Becoming Sort of Invisible

January 13, 2023

When it comes to spying on one’s citizens, China is second to none. But at least some surveillance tech can be thwarted with enough time, effort, and creativity, we learn from Vice in, “Chinese Students Invent Coat that Makes People Invisible to AI Security Cameras.” Reporter Koh Ewe describes China’s current surveillance situation:

“China boasts a notorious state-of-the-art state surveillance system that is known to infringe on the privacy of its citizens and target the regime’s political opponents. In 2019, the country was home to eight of the ten most surveilled cities in the world. Today, AI identification technologies are used by the government and companies alike, from identifying ‘suspicious’ Muslims in Xinjiang to discouraging children from late-night gaming.”

Yet four graduate students at China’s Wuhan University found a way to slip past one type of surveillance with their InvisDefense coat. Resembling any other fashion camouflage jacket, the garment includes thermal devices that emit different temperatures to skew cameras’ infrared thermal imaging. In tests using campus security cameras, the team reduced the AI’s accuracy by 57%. That number could have been higher if they did not also have to keep the coat from looking suspicious to human eyes. Nevertheless, it was enough to capture first prize at the Huwei Cup cybersecurity contest.

But wait, if the students were working to subvert state security, why compete in a high-profile competition? The team asserts it was actually working to help its beneficent rulers by identifying a weakness so it could be addressed. According to researcher Wei Hui, who designed the core algorithm:

“The fact that security cameras cannot detect the InvisDefense coat means that they are flawed. We are also working on this project to stimulate the development of existing machine vision technology, because we’re basically finding loophole.”

And yet, Wei also stated,

“Security cameras using AI technology are everywhere. They pervade our lives. Our privacy is exposed under machine vision. We designed this product to counter malicious detection, to protect people’s privacy and safety in certain circumstances.”

Hmm. We learn the coat will be for sale to the tune of ¥500 (about $71). We are sure al list of those who purchase such a garment will be helpful, particularly to the Chinese government.

Cynthia Murrell, January 13, 2023

Hey, TikTok, You Are the Problem

January 4, 2023

Chinese-owned TikTok has taken the world by storm, and the US is no exception. Especially among the youngest cohorts. That is a problem for several reasons, but it is the risk to privacy and data security that has officials finally taking action. First to move were several states, as CNN‘s Brian Fung reports in “Why a Growing Number of States Are Cracking Down on TikTok.” We learn:

“At least seven states have said they will bar public employees from using the app on government devices, including Alabama, Maryland, Oklahoma, South Carolina, South Dakota, Utah and Texas. (Another state, Nebraska, banned TikTok from state devices in 2020.) Last week, the state of Indiana announced two lawsuits against TikTok accusing the Chinese-owned platform of misrepresenting its approach to age-appropriate content and data security.”

We note this quote by the Berkeley Research Group’s Harry Broadman:

“I’m a little bit mystified why it’s taking so long for CFIUS [the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States] to deal with this problem. There must be some issue that’s going on.”

The Arnold IT team is mystified as well. Maybe lobbying and political contributions are the issue? Or cluelessness about the immense value of children’s and young people’s data? These overdue actions on the state level were followed by proposed federal legislation. Fung discusses the bipartisan effort in, “US Lawmakers Introduce Bill to Ban TikTok:”

“The proposed legislation would ‘block and prohibit all transactions’ in the United States by social media companies with at least one million monthly users that are based in, or under the ‘substantial influence’ of, countries that are considered foreign adversaries, including China, Russia, Iran, North Korea, Cuba and Venezuela. The bill specifically names TikTok and its parent, ByteDance, as social media companies for the purposes of the legislation. … TikTok has previously said it doesn’t share information with the Chinese government and that a US-based security team decides who can access US user data from China. TikTok has also previously acknowledged that employees based in China can currently access user data.”

But we should totally trust them with it, right? Not willing to take ByteDance at its word, the US military, State Department, Department of Homeland Security, and other security-conscious federal agencies long since banned the app on devices under their control. Will the prohibition soon extend to the rest of the country, to both public and private entities? If so, prepare for the rage of Gen Z.

Cynthia Murrell, January 4, 2023

Surprise: TikTok Reveals Its Employees Can View European User Data

December 28, 2022

What a surprise. The Tech Times reports, “TikTok Says Chinese Employees Can Access Data from European Users.” This includes workers not just within China, but also in Brazil, Canada, Israel, Japan, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore, South Korea, and the United States. According to The Guardian, TikTok revealed the detail in an update to its privacy policy. We are to believe it is all in the interest of improving the users’ experience. Writer Joseph Henry states:

“According to ByteDance, TikTok’s parent firm, accessing the user data can help in improving the algorithm performance on the platform. This would mean that it could help the app to detect bots and malicious accounts. Additionally, this could also give recommendations for content that users want to consume online. Back in July, Shou Zi Chew, a TikTok chief executive clarified via a letter that the data being accessed by foreign staff is a ‘narrow set of non-sensitive’ user data. In short, if the TikTok security team in the US gives a green light for data access, then there’s no problem viewing the data coming from American users. Chew added that the Chinese government officials do not have access to these data so it won’t be a big deal to every consumer.”

Sure they don’t. Despite assurances, some are skeptical. For example, we learn:

“US FCC Commissioner Brendan Carr told Reuters that TikTok should be immediately banned in the US. He added that he was suspicious as to how ByteDance handles all of the US-based data on the app.”

Now just why might he doubt ByteDance’s sincerity? What about consequences? As some Sillycon Valley experts say, “No big deal. Move on.” Dismissive naïveté is helpful, even charming.

Cynthia Murrell, December 28, 2022

Want Clicks? Put War Videos on TikTok

December 20, 2022

Here is another story about the importance of click-throughs to social media companies, repercussions be damned. BBC News reports, “Russian Mercenary Videos ‘Top 1 Bn Views’ on TikTok.” The mercenary band in these videos, known as the Wagner Group, is helping Russia fight its war against Ukraine. Writer Alexandra Fouché cites a recent report from NewsGuard as she reveals:

“NewsGuard said it had identified 160 videos on the short-video platform that ‘allude to, show, or glorify acts of violence’ by the mercenary group, founded by Yevgeny Prigozhin, a close ally of President Vladimir Putin. Fourteen of those videos showed full or partial footage of the apparent killing of former Russian mercenary Yevgeny Nuzhin which saw high engagement within days of being uploaded last month, it said.”

That brutal murder, which was performed with a sledgehammer, was viewed over 900,000 times on TikTok before ByteDance took it down. Nuzhin was apparently killed because he switched sides and denounced the Wagner Group. Sadly but surely, there are many viewers who would seek out such footage; why blame TikTok for its spread? The article continues:

“NewsGuard found that TikTok’s algorithm appeared to push users towards violent Wagner Group content. When an analyst searched for the term ‘Wagner’, TikTok’s search bar suggested searches for ‘Wagner execution’ and ‘Wagner sledgehammer’. The same search in Russian resulted in the suggestions ‘Wagner PMC’, ‘Wagner sledgehammer’ and ‘Wagner orchestra’. Wagner refers to its fighters as ‘musicians’. NewsGuard also found that videos could be found on TikTok showing another Wagner murder involving an army deserter in Syria in 2017 and that they had reached millions of users.

The online analysis group said it had also identified other music videos on the platform that advocated violence against Ukrainians, including calls to kill Ukrainians claiming they were ‘Nazis’.

Funny, when I searched Google for “Wagner,” the first three results my filter bubble turned up were composer Richard Wagner’s Wikipedia page, Wagner paint sprayer’s home page, and Staten Island’s Wagner College. Some actual news articles about the Wagner Group followed, but nary a violence glorification video in sight. TikTok certainly knows how to generate clicks. But what about China’s “reeducation” camps? The Chinese company is not circulating videos of those, is it? It seems the platform can be somewhat selective, after all.

Cynthia Murrell, December 20, 2022

TikTok Explained without Mentioning Regulation and US Education Failings

December 19, 2022

I am not into TikTok. I enjoy reading analyses of TikTok by individuals who are not engaged in law enforcement, crime analysis, and intelligence work for the US and its allies. Most of these deep dives are entertaining because they miss the obvious: Hoovering data from users for strategic and tactical information weaponization and information operations. I assume that makes me a party pooper, particularly among those who are into the mobile experience. I recall laughing out loud when I listened to a podcast featuring a Silicon Valley news type explaining that TikTok was no big deal. Ho ho ho.

I read this morning (December 17, 2022, 530 am US Eastern) “TikTok’s Secret Sauce.” The write up explains insights gleaned from “a project studying algorithmic amplification and distortion.” Quotes from the write up are in italic to differentiate them from my comments.

I learned:

… the average ratio of hearts to views on TikTok is roughly 5%. People are just not that predictable.

Okay, people are not predictable. May I suggest spending some time with the publicly available information on the Recorded Future Web site? Google and In-Q-Tel were early supporters of this company. The firm’s predictive analytics rely, in part, that people are creatures of habits. Useful information emerges from these types of analyses. In fact, most intelware does, and this includes specialists in other countries, including some not allied with the US.

I learned:

Exploration explains why there are an unending variety of incredibly weird niches on TikTok: the app manages to connect those creators to their niche audiences.

Let’s think in terms of unarticulated needs and desires. TikTok makes it possible for that which is not stated to emerge from user behavior. Feedback ensures that skinny girls and diets that deliver thinness get in front of certain individuals. Feedback is good and finding content that reveals more of the user’s psychographic footprint useful. Why? Manipulation, identification of individuals with certain behavior fingerprints, and amplification of certain messaging. Yep, useful.

I learned:

More generally, in AI applications, the sophistication of the algorithm is rarely the limiting factor.

Interesting. Perhaps the function of TikTok is just obvious. It, in my opinion, so obvious that it is overlooked. In high school more than a half century ago, I recall our class having to read “The Purloined Letter” by that sporty writing Edgar Allan Poe. The main idea is that the obvious is overlooked.

In some countries — might TikTok’s home base be an example — certain actions are obvious and then ignored or misunderstood. TikTok is that type of product. Now, after years of availability, experts are asking questions and digging into the service.

The limiting factor is a failure to understand how online information and services can be weaponized, deliver directed harm, and be viewed as a harmless time waster. Is it too late? Maybe not, but I get a kick out of the reactions of experts to what is as clear and straightforward as driving a vehicle over a mostly clueless pedestrian or ordering spicy regional cuisine without understanding the concept of hot.

Stephen E Arnold, December 19, 2022

TokTok: Is Ad Integrity Is Job Number One?

November 1, 2022


Syrian refugees are still in desperate need of support, and responding to pleas on TikTok is an understandable impulse. However, one should consider how much of any donation will actually help intended recipients and how much will slide into other pockets along the way. The BBC reveals, “TikTok Profits from Livestreams of Families Begging.” Reporters Hannah Gelbart, Mamdouh Akbiek and Ziad Al-Qattan write:

“Children are livestreaming on the social media app for hours, pleading for digital gifts with a cash value. The BBC saw streams earning up to $1,000 (£900) an hour, but found the people in the camps received only a tiny fraction of that.”

In fact, BBC researchers found TikTok owner ByteDance was taking up to 70% of donations meant for Syrian refugees. But wait, there’s more. Of the remaining 30%, 10% went to the local equivalent of Western Union and a hefty 35% of the last fifth went to a middleman, leaving the actual family with a paltry sum. For middlemen, though, this is quite the opportunity. We learn:

“In the camps in north-west Syria, the BBC found that the trend was being facilitated by so-called ‘TikTok middlemen,’ who provided families with the phones and equipment to go live. The middlemen said they worked with agencies affiliated to TikTok in China and the Middle East, who gave the families access to TikTok accounts. … Hamid, one of the TikTok middlemen in the camps, told the BBC he had sold his livestock to pay for a mobile phone, SIM card and wi-fi connection to work with families on TikTok. He now broadcasts with 12 different families, for several hours a day. Hamid said he uses TikTok to help families make a living. He pays them most of the profits, minus his running costs, he said.”

Yes, we are sure he has quite the overhead. Note it is the families putting in the most effort here, pouring their hearts out to strangers for hours each day. Yet TikTok insists none of its Terms of Use are being violated, including the provision to “prevent the harm, endangerment or exploitation” of minors. Unfortunately, residents of many of these camps have few options because local charities are stretched way too thin. For now, TikTok and its middlemen seem to be the only place many can turn.

Cynthia Murrell, November 1, 2022

Learning Is Supposed to Be Easy. Says Who?

October 26, 2022

I am not sure what a GenZ is. I do know that if I provide cash and change for a bill at a drug store or local grocery store, the person running the cash register looks like a deer in headlights. I have a premonition that if I had my Digital Infrared Thermometer, I could watch the person’s temperature rise. Many of these young people struggle to make change. My wife had a $0.50 cent piece and gave it to the cashier at the garden center along with some bills. The GenZ or GenX or whatever young person called the manager and asked, “What is this coin?”

I read “ Survey Shows 87 Percent of College Students Think Classes Are Too Difficult, But Most Fail to Study Regularly.” I know little about the sponsor of the research, the sampling methodology, or the statistical procedures used to calculate the data. Caution is advised when “real news” trots out data. Let’s assume that the information is close enough for horseshoes. After all, this is the statistical yardstick for mathematical excellence in use at synthetic data companies, Google-type outfits, and many artificial intelligence experts hot for cheap training data. Yep, close enough is good enough. I should create a T shit with this silkscreened on the front. But that’s work, which I don’t do.

The findings reported in the article include some gems which appear to bolster my perception that quite a few GenZ etc. cohort members are not particularly skilled in some facets of information manipulation. I would wager that their TikTok skills are excellent. Other knowledge based functions may lag. Let’s look at these numbers:

65 percent of respondents say they put a lot of effort into their studies. However, research findings also show that one-third of students who claim to put a lot of effort into their schoolwork spend less than 5 hours a week studying.

This is the academic equivalent of a young MBAs saying, “I will have the two pager ready tomorrow morning.” The perception of task completion is sufficient for these young millionaires to be. Doing the work is irrelevant because the individual thinks the work will be done. When reminded, the excuses fly. I want to remind you that some high-tech companies trot out the well worn “the dog ate my homework” excuse when testifying.

And this finding:

Thirty-one percent of respondents spend 1-5 hours, and 37 percent spend 6-10 hours studying for classes each week. Comparatively, 8 percent of students spend 15-20 hours, and 5 percent spend more than 20 hours studying.

I have been working on Hopf fibrations for a couple of years. Sorry, I am not at the finish line yet. Those in the sample compute studying with a few hours in a week. Nope, that time commitment is plotted on flawed timeline, not the real world timeline for learning and becoming proficient in a subject.

I loved this finding:

Twenty-eight percent of students have asked a professor to change their grade, while 31 percent admit they cheated to get better grades. Almost 50 percent of college students believe a pass or fail system should replace the current academic grading system.


Net net: No wonder young people struggle with making change and thinking clearly. Bring back the dinobabies even though there are some dull normals in that set of cohorts as well. But when one learns by watching TikToks what can one expect in the currency recognition department? Answer: Not much.

Stephen E Arnold, October 26, 2022

TikTok: Your Source for News? I Hope Not

October 24, 2022

I read “A Quarter of US Adults under 30 Now Get Their News from TikTok” reports:

Among American adults, reliance on TikTok for news content has roughly tripled since 2020, rising from 3% to 10% in the past two years. More than a quarter of US adults under 30 now regularly use TikTok for news, according to a new study from the Pew Research Center. This defies a larger national trend. Fewer Americans are consistently looking for news on social media, especially Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, and Snapchat, according to Pew data since 2020.

Let’s assume these data are accurate. Furthermore, let’s assume that TikTok can display weaponized information.

What downstream consequences will this weaponization by a China-affiliated company have? Here are some ideas my team and I generated at a local chicken joint today )(Saturday, October 22, 2022):

  1. Digital content may spark directed mob behavior among cohorts consuming TikTok news
  2. The TikTok content consumer may find it increasingly difficult to accept ideas from a source other than TikTok
  3. The already declining ability to think critically may be accelerated
  4. Consumers of TikTok news may experience difficulty focusing on mental tasks requiring concentration and attention.

What if the research is flawed? My hunch is that most research is. It is entirely possible that those responsible for doing the work have had their mental faculties eroded. On the other hand, unacknowledged biases may have distorted the questions, the methodology, and the analysis.

But what if the research is spot on like a laser targeting site? Oh, that’s a question to research. Perhaps TikTok videos have an answer?

Stephen E Arnold, October 24, 2022

TikTok: A New Weaponized Wasteland?

October 19, 2022

TikTok is the newest video consumption platform, but is it any different than television? Justin Hanagan’s Stay Grounded explores why TikTok Is Just TV Again, because it is a stream of safe, endless, auto-playing content. The article opens with the poignant reminder that television was the victim of the literati for two generations, because of its passive, banal, and massive appealing (appalling [sic]) content. Hanagan acknowledges that the arguments against TV are exaggerated and the definitions of what is considered banal and appealing are subjective. He also reminds people that television is a great unifier and programs have done many things to expose audiences to progressive ideas.

Hanagan, like other viewers, loved that the Internet would force audiences to wake up and demand more intelligent, artistic shows. Television and movie studios relied on generic content to play it safe, except he forgot about the 1980s with talk shows and reality TV. Executives were also finally allowed to apply the “sex sells” mantra for mass consumption. Despite the junk food TV, there are plenty of gourmet options too. The current phase of television is a golden crazy age.

TikTok ranks at the top of any passive entertainment that creates instantaneous endorphins, like the boob tube of the past:

“After all, nobody wants to be a brainless “boob tube” zombie. But, as you dear reader are likely aware, it turns out that for humans- the opportunity to be lightly entertained while doing basically nothing, is very hard to resist. TikTok took a format —very short, easily skippable videos— that already existed on social media (first on Snapchat and Vine, then later on Instagram as “stories”), and basically just dialed the “social” aspect of it waaay down.”

Instead of relying on studies, TikTok uses average viewers with promises of great rewards if they make it viral. It is the possibility of instant fame for everyone with a low-risk, high-return model. It could also be China’s evil plan to dumb down the West with obnoxious content and decreasing attention spans.

Whitney Grace, October 19, 2022

TikTok and Adderall: A Combo of Interest

October 13, 2022

The pandemic has made it challenging to access healthcare in a timely fashion. Virtual visits can help—if done properly. That is why the Department of Health and Human Services began allowing providers to skip in-person evaluations before prescribing controlled substances. It was an emergency measure, but it is difficult to imagine ever stuffing that genie back in its bottle. Naturally, some entities have seized this opportunity to rake in profits at the expense of vulnerable, mostly younger, patients. Vox reports, “‘Scary Easy. Sketchy as Hell.’ How Startups Are Pushing Adderall on TikTok.” Reporter Sara Morrison writes:

“Due to a combination of the pandemic and the rise of telehealth startups, it’s never been easier to come across social media content that will convince you that you might have ADHD, or services that will prescribe meds for it if they determine that you do. But that content isn’t always coming from health care professionals. Much of the TikTok content can be considered inaccurate or misleading. Meanwhile, it’s especially important that ADHD assessments are careful and thorough so that health care professionals can rule out other conditions with the same or similar symptoms as ADHD, look for coexisting conditions, and screen for people who are seeking ADHD meds like Adderall to abuse. Diagnosing someone with a condition they don’t have — and prescribing meds to treat it — means they aren’t getting diagnosed and treated for whatever condition or conditions they do have. And ADHD meds aren’t effective when taken by people who don’t have ADHD, but they can be addictive and abused. … Between the beginning of 2020 and the end of 2021, prescriptions for Adderall and its generic equivalents increased by nearly 25 percent during the pandemic for the 22-44 age group, a trend that health care analytics firm Trilliant Health attributed to ‘the emergence of digital mental health platforms.'”

Accurate diagnoses can be made online, but only if providers dedicate ample time to each assessment—preferable about two hours. These TikTok opportunists allot much less time. The aptly named Done, for example, offers 30-minute assessments with 15-minute follow-ups. Even some of the patients, though eager for a solution, report feeling rushed. Public scrutiny does seem to have curbed the trend somewhat. But Morrison notes Done, for one, is not slowing down its prescription gravy train. See the write-up for more details, but basically Done has partnered with several influencers to push its brand and, it seems, convince TikTok users they need its services. Then, of course, the platform’s algorithm feeds more and more of this content, much of it inaccurate, to users who express any interest in ADHD.

In general, telehealth can be a real boon for those who need healthcare during this time of chronic staff shortages. Too bad some shady companies are seizing this moment profit at all costs.

Cynthia Murrell, October 13, 2022

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