The Intelware Sector: In the News Again

January 13, 2023

It’s Friday the 13th. Bad luck day for Voyager Labs, an Israel-based intelware vendor. But maybe there is bad luck for Facebook or Meta or whatever the company calls itself. Will there be more bad luck for outfits chasing specialized software and services firms?

Maybe.

The number of people interested in the savvy software and systems which comprise Israel’s intelware industry is small. In fact, even among some of the law enforcement and intelligence professionals whom I have encountered over the years, awareness of the number of firms, their professional and social linkages, and the capabilities of these systems is modest. NSO Group became the poster company for how some of these systems can be used. Not long ago, the Brennan Center made available some documents obtained via legal means about a company called Voyager Labs.

Now the Guardian newspaper (now begging for dollars with blue and white pleas) has published “Meta Alleges Surveillance Firm Collected Data on 600,000 Users via Fake Accounts.” the main idea of the write up is that an intelware vendor created sock puppet accounts with phony names. Under these fake identities, the investigators gathered information. The write up refers to “fake accounts” and says:

The lawsuit in federal court in California details activities that Meta says it uncovered in July 2022, alleging that Voyager used surveillance software that relied on fake accounts to scrape data from Facebook and Instagram, as well as Twitter, YouTube, LinkedIn and Telegram. Voyager created and operated more than 38,000 fake Facebook accounts to collect information from more than 600,000 Facebook users, including posts, likes, friends lists, photos, comments and information from groups and pages, according to the complaint. The affected users included employees of non-profits, universities, media organizations, healthcare facilities, the US armed forces and local, state and federal government agencies, along with full-time parents, retirees and union members, Meta said in its filing.

Let’s think about this fake account thing. How difficult is it to create a fake account on a Facebook property. About eight years ago as a test, my team created a fake account for a dog — about eight years ago. Not once in those eight years was any attempt to verify the humanness or the dogness of the animal. The researcher (a special librarian in fact) set up the account and demonstrated to others on my research team how the Facebook sign up system worked or did not work in this particularly example. Once logged in, faithful and trusting Facebook seemed to keep our super user logged into the test computer. For all I know, Tess is still logged in with Facebook doggedly tracking her every move. Here’s Tess:

image

Tough to see that Tess is not a true Facebook type, isn’t it?

Is the accusation directed at Voyager Labs a big deal? From my point of view, no. The reason that intelware companies use Facebook is that Facebook makes it easy to create a fake account, exercises minimal administrative review of registered user, and prioritizes other activities.

I personally don’t know what Voyager Labs did or did not do. I don’t care. I do know that other firms providing intelware have the capability of setting up, managing, and automating some actions of accounts for either a real human, an investigative team, or another software component or system. (Sorry, I am not at liberty to name these outfits.)

Grab your Tum’s bottle and consider these points:

  1. What other companies in Israel offer similar alleged capabilities?
  2. Where and when were these alleged capabilities developed?
  3. What entities funded start ups to implement alleged capabilities?
  4. What other companies offer software and services which deliver similar alleged capabilities?
  5. When did Facebook discover that its own sign up systems had become a go to source of social action for these intelware systems?
  6. Why did Facebook ignore its sign up procedures failings?
  7. Are other countries developing and investing in similar systems with these alleged capabilities? If so, name a company in England, France, China, Germany, or the US?

These one-shot “intelware is bad” stories chop indiscriminately. The vendors get slashed. The social media companies look silly for having little interest in “real” identification of registrants. The licensees of intelware look bad because somehow investigations are somehow “wrong.” I think the media reporting on intelware look silly because the depth of the information on which they craft stories strikes me as shallow.

I am pointing out that a bit more diligence is required to understand the who, what, why, when, and where of specialized software and services. Let’s do some heavy lifting, folks.

Stephen E Arnold, January 13, 2023

Internet Archive Scholar: Will Publishers Find a Way to Stomp This Free Knowledge Beast?

January 12, 2023

Here is a new search service worth noting. The Internet Archive Scholar was built to search the extensive, non-profit Internet Archive. The tool introduces itself:

“This full text search index includes over 25 million research articles and other scholarly documents preserved in the Internet Archive. The collection spans from digitized copies of eighteenth century journals through the latest Open Access conference proceedings and pre-prints crawled from the World Wide Web.”

Yes, that is a lot of information and a dedicated search system is a welcome addition. If only it were easier to find what one is looking for; the search leaves some on the Arnold IT team wanting more functionality. But the service is young, and the page notes that “Metadata is being improved and features have not been finalized.

The About page tells us more about how the tool works, where the metadata comes from (fatcat.wiki), and where to direct certain queries. It also addresses the issue of text and data mining:

“We intend to provide researcher access to the full corpus for text and data mining purposes. Derived datasets may also be posted publicly for analysis, for example a citation graph or N-gram frequencies by year. If you are interested or would like to see specific datasets made available, please contact us.

Currently snapshots of the full fatcat metadata corpus and upstream metadata sources are uploaded periodically to the Bulk Bibliographic Metadata collection on archive.org. Read more in the Fatcat Guide.”

We look forward to seeing what functionality improvements the team implements as the Scholar is developed further. Readers may want to check it out for themselves and/or bookmark the site for future use. We are also curious about publishers’ reactions.

Cynthia Murrell, January 12, 2023

Sesamy for Content in Small Bites

December 1, 2022

Here is good news for anyone who would like to purchase a piece of content without a long-term relationship with its host platform. The Next Web reports, “Swedish Startup Sesamy Seeks to Slaughter the Subscription Model.” It is such a good idea, we wonder whether this company will become an Amazon acquisition target. Writer Cate Lawrence tells us:

“[Sesamy is] So far, the Stockholm-based company has partnered with every major book publisher in Sweden and Denmark to offer users the option to purchase digital content as a single purchase. You can then consume it on any app or device. This means you can play Sesamy audiobooks in your favorite audio app and download watermarked ebooks to any ereader. And you actually own the book instead of renting it with a platform like Amazon Kindle. … Publishing companies are struggling to woo readers who look to cut costs, and Sesamy offers them a new business model and potential revenue source. In October, the company launched SmartID with Swedish publication Breakit, enabling publishers to monetize non-subscribed readers, without cannibalizing their existing revenues from digital subscriptions.

The software will also include built-in price optimization that suggests a fair retail cost to readers and publishers, ensuring that the platform remains competitive. And this incremental revenue may add up at a time when people are culling their subscriptions to save money.”

There must be an appetite for this sort of service—the company just raked in €3.3 million in a recent funding round. It will use this capital to make available single issues of newspapers and magazines. Yes please. Lawrence contemplates an extension to academic journal articles. They should really be free, she notes, but single-article access would be an improvement. Sesamy was founded in March 2021 by the folks behind the podcast platform Acast.

Cynthia Murrell, December 1, 2022

Academic Publisher eLife Shifting to Peer Review Model

November 17, 2022

The racket, er, field of academic journalism has needed a shakeup for quite some time. Will this be the move that does it? Science reports, “Journal Seeks to Upend Scientific Publishing by Only Reviewing—Not Accepting—Manuscripts.” The non-profit, online-only eLife hopes the change will offer readers more nuance than the traditional accept-or-reject dichotomy. The free-to-read journal used to charge writers $3000 if it accepted and published their paper. Writer Jeffrey Brainard relates:

“Under the new approach, eLife will charge authors $2000 if they accept the publisher’s offer to have a submitted manuscript undergo peer review. Regardless of whether the critiques are positive or negative, the manuscript and its associated, unsigned peer-review statements will be posted online and be free to read. If the author revises the paper to address the comments, eLife will post the new version.

Since eLife was founded in 2012, it has tried other innovations. In 2020, for example, it started to require all submitted manuscripts be published as preprints. Abandoning the ‘accept’ stamp is a logical next step, says eLife’s editor-in-chief, biologist Michael Eisen of the University of California, Berkeley.

Eisen, who co-founded the open-access Public Library of Science journals in 2003, says the detailed critiques written by reviewers that eLife recruits are its main contribution to the scientific process. The reviews, he says, are ‘more nuanced, more informative, and more useful to the community than our thumbs-up or thumbs down publishing decision.’ He also argues that the new model will speed up a peer-review process that at other journals is often opaque and slow because it can involve multiple rounds.”

The plan is similar to a practice already put into place by open-research platform F1000Research, which allows readers to review manuscripts posted by researchers. Eisen, however, expects to offer higher quality critiques on his site. Some details are still being ironed out, including how to decide which papers to invite for review. The new policy is to be implemented in January 2023. Researchers funded by the NIH will be glad to know they can declare a reviewed manuscript the final version of record, allowing it to be indexed by the PubMed search engine (a funding requirement). Ultimately, says Eisen, the new approach will push the publisher to the background and researchers’ work to the fore. We wonder how other academic journals feel about that philosophy.

Cynthia Murrell, November 17, 2022

Google and the News Industry: Now That We Have Won, Do You Our Want Help?

November 16, 2022

I read a remarkable essay cum PR piece called “Google Collaborates with News Industry to Combat Misinformation.” I am not a very good reader, maybe third or fourth grade level on good days. I think the essay in the Connecting with Google Blog means, “Now that we have decimated real news, we at Googzilla want to help you.” I immediately thought about the Marshall Plan. Google’s approach seems to be a somewhat GenX approach to what strikes me as an old-fashioned problem.

The write up says:

Our work at the Google News Initiative supports both journalists and fact-checking organizations doing the work to fight misinformation.

Hmmmm. I can search YouTube and find information which strikes me as hitting all the boxes: Propaganda. Check. Misinformation. Check. Disinformation. Check. Reformation of factual material. Check. Content violating one or more laws. Check.

The essay continues:

Our goal is to strengthen digital skills and provide new ways for journalists to verify sources, fact check, and explore different forms of storytelling.

I would humbly suggest that the “goal” is to generate advertising revenue, minimize the impact of numerous anti-trust and related legal actions, and retain a firm grip on the digital dog leash that publishers are allowed to wear; for example: Site traffic. Check. Location information about individuals. Check. Email scanning. Check. Opportunities to receive Google outputs. Check.

The essay adds:

Misinformation is a critical issue, and it cannot be solved by one organization alone. We are constantly seeking new ways to partner with the leading fact-checking organizations globally and are incorporating best practices into our products. There’s more to do, and more to come. Our third Fighting Misinformation Online event will take place in Brussels on November 29, 2022, a forum for those working across sectors to come together to tackle misinformation.

Yep, humble words. Plus it includes an advertisement for itself.

Pure Google. Check.

Stephen E Arnold, November 16, 2022

The New York Times Discovers Misinformation

October 7, 2022

Fake news, misinformation, and conspiracy theories are never going to stop. In the past, fake news was limited to rumors, gossip, junk rags at the grocery store check-out counter, and weird newsletters. Now this formerly niche “news” industry is a lucrative market with the Internet and constant need to capture audiences. The New York Times braved the media trenches to discover new insights about this alluring and dangerous field in: “A Journey Into The Misinformation Fever Swamps.”

Several New York Times writers make their living tracking news fraudsters, such as Tiffany Hsu, Sheera Frenkel, and Stuart A. Thompson. The conversation between the author and these three centers around hot topic issues. When it comes to the new 2022 election cycle, the same misinformation spread during the 2016 election is circling. The topics include voter fraud and how foreign powers are interfering with the election process.

What the three interviewees and the author found alarming is how predominant misinformation is and how bad actors exploit it for profit. It is alarming how much power misinformation yearly gains:

“America’s own disinformation problem has only gotten much worse. About 70 percent of Republicans suspect fraud in the 2020 presidential election. That’s millions and millions of people. They are extremely devoted to these theories, based on hardly any evidence, and will not be easily swayed to another perspective. That belief created a cottage industry of influencers, conferences and organizations devoted to converting the conspiracy theory into political results, including running candidates in races from election board to governor and passing laws that limit voting access.

And it’s working.’

There is mutual agreement that social media companies are not in a good place with misinformation, but they should be responsible for moderating information posted on their platforms. Social media platforms assisted the spread of misinformation during COVID and the past two elections. They should invest in content moderation programs to keep facts clear.

Content moderation programs walk the fine line between freedom of speech and censorship, but the old example of crying wolf is apt. It would be great if loudmouth Karens and Kevins were shut down.

Whitney Grace, October 7, 2022

Captive Audience, Required Purchase: Surprised Professional Publishers Are Hiking Prices?

September 16, 2022

Before college textbooks are an annoyance because they are heavy and mean homework. Once college comes around, however, they are akin to the devil. Textbook publishers can charge hundreds of dollars for a single textbook, adding more fees to already astronomical education costs. One way to save money is purchasing used or digital textbooks, but that could change Bloomberg wrote in: “Pearson Says Blockchain Could Make It Money Every Time E-Books Change Hands.”

Pearson Plc. Is one of the world’s largest textbook publishers and the CEO wants to use blockchain and non-fungible tokens to make a profit off the secondary and digital market. The digital tokens would allow Pearson to track ownership of a book file, then take a cut if it is sold more than once:

“’The move to digital helps diminish the secondary market, and technology like blockchain and NFTs allows us to participate in every sale of that particular item as it goes through its life,’ by tracking the material’s unique identifier on the ledger from “owner A to owner B to owner C,’ said [Andy] Bird, a former Disney executive.’

By moving entirely to digital, Pearson would save on printing costs but would lose profits off its already sky-high books. Pearson is developing a textbook subscription service instead of individual fees for books. If the service saves students money and works similar to a digital library, then Pearson should go for it! And students, get a loan.

Whitney Grace, September 16, 2022

AI/ML Book: Free, Free, Free

September 13, 2022

Want to be like the Amazon, Facebook, and Google (nah, strike the Google) smart software whiz kids? Now you can. Just read, memorize, and recombine the methods revealed in Computational Cognitive Neuroscience, Fourth Edition. According the post explaining the book:

This is the 4th edition of the online, freely available textbook, providing a complete, self-contained introduction to the field of Computational Cognitive Neuroscience, where computer models of the brain are used to understand a wide range of cognitive functions, including perception, attention, motor control, learning, memory, language, and executive function. The first part of this textbook develops a coherent set of computational and neural principles that capture the behavior of networks of interconnected neurons, and the second part applies these principles to understand the above-listed cognitive functions.

Do the methods work? Absolutely. Now there may be some minor issues to address; for example, smart cars running over small people, false positives for certain cancers, and teachers scored as flops. (Wait. Isn’t there a shortage of teachers? Smart algorithms deal with contexts, don’t they.)

Regardless of your view of a small person smashed by a smart car, you can get the basics of “close enough for horse shoes analyses, biased datasets, and more. Imagine what one can do with a LinkedIn biography and work experience listing after absorbing this work.

Stephen E Arnold, September 13, 2022

An Amusing Take on Pearson and Non Fungible Tokens for Textbooks

August 19, 2022

I read “Absolutely Terrible Textbook Publishing Giant Pearson Wants To Make Everything Even Worse With NFTs.” The write up states:

There’s an oligopoly of just five giant publishers, and they long ago learned that they are in the best market ever: the buyers of their textbooks (the students) have no choice and are forced to buy the books if their professors assign them — and more such books will get sold every semester that the professor requires it. Therefore, textbook prices are insane by any imaginable standard.

I think the viewpoint is one widely held. However, why not consider the issue from the point of view of the oligopolies themselves.

First, creating textbooks is an expensive, time consuming business. Once one of these textbooks is adopted widely, then that book becomes the goose that lays golden revenue eggs semester in an semester out. A professional involved with the turgid and generally crazy economics textbook was known as “Sammy” where the professional worked. This person told me that “Sammy” was in double digit editions and would continue on this path of persistent revisions to keep that money coming in. Losing the Sammy thing, the publisher’s textbook division could plunge into red ink quite rapidly. Therefore, the oligopolists want to hang on to their winners, keep others like professors who will write a book and make it available under Creative Commons or some similar nonsense, and make old editions useless to students in class now. I thought that was useful information when I learned it a decade ago. I have no reason to believe that the insight remains valid today.

Second, some countries won’t buy or authorize use of US textbooks unless those books are in the languages identified by the country as acceptable. Canada, for instance, once required that Ukrainian be used in textbooks in one province because a majority of students spoke that language. Of course, the textbooks had to be available in French and English too. Translating nearly incomprehensible gibberish about economic, political science, or organic chemistry is expensive. Don’t forget the workbooks, the online tutorials, and other collateral required to land the “adoption”.

Third, professional publishers are not well known as businesses. One doesn’t learn how to build a monopoly on legal, accounting, or government regulatory information in business school. One learns the art and craft of taking essentially jargon filled content and converting it into something that a person skilled in a field can use to justify high fees. This “learning” occurs when a person studying law gets to buy textbooks. A tiny percentage of lawyers accept work at a professional publishing house and can practice the art of monopoly.

Each of these three factors is expensive — creating books, getting adopted and conforming to buyer rules, and hiring people and letting them learn how to be professional publishers.

I remember a meeting at Cornell University years ago. The topic of publishing papers in an online journal or a peer reviewed journal would be acceptable for those on a tenure track. The answer was [a] writing a widely adopted textbook was important, [b] publishing in a peer reviewed journal owned by a professional publishing outfit was very helpful, and [c] doing anything without the blessing of the professional publishers was stupid. Today it may be different.

But high prices mean quality. Why shouldn’t certifiers of the best and brightest charge a lot of money? Professional publishers will point out that that is the way oligopolistic certifiers work. Don’t like it? Don’t go to school. Besides NFTs are hip, and professional publishers want to be with it.

Stephen E Arnold, August 19, 2022

Proofpoint: Journalists Wear a Bull’s Eye instead of a Shirt with Ink Stained Cuffs

July 19, 2022

Proofpoint is a cyber security firm. The company published an interesting blog essay called “Above the Fold and in Your Inbox: Tracing State-Aligned Activity Targeting Journalists, Media.” The write up presents allegedly accurate information that a number of nation states are targeting journalists. This makes sense because some journalists are, in effect, crime and intelligence analysts at heart. Their methods are often similar to those used as certain government organizations.

Is this a new insight from the world’s intelligence professionals? I don’t think so.

The write up states:

Journalists and media organizations are well sought-after targets with Proofpoint researchers observing APT actors, specifically those that are state-sponsored or state-aligned, routinely masquerading as or targeting journalists and media organizations because of the unique access and information they can provide. The media sector and those that work within it can open doors that others cannot. A well-timed, successful attack on a journalist’s email account could provide insights into sensitive, budding stories and source identification. A compromised account could be used to spread disinformation or pro-state propaganda, provide disinformation during times of war or pandemic, or be used to influence a politically charged atmosphere. Most commonly, phishing attacks targeting journalists are used for espionage or to gain key insights into the inner workings of another government, company, or other area of state-designated import.

What nation states are allegedly targeting certain journalists? The article mentions by name these countries:

China

Iran

North Korea

Turkey (sic). The country’s new name is Türkiye

The article includes examples of the Proofpoint analysts’ identification of actions.

The write up concludes with what appears to be some free advice:

The varied approaches by APT actors—using web beacons for reconnaissance, credential harvesting, and sending malware to gain a foothold in a recipient’s network—means those operating in the media space need to stay vigilant.

Many journalists, in my experience, are unaware of the nuances of staying vigilant. Targets are targets because they can be hit. Examples of what has happened are interesting. May I suggest that journalists receive appropriate instruction when learning their craft. Instruction in vigilance may need to be upgraded or enhanced. Many journalists — particularly what I call the Silicon Valley variety — are more interested in recognition, media clout, and being visible than stepping back and asking, “Have I been targeted, played, and manipulated?”

Stephen E Arnold, July 19, 2022

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