Tag Archives: University of California

True Video Lies

This is a longer version of a piece I recorded for the BBC World Service.

The other day my wife lost her phone out shopping. We narrowed it down to either the supermarket or the taxi. So we took her shopping receipt to the supermarket and asked to see their CCTV to confirm she still had the phone when she left.

To my surprise they admitted us into their control room. Banks of monitors covering nooks, crannies, whole floors, each checkout line. There they let us scroll through the security video—I kind of took over, because the guy didn’t seem to know how to use it—and we quickly found my wife, emptying her trolley at checkout line 17. Behind her was our daughter in her stroller, not being overly patient. It took us an hour but in the end we established what look liked a pretty clear chain of events. She had the bag containing the phone, which she gave to our daughter to distract her at the checkout. One frame shows the bag falling from her hands onto the floor, unnoticed by my wife.

Then, a few seconds later, the bag is mysteriously whisked off the floor by another shopper. I couldn’t believe someone would so quickly swoop. The CCTV records only a frame a second, so it took us some time to narrow it down to a woman wearing black leggings, a white top and a black belt. Another half hour of checks and we got her face as she bought her groceries at another till. No sign of the phone bag by this time, but I was pretty sure we had our man. Well, woman.

Except I’m not sure we did. What I learned in that control room is that video offers a promise of surveillance that doesn’t lie. It seems to tell us a story, to establish a clear chain of events. But the first thing I noticed was when I walked back out into the supermarket, was that how little of the floor it covered, and how narrow each camera’s perspective was.

For the most part we’ve learned that photos don’t always tell the truth. They can be manipulated; they offer only a snapshot, without context. But what about videos? We now expect to see cameraphone footage in our news bulletins, jerky, grainy recordings taken by unseen hands, raw and often without context.

This is not to say videos are not powerful truth tellers. But we tend to see what we want to see. When a policeman pepper sprays protests at the University of California there is outrage, and it does indeed appear to be unwarranted. But when four of the videos are synchronized together a more complex picture emerges. Not only can one see the incident within context, but also one gets a glimpse of a prior exchange, as the officer explains what he is about to do to one protester, who replies, almost eagerly: “You’re shooting us specifically? No that’s fine, that’s fine.”

This is not to condone what happens next, but this exchange is missing from most of the videos. The two videos that contain the full prelude are, of course, longer, and have been watched much fewer times: 12,658 (15 minutes) and 245,226 times (8 minutes) versus 1,346,781 times (1 minute) for the one that does not  (the other video has since been taken down).

I’m not suggesting that the more popular video has been deliberately edited to convey a different impression, but it’s clearly the version of events that most are going to remember.

We tend to believe video more than photos. They seem harder to doctor, harder to hoodwink us, harder to take out of context. But should we?

It’s true that videos are harder to fake. For now. But even unfaked videos might seem to offer a version of the facts that isn’t the whole story. Allegations that former IMF president  Dominique Strauss-Kahn may have been framed during a sexual encounter at a New York Hotel, for example, have recently been buttressed by an extensive investigation published recently in the New York Review of Books. There’s plenty of questions raised by the article, which assembles cellphone records, door key records, as well as hotel CCTV footage.

The last seems particularly damning. A senior member of the hotel staff is seen high-fiving an unidentified man and then performing what seems to be an extensive dance of celebration shortly after the event. This may well be the case, but I’d caution against relying on the CCTV footage. For one thing, if this person was in any way involved, would they not be smart enough to confine their emotions until they’re out of sight of the cameras they may well have installed themselves?

Back to my case: Later that night we got a call that our phone had been recovered. The police, to whom I had handed over all my CCTV evidence, said I was lucky. A woman had handed it in to the mall’s security people. I sent her a text message to thank her. I didn’t have the heart to ask her whether she had been wearing black trousers and white top.

But I did realise that the narrative I’d constructed and persuaded myself was the right one was just that: a story I’d chosen to see.

The Real, Sad Lesson of Burma 2007

Reuters

I fear another myth is in the offing: that Burma’s brief uprising last month was a tipping point in citizen journalism. Take this from Seth Mydans’ (an excellent journalist, by the way; I’m just choosing his piece because it’s in front of me) article in today’s IHT:

“For those of us who study the history of communication technology, this is of equal importance to the telegraph, which was the first medium that separated communications and transportation,” said Frank Moretti, executive director of the Center for New Media Teaching and Learning at Columbia University.

or this, from Xiao Qiang, director of the China Internet Project and an adjunct professor at the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California at Berkeley, quoted in the same piece:

“By shutting down the Internet they show themselves to be in the wrong, that they have something to hide,” he said. “On this front, even a closed-down blog is a powerful blog. Even silence on the Internet is a powerful message.”

There are a couple of things here. None convinces me either of the above is true.

First off, the first Burma uprising, back in 1988, was not conducted or repressed in a media blackout. Journalists were able to get in, and get out extraordinary, iconic images. One still sticks in my mind, and I wish I could find it: a photo splashed across the cover of Newsweek of an impossibly beautiful female demonstrator, blood soaking her longyi and her face a mask, as she was carried by comrades through the wet streets of Rangoon. The junta took its time in closing down the media, but 1988 was no different to 2007: when they did pull down the shutters, they did it completely.

It’s true that there have been a lot of images, videos and information finding its way out via both the Internet and sympathetic agencies and embassies. This is not greatly different to 1988. People had cameras back then, and were extremely inventive in how they got information out. I would get calls all the time in Bangkok from people smuggling out cassettes, photos and other material. When I visited Rangoon in 1990 the NLD headquarters was a mine of printed and other information of strikingly high quality.

Burma’s generals are cleverer than the image they portray. Back in 1988 they bided their time, allowing all those who opposed them to show themselves, from students and monks to government departments and even soldiers. Their parading in the streets, watched by spies and plain clothes officers, made it easy for them to purged later. The same thing, it seems, is happening today: As another story in the IHT on the same day by Thomas Fuller wrote, loudspeakers on trucks and helicopters are telling terrified citizens

“We have your pictures. We’re going to come and get you.”

They may lack the sophistication of a more civilized form of repression, but Burmese leaders understand the importance of photographs and videos as evidence, and I fear all those pictures posted on blogs, on YouTube, on television, in emails sent out of the country, will all resurface in show trials in months to come.

Xiao Qiang’s point about the blackout showing the world who these generals really are is to me naive. No one, I believe, was under any illusion about what these people were like, or the lengths they were prepared to go to preserve their position. The ‘democratic’ process that was underway was a fig-leaf as old as 1990, when the NLD won the election I witnessed. In other words, 17 years old.

More importantly, as far as technology is concerned, I don’t think that silence on the Internet is any different to a news blackout. It’s the most effective way for people to stop paying attention. Initially there’s outrage, then people shrug and move on. Soon Burma will be back to what it has been for the past 19 years — a peripheral story, a sad but forgotten piece of living history. Soon the Facebook groups and red-shirt days will fade.

I would love to think it was and will be different. I would love to think that technology could somehow pry open a regime whether it pulls the plug or not. But Burma has, in recent weeks and in recent years, actually shown the opposite: that it’s quite possible to seal a country off and to commit whatever atrocities you like and no amount of technology can prevent it.

By holding the recent uprising as an example of citizen journalism and a turning point in the age of telecommunications we not only risk misunderstanding its true lesson, but we also risk playing down the real story here: the individual bravery and longtime suffering of the Burmese people who had, for a few heady days, a flickering of hope that their nightmare was over.

How to Rip People Off Like Disney World

If you’ve ever visited Disney World, or some other overpriced resorts (last year I visited Warwick Castle and Legoland in the UK, both appallingly people-traps) you’ll have done what I did: vow never to come back. Of course, the companies running these places both know that and don’t care — which is why they are ripping you off royally while they can.

Seethu Seetharaman, an associate professor of management at Rice University’s Jesse H. Jones Graduate School of Management, calls it a variety-seeking market and says it doesn’t just apply to tourist attractions:

Turns out that the resorts in Orlando are in a market where consumers want variety. Indeed, if a family is in Orlando for a week or more, there is little chance — at least if parents and children want to remain on speaking terms at vacation’s end — that they’ll do the exact same thing day after day. Instead, they’re likely to visit both Universal and Disney World and take in as many different rides and sights as possible; in other words, they’ll seek variety.

Seetharaman says that the same is true of people who are too lazy to shift brands: what he calls consumer inertia:

Using a mathematical model, Seetharaman, along with his research partner Hai Che, an assistant professor of marketing at the University of California at Berkeley, was able to determine that the impact on price in both variety-seeking and inertial markets is similar. “The main point of the paper is that in markets where consumers seek variety, firms have an incentive to rip them off,” he says. “The surprise is that when markets are characterized by the opposite of inertia, the exact same incentive in terms of price competition that characterized inertial markets goes through as well.”

Basically, we’ll pay to go to Disney World whatever it costs, especially if we’ve already gone to Universal Studios or whatever else is within our daily trip radius. To that I’d add a couple more observations:

  • it pays to charge at least what rivals in the neighborhood are charging, because if a family has shelled out once, they’re likely to shell out again.
  • Secondly, customers may well equate price with the quality of experience; there’s no point in trying to undercut your rivals because that would imply the experience you’re offering is not as valuable as theirs.
  • This doesn’t seem to stop these kinds of resorts from trying to gain loyalty. There’ll always be some families who want to come back each year, so it makes sense to offer them a steep discount.
  • The only problem I see with all this is that while you want to have a boisterous, noisy crowd, if the queues are too long you may scare away some visitors from the whole concept. In that sense the companies are not rivals at all, but are partners in trying to lure more and more families into the idea of vacationing at these places. Which, as an afterthought, raises the question: should we be thinking cartels and price fixing?

Seetharaman concludes:

None of this comes as a big surprise to companies involved in a variety-seeking market. “The firms know this. They know this market is characterized by variety, so they know that they are going to eventually get their competitor’s previous customers,” says Seetharaman. “Knowing this they are actually trying to rip them off.”

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Could Social Clustering Be Used To Kill Off Spam?

We can relax: Boffins are now grappling with spam.

Nature reports that P. Oscar Boykin and Vwani Roychowdhury of the University of California, Los Angeles, have come up with a way to tackle at least half the emails we get, namely those we get from friends, colleagues, and anyone else either we know or the people we know know (I’ve always wanted to write that sentence).

It works like this: If Alice knows and e-mails Bob and Chris, for example, then Bob and Chris are far more likely to know and e-mail each other than if they didn’t share a friend in common. E-mails radiating from a spam source don’t share this clustering property – the vast majority of recipients don’t know each other. “The method,” Nature says, “effectively turns the spammers’ weapon on themselves. The very fact that they can send out so many messages secures their low overall degree of clustering – it’s what gives them away.”

This is all done by inspecting the ‘from’, ‘to’ and ‘cc’ fields in a user’s inbox. An automated system can quickly build up a blacklist of spammers, as well as a ‘whitelist’ of approved sources. E-mails above a certain ‘clustering threshold’ are always friendly, and those below a lower threshold are always spam.

Boykin and Roychowdhury acknowledge this may only apply to about 50% of email. But those would have been filtered without any errors, and it would have required no user intervention at all. The remaining e-mail would have to be filtered by other means, but as the authors say, ”our algorithm may be used as a platform for a comprehensive solution to the spam problem when used in concert with more sophisticated, but more cumbersome, content-based filters.”

It’s not a bad idea at all. By looking at header fields rather than content the filtering process would be much quicker. Furthermore, the only way I could see the spammers getting around it would be to spoof header fields so they somehow anticipated the social clusters of the recipients: In other words, they’d have to try to figure out who was on someone’s white list for their message to get through. (Although I suppose spoofing the actual recipient’s email address as the sender field might be enough.)

What’s intriguing is how this might feed into social networks like Friendster. Could these groups be mobilised as automatic whitelists for users, so that, for example, I could, with a mouse click, ensure that everyone on my Friendster list is automatically on my whitelist? If this sort of thing caught on, it might give an added incentive to join such networks for folk like me who find places like Friendster a bit too, er, youthful and places like LinkedIn a bit too, er, business-oriented.

“Internet Voting Isn’t Safe”

The e-voting saga continues.

Four computer scientists say in a new report that a federally funded online absentee voting system scheduled to debut in less than two weeks “has security vulnerabilities that could jeopardize voter privacy and allow votes to be altered”. They say the risks associated with Internet voting cannot be eliminated and urge that the system be shut down.

The report’s authors are computer scientists David Wagner, Avi Rubin and David Jefferson from the University of California, Berkeley; The Johns Hopkins University and the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, respectively, and Barbara Simons, a computer scientist and leading technology policy consultant. They are members of the Security Peer Review Group, an advisory group formed by the Federal Voting Assistance Program to evaluate a system called SERVE, set up to allow overseas Americans to vote in their home districts. The first tryout is scheduled Feb. 3 for South Carolina’s presidential primary.

The four say that “Internet voting presents far too many opportunities for hackers or even terrorists to interfere with fair and accurate voting, potentially in ways impossible to detect. Such tampering could alter election results, particularly in close contests.” They “recommend shutting down the development of SERVE and not attempting anything like it in the future until both the Internet and the world’s home computer infrastructure have been fundamentally redesigned, or some other unforeseen security breakthroughs appear.”

The authors of the report state that there is no way to plug the security vulnerabilities inherent in the SERVE online voting design. “The flaws are unsolvable because they are fundamental to the architecture of the Internet,” says Wagner, assistant professor of computer science at UC Berkeley. “Using a voting system based upon the Internet poses a serious and unacceptable risk for election fraud. It is simply not secure enough for something as serious as the election of a government official.”

In short, the guys are saying the Internet is just not up to handling something like voting. But they also see the way the SERVE program carries the same flaws as the Diebold and other commercial electronic voting systems that have gotten such bad press in recent weeks (some of the four authors have been in the forefront of exposing those weaknesses). “The SERVE system has all of the problems that electronic touchscreen voting systems have: secret software, no protection against insider fraud and lack of voter verifiability,” says Jefferson. “But it also has a host of additional security vulnerabilities associated with the PC and the Internet, including denial-of-service attacks, automated vote buying and selling, spoofing attacks and virus attacks.”

After studying the prototype system the four researchers said it would be too easy for a hacker, located anywhere in the world, to disrupt an election or influence its outcome by employing any of several common types of attacks familiar to regular readers:

  • A denial-of-service attack, which would delay or prevent a voter from casting a ballot through the SERVE Web site.
  • A “Man in the Middle” or “spoofing” attack, in which a hacker would insert a phony Web page between the voter and the authentic server to prevent the vote from being counted or to alter the voter’s choice. What is particularly problematic, the authors say, is that victims of “spoofing” may never know that their votes were not counted.
  • Use of a virus or other malicious software on the voter’s computer to allow an outside party to monitor or modify a voter’s choices. The malicious software might then erase itself and never be detected.

News: Information Overload

 In the end this may be more important than anything else in the evolution of technology: information is growing very, very fast. The BBC quotes a study by the University of California, Berkeley that:
  • every year 800MB of information is produced for every person on the planet;
  • information stored on paper, film, magnetic and optical disks has doubled since 1999;
  • The amount of information stored in books, journals and other documents has grown 43% in the same period;
  • the amount of information generated has grown about 30%;
  • in 2002 alone about five exabytes (an exabyte, unless I’m much mistaken, is a billion gigabytes) of new information was generated by the world’s print, film, magnetic and optical storage systems.
And yet we still don’t have decent programs for letting us find stuff — words, pictures, sound — on our own computer. Why is that?