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Who Controls the Internet and Mobile Technology? Hidden Forces that Define Our Choices
Who controls the Internet and how do these powerful groups shape our choices and in some cases threaten our privacy? Those are among the questions probed by Laura DeNardis, an Associate Professor of Communication at American University.
Below is an excerpt from a web story on DeNardis' work by Sarah Stankorb of American's media relations office. At the end of the excerpt, you can watch a recent keynote address that DeNardis gave at Oxford University's Internet Institute.
Behind the virtual environment we enjoy on our computer screens, SOC professor Laura DeNardis and editor of the recently released Opening Standards, explains there are multiple groups, each with specific interests, controlling a hidden world. Those little-known figures consist of private corporations, governments, independent organizations, and individuals who help build the Internet’s architecture, know its scaffolding intimately, and control it. Some own pieces.
“It’s not intentionally hidden from the public,” says DeNardis, “but it is hidden.” She adds, “We access more information than ever before and can easily place information online. Because of this, sometimes we forget that there are mechanisms of control that exist below the surface — that don’t have to do with content.”
I’m Following You
Most of us leave breadcrumbs behind us online. Say you’re shopping online and a pair of leather boots catches your eye. You zoom in, reading reviews. Finally, you refocus and click a link to a Washington Post article. There, in an ad box to the right, are those boots. It’s like they are meant for you, calling out to you.
Of course, what happened is that cookies on your browser have allowed third-party companies to target advertising and follow you into other virtual space. You are being watched, anonymously. It’s creepy, but as harmless as a roadside billboard.
But there may be new reason to wonder about your virtual trail. Last week, an Android developer alleged publicly that a clandestine smartphone app called Carrier IQ automatically included in some phones with no opt-out, records all keystrokes — that means text messages, web browsing.
DeNardis grants that for network management, monitoring, and diagnostics, some personal information needs to be sent back and forth between devices and carriers, “but it should be very, very limited.” In the case of Carrier IQ, she adds, “If it’s true that all of the text messages and keystrokes are being logged — it’s outrageous. There is no rationale for that kind of extensive network logging for any network management reason.”
Flipping the Kill Switch
If information is always being sent from your device to your carrier, DeNardis asks what feels like a trick question. “Is anything you do on the Internet anonymous?”
The answer is no, not really.
Traceable anonymity allows private surfing for general users, but features exist that enable the system to “undo” anonymity under given circumstances — say for instance, when tracking can help police prevent a terrorist attack.
“We want the government to step in and stop the flow of certain information like child pornography,” says DeNardis. “Or, I’d want the government to step in and catch someone if I’m the victim of identity theft.”
But government interference in the Internet is not always so benevolent.
Perhaps best known is the Great Firewall of China, the Chinese government’s deliberate system of censorship and surveillance that has made the nation’s online revolution subject to government action. During the Egyptian revolution, there were reports of an Internet shutdown, immediately preceding a planned, massive demonstration and minutes after the AP published video footage of an Egyptian protestor being shot.
Even in the United States, individual rights were curtailed by a transit authority not a government when, in advance of a massive protest, San Francisco’s public transit system, BART, shut down cell phone access to prevent coordinated efforts to stop trains.
These are some of the reasons DeNardis studies the forms of Internet governance that shape our world, “the things people can’t see that determine our civil liberties.”....
Oh, (Big) Brother
The U.S. government, right now, is considering two major decisions that could change the very shape of the Internet. The Internet has been a free range for information. Once you pay for your Internet hook-up, you can access almost any website you like, watch videos, share content, search, e-mail, chat. Net Neutrality activists warn that giants like Verizon, Comcast, and AT&T — which have advocated for a “tiered Internet” — might try to slow access to competing services like Netflix or Skype. In November, the Senate rejected proposed changes to the FCC’s net neutrality rules, meaning that for now, the Internet will remain a level field. The battle is expected to move next into the courts.
That fight is about access. Another skirmish is brewing in Congress over sharing content. Currently in the House, the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) will determine the scope of responsibility if content or pirated merchandise is illegally uploaded for public consumption. Just before Cyber Monday, November 28, the U.S. Departments of Justice and Homeland Security took down more than 100 websites that deal in counterfeit goods.
“Armondi” and “Rolox” knockoffs are one thing. DeNardis says the unintended scope of the bill (and its sister, the Senate’s Protect IP Act) could have broader consequences. Not only will those who pirate merchandise be targets, but anyone who posts copyrighted material could be charged with a felony.
DeNardis gives the example of a parent filming her child dancing to a Prince song and posting the video to YouTube. Under SOPA, mom could be charged with a felony. “That would be a criminal act under this bill if it were passed. The pendulum is too far to the side of trying to take down information.”
DeNardis worries about the wider implications of the bill in terms of the basic infrastructure of the Internet. “YouTube could be taken down under the letter of this law since there is considerable information posted on YouTube that violates copyright laws.” Internet service providers would be responsible for blocking sites that contain inviolate content. Says DeNardis, “I worry about what this is going to do to the technical architecture of the Internet. It’s always been based on the free flow of information and universality. If we create a world in which internet service providers block different websites for various reasons, we will no longer have a universal Internet.” It would be a world wide web — divided....
....As with other modern global issues like climate change, terrorism, and human rights, cross-border Internet debates and disputes arise as countries bump up against others’ national interests. States and individuals clash over cultural norms and claims to cyber territory.
But the story of rights, our speech and expression, is an old one. DeNardis is keeping watch and helping reveal those who, hidden behind the curtain, dictate our freedom online.
Internet Politics Scholars Join School of Communication at American University
These alien-like creatures are virtually invisible in the deep sea.
- A team of marine biologists used nets to catch 16 species of deep-sea fish that have evolved the ability to be virtually invisible to prey and predators.
- "Ultra-black" skin seems to be an evolutionary adaptation that helps fish camouflage themselves in the deep sea, which is illuminated by bioluminescent organisms.
- There are likely more, and potentially much darker, ultra-black fish lurking deep in the ocean.
A team of marine biologists has discovered 16 species of "ultra-black" fish that absorb more than 99 percent of the light that hits their skin, making them virtually invisible to other deep-sea fish.
The researchers, who published their findings Thursday in Current Biology, caught the species after dropping nets more than 200 meters deep near California's Monterey Bay. At those depths, sunlight fizzles out. That's one reason why many deep-sea species have evolved the ability to illuminate the dark waters through bioluminescence.
But what if deep-sea fish don't want to be spotted? To counter bioluminescence, some species have evolved ultra-black skin that's exceptionally good at absorbing light. Only a few other species are known to possess this strange trait, including birds of paradise and some spiders and butterflies.
The Pacific blackdragon
Credit: Karen Osborn/Smithsonian
When researchers first saw the deep-sea species, it wasn't immediately obvious that their skin was ultra-black. Then, marine biologist Karen Osborn, a co-author on the new paper, noticed something strange about the photos she took of the fish.
"I had tried to take pictures of deep-sea fish before and got nothing but these really horrible pictures, where you can't see any detail," Osborn told Wired. "How is it that I can shine two strobe lights at them and all that light just disappears?"
After examining samples of fish skin under the microscope, the researchers discovered that the fish skin contains a layer of organelles called melanosomes, which contain melanin, the same pigment that gives color to human skin and hair. This layer of melanosomes absorbs most of the light that hits them.
A crested bigscale
Credit: Karen Osborn/Smithsonian
"But what isn't absorbed side-scatters into the layer, and it's absorbed by the neighboring pigments that are all packed right up close to it," Osborn told Wired. "And so what they've done is create this super-efficient, very-little-material system where they can basically build a light trap with just the pigment particles and nothing else."
The result? Strange and terrifying deep-sea species, like the crested bigscale, fangtooth, and Pacific blackdragon, all of which appear in the deep sea as barely more than faint silhouettes.
David Csepp, NMFS/AKFSC/ABL
But interestingly, this unique disappearing trick wasn't passed on to these species by a common ancestor. Rather, they each developed it independently. As such, the different species use their ultra-blackness for different purposes. For example, the threadfin dragonfish only has ultra-black skin during its adolescent years, when it's rather defenseless, as Wired notes.
Other fish—like the oneirodes species, which use bioluminescent lures to bait prey—probably evolved ultra-black skin to avoid reflecting the light their own bodies produce. Meanwhile, species like C. acclinidens only have ultra-black skin around their gut, possibly to hide light of bioluminescent fish they've eaten.
Given that these newly described species are just ones that this team found off the coast of California, there are likely many more, and possibly much darker, ultra-black fish swimming in the deep ocean.
Information may not seem like something physical, yet it has become a central concern for physicists. A wonderful new book explores the importance of the "dataome" for the physical, biological, and human worlds.
- The most important current topic in physics relates to a subject that hardly seems physical at all — information, which is central to thermodynamics and perhaps the universe itself.
- The "dataome" is the way human beings have been externalizing information about ourselves and the world since we first began making paintings on cave walls.
- The dataome is vast and growing everyday, sucking up an ever increasing share of the energy humans produce.
Physics is a field that is supposed to study real stuff. By real, I mean things like matter and energy. Matter is, of course, the kind of stuff you can hold in your hand. Energy may seem a little more abstract, but its reality is pretty apparent, appearing in the form of motion or gravity or electromagnetic fields.
What has become apparent recently, however, is the importance to physics of something that seems somewhat less real: information. From black holes to quantum mechanics to understanding the physics of life, information has risen to become a principal concern of many physicists in many domains. This new centrality of information is why you really need to read astrophysicist Caleb Scharf's new book The Ascent of Information: Books, Bits, Machines, and Life's Unending Algorithms.
Scharf is currently the director of the Astrobiology Program at Columbia University. He is also the author of four other books as well as a regular contributor to Scientific American.
(Full disclosure: Scharf and I have been collaborators on a scientific project involving the Fermi Paradox, so I was a big fan before I read this new book. Of course, the reason why I collaborated with him is because I really like the way he thinks, and his creativity in tackling tough problems is on full display in The Ascent of Information.)
What is the dataome?
In his new book, Scharf is seeking a deeper understanding of what he calls the "dataome." This is the way human beings have been externalizing information about ourselves and the world since we first began making paintings on cave walls. The book opens with a compelling exploration of how Shakespeare's works, which began as scribbles on a page, have gone on to have lives of their own in the dataome. Through reprintings in different languages, recordings of performances, movie adaptations, comic books, and so on, Shakespeare's works are now a permanent part of the vast swirling ensemble of information that constitutes the human dataome.
I found gems in these parts of the book that forced me to put the volume down and stare into space for a time to deal with their impact.
But the dataome does not just live in our heads. Scharf takes us on a proper physicist's journey through the dataome, showing us how information can never be divorced from energy. Your brain needs the chemical energy from food you ate this morning to read, process, and interpret these words. One of the most engaging parts of the book is when Scharf details just how much energy and real physical space our data-hungry world consumes as it adds to the dataome. For example, the Hohhot Data Center in the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region of China is made of vast "farms" of data processing servers covering 245 acres of real estate. A single application like Bitcoin, Scharf tells us, consumes 7.7 gigawatts per year, equivalent to the output of half a dozen nuclear reactors!
Information is everywhere
But the dataome is not just about energy. Entropy is central to the story as well. Scharf takes the reader through a beautifully crafted discussion of information and the science of thermodynamics. This is where the links between energy, entropy, the limits of useful work, and probability all become profoundly connected to the definition of information.
The second law of thermodynamics tells us that you cannot use all of a given amount of energy to do useful work. Some of that energy must be wasted by getting turned into heat. Entropy is the physicist's way of measuring that waste (which can also be thought of as disorder). Scharf takes the reader through the basic relations of thermodynamics and then shows how entropy became intimately linked with information. It was Claude Shannon's brilliant work in the 1940s that showed how information — bits — could be defined for communication and computation as an entropy associated with the redundancy of strings of symbols. That was the link tying the physical world of physics explicitly to the informational and computational world of the dataome.
The best parts of the book are where Scharf unpacks how information makes its appearance in biology. From the data storage and processing that occurs with every strand of DNA, to the tangled pathways that define evolutionary dynamics, Scharf demonstrates how life is what happens to physics and chemistry when information matters. I found gems in these parts of the book that forced me to put the volume down and stare into space for a time to deal with their impact.
The physics of information
There are a lot of popular physics books out there about black holes and exoplanets and other cool stuff. But right now, I feel like the most important topic in physics relates to a subject that hardly seems physical at all. Information is a relatively new addition to the physics bestiary, making it even more compelling. If you are looking for a good introduction to how that is so, The Ascent of Information is a good place to start.
A new study tested to what extent dogs can sense human deception.
Is humanity's best friend catching on to our shenanigans? Researchers at the University of Vienna discovered that dogs can in certain cases know when people are lying.
The scientists carried out a study with hundreds of dogs to determine to what extent dogs could spot deception. The team's new paper, published in Proceedings of the Royal Society B, outlined experiments that tested whether dogs, like humans, have some inner sense of how to assess truthfulness.
As the researchers wrote in their paper, "Among non-primates, dogs (Canis familiaris) constitute a particularly interesting case, as their social environment has been shared with humans for at least 14,000 years. For this reason, dogs have been considered as a model species for the comparative investigation of socio-cognitive abilities." The investigation focused specifically on understanding if dogs were "sensitive to some mental or psychological states of humans."
The experiments involved 260 dogs, which were made to listen to advice from a human "communicator" whom they did not know. The human told them which one of two bowls had a treat hidden inside by touching it and saying, "Look, this is very good!" If the dogs took the person's advice, they would get the treat.
Once they established the trust of the dogs, the researchers then complicated the experience by letting dogs watch another human that they did not know transfer the treat from one bowl to another. In some cases, the original communicator would also be present to watch but not always.
The findings revealed that half of the dogs did not follow the advice of the communicator if that person was not present when the food was switched to a different bowl. The dogs had a sense that this human could not have known the true location of the treat. Furthermore, two-thirds of the dogs ignored the human's suggestion if she did see the food switch but pointed to the wrong bowl. The dogs figured out the human was lying to them.
Photos of experiments showing the dog, human communicator, and person hiding the treat. Credit: Lucrezia Lonardo et al / Proceedings of the Royal Society B.
"We thought dogs would behave like children under age five and apes, but now we speculate that perhaps dogs can understand when someone is being deceitful," co-author Ludwig Huber from the University of Vienna told New Scientist. "Maybe they think, 'This person has the same knowledge as me, and is nevertheless giving me the wrong [information].' It's possible they could see that as intentionally misleading, which is lying."
This is not the first time such experiments have been carried out. Previously, children under age five, macaques, and chimps were tested in a similar way. It turned out that children and other animals were more likely than dogs to listen to the advice of the liars. Notably, among the dogs, terriers were found to be more like children and apes, more eagerly following false suggestions.