Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Election Protection

“An article on Sunday about Campbell Brown’s role as Facebook’s head of news partnerships erroneously included a reference to Palestinian actions as an example of the sort of far-right conspiracy stories that have plagued Facebook. In fact, Palestinian officials have acknowledged providing payments to the families of Palestinians killed while carrying out attacks on Israelis or convicted of terrorist acts and imprisoned in Israel; that is not a conspiracy theory.”
—Correction published in The New York Times, April 24

“Zuckerberg Bombarded with Facebook Ads for Suits, Haircuts”
—Headline in the Irish satirical newspaper Waterford Whispers, April 12
“I hate the internet!”

So declared someone in our house recently while reading her phone. I share her annoyance. Her exclamation was presumably prompted by yet another email asking or demanding her to review and approve a revised privacy policy for some web site or app. I’ve been getting a lot of those myself, and I am guessing that you are too.

On Friday the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) goes into effect, spurring internet companies and publishers to comply by informing and/or getting permissions from their consumers. Generally, companies outside the EU seem to be following suit because it makes sense business-wise. The GDPR was adopted two years ago, but its imminent long-planned implementation has timely urgency in the wake of concerns over deceptive social media advertising and aggressive data mining, such as Cambridge Analytica’s early work for the Trump campaign. It is interesting to note that, in the past, these sorts of European edicts were directives that then had to be enacted in national legislation for them to take effect in each country. By contrast, this regulation is directly enforceable by the EU on its own authority. I think we can pretty much consider the EU a true super-state now.

Like most things governments do to protect or look out for the interests of citizens, much of the burden—and indirectly the cost—ends up landing on the shoulders of those very same citizens. It creates a lot of profitable work for lawyers who are required to draw up new user agreements and policies, and end-users wind up with clogged in-boxes full of links to long, detailed, jargon-filled on-line documents that few will bother to actually read. In the end, will we all be safer privacy-wise? Count me as a hard skeptic.

Something else is happening on Friday. Ireland is holding a referendum in which voters will decide whether to preserve or delete language in the national constitution giving the unborn equal status under the law with the women who carry them. I find it strange that a constitution would actually include medical policy in the first place, but on the other hand, the U.S. Constitution does the same (although to opposite effect)—at least as ruled by the Supreme Court in Roe v Wade, which said that abortion is a constitutional right. If Friday’s referendum passes, the government has said it will legislate to make abortion freely available in Ireland up to the twelfth week and in limited cases after that. Polling suggests that the repeal will be enacted, largely on the strength of a surge in registration of urban voters.

No one can have missed the competing campaigns, as posters proclaiming “Yes” (“Tá” in Irish) and “No” cover every available electricity and telephone pole. The debate is also taking place on the internet, and that is where we may be getting a glimpse of where the hysteria over Russian “meddling” may lead us. A couple of weeks ago Facebook announced that it would ban any referendum advertising that originated outside of Ireland. Google went a step further and said it would ban all Irish referendum advertising—regardless of geographic origin—from the large number of web sites displaying ads via Google. (My own movie blog would be the most minor of examples of sites running Google’s third-party ads.) Interestingly the Yes side declared it was quite happy with this, while the No side cried foul. The anti-abortion side has benefited significantly from foreign supporters, notably groups in the U.S.

Legally, Facebook and Google are private companies which are entitled to accept or reject advertising from any clients they wish, but a moment like this drives home just how much influence these businesses’ decisions can have in the general dissemination of ideas and opinions. Internet companies are under intense pressure to eliminate “fake news” from users’ feeds, but who gets to say exactly what “fake news” is? If you are one of the millions of Americans who are distraught over the last presidential election, you may see no problem with social media companies filtering out foreign-sourced posts working to Donald Trump’s advantage. Once you start censoring content for any reason, though, there will be unintended consequences or—if you are a cynic—possible malevolent intended consequences. It is worth remembering that the Russians also did some boosting of Bernie Sanders, since their ultimate goal was to undermine the supposedly inevitable winner, Hillary Clinton.

Here is another way to look at it. Suppose the Russians, instead of using Facebook and other social media, had put their provocative political content on good old-fashioned paper and put it into envelopes and mailed them through the U.S. Postal Service. Would we now be talking about having the post office filter out certain types of letters with certain kinds of content from its system?

The difference between snail mail and social media is that, unlike the USPS, Facebook is a private company that would like to keep government regulation as light as possible. As such, it is susceptible to influence from politicians—not to mention its own internal biases. Also, the nature of digital data is such that, unlike traditional mail, it is relatively easy to design algorithms to screen out certain types of information deliberately.

Just as ordinary citizens are the ones who bear the ultimate burden when governments and super-states try to protect us, it could ultimately be our access to a free flow of information—the good along with the bad—which could suffer because hysterical people did not like the outcome of one election.

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Scout’s Honor?

“James and Patrice Comey have five children, having lost one son, Collin, who died at a very early age. The couple’s four daughters, after being disappointed that Hillary Clinton didn’t win, have been politically active in the wake of the 2016 election. ‘I wanted a woman president really badly, and I supported Hillary Clinton. A lot of my friends worked for her. And I was devastated when she lost,’ Patrice Comey told [George] Stephanopoulos.”
—Meghan Keneally, “James Comey’s wife warned him: ‘Don’t be the torture guy,’ ” ABCnews.com, April 15
In my previous post I patted myself on the back for my prescience five years ago in seeming to see where the pursuit of political data mining was going to go. In the interest of balance, allow me to revisit some comments more than a year ago where I now realize I got it wrong.

Fifteen months ago I wrote, “I have nothing but sympathy for [FBI Director James] Comey. He had a sterling reputation going into the election period, but he wound up in a situation where he was guaranteed to have political activists on all sides livid at him. He clearly did not want to be discussing the investigation at all, but his boss Attorney General Lynch left him no alternative.”

At that point I saw Comey as a man forced unwillingly into a terrible position. Because I had heard so many people on both sides of the political divide refer to him invariably as “a Boy Scout” and “a straight shooter,” I took it on faith that he was a disinterested public servant doing his best in a difficult situation. Subsequent events—not the least of which are his recently published book and his non-stop media publicity tour—have shown me once again it is wise to be skeptical even when—or maybe mostly when—“everybody” seems to agree on something.

The picture that has emerged of Comey is not now nearly so flattering. When the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s rogue email server was completed, it was unusual that the findings were announced publicly. It was even more unusual that they were announced personally by the FBI director. The proximate reason for it going down that way was that Attorney General Loretta Lynch had announced she would automatically accept the FBI director’s recommendation on the matter. While not formally recusing herself, she effectively gave Comey the last word, which explains why he made the announcement instead of her. This happened because a short time before she had had a private meeting in her personal jet with the former president who had jump-started her career by appointing her as a U.S. Attorney and who also happened to be Hillary Clinton’s husband. We now know from Comey that he actually quite willingly took the opportunity to make the announcement, not only because of the appearance of conflict-of-interest in the Lynch/Clinton meeting but also because of other compromising information about Lynch that was not revealed.

“In early 2016,” reported ABCNews.com on Comey’s interview with George Stephanopoulos, “the U.S. intelligence community obtained classified information that, according to Comey, ‘raised the question of whether Loretta Lynch was controlling me and the FBI and keeping the Clinton campaign informed about our investigation.’ ”

Many people blame Comey’s announcement of the (brief) re-opening of the email investigation for costing Clinton the election. There is no way to know that, but amazingly Comey has now explained that he made the announcement to actually help Clinton, i.e. to avoid any reason for her opponents to later accuse her administration of being illegitimate. He has said he only made the announcement because he was sure she win the election anyway. Text messages between FBI officials Peter Strzok and Lisa Page, who were desperate not to see Donald Trump be elected, have suggested that Clinton’s exoneration had always been a done deal. They also suggest that FBI deputy director Andrew McCabe was doing his best to sit on re-opening the investigation until after the election but ran out of time. Thus the investigation was re-opened at the worst possible time for Clinton—just days before the election. In other words Comey and McCabe were actively trying to help Clinton but inadvertently may have doomed her chances. With friends like them, who needs enemies?

That top officials of the FBI would be taking sides in an election and attempting to affect the results is frightening and shocking. Such behavior could possibly be justified if they had concrete evidence that Trump represented an existential threat to the republic. In his book and interviews, Comey does his best to insinuate that this is the case. Yet the best case he can muster for his animus against Trump is that Comey finds him morally unfit. He has provided no hard evidence that would justify an impeachment and, in fact, nothing that voters did not know when they voted in 2016. Having felt that strongly, Comey’s only viable course would have been to resign in protest and to give his principled reasons. Instead, he did his best to hold on to his job. He has actually said that he thought he was safe because, as FBI chief, he was in charge of the Russia investigation. In other words, he thought he had leverage over Trump. When Trump resisted that leverage by insisting Comey state publicly what he was telling the president privately (that Trump was not a target of the investigation), Comey refused. Trump then fired him, and Comey retaliated by leaking his own notes of their meeting, knowing it would trigger a special counsel. A year later there is still no sign of anything chargeable or impeachable involving Trump personally in relation to the Russian election meddling. In fact, so far there is much more evidence of collusion coming from within the Justice Department on behalf of Trump’s opponent.

In light of what we know now, it is actually reasonable to understand that, when Trump told Comey he needed loyalty, what he meant was that he needed to know he would not be stabbed in the back. If that is indeed what he meant, he certainly got his answer soon enough.

I have absolutely no interest in being a defender of Donald Trump, but here is the thing. By the end of January 2021—2025 at the latest—Trump will be gone. The FBI, on the other hand, does not face elections and enjoys a certain amount of independence from our elected representatives. It will still be around long after Trump has left the White House. Maybe a politicized FBI does not bother you because you happen to agree with Comey’s political views, but it certainly scares me. I do not like the idea of an FBI director who feels he knows better than the voters who should be in charge of the government—and who is willing to use the bureau’s resources accordingly.

Friday, April 6, 2018

Campaign Claim-jumping

“Looking at it objectively, one could fear that any candidate with a good enough data mining consortium (Obama used the Washington-based Analyst Institute) could not be stopped from manipulating his way to election. But this distortion of the electoral process will be self-correcting. In 2012 Mitt Romney’s data science unit was one-tenth the size of Obama’s. You can be sure that will not be true of 2016’s Republican nominee.”
—A post on this blog on June 18, 2013
Sometimes I go back and re-read my old posts on this blog. This is not something I do frequently because it is an exercise that mostly makes me cringe. Observations that seemed wise at the time may be seen as hopelessly naive with the benefit of hindsight. A recent survey of past posts, for example, has convinced me that I was too hard on President Obama during his two terms in office. On the other hand, every criticism was motivated by a sincere desire to see him succeed and for the country to be better for it. Given the tumult of the Trump presidency, Obama’s eight years now seem like a blissful period of calm. But only if we forget how bad the economy actually was during much of that time. The financial crisis that coincided with his election was not his fault, but it is fair to criticize him for policies that, for many anyway, starved the recovery and paved the way for a candidacy like Trump’s.

My review of past writings did not always anticipate events flawlessly, although in fairness the trends I tend to highlight are pretty long-term. In some cases, though, I am amazed at my prescience. Almost five years ago in a post titled “No Place to Hide,” I wrote about the data mining of citizens’ personal data on the internet by political campaigns and how it could distort the electoral process. This was spurred by an article I had read in the January/February 2013 issue of MIT Technology Review by Sasha Issenberg. It was called “How Obama’s Team Used Big Data to Rally Voters.” The issue’s cover is now a tad ironic given the current hysteria over Cambridge Analytica and its data mining hijinks with Facebook. The cover features a head shot of rock star Bono (who else?) staring out thoughtfully over the headline “Big Data Will Save Politics.” Further down are subheads like “Bono: Data Can Fight Poverty and Corruption,” “Sasha Issenberg: Data Makes Elections Smarter” and “Joe Trippi: Data Puts the Soul Back into Politics.”

Issenberg’s article described glowingly how the Obama team’s data mining techniques were able to pinpoint citizens’ concerns and thinking right down to the individual level. “[A] Web platform called Dashboard gamified volunteer activity by ranking the most active supporters,” he wrote, “and ‘targeted sharing’ protocols mined an Obama backer’s Facebook network in search of friends the campaign wanted to register, mobilize, or persuade. But underneath all that were scores describing particular voters: a new political currency that predicted the behavior of individual humans. The campaign didn’t just know who you were; it knew exactly how it could turn you into the type of person it wanted you to be.”

In other words, people working on behalf of Obama team were pretty much doing the same thing as people working on behalf of Trump would be doing four years later. And I predicted it, as seen in the quote at the top of this blog post. The funny thing is that, while the data mining done for the Obama campaign was known and discussed at the time, I do not remember anyone raising a concern about Facebook users’ personal information being used for purposes of a political campaign. Compare that with the current hoopla over Facebook and Cambridge Analytica. You would think that Mark Zuckerberg had been caught red-handed stuffing ballot boxes in precincts across the nation. It is hard to escape the conclusion that, in the eyes of Democrats and the Washington press corps anyway, data mining is only now a problem—and was not four years ago—because in 2016 the wrong person won.

To be clear Cambridge Analytica violated Facebook’s terms of use which, to be honest, were not being enforced with much vigor. To the extent that anyone actually violated the law, they should certainly be sanctioned, and Facebook needs to answer for the way it has handled its users’ data. On the other hand, there is no reason to believe that the data mining itself—which happened in 2014 and was not used because even better data was available from other sources—actually changed the outcome of the election. Let us not lose sight of how the data mining is actually used. It is used for advertising. Yes, it is advertising that is extremely targeted and often sneaky, but at the end of the day it is not so much different than advertising has ever been. It’s funny how some people can get so freaked out by creative and new uses of the First Amendment.

The result will probably be that companies like Facebook will have to submit to some sort of regulation—either governmental or, if their lobbyists are earning their money, self-imposed—and that may calm people down—at least until the next new and creative use of technology in a presidential campaign by people whom Democrats and the mass media do not like.

There you go. Another forecast that may or may not come true. I will end this post the same way I ended the one five years ago: “Unfortunately, while these new techniques have now been shown to work with incredible efficacy, there is no sign at all that they contribute in any way to making the successful candidate, once in office, a better leader or president.”