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ISP Customer Data a Well-Stocked Pond for Police Fishing Expeditions

A small spotted yellow fish being held by two hands in front of a ruler with stones and moss in the background. The fish measures about 9 inches long.
As most of us know by now, Republicans in congress recently made it legal for internet service providers (ISPs) to distribute and sell information about us, their customers – including detailed internet usage data – without our permission. Much has been written about the potential dystopian marketing uses of this data, but I have seen little addressing something that could be even more chilling: the use of this data by law enforcement. 

There is a recent but deep history of companies providing new data-driven tools to law enforcement. It can be hard to argue with these services on the surface, but repeatedly we have seen abuses which have led some companies to curtail the use of their services by the police. Companies have harvested the public timeline of Twitter, for instance, to provide tools for tracking lawful protestors. Facebook data is available through third parties that allow a level of deep search impossible on the platform itself. And while these services and the use of this data by law enforcement does occasionally result in a feel-good story on the news, the broadening of the use of these tools is concerning. 

Thinking specifically about ISP customer data, we know that there will be data of interest to law enforcement. It is, after all, not uncommon for subpoenas and warrants to be issued for this data in certain types of cases. The idea that detailed demographic data coupled with explicit internet usage history could soon be available on every internet subscriber in the country, packaged into a neat, searchable database, must have some members of the authorities salivating. No longer will a case need to be made first, possibly to be backed up with a handful of potentially dubious web searches. Instead, algorithms can easily digest the data as a whole and spit out a list of people who “fit the pattern” of past offenders – maybe this is a list of users visiting known child pornography sites, or maybe it’s a list of us who regularly use encrypted communications, read hardware hacking tutorials, and search for “download Avengers movie” to see which service offers it cheapest. 

We have already seen how problematic algorithmic analysis of data sets can be. They are biased, opaque, and lack nuance in their conclusions. Set loose on such a rich data set, it’s not hard to imagine the long list of potential “criminals” that can be manufactured from completely innocent, legal uses of a service they pay for. No warrant will be needed for this data. No oversight required for its use. The data brokers need not even be publicly revealed if their terms of service are properly written. And as laws regarding what is and is not legal or suspicious change, some of this data could damn us well into the future. 

Congress has not just handed the marketers of the country with a gift, they have stocked the pond for some very rich fishing expeditions by law enforcement groups throughout the US.


Community Supported Propaganda

I’ve been thinking about things that we as small groups and individuals can do to temper and eventually turn the frightening political front that the US (and, indeed, others) are seeing at this moment. We know that media plays an outsized role, even compared to the recent past, in the general thoughts and feelings of much of the country and the world. Media companies are corporations, first and foremost (some exceptions exist) and are interested primarily in a continued, profitable existence. With the extreme changes in the media landscape over the last two decades, this is not a certainty for most media corporations and, therefore, they have become much more risk-averse than in the past. This can translate into business strategies much more focused on attracting and maintaining audiences than in reporting fair and accurate news. You can’t be the only outlet not reporting on the scandal of the day lest you loose eyeballs and, therefore, revenue.

However, media – primarily video content – is not about to lose its influence in our daily lives. What I think that we as concerned individuals must do is device new ways to have media work for us, and to spread the messages we feel are important rather than leaving that choice up to profit-motivated newsrooms.

You have likely heard of a “CSA” before – usually meaning “Community Supported Agriculture” but expanded to include “Aquaculture,” and, particularly relevant to this concept, “Art.” In my community, I can participate in a Community Supported Art group which allows about 150-200 people each quarter to pay into a pool which is then distributed among a juried group of local artists, each of whom must create an art object for each of the supporters. I think we can look to this model for inspiration in getting small, targeted bits of media in front of the people who most need to hear our messages.

This is, on the surface, a simple concept:

  • Social media ads are pretty cheap (or at least have a low barrier to entry)
  • Targeting tools on those platforms are creepily specific
  • We have so many creative people who want to do something to help
  • We can crowdfund the running of ad spots targeting those who most need to hear our messages

I envision a group who evaluates submissions from the community on a variety of criteria and then manages the running of the submissions in appropriate targeted groups on sites like Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat, and more. Supporters pay into the pool on a regular basis (similar to Patreon) and receive updates about which ads were run and potentially engagement reports from interactions with those ads. I would hope that such situations were able to provide some compensation and/or production assistance to those creating the media content as necessary and possible.

In short, we as regular individuals could come together to put small-creator-made ads in front of hundreds of thousands of people who need to hear from anyone outside their echo chamber. We would, in effect, open up those chambers and inject our own little bit of reverb into the echoes.

There are some potential pitfalls. Any tool can be used for good and evil, and there is great potential for harmful mis-use of this concept. In fact, I would be surprised if this isn’t already happening. It’s easy to imagine, for instance, a group running ads targeting LGBT+ youth with messages encouraging self-harm, or one offering assistance to undocumented immigrants which actually handed over their information to authorities. But, while tempting, it doesn’t help to try to keep tactics secret. When used openly, everyone can better understand how they work and can use them, and devise antidotes to them, more effectively.

For my case, I would want to see ads that humanize those who are under the heaviest persecution at the moment and make it difficult for far-right conservatives to other them. I would support messages of unity and warmth, but also a lot of messages of facts –  the kinds of facts that make strong conservatives question the stories we are getting from our current administration. (Honest, creative presentation of those facts are key to encourage the necessary engagement.)

I would not personally support groups running aggressive messaging that is more likely to cause a backlash effect than a critical evaluation of beliefs. But that is a choice, not a requirement for such a thing. It makes me wonder whether contributors should have a say in which ads are run and whether voting on a juried selection may be feasible.

The media is a weapon at this point, and I see no way to stuff it back in the bottle, so let’s at least make things as even as we can.

 


Speaking up: Corporate edition

I am really impressed and proud of Lyft this morning. A private company, one that has potentially much to lose under a Trump administration, has sent and email to (all?) customers denouncing the ethically bankrupt actions of Trump with his recent immediate ban on refugees. It’s a deplorable move, and one that embarrasses me as an American. I really think we need many, many more companies to start stepping up and denouncing these actions. After all, corporations are people too, and it seems the only ones the administration will listen to. (The email came with announcement of a generous donation to the ACLU too!)

[Text reads:

Defending Our Values

Hi William,

We created Lyft to be a model for the type of community we want our world to be: diverse, inclusive, and safe.

This weekend, Trump closed the country’s borders to refugees, immigrants, and even documented residents from around the world based on their country of origin. Banning people of a particular faith or creed, race or identity, sexuality or ethnicity, from entering the U.S. is antithetical to both Lyft’s and our nation’s core values. We stand firmly against these actions, and will not be silent on issues that threaten the values of our community.

We know this directly impacts many of our community members, their families, and friends. We stand with you, and are donating $1,000,000 over the next four years to the ACLU to defend our constitution. We ask that you continue to be there for each other – and together, continue proving the power of community.

John & Logan
Lyft Co-Founders]

 

Nicely done, Lyft. I hope you inspire others.

[UPDATE: Apple too: http://www.macrumors.com/2017/01/28/tim-cook-on-immigration-order/]


Changing Minds

One of the things I am most interested in is how we change minds. By this, I mean lasting, long-term change in attitude, not just a short-term, temporary persuasion. I think that there may be some overlap in technique, but my intuition tells me that these are vastly different activities with similarly different (and diverse) methods that must be brought to bear.

I have an enthusiastic hobbiest’s fascination with marketing and advertising which, I think, focuses much more on short-term change than what I am really interested in. However, I suspect that there is something to be learned by traditional marketing techniques, and newer techniques in particular. (Repetition, for instance, likely plays a role in both kinds of influence.) Since we are really just beginning to understand the psychology behind marketing techniques, there could be a wealth of knowledge around the corner. (That assumes that what we are learning ends up passing muster down the road, a substantial problem in the psychology field today.)

I have a lot of thoughts on the issue of changing minds in the long term, and I’ll mention them as they come up and my ideas on this matter refine. For now, I’ll just mention a few of the simpler ones.

Length and Depth of Engagement: I think that the amount of time and the depth of exposure to a potentially mind-changing point of view almost certainly influences its success. I imagine that a particularly traumatic experience may form lasting change, but outside of those unfortunate situations, regular, repeated exposure to an attitude, and more than a superficial understanding of that attitude is likely to be necessary for lasting change.

Willingness to Engage: This is really hard. I think it will forever be hard to change a mind that does not want to be changed. Or, put a different way, a completely closed mind is a static mind and a static mind, by definition, cannot be changed. I’m not much for absolutes, and that goes here as well, but “cannot be changed” and “exceedingly difficult to change” are nearly synonymous at this stage of our understanding of this topic.

Rewards for Engagement: Note that I say rewards for engagement here, not for actually changing of one’s mind which, if it happens, is probably it’s own reward in a way. (A more accurate/congruent sense of one’s beliefs, for instance, could be considered the reward.) I think that when looking at strategies for long-term changing of attitudes, rewarding the effort is likely to be at least somewhat important. I’m not sure exactly how this may play out, but instinctually, this feels like it has a place in the discussion.

I note that all three of the initial thoughts I mention above center around engagement with a new attitude. This is encouraging in a way because it means that there is some cohesiveness to my thoughts at this point. It is, however, discouraging because it’s the willingness to engage that I think is most lacking in our US society at present. I think I shall spend some time thinking about ways to prompt that engagement (and incorporating rewards for it, as mentioned above). A post is sure to follow.

Continuing…


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