Tag: social media

The Government’s Surveillance-Security Fantasies

If two data points are enough to draw a trend line, the trend I’ve spotted is government seeking to use data mining where it doesn’t work.

A comment in the Chronicle of Higher Education recently argued that universities should start mining data about student behavior in order to thwart incipient on-campus violence.

Existing technology … offers universities an opportunity to gaze into their own crystal balls in an effort to prevent large-scale acts of violence on campus. To that end, universities must be prepared to use data mining to identify and mitigate the potential for tragedy.

No, it doesn’t. And no, they shouldn’t.

Jeff Jonas and I wrote in our 2006 Cato Policy Analysis, “Effective Counterterrorism and the Limited Role of Predictive Data Mining,” that data mining doesn’t have the capacity to predict rare events like terrorism or school shootings. The precursors of such events are not consistent the way, say, credit card fraud is.

Data mining for campus violence would produce many false leads while missing real events. The costs in dollars and privacy would not be rewarded by gains in security and safety.

The same is true of foreign uprisings. They have gross commonality—people rising up against their governments—but there will be no pattern in data from past events in, say, Egypt, that would predict how events will unfold in, say, China.

But an AP story on Military.com reports that various U.S. security and law enforcement agencies want to mine publicly available social media for evidence of forthcoming terror attacks and uprisings. The story is called “US Seeks to Mine Social Media to Predict Future.”

Gathering together social media content has privacy costs, even if each bit of data was released publicly online. And it certainly has dollar costs that could be quite substantial. But the benefits would be slim indeed.

I’m with the critics who worry about overreliance on technology rather than trained and experienced human analysts. Is it too much to think that the U.S. might have to respond to events carefully and thoughtfully as they unfold? People with cultural, historical, and linguistic knowledge seem far better suited to predicting and responding to events in their regions of focus than any algorithm.

There’s a dream, I suppose, that data mining can eliminate risk or make the future knowable. It can’t, and—the future is knowable in one sense—it won’t.

“Weinergate”: It’s Entertaining—and Edifying!

I guess I should blush to admit that my Washington Examiner column this week focuses on “Weinergate.”  But who among us can resist snickering at a scandal this hilarious—who so sober and serious that they could ignore the crotch pic that launched a thousand puns?

As I argue in the column, among all the horselaughs to be had, there are also lessons to be learned:

There’s nothing wrong with enjoying a good old-fashioned political sex scandal. They’re entertaining, and they may even be edifying – reminding us that self-styled “public servants” are often less responsible, more venal, and just plain dumber than those they seek to rule.

Some writers with whom I’m normally simpatico disagree. Doug Mataconis of Outside the Beltway deplores “the odd American obsession with political sex scandals.” The Atlantic’s Conor Friedersdorf also condemns the attention given the Weiner kerfuffle:

there is a significant cost to obsessing over these things. The opportunity cost, for the media, is covering lots of other matters that are actually of greater import to the public, whatever one thinks of sex scandals.

I just don’t see it. Sure, in a better world, the news cycle might consist of a dignified 24/7 seminar on debt limits, insurance exchanges, the War Powers Resolution, and the like. But here on earth, Weinergate’s mainly crowding out more coverage of Sarah Palin’s bus tour.

“And for the politician in question,” Friedersdorf continues, “scandal consumes all the time he’d otherwise be dedicating to his official duties.”

I confess, I have a hard time not seeing this as win-win.

Both Mataconis and Friedersdorf argue that “private” sexual behavior tells us little about how politicians do their jobs. And I see their point, to a point. I sometimes joke, lamely, that one of my favorite presidents was a draft-dodging, womanizing Democrat elected in ‘92 (wait for it)… Grover Cleveland.

But whether or not we should care about congressional “sexting”—in the context of the modern media Panopticon, isn’t someone, like Weiner, who engages in it (especially after GOP Rep. Christopher Lee’s downfall) at least a reckless idiot? And isn’t that relevant to his job?

In a recent hand-wringing editorial, the New York Times fretted about disgraced former Senator and VP candidate John Edwards.

What the Times found unfortunate wasn’t the runaway prosecution–a legitimate complaint–but the fact that it would draw attention to yet another giant political phony. It’s “the last thing the nation needs: another cautionary tale of hubris,” says the Grey Lady, 
”the woeful courtroom coda to [Edwards’] once flourishing political career can only invite a further slide toward wariness and cynicism for American voters.”

Oh no! Not more “wariness and cynicism”! Surely, that’s the “last thing the nation needs” in an era of promiscuous warmaking and reckless spending!

There’s a story (perhaps apocryphal) where F. Scott Fitzgerald says to Ernest Hemingway, “the rich are different from you and me,” and Hemingway supposedly replies, “yes, they have more money.” I don’t know about the rich, but the political class is, by and large, different from the rest of us–and not just because they have more power.

By reminding us of how untrustworthy and reckless these people can be–how little control they often exhibit in their own lives–political sex scandals may even serve an important social purpose: they remind us that we should think twice before granting them more control over ours.

Does the Internet Cause Freedom?

That will be the subject of a Cato on Campus session this afternoon entitled: “The Internet and Social Media: Tools of Freedom or Tools of Oppression?” Watch live online at the link starting at 3:30 p.m., or attend in person. A reception follows.

The delight that so many felt to see protesters in Iran using social media has given way to delight about the use of Facebook to organize for freedom in Egypt. But this serial enthusiasm omits that the “Twitter revolution” in Iran did not succeed. The fiercest skeptics even suggest that the tweeting during Iran’s suppressed uprising was mostly Iranian ex-pats goosing excitable westerners and not any organizing force within Iran itself. Coming to terms with the Internet, dictatorships are learning to use it for surveillance and control, possibly with help from American tech companies.

So is the cause of freedom better off with the Internet? Or is social media a shiny bauble that distracts from the long, heavy slog of liberating the people of the world?

Joining the discussion will be Chris Preble, Director of Foreign Policy Studies at Cato; Alex Howard, Government 2.0 Correspondent for O’Reilly Media; and Tim Karr, Campaign Director at Free Press. More info here.

iCato: Liberty on the Go

We are very proud and excited to announce today the release of the official Cato Institute iPhone application, available for FREE download in the iTunes Store.

The application will be your way of staying absolutely up to date, from wherever you are, with everything that’s happening at Cato Institute. From being able to access the Cato@Liberty blog, or op-eds penned in major publications by our experts, to gaining instant access to the latest Cato Daily Podcast or cable TV news clips, you can now have Cato Institute information resources in the palm of your hand or on your iPad.

Here are some screen shots from the application:

We are currently still working to develop applications for other devices, and we will announce them as soon as they become available. For the time being, head on over to the Apple Store to download your copy of the official Cato Institute iPhone application, or search for “Cato Institute” in the iTunes store.

Additionally, in case you missed it, check out our brief catalog of new media offerings - how connected are you to the Cato Institute?

Remember to use the #Cato20 hashtag on Twitter to send us feedback on our new media efforts, or to let us know what you think about the new iPhone application!

Cato 2.0

There are a number of ways for you to stay connected to the Cato Institute on the web, outside of our main website (Cato.org), this blog (Cato@Liberty), our Spanish language site (El Cato), our political theorists’ digital round table (Cato | Unbound), or our hub for high school and college students (Cato on Campus). As we have grown since our founding in 1977, so have we grown online in recent years, in an effort to provide more opportunities to interact with our research and experts.

We appreciate your interest in our work and we encourage you to leverage any and all of our information resources–both at our main website, on this blog, and across the reaches of new media space. We have recently made many of our multimedia resources available for embed to bloggers, and we are looking continuously at ways to try to connect you to our projects. After the fold, check out a sampling of ways you can connect to Cato online and for ways you can use our multimedia resources.

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You can embed individual podcasts using the permalink feature at the Cato Daily Podcast site. Don’t forget to subscribe via iTunes, or simply grab the RSS feed.

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As with our podcasts, you can embed the entire media player at your site, or pick and choose which spots you’d like to embed.

Cato Weekly Video:
This collection of videos not only includes television spots, but clips from some of our events, in case you are unable to attend in person.


Be sure to check the calendar–we stream some of our events over the web in real time, and we try to provide opportunities to web participants to submit questions, especially in our student forums.

Check back with us often in the coming weeks and months–as we said, we are always looking for new ways to connect with you, and we are proud to be able to offer these resources to you online.

Twitter and Iran - It’s Not About the U.S. Government

It’s fascinating to watch developments in Iran via Twitter and other social media. (Notably, when I turned on the TV last night to look for Iran news from a conventional source, there was nothing to be found - just commercials and talking heads yapping about politics.)

It was laudable that Twitter delayed a scheduled outage to late-night Tehran time in order to preserve the platform for Iranian users, but contrary to a growing belief, it wasn’t done at the behest of the State Department. It was done at the behest of Twitter users.

Twitter makes that fairly (though imperfectly) clear on its blog, saying, “the State Department does not have access to our decision making process.”

As Justin Logan notes, events in Iran are not about the United States or U.S. policy. They should not be, or appear to be, directed or aided from Washington, D.C. Any shifts in power in Iran should be produced in Iran for Iranians, with support from the people of the world - not from any outside government.

People are free to speculate that the State Department asked Twitter to deny its involvement precisely to create the necessary appearances, but without good evidence of it, assuming so just reflects a pre-commitment that governments - not people and the businesses that serve them - are the primary forces for good in the world.