Is This Our Beloved Google? Ads and Consumer Scams?

March 20, 2017

I admit it. I want to believe everything I read on the Internet. I take this approach to be more in tune with today’s talking heads on US cable TV and the millennials who seem to cross my path like deer unfamiliar with four lane highways.

I read what must be an early April Fool’s joke. The write up’s headline struck me as orthogonal to my perception of the company I know, love, and trust: “Google to Revamp Ad Policies after U.K., Big Brands Boycott.”

The main idea is that someone believes that Google has been indexing terror-related content and placing ads next to those result pages and videos. I learned:

The U.S. company said in a blog post Friday it would give clients more control over where their ads appear on both YouTube, the video-sharing service it owns, and the Google Display Network, which posts advertising to third-party websites. The announcement came after the U.K. government and the Guardian newspaper pulled ads from the video site, stepping up pressure on YouTube to police content on its platform.

Interesting. I thought Google / DeepMind had the hate speech, fake news, and offensive content issue killed, cooked, and eaten.

The notion that Google would buckle under to mere advertisers strikes me as ludicrous. For years, Google has pointed out that confused individuals at Foundem, the government of France, and other information sites misunderstand Google’s squeaky clean approach to figuring out what’s important.

The other item which suggests that the Google in my mind is not the Google in the real world is “Facebook, Twitter, and Google Must Remove Scams or Risk Legal Action, Says EU.”

What’s up? Smart software understands content in context. Algorithms developed by the wizards at Google and other outfits chug along without the silly errors humans make. Google and other companies have to become net nannies. (Hey, that software worked great, didn’t it?)

I learned:

The EU also ordered these social networks to remove fraudulent posts that can mislead consumers.

If these write ups are indeed accurate, I will take down my “Do no evil” poster. Is there a “We do evil” version available? I will check those advertisements on Google.

Stephen E Arnold, March 20, 2017

Palantir Technology: Making Some Waves

March 16, 2017

I don’t know about you, but I am not keen on waking up one morning and finding protestors with signs in front of my house. Bummer. One of the motive forces behind Palantir had the pleasure of this experience on March 11, 2017. You can see the invitation to the protest against Palantir in general and Peter Thiel in particular at this link. Note that it helpfully provides Mr. Thiel’s private residence address. Nifty.

I also found interesting the article “Palantir’s Man In The Pentagon.” Buzzfeed seems to have a keen interest in Palantir. I follow Palantir’s technology too. Buzzfeed does seem to come up some enthusiastic writing.

I assume, of course, that everything I read on the Internet is accurate. Therefore, I learned:

A former Palantir “evangelist” has taken a top job at the Defense Department, after spending years lobbying the Pentagon on behalf of the Silicon Valley company.

As a former a laborer in the vineyards of Booz, Allen Hamilton, I know that this is not a shocker. People routinely move from outfit to outfit as they try to create the perfect work history, make money, and do some interesting, even entertaining, work.

The write up told me:

Mikolay, 37, worked for Palantir for four years as an “evangelist,” according to his LinkedIn profile, meaning he met with government officials to sell Palantir’s software. According to a confidential email obtained by BuzzFeed News, Mikolay’s role at Palantir involved pitching the Army on the battlefield intelligence contract, which has become something of a white whale for the Silicon Valley firm.

I also noted:

A Defense Department spokesperson, Capt. Jeff Davis, told BuzzFeed News in a statement: “Mr. Mikolay took action to ensure he would not participate in any matters that would have a direct and predictable effect on Palantir, consistent with conflict of interest statutes and government ethics regulations. Further, he worked with the DoD Standards of Conduct Office to implement a screening arrangement to ensure all particular matters involving Palantir are forwarded to another senior defense official for appropriate disposition. Such recusals are not uncommon for civilian appointees who have worked previously in the private sector.”

Frankly I was more interested in this statement:

Mikolay, in joining the Defense Department, is returning to an agency where he once worked as a speechwriter for former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta. He is a Navy veteran who attended the United States Naval Academy and got a master’s degree at Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs.

Yep, shocker. A job change in DC with a new administration if office. Hardly surprising because it is standard operating procedure along the banks of the Potomac.

Stephen E Arnold, March 16, 2017

Dark Web Explosives Buyer Busted Through FBI Infiltration

March 9, 2017

Here is the story of another successful Dark Web bust. Motherboard reports, “Undercover FBI Agent Busts Alleged Explosives Buyer on the Dark Web.” The 50-year-old suspect was based in Houston, and reporter Joseph Cox examined the related documents from the Southern District of Texas court. We are not surprised to learn that the FBI found this suspect through its infiltration of AlphaBay.; Cox writes:

The arrest was largely due to the work of an undercover agent who posed as an explosives seller on the dark web marketplace AlphaBay, showing that, even in the age of easy-to-use anonymization technology, old-school policing tactics are still highly effective at catching suspects.

According to the complaint, on August 21, an FBI Online Covert Employee (OCE)—essentially an undercover agent—located outside Houston logged into an AlphaBay vendor account they were running and opened an unsolicited private message from a user called boatmanstv. ‘looking for wireless transmitter with detonator,’ the message read. ‘Everything I need to set of a 5 gallon can of gas from a good distance away [sic].’ The pair started a rapport, and boatmanstv went into some detail about what he wanted to do with the explosives.

One thing led to another, and the buyer and “seller” agreed to an exchange after communicating for a couple of weeks. (Dark Web sting operations require patience. Lots of patience.) It became clear that Boatmanstv had some very specific plans in mind for a very specific target, and that he’d made plenty of purchases from AlphaBay before. The FBI was able to connect the suspect’s email account to other accounts, and finally to his place of business. He was arrested shortly after receiving and opening the FBI’s package, so it would appear there is one fewer violent criminal on the streets of Houston.

It is clear that the FBI, and other intelligence organizations, are infiltrating the Dark Web more and more. Let the illicit buyer be wary.

Cynthia Murrell, March 9, 2016

Vanity Fair and Palantir Technologies: The Focus Is on Peter Thiel

March 6, 2017

My hunch is that Vanity Fair Magazine will sell briskly in and around the Washington, DC beltway. Oh, wait. Most of the newsstands and bookstores have gone out of business. Maybe Giant Foods in Gaithersburg will have some copies? The convenient store in Ashburn may have a copy or two tucked in among the car magazines and Find-A-Word pamphlets?

The article which will make Vanity Fair even fairer this month is “Donald Trump Has Made Peter Thiel Immensely Powerful.” Good news for Palantir; bad news for some of the clear eyed professionals who have been sending the US government big bills for their work on the Distributed Common Ground System or DCGS.

I liked the positioning of Mr. Thiel in the write up. He is called the “shadow president.” Interesting. Does that make Palantir Technologies’ Alex Karp the veep?

The write up deserves your attention. Let me highlight three items from the article which I found interesting:

First, the moniker “shadow president” is a coinage of those who work with Mr. Thiel in California and elsewhere. I was hoping that this was a coinage from the Trump inner circle.

Second, the write up reveals that Mr. Thiel believes in the “move fast and break things” approach to innovation. Who would have guessed? Certainly not the US Army procurement professionals.

Third, Mr. Thiel wants to live a long time. Isn’t that a thing in Silicon Valley?

My hunch is that none of the DCGS contractors will be happy with the visibility that Vanity Fair imparts to the “shadow president.”

Will there be a news conference for those in the shadows?

Stephen E Arnold, March 6, 2017

U.S. Government Keeping Fewer New Secrets

February 24, 2017

We have good news and bad news for fans of government transparency. In their Secrecy News blog, the Federation of American Scientists’ reports, “Number of New Secrets in 2015 Near Historic Low.” Writer Steven Aftergood explains:

The production of new national security secrets dropped precipitously in the last five years and remained at historically low levels last year, according to a new annual report released today by the Information Security Oversight Office.

There were 53,425 new secrets (‘original classification decisions’) created by executive branch agencies in FY 2015. Though this represents a 14% increase from the all-time low achieved in FY 2014, it is still the second lowest number of original classification actions ever reported. Ten years earlier (2005), by contrast, there were more than 258,000 new secrets.

The new data appear to confirm that the national security classification system is undergoing a slow-motion process of transformation, involving continuing incremental reductions in classification activity and gradually increased disclosure. …

Meanwhile, ‘derivative classification activity,’ or the incorporation of existing secrets into new forms or products, dropped by 32%. The number of pages declassified increased by 30% over the year before.

A marked decrease in government secrecy—that’s the good news. On the other hand, the report reveals some troubling findings. For one thing, costs are not going down alongside classifications; in fact, they rose by eight percent last year. Also, response times to mandatory declassification requests (MDRs) are growing, leaving over 14,000 such requests to languish for over a year each. Finally, fewer newly classified documents carry the “declassify in ten years or less” specification, which means fewer items will become declassified automatically down the line.

Such red-tape tangles notwithstanding, the reduction in secret classifications does look like a sign that the government is moving toward more transparency. Can we trust the trajectory?

Cynthia Murrell, February 24, 2017

Anonymous Transparency Project Boldly Attacks Google for Secrecy Then Dives Back Under Rug

February 23, 2017

The article on Mercury News titled Secretive Foe Attacks Google Over Government Influence reports on the Transparency Project, an ironically super-secret group devoted to exposing Google’s insane level of influence. Of course, most of us are already perfectly aware of how much power Google holds over our politicians, our privacy, and our daily functions. Across Chrome, Google search, YouTube etc., not a day goes by that we don’t engage with the Silicon Valley Monster. The group claims,

Over the past decade, Google has transformed itself from the dominant internet search engine into a global business empire that touches on almost every facet of people’s lives — often without their knowledge or consent,” the group’s first report said. Another report, based on White House guest logs, cites 427 visits by employees of Google and “associated entities” to the White House since January 2009, with 21 “small, intimate” meetings between senior Google executives and Obama.

While such information may be disturbing, it is hardly revelatory.  So just who is behind the Transparency Project? The article provides a list of companies that Google has pissed off and stomped over on its path to glory. The only company that has stepped up to claim some funding is Oracle. But following the money in this case winds a strange twisted path that actually leads the author back to Google— or at least former Google CEO Eric Schmidt. This begs the question: is there anything Google isn’t influencing?

Chelsea Kerwin, February 23, 2017

Unintended Side Effects of Technology Restrictions

February 23, 2017

Do lawmakers understand how much they do not understand about technology? An article at Roll Call tells us, “Proposed Tech-Export Rules Bashed by Companies, Researchers.”  It is perfectly understandable that human-rights organizations have pressed for limits on the spread of surveillance technology and “intrusion software”—a broad term for technology that steals data from computers and mobile devices, including some tools that can hijack hardware. Several Western governments have taken up that banner, imposing restrictions designed to keep this technology out of the hands of bad actors. In fact, 41 nations pledged their commitment to the cause when they signed on to the Wassenarr Arrangement in 2013.

While the intentions behind these restrictions are good, many critics insist that they have some serious unintended side effects for the good guys. Writer Gopal Ratnam reports:

Although such technologies can be used for malicious or offensive purposes, efforts to curb their exports suggests that the regulators didn’t understand the nature of the computer security business, critics say. Unlike embargoes and sanctions, which prohibit dealing with specific countries or individuals, the proposed restrictions would have forced even individual researchers working on computer security to obtain licenses, they say.

The technologies the Wassenaar agreement tried to restrict ‘certainly can be used for bad purposes, but cybersecurity tools used by malicious hackers are also used for good purposes by technology companies and developers,’ says John Miller, vice president for global cybersecurity and privacy policy at the Information Technology Industry Council, a Washington-based group that represents technology companies. ‘Export control law usually doesn’t get into making distinctions on what the technology is going to be used for.’ And that’s ‘one of the reasons it’s difficult to regulate this technology,’ Miller says.

Besides, say some, the bad guys are perfectly capable of getting around the restrictions. Eva Galperin, of the nonprofit Electronic Frontier Foundation, insists human rights would be better served by applying pressure generally to repressive regimes, instead of trying to stay ahead of their hackers. Ratnam goes on to discuss specific ways restrictions get in the way of legitimate business, like hampering penetration tests or impeding communication between researchers. See the article for more details.

Cynthia Murrell, February 23, 2017

Microsoft May Want to Help Make Global Policy

February 22, 2017

Denmark is ahead of the game. As we reported last week (February 14, 2017), Denmark has created an ambassador to liaise with big US high technology companies. Microsoft qualifies because it is big and has hundreds of employees in Plastic Fantastic Land and in San Francisco.

The policy idea appeared in “’Digital Geneva Convention’ Needed to Deter Nation-State Hacking: Microsoft President.” Sounds like a great idea. How do those “conventions” for use of certain types of weapons or building an arsenal work? How does one know if a party to the convention is playing by the rules? How does one determine if a clever 16 year old in Moldova is goofing off or working for a government entity or a cut out or a plain old bad guy?

Hey, annoying details, right?

The write up said:

Microsoft President Brad Smith on Tuesday pressed the world’s governments to form an international body to protect civilians from state-sponsored hacking, saying recent high-profile attacks showed a need for global norms to police government activity in cyberspace.

I noted this passage:

Smith likened such an organization, which would include technical experts from governments and the private sector, to the International Atomic Energy Agency, a watchdog based at the United Nations that works to deter the use of nuclear weapons.

Yeah, about those nuclear weapons.

Perhaps Microsoft will become the head of US cyber policy. Nice work if one can get it. Then Microsoft can use its Windows 10 upgrade expertise to convince people to do what the “policy” in the “convention” says. Microsoft may want to talk with IBM Watson about cybersecurity, or step back and think about the people compromising systems and the non US companies in this game.

Better yet, Microsoft could buy Gamma Group, Hacking Team, and five or six other companies and dig into their customer list, the tasks these outfits perform, and the ideological orientation of the companies’ employees.

Ah, Microsoft. Thinking big. Perhaps a trip to Denmark is next.

Stephen E Arnold, February 22, 2017

Kasperski Discovers Firmware-Level Spyware Linked to NSA

February 20, 2017

It looks like the NSA is hacking computers around the world by accessing hard-drive firmware, reports Sott in their article, “Russian Researchers Discover NSA Spying and Sabotage Software Hidden in Hard Drives.” We learn that Russian security firm Kaspersky Lab found the sneaky software lurking on hard drives in 30 countries, mostly at government institutions, telecom and energy companies, nuclear research facilities, media outlets, and Islamic activist organizations. Apparently, the vast majority of hard drive brands are vulnerable to the technique. Writer Joseph Menn reports:

According to Kaspersky, the spies made a technological breakthrough by figuring out how to lodge malicious software in the obscure code called firmware that launches every time a computer is turned on. Disk drive firmware is viewed by spies and cybersecurity experts as the second-most valuable real estate on a PC for a hacker, second only to the BIOS code invoked automatically as a computer boots up. ‘The hardware will be able to infect the computer over and over,’ lead Kaspersky researcher Costin Raiu said in an interview.

Though the leaders of the still-active espionage campaign could have taken control of thousands of PCs, giving them the ability to steal files or eavesdrop on anything they wanted, the spies were selective and only established full remote control over machines belonging to the most desirable foreign targets, according to Raiu. He said Kaspersky found only a few especially high-value computers with the hard-drive infections.

Kaspersky’s reconstructions of the spying programs show that they could work in disk drives sold by more than a dozen companies, comprising essentially the entire market. They include Western Digital Corp, Seagate Technology Plc, Toshiba Corp, IBM, Micron Technology Inc and Samsung Electronics Co Ltd.”

Kaspersky did not come right out and name the NSA as the source of the spyware, but did connect it to Stuxnet, a known NSA tool. We also learn that a “former NSA employee” confirmed Kaspersky’s analysis, stating these tools are as valuable as Stuxnet.

Menn notes that this news could increase existing resistance to Western technology overseas due to security concerns. Researcher Raiu specifies that whoever created the spyware must have had access to the proprietary source code for the drives’ firmware. While Western Digital, Seagate, and Micron deny knowledge, Toshiba, Samsung, and IBM remain mum on the subject. Navigate to the article to read more details, or to view the four-minute video (scroll down a bit for that.)

Cynthia Murrell, February 20, 2017

Canada: Right to Be Forgotten

February 15, 2017

I found this interesting. According to “Did a Canadian Court Just Establish a New Right to Be Forgotten Online?

the Federal Court of Canada issued a landmark ruling that paves the way for a Canadian version of the right to be forgotten that would allow courts to issue orders with the removal of Google search results on a global basis very much in mind. The case – A.T. v. Globe24H.com – involves a Romanian-based website that downloaded thousands of Canadian judicial and tribunal decisions, posted them online and demanded fees for their swift removal. The decisions are all public documents and available through the Canadian Legal Information Institute (CanLII), a website maintained by the legal profession in support of open access to legal materials

I find the logic interesting. I believe that Thomson Reuters processes public legal documents and charges a fee to access them and the “value add” that WestLaw and its sister outfits impose. Maybe I am addled like the goose in Harrod’s Creek, but it seems that what’s good for one gander is not so good for the Google.

Poor Romanian entrepreneur! Come up with an original idea and learn that a country wants the data removed. No word on the views of Reed Elsevier which operates LexisNexis. Thomson Reuters, anything to add?

The removal of links is a hassle at best and a real pain at the worst for the Google. For researchers, hey, find the information another way.

Stephen E Arnold, February 15, 2017

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