Prevent

The home of the Magna Carta continues its transition into Airstrip One, as the University of Reading warns students reading a Marxist essay on political violence that the authorities might be watching:

Part of a larger anti-terrorism strategy, Prevent was designed to prevent radicalization and seeks to monitor supposedly vulnerable people for evidence of extremism in the materials they peruse and the ideology they express. The idea is that, once identified, these individuals can be steered by authorities away from negative outcomes. […]

Primarily targeted at potential recruits to Islamist terrorist groups, but also at Northern Ireland-style sectarian violence and extreme right-wing terrorism, Prevent suffered mission-creep pretty much right out of the gate. In 2015, a politics student at the University of East Anglia was interrogated by police after reading assigned material in an ISIS-related publication.

The kid clicked a problematic link, which was thereafter removed from the course materials.

Younger students are being scooped up for alleged radicalization, too. In 2016-17, 272 children under 15 years of age and 328 youngsters between ages 15 and 20 were flagged under the Prevent program “over suspected right-wing terrorist beliefs.” The proportion of individuals referred to government officials “as a result of far-right concerns has risen from a quarter in 2015 to 2016 to over a third in 2016 to 2017,” according to Britain’s Home Office, so that likely represents only a fraction of young people questioned and “mentored” for their suspected ideological deviance.

Under 15 years of age? Guess you have to nip these things in the bud.

Where do these referrals come from? Well, anybody can contact the authorities, but the situation is complicated by the duty the law imposes on both public and private institutions to report people seen as being at risk of radicalization, with very little guidance as to what that means beyond cover-your-ass. The imposition of the duty resulted in a surge in referrals by schools to the authorities.

Informing on your fellow citizens for potential thoughtcrimes is just part and parcel of living in a country full of extremists. Comrade Pavlik would have approved.

“Laws such as this restrict the core democratic right to freedom of expression,” a legal analysis published last year in the Utrecht Journal of International and European Law charges. It “indicates a concerning trend of liberal States embracing opportunities to impose severe restrictions on ‘extreme’ speech.” […]

Parliament is currently considering a Counter Terrorism and Border Security Bill that would go beyond monitoring people for extremist ideology and hauling them in for questioning. The proposed legislation would criminalize voicing support for banned organizations, and even make it illegal to view or otherwise access information “likely to be useful to a person committing or preparing acts of terrorism.”

I would say this defies belief, but sadly, it all fits a familiar pattern. Outlawing speech in defense of an organization is the sort of thing one would normally associate with, say, Cuba or North Korea, but it seems the British have met Big Brother and he is them. Seriously, what is happening in Britain is almost as bad as the garden-variety repression seen in certain dictatorships. Not quite as bad, but moving in that direction fast.

If hauling students in for questioning because they clicked a link to “extremist” material sounds like something out of Orwell, Facebook’s AI monitoring system could have been ripped out of a Philip K Dick story:

A year ago, Facebook started using artificial intelligence to scan people’s accounts for danger signs of imminent self-harm.

Facebook Global Head of Safety Antigone Davis is pleased with the results so far.

“In the very first month when we started it, we had about 100 imminent-response cases,” which resulted in Facebook contacting local emergency responders to check on someone. But that rate quickly increased.

“To just give you a sense of how well the technology is working and rapidly improving … in the last year we’ve had 3,500 reports,” she says. That means AI monitoring is causing Facebook to contact emergency responders an average of about 10 times a day to check on someone — and that doesn’t include Europe, where the system hasn’t been deployed. (That number also doesn’t include wellness checks that originate from people who report suspected suicidal behavior online.) […]

In the U.S., Facebook’s call usually goes to a local 911 center, as illustrated in its promotional video.

I don’t see how the quantity of emergency calls proves that the system is working well. It could just as easily indicate rampant false positives.

More importantly, is this a technology that we really want to work “well”? As the article points out, “There may soon be a temptation to use this kind of AI to analyze social media chatter for signs of imminent crimes — especially retaliatory violence.”

There is a well-known story and movie that explores the concept of pre-crime. Do we really want to go there? And just as AIs patrol Facebook for signs of suicidal tendencies and Community Standards-violating speech, will AIs also be used to augment the growing efforts by governments in Britain and elsewhere to flag, investigate and prosecute people who read the wrong materials and think the wrong thoughts?

Facebook Zuckerberg VR dystopia

Revelation 13:16-17

Swedish commuters chip implants

Because cell phones weren’t convenient enough

Swedes have learned to stop worrying and love the chip:

In Sweden, a country rich with technological advancement, thousands have had microchips inserted into their hands.

The chips are designed to speed up users’ daily routines and make their lives more convenient — accessing their homes, offices and gyms is as easy as swiping their hands against digital readers.

They also can be used to store emergency contact details, social media profiles or e-tickets for events and rail journeys within Sweden.

What’s remarkable to me is how marginal the benefit is here. O, the hardship of having to carry around a key card! The agony of having to swipe your phone to get on a train! We are approaching the reductio ad absurdum of modern convenience, where you will be able to go anywhere without having to walk –

Robotic exoskeleton

Get in

– talk to anyone without having to flap your gums, and do anything without having to move a muscle. At that point, the only remaining challenge will be how think without needing to use your brain.

Proponents of the tiny chips say they’re safe and largely protected from hacking, but one scientist is raising privacy concerns around the kind of personal health data that might be stored on the devices.

Around the size of a grain of rice, the chips typically are inserted into the skin just above each user’s thumb, using a syringe similar to that used for giving vaccinations. The procedure costs about $180.

So many Swedes are lining up to get the microchips that the country’s main chipping company says it can’t keep up with the number of requests.

Dystopia now. Seriously, why would anyone want this? It’s physically invasive and has all the privacy and security risks of a Yahoo email account – only it’s under your freakin’ skin!

“Having different cards and tokens verifying your identity to a bunch of different systems just doesn’t make sense,” he says. “Using a chip means that the hyper-connected surroundings that you live in every day can be streamlined.”

You know what? No.

The United States of Bezos

Jeff Bezos Dr Evil

We are all Amazonians now. At this rate, Bezos might as well take over the US government:

In his best-selling book “The Four: The Hidden DNA of Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Google,” Galloway cites some arresting statistics: Far fewer U.S. households have a gun than Amazon Prime, by 30 to 64 percent. More Americans have Prime than voted in 2016 (55 percent), or earn $50,000 or more a year (55 percent), or go to church (51 percent). He calls Amazon’s ability to woo Prime subscribers at a $119 yearly cost the equivalent of “entering into a monogamous relationship” with its consumers, who as of 2016 spent, on average, $193 per month. (Non-Prime members average $138 per month.)

From 2006 to 2016 Amazon’s stock price growth surged by 1,910 percent, destroying Sears, J.C. Penney, Kmart, Best Buy, Macy’s, Nordstrom, Target and Walmart.

Perhaps most importantly: Since the Great Recession, Amazon has paid just $1.4 billion in corporate taxes compared to Walmart’s $64 billion.

Amazon is also making inroads into a wide array of sectors and institutions that have nothing to do with retail, let alone selling books:

Bezos has even greater ambitions. His acquisition of Whole Foods, which plunged competitor Kroger’s stock from $31 to $22 per share, is but one step in dominating what and how we eat. Amazon is spending $5 billion on original programming this year and is on pace to outspend Netflix by 2022.

Think about that, Galloway says: A retailer in Seattle as content king. And after announcing a vague health care initiative back in January, stock prices for major health care insurers plummeted — such is Amazon’s power that the mere hint of market entry damages long-standing competitors.

That’s not all. Bezos’ company Blue Origin, with a mission statement that goes not just to colonizing the planet but outer space — “Earth, in all its beauty, is just our starting place” — plans to launch the first private manned spaceflight by next year. Bezos also says he’s going to establish free preschools in low-income areas based on the Montessori method.

Outer space aside: Amazon wants to feed, treat, entertain, educate and medicate America — and that’s just what it’s told us. Nothing Orwellian here, right?

And while Amazon is raising its minimum wage to $15 an hour, the mega-corporation is also striving mightily to replace its human workforce with robots. Perhaps not coincidentally, Bezos has expressed support for the idea of a universal basic income. It’s not hard to envision a future in which a fully automated Bezos empire services all the needs of a jobless, perpetually entertained population — with Alexa replacing the school system, Amazon Hospitals treating the sick, and Amazon Prime Drones equipped with Hellfire missiles providing security. Brave New World is real, and His Fordship sits in Seattle, a bald guy with a creepy laugh.

Why so serious?

UAE smile door

(Photo by M. Sajjad)

The United Arab Emirates wants you turn that frown upside down — or else:

A quirky new initiative launched in Ajman will see officials ensure that customers are happy about their services – literally. After a transaction at the Public Transport Corporation, while exiting, clients would need to smile to activate the sensor to slide the doors open.

If a customer does not smile, indicating their dissatisfaction, executives at the centre would assist him/her to resolve the issue.

According to Omar Mohammed Lootah, chief operating officer, operations, at the corporation, the initiative will help increase customer satisfaction.

“The smile breaks the office monotony and brings life to the organisation,” he said.

One wonders when the Public Transport Corporation will introduce mandatory orgy-porgies.

No travel for you

North by Northwest smoking on trainIn the latest evolution of China’s social credit system, people who have committed offenses like smoking on trains or defaulting on fines will now be effectively banned from traveling:

China said it will begin applying its so-called social credit system to flights and trains and stop people who have committed misdeeds from taking such transport for up to a year.

People who would be put on the restricted lists included those found to have committed acts like spreading false information about terrorism and causing trouble on flights, as well as those who used expired tickets or smoked on trains, according to two statements issued on the National Development and Reform Commission’s website on Friday. […]

However, there are signs that the use of social credit scoring on domestic transport could have started years ago. In early 2017, the country’s Supreme People’s Court said during a press conference that 6.15 million Chinese citizens had been banned from taking flights for social misdeeds.

That’s an extraordinary number of people. A case could be made that people who, for example, open the emergency exit of a moving plane should be put on some kind of no-fly list, but only a small fraction of 6.15 million citizens can possibly be guilty of those types of offenses.