Tech Companies: Don’t Tell Us How to Reform Government Surveillance

Just before the U.S. holiday season, I wrote a post at FPRI entitled “Post-Snowden: The Hypocrisy of Tech Company Calls for Surveillance Reform“.  For some reason, I got the feeling this posting did win over many people.  But, I stand by my argument, that tech companies, the most pervasive electronic surveillance perpetrators in the world, should not be telling the U.S. government how to reform surveillance.   If anyone is going to be scaling back surveillance, I think it should be the American public – who needs to decide how much privacy they are willing to trade off to maintain their national security.

I’ve usually gotten two criticisms of my argument.

First is that tech companies issue terms of service to their customers explaining how their information is being used. Thus its on the customers, if they don’t like their user information being exposed, then they can quit using the service.  For this, my counter is that the majority of users, even if they did read the terms of service, would not even be able to understand them and tech companies by issuing long terms of service filled with technical jargon are being deceptive about their practices.  From what I understand, there is a court ruling (for which I’m searching for, please post if you have it) that says these terms of service are incomprehensible and users can’t be held to closely to them.

The second argument is usually something like “Tech companies can’t through me in jail, but the government can!” For this I counter with show me the evidence of widespread NSA violation of American privacy resulting in jail time.  I know, I know, some will immediately push back on this, which I’ll follow up in a separate post.  But, I’m not aware of mass American imprisonment coming from NSA surveillance.  If that is happening, please explain, as I’m not aware of it from observing or personally dealing with the U.S. government.

My push against tech companies reforming surveillance hinges on several things I discuss in the article.

  • When tech companies call for government surveillance reform, they do this to protect profits, not customers. My experience with NSA personnel has always been that they put the security and privacy of U.S. citizens above all other interests.
  • Tech companies called for government surveillance reform after Snowden’s revelations and in direct response to U.S./NSA actions.  But these same companies have been penetrated aggressively by countries like China and called for no such reform.  When tech companies are targeted by China, Russia or Iran, they run to the U.S. government for help, but don’t call for reform. I call this two-faced.
  • If tech companies didn’t like the surveillance they were complying with before Snowden’s revelations, they could have banded together to say something.  They could have petitioned legislators to change the laws.  But they did no such thing.  Tech companies only care about privacy after Snowden’s revelations because it might impact their profits.
  • Tech companies across the board, as I discuss in the article, are not transparent about how they mine user information.  They should not demand such transparency from the government if they are not willing to clearly explain their data mining.  The more I learn of the electronic surveillance of companies like Google (See the article), the more I’m convinced Google’s “Don’t Do Evil” slogan is the equivalent of the Fox News slogan “Fair and Balanced”.

Here is the introduction to the article and see the rest of at this link.

The recent call by certain technology corporations to reform government surveillance makes for great public relations, but underneath these calls reek of hypocrisy.  Despite stating the desire for “the world’s governments to address the practices and laws regulating government surveillance of individuals and access to their information,” the call clearly comes only after Edward Snowden exposed that these companies were the primary points by which the NSA accessed information for intelligence efforts.  The Snowden revelations shook these companies to their core.  Why? Well, its not about customer privacy, instead its about Internet company business models.”

The Steve Jobs FBI File: Non-Story of the Week

The media got all hyped up about the Steve Jobs FBI file release this week.  In 1991, Jobs was being considered for an appointment to the President’s Export Council.  CNN couldn’t stop hyping it when I was passing through the airport. When I finally did hear the story, I found out that the Steve Jobs FBI file reads exactly like everyone’s FBI file would probably read.

What is revealed in these files? Very little!  If the files are worth anything, they only confirm what Steve Isaacson wrote in the Jobs biography (from what I gather) and I imagine Isaacson wishes the FBI had loaned him a copy a couple years back so he wouldn’t have to go interview all the same people and find the same results.

Here’s one of my favorite quotes from The Smoking Gun article:

By comparison, the interview subject spoke of his own “high ethical standards,” while noting that Jobs “will twist the truth in order to achieve whatever goal he has set for himself.” The agent wrote that the man considered Jobs “to be a deceptive person.”

The man also told the FBI that he had heard reports from mutual friends–as well as Jobs himself–that he “freely used illicit drugs” like LSD and marijuana while in college. The source also provided the agent with details about how Jobs had fathered a daughter out of wedlock with his high school girlfriend, and how he had “mistreated” them by not providing support.

Amazing gossip – an FBI agent shows up to interview this person and the guy dislikes Jobs so much that he’s willing to repeat rumors he heard from “mutual friends” only to then speak of his own “high ethical standards.” What a joke!

In the end, Jobs profile sounds like that of a highly successful CEO.  In the course of business, things get competitive, some people will like the boss and some people (employees and competitors) will hate the boss.  Some people liked Jobs, some people didn’t like Jobs as he was highly driven, competitive and brilliant – exactly what a successful company needs.  The same thing can be said of most successful CEOs.  The Jobs FBI reports are right up there with the, “can you believe Lance Armstrong is so obsessive about cycling?” stories.

If Jobs could get American exports up, then who cares whether everyone likes him.  And if you wondered what an FBI background on you might look like if they interviewed all of your friends and contacts, just substitute your name for Jobs.

Continuing to Crowdsource the Future of Investing

For those familiar with the al Qaeda Strategy 2011-2012 survey and Post-Bin Laden Poll, you may have also seen the “Future of Investing” challenge I ran a few months back.  The idea was to see if the same crowdsourcing approach, which proved helpful in gathering expert opinions for what the future of terrorism would look like, might also be able to collectively forecast the future of investing in a time of economic turmoil.

Today, the Bureau of Labor Statistics announced another decrease in unemployment suggesting there could be some renewed confidence coming into investment markets.  I saw this as another opportunity to re-post the Crowdsourcing the Future of Investing survey and see what people think about the economy compared to perceptions a few months back.

Thanks to all those that voted in the October round of the survey and for those just hearing about the survey, click the below link and answer the six questions (which take about 3 minutes).

Future of Investing Survey

Here’s a sample of the survey and its first question.

How Confident Are You? Markets, CT and Analysis, Part 1

Daniel Kahneman published a short article summarizing points of his new book Thinking, Fast and Slow.  As both a good writer and former winner of the Nobel Prize in Economics, Kahneman’s book will probably be a good read.

Kahneman’s NY Times article “Don’t Blink! The Hazards of Confidence” explains how people evaluate things and assign confidence to their judgements.  I’ve spent the good part of this year looking at similar issues and will try in several posts to bridge Kahneman’s discussion and our polling here at Selected Wisdom.

Kahneman’s conclusion: future forecasts on the performance and patterns of humans and markets – really any complex system – on average will be no better than random chance.  In fact, Kahneman finds in many cases individual and collective predictions by experts produce results worse than random chance.

I’ll spend some of the next few posts discussing “confidence” as it relates to counterterrorism, economic markets and analysis in general.  Meanwhile, Kahneman provides some interesting commentary.

While assessing the future potential of soldiers, Kahneman learned that his team’s assessments were not particularly correct.  Kahneman noted:

We knew as a general fact that our predictions were little better than random guesses, but we continued to feel and act as if each particular prediction was valid.  I was reminded of visual illusions, which remain compelling even when you know that what you see is false…the illusion of validity.

Kahneman asserts his team incorrectly assessed the soldier’s ability based on a story they constructed from very little information.  He sums this up with a cool new acronym I’ll start abusing:

This was a perfect instance of a general rule that I call WYSIATI, “What you see is all there is.”

The rest of the article provides an interesting take on forecasters in a variety of roles. With regards to confidence, he notes:

The bias towards coherence favors overconfidence. An individual who expresses high confidence probably has a good story, which may or may not be true.

With regards to markets, Kahneman illustrates the research results of Odean and Barber on stock market traders noting:

the most active traders had the poorest results, while those who traded the least earned the highest returns…[and] men act on their useless ideas significantly more often than women do, and that as a result women achieve better investment results than men.

Kahneman also rightly notes:

Facts that challenge such basic assumptions – and thereby threaten people’s livelihood and self-esteem – are simply not absorbed…the mind does not digest them.

Overall, a great read and I’ll contrast his findings here with the results of the confidence questions on the Post UBL and AQ Strategy polls from earlier this year during an upcoming post.



Crowdsourcing the Future of Investment Management

Thanks to the contributions of readers during the AQ Strategy 2011-2012 and Post Bin Laden crowdsourcing surveys, I’ve recently taken on a new challenge to see if the same methodology can be used to provide useful insights on an entirely separate industry – investment management.

Two weeks ago, I began commenting on the similar analytical challenges found in both the financial industry and the national security arena.  That research led me to create a fourth crowdsourcing poll to collectively determine the future direction of the investment management industry following another round of market shocks this past month.

So today’s challenge:

What will be the future of the investment management industry? 

The following link will take you to 6 questions (with 4 additional attribute questions) designed to take roughly 3 minutes to answer.  There are no right or wrong answers and all are welcome to participate regardless of your experience or education level.
Click here to take survey

The financial content discussed in this survey is likely a departure for most who visit and find largely national security discussions.  However, I challenge you to take the survey anyways and see what you think.  And if you have professional colleagues, friends or family members interested in the investment management and/or financial sector, please pass on the following link and ask for their opinion:

Thanks in advance for your time, contribution and forwarding of the survey link. Like previous crowdsourcing polls, I’ll post the results of this survey at in the coming weeks. Now get back to endless “10th Anniversary of 9/11” media coverage.  (That’s what I’m going to do).

Importance of Confidence: In Conflicts and Markets

From about 2005-2007, military briefings pushed me to the edge of a coma with endless banter about how counterinsurgency victory depends on the “will of the people to outlast the insurgents”.  The briefer would then show a chart depicting the average length of insurgencies and how popular support for the counterinsurgents determined the outcome of the conflict.  Essentially, if the population supporting the counterinsurgency were confident that victory could be achieved and the cause worthwhile, then the fight could be sustained and victory attained.  (There was a little more to it than confidence, but I’ll summarize to save you the pain.)

Recently, I listened to an interesting NPR broadcast on the shaken confidence of young investors entering the financial market – “How Recession Rewires Your Tolerance for Risk”.  Essentially, young workers do not share the confidence of their 1990’s predecessors who believed that investing in stocks and mutual funds would provide guaranteed payments during retirement.  The large scale of American worker investment contributions in mutual funds, 401K’s, and stocks helped propel U.S. market growth from the 1990’s through 2008.  What will happen to the markets if the next generation of American workers chooses not to pursue this investment approach while retirees begin pulling their retirement payments out in mass?

In both cases, conflicts and markets, the tipping point for victory or growth may rest on confidence more than anything.  In Iraq, American confidence helped lead to what is perceived by most as a victory of sorts.  In Afghanistan, American confidence appears quelled and victory still uncertain.  In the markets, I wonder when will investor confidence return and what will make it return?  And when comparing conflicts and markets, I wonder which is easier, building American confidence in support of counterinsurgency or restoring American confidence in investing.

Launch of Selected Wisdom- Business, Finance and Energy

Today I am launching Selected Wisdom- Business, Finance and Energy.  Over the past several years, I’ve found great insights from business case studies and economics research.  When I encounter peers in the private sector, I’m often surprised how their challenges in organizational management, logistics, human resource management and strategic vision mirror that of both terrorist organizations and counterterrorism bureaucracies.  Likewise, I’ve overlapped on several occasions with research endeavors in the financial and energy sectors.  Their quantitative and qualitative analytical techniques utilize similar modeling and information aggregation methodologies to those employed in national security analysis.  Financial and energy sector companies, much like their public sector counterparts in government, face the same obstacles in assessing and utilizing expert judgement- a topic of particular interest at Selected Wisdom. If all goes as planned, I’ll soon try to utilize the crowdsourcing methodology used here at Selected Wisdom (for assessing AQ’s strategy) in a similar fashion in the financial and energy sectors.  More to come on that front in the coming days.

I’ll begin making short posts on the Business, Finance and Energy page from time to time as I find interesting commentary and unique insights.  If I think the international affairs/national security/counterterrorism audience might be interested as well, I’ll do a quick redirecting post on the main page.