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.

China’s Reactions to the Snowden Story

This is a guest post.

On June 9, Edward Snowden, an American former contractor for the NSA, revealed himself as the whistleblower in one of the biggest surveillance scandals in US intelligence history.

Snowden’s flight to Hong Kong in late May stirred a wide and active response on the Chinese Internet. Snowden’s name was one of the top-ranked topics on China’s Twitter-like microblogging website Sina Weibo in June. Vexed by the country’s long-standing and prevalent surveillance system, many Chinese Internet users have hailed Snowden as a hero.

“He is brave. He is a real fighter for human rights. Now he is in China, we should protect him,” wrote Xiaodong Wang, an Internet user based in Beijing. Another user wrote, “it doesn’t matter whether you can call Snowden a hero. What’s worth of praise about him is he chose to break the rules rather than to be one of ‘the Great Silent Majority.’ Few people have his courage.”

Several prominent Weibo users with millions of followers, known as “Big Vs” for the large letter V (signaling a verified user) next to their account names, also expressed their appreciation of Snowden’s actions. Lvqiu Luwei, a well-known journalist who has 2.7 million followers on Weibo, wrote:

To the public, Snowden is a hero. But if he leaked the information to other governments or did this simply for money, people would think of him as a spy. I asked a guest in the programs I recorded yesterday, ‘will there be a Snowden in China?’ And the guest responded with a quick answer, ‘there won’t be a Snowden-like person in China. If there were, the person will never get out of the country.

Another popular user with the nickname “Pretending to be in New York” (@假装在纽约) posted the following comment on June 25, which gained momentum when circulated on the social media. The humorous tweet makes fun of the Snowden’s story while criticizing the dire human rights conditions and heavy-handed Internet control in China:

If Snowden were a Chinese citizen, 1) Hong Kong would agree to hand him over to the Chinese government; 2) the US would hail him as hero and then try to rescue him immediately; 3) his name would become a ‘sensitive word’ on the social media in China and all discussions related would be banned; 4) Over a thrilling struggle, he would finally board the airplane to New York; 5) people would acclaim the escape on the social media in China; 6) New York University would invite him to be a visiting scholar (referencing to the Chen Guangcheng incident); 7) the state-run Global Times would post articles criticizing Snowden, and it would become the target of Chinese netizen’s besiege. 8) American talk shows making fun of the story would be translated into Chinese.

Still, many Chinese were disappointed at the seeming hypocrisy of the US government, which appears to be engaging in activities more typically associated with the Chinese government. Though Hong Kong—which has a long tradition of free speech—operates separately from Mainland China, it is under the political influence of a nation known for its restrictions on free political expression.

To some in China, the news badly undermined the US government’s criticism of China over cyberespionage. “It looks like Obama has been assimilated by a certain political party (Communist Party of China),” Sina Weibo user Leigh Chiang wrote in a sentiment shared widely across the site.

Somewhere between 300 and 900 Hong Kong residents marched in support of Snowden, despite the ambiguous attitudes from the SAR (Special Administrative Region) government.  

Snowden’s announcement came as China began an official three-day holiday for the Dragon Boat Festival. Still, it managed to catch the eyes of the country’s social media users.

The leak broke just ahead of the much anticipated “laid-back” Sunnylands Summit between Obama and China’s Premier Xi Jinping – where, among other issues, cyber-security was prominent on the agenda. There’s no lack of irony in the leak. The US government has been criticizing the Chinese government for Internet filtering, and a more recent accusation made by the Obama administration is that China has been hacking into American computers. Now it turns out one of the biggest threats to the pursuit of individual freedom and privacy in the US may be the unbridled power of the government, according to a Chinese expert on American affairs. The country that seems to benefit most from Snowden’s revelations is China.

Bloomberg News reported that Lee Kai-Fu, the founding president of Google China, stated that Snowden’s revelation “seriously discredits” US claims about human rights and privacy. Lee, who has 49.3 million followers, is a Big V, also known as verified user on Sina Weibo. He wrote in a microblog post on June 11 that he admires Snowden’s “principles and values.”

Lee Kai-Fu’s criticism of the US government has invoked some criticism on social media, among which some netizens ridiculed him as turning his political stand to align with “Fifty Cent Party,” the people hired by the Chinese government to post comments favorable to the party to sway public opinions.

While Hong Kong-based media outlets are featuring Snowden in top headlines, the mainland Chinese media are not treating this like a big deal. Beijing has remained quite low-key towards the issue, with major news portals’ headlines saturated by the Obama-Xi meetings.

The Global Times, the tabloid-like subsidiary of The People’s Daily, which is the major state-run media outlet in China, ran an article about “the latest online spy game,” accompanied by a caricature cartoon of the NSA emblem, turning the bald eagle into a spy. The article said Snowden could offer intelligence that would help China update its understanding of cyberspace and improve its position in negotiations with Washington.

China’s largest state-run news agency, Xinhua, didn’t mention Snowden in the top 10 stories on its website’s front page. Xinhua has not published any specific reports on Snowden, though there is one video report on the NSA as a “spy agency.” It’s hard to tell whether the lack of reporting is a conscious decision to avoid stirring up a conversation that might come back to China again.

When the country’s media outlets constrained the urge to make the Snowden story headlines, news broke on June 22 that NSA targeted China’s top universities in extensive hacking attacks. Suddenly, reports began to emerge from repressed writers and editors; comments and discussions on the news overwhelmed social media in China.

“The U.S. Has Attacked Chinese Networks for 15 Years,” said a headline in The Yangtze Daily. “Snowden Leaks Information About Prism to Reveal the Hypocrisy of the U.S. Government,” added The Wuhan Evening News.

Tsinghua University was among the targets of NSA’s cyber-snooping activities, with at least 63 computers and servers attacked during a single day in January, according to information leaked by Snowden. The university is home to one of the mainland’s six major backbone networks – the China Education and Research Network (CERNET) – a hub from which Internet data from millions of Chinese citizens could be mined.

A spokesperson for China’s Foreign Ministry didn’t have an immediate comment on Mr. Snowden’s comments. Professor Xu Ke, deputy director of the Institute of Computer Networks at Tsinghua University, has previously said that most data passing through network backbones was not encrypted and that most attacks on such networks were carried out by governments, as individual hackers would face ‘colossal’ amounts of information that would be extremely difficult to handle.

While the mainstream media in China remained silent towards the PRISM scandal, observers have noticed the subtle changes of its contents. In April 2013, China tightened its media’s quotations of information from foreign press, aiming to exert stronger control over domestic media outlets. Ironically, Chinese media began to include more quotes from foreign press as the Snowden story was revealed.

#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.

Neuland or Nowhere Land? Reflecting on Evanescence, Immortality, and Internet Memes

In a joint press conference with President Obama last month, German Chancellor Angela Merkel referred to the Internet as “Neuland”—literally, an “uncharted territory”—in response to a question about initial reports of the US National Security Agency’s PRISM program. Specifically, she said the Internet was “new or uncharted territory for all of us.” Merkel’s words immediately became the target of a widespread meme. According to Der Spiegel, #Neuland began trending on Twitter within minutes, and images and gifs that poke fun at Merkel from different angles began circulating shortly thereafter. Some images cast Merkel as a luddite or “Internet granny,” while others depicted her as a futuristic imperialist with designs on the new world.

(Image source: Know Your Meme: Neuland)

When people hear the name Richard Dawkins, they might think of the Oxford educated evolutionary biologist, or perhaps the world’s most famous atheist, which he is. But according to Dawkins, he is also the “father of the meme.” In Dawkins’ recent Just for Hits Talk, he reminds us that he is the man who gave the world the term “meme” and claims he would rather leave behind memes than genes. In his 1976 book, The Selfish Gene, he used the term to explain the non-genetic transmission of meaning and social habits among human beings. Like genes, memes are replicators, but in the cultural rather than biological sense.  Dawkins claims they spread “blog to blog” rather than “brain to brain.”

In addition to being carriers of culture, memes have a social and political function; they galvanize and mobilize people. We’ve seen this globally over time and more recently in citizen-led protests in China and Turkey, the coup in Egypt, and civil war in Syria. The Neuland meme clearly conveys the frustration that people feel when government representatives and policy makers are out of touch with their needs and everyday experiences. Younger, tech savvy generations around the world are losing patience and respect for leaders with outdated mindsets who lack real-world knowledge and skills. The Neuland meme is an expression of the collective political disenchantment of our day. Its meaning transcends race, class, gender and state boundaries to resonate with citizens around the world, not just with Germans. Seeing Merkel as an Internet granny calls to mind other images that express citizens’ lack of faith in technologically challenged world leaders.

As the population of Internet users increases, questions about how ideas are generated and spread drive communication studies and information sciences forward. More than a decade ago, philosopher Daniel Dennett stated in TED talk that “people are surprisingly resistant to applying evolutionary thinking to thinking.” Today, however, the spread of ideas online is often described in biological terms—“going viral” being one of the most prominent—and the Internet’s ecosystem is undeniably lively. Ideas meet and mix and reproduce. They spread across online landscapes remarkably like wildflowers and behave at times like wildfire. There is life on the Internet, but what influences the birth and lifespan of a single meme is still uncertain.

In his Just for Hits Talk, Dawkins argued that a meme one creates “may live on long after your genes have dissolved in the common pool.” We know the Twittersphere had a good laugh at the chancellor’s gaff last month, but it remains to be seen how long the effects of #Neuland will last. Angela Merkel is up for reelection in September, and we will find out if the Neuland meme is political terra firma or not. Chancellor Merkel is probably hoping this particular meme will not be her legacy, but that is for German citizens and global netizens to decide.