Thursday, June 11, 2015

Oxfam: by 2016, 1% of the people will have 50% of all the wealth in the world

In other words, unless something changes very quickly, the top 1% will soon have more stuff than the bottom 99%, more than everyone else combined.
"It is time our leaders took on the powerful vested interests that stand in the way of a fairer and more prosperous world.

"Business as usual for the elite isn’t a cost-free option – failure to tackle inequality will set the fight against poverty back decades. The poor are hurt twice by rising inequality – they get a smaller share of the economic pie and because extreme inequality hurts growth, there is less pie to be shared around." - Oxfam executive director Winnie Byanyima
An equally striking figure is that 85 individual billionaires have the same wealth as the bottom 50% of the world’s population. The wealth of 85 people equals the wealth of roughly 3,688,005,000 others living here.

And now, a few words from some random billionaire that I happen to agree with. Speaking at the "Business of Luxury" Summit in Monaco, billionaire Johann Rupert reportedly said that tension between the rich and poor will increase as robots and artificial intelligence fuel mass unemployment:
We cannot have 0.1 percent of 0.1% taking all the spoils. It’s unfair and it is not sustainable.

How is society going to cope with structural unemployment and the envy, hatred and the social warfare? We are destroying the middle classes at this stage and it will affect us. It’s unfair. So that’s what keeps me awake at night.

We're in for a huge change in society. Get used to it. And be prepared.

Friday, June 05, 2015

PSA: The Citizens United era of money in politics

The amount of money it takes to get elected to get elected to congress has skyrocketed, with over 3.6 billion dollars spent in the last election cycle on congressional races alone.

Think about it: how much money is spent, on average, for each member of the 468 members elected to Congress? Answer: 7.8 million dollars—and that's just an average. "Safe seats" where the winner is almost assured will probably cost less, while tight races and senate races will cost extra. Since the U.S. is a two-party system, that means about half of the money is spent on Republicans and half on Democrats. You might think that a Congressman making $174,000 per year, plus benefits, has a cushy job, but the need to raise more than ten times your own salary in "donations" from the rich, just to keep your job, must be kind of stressful. But it's not that bad; they don't have to raise all that money themselves—in fact, after Citizens United they may not be legally allowed to "coordinate" with some of their their top funders at all! And I'm dead serious about "donations from the rich": out of 435 members of congress, only one (Alan Grayson) got the majority of his campaign funding from "small donations" ($200 or less). So don't feel too sorry for these guys; congressmen that leave to become lobbyists receive a 1452% raise (on average).

To learn more on the new "Citizens United Era" of money in politics, here's a handy interactive infographic.

Support Corruption Reform (a.k.a. Campain Finance Reform)!

Cybersecurity and the Tylenol Murders

When a criminal started lacing Tylenol capsules with cyanide in 1982, Johnson & Johnson quickly sprang into action to ensure consumer safety. It increased its internal production controls, recalled the capsules, offered an exchange for tablets, and within two months started using triple-seal tamper-resistant packaging. The company focused on fixing weak points in their supply chain so that users could be sure that no one had interfered with the product before they purchased it.

This story is taught in business schools as an example of how a company chose to be proactive to protect its users. The FDA also passed regulations requiring increased security and Congress ultimately passed an anti-tampering law. But the focus of the response from both the private and the public sector was on ensuring that consumers remained safe and secure, rather than on catching the perpetrator. Indeed, the person who did the tampering was never caught.

This story springs to mind today as Congress considers the latest cybersecurity and data breach bills. To folks who understand computer security and networks, it's plain that the key problem are our vulnerable infrastructure and weak computer security, much like the vulnerabilities in Johnson & Johnson’s supply chain in the 1980s. As then, the failure to secure our networks, the services we rely upon, and our individual computers makes it easy for bad actors to step in and “poison” our information.

The way forward is clear: We need better incentives for companies who store our data to keep it secure.

Yet none of the proposals now in Congress are aimed at actually increasing the safety of our data. Instead, the focus is on “information sharing,” a euphemism for more surveillance of users and networks. These bills are not only wrongheaded, they seem to be a cynical ploy to use the very real problems of cybersecurity to advance a surveillance agenda, rather than to actually take steps to make people safer. EFF has long opposed these bills and we will continue to do so.

Congress could step in on any one of these topic to encourage real security for users—by creating incentives for greater security, a greater downside for companies that fail to do so and by rewarding those companies who make the effort to develop stronger security. It can also shine a light on security failures by requiring public reporting for big companies.

Yet none of these options are even part of the legislative debate; they often aren't even mentioned. Instead the proposed laws go the other way—giving companies immunity if they create more risk with your data by “sharing” it with the government, where it could still be hacked. "Information sharing" is focused on forensics—finding who did it and how after the fact—rather than on protecting computer users in the first place.

It's as if the answer for Americans after the Tylenol incident was not to put on tamper-evident seals, or increase the security of the supply chain, but only to require Tylenol to "share" its customer lists with the government and with the folks over at Bayer aspirin. We wouldn't have stood for such a wrongheaded response in 1982, and we shouldn't do so now."
- Cindy Cohn at EFF (lightly abbreviated)

Wednesday, June 03, 2015

Professional Russian Trolls

There's a new reason not to believe everything you read on the internet—especially if it has something to do with Russia or the Ukraine.
Every day at the Internet Research Agency was essentially the same, Savchuk told me. The first thing employees did upon arriving at their desks was to switch on an Internet proxy service, which hid their I.P. addresses from the places they posted; those digital addresses can sometimes be used to reveal the real identity of the poster. Savchuk would be given a list of the opinions she was responsible for promulgating that day. Workers received a constant stream of “technical tasks” — point-by-point exegeses of the themes they were to address, all pegged to the latest news. Ukraine was always a major topic, because of the civil war there between Russian-backed separatists and the Ukrainian Army; Savchuk and her co-workers would post comments that disparaged the Ukrainian president, Petro Poroshenko, and highlighted Ukrainian Army atrocities. Russian domestic affairs were also a major topic. Last year, after a financial crisis hit Russia and the ruble collapsed, the professional trolls left optimistic posts about the pace of recovery. Savchuk also says that in March, after the opposition leader Boris Nemtsov was murdered, she and her entire team were moved to the department that left comments on the websites of Russian news outlets and ordered to suggest that the opposition itself had set up the murder.
- The Agency, And then there's this key ingredient that is completely missing from my own blog:
[...] the Internet Research Agency had industrialized the art of trolling. Management was obsessed with statistics — page views, number of posts, a blog’s place on LiveJournal’s traffic charts — and team leaders compelled hard work through a system of bonuses and fines.
And why would people work as trolls? High rates of pay. Apparently 41,000 rubles/mo ($777 USD) is a big deal in Russia.

And what's in it for the powerful officials and businessmen who are paying the trolls, when so many of the trolls' messages are of poor quality?
“The point is to spoil it, to create the atmosphere of hate, to make it so stinky that normal people won’t want to touch it,” Volkov said, when we met in the office of Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation. “You have to remember the Internet population of Russia is just over 50 percent. The rest are yet to join, and when they join it’s very important what is their first impression.” The Internet still remains the one medium where the opposition can reliably get its message out. But their message is now surrounded by so much garbage from trolls that readers can become resistant before the message even gets to them. [...] Russia’s information war might be thought of as the biggest trolling operation in history, and its target is nothing less than the utility of the Internet as a democratic space.
Which is worse? An internet where truth is actively censored, as in China, or one where the truth is censored by glut—simply by being drowned out by louder liars, as in Russia? (note: Russia also uses various techniques to keep independent traditional media quiet, and ranked 148th out of 179 countries in the Press Freedom Index from Reporters Without Borders. The U.S. ranks 46th, and Canada ranks 18th.)

As the NYT article demonstrates, too, Russia is quite interested in spreading Russian propaganda in English-speaking countries. Know your trolls, people.