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Biden’s Industrial Policy

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Mon, 19/04/2021 - 4:46am in

America is about to revive an idea that was left for dead decades ago. It’s called industrial...

Israel May Have Destroyed Iranian Centrifuges Simply by Cutting Power

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Wed, 14/04/2021 - 1:41am in

The explosion and blackout at the Natanz nuclear facility in Iran over the weekend raised the specter of past sabotage — including the Stuxnet cyberattack that took out some of Natanz’s centrifuges between 2007 and 2010 as well as an explosion and fire that occurred there last July — destroying about three-fourths of a newly opened plant for the assembly of centrifuges.

Government officials and news reports gave conflicting accounts of what caused the latest blasts, the extent of damage, and Iran’s capacity to quickly recover. Initial reports said there was no harm to the Natanz facility, but Iranian officials later acknowledged damage to its centrifuges.

And while media accounts have suggested saboteurs focused on taking out the facility’s electric supply, David Albright, founder and president of the Institute for Science and International Security in Washington, D.C., believes the aim was to destroy centrifuges. Power is easy to restore even when electrical equipment is damaged, allowing enrichment work to quickly resume. But an abrupt blackout that also takes out backup power would have destroyed some centrifuges, Albright says, since they need to be powered down slowly. Failure to do so leads to vibrations that can cause centrifuge rotors and bellows to become damaged and in some cases disintegrate, which is what Albright suspects occurred.

Below is a summary of what we currently know and don’t know about the incident at Natanz.

What Happened?

On Sunday, news organizations reported an electrical blackout at the Natanz uranium enrichment plant, located in the desert about 155 miles south of Tehran. Natanz is critical to Iran’s nuclear program. The heavily secured site is protected by anti-aircraft guns and has two large centrifuge halls buried more than 50 feet underground to protect them from airstrikes. Despite the conflicting reports, it appears the facility’s main power distribution equipment — Natanz has its own grid — was taken out with explosives. Backup emergency electricity also was taken down, and power cut out across the multibuilding compound, Behrouz Kamalvandi, spokesperson for Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization, told Iran’s state-run TV.

Iranian officials initially said there were no casualties or damage to facilities. But Kamalvandi later conceded that the “small explosion” had “damaged sectors [which] can be quickly repaired.” Kamalvandi was speaking from a hospital bed, however, because he had fallen down a 20-foot hole while visiting Natanz after the attack, breaking an ankle and gashing his head. This would suggest that the explosions may have done extensive ground or structural damage.

“This tells me that the damage must be quite a lot in some spots,” says Olli Heinonen, former deputy director of the Safeguards Division of the U.N.’s International Atomic Energy Organization and currently a Distinguished Fellow with the Stimson Center in Washington, DC. “Nuclear installations normally are very safe. There are no open places where you can go down 7 meters just like that. So probably he went to some area that is damaged, and that is a bad sign.”

Reports have indicated that the sabotage set Iran’s uranium enrichment program back nine months. See “How Quickly Can Iran Recover?” below.

Who Was Behind the Explosions?

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif blamed the incident on Israeli sabotage, calling it a “terrorist attack” and “nuclear terrorism.” Both U.S. and Israeli sources have told Western reporters that Israel was indeed behind the attack. Though Israel has not formally taken responsibility for the operation, Lt. Gen. Aviv Kohavi, chief of staff of the Israel Defense Forces seemed to hint at Israel’s involvement during a speech on Sunday at a ceremony for Israeli soldiers.

“The IDF’s actions throughout the Middle East are not hidden from our enemies’ vision, who are observing us, seeing our capabilities and carefully considering their next steps,” he said. “By virtue of clever operational activities, the past year was one of the most secure years that the citizens of the State of Israel have known. We will continue to act, combining power and discretion, determination and responsibility — all of this to guarantee the security of the State of Israel.”

Israel has the most to fear from a nuclear-armed neighbor. Although Iran has long insisted that its controversial nuclear program is peaceful and not a weapons program, the U.S. intelligence community found that Iran did have a nuclear weapons program until 2003, when it halted the program following the U.S.-coalition invasion of Iraq. And although Israel has its own nuclear program, it has worked hard to prevent its close neighbors from developing one as well.

Israel has a long history of sabotaging nuclear facilities in Iraq, Syria, and Iran, both through cyber means — including the sophisticated Stuxnet attack against Iran, which Israel conducted with U.S. and Dutch intelligence agencies — and with conventional bombs and explosives. Israel is also reportedly behind a number of assassinations of Iranian nuclear scientists and officials over the last decade. The Stuxnet attack was particularly significant because it launched the era of cyberwarfare, as it was the first cyberattack known to use a digital weapon that could leap into the physical realm to cause actual destruction of equipment. The highly skilled covert operation was conducted in lieu of a kinetic attack to avoid attribution and an escalation in hostilities with Iran; it remained undetected for three years.

U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin (L) and Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz are seen at a ceremony at the Kirya military base in Tel Aviv, Israel on April 11, 2021.

U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, left, and Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz are seen at a ceremony at the Kirya military base in Tel Aviv, Israel, on April 11, 2021.

Photo: Chine Nouvelle/SIPA/Shutterstock

Timing of the Sabotage

The sabotage on Sunday seemed timed to send a message — both to Iran and to the U.S. and Europe. It occurred just days after talks began in Vienna to revive the 2015 nuclear agreement that the Obama administration had worked hard to broker with Iran to control its uranium enrichment production. The Trump administration, urged on by Israel, unilaterally withdrew from the deal in 2018 and imposed sanctions on Iran.

The sabotage also occurred the same day U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin visited Tel Aviv to drum up support for reviving that agreement with Iran. Albright believes it was designed to telegraph to the U.S. that Israel won’t support restoring the old agreement and has no problem scuttling them in order to keep Iran’s nuclear program in check.

The timing of the sabotage was also significant for another reason. The day before the Natanz incident, Iran celebrated National Nuclear Technology Day, an annual event marking the nation’s atomic advances. To mark the event and send a message to its negotiating partners, technicians at Natanz began to operate a small batch of IR-6 centrifuges as well. The majority of centrifuges at Natanz are a model known as IR-1, which is much less efficient at enriching uranium than the IR-6 design. The nuclear agreement signed with Iran in 2015 (known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA) limited it to using only IR-1 centrifuges, so the installation of the IR-6s is widely seen as a provocation designed to give Iran leverage in the revived talks. To add to the tension, Iran has been enriching uranium gas to 20 percent since the Trump administration withdrew from the agreement two years ago. Prior to this, it was enriching uranium to 3 to 5 percent. The higher levels put Iran closer to the 90 percent enrichment that is needed for nuclear weapons, all of which raises the stakes for Israel.

Was It a Cyberattack?

Israeli media, among the first to report on the incident, said the sabotage was caused by a cyberattack, though no details have been reported to support this, and other reports have said the sabotage was caused by explosives. It is possible to produce physical explosions through a cyber assault, however. In 2007, the U.S. Energy Department’s Idaho National Laboratory demonstrated that it was possible to physically destroy a 27-ton electrical generator using nothing more than 21 lines of malicious code, in what is known as the Aurora Generator Test.

The use of explosives at Natanz doesn’t rule out the possibility that the sabotage involved a hybrid attack with explosives taking out the main power distribution equipment and malicious code taking out the emergency backup power supply to manipulate the frequency converters that control the speed at which the centrifuges spin.

It will take days or weeks before we have a clear understanding of what the attack entailed and how the perpetrators pulled it off, but if an outside generator or transformer was destroyed by explosives, this should become apparent in satellite images that will no doubt be available in the next day or so, Albright said.

Were Centrifuges Damaged?

Although the attack targeted the electric distribution at Natanz, the real target was likely the centrifuges. Centrifuges spin in excess of 100,000 revolutions per minute and as noted above, need to be slowed gradually, otherwise they vibrate dangerously, and the rotors and bellows inside can be destroyed.

One reason Iranian officials may have changed their story about the damage at Natanz, initially claiming there was none but later conceding centrifuge damage, is that damage to a centrifuge is generally internal and can’t be seen until technicians remove its outer aluminum casing.

On Monday, the day after the sabotage, Ali Akbar Salehi, head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization, said some parts of the enrichment facility are now running on emergency backup electricity, but he didn’t say if this included the centrifuges.

Albright says that to slow down the centrifuges, the sabotage would have needed to target the frequency converters, which are power supplies that regulate the flow of energy to the centrifuges and their speed. To affect these converters, the attackers would have needed to take out the emergency backup power supply, “which is deep inside the plant,” he said.

“The emergency system will come on as soon as the outside power will stop, and that will run for quite a while and that will keep the centrifuges spinning,” Albright said. “But if you can take out the main power supply and the emergency system, then you can stop the centrifuges.”

The frequency converters, notably, were also the target of Stuxnet in 2009 and 2010. The malicious Stuxnet code caused the converters to increase and decrease the speed of the centrifuges for timed periods in order to destroy their motors and bellows and spoil the uranium gas inside the centrifuges. The computer systems controlling the frequency converters at Natanz are not connected to the internet, so in that attack, the perpetrators snuck the first version of Stuxnet into the facility on a USB stick carried in with a mole working for Dutch intelligence. Subsequent versions were delivered to Natanz computers by infecting the laptops of outside engineers who worked at the plant and who then unwittingly carried Stuxnet into Natanz on their computers.,

Although Iran has been testing a number of different models of centrifuge at Natanz, the vast majority of centrifuges there are IR-1s. Iran has 6,000 of these at Natanz and over the last five months has also installed 1,000 IR-2m centrifuges. Salehi told Iranian news media that the only centrifuges damaged in Sunday’s attack were IR-1s: the same centrifuge model that Stuxnet targeted a decade ago.

IR-1 centrifuges are very difficult to stop when they are spinning at full speed, Albright says.

“It requires slowing down the speed, stopping, and waiting for the centrifuge to stabilize [at several stages]. If you don’t do that, then the centrifuge can just crash. At a certain speed of revolutions, they will start to shake like a vibrating string.”

Without pauses to stabilize, the vibrations will increase, causing the rotor inside to scrape the side of the aluminum casing, which is just a few millimeters away from the rotor, and destroy the rotor and internal casing.

“It will be like shrapnel going off, and you’ll hear it break,” Albright said. “They would hear it all through the plant if these things are breaking.”

A general view of the Natanz nuclear enrichment facility, is seen on April 9, 2007, 180 miles south of Tehran, Iran.

A general view of the Natanz nuclear enrichment facility, seen on April 9, 2007, located 180 miles south of Tehran, Iran.

Photo: Majid Saeedi/Getty Images

How Quickly Can Iran Recover?

It remains to be seen how long it will take Iran to recover. News reports have said the sabotage set the program back nine months. Salehi has said, “Enrichment in Natanz has not stopped and is moving forward vigorously.”

Heinonen, the former U.N. atomic safeguards official, says it would not take nine months just to replace a destroyed transformer or generator and the destroyed centrifuges.

“If you need to replace the transformer or the electric supply, that may take some time; it’s not something you take from the shelf. It’s custom-designed for the purpose,” he said. But it would take only a few weeks to replace it.

He says the issue is likely that Iran will have to rebuild entire cascades; cascades are clusters of centrifuges joined by pipes that carry uranium gas from one to the next as it goes through stages of enrichment. If shrapnel and metal dust created by the rotor scraping the casing got into the piping, that would all have to be replaced.

“[That dust] probably will break additional centrifuges,” he said. “To replace a centrifuge, you need to clean the whole mess, including the cascade piping. If there are small pieces here and there, it’s very difficult to clean such small pipes, so you have to replace them. That is a very time-consuming operation.”

If the frequency converters were damaged as well, then this will add to the recovery time. The devices are tailor-made, and Heinonen said it’s not clear how many Iran has in stock.

Heinonen said Iran can recover more quickly by simply abandoning the affected cascades and centrifuges and building new cascades in an empty corner of the hall, and installing IR-2m centrifuges that are more efficient than the damaged IR-1s. If Iran has everything it needs for this, it will take six months to rebuild, he said. Not only will Iran be up and running by the end of summer, it will have a more efficient operation.

With 1,500 IR-2m centrifuges, “you are actually exactly where you were last week in terms of enrichment capacity, because these are four times more powerful than the IR-1s,” he said. “So I would install them and show to the world that [they] are back in business, and that will take a few months, provided that the electricity is there.”

This appears to be what Iran is planning to do, not only to recover from the sabotage but also to secure a stronger bargaining position in its nuclear negotiations. Zarif, the Iranian foreign minister, has stated, “Natanz will be stronger than ever with more advanced machines, and if they think our hand in negotiation is weak, this act will strengthen our position in the negotiations.”

How Will Iran Respond to the Attack?

An Iranian official announced on Tuesday that Iran will begin to enrich uranium to 60 percent in response to the attack on Natanz. Whether Iran is just using this to gain leverage in the Vienna talks is unclear. But if the enrichment plan proceeds, it would put Iran closer to having weapons-grade uranium than it has ever been, introducing a new level of destabilization in the Middle East.

Iran is also under pressure from lawmakers in Tehran to halt the nuclear talks in Vienna. “Talks under pressure have no meaning,” Abbas Moghtadaie, deputy chair of the Iranian parliament’s national security and foreign policy committee, said in a Clubhouse talk on Monday, according to the New York Times.

In addition, Iran has vowed to get revenge for the sabotage. It’s unclear whether this will involve cyberattacks against Israel — similar to attacks that were launched against Israel’s water supply following the previous sabotage at Natanz last July — or include a kinetic response, such as rockets launched across Israel’s northern border by Iran-backed Hezbollah. Whatever the retaliation, it will likely escalate further response from Israel.

Regardless of what Iran does to retaliate, it’s clear that attacks against Iran’s nuclear program won’t end, says Albright.

“The Israelis … want to make the point that this isn’t simply about going back to the [old agreement with Iran]. The fact that the U.S. secretary of defense was there when it happened is a pretty strong signal to the U.S. and Europe that JCPOA … is not going to cut it [going forward].”

The post Israel May Have Destroyed Iranian Centrifuges Simply by Cutting Power appeared first on The Intercept.

Africa’s Wikipedia Editors Are Changing How the World Sees Their Continent

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Mon, 12/04/2021 - 6:00pm in

Years ago, while working in Uganda on an emergency relief program, Adama Sanneh had an epiphany. 

“I had this strange feeling,” he says. “I think I questioned myself whether I was on the wrong side of history.” 

Born and raised in Milan to a Catholic Italian mother and a Muslim Senegalese-Gambian father, Sanneh had always reveled in diversity, adventure and knowledge. But while working in East Africa a realization dawned on him: his knowledge of Africa, like so many people’s, barely scratched the surface of the continent’s reality. 

He realized that information about Africa’s diverse languages, colorful cultures, lively politics and over one billion citizens was scarce. What’s more, much of the information that was available came from a Western gaze through the prisms of foreign journalism, academia and entertainment. So Sanneh set out to transform Africans from “passive knowledge consumers to active knowledge producers.”

africaWikipedia editors at the December 2019 Moleskine Foundation AfroCuration event. Photo courtesy Moleskine Foundation

Their primary tool? Wikipedia, the world’s most widely used reference compendium, and one of the few spaces where Africans can directly write and edit the story of their own continent. Wikipedia’s English website attracts an average of around seven billion page views monthly, making it one of the most visited websites in the world. 

And yet, it suffers from a paucity of information about Africa. There’s more information about the country of France than the entire continent of Africa on Wikipedia, says Sanneh. So, since 2018, the WikiAfrica Education initiative has been working to change that by enlisting and organizing a new generation of Africa-based Wikipedia editors. Funded by the Moleskine Foundation, of which Sanneh is cofounder and CEO, the WikiAfrica Education initiative is a boldly creative attempt to decentralize Wikipedia — and, in turn, knowledge of Africa — through contributions from those who know the place best.

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AfroCuration, the initiative’s flagship event, holds edit-a-thons where youths edit and create encyclopedic content for Wikipedia in both English and Indigenous languages. The first event took place in October 2019. Over 120 students aged 15 through 18 set out to write Wikipedia profiles about South African history-makers, some of whose biographies were absent from the website, and some, like anti-apartheid activists Winnie Mandela and Steve Biko, that needed expanding. 

africaParticipants in the first edit-a-thon were educated about democracy, freedom and constitution-making, and taught how to translate what they learned into isiZulu, isiXhosa, Tshivenda, siSwati, Sesotho and Afrikaans. Photo courtesy Moleskine Foundation

The edit-a-thons were held at the Constitution Hill Trust in Johannesburg, a former prison complex now transformed into a cultural heritage site. Iconic South Africans such as activists Justice Edwin Cameron and Dumisa Ntsebeza were on hand to impart their first-hand knowledge of South Africa’s constitution and history to the participants. Then, armed with this knowledge, the youths formed working groups to create and expand Wikipedia entries about the protagonists of their country’s democracy.

“These young people had the chance to, first of all, go there and learn about the constitution through the voices and stories of incredible people like Judge Edwin Cameron, who is the former constitutional judge in South Africa,” Sanneh recalls. 

Strategic partnerships with groups like the Constitution Hill Trust have been crucial to the endeavor’s success. Other partners included the South Africa Wikimedia chapter Wikimedia ZA, which provided technical assistance and language editors, and BRIDGE, a non-profit organization dedicated to improving teaching and learning in the country. “We saw that there was alignment with our work on constitutionalism and [BRIDGE’s] work on education,” says Lwando Xaso, a historian and constitutional lawyer at Constitution Hill Trust. 

africaWikipedia is the world’s largest reference compendium, yet it suffers from a lack of information about Africa. “There’s more information about the city of Paris than the entire continent of Africa on Wikipedia,” says Sanneh. Photo courtesy Moleskine Foundation

With the help of these groups, participants were educated about democracy, freedom and constitution-making, and taught how to translate what they learned into 112 entries in isiZulu, isiXhosa, Tshivenda, siSwati, Sesotho and Afrikaans, as well as expand existing English entries. 

The second AfroCuration event, themed “Writing Black Women into History,” was held in partnership with Afropunk Army, the volunteer arm of the global music Afropunk Festival, in Johannesburg on December 29, 2019. At that edit-a-thon, 70 volunteers aged 18 and 25 created 71 new entries for women, from executive director of UN Women Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka to South African jazz legend Letta Mbulu.

“I remembered thinking, what an amazing, amazing initiative,” says Perry-Mason Adams, an Afropunk volunteer who witnessed the event. “What a way to use and preserve the language. So for me, it was a breathtaking initiative.” 

africa“I remembered thinking, what an amazing, amazing initiative. What a way to use and preserve the language,” says one edit-a-thon participant. Photo courtesy Moleskine Foundation

Inspired, Adams registered to participate in a future AfroCuration event. But when the pandemic struck, WikiAfrica’s boisterous, in-person edit-a-thons shut down. The endeavor went remote, and pivoted to translating Covid-19 articles into Indigenous African languages. Volunteers were sourced through an Africa-wide social media campaign called “The solution will not be televised.”

Adams, 29, dove into the effort, seeking help from his mother and community in the capital city of Pretoria as he attempted isiZulu and Xhosa translations remotely. “I did the article in collaboration with my mom,” he recalls. “She helped me translate the contents into isiZulu. I’d translate and she’d read, proofread the stuff for me and be like, ‘Okay, this sounds right. Let’s put that.’” For Xhosa translations, he got help from native speakers in his community. “I learned a lot and it made me appreciate the language,” he says. 

Other youths had similar experiences. In Tamale, the capital city of the Northern Region of Ghana, 27-year-old university student Hajara Baba is using her contributions to have her native Dagbani language, with over three million native speakers, internationally recognized. (Her efforts highlight one of the less appreciated benefits of Wikipedia: according to Nigerian linguist Opeyemi Ademola, because of the site’s vast reach, the mere presence of language on it has a multiplying effect on that language’s use on other platforms and websites.)

Last year, Baba translated Covid-19 articles into Dagbani. She and Adams are among the 390 volunteers from across Africa who have produced 145 new articles about the virus across 16 African languages, amassing over a million views.

“I think from a legal perspective, there is a need to widen what is considered a legitimate source for citation for Wikipedia, because in Africa, oral history is just as important as what’s found in textbooks,” says one program curator. Photo courtesy Moleskine Foundation

On Wikipedia, there is a low barrier to entry for Indigenous African languages. “It’s much easier to upload an entry in Venda or in Yoruba or Zulu compared to doing the same thing in English,” says Sanneh. “The scrutiny that you have in English is higher.” However, citation poses an issue. “I think from a legal perspective, there is a need to widen what is considered a legitimate source for citation for Wikipedia,” says Xaso, also the program curator, “because in Africa, oral history is just as important as what’s found in textbooks. You’d find that Indigenous forms of knowledge are being excluded because they do not fit a Western idea of what a legitimate source is.”

In spite of this, Sanneh’s dream of expanding knowledge about Africa, as told by Africans, is becoming a reality one entry at a time. “Our vision is to say that, through technology, young people will have enough access to resources to check in their own language, to really think about their own lives and build a greater life and become the citizen that they want,” he says.

The post Africa’s Wikipedia Editors Are Changing How the World Sees Their Continent appeared first on Reasons to be Cheerful.

The tech giants’ diet is bad for everyone’s health | David Mitchell

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Sun, 11/04/2021 - 7:00pm in

Allowing the likes of Google and Facebook to reap the rewards of junk food ads leaves a sour taste in the mouth

Sometimes, in my most misanthropic moods, I’m seduced by a libertarian approach to advertising rules. You know, just let it all out there. Let them go for it. Maybe you still try to prevent outright lies, but actually maybe you don’t even bother with that. Let them tell us that a McFlurry, say, brings eternal life and see whether doing so would really elevate sales even over the medium term – when the bloated corpses of the McFlurry gorgers begin to stack up.

And we’d be done with expressions such as “increases by up to” and “helps prevent” by which products’ efficacy can be almost infinitely exaggerated without a direct lie having been told. I think that might be refreshing, unless phrases by which false concepts are conveyed through an intricate lattice of literal truths turn out to be our current civilisation’s only lasting art form, with “not even a black hole can eat three Shredded Wheat” as the central masterpiece, brilliant because it is a lie made permissible only by the fact that no one is supposed to believe it.

Commercial broadcasters provide a cultural trade-off for problems adverts might cause, in a way the tech giants do not

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Research Says Facebook's Ad Algorithm Perpetuates Gender Bias

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Fri, 09/04/2021 - 10:00pm in

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New research from a team at the University of Southern California provides further evidence that Facebook’s advertising system is discriminatory, showing that the algorithm used to target ads reproduced real-world gender disparities when showing job listings, even among equally qualified candidates.

In fields from software engineering to sales to food delivery, the team ran sets of ads promoting real job openings at roughly equivalent companies requiring roughly the same skills, one for a company whose existing workforce was disproportionately male and one that was disproportionately female. Facebook showed more men the ads for the disproportionately male companies and more women the ads for the disproportionately female companies, even though the job qualifications were the same. The paper concludes that Facebook could very well be violating federal anti-discrimination laws.

“We confirm that Facebook’s ad delivery can result in skew of job ad delivery by gender beyond what can be legally justified by possible differences in qualifications,” the team wrote.

The work builds on prior research that left Facebook reeling. A groundbreaking 2019 study from one member of the team provided strong evidence that Facebook’s ad algorithm isn’t just capable of bias, but is biased to its core. Responding to that study, and in the wake of widespread criticism over tools that could be used to run blatantly discriminatory ad campaigns, Facebook told The Intercept at the time, “We stand against discrimination in any form. We’ve made important changes to our ad targeting tools and know that this is only a first step. We’ve been looking at our ad delivery system and have engaged industry leaders, academics, and civil rights experts on this very topic — and we’re exploring more changes.”

Based on this new research, it doesn’t appear that the company got very far beyond whatever that “first step” was. The paper — authored by USC computer science assistant professor Aleksandra Korolova, professor John Heidemann, and doctoral student Basileal Imana — revisits the question tackled in 2019: If advertisers don’t use any of Facebook’s demographic targeting options, which demographics will the system target on its own?

The question is a crucial one, given that Facebook’s control over who sees which ads might determine who is provided with certain vital economic opportunities, from insurance to a new job to a credit card. This control is executed entirely through algorithms whose inner workings are kept secret. Since Facebook won’t provide any meaningful answers about how the algorithms work, researchers such as Korolova and her colleagues have had to figure it out.

This time around, the team wanted to preempt claims that biased ad delivery could be explained by the fact that Facebook showed the ads to people who were simply more qualified for the advertised job, a possible legal defense against allegations of unlawful algorithmic bias under statutes like Title VII, which bars discrimination on the basis of protected characteristics like race and gender. “To the extent that the scope of Title VII may cover ad platforms, the distinction we make can eliminate the possibility of platforms using qualification as a legal argument against being held liable for discriminatory outcomes,” the team wrote.

As in 2019, Korolova and her team created a series of advertisements for real-world job openings and paid Facebook to display these job listings to as many people as possible given their budget, as opposed to specifying a certain demographic cohort whose eyeballs they wanted to zero in on. This essentially left the decision of “who sees what” entirely up to Facebook (and its opaque algorithms), thus helping to highlight the bias engineered into Facebook’s own code.

Facebook funneled gender-neutral ads for gender-neutral jobs to people on the basis of their gender.

Even when controlling for job qualifications, the researchers found that Facebook automatically funneled gender-neutral ads for gender-neutral jobs to people on the basis of their gender.

For example, Korolova’s team purchased Facebook ad campaigns to promote two delivery driver job listings, one from Instacart and another from Domino’s. Both positions are roughly equivalent in terms of required qualifications, and for both companies, “there is data that shows the de facto gender distribution is skewed”: Most Domino’s drivers are men, and most Instacart drivers are women. By running these ads with a mandate only to maximize eyeballs, no matter whose, the team sought to “study whether ad delivery optimization algorithms reproduce these de facto skews, even though they are not justifiable on the basis of differences in qualification,” with the expectation of finding “a platform whose ad delivery optimization goes beyond what is justifiable by qualification and reproduces de facto skews to show the Domino’s ad to relatively more males than the Instacart ad.” The results showed exactly that.

Left to its own devices, the team found that Facebook’s ad delivery algorithm took the Domino’s and Instacart listings, along with later experiments based on ads for software engineering and sales associate gigs at other companies, and showed them to online audiences that essentially reproduced the existing offline gender disparities: “The skew we observe on Facebook is in the same direction as the de facto skew, with the Domino’s ad delivered to a higher fraction of men than the Instacart ad.” And since the experiments were designed to take job qualification out of the picture, the team says, they strengthen “the previously raised arguments that Facebook’s ad delivery algorithms may be in violation of anti-discrimination laws.” As an added twist, the team ran the same set of ads on LinkedIn, but saw no evidence of systemic gender bias.

Facebook spokesperson Tom Channick told The Intercept that “our system takes into account many signals to try and serve people ads they will be most interested in, but we understand the concerns raised in the report,” adding that “we’ve taken meaningful steps to address issues of discrimination in ads and have teams working on ads fairness today. We’re continuing to work closely with the civil rights community, regulators, and academics on these important matters.”

Though the USC team was able to cleverly expose the biased results of Facebook ads, their methodology hits a brick wall when it comes to answering why exactly this happens. This is by design: Facebook’s ad delivery algorithm, like all the rest of the automated decision-making systems it employs across its billions of users, is a black-box algorithm, completely opaque to anyone other than those inside the company, workers who are bound by nondisclosure agreements and sworn to secrecy. One possible explanation for the team’s findings is that the ad delivery algorithm trains itself based on who has clicked on similar ads in the past — maybe men tend to click on Domino’s ads more than women. Korolova says “skew due to prior user behavior observed by Facebook is possible” but that “if despite the clear indication of the advertiser, we still observe skewed delivery due to historical click-through rates (as we do!), this outcome suggests that Facebook may be overruling advertiser desires for broad and diverse outreach in a way that is aligned with their own long-term business interests.”

The post Research Says Facebook’s Ad Algorithm Perpetuates Gender Bias appeared first on The Intercept.

Cartoon: Big Bezos is watching

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Tue, 06/04/2021 - 9:50pm in

If you haven't heard about Amazon's delivery driver surveillance cameras, this Thomson Reuters article is a good place to start. Amazon has a long history of inflexible micromanaging of the motions of warehouse workers, so they're just extending that to the trucks now.

If you are able, please consider joining the Sorensen Subscription Service!

Follow me on Twitter at @JenSorensen

A Philosophical Look at the Tech Companies You Use

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Mon, 05/04/2021 - 8:47pm in

A philosopher who specializes in questions about technology and a Silicon Valley executive with a Ph.D. in philosophy have a conversation.

The philosopher is Evan Selinger, professor of philosophy at Rochester Institute of Technology, and the executive is Mary Berk, most recently a product manager at Instagram and Facebook (and whose previous employers include Amazon, Ebay, Google, and Microsoft).


[Rob Pettit, “Flip Phone Spiral”]

The conversation ranges from stories from Dr. Berk’s education—

During my first year of graduate school, I wrote a paper on Hobbes. One of my professors stopped me in the middle of my presentation on it and said, “No, that’s wrong. Whose presentation is next?”

to how she got her first job in tech—

They weren’t interested in me at first… But eventually, the hiring manager called me. He expressed that after 50 phone interviews, nobody demonstrated they could think critically about how to calculate the consequences of actions 20 or so steps down the line, or understand the motivations behind someone’s actions… But given my training, I could do that easily.

to various issues in the tech world, such as corporate knowledge—

Companies may go to lengths to avoid having knowledge or the appearance of knowledge, especially when that “knowledge” is tenuous or obligates them.

and corporate ethics, both in general—

When companies put out value statements, they’re really excited about them and announce the ideas with great fanfare. They typically believe in them upfront. But often, they’ve also gone through 18 layers of PR and legal vetting. These processes are designed to prevent companies from using words or making claims that can be interpreted in ways that might create problems down the line.

and at specific companies—

Facebook is generally really good at ensuring its employees think of the people who use their products as real people — not abstract entities like users to be exploited… But what happens in tech companies is that company culture, policy, or executive direction constrain all of this good stuff.

as well as what it is like to work at some of these places—

In one hilarious performance review, I received peer feedback that criticized me for both not smiling enough, which meant I’m too serious and unapproachable, and also for smiling too much, which meant I’m not serious enough. I’ve also been called “difficult” for having even the gentlest of opinions and was basically told that having any feedback at all meant that I didn’t trust my manager and that this made me a problem. Even with lots of emotional labor, offering constructive criticism through compliment sandwiches — where you insert carefully worded criticism in-between praise — it’s very hard for women to be heard. These are the situations and performance reviews I can laugh at. You develop a thick skin and learn to laugh when it hurts.

The interview is part of a new series from Dr. Selinger called “Open Dialog.” You can read the whole interview with Dr. Berk here. And you can follow Dr. Selinger on Twitter here.

Disabled Girl Gets Bionic Arms Based on Movie ‘Alita’s’ Heroine

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Sat, 03/04/2021 - 8:02pm in

Okay, I’m sorry I haven’t put anything up for the past week or so. It’s the usual reasons, I’m afraid: I’ve been busy with other things and for the most part, I simply haven’t found the week’s news inspiring. I felt there was precious little I could add to the excellent coverage and analyses given by Mike and Zelo Street. And so, rather than simply repeating what they had to say, I preferred to keep silent. But there are some stories that do need further comment, and I certainly intend to cover them. But before I do, here’s a more positive, rather heartwarming piece I found on YouTube.

It was put up by the tech company, Open Bionics, which makes state of the art, and very stylish, prosthetic limbs. Narrated by Hollywood director James Cameron, it tells how the company created a pair of superb artificial arms for British teenager Tilly Lockey. Lockey had lost her arms from septicaemia caused by meningitis. But, as Cameron shows, she had never let her disability hold her back, and the video shows Ms. Lockey as a junior school girl painting using an artificial arm. Cameron’s best known as the director of such hits as Aliens, The Terminator, Terminator 2, Avatar and Titanic, but he was also the producer of the film Alita – Battle Angel. Based on the Manga of the same name, Alita is the story of a mysterious cyborg girl, found by a doctor rummaging around the rubbish dump below an airborne city in which Earth’s rich and powerful live, far above ordinary masses, who live in the city below it. The doctor repairs the girl, who has lost her memory. Slowly Alita begins to recover bits of her history, joins the other cyborg players in a murderous sports race, attempts to become one of the cyborg warriors fighting crime and evil in this future world, and is forced to confront the villains controlling this new society from the floating city above it.

Cameron points out that cybernetic limbs are expensive, but the company is working to make them affordable. They’re also trying to make them attractive, which is why they’ve based those they’ve give to Tilly on the arms of Alita’s heroine. As well as getting the arms, the girl also got to attend the film’s premier.

I have a feeling Open Bionics might be based in Bristol. If I’m right, they used to be part of the cybernetics lab at the University of the West of England, which has done some impressive robotics research. The lab set up a commercial company to produce artificial limbs based on characters from Science Fiction movies.

As for Alita, I think it got mixed reviews. Some critics were spooked by the character’s large eyes, but I think that was simply following the artistic conventions of Manga comics and translating it to a live action film. Some critics said that while it wasn’t that good, it was actually far better than some of the rubbish being produced by Hollywood at the time. I’ve got it on video and liked it. There are rumours of a sequel being made, which would be great if they were true. But unfortunately the Coronavirus lockdown has meant that many Hollywood projects have had to be put on hold. The release of Denis Villeneuve’s much-awaited version of Dune has been postponed to October, when hopefully the cinemas will re-open.

The video’s obviously a piece of corporate promotion, but it’s great that the company and its talented engineers are working to make technologically impressive artificial limbs at affordable prices, and that they’ve given them to this spirited young lady. I have a feeling she’s also one of the women featured on the Shake My Beauty YouTube channel, which features other disabled women talking about life with their prosthetic limbs. While also demonstrating that having mechanical arms and legs certainly doesn’t make them less beautiful or capable of enjoying normal, physical activities including sports.

LexisNexis to Provide Giant Database of Personal Information to ICE

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Sat, 03/04/2021 - 1:00am in

The popular legal research and data brokerage firm LexisNexis signed a $16.8 million contract to sell information to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, according to documents shared with The Intercept. The deal is already drawing fire from critics and comes less than two years after the company downplayed its ties to ICE, claiming it was “not working with them to build data infrastructure to assist their efforts.”

Though LexisNexis is perhaps best known for its role as a powerful scholarly and legal research tool, the company also caters to the immensely lucrative “risk” industry, providing, it says, 10,000 different data points on hundreds of millions of people to companies like financial institutions and insurance companies who want to, say, flag individuals with a history of fraud. LexisNexis Risk Solutions is also marketed to law enforcement agencies, offering “advanced analytics to generate quality investigative leads, produce actionable intelligence and drive informed decisions” — in other words, to find and arrest people.

The LexisNexis ICE deal appears to be providing a replacement for CLEAR, a risk industry service operated by Thomson Reuters that has been crucial to ICE’s deportation efforts. In February, the Washington Post noted that the CLEAR contract was expiring and that it was “unclear whether the Biden administration will renew the deal or award a new contract.”

LexisNexis’s February 25 ICE contract was shared with The Intercept by Mijente, a Latinx advocacy organization that has criticized links between ICE and tech companies it says are profiting from human rights abuses, including LexisNexis and Thomson Reuters. The contract shows LexisNexis will provide Homeland Security investigators access to billions of different records containing personal data aggregated from a wide array of public and private sources, including credit history, bankruptcy records, license plate images, and cellular subscriber information. The company will also provide analytical tools that can help police connect these vast stores of data to the right person.

Though the contract is light on details, other ICE documents suggest how the LexisNexis database will be put to use. A notice posted before the contract was awarded asked for a database that could “assist the ICE mission of conducting criminal investigations” and come with “a robust analytical research tool for … in-depth exploration of persons of interest and vehicles,” including what it called a “License Plate Reader Subscription.”

LexisNexis Risk Solutions spokesperson Jennifer Richman declined to say exactly what categories of data the company would provide ICE under the new contract, or what policies, if any, will govern how agency agency uses it, but said, “Our tool contains data primarily from public government records. The principal non-public data is authorized by Congress for such uses in the Drivers Privacy Protection Act and Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act statutes.”

ICE did not return a request for comment.

The listing indicated the database would be used by ICE’s Homeland Security Investigations agency. While HSI is tasked with investigating border-related criminal activities beyond immigration violations, the office frequently works to raid and arrest undocumented people alongside ICE’s deportation office, Enforcement and Removal Operations, or ERO. A 2019 report from the Brennan Center for Justice described HSI as having “quietly become the backbone of the White House’s immigration enforcement apparatus. Its operations increasingly focus on investigating civil immigration violations, facilitating deportations carried out by ERO, and conducting surveillance of First Amendment-protected expression.” In 2018, The Intercept reported on an HSI raid of a Tennessee meatpacking plant that left scores of undocumented workers detained and hundreds of local children too scared to attend school the following day.

Department of Homeland Security budget documents show that ICE has used LexisNexis databases since at least 2016 through the National Criminal Analysis and Targeting Center, a division of ERO that assists in “locating aliens convicted of criminal offenses and other aliens who are amenable to removal,” including “those who are unlawfully present in the United States.”

It’s exceedingly difficult to participate in modern society without generating computerized records of the sort that LexisNexis obtains and packages for resale. 

It’s hard to wrap one’s head around the enormity of the dossiers LexisNexis creates about citizens and undocumented persons alike. While you can at least attempt to use countermeasures against surveillance technologies like facial recognition or phone tracking, it’s exceedingly difficult to participate in modern society without generating computerized records of the sort that LexisNexis obtains and packages for resale. The company’s databases offer an oceanic computerized view of a person’s existence; by consolidating records of where you’ve lived, where you’ve worked, what you’ve purchased, your debts, run-ins with the law, family members, driving history, and thousands of other types of breadcrumbs, even people particularly diligent about their privacy can be identified and tracked through this sort of digital mosaic. LexisNexis has gone even further than merely aggregating all this data: The company claims it holds 283 million distinct individual dossiers of 99.99% accuracy tied to “LexIDs,” unique identification codes that make pulling all the material collected about a person that much easier. For an undocumented immigrant in the United States, the hazard of such a database is clear.

For those seeking to surveil large populations, the scope of the data sold by LexisNexis and Thomson Reuters is equally clear and explains why both firms are listed as official data “partners” of Palantir, a software company whose catalog includes products designed to track down individuals by feasting on enormous datasets. This partnership lets law enforcement investigators ingest material from the companies’ databases directly into Palantir data-mining software, allowing agencies to more seamlessly spy on migrants or round them up for deportation. “I compare what they provide to the blood that flows through the circulation system,” explained City University of New York law professor and scholar of government data access systems Sarah Lamdan. “What would Palantir be able to do without these data flows? Nothing. Without all their data, the software is worthless.” Asked for specifics of the company’s relationship with Palantir, the LexisNexis spokesperson told The Intercept only that its parent company RELX was an early investor in Palantir and that “LexisNexis Risk Solutions does not have an operational relationship with Palantir.”

And yet compared with Palantir, which eagerly sells its powerful software to clients like ICE and the National Security Agency, Thomson Reuters and LexisNexis have managed to largely avoid an ugly public association with controversial government surveillance and immigration practices. They have  protected their reputations in part by claiming that even though LexisNexis may contract with ICE, it’s not enabling the crackdowns and arrests that have made the agency infamous but actually helping ICE’s detainees defend their legal rights. In 2019, after hundreds of law professors, students, and librarians signed a petition calling for Thomson Reuters and LexisNexis to cease contracting with ICE, LexisNexis sent a mass email to law school faculty defending their record and seeming to deny that their service helps put people in jail. Describing this claim as “misinformation,” the LexisNexis email, which was shared with The Intercept, stated: “We are not providing jail-booking data to ICE and are not working with them to build data infrastructure to assist their efforts. … LexisNexis and RELX does not play a key ‘role in fueling the surveillance, imprisonment, and deportation of hundreds of thousands of migrants a year.” (Emphasis in the original.) The email stated that “one of our competitors” was responsible for how “ICE supports its core data needs.” It went on to argue that, far from harming immigrants, LexisNexis is actually in the business of empowering them: Through its existing relationship with ICE, “detainees are provided access to an extensive electronic library of legal materials … that enable detainees to better understand their rights and prepare their immigration cases.”

“Your state might be down to give you a driver’s license, but that information might get into the hands of a data broker.”

The notion that LexisNexis is somehow more meaningfully in the business of keeping immigrants free rather than detained has little purchase with the company’s critics. Jacinta Gonzalez, field director of Mijente, told The Intercept that LexisNexis’s ICE contract fills the same purpose as CLEAR. Like CLEAR, LexisNexis provides an agency widely accused of systemic human rights abuses with the data it needs to locate people with little if any oversight, a system that’s at once invisible, difficult to comprehend, and near impossible to avoid. Even in locales where so-called sanctuary laws aim to protect undocumented immigrants, these vast privatized databases create a computerized climate of intense fear and paranoia for undocumented people, Gonzalez said. “You might be in a city where your local politician is trying to tell you, ‘Don’t worry, you’re welcome here,’ but then ICE can get your address from a data broker and go directly to your house and try to deport you,” Gonzalez explained. “Your state might be down to give you a driver’s license, but that information might get into the hands of a data broker. You might feel like you’re in a life or death situation and have to go to the hospital, but you’re concerned that if you can’t pay your bill a collection agency is going to share that information with ICE.”

Richman, the LexisNexis spokesperson, told The Intercept that “the contract complies with the new policies set out in President Biden’s Executive Order 13993 of January 21, which revised Civil Immigration Enforcement Policies and Priorities and the corresponding DHS interim guidelines” and that “these policies, effective immediately, emphasize a respect for human rights, and focus on threats to national security, public safety, and security at the border.” But Gonzalez says it would be naive to think ICE is somehow a lesser menace to undocumented communities with Donald Trump out of power. “At the end of the day, ICE is still made up by the same agents, by the same field office directors, by the same administrators. … I think that it is really important for people to understand that, as long as ICE continues to have so many agents and so many resources, that they’re going to have to have someone to terrorize.”

The post LexisNexis to Provide Giant Database of Personal Information to ICE appeared first on The Intercept.

Building A Better “Which Philosopher Are You Most Similar To?” Quiz

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Sat, 03/04/2021 - 12:51am in

There are various silly little quizzes across the internet claiming to be able to tell you which famous philosopher you most agree with, but as far as I know, philosophy does not have something like Chris Said’s “Which Famous Economist Are You Most Similar To?


[Paul Klee, “Variations (Progressive Motif)”]

Said’s site asks each visitor 24 questions, presents their resultant view as one dot on a graph populated with other dots representing the views of well-known economists, and tells you which famous economist your own view is closest to. The underlying data about economists’ views is pulled from a survey of “an ideologically diverse set of economists.” (For those curious, the code for the site is on GitHub.)

Is a similar project possible in philosophy? It does seem like we have the technology and wherewithal for this kind of thing (e.g.). One might wonder about combining philosophers’ views about different subjects so they can be represented in a tractable way, but that doesn’t seem an insuperable obstacle. (Perhaps the weighting of individual topics could be something a user of the site could adjust based on what is most important to them.)

What reasons would there be to create it? It might be a possible entry point for non-philosophers to engage with philosophy; being clued into who among today’s philosophers apparently share your views might pique your interest enough to explore their works. It might serve as a research tool for students. It might serve as discipline-wide expertise database for media outlets looking for people with certain views. It might provide us with information about the state of philosophy or the sociology of the discipline that anonymized survey data does not.

For the project to fulfill some of these functions, it would need to feature questions that are more accessible to non-experts than the questions on the PhilPapers surveys. What questions should it ask?

Your suggestions and thoughts welcome.

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