Ontology of an Enemy: Total Surveillance

nym | 09:44 AM
How systems work, and understanding patterns has become more and more part of my everyday life, but the idea of building systems to create "Total Awareness" is so much like science fiction, yet so close to our everyday lives it's frightening. This small except is a quote from "How the Cyborgs Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Surveillance", which is far more in depth than just this small topic, and a fascinating read.
InferX privacy preserving real-time analytics is a data-mining tool based on previous research carried out by the parent company, Datamat, for the targeting of missile interceptors. It works by inserting an “InferAgent” program into an entire range of computer systems – banks, airports, ticketing agencies, harbor authorities, etc. – and then using encrypted transmissions to perform real-time pattern-recognition analysis on their data. The software is promoted by Michael Brown, the disgraced former head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA): “What these algorithms do is they look at what’s the normal pattern for any given set of data points, and if those veer off by any fashion, then the protocol says you need to look at that.” InferX is designed to hunt around the world for “unknown unknowns”: those things that “we don’t know we don’t know,” as Donald Rumsfeld put it. Because the data is not physically warehoused, it escapes the restrictions placed by Congress on DARPA’s Total Information Awareness. Indeed, the company has actively marketed its system for the US military’s TANGRAM project, which effectively replaces TIA. And InferX is a dual-use technology, including a marketing application: “InferCluster uses the same distributed architecture as InferAgent to send agents over networks for the clustering of groups of objects with similar features from multiple data sources. InferCluster can be used to group customers with similar purchasing behavior, or to even discover patterns of who is not buying and why.” In that last phrase, one begins to sense the disquieting pervasiveness of what Peter Galison calls “the ontology of the enemy.”

This article is wonderful because it touches on so much more, such as corporate analysis of core demographic groups of the United States, "It profiles the cultural background, lifestyle, hobbies and aspirations of each cluster, and it also tracks them through life-stage changes, allowing for what Acxiom calls “preemptive marketing,” or the chance to begin pitching products and services to households shortly before they enter a new phase.". It also talks about topics such as the Panopticon, and the Neo Conservative "takeover" because it's so directly tied in with the Total Information Awareness program and the idea of strategically determining preemptive policies.

Social interaction is such a core part of how technology grows, and how that technology can either change us, or how we can change others with technology. It's for that reason I have always been a fan of Steve Mann and his concept of "sousveillance", but in many ways, that's just batting at the low hanging fruit. When you think about what is known about each and every one of us in this society, does wearing cameras on our heads really change anything? The problems of surveillance are so much huger. This is really a topic in my mind that just won't go away.

[Link via delicious]

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