Saturday 6 February, 2021
Those Bloody Brits
Nice joke on the current Private Eye cover.
100 Not Out!
My Lockdown Diary is out on Kindle. You can get it here.
Quote of the Day
“Out of the kitchen, to stew is to fret, to worry, to agitate. In the kitchen, however, to stew is to have great expectations”.
Molly O’Neill, New York Times, 1994.
Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news
Haydn | Symphony #94 in G (‘Surprise’) | 2nd movement | Andante
Just to make sure that nobody sleeps at the back.
Long Read of the Day
Dan Wang’s annual letter
Dan Wang is one of the best-informed and thoughtful China analysts I read. At the end of every year he writes a charming annual letter which is full of insights.
This is the one for 2020. Sample:
Steady engagement with the (Communist Party’s )journal throughout the year has forced me to think more deeply about the Chinese Communist Party. There are many things that Xi wants to do, I believe that his most fundamental goal is to make this Marxist-Leninist party an effective governing force for the present century. His patient work to reshape the bureaucracy is aided by a distinctive feature of the Chinese system: the use of propaganda to create centralized campaigns of inspiration. Some of Xi’s efforts have borne fruit: the country’s governance capabilities have markedly improved, a trend that is apparent in daily life. At the same time, the state has grown much more repressive. A focus on repression shouldn’t neglect the improvement in the country’s institutional and commercial strengths; and appreciation of this improvement ought to be tempered by the party center’s growing mania for control.
When foreign commentators discuss the experience of reading state media, they rarely fail to attach a reference to its “turgid prose.” While some partyspeak is indeed unreadable, I’ve always seen that dismissal as a signal of contempt for the party’s pronouncements, thus deterring people from taking it seriously. But there is reason to treat its content with care. Propaganda might not matter to you, but it matters to the party…
Long read, but worth it.
Our emerging surveillance state
An unnamed source provided the New York Times‘s reporters Charlie Warzel and Stuart A. Thompson with an amazing data set, based on tracking the digital trails of the smartphones of thousands of Trump supporters, rioters and passers-by in Washington, D.C., on January 6, as Trump’s political rally turned into a violent insurrection. At least five people died because of the riot at the Capitol and a huge law-enforcement operation is in progress to arrest and prosecute the insurrectionists. And of course a key to bringing the mob to justice has been the event’s digital detritus: location data, geotagged photos, facial recognition, surveillance cameras and crowdsourcing.
“The data we were given”, write Warzel and Thompson,
showed what some in the tech industry might call a God-view vantage of that dark day. It included about 100,000 location pings for thousands of smartphones, revealing around 130 devices inside the Capitol exactly when Trump supporters were storming the building. Times Opinion is only publishing the names of people who gave their permission to be quoted in this article.
About 40 percent of the phones tracked near the rally stage on the National Mall during the speeches were also found in and around the Capitol during the siege — a clear link between those who’d listened to the president and his allies and then marched on the building.
While there were no names or phone numbers in the data, we were once again able to connect dozens of devices to their owners, tying anonymous locations back to names, home addresses, social networks and phone numbers of people in attendance. In one instance, three members of a single family were tracked in the data.
The source shared this information, in part, because the individual was outraged by the events of Jan. 6. The source wanted answers, accountability, justice. The person was also deeply concerned about the privacy implications of this surreptitious data collection. Not just that it happens, but also that most consumers don’t know it is being collected and it is insecure and vulnerable to law enforcement as well as bad actors — or an online mob — who might use it to inflict harm on innocent people. (The source asked to remain anonymous because the person was not authorized to share the data and could face severe penalties for doing so.)
If you know about how surveillance capitalism works, nothing in this story will surprise you. But that’s largely because we’ve become wearily familiar with the way the tech industry has gone its lawless way. “The data presented here”, say Warzel and Thompson,
is a bird’s-eye view of an event that posed a clear and grave threat to our democracy. But it tells a second story as well: One of a broken, surreptitious industry in desperate need of regulation, and of a tacit agreement we’ve entered into that threatens our individual privacy. None of this data should ever have been collected.
It shouldn’t. And now we need to contemplate the question of whether this massive enclosure movement can be stopped.
We’re now back in a bi-polar world in which two rival systems are heading into a new Cold War. There’s us in the West, huddled under a faltering American hegemony; and China, representing an alternative way of having technological and economic progress without the inconveniences of democracy. But underpinning this emerging geopolitical divide, there’s also a paradoxical convergence — for both blocs are committed to using digital technology for comprehensive surveillance of their populations. The only difference is that in China it’s driven by the state, whereas in the West it’s a public-private collaboration, involving companies with a toxic business model, operating under the tacit aegis of a state that needs the surveillance capabilities of the companies to augment its own formidable powers.
Footnote The two reporters have done great earlier work in documenting this stuff – see, for example, here.