MonthFebruary 2011

Inside the World of Wannabe Cyberspooks for Hire

Many of you have probably heard about the internal e-mails from the security firm HBGary. Ars Technica summarizes much of it in a length article, including HBGary’s aspirations to provide various PSYOPS services – such as cartoons and social media propaganda management – to federal agencies. Ars Technica details one proposal the firm sent to DARPA, which agency declined to fund:

So Barr and Hoglund drafted a plan to create something like a lie detector, except that it would look for signs of “paranoia” instead.

“Like a lie detector detects physical changes in the body based on sensitivities to specific questions, we believe there are physical changes in the body that are represented in observable behavioral changes when committing actions someone knows is wrong,” said the proposal. “Our solution is to develop a paranoia-meter to measure these observables.”

The idea was to take an HBGary rootkit like 12 Monkeys and install it on user machines in such a way that users could not remove it and might not even be aware of its presence. The rootkit would log user keystrokes, of course, but it would also take “as many behavioral measurements as possible” in order to look for suspicious activity that might indicate wrongdoing.

What sort of measurements? The rootkit would monitor “keystrokes, mouse movements, and visual cues through the system camera. We believe that during particularly risky activities we will see more erratic mouse movements and keystrokes as well as physical observations such as surveying surroundings, shifting more frequently, etc.”

But HBGary was also interested in applying its techniques for private clients as well:

But the e-mails also remind us how much of this work is carried out privately and beyond the control of government agencies. We found no evidence that HBGary sold malware to nongovernment entities intent on hacking, though the company did have plans to repurpose its DARPA rootkit idea for corporate surveillance work. (“HBGary plans to transition technology into commercial products,” it told DARPA.)

And another document, listing HBGary’s work over the last few years, included this entry: “HBGary had multiple contracts with a consumer software company to add stealth capability to their host agent.”

The actions of HBGary Federal’s Aaron Barr also serve as a good reminder that, when they’re searching for work, private security companies are more than happy to switch from military to corporate clients—and they bring some of the same tools to bear.

When asked to investigate pro-union websites and WikiLeaks, Barr turned immediately to his social media toolkit and was ready to deploy personas, Facebook scraping, link analysis, and fake websites; he also suggested computer attacks on WikiLeaks infrastructure and pressure be brought upon journalists like Glenn Greenwald.

His compatriots at Palantir and Berico showed, in their many e-mails, few if any qualms about turning their national security techniques upon private dissenting voices. Barr’s ideas showed up in Palantir-branded PowerPoints and Berico-branded “scope of work” documents. “Reconnaissance cells” were proposed, network attacks were acceptable, “target dossiers” on “adversaries” would be compiled, and “complex information campaigns” involving fake personas were on the table.

Ars Technica: Black ops: how HBGary wrote backdoors for the government

One of the more interesting proposals was for a “persona management” software for the Air Force. Raw Story has more details on this project. A mysterious company called Ntrepid eventually won that contract.

This isn’t the Air Force’s first foray into social media propaganda, it launched a blog commenting campaign in 2009.

How to Deal with Information Overload: Just Relax and Don’t Worry About Missing Stuff

Cory Doctorow writes about how to deal with information overload for the Guardian.

I’m not sure how well this applies to me, since I have to monitor information sources for work. Getting a story early is important. But I have generally found this to be true:

There is a world of difference between reading every word uttered in a community and reading just a few choice ones. But soon the anxiety gave way to contentment and even delight: it turned out that “overload” has a wonderful corollary: redundancy.

Anything really worth seeing wouldn’t just appear once and vanish. The really interesting stuff would find its way into other discussions, and early conferencing systems made it easy enough to back my way through the forums I was ignoring or skimming to find the important thing I’d missed. […]

Again and again, this pattern re-emerges: once I could read all the tweets emitted by everyone I followed on Twitter; now I just skim the last 20 or 30 a few times a day and rely on retweets to bubble the good stuff to the top (I do my bit by retweeting things when I think they deserve it).

Once I could read every item in my list of RSS feeds; now I periodically mark them all as read without looking at any of them, just to clear the decks: if there’s something good in the missed material, someone will repost it and I’ll see it then.

Cory Doctorow: Information overload? Time to relax then

It’s sound advice. Heck, even in professional blogging an old story can still get good page views – because there are going to be people who missed it the first time around.

Alternatives to Austerity, and a Left/Libertarian Alliance Revisited

When Thomas Friedman proposed that Americans needed to get used to making some sacrifices if we want to get the deficit under control, I wrote:

What’s the underlying cause of the debt crisis? Certainly Americans buy a lot of crap we don’t need, and on credit too. But consider:

The decline in real wages in the US
-Obama only proposes to raise taxes on those making over $250,000 a year
-The bailout, at tax payer expense, bailed out the wealthy
The wealthy routinely avoid paying taxes
-That 23% of the federal budget goes to defense spending (much of which goes to unaccountable private firms)

Who should we be asking to make some sacrifices?

Joseph Stiglitz offers a plan to reduce the U.S deficit he calls an alternative to austerity. Summarized:

  1. Increase “high-return” public investments, even if it increases the deficit in the short term. I assume he means infrastructure.
  2. Cut military expenditures. He doesn’t say how much.
  3. Eliminate corporate welfare.
  4. Slightly increase taxes for the top 1% of earners – by about 5%.

Stiglitz concludes with a dismal note:

There’s only one problem: it wouldn’t benefit those at the top, or the corporate and other special interests that have come to dominate America’s policymaking. Its compelling logic is precisely why there is little chance that such a reasonable proposal would ever be adopted.

This sounds about right to me, apart from the lack of specifics in some areas. It’s got me thinking, though – what essentials can the leftists and libertarians agree to? Could something like this be agreed upon:

  1. Fix public infrastructure, even if it increases the deficit
  2. Cut corporate welfare
  3. End tax loop-holes for the rich
  4. Reduce defense spending by at least 50%

Could we then agree to disagree about social welfare, tax cuts for everyone except the rich and tax increases for the rich? Would libertarians agree to increase public spending on infrastructure? Would the left be willing to put aside tax increases for the rich, or environmental regulations for the time being?

I’ve been cynical about the potential for a left/libertarian alliance since libertarians nearly universally supported Ron Paul in 2007. But now that Paul is trying to form a left/right alliance himself, perhaps it’s an idea whose time has come.

More On Creativity and Distractibility

Day dreaming

Jonah Lehrer writes for the Wall Street Journal:

A new study led by researchers at the University of Memphis and the University of Michigan extends this theme. The scientists measured the success of 60 undergraduates in various fields, from the visual arts to science. They asked the students if they’d ever won a prize at a juried art show or been honored at a science fair. In every domain, students who had been diagnosed with attention-deficit disorder achieved more: Their inability to focus turned out to be a creative advantage. […]

Here’s where the data get interesting: Those undergrads who had a tougher time ignoring unrelated stuff were also seven times more likely to be rated as “eminent creative achievers” based on their previous accomplishments. (The association was particularly strong among distractible students with high IQs.) […]

This doesn’t mean, of course, that attention isn’t an important mental skill, or that attention-deficit disorders aren’t a serious problem. There’s clearly nothing advantageous about struggling in the classroom, or not being able to follow instructions. (It’s also worth pointing out that these studies all involve college students, which doesn’t tell us anything about those kids with ADHD who fail to graduate from high school. Distraction might be a cognitive luxury that not everyone can afford.)

Wall Street Journal: Jonah Lehrer on Distractions, ADHD and Creativity

This is encouraging for people with major distractibility problems, such as myself. However, I’m not going to get too excited. That first study cited had only 60 participants – a tiny sample. Especially when you consider the “decline effect.”

I’ve been meaning to blog about the decline effect, and hopefully will soon. Incidentally, Lehrer wrote a great article about it for the New Yorker recently. Here’s a particularly relevant portion:

Although such reforms would mitigate the dangers of publication bias and selective reporting, they still wouldn’t erase the decline effect. This is largely because scientific research will always be shadowed by a force that can’t be curbed, only contained: sheer randomness. Although little research has been done on the experimental dangers of chance and happenstance, the research that exists isn’t encouraging.

I would consider myself a creative person. Perhaps distractability has helped me be more creative. But creativity is worthless without execution – and that’s why I’ve been trying to train myself to be more focused.

Having difficulty paying attention has negatively impacted my life more times than I can remember. It’s a big problem for me. That said, there’s usually room to use weaknesses as strengths.

Previously:

Are Distractible People More Creative?

Research Shows That American Creativity is Declining

Teachers hate creativity?

Secrets of a Mind-Gamer

Memory competition

Amazing article on mnemonics and memory competitions:

Researchers put the mental athletes and a group of control subjects into f.M.R.I. scanners and asked them to memorize three-digit numbers, black-and-white photographs of people’s faces and magnified images of snowflakes as their brains were being scanned. What they found was surprising: not only did the brains of the mental athletes appear anatomically indistinguishable from those of the control subjects, but on every test of general cognitive ability, the mental athletes’ scores came back well within the normal range. When Cooke told me he was an average guy with an average memory, it wasn’t just modesty speaking.

There was, however, one telling difference between the brains of the mental athletes and those of the control subjects. When the researchers looked at the parts of the brain that were engaged when the subjects memorized, they found that the mental athletes were relying more heavily on regions known to be involved in spatial memory. At first glance, this didn’t seem to make sense. Why would mental athletes be navigating spaces in their minds while trying to learn three-digit numbers?

The answer lies in a discovery supposedly made by the poet Simonides of Ceos in the fifth century B.C. After a tragic banquet-hall collapse, of which he was the sole survivor, Simonides was asked to give an account of who was buried in the debris. My trainer and all the other mental athletes I met kept insisting that anyone could do what they do. It was simply a matter of learning to ‘think in more memorable ways.’ When the poet closed his eyes and reconstructed the crumbled building in his imagination, he had an extraordinary realization: he remembered where each of the guests at the ill-fated dinner had been sitting. Even though he made no conscious effort to memorize the layout of the room, it nonetheless left a durable impression. From that simple observation, Simonides reportedly invented a technique that would form the basis of what came to be known as the art of memory. He realized that if there hadn’t been guests sitting at a banquet table but, say, every great Greek dramatist seated in order of birth — or each of the words of one of his poems or every item he needed to accomplish that day — he would have remembered that instead. He reasoned that just about anything could be imprinted upon our memories, and kept in good order, simply by constructing a building in the imagination and filling it with imagery of what needed to be recalled. This imagined edifice could then be walked through at any time in the future. Such a building would later come to be called a memory palace. […]

But mental athletes don’t merely embrace the practice of the ancients. The sport of competitive memory is driven by an arms race of sorts. Each year someone — usually a competitor who is temporarily underemployed or a student on summer vacation — comes up with a more elaborate technique for remembering more stuff more quickly, forcing the rest of the field to play catch-up. In order to remember digits, for example, Cooke recently invented a code that allows him to convert every number from 0 to 999,999,999 into a unique image that he can then deposit in a memory palace.

New York Times: Secrets of a Mind-Gamer

Turning Cell Phones into Urban Supercomputers

Giant cell phone

Another one from me at ReadWriteWeb:

One of the primary ideas behind IBM’s Smarter Planet concept is a web of sensors all over the planet, leading to a data explosion. But what if that web of sensors was more directly under the public’s control? Strategic forecast consultant Chris Arkbenberg hits on an interesting idea in a recent blog post. He muses on the idea of using mobile phones for grid computing, a la  SETI@home, to create massive distributed supercomputers for processing all of this data. “Consider the processing power latent across a city of 20 million mobile subscribers, such as Tokyo,” he writes.

Arkenberg takes the idea further by suggesting that sensors could be built into mobile phones that could monitor air quality or act as a sort of distributed surveillance system. The possibilities are endless. “Consider what could be done with an API for addressing clusters of mobile sensors,” he writes.

ReadWriteCloud: Turning Cell Phones into Urban Supercomputers

See also:

My interview with Chris Arkenberg

Green Cities and the Urban Operating System

Photo by Daryl Mitchell

Is IT Investment Hurting US Job Growth?

not hiring

Here’s my coverage of how information technology may be hurting the economy:

Forrester released today a report called Caution: IT Investment May Be Hurting US Job Growth. The report’s authors – Andrew Bartels, Christopher Mines and Sarah Musto – note that despite record corporate profits, unemployment remains unchanged. Forrester notes that poor job growth both causes and is caused by poor economic growth. It’s a vicious cycle.

The report suggests that corporations are investing in IT instead of hiring workers. The analysts looked at research from 62 industries to find out what’s going on. The report says that the industries with the highest IT investment are also the ones with the biggest decline in jobs. The analysts conclude that there is a causal connection between IT investment growth and the lack of employment growth.

Forrester is not the first to suggest this. Gartner VP and fellow Tom Austin’s blog post on the same subject lead us to ask last year “What Can IT Do To Stimulate the Job Market?” And AMI Partners claimed last year that cloud computing would result in 200,000 – 250,000 job losses over the next decade. […]

“Looking across these 62 private sector industries, we found a modest but statistically significant inverse or negative correlation between IT investment and employment,” the report says. The effect was most pronounced in manufacturing.

ReadWriteWeb: Forrester: Is IT Investment Hurting US Job Growth?

See also:

Great Demands from Employers Mean Jobs Go Unfilled Even with High Unemployment

What Can IT Do To Stimulate the Job Market?

Photo by Daniel Lobo

DARPA’s New Crowdsourcing Initiative to Target Pets

DARPA dog

Right now, only 1 percent or so of America’s population contributes to the country’s defense and offense. In its new budget, Darpa announces a $25 million effort to build tools that’ll rope in the other 99 percent. Doesn’t exactly explain how. But think crowd-sourcing, plus a touch of machine learning to pair peeps up. The program is called “Unconventional Warfighters,” and the idea is to tap three pools of potential contributors.First, Darpa is looking to plug in “futurists, inventors, hobbyists and tinkerers who approach military problems from an unconventional perspective.” Then, the agency would like to call upon “military Veterans, including disabled Veterans, who have deep knowledge of the missions and the operational environment.” Lastly, Darpa wants those veterans’ pets.“Animals are another class of potential contributors,” the agency explains in its budget. “This is not a new idea, as animals possessing special abilities such as dogs and dolphins have been used before to perform military tasks such as mine detection. The new aspect to be examined under Unconventional Warfighters is the potential for creating new sensor, processing, communication and actuator systems specially adapted to enable animals to execute tasks beyond their natural capabilities.”

Darpa’s New Recruits: You, Your Grandpa and Your Dog

(via Arkenberg)

Can You Imagine a Future Where London Police Bees Conduct Genetic Surveillance?

genetic surveillance warning

Designer Thomas Thwaites (who built this DIY toaster with iron ore gathered by hand) has created a project called “Policing Genes,” envisioning a future in which bees are used for genetic surveillance:

Other than a few obvious illegal narcotic plants, it hadn’t occurred to me that the genetics of what is growing in a person’s garden could become a police matter. Even more intriguing/trippy was the possibility of the police using bees for surveillance and for forensically identifying the pollen that the bees came back with. If that pollen is genetically outside of the law, the police could use the bees to track a person right to the house he or she lives in. […]

Thomas Thwaites, however, has put a great deal of thought into genetic engineering and the policing of those genes. Thwaites pointed out that the ability to insert genes into plants is now DIY technology available to both the amateur and the criminal. “Policing Genes speculates that, like other technologies, genetic engineering will also find a use outside the law, with innocent-looking garden plants being modified to produce narcotics and unlicensed pharmaceuticals.”

Computerworld: Police bees for surveillance, tracking and buzzzsting biohackers?

Policing Genes

See also:

We Make Money Not Art’s interview with Thwaites

Biopunk: the biotechnology black market

To Talk With Aliens, Learn to Speak With Dolphins

Dolphins

Herzing created an open-ended framework for communication, using sounds, symbols and props to interact with the dolphins. The goal was to create a shared, primitive language that would allow dolphins and humans to ask for props, such as balls or scarves.

Divers demonstrated the system by pressing keys on a large submerged keyboard. Other humans would throw them the corresponding prop. In addition to being labeled with a symbol, each key was paired with a whistle that dolphins could mimic. A dolphin could ask for a toy either by pushing the key with her nose, or whistling.

Herzing’s study is the first of its kind. No one has tried to establish two-way communication in the wild.

“This is an authentic way to approach this, she’s not imposing herself on them,” said Lori Marino, the Emory University biologist who, with Hunter College psychologist Diana Reiss, pioneered dolphin self-recognition studies. “She’s cultivated a relationship with these dolphins over a very long time and it’s entirely on their terms. I think this is the future of working with dolphins.”

Wired: To Talk With Aliens, Learn to Speak With Dolphins

(via Bianca Lee)

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