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“Palantir began work with the LAPD in 2009. The impetus was federal funding. After several Sept. 11 postmortems called for more intelligence sharing at all levels of law enforcement, money started flowing to Palantir to help build data integration systems for so-called fusion centers, starting in L.A. There are now more than 1,300 trained Palantir users at more than a half-dozen law enforcement agencies in Southern California, including local police and sheriff’s departments and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

The LAPD uses Palantir’s Gotham product for Operation Laser, a program to identify and deter people likely to commit crimes. Information from rap sheets, parole reports, police interviews, and other sources is fed into the system to generate a list of people the department defines as chronic offenders, says Craig Uchida, whose consulting firm, Justice & Security Strategies Inc., designed the Laser system. The list is distributed to patrolmen, with orders to monitor and stop the pre-crime suspects as often as possible, using excuses such as jaywalking or fix-it tickets. At each contact, officers fill out a field interview card with names, addresses, vehicles, physical descriptions, any neighborhood intelligence the person offers, and the officer’s own observations on the subject. 

The cards are digitized in the Palantir system, adding to a constantly expanding surveillance database that’s fully accessible without a warrant. Tomorrow’s data points are automatically linked to today’s, with the goal of generating investigative leads. Say a chronic offender is tagged as a passenger in a car that’s pulled over for a broken taillight. Two years later, that same car is spotted by an automatic license plate reader near a crime scene 200 miles across the state. As soon as the plate hits the system, Palantir alerts the officer who made the original stop that a car once linked to the chronic offender was spotted near a crime scene. 

The platform is supplemented with what sociologist Sarah Brayne calls the secondary surveillance network: the web of who is related to, friends with, or sleeping with whom. One woman in the system, for example, who wasn’t suspected of committing any crime, was identified as having multiple boyfriends within the same network of associates, says Brayne, who spent two and a half years embedded with the LAPD while researching her dissertation on big-data policing at Princeton University and who’s now an associate professor at the University of Texas at Austin. “Anybody who logs into the system can see all these intimate ties,” she says. To widen the scope of possible connections, she adds, the LAPD has also explored purchasing private data, including social media, foreclosure, and toll road information, camera feeds from hospitals, parking lots, and universities, and delivery information from Papa John’s International Inc. and Pizza Hut LLC.

The LAPD declined to comment for this story. Palantir sent Bloomberg a statement about its work with law enforcement: “Our [forward-deployed engineers] and [privacy and civil liberties] engineers work with the law enforcement customers (including LAPD) to ensure that the implementation of our software and integration of their source systems with the software is consistent with the Department’s legal and policy obligations, as well as privacy and civil liberties considerations that may not currently be legislated but are on the horizon. We as a company determine the types of engagements and general applications of our software with respect to those overarching considerations. Police Agencies have internal responsibility for ensuring that their information systems are used in a manner consistent with their policies and procedures.”

Operation Laser has made L.A. cops more surgical—and, according to community activists, unrelenting. Once targets are enmeshed in a spidergram, they’re stuck.”

– Peter Waldman, Lizette Chapman, and Jordan Robertson, “Palantir Knows Everything About You.” Bloomberg, April 19, 2018.

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“Education, visits, and phone contact all correlate with more successful rehabilitation. An oft-cited 2014 study from RAND found that recidivism drops 43 percent when prison students participate in education programs.  A report from the Minnesota Department of Corrections found that just prisoners who received regular visitors reoffended 13 percent less than people who did not; a visit from a mentor reduced recidivism rates by 29 percent.

Considered together, these facts show that what really works in reducing repeat offenses—and preventing crime—is giving inmates contact with non-incarcerated people to help them not succumb to prison subculture. Teachers, family and friends, and even volunteers puncture what seals prisoners off from the rest of humanity. If prisoners could use social media, it would allow them a virtual reentry into society so they could test the waters, instead of being dropped into them like I was.

The traditional objection to allowing inmates to use the internet and social media—that prisoners inside will use it to get information about their victims and hector them from behind bars—are weak. From what I saw, anyone with total disregard for the rights of others had already long forgotten about any victims.

Besides, there’s no reason why someone can’t look up a victim’s information upon release. The challenge is to make sure prisoners have no desire to do so because they have other, safe, prosocial connections they can rely on. Those usually get cut off during incarceration. Connecting with one’s past and future life at once, and reconciling them into one plan of law-abiding conduct is what keeps people clean, at least that’s what I’ve seen in three years of freedom.

When I was inside, I came to understand why wardens think these types of connections are a bad bet. The house always wins when it pits itself against one prisoner, but that’s not always the case when the prisoners collaborate. Earlier this year, a sergeant died in a Delaware prison riot that was highly choreographed. The way prison staff sees it, networks can be fatal, which is why the idea of the internet and social media is so frightening to them.

Prison brass fears social media’s presence so much that they actively work to prevent access. Georgia, Indiana, New Mexico, South Carolina, and Texas all have rules preventing incarcerated people from accessing social platforms, even through third parties. In Alabama, it’s a crime punishable by fine to help an incarcerated person connect to social media platforms.

Allowing incarcerated people to connect with those outside prison, for free and in ways that can be monitored, may likely reduce recidivism and clean up the cell phone contraband problem as well.

The apprehension is understandable, given that social media can be accessed from smartphones, and cell phones have been a growing problem in prisons. The state of California alone confiscated 8,000 of them in eight months last year. Of course, the use of cell phones isn’t always nefarious. Often they’re used to bypass the price of prisons’ pay phones, costs for which have been as high as $14 per minute.

The problem with smuggled cell phones’ bypassing the monitored telephone systems (whose prices are poised to increase since President Donald Trump named a new FCC commissioner) and accessing social media is that it embarrasses prison administrations and makes them look as though they don’t have control of their wards. One Tennessee facility’s inmates were using drugs, smoking, and burning clothes at gatherings the staff didn’t know about—until they saw it on Facebook. Another man’s beating reached his aunt on social media before his custodians even knew about it. She knocked on the prison door to tell them.

Allowing incarcerated people to connect with those outside prison, for free and in ways that can be monitored, may likely reduce recidivism and clean up the cell phone contraband problem as well.

Tablets are a cost-effective way to do this, and they’d allow prisoners who’ve been in since the pre-social media days to get a feel for handling devices. When the Pima County, Arizona, jail introduced a program that allowed inmates to use tablets last June, suicide attempts decreased 66 percent and completed suicides went down 100 percent. The number of staff assaults dropped 60 percent and inmate-on-inmate assaults are down 40 percent.

There’s always a risk that new options for communication and connection will be abused, but as the Pima County program proved, there are ways to curate and control the content that users receive. Meanwhile, in Colorado, inmates can use GTL tablets to communicate with loved ones—for a price that the loved ones pay. When it comes to taking advantage of the system, inmates are much lower risk than a profit-motivated company that seeks to get rich off policies designed to improve rehabilitation and public safety.”

– Chandra Bozelko, “INMATES NEED SOCIAL MEDIA. TAKE IT FROM A FORMER PRISONER.” Wired, October 1, 2017.

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“It started with the Boston marathon bombing, four years ago. University of Washington professor Kate Starbird was sifting through thousands of tweets sent in the aftermath and noticed something strange.

Too strange for a university professor to take seriously.

“There was a significant volume of social-media traffic that blamed the Navy SEALs for the bombing,” Starbird told me the other day in her office. “It was real tinfoil-hat stuff. So we ignored it.”

Same thing after the mass shooting that killed nine at Umpqua Community College in Oregon: a burst of social-media activity calling the massacre a fake, a stage play by “crisis actors” for political purposes.

“After every mass shooting, dozens of them, there would be these strange clusters of activity,” Starbird says. “It was so fringe we kind of laughed at it.

“That was a terrible mistake. We should have been studying it.”

Starbird is in the field of “crisis informatics,” or how information flows after a disaster. She got into it to see how social media might be used for the public good, such as to aid emergency responders.

Instead she’s gone down a dark rabbit hole, one that wends through the back warrens of the web and all the way up to the White House.

Starbird argues in a new paper, set to be presented at a computational social-science conference in May, that these “strange clusters” of wild conspiracy talk, when mapped, point to an emerging alternative media ecosystem on the web of surprising power and reach.

It features sites such as Infowars.com, hosted by informal President Donald Trump adviser Alex Jones, which has pushed a range of conspiracies, including that the Sandy Hook school shooting was a staged fake.

There are dozens of other conspiracy-propagating websites such as beforeitsnews.com, nodisinfo.com and veteranstoday.com. Starbird cataloged 81 of them, linked through a huge community of interest connected by shared followers on Twitter, with many of the tweets replicated by automated bots.

Infowars.com alone is roughly equivalent in visitors and page views to the Chicago Tribune, according to Alexa.com, the web-traffic analysis firm.

“More people are dipping into this stuff than I ever imagined,” Starbird says.

Starbird is in the UW’s Department of Human Centered Design & Engineering — the study of the ways people and technology interact. Her team analyzed 58 million tweets sent after mass shootings during a 10-month period. They searched for terms such as “false flag” and “crisis actor,” web slang meaning a shooting is not what the government or the traditional media is reporting it to be.

It happens after every mass shooting or attack. If you search for “false flag” and “Westminster,” you’ll find thousands of results theorizing that last week’s attack outside British Parliament was staged (presumably to bring down Brexit, which makes no sense, but making sense is not a prerequisite).

Starbird’s insight was to map the digital connections between all this buzzing on Twitter with a conglomeration of websites. Then she analyzed the content of each site to try to answer the question: Just what is this alternative media ecosystem saying?

It isn’t a traditional left-right political axis, she found. There are right-wing sites like Danger & Play and left-wing sensationalizers such as The Free Thought Project. Some appear to be just trying to make money, while others are aggressively pushing political agendas.

The true common denominator, she found, is anti-globalism — deep suspicion of free trade, multinational business and global institutions.

“To be antiglobalist often included being anti-mainstream media, anti-immigration, anti-science, anti-U.S. government, and anti-European Union,” Starbird says.

So it was like the mind of Stephen Bannon, chief adviser to Trump, spilled across the back channels of the web.

Much of it was strangely pro-Russian, too — perhaps due to Russian twitter bots that bombarded social channels during the presidential campaign (a phenomenon that’s now part of the FBI investigation into the election, McClatchy reported last week).

The mainstream press periodically waded into this swamp, but it only backfired. Its occasional fact checks got circulated as further evidence: If the media is trying to debunk it, then the conspiracy must be true.

Starbird is publishing her paper as a sort of warning. The information networks we’ve built are almost perfectly designed to exploit psychological vulnerabilities to rumor.

“Your brain tells you ‘Hey, I got this from three different sources,’ ” she says. “But you don’t realize it all traces back to the same place, and might have even reached you via bots posing as real people. If we think of this as a virus, I wouldn’t know how to vaccinate for it.”

Starbird says she’s concluded, provocatively, that we may be headed toward “the menace of unreality — which is that nobody believes anything anymore.” Alex Jones, she says, is “a kind of prophet. There really is an information war for your mind. And we’re losing it.”

I sat dumbfounded for a time as she spooled through tweets in her database: an archive of endless, baseless speculation that nevertheless is evidence of a political revolution. It should be unnecessary to say, but real humans died in these shootings. How disgustingly cruel it is to the survivors to have the stories of those deaths altered and twisted for commercial or ideological ends.

Starbird sighed. “I used to be a techno-utopian. Now I can’t believe that I’m sitting here talking to you about all this.””

– Danny Westneat, “UW professor: The information war is real, and we’re losing it,” The Seattle Times. March 29, 2017.

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“"This is the news of the millennium!“ said the story on WorldPoliticus.com. Citing unnamed FBI sources, it claimed Hillary Clinton will be indicted in 2017 for crimes related to her email scandal.

"Your Prayers Have Been Answered,” declared the headline.

For Trump supporters, that certainly seemed to be the case. They helped the baseless story generate over 140,000 shares, reactions, and comments on Facebook.

Meanwhile, roughly 6,000 miles away in a small town in the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, a young man watched as money began trickling into his Google AdSense account.

Over the past year, the Macedonian town of Veles (population 45,000) has experienced a digital gold rush as locals launched at least 140 US politics websites. These sites have American-sounding domain names such as WorldPoliticus.com, TrumpVision365.com, USConservativeToday.com, DonaldTrumpNews.co, and USADailyPolitics.com. They almost all publish aggressively pro-Trump content aimed at conservatives and Trump supporters in the US.

The young Macedonians who run these sites say they don’t care about Donald Trump. They are responding to straightforward economic incentives: As Facebook regularly reveals in earnings reports, a US Facebook user is worth about four times a user outside the US. The fraction-of-a-penny-per-click of US display advertising — a declining market for American publishers — goes a long way in Veles. Several teens and young men who run these sites told BuzzFeed News that they learned the best way to generate traffic is to get their politics stories to spread on Facebook — and the best way to generate shares on Facebook is to publish sensationalist and often false content that caters to Trump supporters.

As a result, this strange hub of pro-Trump sites in the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia is now playing a significant role in propagating the kind of false and misleading content that was identified in a recent BuzzFeed News analysis of hyperpartisan Facebook pages. These sites open a window into the economic incentives behind producing misinformation specifically for the wealthiest advertising markets and specifically for Facebook, the world’s largest social network, as well as within online advertising networks such as Google AdSense.

“Yes, the info in the blogs is bad, false, and misleading but the rationale is that ‘if it gets the people to click on it and engage, then use it,’” said a university student in Veles who started a US politics site, and who agreed to speak on the condition that BuzzFeed News not use his name.

Using domain name registration records and online searches, BuzzFeed News identified over 100 active US politics websites being run from Veles. The largest of these sites have Facebook pages that boast hundreds of thousands of followers.

BuzzFeed News also identified another 40 US politics domains registered by people in Veles that are no longer active. (An April report from the Macedonian website Meta.mk identified six pro-Trump sites being run from Veles. A Guardian report identified 150 politics sites.)

Their reasons for launching these sites are purely financial, according to the Macedonians with whom BuzzFeed News spoke.

“I started the site for a easy way to make money,” said a 17-year-old who runs a site with four other people. “In Macedonia the economy is very weak and teenagers are not allowed to work, so we need to find creative ways to make some money. I’m a musician but I can’t afford music gear. Here in Macedonia the revenue from a small site is enough to afford many things.”

Most of the posts on these sites are aggregated, or completely plagiarized, from fringe and right-wing sites in the US. The Macedonians see a story elsewhere, write a sensationalized headline, and quickly post it to their site. Then they share it on Facebook to try and generate traffic. The more people who click through from Facebook, the more money they earn from ads on their website.”

– 

Craig Silverman & Lawrence Alexander,

“How Teens In The Balkans Are Duping Trump Supporters With Fake News.” BuzzFeed News, November 3, 2016. 

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