Do you want to know a secret? Social steganography

Paul Raven @ 09-02-2011

Blah blah blah, the intertubes are eroding literacy, kids these days have poor communication skills, blah. Well, if we keep measuring those skills using old metrics, it’s bound to look that way… but kids (a definition that in this instance I’d consider expanding to “web natives”, a demographic that can extend into the younger end of Gen-X, if not further) are actually very sophisticated communicators, primarily because they’re adapting fast to the fact that a lot of their personal communication occurs in publicly-accessible spaces like Facebook. When your mum (or your boss) can be keeping an eye on your wall (or your Twitter stream), you sometimes have to code your updates so that they’re only comprehensible to their intended recipients. And what better an encryption key than your shared cultural references?

Posting lyrics to communicate your mood is one of the most common social steganographic tricks, because teens are fluent in pop culture in a way their parents aren’t. What teenagers are doing reminds me of Washington’s “dog whistle” politics, in which politicians deliver speeches that sound bland but are laden with meaning aimed at their base. For instance, Republican kingmaker Lee Atwater used to advise candidates to use phrases like “states’ rights” and “forced busing” to incite racial fears among white voters without actually using offensive language.

Obviously, one could regard the emergence of youth steganography as yet more depressing evidence of how dangerously overcomplex the web has made teens’ lives. But frankly, I’m kind of awed by the rhetorical sophistication of today’s teens. They are basically required to live in public (you try maintaining friendships without an online presence), but they crave some privacy, too. So they’ve taught themselves to hack language. They hack systems, as well: [Danah] Boyd has also found teenagers who “deactivate” their Facebook account when they log off so nobody can see their stuff or post comments. Then they “reactivate” it when they want to go back online and interact with friends. Presto: They create a virtual club where they control the operating hours. Color me impressed.

I’m tempted to see this as a reappropriation of a (virtual) social space by a generation that increasingly has little access to (physical) social space, though that’s doubtless either an oversimplification of the case or a fractional component of what’s actually happening.

But I think the important thing here is that young people will always find a way to do what young people have always done: distance themselves from the adult-mediated social sphere that they feel oppresses them (c’mon, every kid feels that way, even if it isn’t necessarily true), and create a new space to populate with their own argot, their own ideas and values. Of course, if you’ve always felt intimidated by kids and their weird ways, that’ll be cold comfort… but to me it’s a clear sign that we’re not losing anything essential about our human-ness to the web, we’re just finding new ways to enact it.


Janus Face(book)

Paul Raven @ 27-01-2011

When corporations get big, stuff starts getting weird. Facebook is now sufficently large and internationally ubiquitous to be playing a part (albeit a passive/enabling part) in the recent spate of revolutions in the Middle East… but that involvement puts them on the same playing field as nation-states.

For example, Tunisian Facebook users reported some account hacks, which led Zuckerberg’s people to block the government-ordered man-in-the-middle attack that was behind said hacks [via TechDirt]. Now, on one level that’s just a company looking after the interests and privacy of its client-base… but on another level, that’s a non-nation-state entity blocking a nation-state’s attempts to control its citizens. Not entirely unprecedented, of course (East India Companies, anyone?), but the post-geopolitical implications are… well, let’s just say a lot of old certainties have pretty much disappeared, especially for less-developed nations with a recent history of despotism, but increasingly for the old “first world” titans, too.

My inner cynic suspects that there’s more than a hint of good PR strategy involved, though; Facebook has suffered from the inevitable bad press that comes with becoming big news real fast, but they’ve earned much of that opprobrium fair and square… and largely through a cavalier attitude to the privacy of their userbase, ironically enough. Their latest we-opted-you-in-while-you-weren’t-looking move is a real doozy; take it away, Ars Technica:

Better go check your Facebook profile pic to make sure it’s suitable for advertising—the company has begun using real users’ postings in ads being shown to their friends. The effort is eerily similar to parts of the now-defunct Facebook Beacon, but Facebook is now calling them “sponsored stories,” and users won’t be able to opt out of their posts being used to advertise to friends.

The new “feature” started showing up quietly on Wednesday morning without any kind of fanfare from Facebook, but users began to notice it right away. Things posted by their friends; check-ins at businesses and “Likes” clicked from other websites started being highlighted in the right-hand column with the other ads, under the headline of “Sponsored Story.”

It’s the lack of opt-out that will rile people as this story gains traction (which, given similar stories last year, I fully expect it will). Furthermore, the Facebook T&C clickwrap now says that any content you post there – pictures, status updates, blog posts, whatever – becomes Facebook’s IP to do with as it pleases. Makes sense from a business point of view, enables them to keep the service free to use, and probably won’t bother the vast majority of people… but I’ll be switching off all my feed imports from now on. For me at least, Facebook’s utility is outweighed by my feeling that if my content’s worth anything to anyone, I should be getting some cut of the deal… but in countries hungry for political change, whose citizens find themselves with an unprecedented tool-set for self-organisation, the balances tip in the other direction.

How Facebook decides to wield this power will be worth watching closely. We spoke before about wanting to become “citizens of the Internet”; if we think of “the Internet” as a sort of federation of city-states, Facebook starts looking remarkably like a panopticon remix of Brave New World.


This is my genome. There are many others like it, but this one is mine.

Paul Raven @ 19-01-2011

With the increasing difficulty of getting people to actually sign up for military service in the first place, you’d think the Pentagon would make more of an effort to not treat its soldiery as disposable meatbags. Or at least I’d think that… which is one more reason to add to the list of reasons that I’m not a five-star general, I guess.

Aaaaaanyway, here’s the skinny on a Pentagon report that recommends the Department of Defense get some more mileage out of their human resources by collecting and sequencing the DNA of their soldiers en masse [via grinding.be]:

According to the report, the Department of Defense (DoD) and the Veteran’s Administration (VA) “may be uniquely positioned to make great advances in this space. DoD has a large population of possible participants that can provide quality information on phenotype and the necessary DNA samples. The VA has enormous reach-back potential, wherein archived medical records and DNA samples could allow immediate longitudinal studies to be conducted.”

Specifically, the report recommends that the Pentagon begin collecting sequencing soldiers’ DNA for “diagnostic and predictive applications.” It recommends that the military begin seeking correlations between soldiers’ genotypes and phenotypes (outward characteristics) “of relevance to the military” in order to correlate the two. And the report says — without offering details — that both “offensive and defensive military operations” could be affected.

That HuffPo piece leads off with the privacy angle, and wanders onto the more interesting (if potentially nasty) territory of promotional assessment based on genetic factors – a little like like a version of Gattaca where your perfection entitles you to use bigger and better guns. (Or, if you’re lucky, a job in the generals’ tent instead of the trenches.) More interesting still is the news that the DoD already has over 3 million DNA samples on file…

HuffPo being HuffPo, the piece ends with a blustering condemnation of the report:

Soldiers, having signed away many of their rights upon enlistment, should not be used for research that would not otherwise comport with our values, just because they are conveniently available.

Our enormous military establishment is a whole world unto itself, and there is no good reason why that world should depart from the standards that Congress so definitively banned in the rest of the employment world. Congress should prohibit the military from spending money on sequencing individual soldiers’ genomes (without individualized medical or forensic cause) or carrying out large-scale research on soldiers’ DNA.

Yeah, good luck with that. Frankly, I’d have thought a cheaper and more effective option for selecting the optimum soldierly phenotypes would be taking a more honest approach at the recruitment screening phase…


Swivelchair holidays in the global Transparent Society

Paul Raven @ 12-01-2011

It’s been a while since it cropped up last, but regular readers may well remember my fascination with David Brin’s Transparent Society. My (and Brin’s) principle objection to the proliferation of surveillance cameras isn’t that they exist, but that they’re private; if they were publicly accessible to anyone, the panopticon suddenly inverts itself into something a lot less sinister. (Or simply sinister in a different way, I suppose, depending on your personal politics of privacy.)

By definition, closed circuit surveillance can’t be viewed by anyone without a physical connection to the device. But CCTV is being rapidly outpaced by networked IP cameras, accessed via the internet… and as this Ars Technica piece makes clear, a great number of them are simply sat out there waiting for you to log on and watch, although that may not have been the intent with which they were set up.

Finding IP cameras with Google is surprisingly easy. Though the information the search engine provides on the cameras themselves is typically little more than an IP address and a camera name or model number, Google still provides those who know how to ask with extensive lists of IP cameras and Web-enabled surveillance systems throughout the world.

The secret is in the search itself. Though a standard Google search typically won’t find anything out of the ordinary, pairing advanced search tags (“intitle,” “inurl,” “intext,” and so on) with names of commonly-used cameras or fragments of URLs will provide direct links to watch live video from thousands of IP cameras.

Good harmless fun, right? Well, not necessarily:

Though accessing public cameras can be fun and is essentially harmless, it’s impossible to divorce the voyeuristic aspects of Googling cameras from the innocent ones. Because the majority of the cameras the engine finds are meant for surveillance, most of what’s out there is being used in security applications and is not meant to be seen by others.

This hit home quickly as I worked through my list of search strings and found myself watching daily events at businesses around the world. Though jewelry stores typically use the top tier of surveillance and security gear (and therefore secure it better), I was able to find several boutique stores around the world and watch as customers browsed display cases full of gold and silver. Although just looking at a store online couldn’t cause any harm, knowing when the store is occupied or empty could prove useful to a burglar looking for an easy target, especially if one was able to narrow down where the store was (not a huge stretch with the camera’s IP address to trace).

That there’s the main argument against the Transparent Society: “bad people could use it to do bad things!” Which is true as it stands… but if every camera was open-access, then Johnny Q Burglar could be easily tracked and traced on his way to and from his break-in job using the surveillance devices in the streets around his target.

OK, so that’s a massive over-simplification, but it’s an interesting twist on the sousveillance/participatory panopticon riff; personally, I think I’d rather have a world of open-access cameras (and accept the multilateral loss of a certain aspect of the thing we call privacy) than the alternative: like, I dunno, the sort of privatised surveillance state my own home country is becoming.

What about you lot: would you be willing to accept being surveilled by anyone anywhere in exchange for the ability to do the same yourself?


When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro

Paul Raven @ 25-11-2010

Things are getting real weird real fast. Did you hear about the Germans who insisted on the right to “opt out” of Google Street View and have their houses pixelated? Well, now they’re being targetted by pro-Google activism that consists of drive-by egg-raids and labels stuck to letterboxes proclaiming that “Google’s cool” [via TechDirt].

Double-U. Tee. Eff?

For the record, I think the folk opting out of Street View are misguided, and the egg-raiders are idiots; no advocacy in this post, I assure you. But think a moment on the high weirdness of this situation, about the mad wild flux of global culture that has made it possible. Just a decade ago, this would have been a gonzo near-future sf plot that any sane editor would have bounced for being charmingly implausible…

I’m sure this is the part where I’m supposed to wonder “how did we get here from there?”, but that’s the weirdest thing of all – I know exactly how we got here from there, because I’ve made a point of watching it unfold like a card-sharp’s prestidigitation, but I still can’t quite tell how the trick was done: it’s hopeful and baffling and wonderful and insane and terrifying all at once.

And things are likely to get weirder as the times get tougherI’m starting to think Brenda may have a point; the Singularity’s already started, it just doesn’t look anything like the shiny transcendent technotopia we thought it would be. Which shouldn’t be surprising, really… but it still is.

[ * And a posthumous hat-tip to the late Doctor Gonzo for the headline, who I resolutely believe would be taking a similar horrified joy – or perhaps a joyous horror, if there’s a difference – in the headlines of the moment. We’ve bought the ticket; now we’re taking the ride. ]


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