China, Smart Software, and Different Opinions

October 21, 2021

I spotted “China Isn’t the AI Juggernaut the West Fears.” The main idea for the story is that China has cornered smart software applications and innovation. Therefore, the future — at least some of it — is firmly in the grip of the Chinese Communist Party.

My hunch is that this article in the Japan Times is a response to articles like “Former Senior Pentagon Official Says China is Kicking Our Ass in Artificial Intelligence.” Nicolas Chaillan, a former Pentagon official, suggested that China is making significant progress in AI. If China continues on its present path, that country may surpass the US and its allies in smart software.

What’s interesting is that quite different viewpoints are zooming around the interwebs.

The Japan Times’ take which channels Bloomberg includes this statement:

On paper, the U.S. and China appear neck and neck in artificial intelligence. China leads in the share of journal citations — helped by the fact that it also publishes more — while the U.S. is far ahead in the more qualitative metric of cited conference papers, according to a recent report compiled by Stanford University. So while the world’s most populous country is an AI superpower, investors and China watchers shouldn’t put too much stock in the notion that its position is unassailable or that the U.S. is weaker. By miscalculating the others’ abilities, both superpowers risk overestimating their adversary’s strengths and overcompensating in a way that could lead to a Cold War-style AI arms race.

Yep, citation analysis.

I don’t have a dog in this fight. I want to point out that citation analysis, like patent documents, may not tell a comprehensive story.

I would suggest that citation analysis may be distorted by the search engine optimization techniques used by some academics and government-funded researchers. In addition, the publication flow from what I call AI cabals — loose federations of like minded researchers who cross cite one another — provide a fun house mirror opportunity.

That is, what’s reflected is a version of reality, not the reality that a person like myself would perceive without the mirrors.

Net net: The Japan Times’ write up may be off the mark. As a result, the view point of Nicolas Chaillan may warrant serious consideration.

Stephen E Arnold, October 21, 2021

Apple and Google: Just Being Responsive to Russia

October 15, 2021

What is an authoritarian regime to do? It is important to control one’s own citizens’ access to the Internet, yet one needs global social media platforms to spread misinformation to foreign populations. Never fear, U.S. big tech is here. Wait, what? The Conversation reports, “Russia Is Building Its Own Kind of Sovereign Internet—with Help from Apple and Google.” Writer William Partlett reveals:

“On September 17, the first day of Russia’s parliamentary elections, Apple and Google agreed to demands from the Russian government to remove a strategic voting app developed by opposition leader Alexei Navalny from the iOS and Android app stores. Apple then disabled its Private Relay feature (which enhances web browsing privacy) for users in Russia. Google also removed YouTube videos giving advice on how to vote strategically in the elections. In the past, large tech companies have generally ignored censorship requests from the Russian government. So why did the US tech giants finally cave in to pressure? The answer provides a glimpse into how Russia, a sophisticated cyber superpower, is building its sovereign internet. It is preserving control, but without isolating itself from the broader internet.”

Perhaps inspired by China’s Great Firewall, Russia has worked to digitally isolate itself. However, the government needs its connection to the World Wide Web to maintain its propaganda war on other countries. Partlett notes two main provisions Russia is relying on to keep this balance. One involves slowing down internet access to targeted platforms. Another is requiring social media companies with more than 500,000 daily Russian visitors to maintain employees in that country. Both provisions were used to coerce the removal of Nalvany’s voting app from the iOS and Android app stores. If the companies did not comply, we learn, there would have been these consequences:

“First, the state would prosecute Russia-based employees of Google and Apple. Second, it promised to slow down internet traffic to Apple and Google platforms in Russia, and shut down the Apple Pay and Google Pay services. Facing an escalating series of threats, the tech giants eventually backed down and removed the app.”

Of course they did, because both are corporations with their bottom lines top-of-mind. The motto “don’t be evil” was shelved a long time ago. (Though, to be fair, the welfare of their Russian employees probably played a role. We hope.) Partlett wonders: how can opposition movements proceed when they rely on big tech’s platforms to get the message out? Good question.

Cynthia Murrell October 15, 2021

A Compliance Hat Trick?

October 14, 2021

Apple, Google, and Microsoft have scored. I read “LinkedIn Caves Again, Blocks US Journalists’ Accounts in China.” I noted this passage:

LinkedIn — the business-oriented social media platform owned by Microsoft — has spent the last few years increasing its compliance with the Chinese government’s demands for censorship.

The write up points out that a reporter for Axios, another with-in online information service, has been disappeared.

The cited article provides links and more color for the Chinese action.

It appears that major US technology companies are complying with guidelines and regulations in the countries in which they operate.

Why?

One possible answer is revenue. Another may be a desire to avoid legal consequences for the firms’ in-country employees.

It seems reasonable to conclude that the era of the Wild West Internet is ending. Some large countries want to manage certain aspects of information and data flows.

Is this a good thing or a bad thing? The answer depends on one’s point of view, where one lives, and how one generates revenue/income.

Stephen E Arnold, October 14, 2021

Regulators Move, Just Slowly Toward Facebook

October 14, 2021

Finally, after 17 years a dim light flickers on. Vox Recode reports, “It’s Getting Harder for People to Believe that Facebook Is a Net Good for Society.” Though experts have been sounding the alarm for years, Facebook has insisted its ability to bring folks together far outweighs any damage perpetuated by its platforms. Now, though, more people are challenging that defense. Writer Shirin Ghaffary tells us:

“A new series of reports from the Wall Street Journal, “The Facebook Files,” provides damning evidence that Facebook has studied and long known that its products cause measurable, real-world harm — including on teenagers’ mental health — and then stifled that research while denying and downplaying that harm to the public. The revelations, which only strengthen the case that a growing chorus of lawmakers and regulators have been making for breaking up Facebook or otherwise severely limiting its power as a social media giant, could represent a turning point for the company. Already, the Journal’s reporting has prompted consequences for Facebook: A bipartisan Senate committee is investigating [Facebook-owned] Instagram’s impact on teenagers, and a group of legislators led by Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA) is calling for Facebook to halt all development of its Instagram for Kids product for children under 13, which BuzzFeed News first revealed the company was developing in March.”

Ghaffary reminds us the wheels of government turn slowly and, often, to little effect. The investigations are in early stages and may not lead to any real changes or meaningful consequences. At least some politicians are more willing to question Facebook about the harm it causes, as some did at recent Congressional hearings. Unfortunately, Facebook is inclined to withhold damaging information even at the request of elected officials. We learn:

“When Rep. Rodgers and other Republicans followed up with Facebook and asked about the company’s internal research on the effects of its products on mental health, the company did not share the Instagram research results, according to Bloomberg, nor did it share them with Sen. Ed Markey when his office also asked Facebook to provide any internal research on the matter in April, according to letters provided by Markey’s office to Recode.”

But wait, there’s more. The Journal’s reporting also reveals the company’s VIP program, through which certain celebrities and politicians can break its rules (such as they are). It also shows that, in 2018, Facebook modified its algorithm to encourage the sharing of angrier content. Anything to generate traffic and revenues, whatever the consequences, it seems.

Cynthia Murrell, October 14, 2021

Regulating Big Tech: Ho, Ho, Ho. That Is a Good One

October 11, 2021

How long do government attorneys remain on the job? One answer is, “Until a big time firm comes with a juicy job.”

Now what’s this fact of government life suggest for regulating big tech?

One clue appears in “Apple Files Appeal in Epic Games Case, Potentially Delaying App Store Changes for Years.” The operative word is “appeal.” Yep, Apple has money, lawyers, and corporate patience. The US government has fewer legal resources and some lawyers who might jump at a chance to work in the big weird spaceship house pizza dish.

Here’s the passage I noted:

If Apple wins the stay, which will be decided by a judge in November, a rule change potentially allowing developers to circumvent App Store fees of 15% to 30% may not take effect until appeals in the case have finished, a process that could take years.

Does this suggest that taking steps to deal with “big tech” may be a tough job?

Yep.

Stephen E Arnold, October 11, 2021

China: Rethinking Decentralized Finance the CCP Way

October 11, 2021

I read “Bitcoin Plummets after China Intensifies Cryptocurrency Crackdown.” The “real” news story reports:

Chinese government agencies including the country’s securities regulator and the People’s Bank of China (PBOC) said in a statement on Friday that all cryptocurrency-related business activities are illegal and vowed to clamp down on illicit activities involving digital currencies.

Well, that seems clear. Draconian? Sure.

A demonstration of power? Sure.

Popular among the digital currency enthusiasts in China?  For party members, probably. For others, probably less enthusiasm.

What’s interesting is that China appears to recognize the threats posed by “digital everything” require government action.

Russia is playing a fence sitting game.

As nation states pick a team, will a different alignment of power emerge?

Interesting. What happens if those on the China side embrace total surveillance? Even more interesting.

I am delighted I am old. Thumbtypers are likely to have a different take on this development.

Stephen E Arnold, October 11, 2021

India: Offensive Cyber Activity or a Swipe at Specialized Software and Threat Intelligence

September 29, 2021

I read “Exclusive: An American Company Fears Its Windows Hacks Helped India Spy On China And Pakistan.” The write up reports:

A U.S. company’s tech was abused by the Indian government, amidst warnings Americans are contributing to a spyware industry already under fire for being out of control.

The write up’s emphasis is on an intriguing point; to wit:

Sometimes American companies aren’t the victims, but the ones fueling costly digital espionage.

The named firm is Exodus. Forbes presents this factoid, which I assume is “true”:

“They’re significant because the size of the market is relatively small, and the skill set required [to find zero days] is in possession of just a few thousand people worldwide at any given time,” says Katie Moussouris, founder of Luta Security and creator of Microsoft’s bug bounty program to reward hackers for vulnerability disclosures.

Okay, the market is small. And the expert? From another low profile outfit called Luta. But the story is not straight forward.

Exodus pumped out a report of an exploit. India’s technology professionals (presumably one of the few thousand in the world) recognized the value of the information. Then hunted around for another vulnerability its cyber fighters could employ.

The Forbes’s report says:

Any such zero-day spill would be especially concerning coming from a company that tries to keep a lid on around 50 zero days a year, covering the world’s most popular operating systems, from Windows to Android to Apple’s iOS. And Brown isn’t alone in seeing his creation used in ways he didn’t intend.

Exodus cut off India from its threat information. The write up concludes:

With the supply there, American government is hungry for hacks of all kinds of technologies.

Several observations:

  • How many companies pump out threat intelligence? Are there other examples of “customers” using threat intelligence to develop cyber weapons?
  • Why is Microsoft opining about security; specifically, NSO Group? The reasons exploits exist may be in part due to the security posture of Microsoft itself. No, Windows 11 did not distract me from noticing the Redmond giant’s magnetism for bad actors.
  • What’s the agenda for this story? A lack of regulation? The behavior of the many, many outfits engaged in generating alerts, notices of exploitable flaws, or the damage done by leaking once secret specialized software into the public spotlight?

The capitalist tool suggesting capitalism does not work as desired. Remarkable.

Stephen E Arnold, September 29, 2021

Facebook Brings People Together: A Different Spin

September 29, 2021

I read “Lawmakers Ask Zuckerberg to Drop ‘Instagram for Kids’ After Report Says App Made Kids Suicidal.” The write up reports about more concern and hand wringing about the impact of social media. Finally an anonymous but brave Facebook whistleblower has awakened the somnambulant US elected officials from their summer siesta. Here’s a quote from the write up:

“Children and teens are uniquely vulnerable populations online, and these findings paint a clear and devastating picture of Instagram as an app that poses significant threats to young people’s wellbeing,” the lawmakers said.

Facebook was founded in 2004. Let’s see that works out to about eight days in the timescape of US elected officials, doesn’t it. Why rush?

Stephen E Arnold, September 29, 2021

Cambridge: We Do It Huawei

September 28, 2021

Intelligence agencies are aware China has been ramping up its foreign espionage efforts, largely through civilian operatives. Now The Statesman reports, “Huawei Infiltrates Cambridge University.” We wonder what other universities have also been targeted. Perhaps our neighbor, the University of Tennessee at Knoxville? That institution not too far from an interesting government operation.

Huawei is China’s mammoth technology company and is largely viewed as a security threat, operating on behalf of the Chinese government. The U.S. maintains sanctions against the company and several countries have banned Huawei’s 5G technology over security concerns. The article tells us:

“Huawei has been accused of ‘infiltrating’ a Cambridge University research centre after most of its academics were found to have ties with the Chinese company, The Times, UK reported. Three out of four of the directors at the Cambridge Centre for Chinese Management (CCCM) have ties to the company, and its so-called chief representative is a former senior Huawei vice-president who has been paid by the Chinese government. The university insists that one former Huawei executive has never delivered services to the centre while the firm itself has said any suggestion of impropriety is absurd. Daily Mail reported that critics have claimed that the Huawei ties are a demonstration that the university has allowed the CCCM to be infiltrated by the Chinese company which has been banned from joining Britain’s 5G network. Johnny Patterson, policy director of the Hong Kong campaign group, told the newspaper the university should investigate the relationship between Huawei and the CCCM.”

Not surprisingly, money appears to be a factor. British politician Iain Duncan Smith asserts Cambridge has become reliant on Chinese funding in recent years. He proposes an inquiry into the role of Chinese funding throughout UK institutions and companies. We wonder how many other countries are seeing a similar pattern. It China trying to buy its way into world dominance? Is it working?

Cynthia Murrell, September 28, 2021

US Government Procurement: A Technology Brake?

September 27, 2021

I read “Study: Pentagon Reliance on Contractors Hurt US in 9/11 Wars.” I was not certain how to process the story. Was it a blockbuster exposé or was it another recycled Hummer tire?

The write up states:

Up to half of the $14 trillion spent by the Pentagon since 9/11 went to for-profit defense contractors, a study released Monday found. It’s the latest work to argue the U.S. reliance on private corporations for war-zone duties that used to be done by troops contributed to mission failure in Afghanistan. In the post-9/11 wars, U.S. corporations contracted by the Defense Department not only handled war-zone logistics like running fuel convoys and staffing chow lines but performed mission-crucial work like training and equipping Afghan security forces — security forces that collapsed last month as the Taliban swept the country.

Has the enshrinement of procurement methodology created the situation? Are there other forces at work; for example, people complain about meetings. Nevertheless, the work of some government professionals is meetings.

Who does the work?

Maybe contractors? Interns? People hired on Fiverr?

The write up states:

And up to a third of the Pentagon contracts went to just five weapons suppliers. Last fiscal year, for example, the money Lockheed Martin alone got from Pentagon contracts was one and a half times the entire budgets of the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development, according to the study.

Are the expenditures audited? Does anyone know where the money goes?

The write up wraps up with this statement:

Relying less on private contractors, and more on the U.S. military as in past wars, might have given the U.S. better chances of victory in Afghanistan…

Interesting.

Stephen E Arnold, September 27, 2021

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