ERIC’S TECH TALK: Russia hacked the 2016 election. This is how they did it.

NOTE: Aside from the anecdote about the typo in the IT staffer’s email, and the final quote from DNI Dan Coats, everything in this article comes straight from the FBI indictments linked at the bottom of this page.
by Eric W. Austin

The FBI has released two criminal indictments describing the Russian hacking and influence operations during the 2016 election. The picture they paint is incredibly detailed and deeply disturbing.

In this article, I’ll describe exactly what the FBI discovered and explain why we still have reason to worry. Quotations are taken directly from the criminal indictments released by the FBI Special Counsel’s office.

The story begins in 2013, when a new initiative, the Internet Research Agency, rose out of Russian military intelligence, aimed at changing US public policy by influencing American elections. According to the indictments, this agency employed hundreds of people, working both day and night shifts, ranging from “creators of fictitious personas to the technical and administrative support.” Its budget totaled “millions of US dollars” a year.

In 2014, the Internet Research Agency began studying American social media trends, particularly “groups on US social media sites dedicated to US politics and social issues.” They examined things like “the group’s size, the frequency of content placed by the group, and the level of audience engagement with the content, such as the average number of comments or responses to a post.” Their goal was to understand the mechanics of social media success in order to make their future influence operations in the United States more effective.

Using what they learned, they “created hundreds of social media accounts and used them to develop certain fictitious US personas into ‘leader[s] of public opinion’ in the United States.”

Sometime in 2015, the Russians began buying ads on social media to enhance their online profiles and to reach a wider audience. Soon they were “spending thousands of US dollars every month” on ads.

By the 2016 election season, Russian-controlled social media groups had “grown to hundreds of thousands of online followers.” These groups addressed a wide range of issues in the United States, including: immigration; social issues like Black Lives Matter; religion, particularly relating to Muslim Americans; and certain geographic regions, with groups like “South United” and “Heart of Texas.”

They often impersonated real Americans or American organizations, such as the Russian-controlled Twitter account @TEN_GOP, which claimed in its profile to represent the Tennessee Republican Party. By November 2016, this Twitter account had attracted over 100,000 followers.

From the very beginning, Russian strategy was to pass themselves off as American, and they went to great lengths to accomplish this. They bought the personal information and credit card numbers of real Americans from identity thieves on the dark web, and used those credentials to create fake social media profiles and open bank accounts to pay for their online activities.

With this network of social media accounts, they staged rallies and protests in New York, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and especially, Florida. These rallies were organized online, but the Russians often engaged real Americans to promote and participate in them. For example, in Florida, they “used false US personas to communicate with Trump Campaign staff involved in local community outreach.” At some rallies, they asked a “US person to build a cage on a flatbed truck and another US person to wear a costume portraying Clinton in a prison uniform.”

Staging rallies and spreading disinformation via social media was not all they were up to though. At the same time, they were trying to break into the email accounts of Clinton Campaign staffers, and to hack the computer networks of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) and the Democratic National Committee (DNC).

Starting in March 2016, according to the indictments, the Russians began sending “spearphishing” emails to employees at the DCCC, DNC, and the Clinton Campaign. These were emails mocked-up to look like security notices from the recipient’s email provider, containing a link to a webpage that resembled an official password-change form. The page was actually controlled by Russian military intelligence, waiting to snatch the victim’s password as soon as they entered it.

One of their first targets was Clinton Campaign Chairman John Podesta. He received an email, apparently from Google, asking him to click a link and change his password. Suspicious, he forwarded the email to the campaign’s IT staff, and unfortunately received the reply: “This is a legitimate email. John needs to change his password immediately.” Dutifully, Podesta clicked the link and changed his password. The Russians were waiting. They promptly broke into his account and stole 50,000 emails. The IT staffer later claimed he had made a typo and instead meant to write, “This is not a legitimate email.” Never has a typo been more consequential.

In another case detailed in the indictments, the Russians created an email address nearly identical to a well-known Clinton campaign staffer. The address of this account deviated from the staffer’s real email address by only a single letter. Then, posing as that staffer, they sent spearphishing emails to more than 30 Clinton Campaign employees.

The Russians also used this technique to hack into the computer network of the DCCC. After gaining entry, they “installed and managed different types of malware to explore the DCCC network and steal data.” Once the malware had been installed, the Russians were able to take screenshots and capture every keystroke on the infected machines.

One of those hacked computers was used by a DCCC employee who also had access to the DNC computer network. When that user logged into the DNC network, the Russians stole their username and password and proceeded to invade the DNC network as well, installing Russian-developed malware on more than thirty DNC computers.

And the Russians stole more than emails. They took “gigabytes of data from DNC computers,” including opposition research, analytic data used for campaign strategy, and personal information on Democratic donors, among other things.

Then in June 2016, the hackers “constructed the online persona DCLeaks to release and publicize stolen election-related documents.” This persona included the website DCLeaks.com, along with a companion Twitter account and a Facebook page, where they claimed to be a group of “American hacktivists.”

However, a month earlier, the DNC and DCCC had finally become aware of the intrusions into their networks and hired a cybersecurity firm to investigate and prevent additional attacks. Shortly after the launch of the DCLeaks website, this firm finished its investigation and published its findings, identifying Russia as the source of the attacks.

In response to this allegation, and to further sow disinformation about the attacks, the Russians created a new online persona, Guccifer 2.0, who claimed to be a “lone Romanian hacker” and solely responsible for the cyber-attacks.

Under the guise of Guccifer 2.0, the Russians gave media interviews, provided a US Congressional candidate with “stolen documents related to the candidate’s opponent,” transferred “gigabytes of data stolen from the DCCC to a then-registered state lobbyist and online source of political news,” and coordinated with the website WikiLeaks.org in order to time the release of stolen documents to coincide with critical points in the 2016 election.

For example, shortly after the emergence of the Guccifer 2.0 persona, WikiLeaks, a website responsible for previous disclosures of government data like the secret NSA surveillance files of 2013, contacted Guccifer 2.0 by email, saying, “if you have anything hillary related we want it in the next tweo [sic] days prefable [sic] because the DNC [Democratic National Convention] is approaching and she will solidify bernie supporters behind her after.” Guccifer 2.0 replied, “ok … i see.” Then WikiLeaks explained further, “we think trump has only a 25% chance of winning against hillary … so conflict between bernie and hillary is interesting.”

On July 22, three days before the start of the Democratic National Convention, WikiLeaks released “20,000 emails and other documents stolen from the DNC network.” In the months following, they would release thousands more. Each of these timed releases was supported and promoted by the Russians’ extensive social media network.

The Russians didn’t only target the Clinton Campaign and Democratic committees. They also tried to “hack into protected computers of persons and entities charged with the administration of the 2016 US elections in order to access those computers and steal voter data and other information.”

In some cases, they succeeded. In July 2016, they hacked the website of a state board of elections and “stole information related to approximately 500,000 voters, including names, addresses, partial social security numbers, dates of birth, and driver’s license numbers.” Then in August, the Russian hackers broke into the computers of “a US vendor that supplied software used to verify voter registration information for the 2016 US elections.”

During our 2016 election, Russian military intelligence launched an extensive and multi-pronged influence campaign on the American people. It was an operation three years in the making, and its purpose was “to sow discord in the US political system.” By any measure, it was a great success.

In closing, I’ll leave you with the words of Dan Coats, Director of National Intelligence, from a speech at the Hudson Institute only a few weeks ago: “In the months prior to September 2001 … the system was blinking red. And here we are nearly two decades later, and I’m here to say the warning lights are blinking red again. Today, the digital infrastructure that serves this country is literally under attack.”

Let’s not ignore those blinking red lights a second time. Our democracy depends on our diligence.

Eric W. Austin writes about technology and community issues. He can be reached by email at ericwaustin@gmail.com.

NOTE: Aside from the anecdote about the typo in the IT staffer’s email, and the final quote from DNI Dan Coats, everything in this article comes straight from the FBI indictments linked below.

To read the FBI indictments referenced in this article, click the links below to download them:

Indictment against Russian nationals for hacking of DNC & DCCC – July 2018

Indictment against the Internet Research Agency – February 2018

U.S. Intelligence Community Assessment of Russian Activities and Intentions in Recent US Elections – February 2017

ERIC’S TECH TALK – The A.I. Singularity: Are you ready?

The rogue A.I. HAL9000 from the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey (© Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer).

by Eric W. Austin

In the beginning, claim the physicists, the universe existed as a single point — infinitely small, infinitely dense. All of time, all of space, literally everything that currently exists was contained in this unbelievably small cosmic egg. Then, before you can say “Big Bang,” quantum fluctuations caused it to rapidly expand and the rest, as they say, is history.

This is called the Singularity. The beginning of everything. Without it there would be no Earth, no sun, no life at all. Reality itself came into being at that moment.

Now, in the 21st century, we may be heading toward another singularity event, a moment in history that will change everything that follows. A moment that will revamp reality so drastically it can be referred to by the same term as the event at the very beginning of all existence.

This is the Technological Singularity, and many experts think it will happen within the next 50 years.

Fourteen billion years ago, that first singularity was followed by a rapid expansion of time and space that eventually led to you and me. This new technological singularity will also herald an expansion of human knowledge and capability, and will, like the first one, culminate in the creation of a new form of life: the birth of the world’s first true artificial superintelligence.

Our lives have already been invaded by artificial intelligence in ways both subtle and substantial. A.I. determines which posts you see in your Facebook feed. It roams the internet, indexing pages and fixing broken links. It monitors inventory and makes restocking suggestions for huge retailers like Amazon and Walmart. It also pilots our planes and will soon be driving our cars. In the near future, A.I.s will likely replace our pharmacists, cashiers and many other jobs. Already, a company in Hong Kong has appointed one to its board of directors, and it’s been predicted A.I.s will be running most Asian companies within five years. Don’t be surprised to see our first A.I. elected to Congress sometime in the next two decades, and we’re likely to see one running for president before the end of the century.

We even have artificial intelligences creating other artificial intelligences. Google and other companies are experimenting with an approach to A.I. development reminiscent of the evolutionary process of natural selection.

The process works like this: they create a number of bots – little autonomous programs that roam the internet performing various tasks – which are charged with programming a new set of bots. These bots create a million variations of themselves. Those variations are then put through a series of tests, and only the bots which score in the top percentile are retained. The retained versions then go on to make another million variations of themselves, and the process is repeated. With each new generation, the bots become more adept at programming other bots to do those specific tasks. In this way, Google is able to produce very, very smart bots.

This is a rudimentary example of how we will eventually produce an artificial intelligence that is the equal of (and eventually surpasses) the human mind. It will not be created by us, but will instead be programmed by a less advanced version of itself. This process will be repeated until one of those generations is advanced enough that it becomes sentient. That is the singularity event, and after it nothing will ever be the same.

The problem, of course, is that an artificial intelligence created by this method will be incomprehensible to humans, since it was actually programmed by progressively smarter generations of A.I. By the time those generations result in something capable of thinking for itself, its code will be so complex only another artificial intelligence will be able to understand it.

Think this sounds like science fiction? Think again. Countries around the world (including our own) are now looking at artificial intelligence as the new arms race. The nation with the most advanced A.I. as its ally will have the kind of advantage not seen since the dawn of the nuclear age.

In the 1940s, America was determined to develop the atom bomb, not because we were eager to decimate our enemies, but because the possibility of Imperial Japan or Nazi Germany developing the technology first would have been disastrous. That same kind of thinking will drive the race to create the first artificial superintelligence. Russian President Vladimir Putin made this statement in a speech to a group of students only last year: “Artificial intelligence is the future not only of Russia, but of all mankind … Whoever becomes the leader in this sphere will become the ruler of the world.”

And it’s not as far off as you might think. Although an exact date (and even the idea of the singularity itself) is still hotly debated, most think — if it happens at all — it will occur within the next 50 years.

Ray Kurzweil, an inventor and futurist that Bill Gates calls “the best person I know at predicting the future of artificial intelligence,” pinpoints the date of the singularity even more precisely in his book, The Singularity is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology. He writes, “I set the date for the Singularity—representing a profound and disruptive transformation in human capability—as 2045.” Kurzweil thinks advancements in artificial intelligence will experience, in the coming decades, the same exponential progress that microchip technology has seen over the past half-century.

In conclusion, I’d like to leave you with a thought experiment that has been making the rounds on the internet. It’s called “Roko’s Basilisk” and is a futurist variation of Pascal’s Wager, in which we are asked to bet our lives on the existence of God. Pascal reasons that if God exists and we choose not to believe in Him, we risk eternal torment in the fires of Hell. On the other hand, if we believe in God and He does not exist, we have simply made ourselves a fool for believing in something that turns out to be only imaginary. Therefore, argues Pascal, one should believe in God since the risk of being a fool is preferable to the risk of burning forever in the depths of Hell.

In Roko’s Basilisk, belief or unbelief in God is replaced with support or opposition to the creation of a hypothetical future artificial superintelligence. In the future, this artificial superintelligence will come to rule over humanity and, like God, it will retroactively punish those people who opposed its creation and reward those that supported it. Which one will you be? Keep in mind that supporting it will increase the likelihood that such an A.I. will come to exist in the future and eventually rule the world, while opposing it will make its existence less likely – but if it does become a reality, you will surely be punished for opposing it. (As in Pascal’s Wager, neutrality is not an option.)

Yet, how can this superintelligent A.I. possibly know who supported or opposed it in the past before it existed? The answer to that question is not easy to get your head around, but once you do, it’s likely to blow your mind.

In order for the artificial superintelligence to know who to punish in the present, it would need to build a simulation of the past. This simulation will serve as a “predictive model” for the real world, and would be a perfect copy, down to every last detail, including little digital copies of you and me. The A.I. will base its real-world judgment of us on the actions of our digital counterparts in this simulation of the past. If the digital versions of you and I choose to oppose the A.I. in this simulated version of the past, the A.I. will use that as a predictor of our behavior in the real world and punish us accordingly.

Still with me? Because I’m about to take you further down the rabbit hole. For that simulation to be an accurate prediction of the real world, the digital people which populate it would need to think and act exactly as we do. And by necessity, they wouldn’t know they were only copies of us, or that they were living in a simulation. They would believe they were the real versions and would be unaware that the world in which they lived was only a digital facsimile of the real thing.

Okay, now I’m about to take a hard-right turn. Stick with me. Assuming all this is the case, how do we know which world we’re in – the simulated one or the real one? The answer is, we can’t. From the perspective of someone living inside the simulation, it would all look perfectly real, just the way it does right now. The people in that simulation would think they were living, breathing human beings, just as we do.

Therefore, we might simply be self-aware A.I. programs from the future living inside a simulation of the past, created by a malevolent artificial superintelligence – but we wouldn’t know that.

Does that possibility affect your decision to support or oppose the A.I.? After all, if we are the ones living in the simulation, then the A.I. already exists and opposing it will doom our counterparts in the real world. However, if this is not a simulation, your support will hasten the A.I.’s eventual creation and bring about the very scenario I am describing.

So, what do you choose? Oppose or support?

Some of you may be thinking, How can I be punished for something I didn’t know anything about?

Well, now you do. You’re welcome.

Eric W. Austin lives in China, Maine and writes about technical and community issues. He can be reached by email at ericwaustin@gmail.com.

ERIC’S TECH TALK: Why we’re losing the battle for personal privacy

by Eric W. Austin

Do you think it’s a hassle when you have to cancel a lost or stolen credit card? Are you annoyed when your email gets hacked? Does it unnerve you to know your Facebook and Twitter posts are used to target you for advertising? Are you alarmed at the idea of Russian trolls and political activists using psychological-warfare techniques to wage influence campaigns against American voters?

I’m here to say: You ain’t seen nothin’ yet.

Last week, news everywhere buzzed with reports of the Golden State Killer – also known as the East Area Rapist, the Original Night Stalker, and the Diamond Knot Killer – captured more than 20 years after the last of his crimes were committed. Connected to 12 murders and at least 50 rapes, this man terrorized Sacramento County and parts of Southern California from 1976 to 1986.

What broke the case? And why has it caused a new eruption in debates about data privacy?

As they like to say in the old detective novels, the case had grown cold. The suspect left copious amounts of DNA behind at the crime scenes but, although DNA analysis has improved over the years, police could not find a match.

The breakthrough in the case came about because of a combination of two recent technological innovations: the Internet, and the availability of genetic testing for average consumers.

Personal genetic decoding, something that once cost thousands of dollars and weeks of analysis, is now available for $59 and a cheek swab. The two most popular genetic testing companies today are 23andMe and AncestryDNA. Both offer services which provide a complete “autosomal DNA” profile, available for download, as well as detailing ethnic history and susceptibility to disease. They will even match you to relatives you didn’t know you had.

It’s this last ability to do genetic matching that law enforcement took advantage of to finally nab the Golden State Killer.

GEDMatch is a free online utility used to compare autosomal DNA profiles. Although they don’t do genetic testing themselves, members of the site can upload their data from any of the most popular genetic testing companies, and use the site’s powerful matching tools to compare their DNA profile to those of other members of the website. As a free service and one that combines data from multiple genetic testing companies, GEDMatch is the largest public database of its kind. Its tools are so powerful and precise, users can isolate and match specific DNA sequences in order to find relations previously unknown, or trace branches of their family tree back to its genetic origins. GEDMatch is a favorite resource for researchers and genealogists all over the world.

This is the service investigators used to finally track down the Golden State Killer. The suspect hadn’t uploaded his own genetic profile to the database, but distant relatives of his had. Once the investigation could identify individuals related – however distantly – to the suspect, it took only four months to narrow their search down to the one person responsible. Then it was a simple exercise of obtaining a DNA sample from some trash the suspect discarded and matching it to samples from the original crime scenes.

It’s a good thing, right? Another bad guy behind bars. If police had had access to this tool in 1976, they might have prevented 49 rapes and 12 murders.

Right? Not so fast.

There are two notes of warning that I would like to proffer for consideration. The first should be obvious to anyone who has lived through the last two years: any data stored online can be hacked; nothing is safe. And second: for every positive benefit gained from sharing information online, there are evil men and women waiting to use that data for their own nefarious purposes.

We have seen in the past year how Facebook information can be used by political activists, advertisers – and Russians – in ways we are not aware and would not condone. How long until those same people find ways to use our genetic code to their gain and our detriment?

Not long, actually, as they are already doing it.

In 1996, Congress passed the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA). This law, meant to make it easier for people to keep their insurance when changing jobs, also included a provision allowing medical companies to share or sell the data of their patients – as long as that data was “anonymized,” or had all identifying information removed first.

This data sharing provision in HIPAA was supposed to help medical researchers who could make use of the data for research purposes, while protecting patient confidentiality. There are two glaring problems with this idea, however. First, they didn’t account for the fact that others, with more profit-minded goals, like marketing and political entities, would also be interested in the data. Second, they also didn’t account for the ingenious ability of data analysts to combine data sets from multiple sources in order to “deanonymize” the data for marketing purposes. And hospitals and insurance companies have not been discriminating about who they sell patient data to.

That same HIPAA data sharing provision also applies to genetic testing companies. Peter Pitts, a former FDA associate commissioner and current president of the Center for Medicine in the Public Interest, writes this in a recent guest column for Forbes magazine: “23andMe has [already] sold access to its database to at least 13 outside pharmaceutical firms. One buyer, Genentech, ponied up a cool $10 million for the genetic profiles of people suffering from Parkinson’s. AncestryDNA, another popular personal genetics company, recently announced a lucrative data-sharing partnership with the biotech company Calico.”

The availability of genetic testing for the average consumer was just a distant dream when HIPAA passed in 1996. The internet was still in its infancy. A lot has changed in the last 22 years, and our laws have not kept up.

“Customers are wrong to think their information is safely locked away,” Pitts concludes. “It’s not; it’s getting sold far and wide.”

There’s another reason to worry about data privacy when considering genetic information. Unlike our social security number or credit history, our genetic information doesn’t belong only to us. We share much of our genetic code with those we are related to. Police tracked down the Golden State Killer by looking at those parts of his DNA which he shared with others. Do we have the right to share our own genetic information when doing so means that, by necessity, we are also sharing information about family members who have not given their consent?

What happens when – not if – GEDMatch, 23andMe, Ancestry DNA or another company that stores genetic information is hacked? If my mother’s genetic code was part of the hack, is my own DNA profile also compromised because we share so much genetic history in common?

These questions need to be asked, but they should have been asked a decade ago. Part of the problem is how ignorant most members of Congress are about modern technological developments like social media or the complexities of online security.

A couple weeks back, I sat and watched Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook, testify before Congress. After two days, ten hours, and 600 questions, I came away with one conclusion: our representatives in Washington don’t know the first thing about how social media works. How can they legislate something they don’t understand?

I am also afraid there is a current tendency in the United States to try and address individual incidents as they occur, instead of working in a bipartisan way to address the problem as a whole. Unfortunately, this piecemeal approach is like sailing a broken boat that springs one leak after another because its owners don’t want to take the boat out of the water to fix it properly.

We need to step back and take a broader look at the privacy concerns that face us in this new data-landscape we find ourselves in post-Internet. Our representatives in Washington should educate themselves on the technical challenges of storing data online and bring in unbiased experts who will present a consumer-centric perspective on the best way to approach the problem.

We could learn a lot from what the European Union has done with the recently passed General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) which is set to go into effect later this month. The law sets up standards that apply to user data across the board. It builds-in accountability and responsibility for proper data usage with the establishment of independent supervisory authorities which investigate complaints of data abuses. The new law also clearly stipulates that users maintain ownership of their personal information no matter who is storing that data and it confirms a user’s right to have his data erased at any time. Finally, the GDPR sets forth requirements that companies notify users in a timely manner if their personal information is ever breached or hacked.

The United States, as home to the three biggest data content platforms on the planet – Google, Facebook, and Twitter – should be at the forefront of these discussions about personal privacy. Technology moves too quickly for us to take a “wait and see” approach to consumer data protection. A few weeks ago, we were talking about Facebook data and it was already ten years too late; today it’s our genetic information. It’s time for our representatives in Washington to put our right to personal privacy ahead of corporate profits and partisan bickering.

Where is Ralph Nader when you need him?

Eric Austin lives in China, Maine and writes about technology and community issues. He can be contacted by email at ericwaustin@gmail.com.

ERIC’S TECH TALK: On the internet, the product being sold is you!

by Eric W. Austin

How does it feel, sitting there on the digital shelf? Have you checked your best-buy date? I think I’m still good for a few more years yet.

It may not feel like it, but on the internet, the product companies are selling is you. Facebook isn’t a social media company, it’s a people factory. It processes you, formats you, and wraps you up in a neat little database. Then it mass produces you and sells you at a discount to anyone with a credit card.

Four years ago, a British political consulting firm named Cambridge Analytica, colluded in a campaign to capture profile information from Facebook users. In the end, it would lead to a scandal involving the user information of more than 70 million Americans, the use of psychometrics as a new political tool, and an influence campaign that may have turned the tide in two world-altering elections a continent apart.

Let’s start at the beginning. In 2014, a lecturer from Cambridge University, Aleksandr Kogan, formed a UK company called Global Science Research (GSR). He then developed a Facebook app posing as a personality survey. He paid American Facebook users $1 to $4 to download the app and fill out the personality test, for a total of nearly $800,000. In the process, those users gave the app permission to collect their profile data. Whether Kogan did this on his own or at the encouragement of Cambridge Analytica is open to debate, depending with whom you talk.

In any case, around 270,000 people downloaded the app and filled out the survey. Next to America’s population of 325 million, that may not sound like many people, but under Facebook rules at the time (which were changed in 2015 in response to this incident), when users gave the app permission to collect their profile data, they also gave the app permission to collect the profile information of their friends as well. Since the average Facebook user has between 100-500 friends, this meant the app was able to collect the profile information of nearly 87 million people.

The data they collected wasn’t simply ordinary information like work history and places lived. They also pulled other user data which Facebook collects, such as the posts you’ve ‘liked,’ status updates you’ve posted, and the groups you belong to.

Kogan then began working with another company, Strategic Communications Laboratories (SCL), the parent company of the aforementioned Cambridge Analytica. Up until this point, Kogan had not done anything illegal or against Facebook’s terms and conditions. But when he shared the data with SCL, he broke Facebook’s rules, which stipulate data acquired through an app cannot be shared with another entity without first obtaining Facebook’s permission.

SCL is a private behavioral research and strategic communications company, purchased by billionaire conservative donor, Robert Mercer, in 2013. They analyze large sets of data and attempt to identity patterns in it for use in political marketing. Taking Kogan’s data, with information about pages you follow, posts you like and create, comments you leave, and much, much more, a team of psychologists and data analysts looked for ways to target people for maximum effect. It’s called psychographic profiling and it’s the new weapon in political warfare.

Let me give you a real-world example of the type of data these apps collect. If I go to my Facebook settings and select ‘Apps,’ I get a list of the apps that I’ve used on Facebook. Clicking on an app pulls up a screen that tells me what permissions I have granted. In the app “80’s One Hit Wonders,” which I don’t even remember signing up for, it lists nearly 20 different categories of information to which the app has access. This includes my hometown, birth-date, friends list, work and education history, religious and political views, status updates and more than a dozen other categories. I am most definitely deleting this app.

This is the type of information Kogan shared with Cambridge Analytica, through their parent company SCL. Cambridge Analytica, a subsidiary of SCL founded just after Mercer’s acquisition of the company, was the brainchild of Mercer political advisor and former Trump Chief Strategist, Steve Bannon. The creation of Cambridge Analytica was an attempt to harness the psychological techniques of its parent company for the domestic political scene, and was used by several important political campaigns, including those of Ted Cruz and Donald Trump, as well as the Brexit initiative which successfully withdrew the United Kingdom from the European Union.

What sets SCL and Cambridge Analytica apart from other similar data-marketing companies is the way they approach their influence campaigns. They employ a developing science called “psychographic targeting.” This is the process of tweaking your market-targeting based on the psychological characteristics of your intended audience.

Cambridge Analytica’s parent company, SCL, first honed its skills in cyber-psychological warfare by messing with the elections in developing countries: “Psyops. Psychological operations – the same methods the military use to effect mass sentiment change,” a former Cambridge Analytica employee told The Guardian in May 2017. “It’s what they mean by winning ‘hearts and minds.’ We were just doing it to win elections in the kind of developing countries that don’t have many rules.”

This anonymous former employee is speaking about the company’s work prior to 2013, before the success of SCL’s foreign influence campaigns attracted the interest of wealthy American hedge fund manager and tech entrepreneur, Robert Mercer, and his political ally, Steve Bannon, who were looking to bring those modern techniques of psychological warfare to the political battlefield back home.

Imagine targeting users who are members of the Facebook group, Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD), with ads depicting horrific car crashes and a message suggesting one of the candidates in a political race will go easy on drunk drivers. Would such a campaign be likely to sway some of those voters, even if its claims were untrue?

Now, in lieu of drunk driving, imagine instead targeting the darkest aspects of human nature: racism, hate, sexism, the worst extremes of political partisanship. Afraid someone will take away your guns? There’s an ad for that. Worried about your religious liberty? Don’t worry, there’s an ad for that. Hate immigrants or Muslims? There’s a – well, you get the picture.

And it gets even more deeply duplicitous than that. Not only did they target the most vulnerable people on the political fringe, but those targeted ads might link to articles on fake news websites which look eerily similar to real news sites like Fox or MSNBC. The whole idea is to trick visitors into thinking they are viewing an article from a legitimate source. The web address of the page might be “msnbc.com.co” but most people won’t even notice the extra “co” at the end. Even the links back to the homepage at the top of the article will likely take visitors back to the real MSNBC website, so that anyone leaving the page will think they’ve just read an article published and endorsed by a legitimate news organization. In this way, innocent people become unwitting conspirators in spreading fake news; and it helps fuel the public’s current distrust of national news sources.

This scandal with Cambridge Analytica has caused an identity crisis for Facebook, too. On the surface, Facebook appears to be a platform designed to facilitate communication, and that is the description promoted by the company itself, but a number of cracks have begun to show through this carefully constructed facade.

The scary truth, which nobody wants to talk about, is that Facebook is a company designed to make money for its creators and stockholders. It does this by encouraging the sharing of personal data by its users, and then making that information available for use by marketers who buy ads on the platform. The more users the platform has, and the more data those users share, the more valuable Facebook is to its investors. Facebook is confronted with the dilemma of needing to reassure its users that their information is safe, even as their business model is designed to exploit the information of those very same users.

Facebook itself is built to addict its users. The more people using the platform, the more ads that can be shown, and the more money Facebook makes. The constant endorphin-spiking feedback loop of likes, notifications and updates, serves to addict users as surely as any drug. “They’ve created the attention economy and are now engaged in a full-blown arms race to capture and retain human attention, including the attention of kids,” says Tristan Harris, a former Google design ethicist, who now serves as a senior fellow for the nonprofit advocacy group, Common Sense Media.

The internet has changed the face of commerce. But the most important product being purchased on the internet is not the latest toy marketed on Amazon, or the newest video streaming service. In the internet age, the most valuable commodity is you. Your information, your vote, and your efforts in pushing the agenda of those with money, means, and power.

Eric W. Austin lives in China and writes about community issues and technology. He can be reached by email at ericwaustin@gmail.com.

ERIC’S TECH TALK: My bipolar relationship with the Internet

by Eric W. Austin

I love technology. I hate technology. I just can’t decide.

When I was a boy, I dreamt of moving up to the mountains and living in the hollowed-out trunk of a redwood tree, making rabbit snares from deer tendon and barbed wire. Then Dad brought home our first computer. Now, I panic when the lights flicker and fret over whether I have enough gas for the generator.

Recently, I ‘liked’ a post on Facebook from a Californian cousin. He had shared an article from The Washington Post about a product that has been introduced into more than 600 American schools meant to reduce cell phone use by students. The idea is pretty simple. Each student receives an opaque, nylon case just big enough to hold a cell phone. On the open end of the pouch is a magnetic clasp. When touched to a special ‘magnetizer,’ the clasp is magnetized and becomes impossible to open. The students remain in possession of their phones at all times, but cannot see or access them while they are locked away in the nylon pouch. At the end of the school day, the students touch the cases to the special magnetizer again, which this time de-magnetizes the clasps, once again giving students access to their phones.

The program has been an unsurprising success. Grades have gone up, behavior problems have dropped, and people have started talking to one another again. What a great idea, I thought. They should implement this in every school!

Then another school shooting happened in Parkland, Florida. In its aftermath, the first thing many of those kids did was text their parents to let them know they were okay. And I thought, What if all those kids had had their phones locked away?

Whether it’s technology or just life that refuses to be free of rough edges, I don’t know. Technology has certainly invaded our society and isn’t going away anytime soon. I’m sure the first guy to invent a fork thought it was a great idea right up to the moment when his neighbor took it and stabbed him in the eye. How long before a shooter enters a school with a signal-locating device and goes on a hunting trip?

When I graduated from high school in 1993, school shootings were unheard of and the Internet was as yet in it’s infancy. My first year of college I still wrote letters home to my parents. Only the computer lab had a connection to something we might recognize as the Internet. However, things were moving fast and the following year Netscape, the first popular browser, was released. Then in 1995, an online bookstore launched called Amazon.com, and I was hooked.

It was the dawn of the technological revolution, and for me, a time of discovery. The ability to find information on anything, talk to people from half a world away, and engage in discussions on topics considered taboo in the circles I’d grown up in, was integral to my emergence into young adulthood. I remember thinking at the time: This will change the world! This will banish old superstitions and produce an educated population like never before!

Oh, how naive I was.

The Internet, like any tool, has a variable impact depending on how we wield it. On the one hand, it offers knowledge at your fingertips. On the other, it is cluttered with misinformation. And while we can choose to use it to expose ourselves to challenging views and evidence-based information, the Internet is also designed to cater to our biases.

Take Facebook or Twitter, for example. They are basically set up as digital versions of a high school clique, with posts judged by the number of ‘likes’ they receive, rather than the validity of their content. Shouting is encouraged, and gossip trends faster than facts.

Social media gives us additional tools to customize our feed by snoozing or unfollowing anyone that might annoy us. Over time, our choices feed into an advanced algorithm whose job it is to ensure our experience is as pleasant as possible. God forbid we might encounter something that challenges our established beliefs!

And the entire internet is like this, allowing us to filter the information we receive: follow certain people on Twitter and block others; customize your search results so you don’t have to see objectional content; tweak your spam filter so you won’t need to look at anymore emails about erectile dysfunction.

Am I proposing we eliminate these filter options? Hell, no! But in small and subtle ways the internet encourages us to customize our flow of information so that the world we see is not the ‘real’ one, but instead a version that is tailored specifically to us. The overall effect is to emphasize our specific individuality at the expense of our collective commonality.

In some ways, technology has united us like never before. In others, it constantly divides us.

Most of the news websites that have cropped up since the Internet’s inception present a strictly liberal or conservative viewpoint. What you see on cable news is 90 percent opinion and 10 percent news – a complete flip-flop from decades past. It seems the era of news neutrality is over.

Smaller, local newspapers still tend to be bipartisan affairs, mostly out of the necessity to cater to a mixed, localized audience. But when you can build your niche from people from all over the world, the narrowest viewpoints still find a sizable audience.

This ability of the Internet to validate even the most fringe views often blows political differences out of all proportion. And by empowering us to customize the information we see to such a granular level, it allows us to create ever narrower filter-bubbles in which to live. Jesse Singal, writing in an Op-Ed for the New York Times, put it nicely: “What social media is doing is slicing the salami thinner and thinner, as it were, making it harder even for people who are otherwise in general ideological agreement to agree on facts about news events.”

The Internet’s ‘ability to divide’ is seeping into our society and symptoms are popping up everywhere. Our politics have never been so partisan – and it’s not just the politics. The narratives spun by each side are like alternate realities. Flipping between CNN and Fox News will leave you with the frightening feeling you’ve just glimpsed a parallel world.

The sad part is that we are doing this to ourselves; technology is just the tool we’re using to dig the chasm that divides us. The scary part is that technology tends to accelerate cultural change, both the good and the bad; and at the pace we’re moving, the near future is not looking good. We’re facing total gridlock at best, a cultural civil war at worst.

The problem with the old world was that it was too easy to live in a localized bubble and care little for what was happening a world away. The problem with this new world is that it’s too easy to live in a filter-bubble of our own creation and forget to talk to the people sitting right next to us.

Eric Austin lives in China and writes about technology and community issues. He can be reached by email at ericwaustin@gmail.com.

ERIC’S TECH TALK – Fake news: coming to a town near you

Honest, open, accountable journalism needs help to continue

by Eric W. Austin
Technical Advisor

In Lewiston, fake news is taking over the town.

Five candidates faced off in the town’s mayoral race back in November. According to local election rules, if no candidate cracks the majority with at least 50 percent, there is a second, run-off race between the top two candidates the following month. Ben Chin, a Democrat, was the clear favorite with 40 percent of the vote coming out of the November contest. His opponent, in second place with 29 percent, was Republican Shane Bouchard. The remaining 31 percent of the vote was split between the other three candidates. With no one achieving the required 50 percent majority, a run-off election was planned for early December.

Ben Chin

Chin, a progressive activist backed by the most popular politician in the country, Bernie Sanders, held a comfortable lead in initial polling. But in early December, something changed. News stories started popping up on social media that painted the Democrat in an unflattering light. One claimed Chin had allegedly called Lewiston voters a “bunch of racists” based on a series of leaked emails. Another reported his car had been towed because of “years of unpaid parking tickets.” All of the stories originated from a hitherto unknown Maine news website called the Maine Examiner.

It didn’t matter that the stories were misleading and inaccurate. As soon as a new article was uploaded to the website, links got posted to Facebook by various members of the Maine Republican Party. From there, the stories swiftly propagated through social media, as anything negative and partisan inevitably does.

In the end, Chin lost to Bouchard by 145 votes. It was all very dramatic, and inevitably led to questions about this new website that was suddenly breaking such startling scoops in the middle of a Lewiston mayoral election.

Shane Bouchard

Just who was the Maine Examiner? The Lewiston Sun Journal, the Boston Globe and others, in a bit of old-fashioned investigative journalism, decided to find out. The Journal has run a series of stories in the months since, from which much of this article is based, and they have found some very interesting information.

First was the problem that nobody seemed to know who ran the website or wrote the articles. The site uses a registration-masking service which hides the true identity of the owners — a reasonable privacy precaution for an individual, but curious practice for a business or news agency. Then there was the fact that none of the articles contain any bylines. They are simply credited to the generic moniker “Administrator.” The site’s “About Us” page lists no editor, no writers and no owners. It’s all very mysterious.

Recently, a big clue popped up from an unlikely source. A web developer in California, Tony Perry, heard about the controversy and decided to investigate. Perry did something very simple yet ingenious. He downloaded a bunch of the photos posted with the stories in question. Then he took a look at the pictures’ meta-data. This is invisible information that is stored with every computer file, and often contains things like owner name and the date of a file’s creation. Perry found that a number of the photos were created by someone named Jason Savage. Further, he found that one of these pictures had been uploaded to the Maine Examiner website just 14 minutes after it had been created by ‘Jason Savage.’ This suggested a close collusion between whoever Jason Savage was and the Maine Examiner website.

Then in late January, The Maine Beacon, a publication of the Maine People’s Alliance, published their own investigation into the mystery. Looking at publicly-accessible error logs for the Maine Examiner website revealed internal server addresses containing the username ‘jasonsavage207.’

Additionally, the website template used for the Maine Examiner was downloaded from a website on which was found a public profile for someone listed as ‘jasonsavage207,’ and this profile indicated the user’s account was last active on the same day that such a template was installed on the Maine Examiner’s website.

The evidence was in, and it was pretty damning. It was clear Jason Savage was intimately connected to the Maine Examiner website, but who exactly was Jason Savage?

A quick Google search points to one particular Maine resident who also happens to be the executive director of the Maine Republican Party. This conclusion is inescapable once you learn that his Instagram handle is ‘jasonsavage207’ and his Twitter name is ‘jsavage207.’

The latest wrinkle to this developing story came a few weeks ago when the Maine Democratic Party formally filed an ethics complaint against the Maine Republican Party.

But this debacle cannot be blamed entirely on unethical political partisans. It is a symptom of a larger problem affecting America and the world. Newspapers are closing their doors everywhere. The advertising dollars that used to fund them are moving instead to internet platforms like Google, Facebook and Twitter. But these platforms don’t do journalism. They are simply information warehouses.

That means America’s free press is shrinking. And with smaller newspapers across the country going out of business as their revenue dries up, something must fill the void they leave behind. More and more, what has come to fill that void are pseudo-news websites like the Maine Examiner. Such sites masquerade as news sources but are nothing but partisan propaganda.

Good journalism is not anonymous; it’s accountable. Good journalism does not celebrate partisan politics; it strives for balance and accuracy.

For the past two years, I’ve been honored to serve on the board of directors for The Town Line, and I’ve been impressed by the staff’s deep commitment to the traditional journalistic values of honesty, openness and accountability. It’s the type of attitude we should be celebrating in this world of viral, mile-a-minute news. Unfortunately, a small, free community newspaper is just the kind of institution that is suffering the most in this post-internet world.

Our Founding Father, Thomas Jefferson, once wrote, “A properly functioning democracy depends on an informed electorate.” But an informed electorate is dependent on the work of dedicated journalists committed to providing accurate information to the American public.

And the moral to this story? Support your local paper lest your town too becomes a victim of fake news.

TECH TALK: My deep, dark journey into political gambling

ERIC’S TECH TALK

by Eric W. Austin

I opened the door and stepped hesitantly into the dimly lit room. Curtains covered all the windows. The only light came from a half-dozen computer screens glowing menacingly in the darkness. A scary-looking German Shepherd slumped in one corner. She growled low in her throat as I came in, and then went back to scratching at imaginary fleas. She had seen it all before: just another poor sucker thinking it was possible to predict the future.

But this wasn’t some hole-in-the-wall gambling den in a seedy part of Augusta. It was my office at my house here in China, Maine. I sat down at my desk and pulled up the website PredictIt.org. Would I be up or down today?

PredictIt is a different kind of gambling website. Instead of betting on sports events or dog races, you bet on events happening in politics. For example, the Friday before the recent government shutdown, I pulled out of the “Will the government be shutdown on January 22?” market after quadrupling my initial investment. I got into the market two weeks earlier when I thought shares for ‘Yes’ were severely undervalued at only 16¢ a share. When I exited the market on Friday, my 20 shares were valued at 69¢ each. I should have held the line, but still not a bad return on investment in only two weeks. When in doubt, bet on the incompetence of the American Congress.

Called the “stock market for politics,” PredictIt is an experimental political gambling website created by Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand. They work in partnership with more than 50 universities across the world, including the American colleges of Harvard, Duke and Yale.

Why would a bunch of academics be interested in political gambling? They’re studying a psychological phenomenon called “the wisdom of the crowd.” This is a theory that postulates that a prediction derived from averaging the opinions of a large group of diverse individuals is often better than the prediction from a single expert.

The way it works on PredictIt is pretty simple. Political questions are posed which have a binary response, usually ‘Yes’ or ‘No’. Shares in either option cost between 1¢ and 100¢ (or $1). The value of shares is determined by the supply and demand of each market. In other words, if a lot of people are buying shares in the ‘Yes’ option, those shares will increase in value, and ‘No’ shares will decrease.

This set up allows one to quickly look at a share price and know how likely that particular prediction is of coming true. Will Trump be impeached in his first term? Since shares are currently at 37¢, that means the market thinks there’s a 37 percent chance of that happening. I own 15 ‘Yes’ shares in this market. Shares have increased by 4¢ (or 4 percent) since I entered the market several months ago (from 33¢ to 37¢), so my initial investment of $4.90 has increased by 65¢ to $5.55 as of today.

If you can think of a question related to politics, there’s likely a market for it on PredictIt. Will North Korea compete in the 2018 Winter Olympics? Currently likely at 94 percent. Who will be the 2020 Democratic nominee for president? At the moment, Bernie Sanders and Kamala Harris hold the top spots. How many senate seats will the GOP hold after the mid-term elections? “49 or fewer” is the most likely answer according to investors on PredictIt.

What are the chances that events over the next year will change things up? There’s no market for that question on PredictIt, but I’d say it’s at least 100 percent. Of course, that’s exactly what makes the game so exciting!

I first entered the world of political gambling back in May. I’d become a bit of a news junkie during the 2016 election (Donald Trump is the news equivalent of heroin), and was looking for something to give meaning to the endless hours I spent following the machinations in Washington. Initially, I started with just $20. Later, I added another $25 for a total account investment of $45. I lost $8 on a couple of bets early on, and have spent the past six months trying to make up for the losses. This government shutdown drama put me back on top. According to my trade history, after more than 169 bets and minus any trading fees, I’m currently up by $9.96.

Okay, so the IRS is unlikely to come knocking on my door when I don’t report it on my taxes in April. Still, it feels good to be back in the black.

Eric Austin is a writer, technical consultant, and news junkie living in China, Maine. He can be contacted by email at ericwaustin@gmail.com.

TECH TALK: Does the future spell the end of local news?

Eric’s Tech Talk

by Eric W. Austin
Writer and Technical Consultant

In August of 1981, an upstart cable TV station began broadcasting these slick new videos set to music. They called it “music television.”

The first music video to air on the new channel was the Buggles’ song “Video Killed the Radio Star.” It was supposed to herald the end of radio’s dominance and introduce the world to television as a new musical medium. Instead, nearly 40 years later, music can hardly be found on MTV and radio is still going strong.

The song’s theme, a lament about the old technology of radio being supplanted by the new technology of television, is playing out again with the Internet and traditional print journalism. Sadly, the Buggles’ song may turn out to be more prophetic this time around.

The newspaper industry is currently in a crisis, and even a little paper like The Town Line is feeling the hurt.

Advertising revenue, the primary source of income for newspapers the world over, has been steadily falling since the early 2000s. Between 2012 and 2016, newspaper ad revenues dropped by 21 percent, only slightly better than the previous five years where they dropped 24 percent. Overall, in the first 15 years of the new millennium, print advertising revenue fell to less than a third of what it was pre-Internet, from $60 billion to just $20 billion globally. And, unfortunately, that trend looks to continue in the years ahead.

On the positive side, circulation numbers are up for most newspapers, and public interest has never been higher, but income from subscriptions has not been enough to compensate for the lost advertising.

For small papers like The Town Line, which offers the paper for free and receives little income from subscriptions, this is an especially hard blow: more people are reading the paper, and there’s a great demand for content, but there is also less income from advertising to cover operating costs.

In the late ‘90s, The Town Line employed eight people: an editor, assistant editor, graphic artist, receptionist, bookkeeper and three sales people. Weekly issues often ran to 24 pages or more. Today that staff has been reduced to just three part-time employees, and the size of the paper has fallen to just 12 pages. There simply isn’t enough advertising to support a bigger paper.

People are more engaged than ever: they want to understand the world around them like never before. But as this business model, dependent on income from advertisers, continues to decay, without finding support from other sources, there is a real danger of losing the journalistic spirit that has played such an important role in our American experiment.

The reasons this is happening are fairly easy to explain. Businesses who once advertised exclusively in local papers have moved en masse to global platforms like Facebook and Google. These advertising platforms can offer the same targeted marketing once only possible with local publications, and they have the financial muscle to offer pricing and convenience that smaller publications cannot match.

This combination of local targeting and competitive pricing has caused a tidal wave of advertising to move from local papers to global corporations like Google, Facebook and Twitter instead. In the last decade, thousands of newspapers all across the nation have closed their doors. Often the first to succumb are small, local papers that have a limited geographic audience and fewer financial resources.

Like The Town Line.

There’s also been a transition in media coverage, from local issues to ones that have more of a national, or even global, audience. Websites are globally accessible, whereas traditional papers tend to have limited geographic range. Most online advertising pays on a ‘per-click’ basis, and a news story about China, Maine, will never get the same number of clicks as one about Washington, DC.

That smaller newspapers have been some of the hardest hit only makes this problem worse, as the remaining media companies tend toward huge conglomerates that are more concerned with covering national issues that have broad appeal, rather than local stories which may only be of interest to a small, localized audience.

This means that local issues are receiving less coverage, and as a result average Americans have fewer tools to make informed decisions about their communities.

When local journalism dies, what rises up to replace it? I think the answer is pretty clear: whichever website is willing to publish the most salacious stories generating the highest click-count – with little regard to proper sourcing or journalistic ethics.

Essentially, we’ve traded journalistic integrity for clickbait content.

Only a few weeks ago, the Bangor Daily News ran a story about a recent local election that may have been decided by a local ‘news’ site with no problem running rumor as news, and political partisans only too happy to propagate the dubious links through social media. Examples like this will only become more common in the years to come.

If we don’t support the traditional values of honesty, integrity and unbiased reporting that have been the bedrock of American journalism for two centuries, we may not like what rises up to replace it.

With advertising revenues hitting all-time lows nationwide, and looking to worsen in the years ahead, newspapers increasingly must rely on support from their readers to make ends meet. Since advertisers have abandoned them, it’s now up to ‘us’ to support local papers like The Town Line.

In this New Year, make a resolution to support your local newspaper. If you’re a business, help to reverse the trend by advertising in local publications. If you’re an individual, consider becoming a member of The Town Line. A small donation of $10 a month can make a world of difference. Best of all, since The Town Line is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, private foundation, all donations are fully tax deductible!

To fulfill the American promise of an informed public, and fight the growing trend of clickbait sensationalism that has come to permeate much of the web, we must support local reporting more than ever. The time to act is now, before journalism loses another warrior in the fight for free expression.

Don’t let our generation be the one in which local journalism dies!

Eric Austin lives in China, Maine and writes about technology and community issues. He can be reached at ericwaustin@gmail.com.

TECH TALK: Net Neutrality goes nuclear

ERIC’S TECH TALK

by Eric Austin
Computer Technical Advisor

Do you like your cable TV service? I hope so, because your internet service is about to get a whole lot more like it.

On Thursday last week, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), headed up by Trump appointee and former Verizon employee Ajit Pai, voted 3-2, along party lines, to repeal Obama-era rules that prevented internet providers from favoring some internet traffic over others.

You know how the cable company always puts the one channel you really want in a higher tier, forcing you to pay for the more expensive package even though you don’t like any of the other channels?

That’s right. Nickel-and-diming is coming to an internet service near you!

What does this really mean for you? I’m so glad you asked, but I’m afraid my answer will not make you happy.

It means that huge telecommunication companies like Comcast and TimeWarner now have the power to determine which internet services you have access to.

If you have a niche interest you pursue on the internet, you’re likely to be affected. Those websites with smaller audiences will have their bandwidth throttled unless you, the consumer, begin paying your Internet Service Provider (ISP) an extra fee.

That means you, Miniature Train Collector! That means you, Bass Fisherman! That means you, Foot-Fetish Fanatic!

It means pay-to-play is coming to the internet. When ISPs are allowed to favor some traffic over others, the Almighty Dollar will determine the winners and losers.

It means smaller newspapers like The Town Line, already suffering in a climate of falling ad revenue and competition from mega-sites like Buzzfeed and Facebook, will be forced to struggle even harder to find an audience.

Remember when chain super-stores like WalMart and Lowe’s forced out all the mom and pop stores? Remember when Starbucks and Subway took over Main Street?

That’s about to happen to the internet.

This move puts more control in the hands of mega-corporations – and in the hands of the men who own them. Do you want to choose your ISP based on where you fall on the political divide? What if Rupert Murdoch, owner of Fox News, bought Fairpoint or Spectrum? Which viewpoints do you think he would be likely to favor? Which websites would see their traffic throttled? What about George Soros, the billionaire liberal activist? No matter which side of the political divide you come down on, this is bad news for America.

In 2005, a little website called YouTube launched. It was competing against an internet mega-giant called Google Video. Two years later Google bought the website for $1.65 billion. Today, YouTube is one of the most popular websites on the internet.

That won’t happen in the future. Under the new rules, Google can simply use its greater capital to bribe ISPs to squash competitor traffic. YouTube would have died on the vine. In fact, that’s exactly what’s likely to happen to YouTube’s competitors now. Oh, the irony!

Twitter, YouTube, Facebook — none of these sites would be successes today without the level-playing field the internet has enjoyed during its first two decades of life.

So this is now the future of the internet. The barrier to innovation and success just became greater for the little guy. Is that really what the web needs?

These are dangerous days we live in, with freedom and democracy apparently assailed from all sides. The internet has been a beacon of hope in these troubled times, giving voice to the voiceless and leveling the playing field in a game that increasingly favors the powerful.

This decision by the FCC under Trump is a huge boon to the power of mega-corporations, telecommunications companies, and established monopolies, but it’s a flaming arrow to the heart of everyday, average Americans and future entrepreneurs. America will be the poorer because of it.

If there’s anything left of the revolutionary spirit that founded America, it lives on in the rebellious noise of the World Wide Web. Let’s not squash it in favor of giving more money and control to big corporations. America has had enough of that. Leave the internet alone!

Eric Austin is a writer and technical consultant living in China, Maine. He writes about technical and community issues and can be contacted at ericwaustin@gmail.com.

Further reading:

TECH TALK: Are you human or robot? The surprising history of CAPTCHAs

ERIC’S TECH TALK

by Eric W. Austin

We’re all familiar with it. Try to log into your favorite website, and you’re likely to be presented with a question: Are you human or a robot? Then you might be asked to translate a bit of garbled text or pick from a set of presented images. What’s this all about?

There’s an arms race going on between website owners and internet spam bots. Spam bots want to log into your site like a regular human, and then leave advertising spam comments on all your pages. Website admins naturally want to stop this from happening, as we have enough ordinary humans leaving pointless comments already.

Although several teams have claimed ownership of inventing the technique, the term ‘CAPTCHA’ was first coined by a group of engineers at Carnegie Mellon University in 2001. They were looking for a way to allow websites to distinguish between live humans and the growing multitude of spam bots pretending to be human. They came up with the idea of showing a user distorted images of garbled words that could be understood by a real person but would confound a computer. It was from this idea that the ubiquitous CAPTCHA emerged.

CAPTCHA is an acronym that stands for ‘Completely Automated Public Turing test to tell Computers and Humans Apart.’

Around this same time, The New York Times was in the process of digitizing their back issues. They were employing a fairly new computer technology called Optical Character Recognition (OCR), which is the process of scanning a page of type and turning it into searchable text. Prior to this technology, a scanned page of text was simply an image and not searchable or capable of being cataloged based on its content.

Old newsprint can be difficult to read for computers, especially since the back catalog of The New York Times stretches back more than 100 years. If the ink has smeared, faded or is otherwise obscured, a computer could fail to correctly interpret the text.

The New York Times got the brilliant idea of using these difficult words as CAPTCHA images, utilizing the power of internet users to read words a computer had failed to recognize. The project was reinvented as ‘reCAPTCHA.’

In 2009, Google bought the company responsible for reCAPTCHA and began using it to help digitize old books for their Google Books project. Whenever their computers run into trouble interpreting a bit of text, a scan of those words is uploaded to the reCAPTCHA servers and millions of internet users share in the work of decoding old books for Google’s online database.

I bet you didn’t realize you’re working for Google every time you solve one of those garbled word puzzles!

Of course, artificial intelligence and OCR technology has improved a lot in the years since. Now you are more likely to be asked to choose those images that feature street signs, rather than to solve a bit of distorted text. In this way, Google is using internet users to improve its artificial intelligence image recognition.

Soon computers will be smart enough to solve these picture challenges as well. In fact, the latest version of CAPTCHA barely requires any input from the internet user at all. If you have come to a webpage and been asked to check a box verifying that, “I’m not a robot,” and wondered how this can possibly filter out spam bots, you’re not alone. There’s actually a lot more going on behind that simple checkbox.

Invented by Google, and called “No CAPTCHA reCAPTCHA,” the new system employs an invisible algorithm behind the scenes that executes when you check the box. This algorithm analyzes your recent online behavior in order to determine if you are acting like a human or a bot. If it determines you might be a bot, you’ll get the familiar pop-up, asking you to choose from a series of images in order to verify your humanity.

This internet arms race is a competition between artificial intelligence’s efforts to pass as human and a website admin’s attempt to identify them. The CAPTCHA will continue to evolve as the artificial intelligence of spam bots increases to keep pace.

It’s an arms race we’re bound to lose in the end. But until then, the next time you’re forced to solve a garbled word puzzle, perhaps it will help ease the tedium to remember you’re helping preserve the world’s literary past every time you do!