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Research into the Root Causes of Terrorism

Interesting article in Science discussing field research on how people are radicalized to become terrorists.

The potential for research that can overcome existing constraints can be seen in recent advances in understanding violent extremism and, partly, in interdiction and prevention. Most notable is waning interest in simplistic root-cause explanations of why individuals become violent extremists (e.g., poverty, lack of education, marginalization, foreign occupation, and religious fervor), which cannot accommodate the richness and diversity of situations that breed terrorism or support meaningful interventions. A more tractable line of inquiry is how people actually become involved in terror networks (e.g., how they radicalize and are recruited, move to action, or come to abandon cause and comrades).

Reports from the The Soufan Group, International Center for the Study of Radicalisation (King’s College London), and the Combating Terrorism Center (U.S. Military Academy) indicate that approximately three-fourths of those who join the Islamic State or al-Qaeda do so in groups. These groups often involve preexisting social networks and typically cluster in particular towns and neighborhoods.. This suggests that much recruitment does not need direct personal appeals by organization agents or individual exposure to social media (which would entail a more dispersed recruitment pattern). Fieldwork is needed to identify the specific conditions under which these processes play out. Natural growth models of terrorist networks then might be based on an epidemiology of radical ideas in host social networks rather than built in the abstract then fitted to data and would allow for a public health, rather than strictly criminal, approach to violent extremism.

Such considerations have implications for countering terrorist recruitment. The present USG focus is on “counternarratives,” intended as alternative to the “ideologies” held to motivate terrorists. This strategy treats ideas as disembodied from the human conditions in which they are embedded and given life as animators of social groups. In their stead, research and policy might better focus on personalized “counterengagement,” addressing and harnessing the fellowship, passion, and purpose of people within specific social contexts, as ISIS and al-Qaeda often do. This focus stands in sharp contrast to reliance on negative mass messaging and sting operations to dissuade young people in doubt through entrapment and punishment (the most common practice used in U.S. law enforcement) rather than through positive persuasion and channeling into productive life paths. At the very least, we need field research in communities that is capable of capturing evidence to reveal which strategies are working, failing, or backfiring.

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Cybersecurity Issues for the Next Administration

On today’s Internet, too much power is concentrated in too few hands. In the early days of the Internet, individuals were empowered. Now governments and corporations hold the balance of power. If we are to leave a better Internet for the next generations, governments need to rebalance Internet power more towards the individual. This means several things.

First, less surveillance. Surveillance has become the business model of the Internet, and an aspect that is appealing to governments worldwide. While computers make it easier to collect data, and networks to aggregate it, governments should do more to ensure that any surveillance is exceptional, transparent, regulated and targeted. It’s a tall order; governments such as that of the US need to overcome their own mass-surveillance desires, and at the same time implement regulations to fetter the ability of Internet companies to do the same.

Second, less censorship. The early days of the Internet were free of censorship, but no more. Many countries censor their Internet for a variety of political and moral reasons, and many large social networking platforms do the same thing for business reasons. Turkey censors anti-government political speech; many countries censor pornography. Facebook has censored both nudity and videos of police brutality. Governments need to commit to the free flow of information, and to make it harder for others to censor.

Third, less propaganda. One of the side-effects of free speech is erroneous speech. This naturally corrects itself when everybody can speak, but an Internet with centralized power is one that invites propaganda. For example, both China and Russia actively use propagandists to influence public opinion on social media. The more governments can do to counter propaganda in all forms, the better we all are.

And fourth, less use control. Governments need to ensure that our Internet systems are open and not closed, that neither totalitarian governments nor large corporations can limit what we do on them. This includes limits on what apps you can run on your smartphone, or what you can do with the digital files you purchase or are collected by the digital devices you own. Controls inhibit innovation: technical, business, and social.

Solutions require both corporate regulation and international cooperation. They require Internet governance to remain in the hands of the global community of engineers, companies, civil society groups, and Internet users. They require governments to be agile in the face of an ever-evolving Internet. And they’ll result in more power and control to the individual and less to powerful institutions. That’s how we built an Internet that enshrined the best of our societies, and that’s how we’ll keep it that way for future generations.

This essay previously appeared on Time.com, in a section about issues for the next president. It was supposed to appear in the print magazine, but was preempted by Donald Trump coverage.

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Manipulating Juries with PowerPoint

Interesting article on the subconscious visual tricks used to manipulate juries and affect verdicts.

In December 2012 the Washington Supreme Court threw out Glasmann’s convictions based on the “highly inflammatory” slides. As a general rule, courts don’t want prosecutors expressing their personal opinion to a jury; they’re supposed to couch their arguments in terms of what the evidence shows. Plastering the word “GUILTY” on a slide — not once or twice, but three times — was a “flagrant and ill intentioned” violation of this principle, the Washington Supreme Court wrote. The captions superimposed on the photos were “the equivalent of unadmitted evidence.”

One justice, Tom Chambers, wrote that he was stunned at the state’s contention that there was nothing wrong with digitally altering the booking photo. “Under the State’s logic, in a shooting case, there would be nothing improper with the State altering an image of the accused by photoshopping a gun into his hand,” Chambers wrote.

Jeffrey Ellis, a lawyer from Portland, Oregon, represented Glasmann on appeal. “We all know that commercials can try to persuade people on a subconscious level,” Ellis said in an interview. “But I don’t think the criminal-justice system wants to enter into that base arena.”

I think we need some clear rules as to what’s permitted.

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