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Big Tech and Their Growing Political Power in Todays World
In light of the slight interruption to normal life that is going on it is worth reassessing some of the known common knowledge about Big Tech and it's related area Artificial Intelligence (AI). Unless you have been asleep for the past 10 years, everyone will have heard of Edward Snowden who revealed in quite extensive detail the level of ongoing surveillance carried out jointly by the US and UK intelligence agencies, the NSA and GCHQ. Prior to his disclosure any suggestion of widespread spying was met with derision. Overnight the world changed and it was widely accepted as fact by everyone. What's more is that the depth and scale of the programs were far bigger than even the pessimists had imagined. It was this more than anything which has tarnished the reputation of technology as something that was always good to a demonstration of it's dark side. The state as such has dirtied its reputation with regards to technology.
Meanwhile on the flip side, our culture to date has embraced technology in all its forms. Compared to just 10 years ago, practically everyone now has a smart phone and most use WhatsApp. It is rare to come across a family that does not have their own WhatsApp group sharing details private to themselves, plus be members of many other chat groups with friends, groups, school and sports to various interests. Another vast new area of tech is social media which was initially widely embraced with open arms but the novelty has worn a bit and people are beginning to grasp the downsides of it at last. Despite rising awareness, it is largely out of control. In the social media sphere but not exclusively, people have poured out every detail of their private lives if not to the whole public sphere then at least to parts of it defined by their group. All of this information is completely accessible by the social media companies in whom they either trust completely or seem blissfully unaware of their presence, even though they provide the service.
What we attempt to cover here is some of the details and capabilities of the technology without getting too technical and to put it in political context in the sense of relating it what possibilities creates and not just the positive ones.
While the vast majority are familiar and use technology in the form of their phone, internet and social media, in percentage terms of the total population, few understand how it all works and hangs together and only have a vague understanding of the nuts and bolts of data and algorithms and the global communications background that ties it all together. Nevertheless it is not really necessary to know this to figure out the political implications so long as you think it through a bit with what you already know and pay attention to what is happening.
What We All Know Already
So lets cover something we all know and that is since the inception of the computer age, the processing power of computer chips have increased vastly; roughly doubling every 2 years, initially even quicker. Less well known is the ability store information has risen even faster and for all intents of purposes can be considered infinite in practical terms. That much we do know. The numbers for processing and storage are so big, the figures are almost meaningless because they are far beyond the human scale. What we tend to all see is the phone in our hand or the laptop on our desk. We are vaguely aware of something called data-centers. These are warehouses full of racks of computers -commonly referred to as servers, each probably as or more powerful than your laptop. If you wanted to know where the so called "Cloud" is, then it's in these places. In a typical data center each rack holds 30 computers and a typical data center using 30 MW of power would have approx 3,000 racks. That works out at 30 x 3,000 or 90,000 computers! Two years ago in 2018 data centers in Ireland were using 480 MW. Since there are approx 90,000 computers for every 30 MW then that works out at least 480/30 x 90,000 = 1.4 million computers! Those figures are for 2018. These are the servers sending the Google, Microsoft and Facebook pages to you as well as lots of other stuff. You should also be aware they are not all working on their own in the sense of things you do on your own laptop. Frequently 1000s are linked together for particular tasks like for example sending you all those images to build up google maps or whatever. They are working seamlessly as one. This itself is a major advance but passed over by the non-geeks.
The point here is not to bamboozle and put one in awe of the numbers. The point is to realize that 20+ years this was more or less non-existent. There are thousands of data centers all over the world and they are still growing in power and capability.
Delving further; 25 years ago it would have been hard to accept the claim a computer could listen to a conversation and generate a transcript of what was said in text format. Today most smart phones have the ability to use voice assistant software which will respond to the spoken word and even do searches for you. Millions of homes already have one of the many voice assistants on the market like Siri (Apple) and Alexa (Amazon) and these understand enough to turn on lights, open doors, read the weather/news, play songs, have limited conversation and many other things. People with Siri/Alexa often have many voice activated speakers around the house and google research shows 50% of users keep it in the main living room, followed by kitchen and bedroom. The ability of voice recognition has jumped by leaps and bounds and it can parse out what is being said in continuous speech handling different speakers and is available in multiple languages. It is hard to ignore the occasional reports of conversations being stored and accessed by all sorts of people who shouldn't especially because the owners thought they were private. It should be obvious that if a device is designed to be activated by your voice and do various things, then it has to be listening in advance and after you stop for some period. It also makes sense that the software is made up two main parts; the first part is the specialized piece that figures out the words said, then converts them text form which becomes the input to the next stage that analyses the text to figure out what to do -i.e. play music, get the sports results.
However this ability is not limited to just Siri and Alexa and it's ilk. Many will have noticed topics they discuss in conversations while their phones apparently sit there doing nothing, pop up as adverts soon afterwards. A technical point to note is that the software recognition is not done in the Siri/Alexa device in your house but is transmitted to the cloud where some far more powerful giant data-center is crunching it all. Likewise audio from your phone goes to cloud. An active phone call is a bit different since that goes to the phone system but that itself is becoming cloud based too. Whether people accept the claim about phone voice pickup or not, is irrelevant. The main point is the technology is there, it works, we all know it works and there is nothing in the world to prevent all the devices to be in listening mode and for all the data to be stored indefinitely. In fact if you check the permissions on most smart-phone Apps, they clearly state they can activate your camera phone or mic. We are only taking the assurances of the companies and their record is consistently bad. Flipping to the Snowden leaks it is quite clear intelligence agencies (e.g. NSA) can and do have direct access to basically any and all data held by these giant companies and many smaller ones too. And this does not include what they collect themselves which is vast anyhow.
The next obstacle people have stems from the fact because they are not familiar with the details therefore cannot grasp the all consuming power of this technology. Take for instance the statement: All calls or at least a very large number can be recorded and listened to or everything typed in WhatsApp or messenger or email or anywhere else, can be monitored. There is this idea of some person at the far end physically doing such a thing. And yet this is despite the fact Snowden proved it is largely automated. Yet there is no need to reference Snowden because from what we already know above, it is quite clear the existing Voice Assistant technology along with something most of us use which is Google search, can perfectly well figure out what is said in terms of words and parse anything we typed to generate searches or whatever. What is the difference between the stream of voice coming from an intercepted phone or directly from your own voice to your voice assistant. None.
The other part of this problem that is often raised is "ah but why would they read your email anyhow". Well they already are. If you sign up to Google, Microsoft, Yahoo or any of the numerous free email accounts they all say in the Terms and Conditions that they use your email for marketing and advertising reasons. So they are already mining every single email for all sorts of information about you. The same goes for everything said on Facebook or any other platform you use. For Facebook its greatest feature for advertisers was that it could push adverts to members of very selective and specific groups. It is cliche at this stage to say the price of "free" email and Facebook accounts etc were in exchange for your freedom.
It is really quite simple to imagine. Suppose you have this giant feed of data coming off an email system (in the cloud -i.e. in reality a data-center) and it is directed into another piece of software called say "Text parser and analyser for marketing information". A second copy of the same info can easily go to another called "Text parser and analyser for food, sport and hobby preferences". Still can't imagine. Well stick any text into google translate and see how it works. In order to translate it has to figure out basic structures like nouns, verbs, adjective and a lot more. These are the same techniques for figuring out what is in a piece of text. The reality in practice is that there are dozens of big software modules digesting this data all day, every day and storing it all. You think it doesn't store it? Check your google search history in google and you will see it all there. Again don't confuse what companies and governments say they do or don't too with what is possible and in use every day. Data mining of text is an industry worth billions. They mine everything you can think of for companies. All those reviews on booking.com or TripAdivsor with over 70 million reviews, get regularly chewed up and analysed.The next two images are screenshots from Google's Trend service. This is where you can see the trends over time for keywords used in searches. It allows you to break down by country. The two examples are both related to Covid-19 and the first shows the relative number of searches for different terms and the second shows searches related to virus symptoms. This is a working example of what was just stated in the previous paragraphs.
To clarify a bit about how these companies provide free email service for you, take say Yahoo; the email software would run and the emails would be stored in the cloud. The real life representation of the cloud is that as the emails being sent and received, this is taking place in various data-centers. The emails are stored on huge disk arrays often known as SAN (Storage Area Network) that can be shared across hundreds of servers. The data on these will be replicated across multiple data centers continuously. The original idea was in case power was lost to any single data center the system can still keep going and no data is lost. This sub-section of the industry is a whole specialist area in itself. The takeaway is once your data hits the cloud it is distributed geographically and as the hours and days going by, copies get migrated to long term storage held possibly as at least two copies in who knows where really or probably longer than you will live The back end text data mining software is running possibly in the same data centers or possibly not, but either way feasts itself on the treasure trove of data in all the emails on the SAN to which it would have access.The system is so flexible it is possible to have the various pieces distributed geographically yet work as one. This is the beauty of the developments and advances in the seamless network connectivity.
This fact may seem far fetched to some but yet again we should already know this. You do use a free email service? The capability is there. Everyone at this stage has fiber to their house and can watch movies streamed from their nearest geographical data-centers. The capacity of fiber cables between countries and continents is astronomical. So it is trivial for a given company to replicate data between Europe and the US for example. It is so ordinary, it is standard practice.
More on Capability
Anything said so far should be obvious to most but you may not have really thought about it too much. Continuing on this line of thought we are all familiar with face recognition. It has been growing in use and capability for years but really only hit the public years ago when Facebook turned it on and used to automate adding tags to Facebook photos to place the names of people against them. The idea was if you had your own picture on your own page, it was easy to deduce it must be you. Then they ran the software against all the photos on your Facebook friends pages and it was able to spot and identify you. The same was true for everyone else. After a short time, it was just too creepy and the feature was turned off, but you can still manually tag photos.
The ability to detect and identify faces took a huge leap and few years back and made it much easier for computers to carry out the job. Less well known was a bit of a test or experiment carried out in 2001 where at a stadium for Super Bowl in Florida with a capacity of 85,000 people, new face recognition software surreptitiously scanned everyone passing through turnstiles and was run against mugshots of known petty criminals and caught a few. See ref 1. You could get hung up on what a great tool it is for catching criminals and how much safer you feel but the key lesson which you unconsciously know but could be unaware of is that obviously any camera on any street or place or from any of the one of many billions of phones could in theory send the data to the cloud where the face recognition awaits. You can be sure Facebook still run their face recognition tagging software on the other side of the wall as it were.
Lets go with this concept. So suppose some person is lost or missing, well the techno optimists might say if only copies of all camera images were sent to the cloud to scan for said missing people we would find them. Isn't that useful. Not only that the company outsourced to do the job promises to delete all the images after they are used. This challenge is relatively easy so long as you are checking either a few faces against a large number or a large number against a few. A larger number against a large number is still a major task but not impossible and large here means millions or so. So in the stadium test above, they were comparing with a relatively small number of known individuals. In the missing person example, one assumes you do not have more than a few thousand missing people. Even though you can break the problem down geographically into groups in the knowledge that a match is more likely to be found near where they were last seen and thereby reduces the burden of the search task.
Now take another scenario. Lets suppose a whistle-blower (of which there will be very few at a given time) like Maurice McCabe in the case of Ireland was being tracked and the Police Commissioner wanted to know where he was and who he was meeting at all times, then the "security arrangement" the government obviously would have with the company tasked to do the job, would generate hourly or daily email reports to the Commissioner with a summary of his whereabouts. Anyone following the news, of course knows officials would never run a smear campaigns against people like that and it would all be done to help the whistleblower and ensure his safety and not drive him and his family to the point of mental breakdown and destruction. Except of course that is exactly what happened although the bit about face recognition is not true, yet. But is it really? The capability is there. How does one know the intelligence services don't have something similar already and the lesser countries like Ireland purchase the service? Anyone asking the wrong questions or generally trying to expose the rich and powerful could be hunted down in the virtual sense. In this world would Snowden have managed to release his information to the world before he was spotted by the system and a hit team sent to dispatch him to oblivion?
I can also hear someone say but you would have to hook up the cameras. Easy, it's more or less done. It is probably safe to assume most security cameras now stream to the cloud already. Loads of people already have those door bells with integrated cameras where if someone comes to your front door, you are notified on your smart-phone and will also make a doorbell sound on your phone and give you an intercom service back to your front door. You can buy that today. Most of these cameras will take photos every few minutes and store them and websites hosting this, offer a feature to quickly step through a whole months worth of images in the form of a short movie. It's easy to see spot the postman as he arrives or dogs wander in and out of your garden. Most of these cameras point outward towards the street and the numbers are in the low millions but likely to be hundreds of millions in a few years. If all the photos are in the cloud say on Amazon or Google's servers, are they then not available to the authorities? Remember this does not include the output from the already ubitiquous street and traffic cameras which are online. The Police in the UK have had for years access to all the motorway cameras and the car reg readers.
Previously the companies denied it was available to the likes of the NSA etc and assured us all it would require a court order. Snowden proved this was pure distraction and bogus. What people need to think about is not that they have done something wrong, but the sheer power it gives to any government or corporation. A corporation views all it's data as something to monetize and it will. If we heard this was happening in North Korea we would be horrified. But we have all the nearly all the pieces of the police state in bucket loads.
It is becoming common knowledge that in China, the authorities oddly enough have access to the same technology and are just as proficient at it, are using technology to track people in public places and identify them for "social credits", which dictate what types of services you have access to and say whether you can fly somewhere. This is simply the above idea applied to everyone. Between the GPS on your phone or watch on your arm, the technology is in place to know where you are, where you have gone, whose shop, workplace, house or friend, or meeting you have been to. Whether you traveled abroad or to the local park, gym and even whether you traveled 2 km from your home. Your home being the place where the GPS co-ordinates show exactly where you show up every evening. It is fairly easy for all this to be automatically figured out by software running in the cloud using your GPS data that continually streams out of your devices. Again this all sounds over the top. The real block is people get tired from all the thinking. The computers don't.
Surely most people are aware of Google Traffic in Google Maps. This uses location updates from people's smart phones to figure out where you are. By comparing how far you moved in your car in a few minutes and doing it for everyone it is able to mark those roads red, orange or green on the streets where traffic is building and is overlaid in Google Maps. And it is doing this for millions of streets in the world in real time every day all day. It's actually a useful feature if creepy. And we haven't even got to the craze of walkers and joggers using Strava or it's likes and storing all their walks and jogs in the cloud.
Basic Info about Data
At this point it is necessary to introduce a little bit of tech about data storage and it is this. Text is easy to store and takes up very little space, pictures or images takes up a lot more and movies since they consist really of pictures take up 100s to thousands of times more. Music or voice conversations take up maybe as much as a few pictures. For example a whole song stored as mp3 might take up as much space as two or three pictures from a digital camera. Conversation from a phone or a podcast lasting a hour might be similar. The main thing it's not too much. The text of a book without pictures could take up less space than even a few images.
Now just think about for Google alone how many billions of photographs it stores for Google Maps StreetView. Or how about how many billion Facebook or Instagram store. Do you think they would be able to store for all time, every email, text and message that was sent in WhatsApp, Messenger and the 50 other variants. The answer is yes and with the present storage it would be extremely easy and the text part would use considerably less storage space than for pictures. It is not then in any way unusual too state all books ever written in recent decades are easily stored. A standard laptop could very comfortably store tens of thousands of books. For example a 500 page manual in PDF format takes about 20 Mb which means in 1 Gb (=1024 Mb) could hold 50 such books. A typical hard disk has at least 300 to 400 Gb. Your TV Box for storing films probably has a hard-disk with 2+ Tb (Tera Bytes) which is 2048 Gb. If you allocated 100 Gb to books, that would be 100 x 50 or 5,000 books. But this is a lower estimate because not all books are 500 page manuals used in the example. They tend to be smaller which means that figure is 10,000 or more for just 100 Gb of storage. A 1 TB drive which is very common and costs less than €100 would store 100,000 books! That's just one quite small disk drive. You will never read that many in your life but a piece of text analyser software given enough servers could chew up the whole lot and analyse them in a few hours or less.
The exercise here is to emphasize data storage is mind boggling large. In 2013, the NSA built two massive centers in Utah and Maryland for storing data and it is reckoned to be able to store between 3 and 12 ExaBytes. One Exabyte is 1 million terabytes. It is likely much more by now.
A few years ago prior to the rise of Instagram and Flickr if anyone can remember it, people were storing most of their data on their own disk drives in their own computers. Today about 55% of users now just use the cloud and this figure is rising. This means the data that belongs to billions of people is sitting on the servers of just a handful of companies. Is that really a good idea? Apple already have a service to seamlessly hold all your iPhone data in the cloud. That's all the pictures, chat and messages on your phone. It's a way of getting around the memory limitations of the phone itself or so it is suggested. Naturally it is so much handier for Apple that all your data resides in their cloud where they can mine it.
Here is another example of data; this time from YouTube. In an article from 2016, ref 2, Google researchers reported 400 hours of video are uploaded every minute to YouTube and requires 1 petabyte (1 million Gigabytes) per day. Still think data storage is a problem?
Text Analysis and Public Opinion
The commercial market for text analysis is already worth billions. This involves running software programs against data like millions of product reviews, or millions of emails or millions of complaints or millions of advert clicks, or survey results, or search terms used by people and on and on. There are literally endless ways to search and analyse and the amount of data available holding useful information is vast. For companies like Google it is said they know more about you and your likes and interests than you do. Every book, every recipe, every article, every thing you search for they probably can figure out. Google analytics software, which is part and parcel of their adverts service, runs on the majority of websites and tracks your usage right across the internet.-today. If you book holidays, hotels, restaurants, order food online then they probably have some or all of that data. Once again it doesn't really matter whether it is Google, Apple, Amazon, Yahoo or whoever has the data other than the plain fact is that between a very small set of firms, they have enormous knowledge of the lives of billions of people at this stage. It cannot be stressed enough the scale of this whole thing is exhausting to think about and as result people are not thinking about it.
From a political point of view, it gets interesting when you can discover for hundreds of millions of people what types of political headlines they see and which types of stories you click on to read further the content and whether you tend to focus on right wing stuff, environmentalism, reactionary politics, celebrities, sports, films, local politics. Every single page requested by your browser to a website is recorded in the logs and the same information can be gleaned through advert tracking. If you know what people read online and what they spend most of their online time looking at, there is an excellent chance you can figure out their political leanings. You can probably figure out whether they follow mainstream, or a bit skeptical or very skeptical. Their search terms alone would give plenty of clues and the types of sites and stories they read, would give even more. They of course would have easily be able to classify your social economic status and level of education and alongside purchasing power.
Now think back to the Goggle Traffic example above how it does this huge job in real-time. It is safe to assume that just for the purposes of advertising and marketing, continual analysis is done on what you read and search for. Any software that can do that can just as easily look at the reaction of the public over time and watch and predict what public opinion is. If a major news item breaks, it would be easy to see how many people notice or are bothered to read about it. Then what their reaction is, what media outlets get the most hits, break that down by gender, age group, country, socio-economic status and any number of factors. Traffic for different sites would uncover where people are going to get other angles on a given story and whether their interest is waning or continues in the days and hours after. You could also detect discussion online from comments and text in email what the public reaction is. You don't need everyone's opinion just a sample which is exactly what opinion polls do. The data flowing to this giant corporations is like the results of millions of opinion polls constantly taking place probing every possibility. The links in ref 11 indicate this is not speculation but fact as companies already offer these services.
From WhatsApp or simply from phone calls made, you can derive, without reading or listening to either, your relationships with others, in terms of who knows who, how often they communicate, when they communicate. It would be a good measure of the strength of those links and associations. Snowden made it absolutely clear the intelligence agencies have been doing this for years. An Israeli company Amdocs has contracts with most of the worlds telecom companies and processes billions of telephone records daily. Think of the connectivity trees, location information and endless other data this holds. To suggest Mossad don't get to see any or all of this would be foolish in the extreme. But as communications shifts from national phone networks to the services like WhatsApp, Skype and others by Big Tech, this puts Big Tech into the position the intelligence agencies were in and automatically passes power to them.
If you can accurately predict and measure public opinion in near real-time and your organisation (i.e. Big Tech) are in very close partnership with the media conglomerates that write the news and most of the media content and this is the very substance of what makes and shapes public opinion, then it is a small step to take start shaping public opinion and what people believe yourself. For commercial ends it is easy to imagine making large gains, but a little bit of reflection on the political aspect makes that clear too.
Corporate Power vs State Power
We have so far only covered at a very superficial level the technology surrounding us today and have not covered agencies like the NSA or GCHQ do. With regards to Ireland the State has various systems but would not have access to all the interesting information just discussed above and is a very junior partner which will be given scraps of information it might ask for, if it is lucky or perhaps in exchange financially or for certain favours or both. That there are things big tech knows or has data on, that the government would like to know, is a certainty. For small countries like Ireland the state is the junior partner in this area. It is easy to imagine Big Tech companies -all based in Ireland, providing the government in power with a constant stream of juicy information about their opponents and help them stay in power or at least manage their PR. Naturally they would want some gifts of useful information returned in other ways.
In the past few centuries when Europe went from various kingdoms and city states and started forming into fully fledged states like France, Germany, Italy and all the rest, this was the period of the rise of the national state and spread globally. The US is sort of a super state as might be considered Russia or China. The appearance of the EU is really the beginning of an EU superstate. For example laws passed in Brussels supercedes any national laws of EU members and must eventually in reasonable time be put into law. Assuming the EU survives and integrates further, we can conclude the era of the national state is declining. To survive the competition other regions of the world will inevitably in time, do the same thing. Unless they are just bombed into the category of failed state, by the democratic West.
Parallel to this process and happening much quicker is the rise of corporate power and alongside it, corporate political power. Large multi-national corporations span sovereign states (are they sovereign anymore?) and many are already global with global influence. They frequently play one state off against the other for favourable conditions in tax and working conditions, preferably that workers have less rights and in some cases are not allowed form unions. They all have the ear of governments and the really big ones not only extract a lot of money in the form of not paying any tax (Apple and 13 billion euro anyone?) or land and buildings given to them very cheaply but behind the scenes they have very powerful lobbies and frequently their working papers will form the backbone of government policy. The EU has thousands of lobby firms with direct access to European MEPs and EU commissioners. Few if any NGOs have lobbyists at this level of the political establishment with type of access and can less afford to do so. Thus they are largely ignored. The EU has gone from social Europe to Corporate Europe. You have to wonder does it not make sense for Big Tech to devote just one or two of their staff to running the data mining software on key politicians and decision makers as they use their WhatsApp/Facebook/Skype/Zoom/Email for each country where they operate just so they might find information that could become useful in "negotiations" to persuade them of the virtues of seeing Big Techs view of a given situation.
The turnover or revenue of many of the top large corporations exceeds the GDP of many countries indicating they are serious competitors and cannot be easily ignored. We know from the very term of banana republic and from countries like Nigeria, corporations have had inordinate and negative influence, the latter with Shell. Nigeria is a very oil rich country yet the standard of living is very low and worrying about Covid-19 in a place like that would be the least of your worries.
Facebook own WhatsApp and as pointed out earlier, billions of messages are exchanged each day on it containing everything that is part of life and that is not forgetting all the information posted on Facebook too. From sharing of links to news to family arguments, Facebook along with other Big Tech companies, has in it's hand immense political power because it can have a major role in shaping public opinion and controlling what people see, read and what they don't hear about. It can also quickly detect when a flame of resistance or questioning arises and react immediately by modifying or removing stories or evening promoting certain new ones. On Facebook itself if a certain undesirable fact or story is getting too much traction, it's team of censors can quickly zap it. Any complaints, well it was fake news. Google can do the same. Google owns YouTube. Outside of the national news on national TV stations, it has a massive role in news and reportage of events of all kinds from the very local to the geopolitical. It knows exactly what is trending and can easily decide to promote anything it chooses and censor what it deems does not fit the agenda being promoted. In some cases there are indeed videos that should be removed. It might be argued that some particular local news paper is carrying an important story the mainstream are not carrying and thus disproves what was just said. No because most people will only find it through the search engines like Google, Bing or Yahoo. It is okay if 1,000 people read it locally in that region because it makes no difference so long as the few hundred or billion or two don't get to see it.
If these corporations are the ones reporting the news, measuring and shaping public opinion, know everything everyone does, what they think, what they read, watch, where they go and they have revenue streams matching small countries, have lobbyist armies, then surely it is reasonable to say they are already usurping national power and have gained political power in a global sense. You can not run any political campaign without them. Besides, trivial local matters are of little concern. It is the big issues like the shape and structure of society, who owns the important companies and where resources are allocated that matter to them. Even before the rise of Big Tech their influence was becoming dominant. Now their dominance is near complete and it's hermetically sealed. For multi-nationals it might all have started with a focus on getting more revenue and no doubt it still is to a fair extent, but when you discover how much power -political or otherwise you acquire, few are willing to walk away from it.
In the arena of so called Free Trade agreements which are not really about free trade and more about removal of protections implemented by governments over decades for the protection of the citizens in areas as diverse as health, education, environment, toxic exposure, safety, workers right and protections, -all these agreements have been driven by multi-nationals. They have already used Investor-State Dispute Settlement (ISDS) mechanisms to supersede state law and protections in some countries and hold their own corporate rules higher. Countries have been fined countries hundreds of millions dollars and have continuously tried to include ISDS in free trade agreements. See ref 3.
This is nothing less than takeover. The corporations have grown so big, they have simply written their own laws to favour them and used their might to run rough shod over national government and ram these policies into place. No doubt always with a bit of corruption along the way. The corporations are not interested in sharing power along side state power, they would prefer to dictate to it and ideally would take it over minus it's duties to it's citizens. For PR sake, it is useful though to have a national government that is just their pawn in place to not arouse the masses. They needed worry. There is no chance of that. The odd few people, 1 or 2 in a hundred asking timid or tepid questions doesn't count.
Are we to assume therefore that these big tech corporations will be just happy with making and shaping public opinion? No. It is not by coincidence that every major book or film dealing with the future totalitarian state from Orwell's 1984 to others, all contain the evil giant global corporation as the centre of power which is all seeing and looks down on the hapless masses. In the plot, the dominant corporate entity has merged with the super-national state and acquired it's police and military forces. They are one and the same. The recurring theme is that these are the final stable planetary conditions and with all opposition gone because the power hold is so great and all consuming. It is like the lone ant dwelling upon his place in the colony. There is simply no chance that it could even contemplate taking on the colony let alone doing so. The lone ant just does not have any comprehension of the scale and dynamics of the hive it lives in. Most of us are in the same position except our hive is a bit bigger. While we have more neurons in our skulls than an ant, it seems to the last man & woman standing they are not switched on and just taking up space in our heads.
When you shape and control public opinion and a few lone nuts believe otherwise, the populace of the teeming millions that are in your hands will do all your police work for you and should the lone nut find two or three others who decide it is time to start raising awareness, then the forces of the state can casually and easily deal with the minor irritation.
Is Artificial Intelligence (AI) Dangerous
Yes, very. In the hands of Big Tech even more so. Could it help humanity. In the theoretical sense it could but in reality it will be the tool to enslave it.
If we step back in time to the medieval ages, the king had a layer under him of nobles, lords, vassals, church officials, all the way down to merchants. At the bottom were most people. The hierarchy of wealth and power and the numbers in each were related to how the technology or lack of, allowed the king to hold the whole country firmly under his control. The more enforcers you require the more wealth and power you need to share with those just under you.
In the sci-fi Orwellian future, robots and artificial intelligence are what makes up members of the hierarchy of control and enforcement and thereby less vaccines for the traditional enforcers. That just means even more of us at the bottom and less at the top. In the present era according to the annual Oxfam report, just 62 people own half of the worlds wealth! See ref 4. Since there are approximately 7,000 billionaires in the world, how much does this small elite own? Has to be bigger than half. After millions of companies go bust in the current Covid-19 global lockdown, these same few people will be able to go on a huge spending spree and buy up many of these important firms for as they say 'pennies on the dollar'.
We have heard alot about artificial intelligence (AI) and the average person probably knows little about it other than the endless promotion of driverless cars which one would to think is the most pressing need in the world. AI is still limited in some respects and in some cases acts more like artificial stupidity like when pop-up adverts appear for a hotel near to the one you have just booked online for your holidays moments before. You are hardly going to book a second one.
Whatever the current limitations, one should not be fooled and it's reach and abilities like the rest of the industry, are growing fast. It is already employed behind the scenes from analysing text in the form of email, chat, comments, messages, forums and reviews to playing a role in language translation, voice recognition and even computer generated speech which is now at the point of almost being indistinguishable to human speech. The ability to generate its own coherent sentences is different, and the common experience with Google Translate would suggest at this moment in time it would not be able to generate fully coherent text that was obviously not from a machine. This is not the last word on it because in specific focused areas it is surprisingly good at it. See examples in links provided in ref 5.
You can see how if it improved further and reached the perfection techno geeks would like, it could start imitating the orders an commands of generals, police chiefs, superintendents and all sorts of other officials and ordering the minions below them by sending AI generated emails or having conversations by phone all the while reproducing the voice accents of the relevant individuals. And why not gaining control of special forces teams to carry out specific hits? See ref 6 below reporting on "Google’s DeepMind Achieves Speech-Generation Breakthrough". In this way it could silently take over the running of society. Lets hope AI and robot technology don't advance too fast. This though is getting ahead of ourselves and AI is not in that position yet and it is a separate discussion to whether it could or if it could; how long it would take. This future possibility is only suggested to show what logically could follow. Anyhow films like Terminator to some degree have covered this scenario in greater graphic detail. Were the directors trying to jolt the public into thinking about where we are going?
Be aware too, in May 2019, researchers at Samsung demonstrated a Generative Adversarial Networks (GAN) -based system that produced videos of a person speaking with only a single photo of that person provided and in image recognition back in 2015, researchers concluded for the first time that machines were better at identifying objects in images than humans were, in over 1000 categories. In the field of image generation, think fake news creation by military industrial complex, as reported by TheStacker website:
Japanese startup called DataGrid revealed in a press release revealed a series of photorealistic images of what appeared to be humans but were, in fact, created by AI. This advance utilizes a whole new level of deep learning algorithms that create realistic images so good that they can fool other humans..
This is related to the generation of "Deep Fakes". This is where one image a person can be seamlessly superimposed over another. So you can put anyone anywhere doing something that someone else did or said. This has massive potential for all sorts of mischief and blackmail. Trying deny something that the fake picture show even though you were never there but when the "factual" media -owned by the billionaire class say it is true, then it must be true. You might have friends in the alternative media saying it's fake, but since they are already labelled as untrustworthy and blacklisted by the "mature" and "responsible" media then you're done. The current battle over who is fake and who isn't might now have more relevance.
Little known is during the final attacks by NATO on Libya in 2011, a film set replica of the Green square in the center of Tripoli, capital of Libya, was created in Qatar and Al Jazeera had actors pretending to be "rebels" celebrating victory at the fall of Tripoli. When Gadaffi's fighters saw this on the TV that they took it as true that and gave up and surrendered. See ref 7. The country has since then be looted, tens of thousands were killed in the aftermath, the infrastructure of water, sewage and other key elements destroyed by NATO bombing, it's bank gold stolen by the West and it is now for all intents and purposes another dangerous, chaotic and failed state since then. This is to illustrate the real use and power of faking stuff and not for making cute videos on YouTube. This Libya con wasn't even using anything too sophisticated. It does make you wonder about a lot of videos you see that can become quite pivotal moments that signal when certain shifts in public opinion swing.
Another one was during the first Gulf War in 1990, when a young Kuwaiti woman posing as a nurse claimed Iraqis were trying babies out of incubators to die on the floor. It turns out none of it was true and she was coached by Hill & Knowlton, a New York-based PR firm, hired to drum up support for the war as there was none. This PR firm had previously spun for the tobacco industry and a number of governments with ugly human rights records. The woman was after the war (and many dead including babies) found out to be none other than the daughter of Saud Nasir al-Sabah, Kuwait’s ambassador to the US.
It means very very little is trust worthy particularly if is trying to get you to believe something important. This may seem to have little to do with the subject matter here but it does because the same media promoted this none-sense and the same people who own industries that profit from wars they promote, have very large stakes in Big Tech and control by virtue of ownership of AI technology. It gets back to this special place all things "tech" are anointed in the media, as cool, trendy, cute and somehow neutral of politics. It is not. There is a very ugly side to these people.
Returning to the topic; in the area of parsing text and transcripts of anything said and given YouTube can automatically generate subtitles of videos which is equivalent to generating transcripts; the current state of AI is that it is easily able to derive a lot of knowledge or meaning out of this type of data and classify according to the subject domain and to some level determine the intent. For example all those pop chat boxes you see on websites everywhere handling customer support & issues are run by AI at the back-end. Business statistics show they save on costs for companies and solve many queries previously handled by call centre operators. Already AI in medicine is as accurate as many doctors in diagnosing certain diseases and an Israeli company have successfully deployed it for reading patient MRI images and diagnosis. It is a tiny step to advance this to all MRI machines by sending the MRI output to the cloud for analysis. Calling up Amazon Cloud services and renting out space on 100 servers or whatever, then loading up it's software and the Israeli company could potentially run it for every hospital.The point being made is that once an advance has been made in a piece of AI software, it can be deployed with lightening speed globally if necessary.
In language translation AI has achieved real-time translation of the spoken word into Chinese. Keep in mind that if AI can translate between all the worlds major languages, parse text and understand to a significant level, it is easy to train the next generation of any software with quantities of text and voice that one person could not read or listen to in a hundred lifetimes. The block at the moment for AI is the ability to fully digest all of this in the "intelligent" sense and truly learn at the very deepest levels. If you are not scared yet, you should be.
The conclusion is inescapable, those who own and control AI will gain global scale power. Even Putin has acknowledged this.
The objective here is to demonstrate AI is already in widespread use by large and small corporations and startups are creating new fields. It is beyond doubt that they are employed by the leading global intelligence agencies (US, UK, Russia & China) for transcription, translation and analysis of voice traffic and mining emails and messages of all kinds. For some parts of the world the Western military fights wars, mainly via their proxies but in the rest of the world where we live the battle ground is the media space for the hearts and minds -well public opinion and this war is a propaganda war. The fight is between large corporations and the public and any and all means are used by them. If you can change someone's mind to do something then you don't have to force them and that saves you a lot effort and allows you to do more. Social acceptance and social stigma are incredibly powerful forces and they are strongly related to what "most" people believe in and public opinion. However if you own the means to shape these then you can label the things that are taboo to openly discuss. If you can turn them into unthinking uncritical sheep then all the better.
We know from the bits and pieces that came out during the scandal about Cambridge Analytica and Facebook that it revealed the murky world of using personal data collected by Facebook for political ends. For example the website Arstechnica.com (ref 8) reports:
Cambridge Analytica has suspended CEO Alexander Nix. In addition to controversy over unauthorized access to private Facebook data, Nix is also facing a scandal over comments captured by hidden cameras. In those videos, Nix boasts about using dirty tricks—including staged bribery attempts and sending prostitutes to seduce political opponents—to win elections.
Why was there such a political storm over this little known company? It is because the establishment know what is going up and did their level best to prevent knowledge leaking out that this is probably widespread and much deeper. The old adage applies: If there is one bad bank then they are all bad banks since they are likely to be doing the same corrupt things. That was the case in the crash of 2008. The coping strategy was to focus on the individuals or very focused aspects of the scandal in the hope people forgot about the substance of the issue. The exact same strategy was followed with the leaks of the Clinton emails. It was all about the leakers and nothing about the contents of the emails which were explosive.
The logic should be clear. Cambridge Analytica popped up and was revealed to be using the technologies outlined for the purposes speculated in parts on above. The media -which means the billionaire class -the 1% of 1% -tried to play it down because Cambridge Analytica are only one of possibly hundreds of companies doing this type of thing and the powerful corporations did not and do not want the public to know the full extent.
Troll farms are another vast area and while while people might think there are only Russian trolls farms this would be a very serious mistake. They bridge the world between secret governments, PR firms, crime and criminality. Check out the story in ref 9 for some insight. In troll farms one person can control anything from 10 to 100 fake online accounts from Twitter to Facebook to anywhere that lets you create them. The use of AI technology will increase the power of these outfits orders of magnitude more than their considerable impact today.
Overall then there can be little doubt that for them, Big Tech are in a great position. Their power grows daily and the power of those who might rein them in shrinks relative to them daily. In addition AI is now rising in power rapidly. We seemed to have crossed certain thresholds of technology to allow this to happen and it so happens Big Tech own this new force too. The geeks think they are in control but they don't realize they are merely the workers for these people and can be de-listed the minute they realize the monsters they are building. Is it because people like Zukerberg (Faceebook CEO) or ,Larry Page and Sergey Brin (both Google) are geeks, that the rank and file geeks they are somehow the same and just like them, so everything is okay. Knowing the naivety of geeks the answer is yes.
The only question is whether the final merger between Big Tech and the Deep State be a take-over by one of the other or a merger. The Deep State has not been mentioned here in any great detail but they have numerous large and lucrative contracts with Big Tech and are definitely in bed together. Probably several books couldn't cover the relationship alone.
Techno Geeks Trying to Avoid Politics
It is not surprising really that technology is constantly presented in the media as cool and great and somehow politically neutral if not free. It's just geeks having fun. Nothing to see here and besides with heroes or more like cult leaders such as Elon Musk, they are all out for your own good and to create a better world. The tech world seems to attract the politically naive at least at the engineering level. Most of them think tech alone can improve the lot of the world. They don't really understand politics or want to. They seem to think they can sort of live in a political free future courtesy of their own inventions and "innovations" because they are smarter than real grubby politicians. The cult of the startup has almost religious status and indeed there have been successful ones. In the long run and often the short run, most of these get gobbled up by the giant corporations.
The tiny political class or elite of the very richest people in the world who own practically all of the high tech industry love things this way and there is an infinite stream of smart young worshipers coming forward from the Tech is Cool religion to create even better tools of control for this class. Ultimately they are pawns; even one could say very bright pawns, but it is this blindness to the fact that politics encompasses everything, eventually, that makes them so. If they would just think a little politically they could form the activist body to try wrestle back some control to the public sphere.
A Quick Word on Encryption
Encryption is all about make your data un-readable to others but the people you choose to allow to see it. Until recently the public didn't really bother with it and practically all our internet traffic was there for the taking particularly by the intelligence agencies. It was there for the taking. Since Snowden everyone is now all about encryption and while it has improved in terms of more people using it, there are a few things to understand.
The bigger the organisation the more power and resources they have to address a problem. Encryption more or less blocks out most of the small time players like individual hackers, criminals and so forth. That leaves large state institutions and corporations as players in the game. For all the talk, epic tales about coding breaking and mathematical geniuses, the intelligence have always side stepped the issue and gone at this sideways. The following stories illustrates.
For many decades during the Cold War and afterwards there was a Swiss firm Crypto AG which made special cryptographic machines to allow diplomatic services to carry out encrypted communications between their embassies aboard and their parent national government. All sorts of vital information would flow over these channels. Everyone thought since they are Swiss and are a neutral state then we will use their machines. And they had a good reputation too, so at least 100 countries did The Iranians even used them at one time. The only thing was the CIA and German BND intelligence service secretly controlled the majority of the Swiss firm and access to the company's communication equipment and could easily break the codes used to send encrypted messages. So you see they got around the code breaking problem by comprising the machines and having access. See ref 10.
What is the relevance of this today. Well the dedicated resource of the Cyber team divisions of the NSA/CIA and others like GCHQ (UK) and no doubt others, are able to infect virtually any computer or phone. They can insert their eavesdropping software in place between where you type out the message and before it gets encrypted by whatever software is doing so in your phone. Same for receiving in a similar way. It is not a case of infecting all phone, but a short list of all key politicians, decision makers and activists in a country would be a relatively small manageable lot and of priority. Much of this was verified by Snowden.
For the wider public, you can be sure that Big Tech have their own methods to side step encryption used in their own software. If Big Tech like Apple says you can use our product for free to send a message and no-one can read it because it is encrypted end-to-end between you and the receiver. Why then are they letting you use the service for free and they get nothing out of it. Chances are buried in the small print you will find they can and buried in there it says in fact they can read it. After all they wrote the software so would have full control. And if you are storing the received unencrypted data in their cloud, doesn't that mean they have it anyhow?
Finally the geeks will say but using freeware software like Pretty Good Privacy or others like it and using public key encryption, you can defeat them. True. However the development of quantum computers has been ongoing for the last 25 years and they are now leaving the lab. You can read about these strange new machines elsewhere suffice to say once they get going, they will be easily able to crack even the current set of public key encryption algorithms. It still would take the determination, skill and resources of state or corporate level power but would be doable.
Depending on the speed with which quantum computing grows, it will be inextricably linked with AI and the outcome is hard to predict but it can only be described as an utter game changer. Lots of Big Tech companies are racing to be the first. Once again Google is one of the front runners. See ref 10 for some details.
Wrap Up and Speculation on the Present Situation
To finish off on an AI note, it is worth speculating a little bit and in light of perhaps some better awareness the following won't seem too far fetched. As we know Microsoft own Skype, the intelligence services (NSA and GCHQ) and their counterparts in other countries scoop up most of the phone calls at least of people of interest like anyone who has ever shown the slightest interest in politics. The Zoom corporation, of which hundreds of millions have started using in the past few weeks, is a public company and work closely with the other members of Big Tech and would never have got anywhere if they did not cooperate with the NSA, all of the billions of conversations going on could probably be having transcripts generated. Since you have to register with all these services, all the speakers can be tied back to actual real individuals. Do not worry if the software cannot identify the different speakers because that particular technical problem was sorted out years ago; I mean when you talk on Zoom or Skype it will automatically highlight your video showing the software is able to tag the audio stream to the given speakers to make the overall job easier. So if all these transcripts are being generated and a much smaller and infinitely more manageable stream of text comes out the other end the question arises especially in the present Covid-19 global lock down which looks like is designed to crash the entire economy rather than mitigate an epidemic, do they know exactly what level of fear, belief and disbelief is present and are they controlling via censorship on one hand and promotion of memes / videos, stories on the other to shape and control us globally and to feed it all back in to keep the lockdown going, keep the fear hyped up and distort the numbers and pump out emotional stories of people dying. This task is the very sort of thing AI could presently greatly assist in. Ref 11 hints at this by virtue of the whole interest in measuring public opinion.
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