Pluralistic: 11 Sep 2020

Today's links

Save video game history (permalink)

In 1991, Bruce Sterling gave a landmark keynote at the Game Developer's Conference in which he lamented game developers' technological amnesia – the fact that old game platforms disappeared and when they did, they took the games that ran on them with them.

Imagine an art form where anything more than a few years old is inaccessible without specialized equipment, and after a decade, most of it disappears forever!

Since Sterling's talk, preservation efforts have sprung up to ensure that the history of video games isn't lost. One of the most important of these is The MADE, a museum that preserves both hardware and code.

They even secured a DMCA exemption to let them crack games so they'd remain playable.

As you might expect, the plague has been hard on The MADE. They are mothballing their entire collection – a unique, important, vital history of an otherwise ephemeral medium – and seeking funds to help pay for storage and a new space.

It's a tough time for everyone, including us, but humanity's capacity to preserve its history during crises is legendary (think of how the Hermitage's curators starved in their museum through the 900 long days and nights of the Siege of Leningrad):

Which is why I've contributed to The MADE's preservation fund. If you can spare a little, I hope you will too.

Life as a precriminal (permalink)

One of the wisest things anyone's ever said to me about predictive policing tools – algorithms that purport predict where crime will occur – is that they don't predict crime, but they predict the police, who will obey the algorithm's directives (thanks, Patrick Ball!)

Normally that means that predictive policing tools send cops to poor and brown neighborhoods to stop-and-frisk and traffic-stop people, but sometimes it's a little more personal than that.

In Pasco County, Florida, Sheriff Chris Nocco's algorithm generated a list of 1,000 people "it considers likely to break the law, based on arrest histories, unspecified intelligence and arbitrary decisions by police analysts."

The people on this list were then relentlessly targeted, as were their relatives (about 10% of them were children, putting their parents in the algorithm's path). They and their relatives were stopped and questioned dozens of times in public and at work.

Police entered and searched their homes, over and over again, irrespective of whether they ever found evidence of wrongdoing, without warrant or probable cause.

One former deputy said the point was to "Make their lives miserable until they move or sue."

The Tampa Bay Times's incredible, in-depth investigation unearthed an endless list of brutal acts of algorithmic discrimination, a pattern of endless harassment, a demonic lovechild of Kafka and Orwell.

(or as the Sheriff's Department called it, "basic law-enforcement functions.")

The Sheriff's intelligence program has a $2.8m budget and is run by an ex-National Counterterrorism Center analyst whose number 2 is former Army intelligence.

Deputies are put on a quota: they have to do a certain number of "prolific offender checks" (that is, acts of harassment to the unlucky 1,000 precriminals), or they face sanction from their superiors.

The department has dedicated Strategic Targeted Area Response (STAR) teams whose job is to "hunt down" precriminals as they go about their business and engage in "intensive monitoring," keeping track of trivial things like when a child on the list changed his hairstyle.

STAR Teams raided precriminals' trash cans, going through curbside waste for evidence of crime, and cited precriminals for minor offenses "like faded mailbox numbers, a forgotten bag of trash or overgrown grass."

Periodically, without provocation, precriminals' homes would be surrounded by deputies who would line their streets, surround their homes, shine lights in their windows and pound on their doors – often in the middle of the night.

The parents of juvenile precriminals were sometimes arrested, as when deputies saw a precriminal's friend having an underaged cigarette through a window, then arrested the precriminal's father for refusing to force his kid and friend to go out of the house.

Sometimes, family members of precriminals would be arrested on even flimsier pretenses, as when a deputy pounded on a door and then was hit in the chest when a precriminal's relative opened the screen door to talk to him.

Qanon is basically the Protocols of the Elders of Zion (permalink)

In 1903, Russian antisemites published a pamphlet called the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, purporting to reveal a secret Jewish cabal that secretly controlled the world's governments, using its leaders as puppets.

This power allowed them to kidnap Christian babies and use their blood in secret, mystical rituals. The Protocols were wildly popular, and prompted endless rounds of vicious, bloody, genocidal pogroms.

Henry "No Jews or Dogs Allowed" Ford and Charles "Lucky" Lindbergh loved the Protocols and paid to have them translated into English and distributed across America. They also founded a group dedicated to protecting Hitler from "American aggression" called "AMERICA FIRST."

Hitler also loved the Protocols. Mein Kampf heavily plagiarised it. Nazis worshipped Hitler as a living god who had unearthed a vast conspiracy and would have a day of reckoning, a gathering storm that would wipe wickedness from the Earth.

Is any of this sounding familiar? You know, like, are there boomers in your life in red hats who worship Trump as a god because he's discovered a deep state cabal of baby-kidnapping, ritual-killing evildoers led by a Jewish billionaire named Soros?

If you're lucky enough that this isn't ringing bells, it's because you haven't yet encountered the idiocy that is Qanon. But last month, a group of neo-Nazis waving Q signs literally stormed the Reichstag.

Take it away, genocide historian Gregory Stanton: "The world has seen QAnon before. It was called Nazism. In QAnon, Nazism wants a comeback."

EFF vs filternet (permalink)

In Mar 2019, the EU approved the new Copyright Directive by an absurdly slim margin (it passed by 5 votes and later 10 MEPs said they got confused and pressed the wrong button; due to procedural rules, despite an amended total showing a majority against, it still passed).

Specifically, the part that passed through this bureaucratic, incoherent nonsense was Article 13 (now confusingly called Article 17), which imposed a duty on online platforms to stop their users from infringing copyright.

This proposal has a bizarre history (everything about this is bizarre). It started as a mandate for copyright filters (like Youtube's ContentID, which cost $100m and counting). Then Axel Voss, the MEP in charge of it, said it absolutely was not a proposal to mandate filters.

Then Voss admitted that there was probably no way to accomplish the Directive's goals without forcing all online speech through a copyright filter. Then the EU's various legal and human rights bodies said that the proposal could not require filters.

Confused yet? So is everyone else.

The EU Commission is now preparing guidance for the EU member states, who must each turn the Directive into a national law. And that brings us to today.

A coalition of giant entertainment companies has filed comments with the Commission that were the most bizarre turn in this saga yet, insisting that this was always about mandating filters and all countries should mandate that all speech be filtered:

They just pretended that subjecting every European citizen's every online utterance to interception and algorithmic processing wasn't a giant, glaring, radioactive violation of the GDPR, the EU's privacy law (it most assuredly is!):

Today, my EFF colleague Christoph Schmon submitted our comments on the guidance to the Commission, with niine recommendations:

I. Crisply define what kind of online services this applies to

II. Clarify that while platforms have to try to obtain copyright licenses from rightsholders, the standard is "due diligence" and is tempered by the principle of proportionality and fundamental human rights

III. No tech mandates

IV. No "general monitoring" allowed – governments can't order online services to spy on their user

V. Clarify that the fact that copyright filters exist does not mean that they are "best practices"

VI. Don't burden small businesses with requirements designed for Big Tech

VII. Clarify that filters can't determine whether something is infringing – only humans who understand copyright law can do that

VIII. You can't protect users' free speech rights by taking down their content and then telling them they can appeal the decision

IX: Address the fact that subjecting users' speech to filtering is a massive, illegal privacy violation

America's pandemic spiral (permalink)

More than 200k Americans have died of covid – about 70 9/11s, with no end in sight. Indeed, things are getting worse, as the US enters a "Pandemic Spiral," as Ed Yong writes in The Atlantic. Yong identifies 9 factors driving the spiral:

I. Serial Monogamy of Solutions: we only pay attention to one thing at a time: isolating, masks, plasma. Some of that is driven by Trump's short attention span and addiction to distraction tactics, but it's also science's methodological isolation of one variable at a time.

We especially struggle with "necessary but insufficient." Masks aren't effective – on their own. Neither is distancing. Neither is ventilation. All three? Pretty good, actually.

II. False Dichotomies: "We save lives or the economy," "It's like a flu, no it's like a plague." Actually, we can partially reopen the economy (most retail, with precautions, but not, say, nightclubs), and it IS a mild flu for some, and a death-sentence for others.

III. The Comfort of Theatricality: Hygiene theater (like sanitizing surfaces) provides the appearance of diligence and the comfort of doing something, but it distracts from taking steps that address the most recent science, like mitigating aerosol spread.

IV. Personal Blame Over Systemic Fixes: You can't recycle your way out of climate change, you can't shop your way out of monopoly capitalism, and your personal health strategies won't stop the systemic problems exacerbating the pandemic.

Without sick leave, workplace safety, child care and transit, people will do things that put themselves and others at risk. Americans love to moralize, but they're terrible at systems thinking.

V. The Normality Trap: We want things back the way they were, and this can overpower our commonsense: we want to re-open tattoo parlors or movie theaters because that tells us it's finally over.

VI. Magical Thinking: Remember Trump's "Maybe this goes away with heat and light?" I confess that I get up every morning, make a cup of coffee and think, "Maybe today's the day this ends." It's impossible not to have these daydreams – but in America, they become policy.

VII. The Complacency of Inexperience: If you come from a privileged group with few cases and few comorbidities, you assume that if we just "let nature take its course," things won't be so bad.

Countries that have had recent experience with epidemics did so much better than the US. That's why poor African countries – who survived ebola – are kicking America's ass when it comes to addressing the virus.

VIII. A Reactive Rut: We suck at understanding exponential growth, and this deficit is worsened by the time-gap between infection and symptoms, which makes it hard to emotionally grasp the connection between "superspreader" events and outbreaks weeks later.

This confounds our ability to do long-term planning, as we just keep expecting things will be OK in a month or two, and we don't need to (for example) figure out how schooling will work when the virus is still raging.

IX: The Habituation of Horror: Remember the movement to "not normalize Trump?" It was always doomed to fail. Human stimulus response always regresses to the mean – that is, if you're exposed to the same thing all the time, no matter how terrible, you get used to it.

Just ask children of abusive parents, or prisoners in solitary, or Auschwitz survivors. Everything becomes normal over time.

Yong: "The U.S. might stop treating the pandemic as the emergency that it is. Daily tragedy might become ambient noise. The desire for normality might render the unthinkable normal. Like poverty, racism, school shootings, police brutality, mass incarceration, sexual harassment, widespread extinctions and changing climate, covid might become yet another unacceptable thing the US accepts."

Security Engineering, 3d edition (permalink)

Ross Anderson's SECURITY ENGINEERING is a bedrock textbook for computer scientists – and also remarkably accessible to laypeople. To call it a classic is to massively understate the case (same goes for "indispensable," etc).

Anderson's just completed a long-awaited third edition, and he's put his draft chapters online as a free preview:

I was delighted to see that I'm quoted in the epigraph to Chapter 11, "Inference Control":

"Anonymized data' is one of those holy grails, like 'healthy ice-cream' or 'selectively breakable crypto.'"

Alexa for landlords (permalink)

Today in "Cyberpunk is a warning, not a suggestion" news, Amazon has released a landlord edition of its Alexa surveillance speaker that can be forced upon tenants.

Here's Amazon's pitch: Landlord Alexa "makes it easy for property managers to set up and manage Alexa-powered smart home experiences throughout their buildings."

Satire is dead. Poe's Law rules all.

Landlord Alexa incorporates special commands that "let their residents pay rent, submit maintenance requests, and manage other things."

It also lets landlords "drop in" (Alexaspeak for "trigger the mic and camera") in their tenants' homes.

Amazon claims they've taken steps to prevent nonconsensual surveillance, but as Joanna Nelius writes for Gizmodo, there are so many trivial ways that landlords could circumvent Amazon's precautions.

It's as simple as adding themselves as a contact on the device before turning it over to you (indeed, this is so trivial that one must presume that Amazon either did no security analysis at all here, or that this is deliberate).

And of course, if you forget to set "Do Not Disturb" when you're not home, your landlord can just virtually "drop in" and surveil your residence without leaving any trace.

I am well aware that I wrote one of the definitive texts on how evil landlords could exploit IoT devices to torment their tenants (how could I forget when so many people sent me this story!), but honestly, Unauthorized Bread was not a pitch deck.

This day in history (permalink)

#5yrsago Data is a liability, not an asset

#1yrago Majority of period-tracking app share incredibly sensitive data with Facebook and bottom-feeding analytics companies

#1yrago A symphony orchestra in masks and helmets perform for Hong Kong's protesters

#1yrago The EU's top trustbuster gets a surprise re-appointment

Colophon (permalink)

Today's top sources: Kottke (, Memex 1.1 (, Four Short Links (, Naked Capitalism (, Schneier (

Currently writing: My next novel, "The Lost Cause," a post-GND novel about truth and reconciliation. Yesterday's progress: 535 words (59994 total).

Currently reading: Gideon the Ninth, Tamsyn Muir

Latest podcast: Chapter 1 of Attack Surface, the third Little Brother novel

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When life gives you SARS, you make sarsaparilla -Joey "Accordion Guy" DeVilla