Tag Archives: social media

Living in the Russian Digital Bubble

Vladimir Putin, Russia’s president, has portrayed his aggression on the Ukrainian border as pushing back against Western advances. For some time he has been doing much the same online. He has long referred to the internet as a “CIA project”. His deep belief that the enemy within and the enemy without are in effect one and the same… Faced with such “aggression”, Mr Putin wants a Russian internet that is secure against external threat and internal opposition. He is trying to bring that about on a variety of fronts: through companies, the courts and technology itself.

In December 2021, VK, one of Russia’s online conglomerates, was taken over by two subsidiaries of Gazprom, the state-owned gas giant. In the same month a court in Moscow fined Alphabet, which owns Google, a record $98m for its repeated failure to delete content the state deems illegal. And Mr Putin’s regime began using hardware it has required internet service providers (ISPS) to install to block Tor, a tool widely used in Russia to mask online activity. All three actions were part of the country’s effort to assure itself of online independence by building what some scholars of geopolitics, borrowing from Silicon Valley, have begun calling a “stack”.

In technology, the stack is the sum of all the technologies and services on which a particular application relies, from silicon to operating system to network. In politics it means much the same, at the level of the state. The national stack is a sovereign digital space made up not only of software and hardware (increasingly in the form of computing clouds) but also infrastructure for payments, establishing online identities and controlling the flow of information

China built its sovereign digital space with censorship in mind. The Great Firewall, a deep-rooted collection of sophisticated digital checkpoints, allows traffic to be filtered with comparative ease. The size of the Chinese market means that indigenous companies, which are open to various forms of control, can successfully fulfil all of their users’ needs. And the state has the resources for a lot of both censorship and surveillance. Mr Putin and other autocrats covet such power. But they cannot get it. It is not just that they lack China’s combination of rigid state control, economic size, technological savoir-faire and stability of regime. They also failed to start 25 years ago. So they need ways to achieve what goals they can piecemeal, by retrofitting new controls, incentives and structures to an internet that has matured unsupervised and open to its Western begetters.

Russia’s efforts, which began as purely reactive attempts to lessen perceived harm, are becoming more systematic. Three stand out: (1) creating domestic technology, (2) controlling the information that flows across it and, perhaps most important, (3) building the foundational services that underpin the entire edifice.

Russian Technology

The government has made moves to restart a chipmaking plant in Zelenograd near Moscow, the site of a failed Soviet attempt to create a Silicon Valley. But it will not operate at the cutting edge. So although an increasing number of chips are being designed in Russia, they are almost all made by Samsung and TSMC, a South Korean and a Taiwanese contract manufacturer. This could make the designs vulnerable to sanctions….

For crucial applications such as mobile-phone networks Russia remains highly reliant on Western suppliers, such as Cisco, Ericsson and Nokia. Because this is seen as leaving Russia open to attacks from abroad, the industry ministry, supported by Rostec, a state-owned arms-and-technology giant, is pushing for next-generation 5g networks to be built with Russian-made equipment only. The country’s telecoms industry does not seem up to the task. And there are internecine impediments. Russia’s security elites, the siloviki, do not want to give up the wavelength bands best suited for 5g. But the only firm that could deliver cheap gear that works on alternative frequencies is Huawei, an allegedly state-linked Chinese electronics group which the siloviki distrust just as much as security hawks in the West do.

It is at the hardware level that Russia’s stack is most vulnerable. Sanctions imposed may treat the country, as a whole,  like Huawei is now treated by America’s government. Any chipmaker around the world that uses technology developed in America to design or make chips for Huawei needs an export license from the Commerce Department in Washington—which is usually not forthcoming. If the same rules are applied to Russian firms, anyone selling to them without a license could themselves risk becoming the target of sanctions. That would see the flow of chips into Russia slow to a trickle.

When it comes to software the Russian state is using its procurement power to amp up demand. Government institutions, from schools to ministries, have been encouraged to dump their American software, including Microsoft’s Office package and Oracle’s databases. It is also encouraging the creation of alternatives to foreign services for consumers, including TikTok, Wikipedia and YouTube. Here the push for indigenization has a sturdier base on which to build. Yandex, a Russian firm which splits the country’s search market with Alphabet’s Google, and VK, a social-media giant, together earned $1.8bn from advertising last year, more than half of the overall market. VK’s vKontakte and Odnoklassniki trade places with American apps (Facebook, Instagram) and Chinese ones (Likee, TikTok) on the top-ten downloads list.

This diverse system is obviously less vulnerable to sanctions—which are nothing like as appealing a source of leverage here as they are elsewhere in the stack. Making Alphabet and Meta stop offering YouTube and WhatsApp, respectively, in Russia would make it much harder for America to launch its own sorties into Russian cyberspace. So would disabling Russia’s internet at the deeper level of protocols and connectivity. All this may push Russians to use domestic offerings more, which would suit Mr Putin well.

As in China, Russia is seeing the rise of “super-apps”, bundles of digital services where being local makes sense. Yandex is not just a search engine. It offers ride-hailing, food delivery, music-streaming, a digital assistant, cloud computing and, someday, self-driving cars. Sber, Russia’s biggest lender, is eyeing a similar “ecosystem” of services, trying to turn the bank into a tech conglomerate. In the first half of 2021 alone it invested $1bn in the effort, on the order of what biggish European banks spend on information technology (IT). Structural changes in the IT industry are making some of this Russification easier. Take the cloud. Its data centres use cheap servers made of off-the-shelf parts and other easily procured commodity kit. Much of its software is open-source. Six of the ten biggest cloud-service providers in Russia are now Russian…The most successful ones are “moving away from proprietary technology” sold by Western firms (with the exception of chips)…

Information Flow

If technology is the first part of Russia’s stack, the “sovereign internet” is the second. It is code for how a state controls the flow of information online. In 2019 the government amended several laws to gain more control of the domestic data flow. In particular, these require ISPS to install “technical equipment for counteracting threats to stability, security and functional integrity”. This allows Roskomnadzor, Russia’s internet watchdog, to have “middle boxes” slipped into the gap between the public internet and an ISPS’ customers. Using “deep packet inspection” (DPI), a technology used at some Western ISPS to clamp down on pornography, these devices are able to throttle or block traffic from specific sources (and have been deployed in the campaign against Tor). DPI kit sits in rooms with restricted access within the ISPS’ facilities and is controlled directly from a command center at Roskomnadzor. This is a cheap but imperfect version of China’s Great Firewall.

Complementing the firewall are rules that make life tougher for firms. In the past five years Google has fielded 20,000-30,000 content-removal requests annually from the government in Russia, more than in any other country. From this year 13 leading firms—including Apple, TikTok and Twitter—must employ at least some content moderators inside Russia. This gives the authorities bodies to bully should firms prove recalcitrant. The ultimate goal may be to push foreign social media out of Russia altogether, creating a web of local content… But this Chinese level of control would be technically tricky. And it would make life more difficult for Russian influence operations, such as those of the Internet Research Agency, to use Western sites to spread propaganda, both domestically and abroad.

Infrastructure

Russia’s homegrown stack would still be incomplete without a third tier: the services that form the operating system of a digital state and thus provide its power. In its provision of both e-government and payment systems, Russia puts some Western countries to shame. Gosuslugi (“state services”) is one of the most-visited websites and most-downloaded apps in Russia. It hosts a shockingly comprehensive list of offerings, from passport application to weapons registration. Even critics of the Kremlin are impressed, not least because Russia’s offline bureaucracy is hopelessly inefficient and corrupt. The desire for control also motivated Russia’s leap in payment systems. In the wake of its annexation of Crimea, sanctions required MasterCard and Visa, which used to process most payments in Russia, to ban several banks close to the regime. In response, Mr Putin decreed the creation of a “National Payment Card System”, which was subsequently made mandatory for many transactions. Today it is considered one of the world’s most advanced such schemes. Russian banks use it to exchange funds. The “Mir” card which piggybacks on it has a market share of more than 25%, says GlobalData, an analytics firm.

Other moves are less visible. A national version of the internet’s domain name system, currently under construction, allows Russia’s network to function if cut off from the rest of the world (and gives the authorities a new way to render some sites inaccessible). Some are still at early stages. A biometric identity system, much like India’s Aadhaar, aims to make it easier for the state to keep track of citizens and collect data about them while offering new services. (Muscovites can now pay to take the city’s metro just by showing their face.) A national data platform would collect all sorts of information, from tax to health records—and could boost Russia’s efforts to catch up in artificial intelligence (AI).

Excerpt from Digital geopolitics: Russia is trying to build its own great firewall, Economist, Feb. 19, 2022

The Internet Was Never Open

Rarely has a manifesto been so wrong. “A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace”, written 20 years ago by John Perry Barlow, a digital civil-libertarian, begins thus: “Governments of the Industrial World, you weary giants of flesh and steel, I come from Cyberspace, the new home of Mind. On behalf of the future, I ask you of the past to leave us alone. You are not welcome among us. You have no sovereignty where we gather.”

At the turn of the century, it seemed as though this techno-Utopian vision of the world could indeed be a reality. It didn’t last… Autocratic governments around the world…have invested in online-surveillance gear. Filtering systems restrict access: to porn in Britain, to Facebook and Google in China, to dissent in Russia.

Competing operating systems and networks offer inducements to keep their users within the fold, consolidating their power. Their algorithms personalise the web so that no two people get the same search results or social media feeds, betraying the idea of a digital commons. Five companies account for nearly two-thirds of revenue from advertising, the dominant business model of the web.

The open internet accounts for barely 20% of the entire web. The rest of it is hidden away in unsearchable “walled gardens” such as Facebook, whose algorithms are opaque, or on the “dark web”, a shady parallel world wide web. Data gathered from the activities of internet users are being concentrated in fewer hands. And big hands they are too. BCG, a consultancy, reckons that the internet will account for 5.3% of GDP of the world’s 20 big economies this year, or $4.2 trillion.

How did this come to pass? The simple reply is that the free, open, democratic internet dreamed up by the optimists of Silicon Valley was never more than a brief interlude. The more nuanced answer is that the open internet never really existed.

[T]e internet, it was developed “by the US military to serve US military purposes”… The decentralised, packet-based system of communication that forms the basis of the internet originated in America’s need to withstand a massive attack on its soil. Even the much-ballyhooed Silicon Valley model of venture capital as a way to place bets on risky new businesses has military origins.

In the 1980s the American military began to lose interest in the internet…. The time had come for the hackers and geeks who had been experimenting with early computers and phone lines.  Today they are the giants. Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon and Microsoft—together with some telecoms operators—help set policy in Europe and America on everything from privacy rights and copyright law to child protection and national security. As these companies grow more powerful, the state is pushing back…

The other big risk is that the tension between states and companies resolves into a symbiotic relationship. A leaked e-mail shows a Google executive communicating with Hillary Clinton’s state department about an online tool that would be “important in encouraging more [Syrians] to defect and giving confidence to the opposition.”+++ If technology firms with global reach quietly promote the foreign-policy interests of one country, that can only increase suspicion and accelerate the fracturing of the web into regional internets….

Mr Malcomson describes the internet as a “global private marketplace built on a government platform, not unlike the global airport system”.

Excerpts from Evolution of the internet: Growing up, Economist, Mar. 26, 2016

+++The email said Google would be “partnering with Al Jazeera” who would take “primary ownership” of the tool, maintaining it and publicizing it in Syria.  It was eventually published by Al Jazeera in English and Arabic.

Data Mining: CIA, Facebook, Instagram and Twitter

Among the 38 previously undisclosed companies receiving In-Q-Tel funding, the research focus that stands out is social media mining and surveillance; the portfolio document lists several tech companies pursuing work in this area, including Dataminr, Geofeedia, PATHAR, and TransVoyant….The investments appear to reflect the CIA’s increasing focus on monitoring social media. In September 2015, David Cohen, the CIA’s second-highest ranking official, spoke at length at Cornell University about a litany of challenges stemming from the new media landscape. The Islamic State’s “sophisticated use of Twitter and other social media platforms is a perfect example of the malign use of these technologies,” he said…

The latest round of In-Q-Tel investments comes as the CIA has revamped its outreach to Silicon Valley, establishing a new wing, the Directorate of Digital Innovation…

Dataminr directly licenses a stream of data from Twitter to visualize and quickly spot trends on behalf of law enforcement agencies and hedge funds, among other clients.  Geofeedia collects geotagged social media messages to monitor breaking news events in real time.Geofeedia specializes in collecting geotagged social media messages, from platforms such as Twitter and Instagram, to monitor breaking news events in real time. The company, which counts dozens of local law enforcement agencies as clients, markets its ability to track activist protests on behalf of both corporate interests and police departments.PATHAR mines social media to determine networks of association…

PATHAR’s product, Dunami, is used by the Federal Bureau of Investigation to “mine Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and other social media to determine networks of association, centers of influence and potential signs of radicalization,” according to an investigation by Reveal.

TransVoyant analyzes data points to deliver insights and predictions about global events.  TransVoyant, founded by former Lockheed Martin Vice President Dennis Groseclose, provides a similar service by analyzing multiple data points for so-called decision-makers. The firm touts its ability to monitor Twitter to spot “gang incidents” and threats to journalists. A team from TransVoyant has worked with the U.S. military in Afghanistan to integrate data from satellites, radar, reconnaissance aircraft, and drones….

The recent wave of investments in social media-related companies suggests the CIA has accelerated the drive to make collection of user-generated online data a priority. Alongside its investments in start-ups, In-Q-Tel has also developed a special technology laboratory in Silicon Valley, called Lab41, to provide tools for the intelligence community to connect the dots in large sets of data.  In February, Lab41 published an article exploring the ways in which a Twitter user’s location could be predicted with a degree of certainty through the location of the user’s friends. On Github, an open source website for developers, Lab41 currently has a project to ascertain the “feasibility of using architectures such as Convolutional and Recurrent Neural Networks to classify the positive, negative, or neutral sentiment of Twitter messages towards a specific topic.”

Collecting intelligence on foreign adversaries has potential benefits for counterterrorism, but such CIA-supported surveillance technology is also used for domestic law enforcement and by the private sector to spy on activist groups.

Palantir, one of In-Q-Tel’s earliest investments in the social media analytics realm, was exposed in 2011 by the hacker group LulzSec to be innegotiation for a proposal to track labor union activists and other critics of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the largest business lobbying group in Washington. The company, now celebrated as a “tech unicorn” …

Geofeedia, for instance, promotes its research into Greenpeace activists, student demonstrations, minimum wage advocates, and other political movements. Police departments in Oakland, Chicago, Detroit, and other major municipalities havecontracted with Geofeedia, as well as private firms such as the Mall of America and McDonald’s.

Lee Guthman, an executive at Geofeedia, told reporter John Knefel that his company could predict the potential for violence at Black Lives Matter protests just by using the location and sentiment of tweets. Guthman said the technology could gauge sentiment by attaching “positive and negative points” to certain phrases, while measuring “proximity of words to certain words.”

Privacy advocates, however, have expressed concern about these sorts of automated judgments.“When you have private companies deciding which algorithms get you a so-called threat score, or make you a person of interest, there’s obviously room for targeting people based on viewpoints or even unlawfully targeting people based on race or religion,” said Lee Rowland, a senior staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union.”

Excerpt from Lee Fang, THE CIA IS INVESTING IN FIRMS THAT MINE YOUR TWEETS AND INSTAGRAM PHOTOS, Intercept, Apr. 14, 2016

Predictive Policing

PredPol Places, a US company, has developed] one of a range of tools using better data, more finely crunched, to predict crime. They seem to promise better law-enforcement. But they also bring worries about privacy, and of justice systems run by machines not people.  Criminal offences, like infectious disease, form patterns in time and space….

Cops working with predictive systems respond to call-outs as usual, but when they are free they return to the spots which the computer suggests. Officers may talk to locals or report problems, like broken lights or unsecured properties, that could encourage crime. Within six months of introducing predictive techniques in the Foothill area of Los Angeles, in late 2011, property crimes had fallen 12% compared with the previous year; in neighbouring districts they rose 0.5%…

For now, the predictive approach works best against burglary and thefts of vehicles or their contents. These common crimes provide plenty of historical data to chew on. But adding extra types of information, such as details of road networks, can fine-tune forecasts further. Offenders like places where vulnerable targets are simple to spot, access is easy and getaways speedy, says Shane Johnson, a criminologist at University College London. Systems devised by IBM, a technology firm, watch how big local events, proximity to payday and the weather affect the frequency and location of lawbreaking. “Muggers don’t like getting wet,” says Ron Fellows, IBM’s expert.

Predicting and forestalling crime does not solve its root causes. Positioning police in hotspots discourages opportunistic wrongdoing, but may encourage other criminals to move to less likely areas. And while data-crunching may make it easier to identify high-risk offenders—about half of American states use some form of statistical analysis to decide when to parole prisoners—there is little that it can do to change their motivation.

Misuse and overuse of data can amplify biases….But mathematical models might make policing more equitable by curbing prejudice…

This sort of transparency about what goes on in predictive systems, and what their assumptions are, may also be a partial solution to worries voiced by Andrew Ferguson, a law professor in Washington, DC. Mr Ferguson fears that judges and juries could come to place too much credence in the accuracy of crime prediction tools, jeopardising justice.

The legal limits on using social media to fish out likely wrongdoers, or create files on them, are contested. Most laws governing police investigations pre-date social networking, and some forces assert that all information posted to public forums is fair game. But Jamie Bartlett of Demos, a British think-tank, says citizens and police forces need clearer guidance about how to map physical-world privacy rights onto online spaces. He thinks gathering information about how someone behaves on social sites ought to require the same clearance needed to monitor them doggedly in public places. Officers who register anonymously or pseudonymously to read content, or send web crawlers to trawl sites against their owner’s wishes, would require yet more supervision.

Identifying true villains among the oddballs and loudmouths found by social-media searches is tricky. Most police efforts are embryonic. Evgeny Morozov, an academic and technology writer, thinks the privacy-conscious have more to fear from crime detection algorithms cooked up by social networks themselves. Some of those firms already alert investigators when they suspect users of soliciting minors. Unlike the cops they employ clever coders who can process private messages and other data that police may access only with a court order.

These projects make life difficult for many criminals. But smart ones use the internet to make predictions of their own. Nearly 80% of previously arrested burglars surveyed in 2011 by Friedland, a security firm, said information drawn from social media helps thieves plan coups. Status updates and photographs generate handy lists of tempting properties with absent owners. It does not take a crystal ball to work out what comes next.

Predictive policing: Don’t even think about it, Economist,July 20, 2013, at 24

State Surveillance of Twitter Protesters

Enthusiasts called protesters in Egypt, Iran, Moldova and Tunisia “Twitter revolutionaries”. That was premature: much of the social-media content supporting the pro-democracy cause came from supporters abroad. But protests in Turkey and Brazil, where digital media are especially popular, do show how technology can muster, manage and amplify demonstrations. Zeynep Tufekci of Princeton University interviewed scores of Turkish protesters. Most cited social media as a spur.

Social media mean that pictures and video spread rapidly; supporters arrive more quickly than police can cart them away, so governments can no longer rely on quelling minor protests by force. A video circulating in Brazil advises citizen journalists to work in packs, adopting military formations to catch government wrongdoing from every available angle.

Highlighting outrageous police behaviour can prompt people to get involved. It also can show more innocuous scenes than the punch-ups and arrests that attract news photographers. These may encourage the hesitant or timid, showing that “protesters are not hooligans or terrorists but people just like you,” says Ethan Zuckerman of MIT.   Social media also counter inflammatory or complacent official channels. When a Turkish television station broadcast a documentary about penguins instead of the street protests, wags photoshopped the bedraggled birds into images of police soaking youths with water cannon, and circulated them in disgust.

Swelling the number of protesters is one thing. Co-ordinating them is another. Several hundred social-media pages advertised demonstrations across Brazil, offering tips on dodging water cannon; some sought volunteers to care for demonstrators’ children. They also helped to direct people who wished to protest in cities abroad. Brazilian hackers used denial of service attacks to briefly disable government websites, including one for next year’s costly football World Cup. All this can help give startling momentum in the real world and online. But it does not necessarily make the protests effective. An amorphous digital crowd can find it hard to agree on demands, accept compromises, or discipline provocateurs. Online voting and other clever e-democracy tools may solve this problem. But not yet.

In the meantime technology can serve the powerful, too. Protesters in Turkey and Brazil say their mobile internet access was throttled, though congestion, not censorship, may be the real culprit. Instructions issued over social networks are easily monitored by police. Amateur footage provides authorities with visual records of those who attend. Witness, an American charity which trains citizen journalists, says that where official snooping is a danger, protesters should be filmed only from behind; last July YouTube, an online video site, introduced a face-blurring tool.

Most protesters are not so careful, and police are getting better at capturing this information themselves. Since 2011 cops in Brazil have tried head-mounted face-detection cameras, which authorities claim can capture up to 400 faces a second. Hoisting them on cheap drones would offer an even better view. Police forces can also recognise demonstrators without actually seeing them: some officers in America have kit capable of recording the identifying code of all the mobile phones within a given area, and officials can also beg or seize the data from mobile operators.

More sought-after is technology that can help forestall protests. Digital marketers have long analysed social-media messages to gauge opinions about products and brands. Brazil’s security services are said to be increasing online monitoring: this can alert police to impending unrest, and spot the main troublemakers. Such tools are experimental. Technology still gives protesters the upper hand, though what they do with it is another question.

Internet protests: The digital demo, Economist, June 29, 2013, at 56

Exploiting Digital Fingerprints: Military

Backed by a $5.6 million grant from the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, a  team at Stanford is embarking on a four-year project to better understand and model complex communication patterns in social networks in real time…The new project is called MEGA: Modern Graph Analysis for Dynamic Networks, and is led by Associate Professor Ashish Goel.   A team of seven principal investigators… will develop algorithms which model human communication and detect subtle patterns in huge data sets from social media.

DARPA is interested because, from a national security standpoint, big data holds the promise of recognizing threats in unusual or suspicious social interactions of terrorists and other foreign adversaries.   Our daily social communication is spread across many forms of interaction. E-mails, tweets, text messages and Facebook posts define our modern social lives. More than ever, information about this correspondence and behavior can be collected, stored, and made available to computer scientists.With access to billions of tweets, e-mails and text messages, a project like MEGA can build reliable mathematical models of social phenomena, like the way news spreads through a network for instance, or even how people choose their social connections, Goel said.

One goal of the MEGA project is to model human online behavior and find how it shapes social networks… The second component of MEGA’s research: writing the step-by-step procedures for processing distributed data in real time….Some of their algorithms and programs will be passed directly to DARPA to be used in a security context…

Excerpt, DARPA Grant Will Help Stanford Dig Deep into the Big Data in Social Networks, Stanford.edu, April 24, 2013