The Unamerican Activities Committee is back–and it’s automated

Filed under: Rants — olivander June 24, 2006 @ 10:21 am

You may recall the NSA’s Total Information Awareness (TIA) project. The brainchild of convicted Iran-Contra conspirator and all-around wackjob John Poindexter, TIA was to compile every available data snippet on every US citizen and mine it to find out if you do or say anything that the government disapproves of. The public furor over the idea of such an invasive domestic spying program caused the Pentagon to withdraw the program, and Poindexter was ultimately forced to resign (but not before proposing a terrorism “futures exchange” which would have allowed people to bet on, and profit from, the probablity of future terrorist attacks, assassinations, etc.).

From this debacle, the Pentagon learned that if you are going to implement a Gestapo- or Kremlin-like dossier of your citizens’ activities, you don’t make it public. TIA was dismantled, and its core components renamed and spread out among other agencies. Now New Scientist has learned one of these renamed components has been reactivated. This one will scavenge and compile all of your online postings and identify relationships between you and everyone else you come in contact with on the web:

…the NSA is pursuing its plans to tap the web, since phone logs have limited scope. They can only be used to build a very basic picture of someone’s contact network, a process sometimes called “connecting the dots”. Clusters of people in highly connected groups become apparent, as do people with few connections who appear to be the intermediaries between such groups. The idea is to see by how many links or “degrees” separate people from, say, a member of a blacklisted organisation.

No plan to mine social networks via the semantic web has been announced by the NSA, but its interest in the technology is evident in a funding footnote to a research paper delivered at the W3C’s WWW2006 conference in Edinburgh, UK, in late May.

That paper, entitled Semantic Analytics on Social Networks, by a research team led by Amit Sheth of the University of Georgia in Athens and Anupam Joshi of the University of Maryland in Baltimore reveals how data from online social networks and other databases can be combined to uncover facts about people. The footnote said the work was part-funded by an organisation called ARDA.

What is ARDA? It stands for Advanced Research Development Activity. According to a report entitled Data Mining and Homeland Security, published by the Congressional Research Service in January, ARDA’s role is to spend NSA money on research that can “solve some of the most critical problems facing the US intelligence community”. Chief among ARDA’s aims is to make sense of the massive amounts of data the NSA collects – some of its sources grow by around 4 million gigabytes a month.

Quote of the day

Filed under: Musings, Quotables — olivander June 12, 2006 @ 10:10 pm

Local news guy: “[Tropical storm] Alberto is expected to make landfall somewhere along the coast.”

As opposed to making landfall elsewhere??

Obituary: Pem Farnsworth, 1908-2006

Filed under: Musings, Nuages — olivander June 1, 2006 @ 12:22 pm

Muchos gracias to Socar Myles for use of her photo, The Suck.

This blog entry is long overdue. Several weeks ago, on April 27, the world lost a cultural pioneer. Odds are that you’ve never heard of her, nor seen her photograph, but Emma “Pem” Farnsworth was a key figure in the shaping of modern world culture.

You see, she and her brother Cliff Gardner were the first human images ever transmitted over television. On October 19, 1929, in a small upstairs “studio” at the corner of Green and Sansome in San Francisco, her husband Philo Farnsworth sent an image of Pem and Cliff to a 3.5″ screen in the next room. And with that, the greatest modern influence next to the computer was born.

Despite revolutionizing the way people spend their leisure time, Philo Farnsworth never received much recognition for his invention. After his death in 1971, Pem made that her mission, writing an autobiography called “Distant Vision” and doing interviews to give her husband the credit he deserved.

Pem was 98 at the time of her death.

One has to wonder how she and Philo privately felt about how TV has evolved over its 76-year lifespan. Would they look upon today’s spate of public-humiliation “reality” shows with a touch of horror, or feel disgust over the way their invention converted politics into a soundbite-driven publicity mill? Even early on, when the broadcast window was limited to one hour a day, television was about entertainment, not information. One of the earliest BBC broadcasts was a dance routine by the swimsuit-clad Paramount Astoria Girls. From there, we went to Milton Berle in drag, “I Love Lucy”, “The Love Boat”, “Dallas”, “Knight Rider”, “USA Up All Night”, “Baywatch”, (skipping a few years) “Survivor”, “America’s Next Top Model”, “American Idol”, “Desperate Housewives”, until, finally, we arrived at the bottom of the entertainment gulch: “CSI: Miami”. (In the interest of full disclosure, it should be pointed out that as a youth I watched many of those shows religiously. I still hum the “A-Team” theme unconsciously.)

Mind you, not all was dreck and bilge water. We had some excellent journalism until Edward R. Murrow smoked too many cigarettes and Walter Cronkite wore out his sweaters. CNN gave us the ability to breathlessly watch no new developments at all–live!–24 hours a day from around the globe. “M*A*S*H” made people think as well as laugh. Um…I’m sure there were others that did not rely on bribing viewers with a glimpse of bare bum, but they escape me at the moment.

The point is that televion has done good things, but those moments are heavily outweighed by the hours of brain-sucking vacuum TV.

Does the consumer even shape the landscape of its viewing habits anymore, or have we become slaves to the electron gun, obediently watching whatever is put before us? How many times have you sat on the sofa flipping channels and complained to your mate (or pet), “There’s nothing on,” yet continued to flip channels anyway, finally settling on the least boring program you can find? Could this possibly be the future Philo and Pem envisioned, where instead of more enlightened beings expanding the horizons of our experience we are zombies stripped of the will to turn off the set?

In other words, are we the consumers, or the consumed?

The great irony of Pem Farnsworth’s death–her last great joke upon the planet–was that she died during TV Turn-off Week.