Silicon Valley: A Choke Collar and a Geofence

December 27, 2018

Will the free wheeling, Wild West, break things approach thrive in 2019? Beyond Search does not think so. The trend toward censorship, content control, and decryption is evident. Whether it is India telling Amazon and Wal-Mart what the ecommerce companies can sell or Australia’s legislation which gives the government authority to order backdoors under certain conditions — government controls are beginning to arrive.

I read “Silicon Valley May Rue the Day it Called for Government Intervention Against Microsoft.” The source is one with which I am not familiar. The content may be one of those confections of hyperbole, fake news, and hand waving that are quite popular.

I read the essay because it called attention to the scrutiny given to Microsoft, urged along some may assert by competitors afraid of the company’s power.

The parallel is not exact. What struck me, however, is the specter of focused, intense energy to deal with the casualties of years of non regulation. Like an elastic band, the potential energy may be released with a snap.

The write up asserts:

Silicon Valley’s regulations-for-thee-but-not-for-me attitude has come back to bite them. They want the strictest form of regulation for telecommunications providers but no scrutiny of themselves, and now the tables have been turned.

I also noted this statement:

They took it for granted that regulators would never go after content platforms like their own, but now it is precisely those platforms that are squarely in the sights of many politicians.

Wrong. High technology companies are now likely to get choke collars and geofences.

Stephen E Arnold, December 27, 2018

About Those VPNs

December 26, 2018

News and chatter about VPNs are plentiful. We noted a flurry of stories about Chinese ownership of VPNs. We receive incredible deals for VPNs which are almost too good to be true. We noted this write up from AT&T (a former Baby Bell) and its Alienvault unit: “The Dangers of Free VPNs.”

The idea behind a VPN is hiding traffic from those able to gain access to that traffic. But there is a VPN provider in the mix. From that classic man in the middle position, the VPN may not be as secure as the user thinks.

The AT&T Alienvault viewpoint is slightly different: VPNs are the cat’s pajamas as long as the VPN is AT&T’s.

We learned from the write up:

Technically, VPN providers have the capacity to see everything you do while connected. If it really wanted to, a VPN company could see what videos you watched, read emails you send, or monitor your search history.

The write up points out without reference to lawful intercept orders, national security letters, and the ho hum everyday work in cheerful Ashburn, Virginia:

Thankfully, reputable providers don’t do this. A good provider shouldn’t take any logs of your activity, which means that although they could theoretically access your data, they discard it instead. These “no-log” companies don’t keep copies of your data, so even if they get subpoenaed by a government agency, they have no data that they can hand over. VPN providers may take different types of logs, so you need to be careful when reading the fine print of any potential provider. These logs can include your traffic, DNS requests, timestamps, bandwidth and IP address.

The write up includes a “How do I love thee” approach to the dangers of free VPNs.

Net net: Be scared. Just navigate to this link. AT&T provides VPN service with the goodness one expects.

By the way, note the reference to “logs.” Many gizmos in a data center offering VPN services maintain logs. Processing these auto generated files can yield quite useful information. Perhaps that’s why there are free and low cost services.

Zero logs strikes Beyond Search as something that is easy to say but undesirable and possibly difficult to achieve.

Are VPNs secure? Is Tor?

In January 2019, Beyond Search will cover more dark cyber related content. More news is forthcoming. Let’s face it enterprise search is a done deal. The Beyond Search goose is migrating to search related content plus adjacent issues like AT&T promoting its cheerful, unmonitored, we’re really great approach to online.

Stephen E Arnold, December 26, 2018

Search for a Person in China: Three Seconds and You Are Good to Go

December 26, 2018

I read “Welcome to Dystopia : China Introduces AI Powered Tracking Uniform in Schools.” The article explains that “China has started to introduce school uniforms which track pupils all the time.”

The “all” is problematic. A student equipped with the new uniform has to take it off, presumably for normal body maintenance and the inevitable cleaning process.

The overstatement, I assume, is designed to make the point that China is going to keep social order using smart software and other tools.

The new uniform  “comes with two chips embedded in the shoulder areas and works with an AI-powered school entrance system, which is equipped with facial recognition cameras.”

Combined with other monitoring gizmos, the question, “Where’s Wong? can be answered in a jiffy. The write up explains:

The entrance system, powered by facial recognition camera, can capture a 20-second-long video of each pupil going in or coming out of the school. The footage will be uploaded onto an app in real time for teachers and parents to watch.An alarm will go off if the school gate detects any pupil who leaves the school without permission,

The article suggests that location and identification takes seconds.

One presumes the search results will be objective and ad free.

Stephen E Arnold, December 26, 2018

Ombudsman or Enforcement Official?

December 11, 2018

As Google’s CEO prepares to read his testimony today (December 11, 2018), I noted this passage from the prepared statement:

Users also look to us to provide accurate, trusted information. We work hard to ensure the integrity of our products, and we’ve put a number of checks and balances in place to ensure they continue to live up to our standards. I lead this company without political bias and work to ensure that our products continue to operate that way. To do otherwise would go against  our core principles and our business interests. (See this link for the statement.)

I thought about the recent security lapse at Google Plus. Yes, that was the service which was the trigger for a compensation goodie.

But what’s important today is not the reading of Silicon Valley spin.

I suggest that the article “Facebook, Google scramble to contain global fallout from ACCC plan” may have more oomph in the long run. The Australian government appears to be inching toward clamping down on the Google and Facebook. I noted this statement:

Declaring the digital giants have “substantial” market power, the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) wants to create an ombudsman to investigate complaints from consumers, media companies and marketers about Google and Facebook over issues such as defamatory comments and fake ads.

As a member of Five Eyes, Australia may be pointing the direction in which Canada, New Zealand, the UK, and the US will move.

In this context, the Google statement does little to change the reality of what the company does and how it operates. For example, there is employee push back. Another example, there is the behavior of senior executives. One more: There are the claims of Foundem and other vendors who allege that Google willfully took steps to swizzle the search results.

The question becomes, “Is Australia appointing an ombudsman to deal with Google and Facebook or an enforcement officer?”

Enforcement? Laws, I assume, will follow.

Stephen E Arnold, December 11, 2018

Australia: A Government Watch Dog with Two Companies to Monitor

December 11, 2018

Australia has become the first country to pass a law requiring that encrypted messages have to be unlocked for law enforcement. That means WhatsApp and a gaggle of other secret messaging apps.

Now Australia has another interesting idea, reported by Business Daily in Africa. The Australian government wants a regulator to monitor Facebook and Google. According to the report I saw:

Australia’s competition watchdog on Monday [December 10, 2018]  recommended tougher scrutiny and a new regulatory body to check the dominance of tech giants Facebook Inc and Alphabet Inc’s Google in the country’s online advertising and news markets.

The source document cited a familiar refrain:

The two firms have already promised to do more to tackle the spread of fake news and, in submissions to the ACCC, said they provided users access to global news articles while providing advertisers a cheap way of reaching big audiences.

Australia is a member of Five Eyes, and the country may be setting a path which Canada, New Zealand, the UK, and the US may follow.

In short, the good old days of Wild West digital services may find the prairie managed in part by barbed wire fences, gates, and folks with badges and six shooters and maybe an automatic weapon too.

Stephen E Arnold, December 11, 2018

Revisiting Facebook Trustiness

December 6, 2018

After news of its most recent data breach hit the headlines, Facebook found itself once again on the defensive. A long apology tour and showcase of efforts to better protect users was rolled out, but was it enough? For one Venture Beat commentator, the answer was “no.” We learned more in the article: “Sorry, Not Sorry. The Problem With Facebook’s Sorry Campaign.”

The piece lays out the social media giant’s many sins and concludes:

“Therefore it is up to us, as consumers to penalize bad behavior and reward good behavior. The two mechanisms available to us are voting with our feet and wallets  and voting for representation in our government so that we can enact legislation to safeguard consumer privacy.”

They are not wrong. It is up to consumers to ask more, demand more, and get more from their online platforms. However, we don’t side with negative pundits like Slate who have given up on Facebook. We do have faith in Mark Zuckerberg’s baby and feel like the very public scrutiny is a good thing. It’s only under this heat lamp that real change can happen, because the alternative is to perish. We simply cannot see that happening without aggressive government intervention from entities outside the United States.

In short, hello, EU.

Patrick Roland, December 6, 2018

Thomson Reuters on a Privacy International Beat

November 26, 2018

I know that commercial database publishers can be profitable operations. But in order to keep pace with erosion of some traditional revenue streams, some professional publishers have been working to generate new databases which can be licensed to certain government agencies. In most cases, a researcher or librarian will not have these electronic files in their toolkit.

Privacy International published “Who Supplies the Data, Analysis, and Tech Infrastructure to US Immigration Authorities?” The report is available without charge, but I suggest that you download it promptly. Certain reports about some topics can go offline without notice.

I don’t want to dig through the references to references to Palantir. The information about that company is not particularly fresh. However, Privacy International has gathered some useful examples of Thomson Reuters’ products and services to law enforcement and other government agencies.

Privacy International seems unaware that many LE and intel entities routinely outsource work to third part, license a wide range of numeric and factual data, and tap into the talent pools at third party firms.

The Privacy International report does not provide much information about Thomson Reuters’ use of the Palantir technology. That might be an interesting topic for some young researcher to explore. We will do a short item about some of the Privacy International information in the DarkCyber for December 11, 2018.

Stephen E Arnold, November 26, 2018

Zuck Ducks: Not Going to Answer Questions from Seven Annoyed Nations

November 24, 2018

I read “Mark Zuckerberg criticized for Ducking International Grilling on Fake News.” Hey, that sounds like a fun time. According to the write up:

Ian Lucas, a Labor MP who sits on the committee, called the move a “gross failure of leadership”, adding: “It seems [Mr Zuckerberg] is just not up to it.”

I like that “not up to it.”

My thought is that Facebook staff going through border controls in the UK, Singapore, Latvia, Brazil, Ireland, and Argentina could possibly face some bureaucratic snafus. Full body searches, luggage cut apart to make sure there is no contraband in the bags. Questions about reasons for travel. Standard stuff. Just routine.

Those probing questions are important because some answers which raise inspectors’ concerns must be explored. Small rooms. No mobile phones. No reading materials. No inputs for what could be several hours. No access to toilet facilities. Awkward but necessary. Some rules apply to Facebookers in spite of their perception of regulations.

Is it possible that red tape could be unrolled for Facebook professionals who want government approval for certain activities, who need to sign up for permits, or who must interact with officials in any of these countries on an official basis? Argentina is almost as capable as France in the bureaucratic procedures department? Come to think of it, Singapore is into rules and darned good at procedures. Most of the countries getting the zuckduck are. ‘

Wowza.

At some point, patience with Facebook is likely to dwindle. I know that Facebook is almost a country. It has cash. It has friends. It has moxie. Will these strengths be enough to deal with the consequences of using the zuckduck tactic? Countries have laws, regulations, police, and intelligence agents. Countries can be convincing in many ways.

Many, many ways.

Perhaps the “grilling” will be escalated by the politicians who wanted a Zuckerburger? What’s next? A fried zuck weenie or a zuck-jita nuked nuked in the political microwave. The time could be set four hours. Maximum strength, of course.

Tasty when served piping hot like Facebook’s admission that the duplicity documented in a recent New York Times’ article about the company were mostly correct.

Ah, high school science club thinking in action.

Stephen E Arnold, November 24, 2018

Grousing about the Google: Grouse, Grouse

November 23, 2018

Some people cannot accept the reality of Alphabet Google. If you had the pleasure of Psychology 101, you know about Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. (A refresher is here.) Google is an entity focused on “self actualization.” For a company run by wizards that translates to doing what generates maximum benefits for the Alphabeteers  and Googlers. Example? Money, power, freedom to do whatever seems cool to former high school science club members.

Foundem, a company which found itself on the outside of Google search results, has been a thorn in the online ad giant’s muscular thigh for years.(For some background, click this link.) Foundem is involve in searchneutrality.org, a Web site which makes available information about certain actions of Alphabet Google which allegedly are not fair.

Image result for maslow hierarchy of needs

As a reminder, acting in one’s self interest is probably at odds with some thinkers’  definitions of “fair.” The concept of search neutrality is of little interest to some people in the information retrieval game. Example: people engaged in search engine optimization, a Google ad sales professionals clawing for a bonus, and marketers who explain that the Pixel 3 is “new” and “improved” despite some Pixel owners’ complaints.

Seachneutrality.org made public a letter sent to the EU’s top enforcement official, Margrethe Vestager. The contents of the letter are easy to summarize:

Google is discriminating against companies with which it competes.

The notion of search neutrality is quaint. You can look at the Wikipedia explanation of the concept, which is different from my understanding of the bound phrase. Objectivity, precision, recall, and freedom from bias are outmoded concepts when it comes to ad supported Web search.

Google wants clicks and sales. Maslow’s hierarchy suggests that the iPhone is going to come up short in queries for mobile devices. Remember the Pixel? In companies with logical employees, taking steps to make sure that their employer comes out number one makes sense. That’s why Alphabet Google logic is difficult for some to accept. Example: Foundem, the EU, and Ms. Vestager.

The notion of objectivity in search results bit the dust when “pay to play” replaced the hopelessly ineffective editorial controls in place at commercial database publishers in the 1980s. The elimination of precision and recall in favor of hit boosting made more sense. Goodness. I rolled right over when VP Cheney wanted his Web site to appear when queries for the White House were sent to the US government’s search system in the 2000s.

There are some hold outs for objectivity. Example: The Lexis search system. But even in that commercial service some content does not appear for various reasons. Therefore, the results are incomplete or incorrect because errors in stories are not inserted into the online content. I suppose, if I were not understanding, I would suggest that commercial online information is both incomplete and inaccurate. Business Dateline, a product on which I worked decades ago, included corrections, but we selected the stories to go into the database. That meant that Business Dateline was accurate and incomplete.

You can see where I am headed.

Online is not and never will be free from distortions. These can be algorithmic because Boolean is irrelevant to many today. These can be editorial like the construction of the online indexes and full text files themselves. These can be willful like Amazon’s slamming in its house brands and crazy suggestions for products which will be shipped for an eye popping fee.

Now open letters are cathartic. The letter may result in another fine against a US based company focused on money, power, etc. But let’s be clear. Facebook does not want to pay a fine for its Cambridge Analytica adventure. Apple may reluctantly cough up some taxes in Ireland. Google might write a check and move on.

But the impact is negligible.

The reason is the beaver analogy. What happens if I take six beavers and put them in the little used restaurant at the top of the Chrysler Building in Manhattan? The beavers immediately begin to build a dam. Beavers do what beavers do.

Net net: American technology giants do what American technology giants do. These outfits will make decisions that sever their need for self actualization. In my lingo, self actualization is the money power thing.

What organization has the muscle to put Alphabet Google in a box and keep it there?

In my view, it will not be a government official. Whom do you nominate as the keeper of Googzilla? When you have “foundem”, let me know.

Stephen E Arnold,  November 23, 2018

Who Is a Low Risk Hire?

November 21, 2018

Last week, a person who did some contract work for me a year ago asked me if I would provide a reference. I agreed. I assumed that a caring, thoughtful human resources professional would speak with me on the telephone. Wrong. I received a text message asking me if I would complete questions. Get this. Each text message would contain a question about the person who sought a reference. After I hit, send, I would receive another text message.

Wrong.

I was then sent a link to an online form that assured me my information was confidential. “Https” was not part of this outfit’s game plan. I worked through a form, providing scores from one to seven about the person. The fact that I hired this person to perform a specific job for me was evidence that the individual could be trusted. I am not making chopped liver or cranking out greeting cards. We produce training information for law enforcement and intelligence professionals.

I worked through the questions which struck me as worrying more about appearing to be interested in the individual than actually obtaining concrete information about the person. Here’s an example of what the online test reveals:

image

Yeah, pretty much useless. I am not sure what “adaptability” means. I tell contractors what I want. The successful contractor does that task and gets paid. A contractor who does not gets cut out of the pool. This means in politically incorrect speak: Gets fired.

I read “Public Attitudes Toward Computer Algorithms” a couple of days after going through this odd ball way to get information about a person working on law enforcement and intelligence related work. The write up makes clear that other people are not keen on the use of opaque methods to figure out if a person can do good work and be trusted.

Well, gentle reader, get used to this.

Human resources want to cover their precious mortgage, make a car payment, or buy a new gizmo at the Amazon online store. The HR professionals are not eager to be responsible for screening individuals and figuring out what questions to ask a person like me. For good reason, I am not sure I would spend more than two minutes on the phone with an actual HR person. For the last 30 years, I have worked as an independent consultant. My only interactions with HR are limited to my suggesting that the individual stay away from me. Fill out forms or something. Just leave me alone, or you will be talking to individuals whom I pay to make you go away. I have a Mensa paralegal who can tie almost anyone in knots.

Several observations:

  1. Algorithms for hiring are a big, big thing. Why? Tail covering and document trails that say, “See, I did everything I could required by applicable regulations.” Forget judgment.
  2. The online angle is cheaper than having an actual old fashioned HR department. Outsource benefit reduction. Outsource candidate screening. Heck, outsource the outsourcing.
  3. No one wants to be responsible— for anything. Look at the high school science club management methods at Facebook. The founder is at war. Former employees explain that no one gave direction. Yada yada.
  4. The use of algorithms presumably leads to efficiencies; that is, lower costs, better, faster, cheaper, MBA and bean counter fits of joy.

Just as Apple’s Tim Cook sees nothing objectionable about taking Google’s money as Apple talks up its privacy / security commitment, algorithms make everything — including HR — much better.

Net net: I am glad I am old and officially cranking along at 75, not a hapless 22 year old trying to get a job and do a good job at a zippy de doo dah company.

Stephen E Arnold, November 21, 2018

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