Informatic Opacity

This essay was originally published in the Journal of Aesthetics and Protest.

Zach Blas, Facial Weaponization Suite: Mask – May 31, 2013, San Diego, CA

On June 7, 2013, the National Security Agency’s surveillance program was made public in news media with the aid of whistleblower Edward Snowden, journalist Glenn Greenwald, and filmmaker Laura Portrais. Their reports revealed a suite of software designed for global, invasive data searches and analysis, including PRISM, a data-mining application used to collect billions of metadata records from various telecommunications and social media companies, and Boundless Informant, a visualization tool developed to track and analyze collected data; a third was announced on July 31, 2013, as XKeyscore, a search system that mines extensive online databases containing browsing histories and emails. Just as philosopher Michel Foucault once described the panopticon as the exemplary diagram of surveillance in the modern age, this assemblage of software, whose reach is yet to be fully known, will arguably become our contemporary replacement.

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Good Regulators: The Weakness of 1Password and Its Progeny

There’s a math theorem that I rather like because I think it appeals to so many situations. I feel this way about that quote from Frankenstein, “And now, once again, I bid my hideous progeny go forth and prosper… blahblah;” I used that repeatedly in school essays, on entrance exams, in acceptance speeches. Some things make little sense to you in-situ but come to mean much more when you apply them to other scenarios. In the Good Regulator Theorem, good regulators are a model of systems that they regulate, and if the model is not a performant echo, then the system is weak, unregulated, and welcome to compromise. In some ways, I feel passwords are “good regulators,” things that model what they manage, because they protect memory (stores of information that you might like to keep private), and in a meta-way, they rely on your memory to ensure their utility.

We often write weak passwords because we have weak memories. So then we write frameworks around them that weaken their ability to perform, their ability to echo the system they model, and thus we introduce our human weakness into an already crippled model of protection. We “salt” and “hash” our passwords but we are still distant from a happy breakfast, to a happy progeny, a product of our genius and not simply an echo of our faults. So what can be done about passwords? What can be done about the memory they protect? How does the weakness of passwords, and of “good regulation,” affection the bio-politics of our contemporary world?

Password Strength XKCD

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Unfit Bits

Free your fitness data from yourself

Unfit Bits outlines everyday techniques for generating the fitness datasets of your choice, enabling you to qualify for insurance discounts without the lifestyle to match.

Why Unfit Bits?

It is increasingly assumed that fitness trackers provide an objective view of the activities of their wearer. The assumption is that a person’s acceleration data as interpreted by some fancy algorithms, gives a robust insight into the fitness, health and behavior of their body, and cuts through the blurry ambiguities of memory and perception. During the last year, data from a Fitbit tracker has been used as evidence in court both in a case about the impact of a workplace injury on a worker’s health and more recently as evidence of a rape. How these early examples play out, will reveal how tight the relationship between activity data and behavior of the wearer is assumed to be.

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Is Beating a DNA Test Possible?

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Humans contain about 25,0000 protein coding genes and much more non-protein coding DNA, all of which uniquely identifies us. Because of this, DNA tests have become the standard is criminal forensics for identification of individuals at the scene of a crime. When done properly these tests can identify individuals with a theoretical probability of 1 in 10,000,000,000,000,000,000(1018). These statistics come from using the Combined DNA Index System or CODIS and focuses on identity through only 13 genes (alleles). Well, it is not actually 13 genes, it is only small parts of 13 genes. To me this seems like a very breakable and hackable system so let’s talk think about that for a minute or seven.

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Sci-Fi Crime Drama With A Strong Black Lead

Published 7/6/15 by The New Inquiry

The practice of rendering appearance from forensic samples is called “Forensic DNA Phenotyping” (FDP) or “molecular photofitting,” and there are a handful of scientists and companies around the world trying to make this not only scientifically possible, but also a useful law enforcement tool. FDP has already been used to create a new kind of police sketch.

While there are a few traits like eye and hair color that can be predicted from DNA with a high degree of certainty, the bulk of FDP relies on algorithmically derived statistical composites. We tend to look at technical systems as neutral black boxes, but if you open them up and look at the component parts, you find that they reflect the assumptions and motivations of their designers.

FDP begins with a dataset of 3D facial scans and DNA samples taken from research participants. These scans are processed to create what’s called “face space,” a probabilistic representation of all possible faces drawn from, and limited by, this set of 3D scans. Finally, the data is mined for correlations between DNA and facial shape by examining characteristics that are assumed to be opposite ends of a spectrum, like masculine and feminine or “European” and “African.”

The act of creating computational averages and looking for correlated features in large datasets has an air of authenticity and scientific validity, but what this actually does is create a system of types — you might call them stereotypes.

Continue Reading: Sci-Fi Crime Drama With A Strong Black Lead at The New Inquiry.

The Future of Microbiome Forensics

bacteriaEverywhere we go we leave microscopic traces of ourselves, and we collect microscopic traces of others. Microscopic DNA left at the scene of a crime is commonly used to identify criminals and substantiate evidence against them. What about other microscopic traces humans leave behind or even collect, can we be identified or tracked based solely on the bacteria that inhabit our body?

Yes.

Everyone’s skin is covered in bacteria, it is all over you and the surfaces you interact with. Scientists call each community of bacteria a microbiome. Until the past few years this knowledge was little more than a curiosity as Scientists attempted to understand if this population of bacteria on our bodies affected us in any way. Then some studies came around which suggested that bacteria influence things like mammalian circadian clocks and appetites. Some others attempted to quantify the types and amounts of bacteria on our skin, inside our body, and in our environments. From all of this, Scientists began to see that both the microbiome of our environments and our bodies have unique qualities.

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Future Map Reloaded

Brian Holmes is a Chicago-based art critic, activist and translator known for his writing on the intersections of artistic and political practice. In light of the recent explosion of surveillance discourse in the media, we invited Brian Holmes to revisit an essay he wrote in 2007 on the intersection of cybernetics, surveillance and neoliberal capitalism, to provide a theoretical framework for discussion.

FUTURE MAP RELOADED
By Brian Holmes

title-future-map

Say “surveillance” and people think “Foucault.” Dull bureaucratic corridors; cold cells; disciplined bodies; an invasive gaze. State power, in short. The bloated US prison system and the staggering growth of mass electronic surveillance since 9/11 gives us every reason to think this way. Yet there is another, even more pervasive form of mass surveillance. Friendly and seductive, not cold and bureaucratic; multiple and proliferating, not centrally controlled; corporate and consumer-oriented, not based on state power. And there is also another Foucault.

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Response to the “Face of Litter”

Yes, this looks very familiar…

No I had nothing to do with it, I was not consulted or cited, and I’m not surprised.

It isn’t surprising that an ad agency copied an artist’s work with no remuneration or citation.

And it isn’t surprising that an ad agency press release was recycled from one media outlet to the next as “news” without research or problematization of the obvious issues here around surveillance, genetic privacy, and public shaming as a technique of social control.

Finally, it isn’t surprising that DNA might be used to monitor, survey, and publicly shame individuals deemed deviant.

But what is the “face of litter” campaign really? DNA phenotyping isn’t cheap, and it’s telling to contemplate why a Parabon Nanolabs, a small biotech startup, would donate this expensive technology to an ad agency for a pro bono ecological project. It’s called PR.

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How Apple, Google, and Microsoft are trying to get inside your genes

re-posted from the Council for Responsible Genetics, and fusion

by Daniela Hernandez 

Not satisfied by having our emails, chats, status updates, search histories, clicking behaviors, and shopping preferences, some of Silicon Valley’s most powerful tech titans are in an arms race to get access to your most personal information:
your DNA.

Last week, for instance, the MIT Technology Review reported that Apple was looking to integrate genetic data into studies that run atop its new open-source research platform, ResearchKit. That should come as no surprise. There’s a national focus on personalized medicine, and since DNA information is becoming cheaper to get and store, the healthcare industry is hoping that personalized medicine will be part of the solution to rising costs.

Here’s a look at how three tech companies are preparing to dominate your DNA:

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