Friday, January 15, 2010

THE BANALITY OF NOT BEING EVIL

 
By Philip J Cunningham

 
There’s something irremediably banal about Google’s corporate motto.  It’s hip, it’s hype and it’s hypocritical.
 
"Don't be evil" is a curiously negative construct; eschewing evil is not necessarily about doing good. In sum, a sophomoric yet shrewd manner of self-presentation that is not without its believers.
 
It speaks to the informal, idealistic ethos of a student-run Silicon Valley garage start-up, even though Google is now a multibillion-dollar entity with nearly 20,000 employees and computer links and arrays vast enough to map, copy and store billions and billions of private bits, day after day.
 
But pretending not to be a big company does not make Google a small company any more than their witty motto means they are doing good.
 
There are numerous shades of gray between not doing evil and evil, especially if one’s core business is information mining in service of advertising.
 
Neither the super suave Mad Men nor real life ad men pretend their business is about maintaining a high moral standard. Advertising, an ethically-challenged field of endeavor in the best of times, favors the big-wigs rich enough to afford its product, while seeking to indoctrinate the little guy, --capitalism’s answer to communist propaganda.
 
But Google’s difficulty in hewing to its motto extends beyond ad revenue to brave new frontiers of surveillance, digital profiling, and the questionable storage of vast information files on individuals that would be the envy of the old Stasi or KGB.
 
Where’s the "do no evil" when it comes to collecting data and profiteering off the private lives of others?
 
Google’s hunger for information is largely a one-way street; how much to we know about Google and its inner workings and its secret deals? How good is it to its word when it comes to not reading other people’s mail?
 
Even Microsoft’s Steve Ballmer, a capitalist as aggressively focused on profit and market share as the legendary Mr. Potter played by John Barrymore in “It’s a Wonderful Life” has gone on record to criticize Google for scanning the content of user emails for the sake of advertising research.
 
Google CEO Eric Schmidt has acknowledged that private information is stored and might be shared with authorities, blithely absolving the company of responsibility by saying “we are all subject in the United States to the Patriot Act.”
 
In recent weeks, air travelers have been forced to consider, with an understandable mixture of alarm, resignation and dismay, the prospect of intrusive, full-body scans at airports.
 
Those in favor of scans that effectively strip away clothing assure us that the scanners won’t store, transmit or otherwise take pleasure in a geekish technology that renders real the unfulfilled promise of X-ray glasses of comic book yore.
 
Yet even with appropriate restraints in place, there’s something spooky about such intrusions upon one’s physical person.
 
Then again, in information terms, the internet-using public is scanned every day and is as good as naked, while aggregate pictures are being passed around for the profit of companies for whom “reading” private preferences is the coin of the realm. 
 
Internet users communing alone with their computers at all times of day and night leave a long, detailed electronic trail about their fears, fetishes, tastes, likes, dislikes, health concerns, political leanings, and pet peeves that open numerous windows of vulnerability, almost as if the internet were a trusted friend, which it decidedly is not.
 
We have to take it on faith that the gentlemen at Google don’t read other people’s mail, but even assuming, quite generously, that they generally don’t, who’s to say they or their corporate colleagues and successors won’t succumb to the temptation to gaze upon --in plain print, photo and video format, or in slyly telling algorithmically-generated profiles-- the bare body of the public.
 
Nothing better demonstrates the banality of claiming not to do evil than two math nerds who, without conspiracy or grand design, stumbled upon a formula for raking in billions of dollars in advertising revenue by offering free internet searches, email and other net services, that, once scanned, recorded, mined and interpreted, could be used to target commercial ads. 
 
Google founders Sergey Brin, and Larry Page may well be decent guys with no intent to do evil, but they created a Frankenstein. They are wealthy enough to leave the “dirty work” of mining information nuggets and handling the multi-tentacled information-gobbling monster to assistants, human and robotic.
 
The political commissars in China, masters of clumsier but equally intrusive methods of data-mining and information control, got a much-applauded comeuppance this month when Google, through a hip little manifesto effectively gave China the finger. 
 
Google’s allegation of governmental hacking, while serious, is not proven, and even if it were, it does not let Google off the hook for it’s initial willingness to enable censorship in the first place.
 
It is also possible that Google, which has not gobbled up as much market share in China as it has elsewhere, may be exhaling one last triumphant hurrah, using its banal motto as cover, before beating an inglorious retreat.
 
If so, it’s yet another example of American hubris and imperialistic hypocrisy, which says in effect, do as we say, not as we do.
 
 (published in the Bangkok Post)
 
pc
 
 
 
 

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

IS AMERICA LOSING IT?

BY PHILIP J CUNNINGHAM

It's one thing when fear of terror causes people to lose their nerve, quite another when they start losing their minds.

The Obama administration appears to be on the verge of a nervous breakdown.

It's not clear if it's terrorists, real and imagined, who have got the Democratic establishment all jittery or if it's just the usual Republican Party suspects, know-nothings in all important respects except for their uncanny ability to unnerve their Democratic rivals.

President Obama, like many a Democratic pol from the days of LBJ onward, seems spellbound by calls from the right that he be tough on terror, bullish on "free markets" and aggressive in military affairs.

So the candidate who called for peace and helping the poor instead wages war, beefs up the security bureaucracy and enables the very rich to get richer - even as ordinary folk lose their jobs, health and homes in the millions.

What we get from Mr Obama is hard to distinguish from Mr Bush, but for the improved rhetoric and a winning smile instead of a smirk.

President Obama was gracious enough to admit that the buck stops at the top, and because the buck-passing game continues as before, President Obama has implicated himself as part of the problem.

After a serious lapse in security work, another one of those classic failures to connect the dots, Mr Obama's Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano echoed the Bush response to Katrina, saying "the system worked" when it clearly didn't.

It's a wonder she still has a job.

The only upside to the failed Christmas bombing plot was that vigilant citizens, an inept bomber and a good measure of luck saved the day.

The bomb plot understandably has put America's airlines and airports on edge, not just because a handful of terror freelancers have been whipped up to a frenzy by malevolent Islamist handlers to such a point as to "volunteer" to kill themselves in order to kill others, but because American bureaucracy is so sclerotic and inefficient that an anguished father in Nigeria could courageously plead with US authorities to beware of a son tangled up in terror, only for his plaintive cry to be ignored.

Meanwhile, a recent benign security breach of the sort that the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) reported 2,819 cases of in the last fiscal year, has gotten undue attention from at least one Democratic bigwig desperate to appear tough on "terror".

The "terrible injustice" that permitted a foreign man, apparently intent on kissing his girlfriend goodbye, to get away with the "wrist-slapping" punishment of arrest and a standard fine for breaching a poorly-guarded perimeter at a New Jersey airport has Senator Frank Lautenberg all tied up in knots.

Sen Lautenberg, considered a "liberal" by his Democratic peers, was quick to whip up a populist response. So "outraged" was he that a foreigner could get away with such a thing, he called for Mr Jiang's visa to be cancelled.

Foaming at the mouth, he further argued that what the man did, and the message it sent out about America, had "to be seen as a terrible crime".

The hapless Jiang Haisong, a Chinese doctoral student at Rutgers University, legally resident in the US, entered the departure area of New Jersey's Newark Airport while sending off his girlfriend, presumably to spend a few last minutes together before she caught a flight to California.

Perhaps he merits the full $500 fine for his myopic act, but it was TSA negligence - a man off-duty and a broken camera left unrepaired - that made the careless romantic gesture possible, and it was TSA, not the mild-mannered geek doing a PhD in molecular science, who proceeded to lock down the airport and treat hundreds of travellers as potential terror suspects in a way that defied common sense, courtesy or respect.

Nowadays air travellers are cattle to be herded this way and that; those who dare complain are seen as troublemakers.

After Mr Jiang's arrest, the New Jersey senator started crowing louder.

"He's really an unwelcome guest," Sen Frank Lautenberg told reporters. "He should be returned to his homeland."

Media outlets with predilections to respond favourably to Sen Lautenberg's prejudiced comments piled on, with an ABC affiliate calling Mr Jiang the "most hated man in New Jersey," and a writer at NJ.com braying for a more fiercely punitive approach in "Punishment does not fit the crime".

But cooler heads prevailed, one seasoned observer noted dryly that Sen Lautenberg was really just trying to "out-Schumer Schumer" - a bit of Democratic Party-speak meaning that the New Jersey senator was trying to steal the media circus spotlight normally focused on the senator from New York.

It's a cheap shot for a man as powerful as Sen Lautenberg to pin it all on a Chinese graduate student, though it is not hard to see how such grandstanding might plug into populist antipathy for the nation of China, widely resented for its stunning economic success at a time when America is feeling down and out.

One suspects the TSA would have reacted similarly if a friend of Sen Lautenberg, or even a stray cat, had set off a system-wide alarm, though the xenophobic senator's response would almost certainly have been more muted.

Senator Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey is not alone.

America's political class is increasingly dysfunctional, if not hopeless.

It is simply wrong to covet attention, or seek to divert attention, by picking on little people.

It's time to stop putting the public through the mill of militaristic compliance with random rules and rude abuse by the likes of Sen Lautenberg when politicians of his ilk are engaged largely in partisan political theatre without appreciable safety benefits.

But there's much to be thankful for, not just in the way vigilant citizens helped to thwart a real attack on the Detroit-bound flight, but in the extreme rarity of such attacks within US borders, despite US foreign policy being part of the problem, embroiled as it is in unpopular and politically provocative military conflict in the far corners of the globe.

America is still the richest country in the world and the most powerful country in the world, though you wouldn't know that from the way politicians are over-reacting and falling prey to fear-mongering.

Travellers in the United States have largely taken the gradual diminution of courtesy and common sense on the chin, stoic and uncomplaining for the most part, even as traditional privacies are increasingly violated and little freedoms are stripped away, one article at a time, like a full-body strip search.

Reasonable precautions are generally met with a high degree of compliance, but airports are starting to resemble armed camps to an unreasonable degree, guided by the confused and jittery politicos in Washington, who, it would seem, are willing to do anything to "win" the war on terror, even if it means losing their minds.

(published in the Bangkok Post, January 12, 2010)