Groundhog day

Who among us is not getting that whiff of dread… a giddy feeling, like we’re all riding a giant beer truck careening downhill toward the flashing red lights of a railroad crossing? Could it be that you are sensing our ultra-modern society on a collision course with a range of catastrophic threats?

In his most recent book, The Fifth Risk (1), bestselling author Michael Lewis dumps gasoline on the bonfire of this paranoia. The super-journalist spends some quality time with key leaders from the outgoing Obama administration in their last days in office. When he asks the question “What keeps you up at night?” there is no shortage of answers

For better or worse, we are all in the disaster business

Lewis takes us on a tour of that massive dysfunctional bureaucracy we call the executive branch of the federal government. He learns that a lot of what it does is try to prevent things from going very badly, from a cyber 9/11 that could send us back to the Dark Ages to a pathogenic virus that could wipe out half the population (2). The federal government employs over two million people, three-quarters of whom are in one way or another involved in national security.

The federal government employs over two million people, three-quarters of whom are in one way or another involved in national security

The Department of Energy is perhaps the best example. In his failed bid for the White House, the current Secretary of Energy promised to eliminate DOE. But then Rick Perry was briefed about all of the things his agency does to prevent unimaginable devastation,from countering the North Korea threat to shoring up our fragile electrical grid. He changed his mind (3).

DOE spends over two billion dollars a year scouring the world to make sure loose nukes don’t fall into the wrong hands. In the Obama years alone, it collected enough weapons-grade plutonium and uranium to make a hundred and sixty nuclear bombs.

But that is just the tip of the iceberg!

The federal government employs over two million people, three-quarters of whom are in one way or another involved in national security

The worst risk-management organization imaginable

Our federal bureaucracy is a Frankenstein’s monster of cabinet-level departments, boards, commissions and agencies, more than two thousand in all, stitched together by successive generations of elected and appointed officials over some 250 years of history. The result is an immensely complex landscape of blinkered silos, with overlapping specializations and responsibilities. Congress tries to influence the work of this beast with its hundreds of different voices and ever-changing funding streams. But the White House and Congress rarely agree about all the things the agencies should be working on, or even know what they are.

With respect to the preventing things from going very badly part, Lewis describes it as kindergarten soccer: “everyone is on the ball, but no one is at their positions” (4). Hang on, because it gets worse…

Our government gets collective amnesia every eight years

Most of what we rely on government for is practical stuff that has little to do with politics. Especially the stuff that would keep you up at night if you knew about it. Every incoming administration has to take all of this on; figure out what it is and how to do it. But almost as soon as it gets over the learning curve, it’s time for a new handoff. Our government gets collective amnesia every eight years.

“It’s Groundhog Day” said one good government expert (5), “The new people come in and think that the previous administration and the civil service are lazy or stupid. Then they actually get to know the place they are managing. And when they leave they say, ‘this was a really hard job’. This happens over and over.” (6)

According to Lewis, the Obama team created detailed training courses about its inner workings in preparation for a handoff to the next administration. But after the 2016 election, there was only “radio silence”; the Trump people were nowhere to be found.

The hard truth sinks in as we stare up the steep slope of our risk curve and try to think of an organization that is less-suited to deal with it. Our dysfunctional bureaucracy, our legacy government, cannot coordinate a coherent response to the threats we face.

At this point, a mere bonfire seems inadequate to our paranoia.

The Obama team created detailed training courses about its inner workings in preparation for a handoff to the next administration

Yet it is our only hope; there is no other mechanism.

The internet and globalization have increased the pace and complexity of our lives and created a tangled web of relationships and highly interconnected systems that comprise our critical infrastructure: power, telecommunications, the financial system, supply chains, transportation, healthcare, you name it. Regardless what their caretakers say, disaster professionals know that every one of these ‘smart’ systems contains the seeds of its own destruction; each is moving toward the precipice of catastrophe rather than away from it, by its very nature. Not even a tiny, random tremor is needed to trigger a major collapse—unexpectedly and resoundingly.

When accidents occur in high-risk systems, such as those dealing with toxic chemicals, artificial intelligence, or nuclear weapons, the consequences can be catastrophic. We call these kinds of low-probability, high-impact events black swans. No entity, private-sector or otherwise, comes close to being willing or able to take these on.

Ownership of the black swan must fall to government.

We can’t bring a bag of rocks to a gunfight

There is an urgent need to take aim at our 21 st century demons. The good news is that we have the technology and the tools we need to do this. We can bring modern risk management practices to bear to create order out of the chaos. We can look across the whole of the government and create a coherent approach that aligns the risk landscape with our risk appetites.

But we need a big army, with every sophisticated weapon available, imbued with executive authority and unleashed into this government, to flush out and capture the biggest portfolio of such risks ever managed by a single institution in the history of the world.

In the best case outcome, we could make the very bad things happen less frequently

This new team, the enterprise risk team, would be charged with systematically breaking through those silo walls, one by one, to unearth the white-hot risks buried deep within those two thousand agencies. Among the revelations in The Fifth Risk is the enormous amount of data collected, analyzed, and disseminated by these agencies.

The enterprise risk team would have access to all of that data. It would bring leadership from all over the government (and beyond) together to gauge and calibrate the shock resistance of the nation. It would be empowered to identify, assess, measure and monitor all of our risks.

This approach will minimize surprises and, more importantly, shorten the timelines of our responses to them. In the best case outcome, we could make the very bad things happen less frequently.

Among the revelations in The Fifth Risk is the enormous amount of data collected, analyzed, and disseminated by these agencies

Give these big guns to FEMA

Disaster professionals call this process-coordinating across organizations to make sure we are prioritizing the right things and not missing anything-enterprise risk management, or ERM. Only ERM can create a permanent framework to manage our full range of risks and respond to new risks, and opportunities, as they arise.

But this kind of bold solution requires leadership of a special kind.

The kind of leadership that breaks down silo walls to create a commonality of purpose among people and agencies doing very different work. Some call that meta-leadership but we know it to be merely emergency management.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency can do this work because it is doing it now, from disaster planning to response operations and on and on, breaking down silo walls and getting everybody on the same page. With its mission to “ensure that as a nation we work together to prepare for and protect against all hazards”, FEMA must assume its role as the risk manager for the national enterprise.

FEMA must assume its role as the risk manager for the national enterprise.

The antidote to the flavor of the month

The mind is a terrible thing to understand risk. People just naturally imagine that the crisis that just happened is the one that is most likely to happen again (aka the “flavor of the month”). They are less good at imagining a crisis before it happens – and taking action to prevent it. This is the job of the emergency manager.

People just naturally imagine that the crisis that just happened is the one that is most likely to happen again

FEMA can establish the processes to systematically counter our human biases, and the political winds. It can force our government to imagine the disasters that have never happened. The sort of disasters that a Hollywood screenwriter might imagine: vivid, dramatic events. Along with these it can examine our systemic risks, what Lewis calls the Fifth Risk, such as contagion to the financial system or a tidal wave of severely ill patients into our hospitals.

The black swan is not a political animal

Kelly McKinney is the author of Moment of Truth, released in July by Post Hill Press.

The day that the black swan comes is a Groundhog Day of a uniquely dark and chaotic variety. It brings with it a painful insight—about the mistakes we made and the actions we did or did not take that would have increased our options, or maybe even saved our country.

This is not a treatise on the appropriate size of government because, believe it or not, the black swan couldn’t care less about politics. Whether we take government for granted or imagine it to be a pernicious force in our lives over which we have no control, the Groundhog Day the black swan brings will remind us that the basic role of government is to keep us safe (7). Because on that day, government will be the only thing that stands between us and the things that will kill us.

Sources

(1) Lewis, Michael (2018). The Fifth Risk. New York: W. W. Norton & Company. ISBN 978-1-324-00264-2

(2) Ibid, page 25

(3) Rick Perry Regrets Call to Close Energy Department, By Coral Davenport, 19 January 2017, The New York Times,

accessed at https://www.nytimes.com/2017/01/19/us/politics/rick-perry-energy-department.html

(4) Lewis, page 46

(5) Max Stier of the Partnership for Public Service

(6) Lewis, page 26

(7) Ibid page 24

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Epic Games launcher is farming Steam user data, friends lists and played games

Discovered by a user of Reddit, as these things often are, it’s emerged the Epic Games Launcher scans for your Steam install during each start-up and then grabs a snapshot of user files in the Steam Cloud, including data on game saves, play history, Steam friends lists, name history, and groups you’re part of.

In accordance with GDPR, you can request Epic removes all of your personal data, or they could face legal ramifications.

Steam Cloud data is stored locally in Steam>userdate>[account ID]. Epic feeds into this, pulls the data and then creates an encrypted copy which is placed into C:ProgramDataEpicSocialBackupRANDOM HEX CODE_STEAM ACCOUNT ID.bak

The purpose of this appears to be to provide friend suggestions in the Epic Launcher, effectively linking the two systems up. This is done with the user’s express permission according to Epic. It’s tucked away into the lengthy agreement when installing the Epic Launcher and signing up for an account.

Read entire post Epic Games launcher is farming Steam user data, friends lists and played games | Neil Soutter | Games Debate

Smart Cities: Can Data Account For Population Growth?

As the world’s population continues to rise and the average lifespan increases, cities are getting bigger.

This poses a new set of challenges and opportunities for government and municipal planners. The increase in population means more energy, water, public service personnel, education and other services. With three million people moving into cities every week, these services are often needed before any taxes can be paid.

To better face these challenges, cities have to adapt and become smarter about how they use existing resources. Advances in technology are permitting city planners more opportunities to maximize resources and providing a new lease on life for aging physical infrastructures. Cities contain many objects that receive, collect and transmit data, including traffic lights and air pollution stations.

> Read entire article Smart Cities: Can Data Account For Population Growth? | Forbes | Alexandro Pando

 

Major step forward on food consumption data

The updated database consists of the most recent data collected in Member States covering more population groups and new food categories, such as energy drinks.

The EU Menu project aims to increase the quality, detail and harmonisation of data collected in Member States, covering all age groups from three months to 74 years. This makes the data easier to compare.

Since 2011 EFSA has provided financial support and guidance on data collection to 21 countries under the EU Menu umbrella.

Read entire article Major step forward on food consumption data | European Food Safety Autority

Cambridge Analytica’s Kenya election role ‘must be investigated’

A full investigation must be carried out into a UK consultancy firm which helped take Kenya’s President Uhuru Kenyatta to victory, the main opposition coalition has told the BBC.

Published on BBC

Cambridge Analytica say they played a massive role in the election of Kenya’s President Uhuru Kenyatta, left, who beat Raila Odinga, right, last year.

National Super Alliance (Nasa) official Norman Magaya accused Cambridge Analytica and the ruling party of trying to “subvert the people’s will”.

Cambridge Analytica bosses were apparently caught on camera boasting of the control they had exerted in Kenya. The company denies any wrongdoing. Mr Kenyatta’s Jubilee party have downplayed the impact of the group, saying they employed the company’s parent company, SCL, to help with branding.

Cambridge Analytica first hit the headlines after helping US President Donald Trump to his shock win in 2016. However, questions are now being raised around the world over its methods – including the use of data harvested from people’s Facebook pages.

Cambridge Analytica say they played a massive role in the election of Kenya’s President Uhuru Kenyatta, left, who beat Raila Odinga, right, last year

Read entire article Cambridge Analytica’s Kenya election role ‘must be investigated’ | BBC

What is Cambridge Analytica?

Cambridge Analytica is a company that offers services to businesses and political parties who want to “change audience behaviour”.

It claims to be able to analyse huge amounts of consumer data and combine that with behavioural science to identify people who organisations can target with marketing material. It collects data from a wide range of sources, including social media platforms such as Facebook, and its own polling.

With its headquarters in London, the firm was set up in 2013 as an offshoot of another company called SCL Group, which offers similar services around the world.

The GDPR is coming: 5 ways you can safeguard your personal data

Can you honestly say you know who has access to your personal data? Just how many people know what your email address is or when your birthday is? And, more importantly, who knows where you live or what your bank card details are?

Whether we’re sharing our email address in return for receiving newsletters or creating an online account so that we can leave a review, our data is everywhere. But there’s a problem. Most people don’t know where their personal data is going or where it’s being stored. It’s all about to change.

Now’s the time to get to grips with safeguarding your personal data once and for all. Here are some of the ways you can go about doing it:

1. Get to know where your data is

datavisualisation

If you think back over the years to the amount of times you’ve shared your details, the places where your information is stored is vast. Do a quick audit – are you happy with who may have your details on file and what they’re using them for? If not, then you have rights.

2. Understand your rights

the-lowdown-on-colour-regulation-in-europe_strict_xxl

You have a right to know what information companies hold about you and how they’re using it.

Once the GDPR is in place, you should start to see a difference in the way organisations communicate with you about using your data. You’ll have to opt-in rather than opt-out of communications. What’s more, organisations will no longer be able to assume that silence means you’ve given them permission to use your details.

3. Recognise the value of your data

Open treasure chest on the beach

It goes without saying, but your data is valuable, even more so in this day and age where the risk of data breaches and cyberattacks is higher than ever before. Simple steps, such as regularly changing your passwords and installing anti-virus software on all of your devices, not just some of them, can significantly help protect your data.

4. Look after your important data after it’s been sent

datamap-1453

Like it or not, the vast majority of transactions are completed online these days. Regardless of how hectic your life might be, get into the practice of keeping tabs on where your most important data’s been sent and whether or not it needs to be reviewed or updated as your details change over the years.

5. Remember – the GDPR is your ally!

While there’s been a lot of discussion about the impact of the GDPR on businesses, don’t forget these new rules aren’t just aimed at organisations, they’re aimed at the public too.

The GDPR is coming and with it comes a whole new world of opportunity for you to take back control over your personal data and protect what matters to you most – once and for all.

Source: Huffington Post

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Read more about the General Data Protection Regulation

Astonishing! How Facebook’s tentacles reach further than you think

Facebook’s collection of data makes it one of the most influential organisations in the world. Share Lab wanted to look “under the bonnet” at the tech giant’s algorithms and connections to better understand the social structure and power relations within the company.

A couple of years ago, Vladan Joler and his brainy friends in Belgrade began investigating the inner workings of one of the world’s most powerful corporations. But Mr Joler and his friends, now working under a project called Share Lab, had their sights set on a bigger target.

He reels off the familiar, but still staggering, numbers: the barely teenage Silicon Valley firm stores some 300 petabytes of data, boasts almost two billion users, and raked in almost $28bn (£22bn) in revenues in 2016 alone.

And yet, Mr Joler argues, we know next to nothing about what goes on under the bonnet – despite the fact that we, as users, are providing most of the fuel – for free.

“If Facebook were a country, it would be bigger than China,” says Mr Joler, whose day job is as a professor at Serbia’s Novi Sad University.

“All of us, when we are uploading something, when we are tagging people, when we are commenting, we are basically working for Facebook,” he says.

The data our interactions provide feeds the complex algorithms that power the social media site, where, as Mr Joler puts it, our behaviour is transformed into a product.

Trying to untangle that largely hidden process proved to be a mammoth task.

“We mapped likes, shares, search, update status, adding photos, friends, names, everything our devices are saying about us, all the permissions we are giving to Facebook via apps, such as phone status, wifi connection and the ability to record audio.”

All of this research provided only a fraction of the full picture. So the team looked into Facebook’s acquisitions, and scoured its myriad patent filings.

The results were astonishing.

Visually arresting flow charts that take hours to absorb fully, but which show how the data we give Facebook is used to calculate our ethnic affinity (Facebook’s term), sexual orientation, political affiliation, social class, travel schedule and much more.

One map shows how everything – from the links we post on Facebook, to the pages we like, to our online behaviour in many other corners of cyber-space that are owned or interact with the company (Instagram, WhatsApp or sites that merely use your Facebook log-in) – could all be entering a giant algorithmic process.

And that process allows Facebook to target users with terrifying accuracy, with the ability to determine whether they like Korean food, the length of their commute to work, or their baby’s age.

Experts say there are no historical analogies for the power that today’s tech giants hold.

Another map details the permissions many of us willingly give Facebook via its many smartphone apps, including the ability to read all text messages, download files without permission, and access our precise location.

Individually, these are powerful tools; combined they amount to a data collection engine that, Mr Joler argues, is ripe for exploitation. “If you think just about cookies, just about mobile phone permissions, or just about the retention of metadata – each of those things, from the perspective of data analysis, are really intrusive.”

Mr Joler, though, while admitting that his research made him a little paranoid about the information that was being harvested, is more worried about the longer term.

The data will remain in the hands of one company. Even if its current leaders are responsible and trustworthy, what about those in charge in 20 years?

Analysts say Share Lab’s work is valuable and impressive. “It’s probably the most comprehensive work mapping Facebook that I’ve ever seen,” says Dr Julia Powles, an expert in technology law and policy at Cornell Tech. “[The research] shows in cold and calculated terms how much we are giving away for the value of being able to communicate with your mates,” she says.

The scale of Facebook’s reach can be stated in raw numbers – but Share Lab’s maps make it visceral, in a way that drawing parallels cannot.

It is this extraordinary dominance that the Share Lab team set out to illustrate. But Mr Joler is quick to point out that even their grand maps cannot provide an accurate picture of the social media giant’s capabilities.

There is no guarantee, for example, that there are not many other algorithms at work that are still heavily guarded trade secrets.

However, Mr Joler argues, “it is still the one and only map that exists” of one of the greatest forces shaping our world today.

Source: BBC

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