Monday, June 17, 2013

¿Que passa? (Maybe all of us)

What's happening? Lots! (It'll even, if you bear with me, explain that atrocious bilingual/pidgin-lingual pun.)

With the NSA's insatiable data hoovering at the top of the news, herewith a skeptical look at the perils of Big Data. From Technology Review, see "The Dictatorship of Data: Robert McNamara epitomizes the hyper-rational executive led astray by numbers." A key passage:
The use, abuse, and misuse of data by the U.S. military during the Vietnam War is a troubling lesson about the limitations of information as the world hurls toward the big-data era. The underlying data can be of poor quality. It can be biased. It can be misanalyzed or used misleadingly. And even more damning, data can fail to capture what it purports to quantify.

We are more susceptible than we may think to the “dictatorship of data”—that is, to letting the data govern us in ways that may do as much harm as good. The threat is that we will let ourselves be mindlessly bound by the output of our analyses even when we have reasonable grounds for suspecting that something is amiss. Education seems on the skids? Push standardized tests to measure performance and penalize teachers or schools. Want to prevent terrorism? Create layers of watch lists and no-fly lists in order to police the skies. Want to lose weight? Buy an app to count every calorie but eschew actual exercise.
That's not to say I'm unalterably opposed to Big Data or to dot-connecting searches for national-security threats. I'm not. I worry, however, about algorithm not sufficiently balanced with judgment. I worry about data used (and misused) for purposes other than why they were first collected.

And in a bit of good news (reported by BBC News, among many others), "FBI and Microsoft take down $500m-theft botnet Citadel." Why good? Because:
The Citadel network had remotely installed a keylogging program on about five million machines to steal data ...
The cybercriminals behind Citadel cashed in by using login and password details for online bank accounts stolen from compromised computers.

This method was used to steal cash from a huge number of banks including American Express, Bank of America, PayPal, HSBC, Royal Bank of Canada and Wells Fargo.

From IEEE Spectrum (a couple months ago), "Tax-related ID Thefts Hit 1.8M in 2012." That's the number of impacted taxpayers. The siphoned-off refunds were in the billions -- details still emerging. In 2011, the refund-related identity-theft fraud came to about $5B.

To put our closing piece of techno-news into perspective, we'll need a bit of background. That's the Fermi Paradox: if life is a natural occurrence, and hence evolution to intelligence, and hence development of technology ... where is everyone?

One candidate explanation for the paradox is that maybe there's a race of aliens out there that favors preemption over the remotest chance of competition. Let any other intelligent species announce itself, and maybe it gets a relativistic planet-buster crammed down its craw. In SF, the notion was memorably -- and chillingly! -- explored in The Killing Star, by Charles R. Pellegrino and George Zebrowski.

Once you read that novel, you might think twice about (from "New Project Will Send Your Messages to Aliens in Deep Space." As in: forget SETI (the search for extraterrestrial intelligence) and go for METI (messaging to extraterrestrial intelligence).

Think that interstellar aliens (if they exist) couldn't possibly reach us to harm us? Before you bet the farm on that, consider that the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) in partnership with NASA Ames recently began looking at developing starships in the next 100 years. And UCSD recently hosted the Starship Century Symposium. To be a threat, maybe sharing-impaired aliens only need to be a tad more advanced than us ...

Haven't humans, for more than a century, been blaring out our presence to any interstellar neighbors? Yes, of course. But (with the exception primarily of high-powered military radars), that signal leakage has taken the form of comparatively diffuse RF noise. It doesn't carry information (beyond that "we're here") because it's not meant to be self-explanatory. Attenuating inversely with the square of distance, most of humanity's RF chatter fades within a few light-years.

But intentionally beaming signals? Focused to reduce attenuation, and so be intelligible at greater distances? That's a risk for all of humankind. Maybe, even probably, a trivial risk ... but who is any random John or Jane Doe (with or without a PhD) to expose us all to that risk?

If nothing else, the prospect of a relativistic planet-buster sure puts a touch of identity theft into perspective ...

1 comment:

Keith Kenny said...

I appreciate the sentiment in the Technology Review article, "The Dictatorship of Data: Robert McNamara ... but their key point is not supported by reality. Major political decisions are not generally based on analytical reviews of pertinent data. McNamara was hardly a military man and he never let data dissuade him from his firm opinions. The military follows directions but doesn't decide where to go, what to do, or even whether it is feasible. Disagreeing commanders are replaced by politically acceptable ones—yes, the military has politicians too ... anyone ever wonder that key 'experts' eventually agree with policy decisions. The process begins with the desirable result and data is cherry picked to support it. I've seen a lot of this 'supporting' data and much of it is a stretch for anyone: Vietnam through the war on terror. Really, its not about data blindly dictating. Your title comment is on target ... "Maybe all of us'. We need to look in the mirror to see the person responsible for voting in our decision makers. How much real data do voter's use?