How about Fear and Paranoia to Advance an Agenda?

December 6, 2023

green-dino_thumb_thumb_thumbThis essay is the work of a dumb dinobaby. No smart software required.

I thought sex sells. I think I was wrong. Fear seems to be the barn burner at the end of 2023. And why not? We have the shadow of another global pandemic? We have wars galore. We have craziness on US air planes. We have a Cybertruck which spells the end for anyone hit by the behemoth.

I read (but did not shake like the delightful female in the illustration “AI and Mass Spying.” The author is a highly regarded “public interest technologist,” an internationally renowned security professional, and a security guru. For me, the key factoid is that he is a fellow at the Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University and a lecturer in public policy at the Harvard Kennedy School. Mr. Schneier is a board member of the Electronic Frontier Foundation and the most, most interesting organization AccessNow.


Fear speaks clearly to those in retirement communities, elder care facilities, and those who are uninformed. Let’s say, “Grandma, you are going to be watched when you are in the bathroom.” Thanks, MSFT Copilot. I hope you are sending data back to Redmond today.

I don’t want to make too much of the Harvard University connection. I feel it is important to note that the esteemed educational institution got caught with its ethical pants around its ankles, not once, but twice in recent memory. The first misstep involved an ethics expert on the faculty who allegedly made up information. The second is the current hullabaloo about a whistleblower allegation. The AP slapped this headline on that report: “Harvard Muzzled Disinfo Team after $500 Million Zuckerberg Donation.” (I am tempted to mention the Harvard professor who is convinced he has discovered fungible proof of alien technology.)

So what?

The article “AI and Mass Spying” is a baffler to me. The main point of the write up strikes me as:

Summarization is something a modern generative AI system does well. Give it an hourlong meeting, and it will return a one-page summary of what was said. Ask it to search through millions of conversations and organize them by topic, and it’ll do that. Want to know who is talking about what? It’ll tell you.

I interpret the passage to mean that smart software in the hands of law enforcement, intelligence operatives, investigators in one of the badge-and-gun agencies in the US, or a cyber lawyer is really, really bad news. Smart surveillance has arrived. Smart software can process masses of data. Plus the outputs may be wrong. I think this means the sky is falling. The fear one is supposed to feel is going to be the way a chicken feels when it sees the Chik-fil-A butcher truck pull up to the barn.

Several observations:

  1. Let’s assume that smart software grinds through whatever information is available to something like a spying large language model. Are those engaged in law enforcement are unaware that smart software generates baloney along with the Kobe beef? Will investigators knock off the verification processes because a new system has been installed at a fusion center? The answer to these questions is, “Fear advances the agenda of using smart software for certain purposes; specifically, enforcement of rules, regulations, and laws.”
  2. I know that the idea that “all” information can be processed is a jazzy claim. Google made it, and those familiar with Google search results knows that Google does not even come close to all. It can barely deliver useful results from the Railway Retirement Board’s Web site. “All” covers a lot of ground, and it is unlikely that a policeware vendor will be able to do much more than process a specific collection of data believed to be related to an investigation. “All” is for fear, not illumination. Save the categorical affirmatives for the marketing collateral, please.
  3. The computational cost for applying smart software to large domains of data — for example, global intercepts of text messages — is fun to talk about over lunch. But the costs are quite real. Then the costs of the computational infrastructure have to be paid. Then the cost of the downstream systems and people who have to figure out if the smart software is hallucinating or delivering something useful. I would suggest that Israel’s surprise at the unhappy events in October 2023 to the present day unfolded despite the baloney for smart security software, a great intelligence apparatus, and the tons of marketing collateral handed out at law enforcement conferences. News flash: The stuff did not work.

In closing, I want to come back to fear. Exactly what is accomplished by using fear as the pointy end of the stick? Is it insecurity about smart software? Are there other messages framed in a different way to alert people to important issues?

Personally, I think fear is a low-level technique for getting one’s point across. But when those affiliated with an outfit with the ethics matter and now the payola approach to information, how about putting on the big boy pants and select a rhetorical trope that is unlikely to anything except remind people that the Covid thing could have killed us all. Err. No. And what is the agenda fear advances?

So, strike the sex sells trope. Go with fear sells.

Stephen E Arnold, December 6, 2023


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