Journalist Matt Richtel’s ‘Deadly Wandering’ tells a harrowing story of technology’s dangers

By Wallace Baine, Santa Cruz Sentinel

Matt Richtel

Matt Richtel

On an early Friday morning in September 2006, a young man named Reggie Shaw climbed into his Chevy Tahoe for his long commute to work in Logan, Utah. Somewhere on a highway east of Logan, with the sky just beginning to lighten, Reggie veered over the yellow line and sideswiped a Saturn coming from the opposite direction. The Saturn spun out and was “T-boned” by a Ford pick-up, killing the two men riding in the Saturn.

From that tragic event comes the story at the center of Matt Richtel’s new book “A Deadly Wandering: A Tale of Tragedy and Redemption in the Age of Attention” (Wm. Morrow).
Reggie Shaw, it was later determined, was texting on his flip phone at the time of the accident, which he initially denied. What followed was the seminal legal case that defined the debate about texting and driving.
Richtel, a reporter at the New York Times, won the Pulitzer Prize in 2010 for his reporting on the risks of distracted driving. In his book, he lays out the narrative of the Shaw case, what happened to Reggie and to the families of the victims, and how the events of that morning led lawmakers to look for a proper legal response to what can be a deadly habit.
At the same time, “Deadly Wandering” probes into the neuroscience of distraction, and the deeply seated neuro-chemical appeal of our ubiquitous hand-held devices.
“I didn’t want to write a book just about texting and driving,” said Richtel, who comes to Bookshop Santa Cruz to discuss his book Nov. 5. “What we’re talking about here goes well beyond what happens in the car. Why are we checking our devices all the time? Why can’t we stand idly in line at the grocery store, or at a stoplight, or with our homework, or with the spouse that sitting right across the table, without feeling that itch to look at our device?”
Chapters on what science is learning about how smart-phone and tablet technology are changing our brains are interspersed within the longer story of Reggie Shaw who later went to jail.
“This is not a screed against technology,” said Richtel of his new book. “It’s a wake-up call to be informed about the power of the neuro-chemical power of these things, in the same way we want to be informed about anything that has lots of power over our lives.”

Research suggests that checking in on your smart phone may release a dose of dopamine, the neurotransmitter that regulates the pleasure centers of the brain. “Ninety-six percent of people say that you shouldn’t text and drive, and yet, 30 percent do it anyway,” said Richtel. “The only other disconnect I can find that is that stark is with cigarettes. Every smoker says it’s bad for you, yet they keep doing it. Why do these devices have such a lure over us.”

Today, Shaw is a crusader against texting while driving. “Deadly Wandering” is an often harrowing chronicle of how Shaw got to the point where he could admit his wrongdoing and atone for causing the death of two fathers and husbands.

“The Reggie story is so compelling because we can connect to him easily,” said Richtel. “The battle that happened after his deadly wreck is a metaphor for our own internal battle about how to pay attention, particularly on the roads.”

This is not, however, a morality tale. Instead of talking about the problem of texting while driving as an issue of responsibility and willpower, Richtel asserts that our powerful and appealing technological devises are changing our behaviors on a neurological level.

“People are getting in their cars every single day, people who are not malicious, who are not bad people, and yet they’re winding up in these deadly wrecks. Driving feels boring a lot of the time. And with every passing moment, we are becoming less tolerant of boredom than we’ve ever been. This thing is constantly beckoning us.”

Matt Richtel

http://www.mercurynews.com/entertainment/ci_26823138/journalist-matt-richtels-deadly-wandering-tells-harrowing-story?source=rss

 

Leaked documents expose secret contracts between NSA and tech companies

http://cdn.eteknix.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/07/NSA_lawsuit.jpg

By Thomas Gaist
20 October 2014

Internal National Security Agency documents published by the Intercept earlier this month provide powerful evidence of active collaboration by the large technology corporations with the US government’s worldwide surveillance operations. The documents give a glimpse of efforts by the American state—the scale and complexity of which are astonishing—to penetrate, surveil and manipulate information systems around the world.

Reportedly leaked by whistleblower Edward Snowden, the documents catalogue a dizzying array of clandestine intelligence and surveillance operations run by the NSA, CIA and other US and allied security bureaucracies, including infiltration of undercover agents into corporate entities, offensive cyber-warfare and computer network exploitation (CNE), theoretical and practical aspects of encryption cracking, and supply chain interdiction operations that “focus on modifying equipment in a target’s supply chain.”

The trove of documents, made available in their original forms by the Intercept , are largely comprised of classification rubrics that organize NSA secrets according to a color-coded scale ranging from green (lowest priority secrets), through blue and red, to black (highest priority secrets).

The secret facts organized in the leaked classification guides supply overwhelming evidence that the NSA and Central Security Service (a 25,000-strong agency founded in 1972 as a permanent liaison between the NSA and US military intelligence) rely on cooperative and in some cases contractual relations with US firms to facilitate their global wiretapping and data stockpiling activities.

Blue level facts listed in the documents include:

* “Fact that NSA/CSS works with US industry in the conduct of its cryptologic missions”

* “Fact that NSA/CSS works with US industry as technical advisors regarding cryptologic products”

Red level facts include:

* “Fact that NSA/CSS conducts SIGINT enabling programs and related operations with US industry”

* “Fact that NSA/CSS have FISA operations with US commercial industry elements”

Black level facts include:

* “Fact that NSA/CSS works with and has contractual relationships with specific named US commercial entities to conduct SIGINT [signals intelligence] enabling programs and operations”

* “Fact that NSA/CSS works with specific named US commercial entities to make them exploitable for SIGINT”

* “Facts related to NSA personnel (under cover), operational meetings, specific operations, specific technology, specific locations and covert communications related to SIGINT enabling with specific commercial entities”

* “Facts related to NSA/CSS working with US commercial entities on the acquisition of communications (content and metadata) provided by the US service provider to worldwide customers; communications transiting the US; or access to international communications mediums provided by the US entity”

* “Fact that NSA/CSS injects ‘implants’ into the hardware and software of US companies to enable data siphoning”

Particularly damning are facts reported by a leaked classification schema detailing operation “Exceptionally Controlled Information (ECI) WHIPGENIE,” described in the document’s introduction as covering NSA “Special Source Operations relationships with US Corporate Partners.”

According to the ECI WHIPGENIE document, unnamed “corporate partners” facilitate NSA mass surveillance as part of undisclosed “contractual relations,” through which “NSA and Corporate Partners are involved in SIGINT ‘cooperative efforts.”’

Among the classified TOP SECRET items listed in the ECI WHIPGENIE document is the fact that “NSA and an unnamed Corporate Partner are involved in a ‘cooperative effort’ against cable collection, including domestic wire access collection.”

As part of WHIPGENIE, the document further states, the FBI facilitates NSA partnerships with industry that are both “compelled and cooperative” in nature. In other words, the NSA carries out domestic wiretapping and “cable collection” operations with the cooperation of at least one US corporation.

These revelations are especially significant in light of persistent claims by the major tech and communications corporations that their involvement in the surveillance operations is strictly involuntary in nature.

Last year, a leaked NSA PowerPoint presentation titled “Corporate Partner Access” showed that the volume of data transferred to the agency by Yahoo, Google, and Microsoft during a single 5-week period was sufficient to generate more than 2,000 intelligence reports. The companies all defended their actions by claiming they were forced to furnish data by the government.

Other documents contained in the trove detail the NSA’s development of sophisticated offensive cyber-warfare capabilities targeting the information systems of foreign corporations and governments. These programs highlight the threat of outbreaks of electronic warfare between competing capitalist elites, which could provide the spark for full-fledged shooting wars.

One document, titled “Computer Network Exploitation Classification Guide,” states that NSA, CSS and the NSA’s in-house hacker unit, the so-called Tailored Access Operations (TAO), engage in “remote subversion” as well as “off-net field operations to develop, deploy, exploit or maintain intrusive access.”

Another classification guide, titled “NSA / CSS Target Exploitation Program,” covers target exploitation operations (TAREX), which are said to “provide unique collection of telecommunication and cryptologic-related information and material in direct support of NSA / CSS.”

TAREX also involves “physical subversion,” “close access-enabling exploitation,” and “supply chain enabling,” the document shows, through which the surveillance agencies intervene directly to modify and sabotage the information systems of rival states.

TAREX operations are supported by outposts located in Beijing, China, South Korea, Germany, Washington DC, Hawaii, Texas and Georgia, and TAREX personnel are “integrated into the HUMINT [human intelligence] operations at CIA, DIA/DoD, and/or FBI,” according to the document.

On top of the electronic surveillance, infiltration and cyber-warfare operations themselves, the intelligence establishment has launched a slate of secondary operations designed to protect the secrecy of its various initiatives, as shown in another leaked document, titled “Exceptionally Controlled Information Listing.”

These include:

* AMBULANT, APERIODIC, AUNTIE—“Protect information related to sensitive SIGINT Enabling relationships”

* BOXWOOD—“Protects a sensitive sole source of lucrative communications intelligence emanating from a target”

* CHILLY—“Protects details of NSA association with and active participation in planning and execution of sensitive Integrated Joint Special Technical Operations (IJSTO) offensive Information Warfare strategies”

* EVADEYIELD—“Protects NSA’s capability to exploit voice or telephonic conversations from an extremely sensitive source”

* FORBIDDEN—“Protects information pertaining to joint operations conducted by NSA, GCHQ, CSE, CIA, and FBI against foreign intelligence agents”

* FORBORNE—“Protects the fact that the National Security Agency, GCHQ, and CSE can exploit ciphers used by hostile intelligence services”

* OPALESCE —“Protects Close Access SIGINT collection operations, which require a specialized sensor, positioned in close physical proximity to the target or facility”

* PENDLETON—“Protects NSA’s investment in manpower and resources to acquire our current bottom line capabilities to exploit SIGINT targets by attacking public key cryptography as well as investment in technology”

* PIEDMONT—“Provides protection to NSA’s bottom line capabilities to exploit SIGINT targets by attacking the hard mathematical problems underlying public key cryptography as well as any future technologies as may be developed”

* And others…

The number and character of the NSA’s “protection” programs gives an indication of the scope of its activities.

The latest round of leaked NSA documents underscores the absurdity of proposals aimed at “reforming” and “reigning in” the mass surveillance programs, which, propelled by the explosive growth of social inequality and the rise of a criminal financial oligarchy, have enjoyed a tropical flourishing since the 1970s, acquiring an extravagant scale and diversity.

 

http://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2014/10/20/nsad-o20.html

Kurdish solidarity groups attacked at Kobanê border

by Iskender Doğu on October 11, 2014

Post image for Kurdish solidarity groups attacked at Kobanê borderWhile the resistance continues on both sides of the hermetically sealed-off Kobanê border, escaping the war has become just as difficult as joining it.

Photo by Murat Bay for Sendika.org.

Ferman cries when he tells me how he has left his eight children and his wife behind in Germany to come here and fight against ISIS. The 38-year-old Kurd left Turkey twenty-five years ago; he had built up a new life in Stuttgart, Germany, and was working a good job with a great salary. Now he has left everything behind in order to support his Kurdish brothers and sisters in Kobanê.

His shoes are still new and shiny — I could see he bought them just for the occasion. He only arrived three days ago and was still looking for a way to cross the border into Syria to join the People’s Protection Units (YPG). After witnessing the horrors his people went through from the comfort of his home, while the entire world stands by and watches, he decided he needed to act: “I also have daughters, a wife and sisters, and to see how ISIS treats women, rapes them, cuts off their breasts and sells them as slaves. This is more than I can bear.”

He gathered his family in the living room and told them he would travel to Turkey in order to join the resistance against ISIS in Kobanê. He got a kiss from his wife and blessings from his children, and now he’s ready to die to protect the lives and honor of people he will never meet in his life, strangers who are more valuable to him than his own family. Ferman stresses that this is not merely a fight of the Kurdish people: “ISIS is the enemy of humanity, of Kurds, Christians, of all mankind.”

He simply cannot understand why there is no international support for the Kurdish struggle. “The PKK protects everyone, regardless of their ethnicity or religion. Forty million Kurds can’t all be terrorists. My wish is that the PKK is taken off the terror list. Give us our weapons and we’ll build a second Europe here in the Middle East.”

Refugee prisoners

With the border hermetically sealed off, the problem is not only how to get in to Syria, but in some cases more importantly how to get out. A good friend of mine here in Urfa told me the story of a young YPG fighter who was hit by a bullet in his leg. His comrades rushed him to the border with the intention of bringing him to a hospital in Suruç, the Turkish border town. However, at the border Turkish soldiers made him wait for four hours before allowing him in. During this time he continued bleeding and eventually died of blood loss.

After having opened the border for over 140.000 Kurdish refugees that fled before ISIS’ advance, the Turkish state now treats everyone entering the country from Rojava as a potential terrorist. A Turkish official to Agence France-Presse: “From now on, whoever comes from the other side of the border will be either from the PKK or the YPG. We are talking about the country’s security.”

In this context, hundreds of Kurdish refugees have been detained by Turkey. They are being held without charge at two schools in Suruç, where conditions are so dire that a number of them reportedly started a hunger strike. When in the bus from Urfa to Suruç, one of my fellow passengers pointed out a school complex on the outskirts of town and crossed his arms at the wrists, the international sign for “arrested”.

The next day, a friend of mine who is originally from Kobanê contacted me on Facebook to tell me that his father was one of the people who were detained. When he asked his father if there was anything he could do for him, his father merely replied that “the media should talk about the people here.” He added: “We are with 156 people, 41 of them are women and children. There are also some freelance journalists among us.”

After protest and legal action from human rights organizations and the local branch of the pro-Kurdish Democratic Regions Party (DBP), the state was forced to undertake action with regards to these illegally detained refugees. The government’s excuse was that they had to check by means of finger prints whether any of the detainees belonged to the outlawed PKK or its Syrian sister-organization PYD (the political wing of the YPG/YPJ). Where initially 260 people had been detained, 156 were moved from the schools to a sports hall and their release is expected soon. But very little is known about the remaining 104 detained refugees.

Human shields at the border

In Suruç I take a taxi to bring me to the village of Boydê, which lies right at the border. Several comrades of the Revolutionary Anarchist Action (DAF) are based here to act as a “human chain” to prevent ISIS supporters from crossing the border into Syria. In order to prevent any unwanted inquiries by overly-suspicious security forces, the taxi driver takes me to my destination via some dirt tracks through the fields and small, unguarded roads connecting the rural villages to one another.

Hundreds of people have come from all over Turkey to guard the border and show their solidarity with the Kurdish people. Unfortunately, despite the fact that the show of solidarity has a powerful impact, ISIS supporters and aspiring jihadists still manage to enter Syria, often with suspected help of the Turkish state which either turns a blind eye or simply provides the transport, as some of the people I have spoken to claim to have seen.

The situation at Boydê is surprisingly relaxed. A member of the Van solidarity group walks me along a dirt track to the next cluster of houses, where the DAF is based together with the solidarity group from Erzurum. People are sitting in small groups of three or four people under the trees along the road. A few men are preparing food, another makes cay. On the roofs of the buildings several people are watching the border through binoculars, keeping an eye on the movements of ISIS at the outskirts of Kobanê.

From the roof I can actually see four ISIS fighters with my own eyes, little black figures crouching on a small hill just over one kilometer away. Occasionally we hear the rattling sound of a Kalashnikov being fired, but this doesn’t seem to bother the soldiers in the APCs and tanks patrolling the border. The Turkish military moves up and down the border non-stop, but they leave the ISIS fighters — who can’t be more than a few hundred meters away from the border — alone.

Every now and then we are startled by a loud boom, when another coalition jet drops a bomb on ISIS positions in the outskirts of Kobanê. Usually we can see the smoke rising before the sound reaches us, and the local Kurds and civil border guards seem to approve of every single one of them. Until a few days ago, the local people and YPG sources alike accused the US-led coalition of just bombing empty buildings and oil installations outside of Kobanê, but lately the airstrikes seem to have have been a little more effective, and locals on a hill overlooking the city told me today that the situation had slightly improved since yesterday.

The comrades from the DAF are eager to share their experiences and observations with me: “In the past few days we have seen that the people are trying to remove artificial borders and create a real revolution. We also see that the people here did not give up the fight, even while many freedom fighters have been killed. On the contrary, the death of their comrades only entrenched their belief in the revolution.”

Boydê under attack

That same evening, only a few hours after I left the village to return to Suruç, the local people and solidarity groups at Boydê were attacked by the gendarmes. In an attack that appeared to be aimed at breaking the people’s determination to support their brothers and sisters on the other side of the heavily guarded fence, the gendarmes fired tear gas and beat the people. They also confiscated several thousand Turkish liras (about €1,000) and a number of cell phones. I have checked and double-checked this story and it has been confirmed by several different sources.

The border and the main roads leading to the crossing at Mursitpinar, as well as the town of Suruç, are under firm control of the security forces, but the approximately eight kilometers of farmland, dotted with local farms and criss-crossed by dirt tracks and patikas (“goat-trails”) between the town and the frontier are the realm of the people’s resistance.

Especially after dark, when the security is tightened and improvised checkpoints are manned by people from the Group of Communities in Kurdistan (KCK), it would be unsafe for any ill-willing figures (whether in uniform or sporting a big beard) to roam around these areas. While driving around these unlit roads, and after being stopped at yet another checkpoint, my friends point out that without them I would not have been able to make it for a single kilometer out of town.

Iskender Doğu is an Istanbul-based freelance writer, activist and an editor for ROAR Magazine. You can follow him on Twitter via @Le_Frique. More reports from the Turkish-Syrian border will follow in the coming days.

http://roarmag.org/2014/10/kobane-human-shields-turke/?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+roarmag+%28ROAR+Magazine%29

How an Apple mega-deal cost Los Angeles classrooms $1 billion

Rotten to the Core:

Bad business and worse ethics? A scandal is brewing in L.A. over a sketchy intiative to give every student an iPad

 

Rotten to the Core: How an Apple mega-deal cost Los Angeles classrooms $1 billion

Technology companies may soon be getting muddied from a long-running scandal at the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD), the nation’s second-largest system. A year after the cash-strapped district signed a $1 billion contract with Apple to purchase iPads for every student, the once-ballyhooed deal has blown up. Now the mess threatens to sully other vendors from Cambridge to Cupertino.

LAUSD superintendent John Deasy is under fire for his cozy connections to Apple. In an effort to deflect attention and perhaps to show that “everybody else is doing it,” he’s demanded the release of all correspondence between his board members and technology vendors. It promises to be some juicy reading. But at its core, the LAUSD fiasco illustrates just how much gold lies beneath even the dirtiest, most neglected public schoolyard.

As the U.S. starts implementing federal Common Core State Standards, teachers and administrators are being driven to adopt technology as never before. That has set off a scramble in Silicon Valley to grab as much of the $9 billion K-12 market as possible, and Apple, Google, Cisco and others are mud-wrestling to seize a part of it. Deasy and the LAUSD have given us ringside seats to this match, which shows just how low companies will go.

When the Apple deal was announced a year ago, it was touted as the largest ever distribution of computing devices to American students. The Los Angeles Times ran a story accompanied by a photograph of an African-American girl and her classmate, who looked absolutely giddy about their new gadgets. Readers responded to the photo’s idealistic promise — that every child in Los Angeles, no matter their race or socioeconomic background, would have access to the latest technology, and Deasy himself pledged “to provide youth in poverty with tools that heretofore only rich kids have had.” Laudable as it was, that sentiment assumed that technology would by itself save our underfunded schools and somehow balance our inequitable society.



When I heard about the deal, I felt a wave of déjà vu. I had sat in a PTA meeting at a public school listening to a similar, albeit much smaller, proposed deal.  An Apple vendor had approached administrators in a Santa Barbara County school, offering to sell us iPads. The pitch was that we could help propel our kids into the technological age so that they’d be better prepared for the world, and maybe land a nice-paying, high-tech job somewhere down the line. Clearly, a school contract would be great for Apple, giving it a captive group of impressionable 11-year-olds it could then mold into lifelong customers.

But parents had to raise a lot of money to seal this deal. “Is Apple giving us a discount?” asked a fellow PTA member. No, we were told. Apple doesn’t give discounts, not even to schools. In the end, we decided to raise funds for an athletics program and some art supplies instead.

To be fair, PTA moms and dads are no match at the bargaining table for the salespeople at major companies like Google, and Hewlett-Packard. But the LAUSD, with its $6.8 billion budget, had the brains and muscle necessary to negotiate something valuable for its 655,000 students. That was the hope, at least.

Alas, problems began to appear almost immediately. First, some clever LAUSD students hacked the iPads and deleted security filters so they could roam the Internet freely and watch YouTube videos. Then, about $2 million in iPads and other devices went “missing.” Worse was the discovery that the pricey curriculum software, developed by Pearson Education Corp., wasn’t even complete. And the board looked foolish when it had to pay even more money to buy keyboards for iPads so that students could actually type out their reports.

Then, there was the deal itself. Whereas many companies extend discounts to schools and other nonprofits, Apple usually doesn’t, said George Michaels, executive director of Instructional Development at University of California at Santa Barbara. “Whatever discounts Apple gives are pretty meager.” The Chronicle of Philanthropy has noted Apple’s stingy reputation, and CEO Tim Cook has been trying to change the corporation’s miserly ways by giving $50 million to a local hospital and $50 million to an African nonprofit.

But the more we learned about the Apple “deal,” the more the LAUSD board seemed outmaneuvered. The district had bought iPad 4s, which have since been discontinued, but Apple had locked the district into paying high prices for the old models. LAUSD had not checked with its teachers or students to see what they needed or wanted, and instead had forced its end users to make the iPads work. Apple surely knew that kids needed keypads to write reports, but sold them just part of what they needed.

Compared with similar contracts signed by other districts, Apple’s deal for Los Angeles students looked crafty, at best. Perris Union High School District in Riverside County, for example, bought Samsung Chromebooks for only $344 per student. And their laptop devices have keyboards and multiple input ports for printers and thumb drives. The smaller Township High School District 214 in Illinois bought old iPad 2s without the pre-loaded, one-size-fits-all curriculum software. Its price: $429 per student.

But LAUSD paid Apple a jaw-dropping $768 per student, and LAUSD parents were not happy. As Manel Saddique wrote on a social media site: “Btw, thanks for charging a public school district more than the regular consumer price per unit, Apple. Keep it classy…”

By spring there was so much criticism about the purchase that the Los Angeles Times filed a request under the California Public Records Act to obtain all emails and records tied to the contract. What emerged was the image of a smoky backroom deal.

Then-Deputy Superintendent Jaime Aquino had once worked at Pearson, the curriculum developer, and knew the players. It turned out that Aquino and Deasy had started talking with Apple and Pearson two years before the contract was approved, and a full year before it was put out to bid. The idea behind a public bidding process is that every vendor is supposed to have the same opportunity to win a job, depending on their products, delivery terms and price. But emails show that Deasy was intent on embracing just one type of device: Apple’s.

Aquino went so far as to appear in a promotional video for iPads months before the contracts were awarded. Dressed in a suit and tie, the school official smiled for the camera as he talked about how Apple’s product would lead to “huge leaps in what’s possible for students” and would “phenomenally . . . change the landscape of education.” If other companies thought they had a shot at nabbing the massive contract from the influential district, this video must have disabused them of that idea.

At one point, Aquino was actually coaching software devloper Pearson on what to do: “[M]ake sure that your bid is the lower one,” he wrote. Meanwhile, Deasy was emailing Pearson CEO Marjorie Scardino, and effusively recounting his visit with Apple’s CEO. “I wanted to let you know I had an excellent meeting with Tim at Apple last Friday … The meeting went very well and he was fully committed to being a partner … He was very excited.”

If you step back from the smarmy exchanges, a bigger picture emerges. Yes, LAUSD is grossly mismanaged and maybe even dysfunctional. But corporations like Apple don’t look so good, either. Google, Microsoft, Facebook, Apple, Hewlett Packard — the companies that are cashing in on our classroom crisis are the same ones that helped defund the infrastructure that once made public schools so good. Sheltering billions of dollars from federal taxes may be great for the top 10 percent of Americans, who own 90 percent of the stock in these corporations. But it’s a catastrophe for the teachers, schools and universities that helped develop their technology and gave the companies some of its brightest minds. In the case of LAUSD, Apple comes across as cavalier about the problem it’s helped create for low-income students, and seems more concerned with maximizing its take from the district.

But the worst thing about this scandal is what it’s done to the public trust. The funds for this billion-dollar boondoggle were taken from voter-approved school construction and modernization bonds — bonds that voters thought would be used for physical improvements. At a time when LAUSD schools, like so many across the country, are in desperate need of physical repairs, from corroded gas lines to broken play structures, the Apple deal has cast a shadow over school bonds. Read the popular “Repairs Not iPads” page on Facebook and parents’ complaints about the lack of air conditioning, librarians and even toilet paper in school bathrooms. Sadly, replacing old fixtures and cheap trailers with new plumbing and classrooms doesn’t carry the kind of cachet for ambitious school boards as does, say, buying half-a-million electronic tablets. As one mom wrote: “Deasy has done major long-term damage because not one person will ever vote for any future bond measures supporting public schools.”

Now, the Apple deal is off, although millions of dollars have already been spent. An investigation into the bidding process is underway and there are cries to place Deasy in “teacher jail,” a district policy that keeps teachers at home while they’re under investigation. And LAUSD students, who are overwhelmingly Hispanic and African-American, have once again been given the short end of the stick. They were promised the sort of “tools that heretofore only rich kids have had,” and will probably not see them for several years, if ever. The soured Apple deal just adds to the sense of injustice that many of these students already see in the grown-up world.

Deasy contends that that he did nothing wrong. In a few weeks, the public official will get his job performance review. In the meantime, he’s called for the release of all emails and documents written between board members and other Silicon Valley and corporate education vendors. The heat in downtown Los Angeles is spreading to Northern California and beyond, posing a huge political problem for not just Deasy but for Cook and other high-tech captains.

But at the bottom of this rush to place technology in every classroom is the nagging feeling that the goal in buying expensive devices is not to improve teachers’ abilities, or to lighten their load. It’s not to create more meaningful learning experiences for students or to lift them out of poverty or neglect. It’s to facilitate more test-making and profit-taking for private industry, and quick, too, before there’s nothing left.

 

Why Facebook, Google, and the NSA Want Computers That Learn Like Humans

Deep learning could transform artificial intelligence. It could also get pretty creepy.

lol cats

Illustration: Quickhoney

In June 2012, a Google supercomputer made an artificial-intelligence breakthrough: It learned that the internet loves cats. But here’s the remarkable part: It had never been told what a cat looks like. Researchers working on the Google Brain project in the company’s X lab fed 10 million random, unlabeled images from YouTube into their massive network and instructed it to recognize the basic elements of a picture and how they fit together. Left to their own devices, the Brain’s 16,000 central processing units noticed that a lot of the images shared similar characteristics that it eventually recognized as a “cat.” While the Brain’s self-taught knack for kitty spotting was nowhere as good as a human’s, it was nonetheless a major advance in the exploding field of deep learning.

The dream of a machine that can think and learn like a person has long been the holy grail of computer scientists, sci-fi fans, and futurists alike. Deep learning—algorithms inspired by the human brain and its ability to soak up massive amounts of information and make complex predictions—might be the closest thing yet. Right now, the technology is in its infancy: Much like a baby, the Google Brain taught itself how to recognize cats, but it’s got a long way to go before it can figure out that you’re sad because your tabby died. But it’s just a matter of time. Its potential to revolutionize everything from social networking to surveillance has sent tech companies and defense and intelligence agencies on a deep-learning spending spree.

What really puts deep learning on the cutting edge of artificial intelligence (AI) is that its algorithms can analyze things like human behavior and then make sophisticated predictions. What if a social-networking site could figure out what you’re wearing from your photos and then suggest a new dress? What if your insurance company could diagnose you as diabetic without consulting your doctor? What if a security camera could tell if the person next to you on the subway is carrying a bomb?

And unlike older data-crunching models, deep learning doesn’t slow down as you cram in more info. Just the opposite—it gets even smarter. “Deep learning works better and better as you feed it more data,” explains Andrew Ng, who oversaw the cat experiment as the founder of Google’s deep-learning team. (Ng has since joined the Chinese tech giant Baidu as the head of its Silicon Valley AI team.)

And so the race to build a better virtual brain is on. Microsoft plans to challenge the Google Brain with its own system called Adam. Wired reported that Apple is applying deep learning to build a “neural-net-boosted Siri.” Netflix hopes the technology will improve its movie recommendations. Google, Yahoo, Twitter, and Pinterest have snapped up deep-learning companies; Google has used the technology to read every house number in France in less than an hour. “There’s a big rush because we think there’s going to be a bit of a quantum leap,” says Yann LeCun, a deep-learning pioneer and the head of Facebook’s new AI lab.

What if your insurance company diagnosed you without consulting your doctor? What if a security camera could tell if the person next to you is carrying a bomb?

Last December, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg appeared, bodyguards in tow, at the Neural Information Processing Systems conference in Lake Tahoe, where insiders discussed how to make computers learn like humans. He has said that his company seeks to “use new approaches in AI to help make sense of all the content that people share.” Facebook researchers have used deep learning to identify individual faces from a giant database called “Labeled Faces in the Wild” with more than 97 percent accuracy. Another project, dubbed PANDA (Pose Aligned Networks for Deep Attribute Modeling), can accurately discern gender, hairstyles, clothing styles, and facial expressions from photos. LeCun says that these types of tools could improve the site’s ability to tag photos, target ads, and determine how people will react to content.

Yet considering recent news that Facebook secretly studied 700,000 users’ emotions by tweaking their feeds or that the National Security Agency harvests 55,000 facial images a day, it’s not hard to imagine how these attempts to better “know” you might veer into creepier territory.

Not surprisingly, deep learning’s potential for analyzing human faces, emotions, and behavior has attracted the attention of national-security types. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency has worked with researchers at New York University on a deep-learning program that sought, according to a spokesman, “to distinguish human forms from other objects in battlefield or other military environments.”

Chris Bregler, an NYU computer science professor, is working with the Defense Department to enable surveillance cameras to detect suspicious activity from body language, gestures, and even cultural cues. (Bregler, who grew up near Heidelberg, compares it to his ability to spot German tourists in Manhattan.) His prototype can also determine whether someone is carrying a concealed weapon; in theory, it could analyze a woman’s gait to reveal she is hiding explosives by pretending to be pregnant. He’s also working on an unnamed project funded by “an intelligence agency”—he’s not permitted to say more than that.

And the NSA is sponsoring deep-learning research on language recognition at Johns Hopkins University. Asked whether the agency seeks to use deep learning to track or identify humans, spokeswoman Vanee’ Vines only says that the agency “has a broad interest in deriving knowledge from data.”

Mark Zuckerberg

Mark Zuckerberg has said that Facebook seeks to “use new approaches in AI to help make sense of all the content that people share.” AP Photo/Ben Margot

Deep learning also has the potential to revolutionize Big Data-driven industries like banking and insurance. Graham Taylor, an assistant professor at the University of Guelph in Ontario, has applied deep-learning models to look beyond credit scores to determine customers’ future value to companies. He acknowledges that these types of applications could upend the way businesses treat their customers: “What if a restaurant was able to predict the amount of your bill, or the probability of you ever returning? What if that affected your wait time? I think there will be many surprises as predictive models become more pervasive.”

Privacy experts worry that deep learning could also be used in industries like banking and insurance to discriminate or effectively redline consumers for certain behaviors. Sergey Feldman, a consultant and data scientist with the brand personalization company RichRelevance, imagines a “deep-learning nightmare scenario” in which insurance companies buy your personal information from data brokers and then infer with near-total accuracy that, say, you’re an overweight smoker in the early stages of heart disease. Your monthly premium might suddenly double, and you wouldn’t know why. This would be illegal, but, Feldman says, “don’t expect Congress to protect you against all possible data invasions.”

An NSA spokeswoman only says that the agency “has a broad interest in deriving knowledge from data.”

And what if the computer is wrong? If a deep-learning program predicts that you’re a fraud risk and blacklists you, “there’s no way to contest that determination,” says Chris Calabrese, legislative counsel for privacy issues at the American Civil Liberties Union.

Bregler agrees that there might be privacy issues associated with deep learning, but notes that he tries to mitigate those concerns by consulting with a privacy advocate. Google has reportedly established an ethics committee to address AI issues; a spokesman says its deep-learning research is not primarily about analyzing personal or user-specific data—for now. While LeCun says that Facebook eventually could analyze users’ data to inform targeted advertising, he insists the company won’t share personally identifiable data with advertisers.

“The problem of privacy invasion through computers did not suddenly appear because of AI or deep learning. It’s been around for a long time,” LeCun says. “Deep learning doesn’t change the equation in that sense, it just makes it more immediate.” Big companies like Facebook “thrive on the trust users have in them,” so consumers shouldn’t worry about their personal data being fed into virtual brains. Yet, as he notes, “in the wrong hands, deep learning is just like any new technology.”

Deep learning, which also has been used to model everything from drug side effects to energy demand, could “make our lives much easier,” says Yoshua Bengio, head of the Machine Learning Laboratory at the University of Montreal. For now, it’s still relatively difficult for companies and governments to efficiently sift through all our emails, texts, and photos. But deep learning, he warns, “gives a lot of power to these organizations.”

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