this was a commercial deal, why were they so interested in our political targeting?”

Lukoil did not respond to requests for comments.

I guess even oil conglomerates have dreams. And they can find clueless techies willing to make their dreams come true.

The EU OS

Twenty years ago I had a short visit from a college friend* who had just discovered the technical utopia. Completely enthralled. The Internet was going to upend all power relations, make all governments irrelevant, make censorship impossible. I was fascinated, but I did ask, How is The Internet going to clean the sewers?

But there was something else that intrigued me. He was very much on the nonscience side as a student, but he had just been learning some programming. And he had discovered something amazing: When your computer looks like it isn’t doing anything, it’s actually constantly active, checking whether any input has come. The user interface is a metaphorical desktop, inert and passive until you prod it, but beneath the surface a huge amount of complicated machinery is thrumming to generate this placid illusion.

I thought of this when reading The European Union: A Very Short Introduction. The European Union is complicated. For instance, in EU governance there is the European Council and the Council of the European Union, which are distinct, and neither one is the same as the Council of Europe (which is not part of the EU at all). There is a vast amount of work for lawyers, diplomats, economists, and various other specialists — “bureaucrats” in the common parlance — to give form and reality to certain comprehensible goals, the famous “four freedoms” — free movement of goods, capital, services, and labour. The four freedoms are the user interface of the EU, if you will, and the

There’s a lot of legacy code in the EU. In the absence of a further world war to flatten the institutions and allow a completely new constitution to be created, EU institutions had to be made backward compatible with existing nation states. There is a great deal of human work involved in carrying out these compatibility tasks. When people complain that the EU is “bureaucratic”, that’s more or less what they mean. And when they complain about “loss of sovereignty” what they mean is that their national operating system has been repurposed to run the EU code, so that some of the action of national parliaments has become senseless on its own terms.

Some people look at complicated but highly useful structures with a certain kind of awe. When these were social constructs, the people who advised treating them with care used to be called “conservatives”. The people who call themselves Conservative these days, faced with complicated structures that they can’t understand, feel only an irresistible urge to smash them.

* German has a word — Kommilitone — for exactly this relationship (fellow student), lacking in English. Because it’s awkward to say “former fellow student”.

The anarchist Trump

I just read Chris Hedges’s book The Wages of Rebellion, about the small sprouts of revolt against the omnipotent corporate state that are still popping up. I was struck by this quote from Jeremy Hammond, who was sentenced to 10 years in federal prison for hacking into government computers to steal and release evidence of government crimes:

He said he did not support what he called a “dogmatic nonviolence doctrine” held by many in the Occupy movement, describing it as “needlessly limited and divisive.” He rejected the idea of protesters carrying out acts of civil disobedience that they know will lead to arrest. “The point,” he said, “is to carry out acts of resistance and not get caught.”

In this he has a soul-brother in the White House, famous for having mocked John McCain for his years in Vietnamese captivity:

He’s not a war hero. He was a war hero because he was captured. I like people who weren’t captured.

Slow travel

After plunging UK travel into chaos, British Airways CEO Alex Cruz announced that he will not resign. And why should he? BA needs his bold leadership now more than ever. In the spirit of not letting a crisis go to waste and no such thing as bad publicity and there’s no platitude like business platitudes, I’m expecting him to announce that this was actually a successful promotion for BA’s new motto: Slow Travel©.

Imagine the scene: First a harried woman being yelled at by her boss, forced to rush through some task, papers dropping every which way. Voiceover: Your work life can be pretty stressful. Rushing all the time.

Cut to: Same woman with her family, rushing through an airport, trying to catch a flight to Disney World or Mallorca. Boarding closed, children in tears. Voiceover: You don’t need the same stress on your holidays.

Cut to: Another family happily strolling through the duty-free selection. Voiceover: When you fly with British Airways, our international team of IT experts will make sure that you have untold hours to browse through the world-class shopping attractions of Heathrow… Maybe even days!Heathrow stay-and-playCut to: Happy children playing in the Terminal 2 play structure. Voiceover: Joyful moments like this can’t be rushed!

Cut to: Passengers sleeping on the floor and seats in the terminal. Voiceover: Travel means taking the time to get close to new people.

Cut to: Alex Cruz saying “Slow travel. Because Bland Acquiesence is what BA is all about!”

 

Wake-up call

Microsoft responds to the worldwide ransomware attack on Windows XP:

The governments of the world should treat this attack as a wake-up call.

A wake-up call where they kill sick people in need of medical treatment. I’m not staying in that hotel again.

Fortunately, it turns out that no one was responsible: not Microsoft, not the NSA. Here in Britain, the government that skimped on funding vital infrastructure for the National Health Service so that their computers didn’t get urgent security patches looks likely to be re-elected in a landslide, because the important thing is not what a government does in office, but whether its plans for what it would do get leaked to the press several days early.

Strong and stubborn stable leadership.

All-you-can-eat

Ars Technica reports on testimony by Mediacom, a large US cable company, explaining why they should not be required to stop capping data usage:

People thus shouldn’t complain when Internet providers impose data caps and charge more when customers go over them, he wrote. “Even though virtually every other industry prices its products and services in the same way, some people think that ISPs should be the exception and run their businesses like an all-you-can-eat buffet.”

“Virtually every other industry”… Yes, it’s pretty hard to think of any industry that offers all-you-can-eat buffets. Who could possibly afford to offer all-you-can-eat? It’s a fantasy.

Thinking out loud

Trump is now predicting massive voter fraud, usually something you do after you’ve lost. There’s a theory that people tend to accuse others of what they are ashamed of planning or having done themselves. I don’t think he has any shame, or that he’s strategic enough to be planning anything so complicated himself. But his backers? How hard would it really be for a top-notch state hacking operation in, say, Russia, to crack the locally organised election computer systems?

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