• July 19, 2024

Technology, security and paranoia

(First appeared on December 19, 2020)

In this age of conspiracy theories, endless conjecture, and massive disinformation campaigns it is rather surprising that the paranoia about emerging technology has taken a backseat. One reason could be that the companies and people who own, invent, and innovate these technologies are rich and know propaganda related swashbuckling well. The second and unlikely scenario is that the machines have already won and under their watchful gaze we are taught to love technology. The third and perhaps the most likely assumption is that culture wars mean nothing when they are fought against inanimate objects. It is far easier to get your base riled up against the “evil” men and women behind the machine with their unquenchable thirst for total human domination. Consequently, the two campaigns involving technology that we have encountered recently are about such elements.

One conspiracy theory that is proving rather difficult to defeat is about the Covid vaccine. In Pakistan, these vaccines have not arrived yet but the misinformation has already made its way. Some versions claim that these vaccines would alter our DNA and transform us into something else. Another version wants you to believe that at least one of these vaccines would install a beacon in your body to make tracking possible. And unsurprisingly the simpletons who are buying into the latter version and are rather concerned about their privacy usually carry smartphones which we know for a fact record and report their location data to the parent companies constantly. The point is that if someone wants to control you at a subatomic level, they probably do not need a pandemic and vaccine to do so. On the contrary, if someone really, really doesn’t want you to take the vaccine there is a fair chance that he/she/they/it is the reason why the pandemic has infected people so widely. Here are two things that come in handy in fighting such conspiracy theories. One, the realisation that given the high ratio of underlying conditions without the vaccine and Covid related precautions many of us are almost already dead. Two, paying heed to mainstream science and scientists always helps. Renowned experts do not need the dark recesses of the internet and social media backwaters to poison your minds. They usually have access to the best medical and scientific journals. But remember these theories undermining the vaccination efforts are primarily about people and not technology per se.

The second such example is of the US elections. As the results of the presidential elections were being tabulated and results started hinting at a Biden win, Sidney Powell, the legal counsel of the embattled former US national security advisor General Michael Flynn appeared on television and started talking about the alleged use of a supercomputer called the Hammer and a software called the Scorecard by the deep state (read the CIA and FBI) to change the results and the need for military intelligence to intervene. By the time the Trump campaign inhaled this propaganda and mounted a legal challenge, the story had grown in the telling. Powell now claimed that an election software called Dominion used by many states was responsible for the alleged theft. She maintained the software was originally developed by the Venezuelan government to ensure an election victory for Hugo Chavez (a former dictator who died in 2013). It is useful to remember here that given the rate of innovation the election software developed seven-eight years ago would be redundant by now. But surprise surprise, not only did the election authorities in many states adopt this software, so effective was the alleged con that before Powell opened her mouth after the elections even the Trump administration had no clue about its existence. Interesting. But a likely story. Powell has worked for Flynn. Flynn is notorious for his bad behaviour and has the remarkable distinction of being pushed out of three government jobs in a row: the MI, the DIA and finally the NSC. It’s his job to mess up your minds without evidence. That is if his own mind is not addled enough

Two recent developments have reinforced the negative perception about technology and highlighted mankind’s vulnerability. Recently, attorney generals from 48 US states have filed an anti-trust petition against Facebook. This story is worth your while because it highlights mounting concerns about three shoddy practices: predatory monopolistic efforts, data mining, and growing cooperation between Google and Facebook which makes all malpractices possible. The harvested data goes a long way in developing your psychological profiles for these companies, generally used for targeted marketing but occasionally used for psychological manipulation as was evident in the 2016 Cambridge Analytica case. Additionally, this data can be used to train artificial intelligence’s (AI’s) neural networks. You will be surprised how accurate and effective these psychological profiles are. And that is just Facebook. Other services the company owns like WhatsApp that has become the main conduit of our communications can have you firmly in the palm of their hands. The petition means there exists enough incriminating evidence to ensure follow up action against the company.

The second story is still developing. Beginning in March 2020, critical cyber infrastructure in the US came under a hacker attack. The US Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (Cisa) is calling it an “advanced persistent threat actor”. What this means is that even after nine months the hack is far from over. The agency believes the attackers managed to install a backdoor in the recent update of SolarWinds, a software that is used by the US authorities and businesses widely. Through this backdoor, they have been monitoring official data without any difficulty. The US departments whose data was accessed include state, defence, homeland security, treasury, commerce, and energy. The last one is very important because it oversees the US nuclear programme. Fortunately, the hackers seemed interested only in information and not control of any of these operations. But the investigation is ongoing and so is the hack which was meant to evade detection. Private experts are pointing to Russia backed hackers but the true motivations are still unknown. And let’s remember that we are talking about the world’s leading superpower here. Other countries and companies must be far more vulnerable. All such challenges need a coherent and well thought response. Sadly, humanity and nations around the world are too divided to come up with a coherent policy.

While security infrastructures exist in every country to combat some level of such challenges, there is little preparation for the challenges to come. For instance, matters pertaining to the growth of AI and deep fakes need an immediate response. But none seems to be coming. In my personal capacity, I have been quietly working on a dissertation to develop an argument for an international legal framework to regulate AI. So far, Covid related shutdowns in Silicon Valley and elsewhere have made my job difficult by depriving me access to the data needed to develop the paper further on this cutting-edge technology. However, I have decided to stop waiting and take it in a qualitative direction. In a week’s time, it must be ready for scrutiny. Once it passes muster, I will want you all to take a look as well.

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