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Dec. 12, 2012 5:30 a.m.



A New York Times article, “That’s No Phone. That’s My Tracker,” by Peter Maass, suggests that we should consider smartphones, computers, and other connected devices as tracking machines rather than simple appliances of personal convenience. 

The manufacturers of these now ubiquitous gadgets claim that aggregating data about individuals favors the consumer, so when you visit a web page, it might display ads relevant to your tastes and needs. Fair enough. But it’s widely speculated that far more sinister use is made of this information—that the government enjoys a cozy relationship with private data gatherers, that information can and will be used against us, and/or to the advantage of the military-industrial complex.

I assume that companies and not-very-secret government agencies already know a truckload of tangential information about me; that is, who I know and communicate with, the web pages I visit, where I am and where I’ve been, the stores at which I spend money and the items purchased therein. But they're still missing the most important component; that is, who am I, what do I intend to do with that stuff? If I purchase fertilizer, am I making a bomb or helping my crops? If I purchase boots with deep heels and correspond with persons with Arabic names, am I a shoe bomber? 

Let's say my eldest granddaughter, Bailey Anne, joins the Peace Corps (a fabrication, she's really still in high school). Bailey is already an accomplished farmer, so she travels to Africa, proselytizing sustainable agriculture. While on location, she befriends local persons her same approximate age; some are illiterate, and relatively unsophisticated in western terms. Some are reluctant, conscripted women, who face death, rape, stoning and/or torture du jour for any unapproved point of view or action.

During informal, (assumed) private conversations, Bailey argues against violence, suicide and, if only by example, encourages her friends to be free. Bailey should be judged as a worthy asset by the US government, a loyal American ambassador, attempting to win hearts and minds, spreading a gospel of peace. All well and good.

However, government decides that Bailey might be a threat, not because it knows anything about her moral compass, but because her spreadsheet calculates a suspicious result. In an over-simplified attempt to decide whether she's enemy or friend, said entity decides to intercept her data points. A circumstantial, imperfect ledger begins to compile.

Bailey grew up in the information age and is technically savvy, so she suspects her new friends are being scrutinized by evil forces everywhere, but not her own government. In all communication she uses various encrypted (read privacy protected) mechanisms to communicate. Contemporary computer science suggests they know her physical circumstance and might be deciphering trigger words plucked from various data streams (inaccurately/partially), including encrypted voice, like Skype. (We really don't know the extent of NSA capability, for instance, but when the mechanisms of encryption are cracked they'll be the first to know.)

Bailey’s life ledger might not meet any reasonable standard of proof according to US constitutional law, nonetheless this surreptitiously obtained and commercially available information is fed to a target probability list when sufficiently elevated by AI (Artificial Intelligence). Let's add it up; she lived in an African nation where dangerous persons are known to exist. She arranges the purchase of fertilizer and, most importantly, she continues frequent conversations with her multi-national friends (aka other persons of interest) after leaving Africa. Bailey’s life and death spreadsheet; simplified, incomplete, misleading, beta.

If still in Africa, or walking the streets of Omaha, she might be she might be tracked, harassed, arrested or vaporized by an invisible, silent drone, several miles distant, assigned to remove her by automated, tangential analysis. Think this is fanciful or improbable? Ask a member of a wedding party in Afghanistan or Yemen that was blown to bits by a salaried, comfortable drone operator in Nevada. Had I been judged by spreadsheet when young, I, too, might have been removed.

Deployment of drones, whether weaponized or surveillance, all shapes, sizes and capability, will soon outstrip presumed mitigation by a (possibly) compassionate human. When a young drone pilot is incapacitated because of a hangover, or a quota is missed, or the master target map spikes beyond capacity, a switch is flipped that allows robot fleets to think for themselves, even as an interconnected hive (as suggested by Daniel Suarez in the novel Kill Decision). It’s probably incorrect to assume that algorithm can or will spare life because of a compassionate sub-routine. And what happens when Iran, Russia, China, Syria, gangs, thugs, mafia, and/or other outliers deploy similar, competing technology? 

We live in a world ruled by dispassionate government and omnipotent corporations who make fundamental, serious judgments about individuals. They have the capability to gather enough information about us to sell product or kill from the earth's other side, but we (the citizen/owners funding such blood thirst) have no direct knowledge of the formula. Every person on the planet is a potential victim; when numbers dictate they can jail us, take our money, make us miserable, foreclose our homes, end our lives. Who’s granddaughter, nation, political movement will be next? Like contracting a serious disease, we tend to think that it only happens to the other guy.

I’m kind of a math nut, and it seems to me that these numbers don't add up. The enemy algorithm probably can't wait on sufficiently robust technology, rather it might turn bits to bombs because the software is deemed good enough. Popular opinion and an endless stream of apocalyptic news can force/allow aggression without proof. Governments and their corporate overlords jail/kill with circumstantial evidence, incredibly flawed human observation, and with no moral or elected mandate.

Bailey Anne: Eliminated by a spreadsheet? Thankfully, not yet.

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