How your digital identity is monetized and monitored

Next Monday, 11th November (Remembrance Day here in Canada) Google+’s new terms of service come into effect. Henceforth, it will sell adult users’ profile names, photos and comments on products to advertisers.

So, if you’ve commented favourably on some product, you may find yourself in advertising. You can opt out, but that’s only if you are aware of these ‘shared endorsements’. More information from Google is here: How shared endorsements work.

Google+’s ‘shared endorsements’ resemble Facebook’s ads. The ads you see on Facebook are tailored to your ‘likes’ and comments, and whatever other information you reveal to Facebook.


Twitter will be next. That’s why its market valuation is so high. Twitter is expected to begin trading on the New York Stock Exchange tomorrow, Thursday.

While Google, Facebook and Twitter monetize all you have revealed to them, the National Security Agency is tapping into their data centre cables and scrutinizing your digital identity for signs of dissent or deviation.

Digital identities don’t have bodies and emotions—that’s why they think they’re invincible—but real people do. It’s about time they woke up to what is going on and stirred themselves to action. This is a good place to start: The NSA Files.


U.S., British intelligence mining data from nine U.S. Internet companies in broad secret program, Washington Post, June 6, 2013

EMOTIVE: Mapping the mood of a nation


If you want to know where all this surveillance is heading, this is an indication: EMOTIVE, Extracting the Meaning of Terse Information in a Geo-Visualisation of Emotion. It’s a computer program designed to sift through tweets, looking for words that indicate emotions, such as anger, disgust, fear, happiness, sadness, surprise, shame and confusion.

It claims to be a way of mapping mass moods geographically; to detect signs of unrest, anger and fear, and so on. This information is to help police to head off criminal behaviour and national security to nip in the bud signs of insurrection and terrorist activity. The aim is to protect the general public from ‘potentially harmful events’. One of the project’s ‘partners’ is Defence Science & Technology Laboratory.

At the moment, this is confined to the UK, but it can be ramped up to map global moods.

Can anyone identify some problems with this? I can.

I don’t know about you, but if I’m feeling ’emotional’ ‘tweeting’ is among the last things I’m going to be doing—certainly if I know my tweets are being monitored. Being emotional usually involves mammalian company. Unless, I suppose, you’re an information scientist.

Tweets are words and words express what we think, not necessarily how we feel. Tweets are not directed at anyone in our vicinity. They may be a substitute for social interaction. How happy can someone be if they have to tweet about it? I would call that sad. If you’re angry, are you going to tweet about it, or are you going to throw your cell phone in the garbage?

One of their publications sums it up: EMOTIVE Ontology: Extracting fine-grained emotions from terse, informal messages”. They’re not ‘extracting’ them, they’re imputing them by reading meaning into words tapped into a cell phone.

The project also ignores the complex and fluid nature of emotions. Or as Ben-Ze’ev would say, their ‘subtlety’. They are not static and they rarely exist in pure form. They can change in a millisecond. You may as well try to catch a butterfly.

None of these objections will prevent our tweets being monitored and used in evidence against us.

The idea is not new, but in the context of Snowden’s revelations it takes on a more sinister hue.

There is always the fountain pen, letter and stamp.

For further information:

EMOTIVE the web site of the team of researchers at Loughborough University in England. They’re on Twitter too: Check their mood. Why not contact the authorities if you have any concerns?

The Letters Page: A Literary Journal in Letters: by the delightful people at the School of English and the University of Nottingham—just a few miles from Loughborough. This is more like it. Who doesn’t like receiving a letter?

EMOTIVE, “Mapping the Mood of a Nation”

MapBox: Locals & Tourists

Maps of cities based on the tweets of ‘locals’ and ‘tourists’. (This reminds me a little of Zygmunt Bauman’s distinction between tourists and vagabonds).

All this, of course, is based on people who are pressed to tell the world what they are doing ‘right now’.

The featured image is a tweet map of Vancouver.

MapBox: Locals & Tourists.

Speech as Action

We know that the cognitive component of emotions is important. How we perceive and evaluate a situation or a person does much to shaping the emotion(s) we experience.

We tend to think that these evaluations are spontaneous and beyond our control. For many of us they are. For Buddhists they are not. For them ideas and the words we utter are actions and something to be monitored and controlled. This is Right View and Right Speech of the Noble Eightfold Path.

There is so much mindless chatter these days that it can be difficult to grasp that speech can be a form of action. But this hasn’t always been so.

These things are easier to see at a distance, especially when individuals are accused of heresy or treason. Saying the wrong thing in this situation can cost you your life, for you have all the resources of the State stacked against you.

So it was for Jeanne d’Arc, burned at the stake on May 30th, 1431—when she was but 19—following a rigged trial. Remarkably, a faithful transcript of the trial survived. See Medieval Sourcebook: The Trial of Joan of Arc. See how a 19 year old girl stood up to the powers against her and you’ll understand why her memory lives on.

So it was for Thomas More, beheaded following his trial for treason on July 6, 1535. He was found guilty under this section of the Treason Act passed the previous year:

If any person or persons, after the first day of February next coming, do maliciously wish, will or desire, by words or writing, or by craft imagine, invent, practise, or attempt any bodily harm to be done or committed to the king’s most royal person, the queen’s, or their heirs apparent, or to deprive them or any of them of their dignity, title, or name of their royal estates…
That then every such person and persons so offending… shall have and suffer such pains of death and other penalties, as is limited and accustomed in cases of high treason. (my emphasis)

More’s final words on the scaffold were recorded as: ‘The King’s good servant, but God’s First.’

So it was for all the victims of the various inquisitions of the Roman Catholic Church over the ages, hell-bent on rooting out heresy. So it is for the victims of our own inquisitions, right now.

All of this brings me to this week’s revelations from Edward Snowden regarding PRISM and Boundless Informant, surveillance operations run by the United States’ National Security Agency, to obtain private phone and internet data from ordinary citizens, in the US and elsewhere, using servers of Apple, Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Verizon,  and other internet brands. (For more, see The NSA Files).

This data is sifted using algorithms to establish subversive thought, terror-related words, suspicious patterns and networks. It will be something along the lines of these maps in Visual Complexity. If they can do this with pigeons, what can they devise for humans?

Had a foreign power taken control of the United States, passed the Patriot Act and ancillary legislation, suspended habeas corpus, claimed the right to kill, kidnap, imprison and torture people (including Americans) from all parts of the world, to say nothing of the bankrupting of the country, and now mass surveillance of every move Americans make—there would be outrage and  resistance (as there would be in any country).

The United States federal government is not doing this alone. It is working closely with other States, including those of Canada and the United Kingdom. This effects and involves most of us.

Against America’s surveillance State, stands Edward Snowdon, seemingly alone. Here he is in his own words. These words pose awkward questions for America’s narrator, President Obama. Snowdon’s words are actions.

NSA has direct access to tech giants systems for user data, secret files reveal | World news | The Guardian

The real outrage here is that there is so little of it.

It casts in a new light all those friendly and happy brands such as Microsoft, Google and Apple.

But nothing digital was ever private. Real terrorists know this.

Never say anything via a digital medium (including this blog) that you wouldn’t want to read on the front page of a national newspaper the next day.

If you want something to be secret, write it by hand, put it in an envelope, put a stamp on it and put it in a mail box. To be really sly, use invisible ink. For some examples, see Letters of Note. (There are some really interesting letters in here.)

This massive surveillance operation is aimed at ordinary Americans, not terrorists (American or otherwise). It works as a digital panopticon. It’s not what they might hear or see that matters—it’s you knowing that what you say or write might be heard or seen. The principle has operated in penitentiaries since the nineteenth century. Now all of America is under surveillance. They can’t say they weren’t warned.

NSA has direct access to tech giants systems for user data, secret files reveal | World news | The Guardian.

For the complacent, Moodle works in much the same way.

This is a 19th C panopticon, Wandsworth prison in London, built 1851. Julian Assange spent some 10 days here after his arrest in December 2010.

This is a 19th C panopticon, Wandsworth prison in London, built 1851. Julian Assange spent some 10 days here after his arrest in December 2010.

Midwives in the Congo

via MSF Delivers 3D – YouTube.

This short film is a production of DuckRabbit, an interesting digital production company.

“We work with documentary audio, still photography and video to make compelling film and audio narratives for commercial, charity and broadcast clients.  We also train photographers, videographers, journalists and communications professionals in audio-visual storytelling and online strategic communications.”

This 3D film for Médecins Sans Frontières looks at the often dramatic life of a British midwife working in an MSF supported maternity hospital in Masisi, Democratic Republic of the Congo.