About Rex Troumbley

Rex is a PhD candidate in the Department of Political Science and Alternative Futures at the University of Hawai'i at Manoa. His dissertation research deals with the politics of taboo language and censorship. His latest research deals with the ways in which automatic filters and algorithmic language controls shape online discourse.

Human Computing and the Gamification of Surveillance Analysis

Recently unveiled surveillance blimp; courtesy of Raytheon, via Slate

Since the US invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, the American military has worked to create a system of virtually continual real-time drone surveillance of the entire country. The system is not entirely automatic, however: in 2010, Marine Corps General James E. Cartwright noted that at least 19 analysts were needed to process video feeds from a single Predator drone. Looking through thousands of hours of collected video and audio recordings is particularly difficult. Cartwright described the work of analysis as sitting for hours watching “Death TV,” searching for single or valid targets, an activity he called “a waste of manpower [and] inefficient.”

To combat this inefficiency, researchers have experimented with building smarter cameras, capable of recognizing and reporting on suspicious activity, but the development of information gathering technology continues to far outpace the ability of computers to make sense of what has been collected. As an alternative, organizations have experimented with crowd sourcing the work of analysis to online volunteers; the US Air Force even asked ESPN for help looking through the footage. But what happens when the work becomes play, and the people involved don’t know they’re working as surveillance analysts?

courtesy of NASA

In 2000, NASA began outsourcing the tedious job of identifying craters on the moon and Mars by encouraging pubic volunteers, nicknamed “clickworkers,” to identify craters in photographs posted online. What would have taken a graduate student a year to accomplish was completed in only a week. In 2006, the state of Texas installed webcams along the Mexico border, streamed the feeds online, and encouraged the public to help monitor them for suspicious activities. One woman watching at 3:00 AM noticed someone signaling a pickup truck on the webcam and notified the police, which led to a high speed chase and the seizure of over 400 pounds of marijuana. Following the 2011 riots in London, police asked the public to look through thousands hours of CCTV footage and submit their own photos and videos to identify individuals who had participated in looting. Recently, a start-up in the UK began offering a service called “Internet Eyes,” which connects the country’s ubiquitous CCTVs to the Internet and offers the public rewards for identifying people committing crimes.

Important to note is that crowdsourced surveillance efforts don’t necessarily lead to results: following the December 2012 shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School, police asked for assistance from online crowds and were led to the wrong person. Following the April 2013 Boston Marathon bombings, a similar call for crowd assistance interfered with investigations and led to the wrongful accusation of several innocent people.

While many of these projects use crowdsourced volunteers to handle tasks computers are not able to do, the volunteers participating are typically aware of how their work is being used. These projects attract volunteers willing to give up a little of their time to help with a project they’re interested in seeing succeed or help catch someone suspected of wrongdoing. In contrast, the next generation of surveillance analysis doesn’t require volunteers to know who they’re working for or even that they’re working.

In order to tell the difference between human users and computer programs designed to spam websites, computer scientist Luis von Ahn created CAPTCHA, which presents users with a challenge-response test, usually a simple mathematical operation or an image of obscured text not readable by a computer, which a user must answer or interpret to proceed. Researchers associated with Project Gutenburg realized that CAPTCHA “had unwittingly created a system that was frittering away, in ten-second increments, millions of hours of a most precious resource: human brain cycles.” They created a new system, reCAPTCHA, that could test for human users with images scanned from books that could not be read by a computer. Humans could decipher these scanned texts and, by entering them in as answers to the test, Project Gutenburg would be able to digitize enormous amounts of text. Since reCAPTCHA was acquired by Google in 2009, thousands of Google Books and nearly the entire archive of the New York Times have been digitized by millions of people who were not aware they were working for the project. In 2012, reCAPTCHA began using photographs of house numbers taken from Google’s Street View project. Last month, the ACLU compiled a report that found that police departments across the US were using automatic license plate scanners to track and retain the movements of millions of Americans. The “automatic” scanners are often able to read and convert the images of license plates into computer-readable text on their own, but reCAPTCHA has also been used to digitize the more difficult images.

Luis von Ahn noticed how many hours people spent playing Windows Solitaire and devised an online game called “ESP” in which two players would be randomly shown a pair of images and asked to guess the word that best described the pair. When both players made the same guess, they would win points. Playing the game also contributed to building a database of labels for graphical search engines. Without even knowing it, millions of people playing an online game were helping to build surveillance databases and were working for free helping improve the ability for computers to search images.

Big gaming companies and other groups are also taking note of the possibilities for “human computation” embedded in games. After researchers at the University of Washington led by David Baker successfully solved the puzzle of an AIDS-causing virus that had stumped scientists for 15 years in only ten days using an online game called Foldit in 2012, the gamification of tedious labor has been a popular concept. In early 2013, the Internet Response League launched a plugin that allows online gamers to help support disaster response operations. In Word of Warcraft, for example, gamers can receive disaster alerts and momentarily interrupt their play to tag images of disaster areas and rank them according to their severity. For the past four years, Ubisoft has been developing a new kind of game called Watch Dogs, set to be released in December 2013. As part of its marketing campaign for Watch Dogs, Ubisoft launched a website called WeareData that gathers and graphs real-world city data from London, Berlin, and Paris. Real-time data, including social network updates, the locations of Wi-Fi hotspots, and feeds from CCTV cameras, is streamed onto the site’s 3D city maps. The actual game will also include these streams and is built to connect with players’ Twitter, Flickr, Instagram, Facebook, and other social media accounts to provide seamless integration of these networks with game play.

Ubisoft’s marketing website and eventual game highlights our visibility online (something we’re already acutely aware of since the revelation of PRISM and other government data surveillance programs), but also suggests an alternative future of surveillance and analysis than the kind popularized by George Orwell’s invention of Big Brother. It may not be long before someone like Luis von Ahn builds systems that rely upon the unwitting assistance of crowds to analyze CCTV feeds looking for criminals or someone like David Baker makes decrypting communications and files a fun game. Future players tagging photos in connected games like Watch Dogs might be helping to identify participants in riots while also collecting data on other players. People posting comments online, taking and tagging pictures for social networks, or simply drawing unlock patterns on their smartphone screens may help sort through the glut of gathered information. The surveillance analysts of the future may not be people wearing clipped on name badges watching hours of Death TV at the Pentagon. The work of watching and reporting may be done by all of us as we go about the everyday routines of digital life or escape for a while with a fun new game.

#imweekly: July 29, 2013

United Kingdom
News reports and online discussions on freedom of expression have been dominated this week by Prime Minister David Cameron’s proposals to require ISP-level anti-pornography filters. Cameron’s motivations for the proposal have been questioned, especially after ISPs disclosed that the filter settings include blocks for many other kinds of online content such as social networking, gambling, file sharing, or sites concerned with drugs, alcohol and tobacco. The UK government’s reliance on the Chinese telecom firm Huawei to maintain the list of blocked  sites and the decision to turn the filter on by default, requiring users to opt-out of filtered access, has prompted strong responses from freedom of expression and privacy advocates. Adding to the controversy, hackers posted pornographic images on the website of Claire Perry, one of the architects of the ISP-level filters. Perry’s response generated more controversy when she accused the blogger who reported the hack as being responsible for the content; critics argue her responses demonstrate a poor understanding of digital technologies.

It’s been a controversial week for the Russian Internet. The country’s recent waves of violence against members of the LGBTQ community have been facilitated by social networks, which vigilantes use to identify and physically locate victims, and by the ability to share bullying videos online. The U.S. has also identified several young Russians behind top U.S. cyber thefts in the last seven years, leading to arrests and extraditions. Finally, the head of the Russian State Duma’s Committee for Family, Women, and Children has proposed modifications to Russia’s existing content rules to block bad language from social networks, websites, and forums. Earlier this year, Russia banned swearing from its media outlets and prohibited countries from making products featuring swear words. Also, today Ilya Segalovich, the co-founder of Russia’s largest search engine Yandex, has died.

Shortly after the UK announced it would be requiring ISPs to filter adult content, the Australian Christian Lobby announced it would be renewing its campaigns to block porn in Australia. In 2008 Australia attempted to pass similar porn-blocking legislation, but lack of popular support killed the proposed plan when the Coalition government refused to vote on the matter. At the same time, Australia’s Parliamentary Inquiry into the higher prices charged by IT companies selling hardware, software, and digital downloads in Australia recommended that the Australian government educate consumers in circumventing the geolocation tools used by IT companies to determine where buyers are located. The Inquiry also required testimony from representatives of Apple, Adobe, and Microsoft as to the reasons for the higher prices, but found these companies could not satisfactorily explain the reason for increasing product prices when sold to people in Australia.

United States
This week, an anonymous web developer claimed that the U.S. government is requiring companies to turn over encryption keys. The U.S. government has so far denied the claims and some companies, like Microsoft and Google, have declined to say whether the government has made any such requests, but indicate they will not comply if asked for server-to-server email encryption keys. Also, an Internet monitoring company released a study which found that Google is responsible for 25% of all Internet traffic in North America, which is more than Facebook, Netflix, and Instagram combined. This is up from 6% of Internet traffic in 2010. Finally, a Texas man was charged this week for creating an operating a Bitcoin Ponzi scheme worth approximately $65 million at today’s exchange rate. The scam involved using money from new investors to make “interest” payments to earlier ones and to cover withdrawals.

#imweekly is a regular round-up of news about Internet content controls and activity around the world. To subscribe via RSS, click here.

Cloud Computing, Cloud Polluting?: An Update

Last month, we explored the very real environmental costs of Internet services, particularly those raised by the growing trend of moving data processing and storage into “the cloud.” Since then, the energy and carbon costs of the Internet and cloud computing have been a hot topic. Some IT companies have been capitalizing on the concern as well. Last month, Microsoft began touting its Internet Explorer 10 browser as the most energy efficient browser available, estimating that if every Google Chrome and Mozilla Firefox user in the US switched to IE 10 for a year, the energy saved could power 10,000 households for a year. EBay has taken things a step further and is publicly disclosing its energy usage with an impressive online dashboard.

In another exciting development, researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign are hoping to combat e-waste. Project leader John Rogers, a material scientist, recently gave details on the project, which is hoping to develop circuit boards that safely decompose when exposed to water. In his report, Rogers suggests consumer “dissolving” electronics are on the horizon.

Additionally, this week the US Department of Energy announced plans to establish minimum efficiency standards for all servers and computers sold in the United States.

Perhaps the most significant development over the past month is the publication of a study on the efficiency of data servers done by Jonathan Koomey at Stanford University’s Steyer-Taylor Center for Energy Policy and Finance. Koomey’s study found that that larger companies like Google, Facebook, Amazon, and eBay have been working toward building sustainable data centers. However, the study also found significant waste from organizations whose servers are used by media companies, government, universities, and airlines. The study concluded that many servers could be easily and cheaply modified to use up to 80% less energy, but that a major obstacle to implementing these changes is the gap between who produces and installs the technologies and who is responsible for paying the electric bill. Koomey summarized the gap by asking “Who designs and builds your cable box? The cable company. Who pays the electric bill? You do. So, you end up with a cat warmer on your shelf.”

Another problem the study identifies is the tendency of policymakers and environmental organizations to focus on using renewable energy instead of improving the efficiency of current data centers. Koomey suggests institutions make their centers efficient first, and then worry about switching to renewable energy sources after. This will have the added benefit of making the switch easier and more practical, since renewable energy typically produces less power than traditional sources. In other words, fix the leaky pipes before worrying about making a more efficient pump. The good news is that once these institutional issues are addressed, many data servers can be made more efficient using off-the-shelf equipment and simple management strategies.

Flying Past Filters and Firewalls: Pigeons as Circumvention Tools

credit: zeevveez/Flickr

On June 14, 2013, Google announced that it would begin sending experimental balloons, loaded down with Internet hotspot equipment, into the stratosphere to help connect the estimated 4.5 billion people who do not have access to the Internet, many of whom live in rural areas. Google’s project, named “Loon,” quickly grabbed the attention and imagination of people living in countries where Internet censorship is the norm. Abdullah Hamed, CEO and founder of the popular Saudi gaming platform GameTako, reacted to Google’s announcement by posing a provoking question (or taunt) to local Emirati telecom companies and the Saudi government on Twitter.

Hamed’s question was a good one to put to the Saudi government and telecom companies who regularly block websites and ban unsanctioned communications services such as the VoIP product Viber. Hamed’s question soon got an answer, but not from the Saudi government or any other state that censors its Internet; Hamed was answered by Google. The company announced that it would be obtaining all the proper air travel permissions and radio frequency licenses, and will connect with local telecom networks as its balloons float by.

credit: purolipan/Flickr

In the late 1970s, small numbers of Iranians were permitted into Iraq to worship at the shrine of Imam Ali. After most of the pilgrims left the shrine, the exiled Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini would give impassioned anti-Shah lectures to the remaining visitors. Khomeini’s speeches were recorded onto cassette tapes, copied, and widely distributed on the streets of Tehran and other Iranian cities. The Shah’s government was aware of the tapes, and often destroyed copies it could find, but it did not manage to sufficiently disrupt the distribution network, and Khomeini’s influence in Iran grew. The CIA and the Shah’s information intelligence communities, looking in the wrong places, failed to see that the ground beneath them had shifted and were caught by surprise when the Iranian Revolution ousted the Shah’s government. In today’s increasingly connected world, we would call Khomeini’s followers members of a “sneakernet.” A sneakernet refers to the transfer of electronic information like computer files using removable media like magnetic tape, floppy disks, CDs, DVDs, USB flash drives, and external hard drives by someone wearing sneakers.  While sneakernets do still exist, many hung up their sneakers once broadband made sharing files faster and easier.

credit: Tony Marr/Flickr

Hamed’s excited tweet expressed his hope that floating balloons would connect people to the Internet and thwart government censorship policies. Instead of investing his hopes in Google Loon, Hamed might take seriously a proposal from the early days of the Internet that seems loonier than Google Loon, but might be more practical for circumventing network censorship or avoiding government scrutiny by programs like PRISM or the recently discovered snooping via the US Postal Service: IP over Avian Carriers (IPoAC). On April Fool’s Day, 1990, David Waitzman submitted a Request for Comments (RFC) to the Internet Engineering Task Force, the ad hoc body charged with developing and promoting Internet standards, on the idea of using carrier pigeons or other birds for the transmission of electronic data. Nine years later, again on April 1st, Waitzman issued another RFC suggesting improvements to his original protocol. On April 1, 2011, Brian Carpenter and Robert Hinden made their own RFC detailing how to use IPoAC with the latest revisions to the Internet Protocol IPv6.  While Waitzman, Carpenter, and Hinden clearly designed IPoAC as a joke, using birds to transfer digital media has been successfully tested. In 2004, inspired by the IPoAC idea, the Bergen Linux group sent nine pigeons, each carrying a single ping, three miles. (They only received four “responses,” meaning only four of the birds made it.)

credit: Alan Mays/Flickr

Not all the tests have ended in failure. In 2009, a South African marketing company targeted South Africa’s largest Internet Service provider, Telkom, for its slow ADSL speeds by racing a pigeon carrying a 4 GB memory stick against the upload of the same amount of data using Telkom’s service. After six minutes and 57 seconds, the pigeon arrived, easily beating Telkcom, which had only transferred 4 percent of the data in the same amount of time. In 2010, another person hoping to shame their ISP in Yorkshire, England raced a five-minute video on a memory card to a BBC correspondent 75 miles away using a carrier pigeon while simultaneously attempting to upload the same clip to YouTube. The pigeon made it in 90 minutes, well ahead of the YouTube video—which failed once during the race. In Fort Collins, Colorado, rafting photographers routinely use pigeons to carry memory sticks from their cameras to tour operators over 30 miles away, and prisoners in Brazil have been caught using pigeons to smuggle cellphones into their prison cells.

credit: Windell H. Oskay/Flickr

Suggesting that pigeons might be faster than Internet connections might seem ridiculous, but as the information density of storage media has increased, and continues to increase, many times faster than the Internet bandwidth available to move it, IPoAC might not be so far-fetched. Over the last 20 years, the available storage space of hard disks of the same physical size has increased roughly 100 percent per year, while the capacity of Internet connections has only increase by 30-40 percent each year. Sneakernets might have gone out of fashion as bandwidth speeds increased, but as storage capacity increases—along with our need to fill those capacities—pigeon-powered networks may become a practical alternative to existing networks. While no one brought up the idea of using pigeons at Google’s “How green is the Internet?” summit last month, pigeons may also be a more sustainable and environmentally friendly way to transfer data in the future.

Even if the increasing gap between storage and mobility doesn’t become a problem, Internet censorship or privacy issues might spur the development of a Pigeonet. Earlier this month Anthony Judge, who worked from the 1960s until 2007 for the UN’s Union of International Associations and is known for developing the most extensive databases on global civil society, published a detailed proposal titled “Circumventing Invasive Internet Surveillance with Carrier Pigeons.” In the proposal, Judge discusses the proven competence of carrier pigeons for delivering messages, their non-military and military messaging capacity, and the history of using pigeons to transfer digital data. Judge acknowledges that pigeon networks have their own susceptibilities (such as disease or being lured off course by an attractive decoy), but argues we should not be so quick to dismiss the idea. As governments, and compliant corporations, increasingly block or filter access to the Internet, data capacities and data production increase beyond bandwidth limitations, and we begin to realize the environmental costs of running the Internet, sneakernets and pigeonets may become increasingly attractive options for transmitting data.

Is the Internet for Porn?

Warning posted at Indian Cybercafe: credit Kaustav Bhattacharya/Flickr

Last week, the Indian government made the controversial decision to ban several websites that allow users to share porn online. While watching pornography is not illegal in India (except child pornography), the decision has required Internet service providers to block 39 websites, most of them web forums used mainly to share and store non-pornographic files. The decision has been criticized as being an overreach by the government and as demonstrating the government’s interest in regulating what people watch on the Web.

The decision is strikingly reminiscent of a similar decision made by the Chinese government in 2004. China required ISPs and websites to sign a self-disciplinary act to stamp out online pornography, and the government shut down 700 sites, arresting more than 200 people in connection with online porn. In an odd reversal of position, during the 2010 anniversary of the Tienanmen Square protests, China suddenly unblocked thousands of porn sites. Some speculated the government unblocked the sites to calm some of the discontent felt by citizens and distract them from any possible political action.China may have been onto something in using online porn to prevent riots in the street. Last week on Monday night, during the final game of the Stanley Cup, statisticians at the adult website Pornhub kept hour-by-hour tabs on incoming traffic to their site. After the Boston Bruins were defeated by the Chicago Blackhawks, Pornhub noticed a 21% spike in traffic incoming from Boston after the game, with significantly below average traffic coming from Chicago. While Chicagoans were celebrating winning their first Stanley Cup in four years, some Boston fans consoled themselves online.

courtesy of PornHub

Regulating Internet pornography has been an issue in the United States since the advent of the World Wide Web, something made explicit in the short-lived 1996 Communications Decency Act. The issue of Internet pornography recently reappeared in Congress during the December 2011 debates over the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) when Rep. Jared Polis entered the lyrics from a popular YouTube clip into the official record. The lyrics came from Avenue Q, a musical parody of Sesame Street, in which a woman tries to explain the Internet to a group of puppets. The clip—titled “The Internet is For Porn”—went viral on YouTube. During the charged debate, Polis declared that “a high percentage” of the Internet is used for porn and labeled the Web “a pornographer’s wet dream!”

Statistics differ on how much of the Internet is devoted to porn. In 2011, Forbes estimated that approximately 4% of the world’s websites are devoted to porn, but other estimates suggest that at least one third of all online traffic is pornography. Additionally, an ExtremeTech article last year found that the porn site YouPorn hosts over 100TB of porn and serves up an average of 950 terabytes of data transfer each day. Based on the number of visits, the largest porn site on the web, Xvideos, receives approximately 4.4 billion page views per month (which is three times the size of ESPN or CNN and double Reddit’s traffic) and streams the equivalent of 10 dual-layer DVDs every second. And while most websites are lucky to keep viewers for 3-6 minutes per visit, porn sites average 15-20 minutes per visit.

courtesy of TheNicestGuy/Flickr

Porn has a long history with digital technologies and has been part of the Internet from the beginning. Before the World Wide Web, pornographic images had been sent over the Internet as ASCII art, which consisted of pictures composed of 95 keyboard characters to form a text based visual composition. Usenet groups made sharing images over the narrow bandwidth of the 1990s possible. These images were often scans of adult magazines, which could be downloaded for free, and anonymously. Even earlier, researchers developing digital scanning and laying the foundations for the JPEG format in the 1970s—funded by the Pentagon in connection with the Internet predecessor ARPANETscanned a copy of Lena Söderberg’s 1972 Playboy photo shoot. In 1997, Söderberg was even invited to be a special guest at the 50th anniversary of conference of the Society for Imaging Science and Technology in Boston. The ubiquity of her electronic photograph has earned her the title of “first lady of the Internet” from the BBC.

Among other things, the porn industry has played a key role in many innovations on the Internet that have become staples of the everyday online experience, including online payment systems, spam, streaming content, malware, live chat, pop-ups, traffic optimization, affiliate marketing, and geo-location software. In the 1990s, Penthouse magazine sponsored the development of broadband by giving away free modems.


Outside of technological innovations, online porn has also caused some social innovations. Recognizing the appeal of online pornography, a Norwegian nonprofit organization called F*ck for Forest became the first eco-porn organization, raising money for rain forest protection by selling online porn it produces.

Online pornography has also influenced the development of electronic censorship and circumvention tools designed to get around censorship. In response to the Indian government’s recent decision to block porn sites, the director of the Centre for Internet and Society in Bangladore, Suni Abraham, argued “I have traveled to China and Middle East and have seen that people access pornographic websites using various web tools. In fact, by banning websites the governments have made it more alluring for users to watch and access pornography.” Governments clearly have an interest in regulating pornography, especially when its production or distribution takes advantage of vulnerable populations like children, but broadly blocking access to online porn may cause governments more trouble than it’s worth. The Internet is widely thought of as a tool for education, economic development, and civic engagement. Given the history of online pornography, it may be worth reconsidering the idea that the Internet really is, and maybe always has been, for porn.