Fear the Geeks
By Ted Smillie on Sunday, March 26th, 2017
Features in QESP NewsletterVolume 29 , Issue 3 - ISSN 1325-2070
“I fear the Greeks, even those bearing gifts” Virgil ‘s Aeneid
Two millennia later, it is the Geeks we have to fear. Particularly those using psychological targeting to influence the results of elections. Psychological targeting refers to the practice of tailoring marketing content to the psychological characteristics of individuals or small groups of people. Let’s be clear that geeks are one of our most valuable assets and are not to blame if their work is misused, e.g. to rig elections. But sometimes the geeks are the bad guys and a March 27, 2017 New Yorker article, The Reclusive Hedge-Fund Tycoon Behind the Trump Presidency, gives a good example of this.
Before we review the New Yorker article, it is worth revisiting the article in our February 2017 issue, Why big data may be having a big effect on how our politics plays out, which is an example of how the good guys can be blamed when others misuse their work. That article gave a link to a Zurich-based Das Magazin article, The Data That Turned the World Upside Down, which describes how a UK-based company, Cambridge Analytica, used psychological targeting to support Donald Trump in the 2016 U.S. Presidential Election. The jury is still out on how effective the Cambridge Analytica approach was, but CEO Alexander Nix is in no doubt, “We are thrilled that our revolutionary approach to data-driven communication has played such an integral part in President-elect Trump’s extraordinary win.” Independent research by Dr Michal Kosinski and research colleague Sandra Matz is still in progress but tends to bear out the Cambridge Analytica claim.
Kosinski’s original research at Cambridge University Psychometrics Center used Facebook data to explore a model developed by psychologists in the 1980s, to assess human beings based on five personality traits, known as the “Big Five.” The Facebook results were astonishing. The Das Magazin article reports that:
“In 2012, Kosinski proved that on the basis of an average of 68 Facebook “likes” by a user, it was possible to predict their skin color (with 95 percent accuracy), their sexual orientation (88 percent accuracy), and their affiliation to the Democratic or Republican party (85 percent). But it didn’t stop there. Intelligence, religious affiliation, as well as alcohol, cigarette and drug use, could all be determined. From the data it was even possible to deduce whether someone’s parents were divorced.”
Kosinski had understood that his research could be open to abuse and he warned that it, “could pose a threat to an individual’s well-being, freedom, or even life.” He was alarmed when in 2015 he came to suspect that the Facebook Big Five measurement approach was being used by an election-influencing firm. Cambridge Analytica denies using Kosinski’s model, claiming it developed its own model. Nevertheless, after the Brexit campaigns, Kosinski’s friends and acquaintances were holding him responsible for the result.
The Das Magazin article concludes:
“The world has been turned upside down. Great Britain is leaving the EU, Donald Trump is president of the United States of America. And in Stanford, Kosinski, who wanted to warn against the danger of using psychological targeting in a political setting, is once again receiving accusatory emails. ‘No,‘ says Kosinski, quietly and shaking his head. ‘This is not my fault. I did not build the bomb. I only showed that it exists.’”
The New Yorker article, The Reclusive Hedge-Fund Tycoon Behind the Trump Presidency, by Jane Mayer, is a riveting account of a real-life genius like the ones we see in science fiction films and TV series, e.g. The Code. The reclusive hedge-fund Tycoon is Robert Mercer, a brilliant computer scientist who helped transform the financial industry through the innovative use of trading algorithms. Brilliant but reclusive: the article says “People who know him say that he is painfully awkward socially, and rarely speaks. ‘He can barely look you in the eye when he talks,’ an acquaintance said. It’s probably helpful to be highly introverted when getting lost in code, but in politics you have to talk to people, in order to find out how the real world works.’“
The New Yorker article gives a meticulous account of the strategies Mercer has used over the years to achieve his goal of having a disruptive US President elected; “one who could upend both the Democratic Party and the Republican Party.” This article is highly recommended for an understanding of how one brilliant, single minded billionaire can influence elections to an extent that is unprecedented (dare I say unPresidented.) The effects have been felt not just in the US but globally, including Brexit.
We have been talking about psychological profiling but if course there are other ways in which good and bad geeks play their part, notably hacking. Our January 2017 issue had articles on DDoS Gang Wars – The Millennial Mobsters, on How to Secure the IoT and on Hack-proofing our devices against RFID threats. Now in March we have:
- From ScienceDaily, an article by American Associates, Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, on how Desktop scanners can be hijacked to perpetrate cyberattacks
- Via The Mandarin an Ars Technica ( the site for “alpha geeks”) article about how A simple command allows the CIA to commandeer 318 models of Cisco switches
At least we can take some comfort in the fact that the good geeks know how to thwart the bad geeks. But as Ars Technica says in its Ethos statement:
“Ars longa, vita brevis, occasio praeceps, experimentum periculosum, iudicium difficile”— Hippocrates
“Art (technique, craft) is long, life is short, opportunity fleeting, experimentations perilous, and judgement difficult.”
Or in the words of the ancient Chinese curse, ”May you live in interesting times.”
Tags: Psychological targeting, New Yorker, Das Magazin, Michal Kosinski, ScienceDaily, American Associates, Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, The Mandarin, Ars Technica