Recently, I enrolled in two multi-day training workshops in the United Kingdom with the pretense of gathering ethnographic data about emergent cultures of practice surrounding new technologies. The first was an ethical hacking workshop in Manchester–where we learned how to “ethically” use malware to examine, test, and ultimately penetrate and control computer servers. The second was a class to acquire a certificate to be able to conduct commercial drone flights. These experiences revealed interesting insights into the process of professionalisation as well as contemporary ethnographic methodologies. I will briefly theorise the process of professionalisation, how this happens, why it is interesting, and why training-as-ethnography is an important place to participate in this process.
Deemed the “Great firewall of Cameron”, UK Prime Minister has since 2013 aggressively pursued web censorship in the UK. Without transparent and democratic processes enacted, the government has insisted that by default, internet service providers such as Sky, BT, and TalkTalk block links leading to pornography, content pirates, and sites related to terrorism. It is the job of an EU charity, the Internet Watch Foundation (IWF), to develop a list of offensive material which it then provides to ISPs for blocking. The IWF has received a fair amount of criticism which claims it’s web filtering practices are ineffective and secretive. Internet freedom advocates such as the Open Rights Foundation reject censorship and sees these efforts as disastrous for the future of free speech. To date, the ORF has documented that 1 in 5 sites are blocked, many erroneously such as the UK Parliamentary committee on torture, computer security conferences, rape crisis centres, and charities for survivors of sexual abuse. Continue reading
[extract from keynote at the Mobile Life Centre, University of Stockholm, March 17, 2016]
Its the summer of 2015 and I am on a former Naval Air Force base in Keflavik, Iceland. The wind is 20 miles per hour and still won’t keep the midge flies from darting into my eyes. A massive once-white satellite disc hovers above collecting signal intelligence. I am hunched over my black boxy backpack unpacking an unmanned aerial vehicle, spinning its four propellers on, checking its battery, bluetooth tethering its on-board camera to my iPhone so that I might see as it sees, behind me another video camera on a tripod films the scene as I use my thumbs to thrust the drone off the abandoned and weedy tarmac and into the sky, just eye-level and arms length from myself. Seagulls swoop in to see what is suddenly threatening their airspace. Gusts of 40 miles per hour shove the drone to the west, but it automatically recorrects to my eyeline level–my daughter has come to call this thing the “dragonfly” for these very stunts. I embark on a few exploratory examinations of the satellite disc, practicing circumnavigating this space eye with my airborne digital eye, gusts funnel off the curves of the disc, shoving the drone back and forth. I’ve already crashed this 1000 pound plastic remote controlled devices twice, thankfully some engineers were able to straighten outs its wickedly bend arm.
After this practice I turn the drone towards the day’s real goal–to get a bird’s eye view of a major data center, Continue reading
Politicians have turned their sights on encryption once more following terrorist outrages in Paris and San Bernardino, California.
A country that once welcomed encryption, France is now considering outlawing it in the wake of the massacre in its capital. In the US, politicians and law enforcement have made similar demands, as has the British prime minister, David Cameron.
Encryption creates trust. It is the underpinning of the internet, ensuring the privacy of mail, commerce, and transactions of all kinds. End-to-end encryption, where data such as texts, emails, or other messages are encrypted in transit and in storage, and where no third party other than those communicating have the keys to decrypt it, has come under particular criticism.
Certainly it is difficult if not impossible to crack, and poses a serious problem for investigators. But the Paris attacks were not aided by encryption – the attacker’s unencrypted mobile phone, which was found in a bin, led police to their safe house. Abdelhamid Abaaoud, the Belgian-Moroccan ringleader, communicated without encryption.
A search for “anthropology” in the Snowden Surveillance Archive results in two hits. Both documents were created and presented by the UK GCHQ’s Joint Threat Research Intelligence Group (JTRIG) which sees anthropology as a method with which to “manipulate and control online discourse with extreme tactics of deception and reputation-destruction.” Take a look at the two GCHQ Powerpoints below and see how the surveillance apparatus views your discipline.
[written with Luca Follis, Lancaster University]
For example, in January 2015 self-proclaimed Anonymous spokesman Barrett Brown was sentenced to 63 months in prison for hacking-related activities including linking to leaked material online. Edward Snowden is currently exiled in Russia after leaking the global surveillance operations of the NSA and GCHQ.
Prosecutions of hacktivists intensified in 2013, when Andrew “weev” Auernheimer was sentenced to 41 months after exposing a vulnerability that affected 114,000 iPad users on AT&T’s service. Jeremy Hammond was sentenced to 10 years in federal prison after hacking and releasing documents about military subcontractor Stratfor. Aaron Swartz, who was facing a prison sentence of 25 years after hacking into JSTOR – a database of academic articles – committed suicide in January of that year. Chelsea Manning leaked secret military documents to Wikileaks and was sentenced to 35 years imprisonment in August.
Long arm of the law is getting longer
While these are US citizens subject to US laws and punishments, the Obama administration has recently indicated that it will also aggressively pursue hackers located overseas for alleged criminal activities. Continue reading
In the film Elysium, the ultra-rich have left an apocalyptic Earth ravaged by global warming and overpopulation. Their utopian colony orbits high above Earth which festers below. Science fiction, but Silicon Valley techno-utopians also dream of rising above the planet’s problems.
The Seasteading Institute, for example, seeks to create floating cities far enough from land as to be outside of any regulatory jurisdiction. There, farseers such as the likes of Google CEO Larry Page might be able to innovate, untethered by regulations. At Google’s annual developers’ conference in 2013, Page said: “I think as technologists we should have some safe places where we can try out some new things and figure out.”
The seas of Earth appeal to some while the dry seas of Mars attract others: Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla Motors, is at the forefront of commercial space travel for the ultra-rich. At a cost of US$36 billion he hopes his company SpaceX can start a Mars colony. Space tourist tickets come in at a mere US$500,000. He also plans to provide planet-wide internet access, beamed from 4,000 satellites. Continue reading
Almost two years ago, one of my oldest friends, Bradley L Garrett, boarded a plane at Heathrow airport. As it taxied on the runway, the British Transport Police arrived and dragged him off the plane. He was accused of conspiracy to commit criminal damage.
Garrett, a geographer at the University of Oxford, originally from the US, went on trial earlier this month for alleged crimes surrounding his research into urban exploration.
He has been handed a conditional discharge, which basically means he is off the hook as long as he doesn’t do it again. But his story should act as a warning to researchers and to anyone who benefits from researchers gathering information about human beings. In other words, everyone.
Continue reading here.
Facebook has been on a shopping spree in 2014. It’s looking to buy a drone company so that it can bring the internet and Facebook to the other 6 billion, and its acquisition of Oculus Rift, a virtual reality headset firm, is aimed at making your friending, liking, stalking and humble bragging more experiential.
Now it seems the company is in discussions to purchase a London start up which has expertise in online payments. And it is this creeping interest in financial technologies that should worry us more than drones or our friends turning our chats into their virtual reality.
If everything goes to plan, Facebook users will apparently be offered the chance to store and transfer money on the site, rather than having to use a service like PayPal.
Facebook reps are said to have been in talks with several London-based peer-to-peer money services that could make Facebook payments a reality. One of these is Transferwise, a company that recently hit a quintessential target for a scaling tech company when it announced that it had processed £1 billion in user payments. Another possible candidate, Dublin-based CurencyFaire, has also hit the billion mark, albeit in dollars.
The convergence of social media and financial services should be seen as a profound shift in how people view, save, use, and are freed of their capital. And Facebook’s interest could mark a tipping point. Social media is being used as agateway drug to get users hooked onto much more pernicious forms of socio-technical circuitry and economic capture.
Why would Facebook sell vague social analytics about our activity to advertisers when it could go directly to our wallets? This is the ultimate “disintermediation” or cutting out of the middleman.
Capitalism requires fluidity – the transformation of static objects into cashable objects. By making money social and digital it becomes more fluid.
And since social media corporations are already learning how to turn individual users into liquid assets, the mix is all the more potent. Fluid money and personal data pools in centralised servers owned by the millionaires and billionaires of Facebook and Google.
Facebook apps for asset management will not be designed for the financial elites whose wealth is already governed by a well-paid professional managerial class. While the discourse is about empowering the working and immigrant poor to be able to send money home without costly fees, it is really about financialising a new market, the formerly private acts that are being unlocked by social media.
The privatisation of our lives is already booming. Visit AirBnB to rent out your home, Girl meets Dress to rent someone else’s high-end clothes, WhipCar to borrow someone’s car, Rent My Items to get your hands on their power tools, or Microworkers to rent minutes of your day to do small time work for menial pay.
This is financialisation masked as the “sharing economy” but at least we get to rent a nice dress or go on holiday as a result.
Facebook has been successful in inviting us to volunteer our free digital labour in producing one of the world’s most valuable companies. Some lovingly call this “participatory culture” while I and others call it exploitation.
Facebook can capture additional users by raining down wifi from drones and by making a scroll through bachelor party pictures more immersive with 3D goggles, but these markets will be small time in comparison to the financial market of online payment and banking.
This is an explicit attempt to transform the means of our digital sociality, our online public sphere and agora into a mall, a bank, a bazaar. If Facebook is successful, users will rarely leave the site. They will forgo the dangers of the wider internet for the safe comforts of our gated virtual community where we are safe to self-promote and shop till we drop.
Or worse, this is an attempt to “gamify” money management. It will be Farmville for personal finance or 3D Candycrush for cash. This sounds stupid because it is. It represents the transformation of a complex system into a simple one. The more our social life is monitored and then digitised, the easier it is to hoard, gamify, and monetise any profitable crumbs.
This will not result in more agency but less. Banking is based on hard-to-understand calculations but it is regulated. Add complex filtering algorithms and financial technological derivatives to the picture and no sane person will understand what is happening to their money.
Online payment isn’t the problem. Facebook, Google, and others who monopolise and monetise our digital lives on closed centralised systems are. The financialisation of our private lives as well as unwarranted, indiscriminate, illegal, bulk surveillance flourish in these spaces where corporations and governments gain direct access to our private lives.
What we need is a social movement to demand an information commons, decentralised servers, and digital literacy along with so-called financial literacy. We don’t need to hand Facebook yet another key to our private spaces.
This past weekend, two prominent socio-technical critics have given us radically different versions of the future of capitalism in the age of social media. Evgeny Morozov, author of The Net Delusion: The Dark Side of Internet Freedom, argues in an op-ed for FT for a dystopia of toothbrush analytics, trash bin surveillance, and our personal lives being turned into marketing data and sold back to us as irresistible products and services. Meanwhile, Jeremy Rifkin in the New York Times sees similar trends leading to “The Rise of Anti-Capitalism.” These big-picture visions are important for steering us towards futures we’d rather live in. However, studying companies and consumers at the forefront of the transformative interaction of social media and financial services gives us a different picture entirely: one where old and new, privacy and sociality, onrushing corporatism and peer to peer pushback are producing a tangled, complicated, often contradictory mess – and along with it, the future we’ll probably see.
As kids growing up in Nancy Reagan’s “just say no” 80s we endured a lot of propaganda regarding drugs. One was the myth of the “gateway drug.” We were told that drugs like marijuana with few medically provable harms were highly dangerous because they were gateways to harder more evil drugs. Gateway drugs are like linkbait, hooks that bring unwitting subjects from a one innocuous practice to one more pernicious.
Morozov claims that social media is a gateway drug for the financial sector to hook us on a new range of products and services, while increasing its control over our lives. We hear that the dark insides of our mouths, fridges, rubbish bins, and cars will be scrutinized by networked and image-recognizing surveillance cameras. Videos will be algorithmically analyzed producing “data portfolios” which will be automatically used (for a fee) by third parties to adjudicate our credit worthiness, employability, and romantic fitness. As longtime admirers of Morozov’s guts and wit we’ve been pleased to see him begin (finally) to use the name and identify the problem head-on—neoliberal capitalism galvanized by ubiquitously networked humans. Continue reading
Alix Johnson, a PhD student in cultural anthropology at UC Santa Cruz, will be going to Iceland to study the practices and discourses of data centers. She studies information infrastructures in capitalist economies and postcolonial politics, and researches these questions in Iceland where they take strange and fascinating forms.
Adam Fish: What makes Iceland important for information activism?
Since Iceland’s pretty spectacular financial crash, and the subsequent protests that kicked the government out of office, information technology and politics have cropped up in many projects of reform. In a lot of ways the crisis was framed as a problem of secrecy – too much secrecy had allowed for massive banking risks and backroomban deals, and this was a problem more public information could solve. The politics of information freedom, then, have been appealing and are taken up in a range of ways: for example, the so-called “crowdsourced constitution,” Iceland’s ongoing connections with WikiLeaks, and most recently the election of three Pirate Party MPs – the first Pirates elected to a national parliament.
But the part of this turn that interests me most – and the piece that my research aims to address – is the way that information is used to carve Iceland out a new niche. In recent years Iceland has been pitched as an “information haven”: an attractive place to store the data of the world. The idea is that data stored in Iceland is subject to Icelandic laws – so by passing “information friendly” legislation (favoring free speech, online privacy, and intermediary liability protection), and building data centers where information can live (an easy sell in Iceland thanks to the cool climate and inexpensive geothermal power), Iceland can change the rules of the game. In my research I ask how these efforts reconfigure the internet and re-imagine the nation, by following the “information haven” as it’s materially made.
AF: Cloud computing companies are the quintessential black box, difficult to access the people who work inside and once inside difficult to understand. How have you overcome these difficulties?
Honestly I’ve had to structure my approach to work around them. But I’ve mostly come to terms with these limitations, as I’m less interested in data centers’ inner workings, and more concerned with their impact on and role within the communities where they “live”. That is, while I do spend time with data center developers, I hope to spend more time interviewing locals – who more often see these new structures as big buildings that block ocean views, capital-intensive construction projects that redirect municipal funds, or concrete tributes to transnational connection. From this perspective, secrecy can make an interesting starting point. That said, I also read the trade publications, and look forward to my very few allotted trips inside!
AF: You are going for a year, what are you going to do? With which companies will you work? Continue reading
In light of the ongoing leaking of information about domestic government surveillance by the National Security Administration (NSA) in the United States and Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) in the United Kingdom, scholars and administrators need to reconsider if our data and confidential communications are truly secure. While the ethics review committees do their best job of ensuring that scholarly practices protect the privacy and safety of research subjects, the recent revelations should cause us to immediately reflect upon whether our use of Microsoft Office and particularly our email service Microsoft Outlook violates the research ethics agreements we’ve signed. Universities need to recognize that hiring private information technology corporations such as Microsoft and ethical compliance with protecting the privacy of our communications may not be compatible. Given our professional obligations to preserve confidentiality, what can be done to maintain compliance?
If we are serious about ethical research universities should consider abandoning the Microsoft suite of programs in favour of not-profit, transparent, and highly encrypted software platforms that do not provide our data and metadata to marketing corporations and governments. (I say “not-profit” because I doubt that for-profit software companies will reject the immense profits to be made from retailing metadata to marketing companies). Knowing universities’ commitments to Microsoft I understand this is a Swiftian modest proposal. The software represents years of sunk-investment in training, skill development, and licensing deals. Many colleagues struggle with Microsoft software as is; any new software suites would undoubtedly cause rigor mortis in the university. Practical or not, the leaks should force universities to do something to ensure that we are not compromising private information. Continue reading
Big expensive conferences cost too much and offer too little return. Fine, I’ll give it to you. Conferences are acceptable for professional development, almost good for networking, OK for your CV, and decent for being exposed to new ideas. I think some are well worth attending. But just stop paying the extortion fees for big conference. Only go to fee free or all expenses paid conferences. Yes, you’ll go to less but you’ll be better for it. Conference as they are at present are a relic from the patronage pre-neoliberal academy where universities accepted responsibility for their staff, faculty, and students. In those halcyonic days, travel and lodging were less expensive, conference fees were smaller, and most importantly, the university would foot the bill. Today, the extortion conference systems remain in place while the university has dropped its patronage responsibilities while the costs associated with conference attendance have skyrocketed. We must break the back of yet another exploitative system. Stop paying conference fees.
Conferences are of a very limited utility but a utility nonetheless. You should still go but only to select, useful, and economically fair events. Let’s break it down. There are three economic types of conferences: Continue reading
I had the pleasure of pitching a few questions to Orin Starn, Chair and Professor of Cultural Anthropology at Duke University, about “popular anthropology,” golf, Ishi’s brain, and the right PC sports to play if you’re an anthropologist (its not golf!).
AF: I really liked your book The Passion of Tiger Woods: An Anthropologist Reports on Golf, Race, and Celebrity Scandal. As a golfer and media producer I found the book impossible to put down but as an anthropologist it made me wonder about the future of the discipline.
It might just be my hang-up having just earned my PhD badge but a key concern is the absence of data derived from ethnographic field research. You make passing reference to playing golf with other players and taking notes about the experience on the links but none of that information seemed to explicitly inform your reading of Tiger Woods. The book is primarily an analysis of representation–how race is discussed online, on TV, in tabloids. Again, this makes me think that some form of offline ethnographic research in these cultural industries might have afforded you and your readers access to forms of information not easily accessible. This brings up for me a bunch of questions:
How important is ethnographic field research for the future of the discipline?
OS: For all the many changes over the decades, I think that intense, engaged fieldwork remains the single most distinctive thing about anthropology. I I think and hope it’ll remain just that. I like very much the idea that understanding another way of doing things shouldn’t be a fly-by proposal, but deserves the kind of deep, sustained engagement that only fieldwork can provide. I’m not sure that the actual ethnographies we write – which aren’t always very interesting — do justice to the great time and energy we give to our research, and yet I’m still a believer in the Boasian credo that fieldwork matters. Continue reading
The internet is translative boundary object for political thought, situated between four liberal ideologies about freedom and the state, corporation, individual, and the public. The internet is thus a parallax object, looking different from what ideological perspective one looks at it. Continue reading