Come back King Canute, all is forgiven

You will remember that King Canute held a demonstration in which he showed his courtiers that he did not have the power to hold back the tide.

Senior officials in Washington desperately need courtiers who will show them, with equal force, that encryption has the same sort of property. If it’s done right, encrypted material can’t be decrypted by fiat. And any backdoor to the encryption process can’t be made available only to the good guys.

The current story about Apple and the encrypted phone used by one of the San Bernadino terrorists is not helping to make this issue any clearer to government, largely because the media coverage is so muddled that nobody could be blamed for missing the point.

The basic facts seem to be these: the phone is encrypted, the FBI have been trying to get in to it for some time, and there’s no way for anyone, Apple included, to burn through the encryption without the password. This is all as it was designed to be.

The FBI is now asking Apple to alter the access control software so that, for example, the ten-try limit on password guesses is disabled. Apple is refusing on two grounds. First, this amounts to the government compelling them to construct something, a form of conscription that is illegal (presumably the FBI could contract with Apple to build the required software but presumably Apple has no appetite for this).

Second, Apple argues that the existence proof of such a construct would make it impossible for them to resist the same request from other governments, where the intent might be less benign. This is an interesting argument. On the one hand, if they can build it now, they can build it then, and nobody’s claiming that the required construct is impossible. On the other hand, there’s no question that being able to do something in the abstract is psychologically quite different from having done it.

But it does seem as if Apple is using its refusal as a marketing tool for its high-mindedness and pro-privacy stance. Public opinion might have an effect if only the public could work out what the issues are — but the media have such a tenuous grasp that every story I saw today guaranteed greater levels of confusion.

“It’s going to be really great”

Donald Trump continues to be the poster child for our election-winning-language¬† model: high positive language, as little negative language as possible, and appeals to policy goals without getting into details. The media and pundits are tearing their hair out because he refuses to talk about specifics but, as we predict, it’s working! (Interestingly, I went back and looked at Perot’s language in the 1992 election, and he had more or less the same patterns — and he led the party contenders in national polls for a period in 1992.)

What the media and pundits don’t realise is that incumbent presidents running for a second term use language very similar to Trump’s. It’s just that, with a first-term track record, it’s not as glaringly obvious, and they don’t notice.

“But I don’t have anything to hide” Part II

In an earlier post, I pointed out that differential pricing — the ability of businesses to charge different people different prices — is one of the killer apps of data analytics. Since the goal of businesses will be to charge everyone the most they’re willing to pay, there are strong reasons why we might not want to be modelled this way, even if “we have nothing to hide”

There’s a second area in which models of everyone might feel like a bad thing — healthcare. As the costs of healthcare rise, there will be strong arguments that individuals need to be participants in maintaining their health. This sounds good — but when big data collection means that a health case provider might charge more to someone who has been smoking (plausible case), overeating (hmm), not exercising enough (hmmm), or any of a number of other lifestyle choices, it begins to be uncomfortable, even if “we have nothing to hide”.

The point of much data analytics by organisations and states is to assess the cost/benefit ratio of interacting with you. Of course, humans (and their organisations) have always made such assessments. What is new is the ability to do so in a fine-grained, pervasive, and never-removable way. What will be lost is the possibility of a fresh start, of redemption, or even of convenient amnesia about aspects of the past.

Trump’s continuing success

As I posted earlier, our study of previous successful presidential candidates shows that success is very strongly correlated with a particular language model, consisting of:

  • Uniformly positive language
  • Complete absence of negative language
  • Using uplifting, aspirational metaphors rather than policy proposals, and
  • Ignoring the competing candidates

Trump presumably polls well, to a large extent, because he uses this language model (not so much ignoring of the competing candidates recently, but maybe that’s the effect of a primary). This language pattern tends to be used by incumbent presidents running for re-election, and seems to derive from their self-perception as already-successful in the job they’re re-applying for. Trump, similarly, possesses huge self confidence that seems to have the same effect — he perceives himself as (automatically, guaranteed) successful as president.

The dynamic between the successful self-perception issue and the competence issue was hard to separate before; and we’ve used ‘statesmanlike’ to describe the model of language of electoral success. All of the presidential incumbents whom we previously studied had a self-perception of success and a demonstrated competence and we assumed that both were necessary to deploy the required language comfortably and competently. Trump, however, shows that this isn’t so — it’s possible to possess the self-perception of success without the previously demonstrated competence. In Trump’s case, presumably, it is derived from competence in a rather different job: building a financial empire.

The media is in a frenzy about the competence issue for Trump. But our language model explains how it is possible to be popular among voters without demonstrating much competence, or even planned competence, to solve the problems of the day.

Voters don’t care about objective competence in the way that the media do. They care about the underlying personal self-confidence that is revealed in each candidate’s language. The data is very clear about this.

It may even be the rational view that a voter should take. Presidents encounter, in office, many issues that they had not previously formulated a policy for, so self-confidence may be more valuable than prepackaged plans. And voters have learned that most policies do not get implemented in office anyway.

It’s silly to treat Trump as a front runner when no actual vote has yet been cast. But it wouldn’t be surprising if he continues to do well for some time.¬† Of the other candidates, only Christie shows any sense of the use of positive language but, as a veteran politician, he cannot seem to avoid the need to present policies.

“But I don’t have anything to hide”

This is the common response of many ordinary people when the discussion of (especially) government surveillance programs comes up. And they’re right, up to a point. In a perfect world, innocent people have nothing to fear from government.

The bigger problem, in fact, comes from the data collected and the models built by multinational businesses. Everyone has something to hide from them: the bottom line prices we are willing to pay.

We have not yet quite reached the world of differential pricing. We’ve become accustomed to the idea that the person sitting next to us on a plane may have paid (much) less for the identical travel experience, but we haven’t quite become reconciled to the idea that an online retailer might be charging us more for the same product than they charge other people, let alone that the chocolate bar at the corner store might be more expensive for us. If anything, we’re inclined to think that an organisation that has lots of data about us and has built a detailed model of us might give us a better price.

But it doesn’t require too much prescience to see that this isn’t always going to be the case. The seller’s slogan has always been “all the market can bear”.

Any commercial organization, under the name of customer relationship management, is building a model of your predicted net future value. Their actions towards you are driven by how large this is. Any benefits and discounts you get now are based on the expectation that, over the long haul, they will reap the converse benefits and more. It’s inherently an adversarial relationship.

Now think about the impact of data collection and modelling, especially with the realization that everything collected is there for ever. There’s no possibility of an economic fresh start, no bankruptcy of models that will wipe the slate clean and let you start again.

Negotiation relies on the property that each party holds back their actual bottom line. In a world where your bottom line is probably better known to the entity you’re negotiating with than it is to you, can you ever win? Or even win-win? Now tell me that you have nothing to hide.

[And, in the ongoing discussion of post-Snowden government surveillance, there’s still this enormous blind spot about the fact that multinational businesses collect electronic communication, content and metadata; location; every action on portable devices and some laptops; complete browsing and search histories; and audio around any of these devices. And they’re processing it all extremely hard.]

Results from the first Democratic debate

The debate held on Tuesday night pitted one well known figure (Hillary Clinton) against one up and coming figure (Sanders) and three others with no name recognition except among the wonkiest. The differences in exposure and preparation were obvious. I can’t see that it made any difference to anyone’s opinions.

But it remains interesting to see how well each person did at presenting a persona. Extremely well known politicians do not usually have the luxury of presenting themselves with a new, improved persona because the old one is so well known, so it’s common to find that persona deception scores are low for such candidates. For those who aren’t well-known, the strength of their persona is a blend of how well they can do it personally, and how big the gap is between their previous self-image and the persona that they are trying to project. A relatively unknown candidate with a high persona deception score, therefore, is likely to do well; one with a low score probably will not.

Here are the results from this debate:

deceptdocsThe red and greeen points represent artificial word use corresponding to moderately high amd moderately low levels of persona deception. Clinton, as expected (and from my analysis in the 2008 cycle) has low levels of persona deception. Sanders’s levels are in the mid-range. Chafee is sincere, but this won’t help him with his current level of recognition. O’Malley has the highest level of persona deception, which is a positive indicator for him (for what it’s worth in this crowd). Webb is also in the midrange, but his language use is quite different from that of Sanders.

Islamist violent extremism and anarchist violent extremism

Roughly speaking, three explanations for islamist violent extremism have been put forward:

  1. It’s motivated by a religious ideology (perhaps a perversion of true Islam, but sincerely held by its adherents);
  2. It’s motivated by political or insurgent ends, and so the violence is instrumental;
  3. It’s the result of psychological disturbance in its adherents.

In the months after the 9/11 World Trade Center attacks, Marc Sageman argued vigorously for the first explanation, pointing out that those involved in al Qaeda at the time were well-educated and at least middle class, were religious, and showed no signs of psychological disturbances. There was considerable push back to his arguments, mostly promoting Explanation 3 but, in the end, most Western governments came around to his view.

In the decade since, most Western countries have slipped into Explanation 2. I have argued that this is largely because these countries are post-Christian, and so most of those in the political establishment have post-modern ideas about religion as a facade for power. They project this world view onto the Middle Eastern world, and so cannot see that Explanation 1 is even possible — to be religious is to be naive at best and stupid at worst. This leads to perennial underestimation of islamist violent extremist goals and willingness to work towards them.

It’s widely agreed that the motivation for Daesh is a combination of Explanations 1 and 2, strategically Explanation 1, but tactically Explanation 2.

The new feature, however, is that Daesh’s high-volume propaganda is reaching many psychologically troubled individuals in Western countries who find its message to be an organising principle and a pseudo-community.

“Lone wolf” attacks can therefore be divided into two categories: those motivated by Explanation 1, and those motivated by Explanation 3, and the latter are on the rise. Marc Sageman has written about the extent to which foiled “plots” in the U.S. come very close to entrapment of vulnerable individuals who imagine that they would like to be terrorists, and take some tiny initial step, only to find an FBI agent alongside them, urging them to take it further. (M. Sageman, The Stagnation in Terrorism Research, Terrorism and Political Violence, Vol. 26, No. 4, 2014, 565-580)

Understanding these explanations is critical to efforts at de-radicalization. Despite extensive efforts, I have seen very little evidence that de-radicalization actually works. But it make a difference what you think you’re de-radicalizing from. Addressing Explanation 1 seems to be the most common strategy (“your view of Islam is wrong, see the views of respected mainstream Imams, jihad means personal struggle”).

Addressing Explanation 2 isn’t usually framed as de-radicalization but, if the violence is instrumental, then instrumental arguments would help (“it will never work, the consequences are too severe to be worth it”).

Addressing Explanation 3 is something we know how to do, but this explanation isn’t the popular one at present, and there are many pragmatic issues about getting psychological help to people who don’t acknowledge that they need it.

Reading the analysis of anarchist violence in the period from about 1880 to around 1920 has eerie similarities to the analysis of islamist violence in the past 15 years, both in the popular press, and in the more serious literature. It’s clear that there were some (but only a very few) who were in love with anarchist ideology (Explanation 1); many more who saw it as a way (the only way) to change society for the better (Explanation 2) — one of the popular explanations for the fading away of anarchist attacks is that other organisations supporting change developed; but there were also large numbers of troubled individuals who attached themselves to anarchist violence for psychological reasons. It’s largely forgotten how common anarchist attacks became during these few decades. Many were extremely successful — assassinations of a French president, an American president, an Austrian Empress, an Italian king — and, of course, the Great War was inadvertently triggered by an assassination of an Archduke.

Western societies had little more success stemming anarchist violence than we are having with islamist violence. The Great War probably had as much effect as anything, wiping out the demographic most associated with the problem. We will have to come up with a better solution.

(There’s a nice recap of anarchist violence and its connections to islamist violence here.)


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