What Happens When You Marry The NSA's Surveillance Database With Amazon's Personalized Marketing?

from the spying-in-the-service-of-seduction dept

By now, most people who shop online are aware of the way in which companies try to tailor their offers based on your previous purchasing and browsing history. Being followed by strangely relevant ads everywhere is bad enough, but what if the government started using the same approach in its communications with you? That's one of the key ideas explored in an interesting new article by Zeynep Tufekci, strikingly presented on Medium, with the title "Is the Internet good or bad? Yes."

Tufekci suggests that neither of the two main metaphors regularly wheeled out for today's global surveillance -- George Orwell's "1984" and Jeremy Bentham's Panopticon -- is right:

To understand the actual -- and truly disturbing -- power of surveillance, it's better to turn to a thinker who knows about real prisons: the Italian writer, politician, and philosopher Antonio Gramsci, who was jailed by Mussolini and did most of his work while locked up. Gramsci understood that the most powerful means of control available to a modern capitalist state is not coercion or imprisonment, but the ability to shape the world of ideas.
The question then becomes: how can people's ideas be shaped so as to control them? Simply bombarding the population with messages only works for a while, until people become jaded and resistant to them. That's where Edward Snowden's revelations about "big data surveillance" come in, Tufekci suggests:
Individually tailored, subtle messages are less likely to produce a cynical reaction. Especially so if the data collection that makes these messages possible is unseen. That's why it's not only the NSA that goes to great lengths to keep its surveillance hidden. Most Internet firms also try to monitor us surreptitiously.
She's worried about this approach being used to influence people's political behavior, and points to a recent study in Nature that explored precisely this area:
By altering a message designed to encourage people to vote so that it came with affirmation from a person's social network, rather than being impersonal, the researchers had shown that they could persuade more people to participate in an election. Combine such nudges with psychological profiles, drawn from our online data, and a political campaign could achieve a level of manipulation that exceeds that possible via blunt television adverts.
Indeed, Tufekci thinks the process has already begun:
During a break [in a conference called "Data-Crunched Democracy"], I cornered the chief scientist on Obama's data analytics team, who in a previous job ran data analytics for supermarkets. I asked him if what he does now -- marketing politicians the way grocery stores market products on their shelves -- ever worried him. It's not about Obama or Romney, I said. This technology won't always be used by your team. In the long run, the advantage will go to the highest bidder, the richer campaign.

He shrugged, and retreated to the most common cliché used to deflect the impact of technology: "It’s just a tool," he said. "You can use it for good; you can use it for bad."
That's hardly very comforting, and neither is Tufekci's concluding thought:
Internet technology lets us peel away layers of divisions and distractions and interact with one another, human to human. At the same time, the powerful are looking at those very interactions, and using them to figure out how to make us more compliant. That's why surveillance, in the service of seduction, may turn out to be more powerful and scary than the nightmares of Nineteen Eighty-Four.
Follow me @glynmoody on Twitter or identi.ca, and +glynmoody on Google+



Reader Comments (rss)

(Flattened / Threaded)

  1.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Feb 21st, 2014 @ 8:08pm

    By altering a message designed to encourage people to vote so that it came with affirmation from a person's social network, rather than being impersonal, the researchers had shown that they could persuade more people to participate in an election. Combine such nudges with psychological profiles, drawn from our online data, and a political campaign could achieve a level of manipulation that exceeds that possible via blunt television adverts.


    Except I know and talk to the people in my social network. If I get a message from someone I know telling me to vote a certain way, and I ask them about it and they have no idea what I am talking about... there would be a big-time backfire. Now you've impersonated my friend, and NONE of my friends or his friends are likely to vote for you once we tell them what you did. If you're trying to do this on a scale that would influence an election, you will get caught.

    Unless I'm misunderstanding what they're trying to do here.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  2.  
    identicon
    Zem, Feb 21st, 2014 @ 10:45pm

    Rushes off to study law just so I can represent the bride during the divorce.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  3.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Feb 22nd, 2014 @ 12:17am

    vote influncing

    encoraging votes for a particular candidate, is only one trick to play, a more reliable trick is to discourage people voting for the other guy.

    1. your facebook friends tell you something bad about a particular candidate


    2. you are disapointed, you dont vote for you favourite candidate, you stay at home/work on election day


    3. the rat-bag candidate wins the election, you were manipulated by the use of social media


    this is how you will be manipulated, you won't even spot it happening

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  4.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Feb 22nd, 2014 @ 3:50am

    Meanwhile in Thailand

    I'd love to go back to the days when we I just had NSA surveillance to complain about here on Techdirt!

    We're getting shot and bombed by a paramilitary mob in Bangkok for daring to want democracy.

    They threw a hand-grenade at a policeman, blew his foot off, and the coup-court said the police couldn't arrest them or take away any bomb chemicals, or weapons because it was a political protest.

    So now we had drug dealers dressing up as protestors, so the police can't confiscate their meth-amphetamine pills!

    A 'popcorn' shooter shot people trying to recapture the ballot boxes from this militia, and the coup-court ruled he can't be arrested because the video, eye witnesses and photographs were not enough evidence for arrest.

    There boss Suthep is threatening his popcorn men will come after our elected Prime Minister. Can we get this terrorist arrested? No, the coup-court says not!

    And to cap it all off, this military group even has a Facebook page, dresses up woman in 'popcorn army' shirts and parades them around Bangkok reminding people they can kill with impunity!

    https://www.facebook.com/AnonymousArmy

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  5.  
    icon
    silverscarcat (profile), Feb 22nd, 2014 @ 6:35am

    And yet another reason...

    Why I don't use social media.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  6.  
    identicon
    edpo, Feb 22nd, 2014 @ 7:21am

    Re: And yet another reason...

    And this is one of the reasons why government surveillance is bad. Despite what we think about social media itself, at the end of the day it is still about people deciding to connect and communicate with each other with some commercially available tool. The government should stay out of that transaction.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  7.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Feb 22nd, 2014 @ 8:05am

    Re:

    I thought impersonating others was illegal in one way or another. Fraud maybe.

    I suppose when a corporation or rich person commits crime it is ok, but you had better think twice if you are not within the entitled class.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  8.  
    icon
    Alien Rebel (profile), Feb 22nd, 2014 @ 10:52am

    The Matrix

    Given our vastly more complex and diverse communications ecosystem, totalitarian regimes cannot realistically hope to commandeer, shut down, or otherwise neutralize all media as was done in your great-grandpappy's Germany. The thing now is to get people to settle in to their own comfortable bubble of reality, and "choose to accept the program, even if it is on an unconscious level"

    Seems to me like it's working pretty well, given the number of Americans all comfy in pink goo filled pods, being fed the artificial reality piped in to them via MSM. The Wachowski Brothers got it right; so did Zynep Tufekci.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  9.  
    icon
    xz11111000000 (profile), Feb 22nd, 2014 @ 12:20pm

    So I have totally the wrong username?

    Is Antonio_Gramsci_awesomess_01 available?

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  10.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Feb 22nd, 2014 @ 1:03pm

    Lets talk money: how much will it cost us?

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  11.  
    identicon
    Techanon, Feb 23rd, 2014 @ 1:01am

    Re:

    "Affirmation" can come in the form of up/down-votes (Facebook's 'like button' for example) too. How likely are you to question likes?

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  12.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Feb 23rd, 2014 @ 4:37am

    This is already going on

    Just look at the liberal media. They all stay on message and support Obama in his lies. They ignore anything that tarnishes him. The truly sad part is how many people fall for this.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  13.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Feb 23rd, 2014 @ 6:20am

    Re:

    Part of the trick is that a lot of ppl have dozens if not hundreds of 'friends' on facebook they don't actually talk to.
    The aim here just like a casino only gives itself odds of 51%, isn't to make 100% of ppl vote a certain way, just to tip the odds slightly in their favor that you'll vote for X instead of Y so that over a large enough population, the slight tip pushes the election their way.

    OR if you're really smart, you do the same thing for the OTHER guy, but 'expose' whats going on so everyone stops voting for the 'fraudster'.......

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  14.  
    icon
    William Payne (profile), Feb 23rd, 2014 @ 8:01am

    Controlling the spread of ideas using techniques from the control of epidemic disease.

    Originally written in response to: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CZNrOzgNWf4

    If violence spreads like an epidemic, then techniques developed to control TB, Cholera and Aids can also be applied to control and reduce the spread of violent behaviour.

    It seems to work rather well.

    More controversially, one can easily imagine this technique being used to control and manage the spread of other undesirable behaviours or ideologies: Religious extremism, for example.

    To do this efficiently, however, you would need to understand the network of influence that connects individuals: You would need to build a social graph for the whole at-risk population, so you can identify "carriers" and isolate them, as well as identify the group of "at risk" individuals who have been exposed to the ideology; so preventative workers can try to contain the outbreak.

    Of course, this would work for any "infectious" ideology; not just religious extremism, but also any arbitrary political ideology or system of belief that follows the "epidemic" model of transmission.

    The implications for political campaign work are obvious. You would need to target your efforts, not on people already predisposed to your cause, but on political activists working for the opponent; and on the individuals in their circle of influence.

    In other words, you would need to concentrate on controlling the spread of the opposing ideology, not only on promoting the spread of your own.

    Naturally, this all seems a bit sinister and manipulative, but if it works and is effective, then I can quite easily see it being adopted, if it is not already standard practice.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  15.  
    icon
    That One Guy (profile), Feb 23rd, 2014 @ 9:31am

    Re: This is already going on

    'Liberal media'? Sorry, but these days there really isn't any such thing, you've just got 'conservative' and 'slightly less conservative', and that's about it when it comes to the MSM.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  16.  
    icon
    Alien Rebel (profile), Feb 23rd, 2014 @ 10:32am

    Re: This is already going on

    Liberal Media? Stop; just stop.

    To continue with the movie plot, the first matrix failed because nobody accepted the contentment and harmony of the original design. Now, however, we have our pro-wrestling spectacle of MSNBC vs. FOX, which unfortunately too many people accept as the whole of reality.

    A case can be made that President Obama is actually a program from the machine world, and just another level of control. His push for TPP and use of drones (Sentinels?) has me scratching my head.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  17.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Feb 23rd, 2014 @ 10:38am

    "What Happens When You Marry The NSA's Surveillance Database With Amazon's Personalized Marketing?"

    Thought Police

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  18.  
    identicon
    Alice, Feb 23rd, 2014 @ 11:43am

    Gramsci & "common sense".

    Gramsci actually went on to say that in order to maintain the comfortable status quo, you need to make your own culture, values and objectives sound like ‘common sense’ to everyone else. And to do this, you need to manipulate the language. Thus mass surveillance makes perfect sense in terms of 'the war on terror', whilst being in fact both insane and unsustainable.
    "Alice".

    '..whenever speech is corrupted, so is the mind..' (Lucius Annaeus Seneca)

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  19.  
    identicon
    @b, Feb 23rd, 2014 @ 5:03pm

    "he most powerful means of control available to a modern capitalist state is not coercion or imprisonment, but the ability to shape the world of ideas."

    Our ethics ain't so sophisticated. Coercion *is* idea-shaping.

    We are but mouth-talkers, electing other naked primates.

    We each think we can spot goodness and we boldly insist that others cannot. We cannot all be correct.

    If we decry those who exploit the way brains work to teach us how to best teach the next generation, then we object not just to techno-politricks -- but to natural philosophy and academia as a whole.

    Politicians ignoring the advice of modern ethicists, are committing treason against democracy -- it's covert mob-rules, an amoral tyranny of the majority.

    The modern capitalist state needs more political-participation than merely those ethically-motivated, we need to teach the next gen to be ethically-educated. So we need a way to decide whose ethics best suits our internet age.

    If it's to be a pirate party, then we have an epic ways to go to change rich mens' minds!

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  20.  
    identicon
    wholentirename, Feb 24th, 2014 @ 12:34am

    It's a brave new world

    People, we long ago gave in without even knowing it. Television? And its granddaddy the Telegraph? We're all sitting in front of a screen. Hello? We're all so worried that we've arrived at Orwell's "1984" when we're really living in Huxley's "Brave New World". Hasn't anyone read Neil Postman's "Amusing Ourselves to Death"?

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  21.  
    icon
    Another Mike (profile), Feb 24th, 2014 @ 5:35am

    The publication in Nature is probably this one:
    http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v489/n7415/abs/nature11421.html

    Behind a paywall, naturally :-)

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  22.  
    identicon
    Pragmatic, Feb 24th, 2014 @ 6:18am

    Re: Re: Re:

    Which explains the frantic assertions that Snowden is a traitor, etc., except that few of us believe that's true.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  23.  
    identicon
    Pragmatic, Feb 24th, 2014 @ 6:19am

    Re: The Matrix

    Does that mean Fox is reliable, then?

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  24.  
    icon
    John Fenderson (profile), Feb 24th, 2014 @ 8:37am

    Re: Re:

    "I thought impersonating others was illegal in one way or another. Fraud maybe."

    I think it depends on why you're impersonating them. Making fun of them? Perfectly OK. Taking loans out in their name? Fraud.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  25.  
    identicon
    Joy, Mar 22nd, 2014 @ 8:02pm

    Re :

    They threw a hand-grenade at a policeman, blew his foot off, and the coup-court said the police couldn't arrest them or take away any bomb chemicals, or weapons because it was a political protest.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]


Add Your Comment

Have a Techdirt Account? Sign in now. Want one? Register here
Get Techdirt’s Daily Email
Save me a cookie
  • Note: A CRLF will be replaced by a break tag (<br>), all other allowable HTML will remain intact
  • Allowed HTML Tags: <b> <i> <a> <em> <br> <strong> <blockquote> <hr> <tt>
Follow Techdirt
A word from our sponsors...
Essential Reading
Techdirt Reading List
Techdirt Insider Chat
A word from our sponsors...
Recent Stories
A word from our sponsors...

Close

Email This