NSO Group: The EU Parliament Has an Annoyed Committee

June 27, 2022

I almost made it through a week without another wild and crazy NSO Group Pegasus kerfuffle. Almost is not good enough. I read “EU Parliament’s Pegasus Committee Fires Against NSO Group.” Do committees tote kinetic weapons in Western Europe?

The write up states:

On Tuesday (21 June), the committee scrutinized the NSO Group by questioning Chaim Gelfand, the tech firm’s General Counsel and Chief Compliance Officer.  The MEP and rapporteur Sophie in ‘t Veld said the way Gelfand responded to or declined to answer several questions was “an insult to our intelligence” and that there was a “complete disconnect between reality and what you are saying”.

Does this mean “dismissive”? Maybe “arrogant”? Possibly “exasperated”?

The write up includes a question from a Polish representative; to wit:

“Who and how was checking the governments of Hungary and Poland? How on earth could they be verified by you?”

Not surprisingly, NSO Group has yet to find the equivalent of Meta (Zuckbook’s spokes human). Perhaps NSO Group will find an individual who does not stimulate EU Parliament committee members to be more forceful?

Stephen E Arnold, June 27, 2022

Some Podcast Pundits Will Not Be Outputting from China

June 27, 2022

I read “China Bans Over 30 Live-Streaming Behaviors, Demands Qualifications to Discuss Law, Finance, Medicine.” (You will have to pay to read the full text of the story. Because… capitalism.) The main point of this story is that live streaming and probably any other digital outputting will be subject to scrutiny. Topics are tricky. In general, one must have “qualifications” beyond having worked for a “real news” outfit or graduated from a university which accepts bribes for non rowing crew members.

Other issues involve showing flashy goods and products or flouncing on a foam mattress whilst throwing cash money in the air.

The big point is that those outputting content have to have qualifications. And what are those qualifications? The article does suggest that the Chinese government is not providing that type of irrelevant detail. I assume that once a violator who chatters about law, medicine, money, or some similar minor subject, the full scope of the transgression will be addressed at re-education programs.

Pull off a deep fake like smart software telling Seinfeld jokes and you may get special attention. Have you ever heard about Chinese death vans? No. If you run into me at a conference, be sure to ask. I have a photo too.

Will podcasts and podcasters, streamers, and other assorted creator outputs be regulated in the US?

That’s a question to which I don’t have an answer. Digital remains a Wild West. No sheriffs, US marshals, or re-education camp directors in sight.

For now.

Stephen E Arnold, June 27, 2022

Singapore: How Disneyland with a Death Penalty Approaches Crypto

June 23, 2022

I read “Singapore Regulator Vows to Be Unrelentingly Hard on Crypto.” The approach seems to be a bit different from the control mechanisms used in the US. (You will have to pay to read the orange newspaper’s story.) The write up states:

Singapore will be “brutal and unrelentingly hard” on bad behavior in the crypto industry, according to its fintech policy chief, marking a stark shift in rhetoric after years of the city-state courting the sector.

The report suggests that Singapore sees value in a central bank digital currency and a “platform” for financial activities.

From my perspective, [a] Singapore understands the potential upsides and downsides of crypto currency and wants to be a player, [b] Singapore sees a void because certain leading nation states are dithering, and [c] there’s money to be made.

Money, control, and filling a void — Good reasons perhaps.

Stephen E Arnold, June xx, 2022

EU: Tech Wolf Pack Must Track Down and Kill Deep Fakes

June 20, 2022

I read “EU Wants Big Tech to Address Deepfakes or Face Consequences.” The European Union has decided that the members of the Big Tech Wolf Pack can solve a semi-difficult problem. A deepfake is a content object that has been manipulated to deceive. I suppose there are better definitions, but let’s roll with this simple one.

Is a doctored image in a TikTok video a deepfake? What about a company which uses a fake persona to sell something? An example would be a digital Betty Crocker. What about a video produced with DaVinci Resolve, a free software that permits Hollywood style special effects? What about a grumpy neighbor posting a shaped story about the couple living in a trailer who throw trash into the parking area? What about a real news person writing about a new crypto venture fund and using some colorful adjectives to stimulate interest? What about videos of certain activities between a cartoon character and a faux human? (Is it a fake or is it a new genre?)

I don’t know about you, but the line between real and fake is a tough one to discern.

The write up states:

According to an EU document obtained by Reuters, Google, Facebook, Twitter, and other tech giants will have to combat deepfakes and fake accounts or face heavy fines under a revised European Union code of practice.

Here’s the part I like after a couple of decades of just handing out fines that are the equivalent of lunches at staff meetings for a couple of weeks. (Love that gluten free pizza and those kale salads, right?)

The code says that signatories will create, enforce, and execute explicit policies against unacceptable manipulative behaviors and practices on their platforms, based on the most recent evidence on hostile actors’ conduct, tactics, techniques, and procedures (TTPs).

And what are the consequences? How about up to six percent of global revenue? That will keep the lawyers and accountants busy?

Does this approach sound possible? Sure, but the effort may prove to be impossible as technology marches on? Is that voice answering system’s recording of Bugs Bunny a deep fake? What about a Zoom background that shows me paying attention when I am not? (That happens on most of my Zoomies.) Perhaps yours too?

Stephen E Arnold, June 20, 2022

NSO Group: Is This a Baller Play to Regain Its PR Initiative or a Fumble?

June 15, 2022

Secrecy and confidentiality are often positive characteristics in certain specialized software endeavors. One might assume that firms engaged in providing technology, engineering support, and consulting services would operate with a low profile. I like to think of my first meeting with Admiral Craig Hosmer. We each arrived at the DC Army Navy Club at 2 30 pm Eastern time. The Admiral told me where to sit. He joined me about 15 minutes later. The Club was virtually empty; the room was small but comfortable; and the one staff member was behind the bar doing what bartenders do: Polishing glasses.

Looking back on that meeting in 1974, I am quite certain no one knew I was meeting the Admiral. I have no idea where the Admiral entered the building nor did I see who drove him to the 17th Street NW location. My thought is that this type of set up for a meeting was what I would call “low profile.”

US Defence Contractor in Talks to Take Over NSO Group’s Hacking Technology” illustrates what happens when the type of every day precautions Admiral Hosmer took are ignored. A British newspaper reports:

The US defence contractor L3Harris is in talks to take over NSO Group’s surveillance technology, in a possible deal that would give an American company control over one of the world’s most sophisticated and controversial hacking tools. Multiple sources confirmed that discussions were centered on a sale of the Israeli company’s core technology – or code – as well as a possible transfer of NSO personnel to L3Harris.

Okay, so much for low profiling this type of deal.

I am not sure what “multiple sources” mean. If someone were writing about my meeting the Admiral, the only sources of information would have been me, the Admiral’s technical aide (a nuclear scientist from Argonne National Laboratory), and probably the bartender who did not approach the area in which the former chair of the Joint Committee on Atomic Energy were sitting.

But what have we got?

  1. A major newspaper’s story about a company which has made specialized services as familiar as TikTok
  2. Multiple sources of information. What? Who is talking? Why?
  3. A White House “official” making a comment. Who? Why? To whom?
  4. A reference to a specialized news service called “Intelligence Online”. What was the source of this outfit’s information? Is that source high value? Why is a news service plunging into frog killing hot water?
  5. Ramblings about the need to involve government officials in at least two countries. Who are the “officials”? Why are these people identified without specifics?
  6. References to human rights advocates. Which advocates? Why?

Gentle reader, I am a dinobaby who was once a consultant to the company which made this term popular. Perhaps a return to the good old days of low-profiling certain activities is appropriate?

One thing is certain: Not even Google’s 10-thumb approach to information about its allegedly smart software can top this NSO Group PR milestone.

Stephen E Arnold, June 15, 2022

Yandex: Just Helping Others to Understand Geography

June 14, 2022

The Yandex news has been interesting. Some staff turnover. Some outages. Some changes to Yandex images. But there’s more! Example:

On June 3, European Union introduced sanctions against one of the company’s founders, Arkady Volozh prompting his immediate resignation.

Russia’s Yandex Maps to Stop Displaying National Borders” also reports:

the company said that their updated digital maps would “focus on natural features rather than on state boundaries.”

What’s this “real news” statement mean?

My thought is that national borders can be fuzzy and then defined as necessary.

The map is not the territory as YouTube videos about a certain dust up near the Black Sea makes evident.

Stephen E Arnold, June 14, 2022

Google Et Al: A Small Matter Perhaps?

May 24, 2022

In India, the Lok Sabha is a bit like the US Congress. Like its US equivalent, the group of distinguished individuals can be frisky, intellectually speaking, of course. “Standing Committee On Finance To Discuss Big Tech Firms’ Practices” reports:

…the parliamentary panel will be hearing views of hospitality, restaurants and travel agents associations on the subject ‘Anti-Competitive Practices by Big-tech companies…

By itself, this type of investigation and questioning is chugging along in the US, the EU, and India. In Russia, the country has seized the Google’s assets, and it is not clear what the future will hold for other US Big Tech Firms.

I noted this statement in the source article:

Representatives of Google, Amazon, Facebook, Twitter and others too were summoned by the panel.

I anticipate that the answers to the interlocutors’ questions will be along the line, “Thank you for the question. I will collect the information and provide it to your office.”

However, this sentence suggests that India may be considering adding some teeth to its approach to the alleged monopolistic and anti-competitive behavior of the Amazon, Facebook, Google, and Twitter outfits:

The CCI Act was initiated in 2002 and last amended in 2007. A bill to amend the Act is also under consideration wherein provisions are likely to be introduced to deal with anti-competition practices of tech giants.

Worth watching? India? Is that a significant market? Yep.

Stephen E Arnold, May 24, 2022

China Targets Low-Profile Social Network Douban for Censorship

May 20, 2022

China continues to do one of the things it does best: control the flow of information within its borders. Rest of World reports, “China’s Most Chaotic Social Network Survived Beijing’s Censors—Until Now.” Writer Viola Zhou describes the low-profile site:

“The chaotic Chinese social network Douban never looked for fame; it was designed for people with niche obsessions and an urge to talk about them. … Douban began as a review site for books, film, and music: the interests of its charismatic founder, Ah Bei. It quickly grew into a social network of millions of users.”

Those users bonded around shared interests both playful and serious. To keep the site rooted in a spirit of community, it has resisted both large-scale advertising and (unlike other social networks) government propaganda accounts. Douban managed to avoid scrutiny by China’s fervent censors since it launched in 2005. Until now. Zhou continues:

“In March, a government censorship task force was set up at the company’s headquarters. Over the past year, some of its most popular groups have shut down, its app was scrubbed from major Chinese stores, and on April 14, Douban froze a significant traffic driver, the gossip forum Goose Group, though it’s unclear whether each of those actions were the decisions of the website or government regulators. As China’s tech crackdown seeps into all parts of online life, the ability to organize around something as mild as shared interests is being throttled by Beijing’s censors. Rest of World spoke to more than a dozen early Douban employees, prominent group admins, and current users, most of whom requested anonymity in order to freely discuss Chinese censorship. For them, the reining-in of Douban signals that its creative, tight-knit communities have become an unacceptable political risk, as the Chinese government grows increasingly vigilant about any form of civil gathering.”

Yes, it seems citizens coming together over any topic, no matter how far from political or social matters, is a threat. The pressure on Douban is said to be part of the government’s campaign against a scourge dubbed “fan circle chaos.” Colorful. Some users hold out hope their beloved groups will someday be reinstated. Meanwhile, founder Ah Bei’s account has been inactive since 2019. See the write-up for more about Douban and some of its forums that have been shuttered.

Cynthia Murrell, May 20, 2022

Child Related Issues and Smart Software: What Could Go Wrong?

May 19, 2022

It is understandable that data scientists would like to contribute to solving a heart-wrenching problem. But what if their well-intended solutions make matters worse? The Bismarck Tribune shares the article, “An Algorithm that Screens for Child Neglect Raises Concerns.” AP Reporters Sally Ho and Garance Burke describe the apprehension of one Pittsburgh family’s attorney in the face of an opaque predictive algorithm. The software uses statistical calculations to pinpoint families for investigation by social workers, but neither the families nor their lawyers are privy to the details. We learn:

“From Los Angeles to Colorado and throughout Oregon, as child welfare agencies use or consider tools similar to the one in Allegheny County, Pennsylvania [in which Pittsburgh is located], an Associated Press review has identified a number of concerns about the technology, including questions about its reliability and its potential to harden racial disparities in the child welfare system. Related issues have already torpedoed some jurisdictions’ plans to use predictive models, such as the tool notably dropped by the state of Illinois. According to new research from a Carnegie Mellon University team obtained exclusively by AP, Allegheny’s algorithm in its first years of operation showed a pattern of flagging a disproportionate number of Black children for a ‘mandatory’ neglect investigation, when compared with white children. The independent researchers, who received data from the county, also found that social workers disagreed with the risk scores the algorithm produced about one-third of the time.”

Ah bias, the consistent thorn in AI’s side. Allegheny officials assure us their social workers never take the AI’s “mandatory” flags at face value, using them as mere suggestions. They also insist the tool alerts them to cases of neglect that otherwise would have slipped through the cracks. We will have to take them at their word, as this tech is as shrouded in secrecy as most algorithms. And what of the growing number of other cities and counties adopting the tool? Surely some will not be as conscientious.

Still, the tool’s developers appear to be taking concerns into account, at least a little. The authors note:

“The latest version of the tool excludes information about whether a family has received welfare dollars or food stamps, data that was initially included in calculating risk scores. It also stopped predicting whether a child would be reported again to the county in the two years that followed. However, much of the current algorithm’s design remains the same, according to American Civil Liberties Union researchers who have studied both versions.”

See the thorough article for more on this contentious issue, including descriptions of welfare agencies under pressure, calls for transparency, and perspectives from advocates of the software.

Cynthia Murrell, May 19, 2022

Big Tech, Big Winners: Good or Bad

May 17, 2022

Science-fiction and many different types of smart people have informed us that technology and related information is dangerous if unregulated and left in the hands of a few individuals. Engadget focuses on the current reasons why big tech companies are dangerous in the article, “Hitting the Books: US Regulators Are Losing The Fight Against Big Tech.” Meta (formerly Zuckbook), Amazon, Google, and Apple control the technology space and consume…er…purchase startups before they can become a competitor. The government used to regulate the technology marketplace and, according to some written laws, they still do. The current advancement in technology has overwhelmed the government’s capacity to govern it.

Oxford professor Viktor Mayer-Schönberger and author Thomas Range wrote Access Rules: Freeing Data From Big Tech For a Better Future agree that Big Tech companies are hoarding information and there needs to be a more equitable way of accessing it. Biden’s administration has attempted to address Big Tech’s monopolies, but their efforts aren’t effective.

Biden appointed Tim to the National Economic Council as a special assistant to the president for technology and competition policy. Wu favors breaking up Big Tech companies and it was a sign that Biden leaned this way. Another signal of Biden’s leanings was Lina Khan as the Federal Trade Commission chair. Khan favors regulating Big Tech like utilities similar to electricity and AT&T before telecom deregulation. The Big Tech monopolies are not good, because it is preventing future innovation, but politicians are arguing over how to solve a convoluted issue. There are antitrust laws but are they enforceable? The complicated issue is:

“And yet it’s questionable that well-intentioned activist regulators bolstered by broad public support will succeed. The challenge is a combination of the structural and the political. As Lina Khan herself argued, existing antitrust laws are less than useful. Big Tech may not have violated them sufficiently to warrant breaking them up. And other powerful measures, such as declaring them utilities, require legislative action. Given the delicate power balance in Congress and hyper-partisan politics, it’s likely that such bold legislative proposals would not get enough votes to become enacted. The political factions may agree on the problem, but they are far apart on the solution. The left wants an effective remedy, while the right insists on the importance of market forces and worries about antitrust action micromanaging economic activity. That leaves a fairly narrow corridor of acceptable incremental legislative steps, such as “post-acquisition lockups.” This may be politically palatable, but insufficient to achieve real and sustained success.”

The Big Tech people, politicians, and other involved parties are concerned with short-term gains. The long game is being ignored in favor of the present benefits, while the future is left to deteriorate. Europe has better antitrust laws in actions against Big Tech companies. To plan for a better future, the US should copy Europe.

Whitney Grace, May 17, 2022

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