The "digital surveillance" of Beijing and the Obama elections in 2008-2012

(To Antonio Vecchio)
14/01/20

Just a few days ago1 on these pages we have dealt with the theme of surveillance capitalism, excellently described by Shoshana Zuboff in his latest, masterful book, with the aim of illustrating to the reader how behind any good or service offered in / by the network, there is, by the web platform that offers it, an ultimate goal of individual profiling.

We have mentioned how the main web companies make money essentially from the sale of predictive products deriving from the study and from the "rendering" of our online behavior.

This is because we users, in reality, are only the "raw material" from which to extrapolate the behavioral data with which to create predictive products to sell to real customers: advertisers, constantly looking for new customers.

In the field, needless to say, the USA and CHINA vie for the primacy, with a substantial difference that lies in the role played by the state.

If in Beijing there is a close link between industries and central power, which translates into state funding to the private sector on the one hand and government access to data on the other, in Washington companies are very careful to preserve their independence in order to safeguard the earnings from commercial exploitation of their products, which collaboration with the government could affect for national security reasons.

In China, the state has outlined a security architecture based on digital potential, creating a "social credit system" that assigns each citizen a score based on their civic behavior. The higher the score, the better chance you will have of tomorrow to get a mortgage, book a medical visit to a public health facility on time, or a holiday flight.

A system with enormous potential, as we have already had occasion to point out, by describing2 what happens in Xinjiang, a region where the Chinese authorities have introduced an App to collect, from a multiplicity of sensors, information data on individual subjects, to bring them back to a central system and, if necessary, to request, with an alert signal sent automatically, the intervention of the investigators.

A pervasive control action, in short, which is not so far from what happens in the USA and in the rest of the planet, where profiling is normally subjected to commercial needs (but still profiling is it .. or not? ), and is mostly managed by private entities such as Google, Amazon, Facebook.

But to say that in America, this activity comes completely enslaved to economic logic, without the Authorities making the slightest use of it does not correspond to the truth.

First of all, it should be remembered that the overwhelming power of the American big companies and their position as a global monopoly in the custody and processing of personal data developed thanks to the contribution that they provided to the federal government, the day after 11 September, in the field of surveillance and data analysis, in exchange for which they have obtained favorable tax laws and regimes over time.

And it is equally useful to recall the role played by Google in the two Obama elections (2008 and 2012): in the first, just to give an example, the data of over 250 million voters were collected and profiled, according to which the electoral body he was continually "solicited" by sending targeted advertisements and emails (targeted advertising3).

In the USA, in recent years, there has been a proliferation in the specific sector of numerous private companies that offer their services and products to government agencies.

As in the case of Geofedia4, "a start-up specialized in tracking the position of activist demonstrators (...) and calculating personalized threat indices using data taken from social media".

Two years ago this company was discovered5 use data obtained from Facebook, Instagram and Twitter to provide support to government security agencies aimed at monitoring protests and public gatherings. A scandal ensued, following which the company was denied access by the big companies of the network to user data.

Even today, due to an excess of confidentiality (?) And contrary to all commercial logic, its site (www.geofedia.com) says little about the company's activities, sending any requests for information or technical-commercial support to the email addresses present.

Another US company operating in the field is Palantir Technologies (www.palantir.com), 18 years of history and 2000 employees, which Bloomberg called "the secret weapon against terrorism "6, capable of identifying key characters of criminal and terrorist organization by highlighting, with data analysis and artificial intelligence, links and associations between gang members, personal and criminal information on each individual component, and also providing in a predictive key information about the possibility of a particular criminal or terrorist action being committed.

The tendency to turn to third-party companies capable of making predictive analyzes with the use of artificial intelligence was also confirmed by the online magazine of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)7 according to which "predictive policing algorithms are becoming common practice in cities across the US".

In an article, MIT magazine cites further evidence of the agreement between the New Orleans Justice Department and Palantir under which the company "Secretly provided software that tracked people's ties to other members of the criminal gang, outlined crime stories, analyzed social media and provided predictions about how likely people were to commit violence or become victims8".

Palantir also works in the financial field supporting primary banking and investment actors, deals with security by collaborating with the FBI and National Security Agency and is also active in the field of Defense, having as clients the Marine Corps and the US Air Force with which it has collaborated in the prevention of attacks in Afghanistan.

3 Targeted advertising is a way to place ads based on demographic data, previous consumer purchase history or behavior. Many types of targeted advertising are used online, but advertisers also use it on other media.

4 The capitalism of surveillance. ed. LUISS 2019 pag. 404-405