Forbes Raises Questions about Facebook Encryption

March 25, 2019

I am never sure if a story in Forbes (the capitalist tool) is real journalism or marketing. I was interested in a write up called “Could Facebook Start Mining Decrypted WhatsApp Messages For Ads And Counter-Terrorism?” The main point is that Facebook encryption could permit Facebook to read customers’ messages. The purpose of such access would be to sell ads and provide information to “governments or harvesters.” The write up states:

The problem is that end-to-end encryption only protects a message during transit. The sender’s device typically retains an unencrypted copy of the message, while the recipient’s device necessarily must decrypt the message to display to the user. If either of those two devices have been compromised by spyware, the messages between them can be observed in real-time regardless of how strong the underlying encryption is.

No problem with this description. Intentionally or unintentionally, the statement makes clear why compromising user devices is an important tool in some government’s investigative and intelligence toolbox. Why decrypt of the bad actor’s mobile device or computer just emails the information to a third party?

I noted this statement as well:

The messaging app itself has access to the clear text message on both the sender and recipient’s devices.

If I understand the assertion, Facebook can read the messages sent by its encrypted service.

The write up asserts:

As its encrypted applications are increasingly used by terrorists and criminals and to share hate speech and horrific content, the company will come under further pressure to peel back the protections of encryption.

Even if Facebook wants to leave encrypted information in unencrypted form, outside pressures may force Facebook to just decrypt and process the information.

The conclusion of the write up is interesting:

Putting this all together, it is a near certainty that Facebook did not propose its grand vision of platform-wide end-to-end encryption without a clear plan in place to ensure it would be able to continue to monetize its users just as effectively as in its pre-encryption era. The most likely scenario is a combination of behavioral affinity inference through unencrypted metadata and on-device content mining. In the end, as end-to-end encryption meets the ad-supported commercial reality of Facebook, it is likely that we will see a dawn of a new era of on-device encrypted message mining in which Facebook is able to mine us more than ever under the guise of keeping us safe.

Speculation? Part of the capitalist toolkit it seems. Is there a solution? The write up just invokes Orwell. Fear, uncertainty, doubt. Whatever sells. But news?

Stephen E Arnold, March 25, 2019

Smart or Not So Smart Software?

March 22, 2019

I read “A Further Update on New Zealand Terrorist Attack.” The good news is that the Facebook article did not include the word “sorry” or the phrase “we’ll do better.” The bad news is that the article includes this statement:

AI systems are based on “training data”, which means you need many thousands of examples of content in order to train a system that can detect certain types of text, imagery or video. This approach has worked very well for areas such as nudity, terrorist propaganda and also graphic violence where there is a large number of examples we can use to train our systems. However, this particular video did not trigger our automatic detection systems. To achieve that we will need to provide our systems with large volumes of data of this specific kind of content, something which is difficult as these events are thankfully rare. Another challenge is to automatically discern this content from visually similar, innocuous content – for example if thousands of videos from live-streamed video games are flagged by our systems, our reviewers could miss the important real-world videos where we could alert first responders to get help on the ground.

Violent videos have never before been posted to Facebook? Hmmm.

Smart software, smart employees, smart PR. Sort of. The fix is to process more violent videos. Sounds smart.

Stephen E Arnold, March 22, 2019

Instagram: Another Facebook Property in the News

March 22, 2019

Instagram (IG or Insta) has become an important social media channel. Here’s a quick example:

My son and his wife have opened another exercise studio in Washington, DC. How was the service promoted? Instagram.

Did the Instagram promotions for the new facility work? Yes, quite well.

The article “Instagram Is the Internet’s New Home for Hate” makes an attempt to explain that Facebook’s Instagram is more than a marketing tool. Instagram is a source of misinformation.

The write up states:

Instagram is teeming with these conspiracy theories, viral misinformation, and extremist memes, all daisy-chained together via a network of accounts with incredible algorithmic reach and millions of collective followers—many of whom, like Alex, are very young. These accounts intersperse TikTok videos and nostalgia memes with anti-vaccination rhetoric, conspiracy theories about George Soros and the Clinton family, and jokes about killing women, Jews, Muslims, and liberals.

We also noted this statement:

The platform is likely where the next great battle against misinformation will be fought, and yet it has largely escaped scrutiny. Part of this is due to its reputation among older users, who generally use it to post personal photos, follow inspirational accounts, and keep in touch with friends. Many teenagers, however, use the platform differently—not only to connect with friends, but to explore their identity, and often to consume information about current events.

Is it time to spend more time on Instagram? How do intelligence-centric software systems index Instagram content? What non obvious information can be embedded in a picture or a short video? Who or what examines content posted on the service? Can images with hashtags be used to pass information about possibly improper or illegal activities?

Stephen E Arnold, March 22, 2019

Facebook: Ripples of Confusion, Denial, and Revisionism

March 18, 2019

Facebook contributed to an interesting headline about the video upload issue related to the bad actor in New Zealand. Here’s the headline I noted as it appeared on Techmeme’s Web page:


The Reuters’ story ran a different headline:


What caught my attention is the statement “blocked at upload.” If a video were blocked at upload, were those videos removed? If blocked, then the number of videos drops to 300 million.

This type of information is typical of the coverage of Facebook, a company which is become the embodiment of social media.

There were two other interesting Facebook stories in my news feed this morning.

The first concerns a high profile Silicon Valley investor, Marc Andreessen. The write up reports and updates a story whose main point is:

Facebook Board Member May Have Met Cambridge Analytica Whistleblower in 2016.

Read more

When the Best and the Brightest Tech Stars Fail

March 15, 2019

Two outages. Two explanations.

Google’s March 12, 2019, outage was explained this way at Google Cloud Status Dashboard.

On Monday 11 March 2019, Google SREs were alerted to a significant increase in storage resources for metadata used by the internal blob service. On Tuesday 12 March, to reduce resource usage, SREs made a configuration change which had a side effect of overloading a key part of the system for looking up the location of blob data. The increased load eventually lead to a cascading failure.

I like the phrase “cascading failure.” Sounds inevitable.

Facebook’s explanation of its one day plus outage appeared in “Biggest Facebook Outage in its History Due to Database Issues.” The explanation was:

The company’s databases were “overloaded.”

Concentration, just like in the mainframe days, can create some challenges for those downstream. If the big outfits cannot deal with failure, I don’t feel bad when my Android phone complains it cannot connect to the Google Play store where malware may still live.

Stephen E Arnold,  March 15, 2019

Building Data Sets

March 14, 2019

I read “Why Is It Legal to Collect Data on Kids, Let Alone Sell It?” The write up comes from a person who contributed in some way to the fine operation that Facebook embodies. Now that person is asking questions about building databases.

I noticed this quote, allegedly made by one of the Facebookers past:

“Why is it okay for credit card companies to sell financial records?” McNamee said at the South by Southwest conference in Austin over the weekend. “Why is it legal for cell companies to sell location data? Why is it legal for companies that make apps for health and wellness to sell or trade our data? Why is it legal for anybody on the web to transact in our web history? Why is it legal to collect data on kids under 18, much less sell it?”

You can read the rest of the article, but I want to offer some answers to these questions; to wit:

  1. Because we can collect and build databases. Users are too stupid to know what we are doing.
  2. Because there are no consequences. Regulators and lawyers are as clueless as the users.
  3. Because it is easy if you are smart like us. Anyone not working at a Google- or Facebook-type company or an adviser to one of these outfits is not going to be able to keep up with us.
  4. Because we want do things which make people like us feel cool. Snort, snort, snort.
  5. Because we never understood the silliness related to any philosophical bedrock other than the mantra of “me, me, me” or what I call digital existentialism. One is what one does to attract attention from those just like “one.”
  6. Because it is cool to do the mea culpa thing in public.

Stephen E Arnold, March 14, 2019

Facebook Tracking Amidst Privacy Assertions

March 7, 2019

Privacy International published “Guess What? Facebook Still Tracks You on Android Apps (Even If You Don’t Have a Facebook Account).”

I am not particularly surprised. The chatter about Facebook and its privacy initiative is one of those “pivot” plays. Talk is cheap, unlike online advertising.

The write up states:

seven apps, including Yelp, the language-learning app Duolingo and the job search app Indeed, as well as the King James Bible app and two Muslim prayer apps, Qibla Connect and Muslim Pro, still send your personal data to Facebook before you can decide whether you want to consent or not. Keep in mind: these are apps with millions of installs.

There are some recommendations in the write up. DarkCyber suggests you read these before spending much time on statements like this one from Facebook: “A Privacy Focused Vision for Social Networking.”

Stephen E Arnold, March 7, 2019

A Hip Bro Excuse: We Cannot Modify Our System and Software

March 5, 2019

I was zipping through news this morning, and I spotted “Google to Ban Political Ads Ahead of Federal Election, Citing New Transparency Rules.” The “rules” apply to Canada, not the United States. Google will not sell ads. That’s interesting.

The main point of the article for me was the reason Google will turn down money and leave a giant pile of cash on the table was this sentence in the write up (which I assume is true, of course):

Google is banning political advertising on its platforms ahead of the Canadian federal election because of new ad transparency rules it says would be too challenging to comply with.

Challenge, when I hear the word, means “too darned difficult.” A connotation for me is “what a waste of time and effort.” Another is a variation on the Bezos basic, “Just walk away”; for instance, Hasta la vista, Nueva York.”

Is adapting Google’s ad sense too challenging for a company which has a boat load of talented programmers?

What I find interesting is that Facebook has the same limitation. Do you recall that Facebook users were going to get a control that would allow them to delete some of their data. The delay, I heard, is a consequence of figuring out how to make delete work.

Net net: Two outfits with smart people are unable to modify their respective systems.

Do I believe that technical modifications are too difficult?

Yeah, I believe the moon is made of green cheese as well. The questions these technical challenges beg include:

  • What is the specific problem?
  • Is the system intractable so that other changes are too great a challenge? If so, what functions cannot be altered?
  • What is the engineering approach at Google which renders its software unfixable?
  • Are Google’s (and Facebook’s) engineers less effective than technical personnel at other companies; for example, Apple or Microsoft?
  • What’s the personnel problem? Is underpaying certain ethnic groups an issue?

Maybe regulations are the optimal way to deal with companies unable to comply with government regulations?

Stephen E Arnold, March 5 2019

AI: The Facebook View for the Moment

February 21, 2019

We get some insight into the current trajectory of AI from Fortune’s article, “Facebook’s Chief A.I. Scientist Yann LeCun On the Future of Computer Chips, Lawnmowers, and Deep Learning.” The write-up points to a talk on AI hardware LeCun gave at the recent International Solid-State Circuits Conference in San Francisco.

Writer Jonathan Vanian highlights three points. First, he notes the advent of specialized chips designed to save energy, which should facilitate the use of more neural networks within data centers. This could mean faster speech translation, for example, or more effective image analysis. The tech could even improve content moderation, a subject much on Facebook’s mind right now. Then there are our “smart” devices, which can be expected to grow more clever as their chips get smaller. For instance, Vanian envisions a lawn mower that could identify and pull weeds. He notes, though, that battery capacity is another conundrum altogether.

Finally, we come to the curious issue of “common sense”—so far, AIs tend to fall far short of humans in that area. We’re told:

“Despite advances in deep learning, computers still lack common sense. They would need to review thousands of images of an elephant to independently identify them in other photos. In contrast, children quickly recognize elephants because they have a basic understanding about the animals. If challenged, they can extrapolate that an elephant is merely a different kind of animal—albeit a really big one. LeCun believes that new kinds of neural networks will eventually be developed that gain common sense by sifting through a smorgasbord of data. It would be akin to teaching the technology basic facts that it can later reference, like an encyclopedia. AI practitioners could then refine these neural networks by further training them to recognize and carry out more advanced tasks than modern versions.”

The chips to facilitate that leap are not yet on the market, of course. However, LeCun seems to believe they will soon be upon us. I do hope so; perhaps these super chips will bring some much needed sense to our online discourse.

Cynthia Murrell, February 21, 2019

UK Report about Facebook, the Digital Gangster

February 18, 2019

The hot read this morning is the UK’s report about a highly successful US company, Facebook. You can obtain a copy of the report at this link.

Coverage of the report is extensive, and DarkCyber anticipates more analyses, explanations, and Twitterverse excitement as the report diffuses.

Here are five items to note in the report:

First, the use of the phrase, “digital gangster” is brilliant That’s a superior two word summary of the document and its implicit indictment of the Silicon Valley way and America, the home of the bad actors. The subtext is that the US has fostered, aided, and abetted a 21st century Al Capone who operates a criminal cartel on a global scale. DarkCyber expects more anti-US business push back with “digital gangsterism” becoming a fertile field for study in business school. Who will write the book “Principles of Digital Gangsterism”?

ec and zuck

Second, the idea of a linking “data ethics and algorithms” is an interesting one. Like the goal of having software identify Deepfakes (videos and images which depict a fictional or false reality), dealing with a fuzzy concept like data ethics and the equally fuzzy world of algorithm thresholds may lead to a rebirth of old-school philosophical debates. Who will be the 21st-century Plato? The experts who will chop through the notional wilderness of ethics and making money could expose what, for want of a better phrase, I will call “deep stupid.” Like deepfake” the precise definition of deep stupid has to be crafted.

Third, regulation is an interesting idea. But the UK report provides compelling evidence that the digital “cat is out of the bag” with regard to data collection, analysis, and use of information. Regulations can put people in jail. Regulations can shut down a company operating in a country. But regulation of zeros and ones on a global scale in a distributed computing environment boils down to taxes and coordinated direct actions. Will war against Facebook and Facebook-type companies be put on the table? Fines or nano drones with a nano warhead?

Fourth, the document does not focus on what I call a Brexit-scale issue: Destabilizing a country. The report offers no path forward when a country has been blasted with digital flows operating outside of conventional social norms. The message, as I understand it, is, “We have a problem so let’s ignore it.”

Finally, the report itself is proof that flows of digital information decompose, disintermediate extablished institutions, and allow new social norms to grow in the datasphere. Facebook is Mark Zuckerberg, and Facebook is a product of the US business environment. What do these two facts sum to? No pleasant answer.

Let’s check Facebook, shall we?

Stephen E Arnold, February 18, 2019

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