The Collusion of Corporations and Government

The First Amendment is supposed to citizens from government censorship… unless those citizens are inciting a riot… or making a false statement of fact or saying obscene things or expressing themselves in any of the other prohibited manners. It turns out free speech in the United States is a fairy tale, but I digress.

Even though the First Amendment is a joke the idea it is supposed to enshrine, the freedom of expression, is one that seemed to enjoy majority support in the United States until Trump’s 2016 presidential victory. Those who didn’t believe Trump was able to win started looking for scapegoats as soon as his victory was announced. One of the most common scapegoats became social media. Trump’s opponents decided that misinformation spread by Russian bots on Facebook and Twitter was responsible for Clinton’s loss. It came as no surprise when they started demanding social media sites start censoring anything they deemed to be misinformation. It also came as no surprise when those social media sites, predominantly owned and operated by individuals who expressed a great deal of (deserved in my opinion) hatred towards Trump, complied. When sites like Facebook and Twitter started censoring pretty much any content expressing political beliefs slightly right of Mao, those who were being censored started screaming about free speech.

The response from those in support of social media censorship (those not being censored), like every other expressed political opinion following Trump’s election, was predictable. They purposely misconstrued the concept of free speech for the First Amendment and haughtily pointed out that the First Amendment only protects against government censorship.

Short of a revolution, which in the absolute best case is only temporary, nothing can stop the erosion of a freedom. Free expression is no exception. The concept of free expression has been eroding in the United States since the country’s founding, but accelerated significantly after Trump’s election. Now we have reached the inevitable point where the government is directly involving itself in censorship:

In terms of actions, Alex, that we have taken — or we’re working to take, I should say — from the federal government: We’ve increased disinformation research and tracking within the Surgeon General’s office. We’re flagging problematic posts for Facebook that spread disinformation.

Private companies are no longer the only ones involved in censorship. The federal government is admitting, openly no less, that it is flagging content it deems problematic for Facebook (with the implication that Facebook will remove the flagged content). There is a term for a political system where corporations and the government collude. Consider looking up that term your homework assignment.

As with any government grab for power this one comes with justification:

Asked what his message was to platforms like Facebook regarding Covid disinformation, Biden said “They’re killing people.”

“I mean they really, look, the only pandemic we have is among the unvaccinated, and that’s — they’re killing people,” Biden said on the South Lawn of the White House.

Biden was echoing earlier comments from White House press secretary Jen Psaki.

The justification is always safety (and always nonsensical). Air travelers must submit to sexual assault, either in being molested or virtually stripped naked by government agents, under the auspices of keeping air travelers safe from terrorists. Gun owners must fill out government forms and ask for government permission in order to buy a gun under the auspices of protecting the populace from gun violence. Every year representatives in Washington DC argue that effective encryption must be made illegal under the auspices of protecting children from rapists and human traffickers. Now the government has decided it needs to choose what is and isn’t appropriate to post on Facebook under the auspices of keeping the populace safe from a virus.

It’s Crises All the Way Down

I assume that the people who watch and believe what passes for news today feel hopeless. Why? Because all news is bad news and crises never end, they merely turn into new crises.

Take the overpopulation crisis as an example. For most of my life I have been hearing about it. Even when I was in elementary school, teachers were warning us kids that too many people were consuming too many resources and we faced a bleak future because of it. The narrative continued throughout my high school and college careers. Today the news is reporting about the worldwide drop in fertility rates. This must mean that the population crisis has been averted and the future is looking brighter than it was, right? Wrong! The overpopulation crisis has turned into the baby bust crisis:

The U.S. is already below the so-called “replacement level” by some measures, meaning fewer young people to support the country’s otherwise aging population.

Myers said of the decline, “That’s a crisis.”

“We need to have enough working-age people to carry the load of these seniors, who deserve their retirement, they deserve all their entitlements, and they’re gonna live out another 30 years,” he said. “Nobody in the history of the globe has had so many older people to deal with.”

What the fuck? How did we snatch defeat from the jaws of victory? We did exactly what the experts told us to do! We had fewer babies! How did we end up facing yet another crisis? To answer that I will turn to George Orwell:

The war is not meant to be won, it is meant to be continuous. Hierarchical society is only possible on the basis of poverty and ignorance. This new version is the past and no different past can ever have existed. In principle the war effort is always planned to keep society on the brink of starvation. The war is waged by the ruling group against its own subjects and its object is not the victory over either Eurasia or East Asia, but to keep the very structure of society intact.

The crises you hear about in the news are not meant to be solved. They’re meant to be continuous. They exist to keep the masses in a constant state of fear because so long as the masses are afraid, they will seek a savior. When they find somebody who promises to be their savior, they will give him anything he demands. If he demands soldiers to fight a war against the enemy, they will gladly surrender their sons to him. If he demands broader surveillance powers, they will gladly surrender their privacy. If he demands wealth so he can fund the fight against the enemy, they will gladly surrender their income and assets. And his demands won’t stop even when the crisis abates. Instead he’ll come to them with new demands to fight a new crisis.

Fascism Is More Dangerous than COVID-19

St. George Carlin once said, “Rights aren’t rights if someone can take them away. They’re privileges. That’s all we’ve ever had in this country, is a bill of temporary privileges. And if you read the news even badly, you know that every year the list gets shorter and shorter.” While our temporary privileges are in a constant state of erosion, they seem to erode the fastest during emergency situations. During this COVID-19 outbreak we’ve seen our rights erode even faster than they did immediately after the 9/11 attacks. Now you can’t even leave your home without permission:

Citations for violating Gov. Tiim Walz’ orders to stay at home and halt business operations have started trickling in across the state, including a few in the metro area.

As of Monday, eight people were charged with violating the emergency orders. The orders require bars and restaurants to halt dine-in services as well as having residents largely stay at home. Violating the order is a misdemeanor with a fine of up to $1,000 or 90 days in jail.

I’m not going to discuss the danger of COVID-19 because it’s irrelevant. Instead I’m going to argue that no matter how dangerous COVID-19 is, fascism is more dangerous.

What we’ve seen in the last few weeks is most major governments in the world descend further into fascist ideology. This descent has been happening with alarming speed here in the United States. Not only is a majority of the population under a stay at home order imprisoned in their homes, but the national borders are closed, some state borders are being closed, passports aren’t being issued or renewed, the federal government is telling private companies what to produce, and the Federal Reserve is considering buying stakes in private companies. And this is just the United States. Other countries are following suit. For example, France is nationalizing businesses and Spain is nationalizing private hospitals. Disregard the claims of the nationalizations being temporary. In the government thesaurus temporary is a synonym for permanent.

So we now need permission to leave our homes, the borders are closed, nobody can get papers to travel outside of the country, and private businesses are being controlled by the state. This is a recipe for bad times to come, because these are all planks in the ideology of fascism. Anybody who had read even a base level of history of the consequences of fascism should be aware that the death toll was higher than even the most bleak COVID-19 projections. Moreover, people living under fascist regimes were in a constant state of anxiety because they could disappear at any moment for the transgression of angering a random government goon… or a neighbor.

The world is moving in a dangerous direction and COVID-19 is the emergency being exploited to justify it. If people continue to accept their governments grabbing for more and more power, they will soon wake up to a world far more dangerous and frightening than one where nobody took any precautions against COVID-19. Unfortunately, I know most of the world will ignore this warning because the majority of people are more scared of the threat they see than the threat they don’t see.

This Is What Democracy Looks Like

Ars Technica ran this story with the title China’s “democracy” includes mandatory apps, mass chat surveillance. The important part to note is the scare quotes around the word democracy. From the article:

As the National People’s Congress gathers in Beijing for the beginning of China’s “Two Sessions” political season, state media is making an international propaganda push on social media—including on platforms blocked by China’s “Great Firewall”—to promote China’s “system of democracy.”

[…]

That system of democracy apparently involves mass surveillance to tap into the will of the people. While China’s growth as a surveillance state has been well-documented, the degree to which the Chinese leadership uses digital tools to shape the national political landscape and to control Chinese citizens has grown even further recently. That’s because authorities have been tapping directly into Chinese Communist Party (CCP) members’ and other Chinese citizens’ online activities and social media profiles.

I’m using the Ars Technica article for illustrative purposes but the general attitude amongst Americans seem to be that China isn’t actually a democracy. However, democracy is a system where voters have the opportunity to gang up against each other. This inevitably results is a paranoid police state where everybody has voted to surveil and punish everybody else.

The primary difference between China and apparently freer democracies is where they started. Take the United States for example. It started with an almost powerless federal government and a strong mythology about individual freedom. It took a great deal of time for voters to first vote a larger government into existence and then vote to wield it against each other. The People’s Republic of China, other the other hand, started with a much more powerful government so there was no delay from voters having to first vote it more power before they could wield it against each other.

The things for which us enlightened people of the glorious Western democracies mock China are in our future. Just look at the massive surveillance apparatuses in the United States and United Kingdom. There is scarcely a thing you can do or a place you can go that isn’t surveilled by some government entity. The Ars Technica article discusses the effort China is putting into propagandizing its party members but the author likely failed to recognize the similarities between those efforts and the efforts in Western public education systems to propagandize young children. While most Western democracies aren’t as overt about controlling their news outlets as China is, all of the major supposedly independent media outlets are little more than government propaganda machines (how else are reporters going to get access to the James S. Brady Press Briefing Room or get themselves invited to the White House Correspondents’ Dinner).

Make not mistake, what we’re witnesses in China today is the endgame of any democratic system. To insinuate that China isn’t a democracy is to misunderstand what a democracy truly is.

War Is Good

Remember the aftermath of 9/11 when Bush entangled the United States in several Middle Eastern conflicts? It lead to the rise of a very fervent anti-war left.

Then Obama came into power. The anti-war left fell silent. I guess they were on vacation or something.

Now Trump has undone one of the products of Bush’s legacy and announced that the United States is pulling out of Syria, which has cause the anti-war left to not only decide that Bush’s wars were OK but that his wars were absolutely necessary!

I have to assume that during its mysterious eight year disappearance, the anti-war left was taken away to Room 101 and taught the importance of Big Brother’s wars. Either that or the anti-war left was never actually against war and merely exploited Bush’s war in order to criticize somebody who worshiped the wrong political god.

The Unseen Threat of Advertising Companies

Most people have a very poor understanding about how advertising companies work. Everybody who uses Facebook and doesn’t use an ad blocker sees ads. They may even consciously recognize that those ads are how Facebook makes money. What they often don’t understand though is that Facebook isn’t just displaying ads, it’s also selling their personal information to third-parties. Even when people do understand that their personal information is being sold to third-parties, they often don’t understand what exactly is being sold. They assume it’s the content they upload like photos and decide it’s not a big issue because they lead a “boring” life. But then they discuss intimate and sometimes embarrassing medical issues with family members through Facebook’s messaging service:

The exchange was intended to benefit everyone. Pushing for explosive growth, Facebook got more users, lifting its advertising revenue. Partner companies acquired features to make their products more attractive. Facebook users connected with friends across different devices and websites. But Facebook also assumed extraordinary power over the personal information of its 2.2 billion users — control it has wielded with little transparency or outside oversight.

Facebook allowed Microsoft’s Bing search engine to see the names of virtually all Facebook users’ friends without consent, the records show, and gave Netflix and Spotify the ability to read Facebook users’ private messages.

The unseen threat of advertising companies is that all of the data they collect is potentially for sale and you have no idea to whom they’re selling.

A lot of people probably don’t care if Netflix or Microsoft have access to their “private” messages. But technology companies aren’t the only kids on the block with big bucks. Do you really want your health insurance company having access to your “private” messages? That medical issue that grandma messaged you about may be hereditary and the fact that you might face it at some point may convince your health insurance company to up your premium. Would Facebook provide access to your “private” messages to health insurance companies? You have no way of knowing.

And even if Facebook guaranteed that they wouldn’t sell your “private” messages to health insurance companies, they could change their policy down the road (Facebook is, after all, notorious for making changes to privacy policies without notice). Or another party to whom Facebook is selling your “private” messages may sell them to health insurance companies. Once the data exists on Facebook’s servers you lose all control over it.

Never Trust a Surveillance Company

The parliament of the United Kingdom (UK) decided to pull a Facebook on Facebook by collecting the company’s personal information. Not only did the parliament collect Facebook’s personal information but it’s now airing the company’s dirty laundry. There are a lot of interesting tidbits to be found within the documents posted by the parliament but one in particular shows Facebook’s ruthlessness when it comes to collecting your personal information:

The emails show Facebook’s growth team looking to call log data as a way to improve Facebook’s algorithms as well as to locate new contacts through the “People You May Know” feature. Notably, the project manager recognized it as “a pretty high-risk thing to do from a PR perspective,” but that risk seems to have been overwhelmed by the potential user growth.

Initially, the feature was intended to require users to opt in, typically through an in-app pop-up dialog box. But as developers looked for ways to get users signed up, it became clear that Android’s data permissions could be manipulated to automatically enroll users if the new feature was deployed in a certain way.

In another email chain, the group developing the feature seems to see the Android permissions screen as a point of unnecessary friction, to be avoided if possible. When testing revealed that call logs could be collected without a permissions dialog, that option seems to have been obviously preferable to developers.

“Based on our initial testing,” one developer wrote, “it seems that this would allow us to upgrade users without subjecting them to an Android permissions dialog at all.”

If you’re using Facebook on a Google operating system, you’re in the center of a surveillance Eiffel Tower, and I’m not talking about the monument!

The history of Android’s permission system has not been a happy one. Until fairly recently Android had an all or nothing model where you either had to grant an application all the permissions it asked for or you couldn’t use it. Not surprisingly this resulted in almost every app requesting every possible permission, which turned the permissions dialog into a formality. Android 6.0 changed the permission system to mirror iOS’s. When an app running on Android 6.0 or later wants to access a protected feature such as text messages, the user is presented with a dialog alerting them to the attempted access and asks if they want to allow it.

If you read the excerpts, you’ll see that Facebook was concerned about the kind of public relations nightmare asking for permission to access call and text message logs could bring. At first the company was planning to only request permission to access call logs, hoping it wouldn’t cause a ruckus. However, once somebody figured out a way to add the additional capabilities without triggering any new permission requests, Facebook moved forward with the plan. So we know for a fact that Facebook knew what it was doing was likely to piss off its users and was willing to use underhanded tactics to do it without getting caught.

You should never trust a company that profits by collecting your personal information to respect your privacy. In light of the information released by the UK’s parliament, this goes double for Facebook.

And We Will Call It Truth

Remember when Barack Obama announced the need for a mechanism to filter approved news for unapproved news? His announcement was met with cheers by his supporters and called an attempt to establish an American version of Pravda by his opponents (of which I am included). Fast forward to today and things have changed. Donald Trump has announced the need for a government operated news outlet to combat fake news:

President Donald Trump on Monday suggested the US should form a state-run, global news network to counter what he called “unfair” coverage from CNN.

“While CNN doesn’t do great in the United States based on ratings, outside of the U.S. they have very little competition,” Trump said via Twitter. “Throughout the world, CNN has a powerful voice portraying the United States in an unfair and false way.”

The president added, “Something has to be done, including the possibility of the United States starting our own Worldwide Network to show the World the way we really are, GREAT!”

I’m sure there are some significant differences between what Obama wanted and what Trump wants. For example, I’m sure Obama was considering calling his proposal “Pravda” whereas Trump will likely settle on a completely different name such as “Truth.”

It should surprise nobody that Trump’s supporters are cheering his announcement while his opponents (of which I am included) are claiming it’s an attempt to establish an American version of Pravda. In other words it’s business as usual here in the land of nonexistent principles and opposition to critical thinking.

The Walls Have Ears

It’s tough to avoid the gaze of Big Brother. As this article sent to me by Steven demonstrates, Big Brother even watches where he’s not supposed to:

KANSAS CITY, Kan.– The federal public defender’s office has asked for the release of 67 inmates from a Kansas federal prison and plans to seek freedom for more than 150 others because authorities secretly recorded conversations between prisoners and their attorneys that are supposed to be private.

Most of the federal inmates are being held on drug or firearms-related cases.

The practice first came to light in a prison contraband case during which criminal defense lawyers discovered the privately run Leavenworth Detention Center was routinely recording meetings and phone conversations between attorneys and clients, which are confidential under the Sixth Amendment to the Constitution. A court-appointed expert was brought in to independently investigate whether prosecutors had improperly listened to the recordings.

Once again we have a demonstration of the fact that the Constitution is nothing more than a piece of paper. It is incapable of enforcing the rules that it displays and thus powerless to stop individuals from violating those rules. Here is where constitutionalists tend to point out that while the rules were violated, now that the violation is known it is being corrected. To that I point out that the violation isn’t guaranteed to be corrected and, more importantly, even if the violation is corrected, those who are in prison because of those violations can never get the years of their life back (and will likely receive little in the way of compensation).

This is not to say that parts of the Constitution, such as the Bill of Rights, aren’t nice concepts but to point out that they are simply concepts. Far too often people, especially libertarians and conservatives, fall into the trap of attributing almost godlike powers to it. So while the Constitution guarantees certain protections against state surveillance, those guarantees aren’t actual guarantees and you must operate as if you are under state surveillance even when you’re in situations where you’re supposed to be legally protected from it.

Making Surveillance Easy

We’re only a few days away from yet another “most important election in our lifetime.” Since the Republicans are in power, the Democrats and their sympathizers are pissed and when they’re pissed it’s not uncommon for them to protest (Remember the last time they were out of power? They actually protested the wars that the party in power started! Those were the days!). Nobody likes it when people protest again them so the party in power wants to keep tabs on the people who might take action against them. Fortunately for them, most protesters make this easy:

The United States government is accelerating efforts to monitor social media to preempt major anti-government protests in the US, according to scientific research, official government documents, and patent filings reviewed by Motherboard. The social media posts of American citizens who don’t like President Donald Trump are the focus of the latest US military-funded research. The research, funded by the US Army and co-authored by a researcher based at the West Point Military Academy, is part of a wider effort by the Trump administration to consolidate the US military’s role and influence on domestic intelligence.

The vast scale of this effort is reflected in a number of government social media surveillance patents granted this year, which relate to a spy program that the Trump administration outsourced to a private company last year. Experts interviewed by Motherboard say that the Pentagon’s new technology research may have played a role in amendments this April to the Joint Chiefs of Staff homeland defense doctrine, which widen the Pentagon’s role in providing intelligence for domestic “emergencies,” including an “insurrection.”

A couple of years ago a few friends and I had the opportunity to advise some protesters on avoiding government surveillance. They were using Facebook to organize and plan their protests. We had to explain to them that using Facebook for that purpose meant that every local law enforcement agency was likely receiving real-time updates on their plans. We made several recommendations, most of which involved moving planning from social media to more secure forms of communications (Signal, RetroShare, etc.). In the end they thanked us for our advice, decided that using anything but Facebook was too difficult (which made me suspect that there were undercover law enforcers amongst them), and kept handing law enforcement real-time information.

The moral of the story is that government agencies pour resources into social media surveillance because it works because most protesters are more concerned about convenience than operational security.