How to Destroy Surveillance Capitalism
Surveillance capitalism is everywhere. But it’s not the result of some wrong turn or a rogue abuse of corporate power — it’s the system working as intended. This is the subject of Cory Doctorow’s new book.
Surveillance capitalism is everywhere. But it’s not the result of some wrong turn or a rogue abuse of corporate power — it’s the system working as intended. This is the subject of Cory Doctorow’s new book.
Wildlife populations have fallen by more than two-thirds in less than 50 years, according to a major report (PDF) by the conservation group WWF. The report says this “catastrophic decline” shows no sign of slowing. And it warns that nature is being destroyed by humans at a rate never seen before. The report looked at thousands of different wildlife species monitored by conservation scientists in habitats across the world. They recorded an average 68% fall in more than 20,000 populations of mammals, birds, amphibians, reptiles and fish since 1970.
Measuring the variety of all life on Earth is complex, with a number of different measures. Taken together, they provide evidence that biodiversity is being destroyed at a rate unprecedented in human history. This particular report uses an index of whether populations of wildlife are going up or down. It does not tell us the number of species lost, or extinctions. The largest declines are in tropical areas. The drop of 94% for Latin America and the Caribbean is the largest anywhere in the world, driven by a cocktail of threats to reptiles, amphibians and birds. Research published in the journal Nature suggests that to turn the tide we must transform the way we produce and consume food, including reducing food waste and eating food with a lower environmental impact.
Facebook is offering users money to refrain from using the site and Instagram in the weeks leading up to the bitterly contested November elections. The New York Post reports:
To assess the impact of social media on voting, the company will pay selected members up to $120 to deactivate their accounts beginning at the end of September. “Anyone who chooses to opt-in — whether it’s completing surveys or deactivating FB or IG for a period of time — will be compensated,” Facebook spokesperson Liz Bourgeois tweeted last week. “This is fairly standard for this type of academic research.” The Silicon Valley giant said it expects 200,000 to 400,000 people to take part.
“Representative, scientific samples of people in the US will be selected and invited to participate in the study. Some potential participants will see a notice in Facebook or Instagram inviting them to take part in the study,” Facebook said. “Study samples will be designed to ensure that participants mirror the diversity of the US adult population, as well as users of Facebook and Instagram.” The results of the study are expected to be released sometime next year.
Facebook is again being sued for allegedly spying on Instagram users, this time through the unauthorized use of their mobile phone cameras. Bloomberg reports:
The lawsuit springs from media reports in July that the photo-sharing app appeared to be accessing iPhone cameras even when they weren’t actively being used. Facebook denied the reports and blamed a bug, which it said it was correcting, for triggering what it described as false notifications that Instagram was accessing iPhone cameras.
In the complaint filed Thursday in federal court in San Francisco, New Jersey Instagram user Brittany Conditi contends the app’s use of the camera is intentional and done for the purpose of collecting “lucrative and valuable data on its users that it would not otherwise have access to.” By “obtaining extremely private and intimate personal data on their users, including in the privacy of their own homes,” Instagram and Facebook are able to collect “valuable insights and market research,” according to the complaint.
NPR and PBS Frontline spent months digging into internal industry documents and interviewing top former officials. We found that the industry sold the public on an idea it knew wouldn’t work — that the majority of plastic could be, and would be, recycled — all while making billions of dollars selling the world new plastic. NPR:
The industry’s awareness that recycling wouldn’t keep plastic out of landfills and the environment dates to the program’s earliest days, we found. “There is serious doubt that [recycling plastic] can ever be made viable on an economic basis,” one industry insider wrote in a 1974 speech. Yet the industry spent millions telling people to recycle, because, as one former top industry insider told NPR, selling recycling sold plastic, even if it wasn’t true. “If the public thinks that recycling is working, then they are not going to be as concerned about the environment,” Larry Thomas, former president of the Society of the Plastics Industry, known today as the Plastics Industry Association and one of the industry’s most powerful trade groups in Washington, D.C., told NPR.
In response, industry representative Steve Russell, until recently the vice president of plastics for the trade group the American Chemistry Council, said the industry has never intentionally misled the public about recycling and is committed to ensuring all plastic is recycled. […] Here’s the basic problem: All used plastic can be turned into new things, but picking it up, sorting it out and melting it down is expensive. Plastic also degrades each time it is reused, meaning it can’t be reused more than once or twice. On the other hand, new plastic is cheap. It’s made from oil and gas, and it’s almost always less expensive and of better quality to just start fresh. All of these problems have existed for decades, no matter what new recycling technology or expensive machinery has been developed. In all that time, less than 10 percent of plastic has ever been recycled. But the public has known little about these difficulties.
The malware that French law enforcement deployed en masse onto Encrochat devices, a large encrypted phone network using Android phones, had the capability to harvest “all data stored within the device,” and was expected to include chat messages, geolocation data, usernames, passwords, and more, according to a document obtained by Motherboard. From the report:
The document adds more specifics around the law enforcement hack and subsequent takedown of Encrochat earlier this year. Organized crime groups across Europe and the rest of the world heavily used the network before its seizure, in many cases to facilitate large scale drug trafficking. The operation is one of, if not the, largest law enforcement mass hacking operation to date, with investigators obtaining more than a hundred million encrypted messages. “The NCA has been collaborating with the Gendarmerie on Encrochat for over 18 months, as the servers are hosted in France. The ultimate objective of this collaboration has been to identify and exploit any vulnerability in the service to obtain content,” the document reads, referring to both the UK’s National Crime Agency and one of the national police forces of France. As well as the geolocation, chat messages, and passwords, the law enforcement malware also told infected Encrochat devices to provide a list of WiFi access points near the device, the document reads.
NBC News spoke to 21 people who said they were hooked on casino-style apps and had spent significant sums of money. The industry is almost entirely unregulated. From a report:
Shellz, 37, a nurse from Houston, spends at least two hours a day with her husband playing a casino-style smartphone game called Jackpot Magic. The app offers a variety of typical casino games to play, including their favorite, called Reel Rivals, a game in which players accrue points by playing a virtual slot machine. As in a real casino, players exchange money for coins to bet. Unlike in a real casino, there is no way to win money back or earn a payout on coins. But that has not stopped Shellz and her husband from spending about $150,000 in the game in just two years. She asked to use her in-game username so her family does not find out how much money they have spent on the game. “We lie in bed next to each other, we have two tablets, two phones and a computer and all these apps spinning Reel Rivals at the same time,” she said. “We normalize it with each other.” Jackpot Magic is an app made by Big Fish Games of Seattle, one of the leaders in an industry of “free-to-play” social games into which some people have plowed thousands of dollars. Big Fish Games also operates a similar app, Big Fish Casino. Both are labeled as video games, which allows the company and others like it to skirt the tightly regulated U.S. gambling market. But unlike the gambling market, apps like Jackpot Magic and Big Fish Casino are under little oversight to determine whether they are fair or whether their business practices are predatory.
NBC News spoke to 21 people, including Shellz and her husband, who said they were hooked on the casino-style games and had spent significant sums of money. They described feelings of helplessness and wanting to quit but found themselves addicted to the games and tempted by the company’s aggressive marketing tactics. Most of the 21 players wished to remain anonymous, as they were ashamed of their addictions and did not want their loved ones to find out about their behavior. A 42-year-old Pennsylvania woman said she felt saddened that she spent $40,000 on Big Fish Casino while working as an addiction counselor. “The whole time I was working as an addiction counselor, I was addicted to gambling and with no hope of winning any money back,” she said. Big Fish Games did not make anyone available for an interview, nor did the company respond to detailed questions. The company has said in previous court filings that only a fraction of the game’s players actually spend money. In a response to NBC News’ inquiries, the company issued a statement saying its games are not gambling and should not be regulated as su
At 94 years old and with over 60 years of wildlife documentary-making under his belt, Sir David Attenborough is well-placed to share his thoughts about the future of our planet. And on Sunday, in the new BBC documentary Extinction: The Facts, the legendary presenter had a warning for all humans about the creatures we share the Earth with. “Over the course of my life, I’ve encountered some of the world’s most remarkable species of animals,” Attenborough says at the start of the hour-long film. “Only now do I realize just how lucky I’ve been. Many of these wonders seem set to disappear forever. We’re facing a crisis, and one that has consequences for us all. It threatens our ability to feed ourselves, to control our climate — it even puts us at greater risk of pandemic diseases such as COVID-19.”
With the help of a number of academics and experts, Attenborough goes on to explain that extinction is now happening much faster than it used to — with 570 plant species and 700 animal species disappearing since the year 1500. “Studies suggest that extinction is now happening a hundred times faster than the natural evolutionary rate,” Attenborough says. “And it’s accelerating.” A follow-up to Attenborough’s 2019 explainer documentary, Climate Change: The Facts, Extinction: The Facts delves into some of the main causes of extinction and disastrous biodiversity loss today, including habitat destruction (either caused by land use or human-induced climate change or both), unsustainable agricultural and fishing practices, and poaching. The documentary examines a number of species across the world that are at risk, from the two remaining northern white rhinos in Kenya’s Ol Pejeta Conservancy to the 25 percent of assessed plant species currently at risk of disappearing forever.
Although the documentary is a heavy and often bleak watch, it does end with a message of hope. “One thing we do know, is that if nature is given the chance, it can bounce back,” concludes Attenb
Facebook ignored or was slow to act on evidence that fake accounts on its platform have been undermining elections and political affairs around the world, according to an explosive memo sent by a recently fired Facebook employee and obtained by BuzzFeed News. From the report:
The 6,600-word memo, written by former Facebook data scientist Sophie Zhang, is filled with concrete examples of heads of government and political parties in Azerbaijan and Honduras using fake accounts or misrepresenting themselves to sway public opinion. In countries including India, Ukraine, Spain, Bolivia, and Ecuador she found evidence of coordinated campaigns of varying sizes to boost or hinder political candidates or outcomes, though she did not always conclude who was behind them. “In the three years I’ve spent at Facebook, I’ve found multiple blatant attempts by foreign national governments to abuse our platform on vast scales to mislead their own citizenry, and caused international news on multiple occasions,” wrote Zhang, who declined to talk to BuzzFeed News. Her Linkedin profile said she “worked as the data scientist for the Facebook Site Integrity fake engagement team” and dealt with “bots influencing elections and the like.”
“I have personally made decisions that affected national presidents without oversight, and taken action to enforce against so many prominent politicians globally that I’ve lost count,” she wrote. The memo is a damning account of Facebook’s failures. It’s the story of Facebook abdicating responsibility for malign activities on its platform that could affect the political fate of nations outside the United States or Western Europe. It’s also the story of a junior employee wielding extraordinary moderation powers that affected millions of people without any real institutional support, and the personal torment that follow
Ethnic violence set off by the assassination of a popular singer has been supercharged by hate speech and incitements shared widely on the platform. From a report:
Throughout his life, Ethiopian singer Hachalu Hundessa sang about love, unity, and raising the marginalized voices of his Oromo ethnic group. He had always tried to keep his work and politics separate, saying, “Art should not be subject to political pressure.” But it became increasingly difficult for him to keep these two worlds apart, thanks to a politically-motivated disinformation campaign orchestrated on Facebook through a network of newly created pages and designed to demonize Hundessa. The incendiary campaign claimed Hundessa abandoned his Oromo roots in siding with Prime Minister Ahmed Abiy. Abiy, Ethiopia’s first Oromo leader, has been heavily criticized by hard-line Oromo nationalists who believe he has abandoned his heritage by appeasing other ethnic groups. The impact was devastating.
Hundessa was assassinated on June 29 while driving through the capital Addis Ababa. The man police charged with Hundessa’s killing told prosecutors that he was working as an assassin for the Oromo Liberation Front, an armed nationalist group linked to numerous violent attacks — and who told the shooter that Oromia would benefit from the death of one of its most famous singers. Hundessa’s death at age 34 set off a wave of violence in the capital and his home region of Oromia. Hundreds of people were killed, with minorities like Christian Amharas, Christian Oromos, and Gurage people suffering the biggest losses. This bloodshed was supercharged by the almost-instant and widespread sharing of hate speech and incitement to violence on Facebook, which whipped up people’s anger. Mobs destroyed and burned property. They lynched, beheaded, and dismembered their victims. The calls for violence against a variety of ethnic and religious groups happened despite the government shutting down the internet within hours of Hundessa’s murder. Soon, the same people who’d been calling for genocide and attacks against specific religous or ethnic groups were openly posting photographs of burned-out cars, buildings, schools and houses, the Network Against Hate Speech, a volunteer group tracking hate speech in Ethiopia, told VICE News.
These attacks reflect the volatile nature of ethnic politics in Ethiopia. Abiy’s rise to power in 2018 led to a brief period of hope that Ethiopia could be unified under the first Oromo to lead the country. But that quickly evaporated, and the country has since been wracked by violence, coinciding with a rapid increase in access to the internet, where Facebook dominates. And rather than helping to unify the country, Facebook has simply amplified existing tensions on a massive scale.
NPR reporter Shannon Bond reports of a little-known — and now nearly entirely forgotten — company called Simulmatics, which had technology that used vast amounts of data to profile voters and ultimately help John F. Kennedy win the 1960 election. From the report:
The […] company was called Simulmatics, the subject of Harvard historian and New Yorker writer Jill Lepore’s timely new book, If Then: How the Simulmatics Corporation Invented the Future. Before Cambridge Analytica, before Facebook, before the Internet, there was Simulmatics’ “People Machine,” in Lepore’s telling: “A computer program designed to predict and manipulate human behavior, all sorts of human behavior, from buying a dishwasher to countering an insurgency to casting a vote.”
Lepore unearths Simulmatics’ story and makes the argument that, amid a broader proliferation of behavioral science research across academia and government in the 1960s, the company paved the way for our 21st-century obsession with data and prediction. Simulmatics, she argues, is “a missing link in the history of technology,” the antecedent to Facebook, Google and Amazon and to algorithms that attempt to forecast who will commit crimes or get good grades. “It lurks behind the screen of every device,” she writes.
If Then presents Simulmatics as both ahead of its time and, more often than not, overpromising and under-delivering. The company was the brainchild of Ed Greenfield, an advertising executive straight out of Mad Men, who believed computers could help Democrats recapture the White House. He wanted to create a model of the voting population that could tell you how voters would respond to whatever a candidate did or said. The name Simulmatics was a contraction of “simulation” and “automation.” As Greenfield explained it to investors, Lepore writes: “The Company proposes to engage principally in estimating probable human behavior by the use of computer technology.” The People Machine was originally built to analyze huge amounts of data ahead of the 1960 election, in what Lepore describes as, at the time, “the largest political science research project in American history.”
The Washington Post covered “a sprawling yet secretive campaign that experts say evades the guardrails put in place by social media companies to limit online disinformation of the sort used by Russia” during America’s last presidential campaign in 2016.
According to four people with knowledge of the effort, “Teenagers, some of them minors, are being paid to pump out the messages…”
The campaign draws on the spam-like behavior of bots and trolls, with the same or similar language posted repeatedly across social media. But it is carried out, at least in part, by humans paid to use their own accounts, though nowhere disclosing their relationship with Turning Point Action or the digital firm brought in to oversee the day-to-day activity. One user included a link to Turning Point USA’s website in his Twitter profile until The Washington Post began asking questions about the activity. In response to questions from The Post, Twitter on Tuesday suspended at least 20 accounts involved in the activity for “platform manipulation and spam.” Facebook also removed a number of accounts as part of what the company said is an ongoing investigation…
The months-long effort by the tax-exempt nonprofit is among the most ambitious domestic influence campaigns uncovered this election cycle, said experts tracking the evolution of deceptive online tactics. “In 2016, there were Macedonian teenagers interfering in the election by running a troll farm and writing salacious articles for money,” said Graham Brookie, director of the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab. “In this election, the troll farm is in Phoenix….”
The messages — some of them false and some simply partisan — were parceled out in precise increments as directed by the effort’s leaders, according to the people with knowledge of the highly coordinated activity, most of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity to protect the privacy of minors carrying out the work… The messages have appeared mainly as replies to news articles about politics and public health posted on social media. They seek to cast doubt on the integrity of the electoral process, asserting that Democrats are using mail balloting to steal the election — “thwarting the will of the American people,” they alleged. The posts also play down the threat from covid-19, which claimed the life of Turning Point’s co-founder Bill Montgomery in July…
By seeking to rebut mainstream news articles, the operation illustrates the extent to which some online political activism is designed to discredit the media. While Facebook and Twitter have pledged to crack down on what they have labeled coordinated inauthentic behavior, in Facebook’s case, and platform manipulation and spam, as Twitter defines its rules, their efforts falter in the face of organizations willing to pay users to post on their own accounts, maintaining the appearance of independence and authenticity.
One parent even said their two teenagers had been posting the messages since June as “independent contractors” — while being paid less than minimum wage.
BBC News reports:
In 1991, the trade body that represents electrical companies in the U.S., the Edison Electric Institute, created a campaign called the Information Council for the Environment which aimed to “Reposition global warming as theory (not fact)”. Some details of the campaign were leaked to the New York Times. “They ran advertising campaigns designed to undermine public support, cherry picking the data to say, ‘Well if the world is warming up, why is Kentucky getting colder?’ They asked rhetorical questions designed to create confusion, to create doubt,” argued Naomi Oreskes, professor of the history of science at Harvard University and co-author of Merchants of Doubt. But back in the 1990 there were many campaigns like this…
Most of the organisations opposing or denying climate change science were right-wing think tanks, who tended to be passionately anti-regulation. These groups made convenient allies for the oil industry, as they would argue against action on climate change on ideological grounds. Jerry Taylor spent 23 years with the Cato Institute — one of those right wing think tanks — latterly as vice president. Before he left in 2014, he would regularly appear on TV and radio, insisting that the science of climate change was uncertain and there was no need to act.
Now, he realises his arguments were based on a misinterpretation of the science, and he regrets the impact he’s had on the debate.
Harvard historian Naomi Oreskes discovered leading climate-change skeptics had also been prominent skeptics on the dangers of cigarette smoking. “That was a Eureka moment,” Oreskes tells BBC News. “We realised this was not a scientific debate.”
Decades before the energy industry tried to undermine the case for climate change, tobacco companies had used the same techniques to challenge the emerging links between smoking and lung cancer in the 1950s… As a later document by tobacco company Brown and Williamson summarised the approach: “Doubt is our product, since it is the best means of competing with the ‘body of fact’ that exists in the minds of the general public.” Naomi Oreskes says this understanding of the power of doubt is vital. “They realise they can’t win this battle by making a false claim that sooner or later would be exposed. But if they can create doubt, that would be sufficient — because if people are confused about the issue, there’s a good chance they’ll just keep smoking….”
Academics like David Michaels, author of The Triumph of Doubt, fear the use of uncertainty in the past to confuse the public and undermine science has contributed to a dangerous erosion of trust in facts and experts across the globe today, far beyond climate science or the dangers of tobacco. He cites public attitudes to modern issues like the safety of 5G, vaccinations — and coronavirus.
“By cynically manipulating and distorting scientific evidence, the manufacturers of doubt have seeded in much of the public a cynicism about science, making it far more difficult to convince people that science provides useful — in some cases, vitally important — information.