Rather than simply seeing these behaviors as a series of exploits or hacks, I see them as signals of a changing posture towards computational systems. Culturally, we are now familiar enough with computational logic that we can conceive of the computer as a subject, an actor with a controlled set of perceptions and decision processes. And so we are beginning to create relationships where we form mental models of the system’s subjective experience and we respond to that in various ways. Rather than seeing those systems as tools, or servants, or invisible masters, we have begun to understand them as empowered actors in a flat ontology of people, devices, software, and data, where our voice is one signal in a complex network of operations. And we are not at the center of this network. Sensing and computational algorithms are continuously running in the background of our lives. We tap into them as needed, but they are not there purely in service of the end user, but also in service of corporate goals, group needs, civic order, black markets, advertising, and more. People are becoming human nodes on a heterogeneous, ubiquitous and distributed network. This fundamentally changes our relationship with technology and information.
WASHINGTON (AP) — The U.S. government masterminded the creation of a “Cuban Twitter” — a communications network designed to undermine the communist government in Cuba, built with secret shell companies and financed through foreign banks, The Associated Press has learned.
The Obama administration project, which lasted more than two years and drew tens of thousands of subscribers, sought to evade Cuba’s stranglehold on the Internet with a primitive social media platform. First, the network would build a Cuban audience, mostly young people; then, the plan was to push them toward dissent.
Yet its users were neither aware it was created by a U.S. agency with ties to the State Department, nor that American contractors were gathering personal data about them, in the hope that the information might be used someday for political purposes.
It is unclear whether the scheme was legal under U.S. law, which requires written authorization of covert action by the president and congressional notification. Officials at the USAID would not say who had approved the program or whether the White House was aware of it. The Cuban government declined a request for comment.
Big-data surveillance is dangerous exactly because it provides solutions to these problems. Individually tailored, subtle messages are less likely to produce a cynical reaction. Especially so if the data collection that makes these messages possible is unseen. That’s why it’s not only the NSA that goes to great lengths to keep its surveillance hidden. Most Internet firms also try to monitor us surreptitiously. Their user agreements, which we all must “sign” before using their services, are full of small-font legalese. We roll our eyes and hand over our rights with a click. Likewise, political campaigns do not let citizens know what data they have on them, nor how they use that data. Commercial databases sometimes allow you to access your own records. But they make it difficult, and since you don’t have much right to control what they do with your data, it’s often pointless.
This is why the state-of-the-art method for shaping ideas is not to coerce overtly but to seduce covertly, from a foundation of knowledge. These methods don’t produce a crude ad—they create an environment that nudges you imperceptibly. Last year, an article in Adweek noted that women feel less attractive on Mondays, and that this might be the best time to advertise make-up to them. “Women also listed feeling lonely, fat and depressed as sources of beauty vulnerability,” the article added. So why stop with Mondays? Big data analytics can identify exactly which women feel lonely or fat or depressed. Why not focus on them? And why stop at using known “beauty vulnerabilities”? It’s only a short jump from identifying vulnerabilities to figuring out how to create them. The actual selling of the make-up may be the tip of the iceberg.