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Raytheon's Riot Program Mines Social Network Data For Intelligence Agencies

samzenpus posted about a year ago | from the I-see-you dept.

Privacy 119

Shipud writes "Raytheon has secretly developed software capable of tracking people's movements and predicting future behavior by mining data from social networking websites according to The Guardian. An 'extreme-scale analytics' system created by Raytheon, the world's fifth largest defense contractor, can gather vast amounts of information about people from websites including Facebook, Twitter and Foursquare. Raytheon says it has not sold the software — named Riot, or Rapid Information Overlay Technology — to any clients. But the company has acknowledged the technology was shared with U.S. government and industry as part of a joint research and development effort, in 2010, to help build a national security system capable of analyzing 'trillions of entities' from cyberspace. The power of Riot to harness popular websites for surveillance offers a rare insight into controversial techniques that have attracted interest from intelligence and national security agencies, at the same time prompting civil liberties and online privacy concerns."

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sample data (1)

schneidafunk (795759) | about a year ago | (#42859871)

And did they just raid facebook's data, disregarding privacy settings, to develop this software?

Re:sample data (2, Insightful)

Dan667 (564390) | about a year ago | (#42859959)

facebook would probably sell it to them cheap if they asked.

YARNTDFB (2)

cayenne8 (626475) | about a year ago | (#42860453)

Yet Another Reason Not To Do FaceBook.

Re:YARNTDFB (3, Insightful)

AliasMarlowe (1042386) | about a year ago | (#42860957)

Yet Another Reason Not To Do FaceBook.

And Twitter, Foursquare, and the rest of the so-called "social" web. Anyway, if they're interested in finding terrorists and whatnot, they should probably look elsewhere. If they're interested in picking up stuff to use against their own citizens (Stasi-style), then they're probably on the right track.

Re:YARNTDFB (1)

cayenne8 (626475) | about a year ago | (#42861987)

nyway, if they're interested in finding terrorists and whatnot, they should probably look elsewhere. If they're interested in picking up stuff to use against their own citizens (Stasi-style), then they're probably on the right track.

I see your latter point as a valid concern.

Hell, it seems these days, all you need are to claim something is to combat child pr0n or terrorism, and voila, you've now acquired the keys to the Constitution and can squash any old rights you used to have. Having more info on the citizenry is a nice tool to a possibly nasty end.

Re:sample data (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#42859971)

No, they just asked them nicely for it.

Re:sample data (1)

Runaway1956 (1322357) | about a year ago | (#42861711)

So - how's this thing working on Chris Dorner?

Re:sample data (2)

St.Creed (853824) | about a year ago | (#42866457)

It's not intended for people like Chris D.

It's intended to gauge the sentiments of the masses, to warn the local rulers before the uprising starts. I'm pretty sure they have a pretty good market in the Middle East right now. It doesn't do anything about lone killers or terrorists.

This reeks of "schleppnetzfahndung", a term used to describe the use of similar data by the West German police to combat terrorism in the 70's. It did catch a couple of terrorists. It also got tens of thousands of citizens banned from working in all kinds of jobs, because they had the wrong friends, read the wrong papers or were members of the wrong trade union. For a lot of people, that seemed to be the main reason to use that method. It certainly had a very chilling impact on dissidents.

Re:sample data (1)

tehcyder (746570) | about a year ago | (#42869785)

It also got tens of thousands of citizens banned from working in all kinds of jobs, because they had the wrong friends, read the wrong papers or were members of the wrong trade union.

If you can be stopped from working somewhere for any of those reasons, your society is fucked. It's not surprising West Germany had so many terrorists in the 1970s if the state was treating legitimate dissent so fascistically.

Re:sample data (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#42860007)

Raid? You mean bought. Facebook will sell all your info to anyone they think is an advertiser.

Re:sample data (5, Insightful)

TWX (665546) | about a year ago | (#42860261)

You're assuming that they need access to private data on Facebook to make this work. Between the lack of people fine-tuning their privacy settings, and the ability of other users to note what one is doing even if one doesn't share such information, and it's no surprise that they can develop this software.

Re:sample data (1)

hedwards (940851) | about a year ago | (#42860339)

Private data no, but I'm pretty sure that FB requires people to pay if they want to use spiders to get all the data that's been posted, rather than just small amounts about individuals.

Re:sample data (1)

neorush (1103917) | about a year ago | (#42860287)

Have you looked at some of your friends profiles as a guest? I'd estimate that 80%+ of my friends on FB have the bulk of their posts public, no need to raid.

It's an opt-in program (1)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#42859893)

There seem to be eve- more compelling reasons not to use the social networks.

Re:It's an opt-in program (1)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#42859977)

This is /., you can say "even" here. No profanity filters. Viva liberty!

this is Dr Johhny Fever, and I'd just like to say: (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#42861353)

Belgiuuuuuuuuuuuummmmmmmmmmmmm!

Don't Check into foursqure (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#42859955)

problem solved

And the usefulness of this info is? (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#42859965)

I could've told you that.

Status: Drinking kool-aid.
Future status: Need to pee, brb..

When will the insanity end??

do they mean (2)

mjwalshe (1680392) | about a year ago | (#42859973)

people singular or people en mass? Calculating statistically what a group might do might work but an individual that is a big ask)

Re:do they mean (1)

EvilSS (557649) | about a year ago | (#42860347)

According to TFA they are talking about individuals.

Re:do they mean (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#42860909)

Would be interesting to see how they manage to avoid the false positives.
It wouldn't be the first person to put "I'm gonna kill ..." as a comment on facebook.
Not really smart, but most of those people wouldn't really hurt anyone in reality.

Re:do they mean (2)

EvilSS (557649) | about a year ago | (#42865501)

Might be why no one has bought it yet. How many terrorists use four-square for check-ins (something called out by the article when talking about tracking) or social media at all? I guess the really dumb ones but still...

psychohistory (2)

schneidafunk (795759) | about a year ago | (#42860445)

Calculating statistically what a group might do

I believe you are referring to psychohistory from 'The Foundation' by Isaac Asimov.

Re:psychohistory (2)

interval1066 (668936) | about a year ago | (#42860669)

Calculating statistically what a group might do

I believe you are referring to psychohistory from 'The Foundation' by Isaac Asimov.

I believe you are referring to the behavioral research of Skinner, Watson, Hull, Tolman, et. al.

easy solution (4, Insightful)

msheekhah (903443) | about a year ago | (#42860091)

Just don't post location data or activities if you're engaging in protests... disable location services on your phone. You're giving data to a public database and then crying about privacy... just don't give them information.

Re:easy solution (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#42860295)

This is obvious to us, but the other 99.999% of the world doesn't get it or doesn't care.

Re:easy solution (4, Insightful)

Thanshin (1188877) | about a year ago | (#42860463)

Just don't post location data or activities if you're engaging in protests... disable location services on your phone. You're giving data to a public database and then crying about privacy... just don't give them information.

How can you be sure that everyone who's participating in that same protest followed your advice?

They don't need the information you post if they already have the information other people post about you.

Re:easy solution (1)

betterunixthanunix (980855) | about a year ago | (#42860551)

It's not as simple as that. I saw a talk by a researcher a few months ago who discovered that Twitter posts could be used to predict spikes in crime. Basically, the example he demonstrated went something like this: when a lot of people are posting messages about being stuck in traffic, the probability of hit-and-run accidents increases. The researcher conjectured that the reason for this phenomenon was that drivers were taking detours, and that the combination of running late and being on an unfamiliar route increased the likelihood of a collision (and by extension, of a hit-and-run). He then went on to show a similar analysis for predicting drug crimes, and then one that predicted terrorist attacks in Iraq.

So it is not just that people who engage in protests will leak data. Someone working at a deli where activists like to meet might post a comment to the effect of, "A bunch of weirdo hippies just walked in the door and they are not buying anything!" If you had a lot of people making Twitter posts that indicated that activist groups were holding meetings of increasing size and frequency, you could probably conclude that a major protest is being planned.

Re:easy solution (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#42861201)

Isn't the idea of a protest to draw attention. I've never heard of a secrete protest. Then again, maybe they didn't want me to.

Re:easy solution (3, Informative)

betterunixthanunix (980855) | about a year ago | (#42862429)

It's not the protest itself that is secret, but the planning. The point of spying on activists before they stage a protest is to crack down on the protest, to spread propaganda just before the protest, to move important meetings away from the protest site, etc.

Re:easy solution (1)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#42860897)

disable location services on your phone

If you think that will help, you're clueless. And thus part of the vast majority and exactly the type this program targets. The only way to (probably) incapacitate the personal surveillance device (aka your cell phone) is to yank out the battery or better yet leave the whole god damn thing at home. Or never agree to carry one in the first place.

George Orwell will be saying "told you so". And Stalin will be drooling as this is his wet dream and something he always strived for but could never achieve.

Re:easy solution (1)

tehcyder (746570) | about a year ago | (#42869817)

If you're paranoid, you should most definitely have a cell phone and carry it with you most of the time, making the odd call, but conveniently "forget" it when you don't want to be traced by it. Not having a cell phone would be a lot more suspicious nowadays, the authorities would probably assume you had another secret one and go about tracing that.

Re:easy solution (1)

rocket rancher (447670) | about a year ago | (#42860903)

Just don't post location data or activities if you're engaging in protests... disable location services on your phone. You're giving data to a public database and then crying about privacy... just don't give them information.

Indeed. Terrorists hide their activity from the authorities by concealing themselves within the populace. This is the first rule of asymmetric warfare. And it still holds, whether you are hiding within a city's population being surveilled by cameras operated by the authorities, or within the statistical bubble that the authorities are able to track via software like RIOT. The nature of the battles may change, but the nature of warfare doesn't.

Big Assumption (1)

ThatsNotPudding (1045640) | about a year ago | (#42862105)

... disable location services on your phone. You're giving data to a public database and then crying about privacy... just don't give them information.

You are assuming here that you have complete and total control of your phone, completely impervious from overrides by the greasy carriers and their state security handlers.

Re:easy solution (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#42865837)

You'll still be auto-recognized by the Facebook images being uploaded by anyone at the protest.

Re:easy solution (1)

tehcyder (746570) | about a year ago | (#42869801)

I think anyone who posts stuff on twitter or facebook like "look there's a riot going on, let's go and join in and do some looting" deserves to get caught and sent to prison for stupidity. But that was effectively what happened during the riots here in the UK in 2011.

It uses EXIF location data. (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#42860097)

So why the f&$@ is EXIF still turned ON by default on most smart phones?

Shouldn't we be protesting against this being on by default if our government is now using it as their neat little tracking feature?

Are we all really that important, are our egos really that huge that we need to advertise where we are every time we take a photo?

Oh I forgot, a smartphone is the biggest ego-boosting gadget out there.

Re:It uses EXIF location data. (1)

Thanshin (1188877) | about a year ago | (#42860547)

Oh I forgot, a smartphone is the biggest ego-boosting gadget out there.

You're living in the past. They are no longer smartphones, they're just phones. And to boost your ego you'd need something not every seven year old has.

The consensus is that a tablet is expensive enough and big enough to have an excuse to show it at all times.

Re:It uses EXIF location data. (1)

tehcyder (746570) | about a year ago | (#42869839)

are our egos really that huge that we need to advertise where we are every time we take a photo?

Apparently, yes. No one forces people to upload their pics to facebook or whatever.

George Orwell got it wrong in 1984. You don't need goverment telescreens monitoring you, people seem quite happy to do it themselves voluntarily.

if you are on facebook .. (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#42860105)

what online privacy concerns are we talking about ?

Oh no... (1)

PortHaven (242123) | about a year ago | (#42860129)

We're not supposed to fear our government. We're just crazies and whackos.

Anyone remember the RPG Paranoia? .gov wants you to be happy...

Re:Oh no... (-1)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#42860713)

A lot of people who fear the government are crazies and wackos. Check out twitter tags #TGDN and #RedNationRising to see the people who fear the government. They also fear an imagined god. The worst part is that they vote for stunningly ignorant candidates, and destroyed the Republican party..

Failbork (1)

Korruptionen (2647747) | about a year ago | (#42860175)

This is another reason why I deleted my FaceBook account. Truth be told, I do not miss it one bit. Try it... you'll feel better.

So useful its probably already done (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#42860195)

COINTELPRO must find this ability extremely useful. Keep those political groups down. I'm guessing the only reason they haven't sold it yet is that every agency already has something of better quality.

Precrime! (2)

jamstar7 (694492) | about a year ago | (#42860249)

Anybody else get a flashback to 'Minority Report'?

The raging paranoid in me says this is a Very Bad Thing that will end up with politicians refusing to relinquish power by passing laws arresting people for 'crimes' they might commit based on this statistical analysis, followed up by lists of new 'crimes' demanding 'harsh penalties' covered by these same new laws. Aggrivated littering and felony loitering, anyone?

Re:Precrime! (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#42860577)

They already do that precrime stuff with people who possess child porn.

Re:Precrime! (1)

Xarius (691264) | about a year ago | (#42863665)

Seems more like Person of Interest [wikipedia.org] realm, and that show feels a lot more like something that could exist today than flukey telepaths being born. (Great show by the way, starts of slow but gets going!)

strategic response (1)

roman_mir (125474) | about a year ago | (#42860335)

The strategic response to this type of stalking initiatives shall be known as the Unified Posting Yield Obfuscating Response System.

forest and tree analogy (2, Interesting)

vlm (69642) | about a year ago | (#42860343)

tracking people's movements and predicting future behavior

Time for a forest and tree analogy. On a rounding basis, the masses have historically never done anything terribly exciting, important, or relevant. So paying intense attention to them is a waste of resources. Its always the 10% or less who actually influence history. If we made all predictions based on the median joe 6 pack couch potato, we'd still be british subjects, we'd still be in control of independent south vietnam, iraq and afghanistan would be fully pacified, blah blah blah.

I don't think that knowing 30% of the population liked the most recent american idol episode is actionable intelligence information in either the short, medium, or long term. Imagine a squad about to deploy on a mission in Iraq being told that the best help intel can provide today is that 15% of active facebook users like listening to Bieber. Umm, thanks guys, on to the next briefing.

Its a self blinding technology, not an enlightening technology. I'm sure its highly profitable for contractors of course.

Re:forest and tree analogy (2)

DoraLives (622001) | about a year ago | (#42860615)

Actually, having a crystal clear picture of what the Great Swarm is doing provides an exquisitely crisp background against which one can pick out very fine details indeed when it comes to excursions from that background.

It's the excursions that they're looking for and keeping a close eye upon.

As the detail of the background becomes sharper and sharper, so too does detail of the excursions.

Re:forest and tree analogy (1)

vlm (69642) | about a year ago | (#42862047)

excursions from that background

But the excursions from the background are also not actionable data. Right back to my original example, OK the important part is not that 15% of the dirt villagers like Bieber, its that 85% actively dislike Bieber. Still not actionable because the subject of discussion is useless from a military tactical / strategic / logistic perspective.

I will say that you could see a meta-pattern of peoples behavior when they know they're being monitored. Like if you have people faking data, poorly, to make it look like an empty booby trapped dirt village is currently populated, but it only contains poison gas cylinders. Of course a IR satellite shot would be simpler and we've already got that tech deployed... Basically a psyop detector would be kinda interesting. Somebody could make a synthetic flash mob artifical data generator that makes it look like we're gonna riot at the west gate, but we're all actually going to the east gate... That kind of thing.

Look at it from a hard science perspective. You're running a really big complicated experiment and have one (of many) really noisy input streams and there may or may not be a signal buried deep in the noise. Stick a 10x amplifier on it is not necessarily gonna help the SNR. In fact "demodulating" that noisy input stream may very well be impossible because there's nothing actually there. If you're smart enough or have enough AI maybe you can make a demod, maybe... Or maybe there's just no useful data from that source because its a junk source.

Re:forest and tree analogy (2)

DerekLyons (302214) | about a year ago | (#42860799)

On a rounding basis, the masses have historically never done anything terribly exciting, important, or relevant. So paying intense attention to them is a waste of resources.

Welcome to 2013 - where the resources (to collect and process the data) may seem massive, but they're dirt cheap. The waste is far less than you seem to think.
 

Its always the 10% or less who actually influence history.

True. And if you have a better way of finding the 10% than sifting through everyone looking for pointers to the 10% or for the 10% themselves... A life of wealth (or on the run) awaits you, because 'they' have been looking for an easy way to do that for centuries. If you don't have a better way (as I suspect), you're just blowing smoke because you neither understand the problem *or* the solution.

RIOT... (1)

Beerdood (1451859) | about a year ago | (#42860397)

You know, for such an Orwellian sounding program, you'd think the marketing droids there would have picked a better acronym than RIOT. Like Worldwide Online Overlord Technology or something on the lines of that.

Re:RIOT... (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#42860475)

I don't know.

Since reading the headline, I've had 'Zoot Suit Riot' stuck in my head.

It's clearly 1984 with a fun musical number.

Re:RIOT... (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#42862805)

Watching Everyone and Eating Doritos

Cheaper to just ask my wife (1, Funny)

gestalt_n_pepper (991155) | about a year ago | (#42860401)

I pretty much do the same things every day at more or less the same time. I have Sunday dinner at the same restaurant and order the same thing. Give her a calendar an time of day and she could predict my movements precisely.

Re:Cheaper to just ask my wife (1)

cayenne8 (626475) | about a year ago | (#42862445)

I pretty much do the same things every day at more or less the same time. I have Sunday dinner at the same restaurant and order the same thing. Give her a calendar an time of day and she could predict my movements precisely.

Just curious..why are you living your whole life stuck in such a rut?

That would be so boring to me...I rarely eat the same thing within a 3-4 week period.

Do you not crave some variety?

Not putting you down...but just curious. I'm not familiar with someone that would go to one restaurant, same day, every week ordering same dish..year in and year out....?

Re:Cheaper to just ask my wife (1)

gestalt_n_pepper (991155) | about a year ago | (#42863749)

Interesting question. I notice that I tend to optimize my daily experiences and then minimize deviation from those experiences, so that when I find my favorite dish in a restaurant, I rarely order anything else. For example, I get Sunday dinner at a Vietnamese restaurant where I've gone for 16 years or so. I'm in there at 4:30 almost every Sunday. I always get Pho Ga. The time works for me because that's when I get back from the lakehouse and I get back at 4:30 to beat traffic, yet extend my stay. The soup works for me because it's delicious and doesn't upset my stomach.

It's not that I exclude new experiences, exactly, but I route myself into habits that I know suit my tastes a lot. Age may be a factor. When I was in my 20s, I experimented a lot more, but now I know I like Vietnamese food better than Chinese or Thai food. I know that I prefer a weekend alone in my cabin to a party. I prefer sobriety to intoxication. Rock climbing is more fun than caving and simple hiking is more fun than either. At 55, I know what I like and how much I like it. Experimentation becomes less important than experience.

Re:Cheaper to just ask my wife (1)

cayenne8 (626475) | about a year ago | (#42863951)

At 55, I know what I like and how much I like it. Experimentation becomes less important than experience.

Thanks for the answer, interesting.

I find that I'm setting in my ways, somewhat in spite of myself.

As I'm aging, however, I'm actively trying to keep myself from doing that, and actively seeking out new experiences and new things best I can....hoping it keeps my mind younger and, hopefully, keeping from getting too close minded, and not to be yelling to 'get off my lawn' too often or too loudly.

:)

I guess we'll see how I do as the years go by...have a good one!!

R.I.O.T. sourcecode (4, Funny)

sl4shd0rk (755837) | about a year ago | (#42860419)

#!/bin/bash

while [ 1 ]; do
   wget -q https://twitter.com/YourAnonNews -O /tmp/aa1.txt
   wget -q https://plus.google.com/117604887745850959716 -O /tmp/aa2.txt
   wget -q http://anonnews.org/ -O /tmp/aa3.txt

   egrep '(meetup|protest|flashmob|operation|torrent|TPB)' /tmp/aa*txt | mail -s '+0p 53cr3tz' opswatch@raytheon.com
   sleep 300
done

Workaround (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#42860571)

Hey guys! How about seeing Dr. Jeckyl and Mr Hyde! Make sure to bring club soda for the cocktails and we'll be sure to use them on some boobies!

Translation: Riot at Hyde park, bring clubs to smash the bobbies.

There's always around BS like this.

Re:R.I.O.T. sourcecode (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#42860633)

Your point is probably that the code is simple, and I agree. I'll bet it's even simpler than that. Surely there's a facebook API that was built in, and designed for this very thing.

Re:R.I.O.T. sourcecode (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#42863997)

Those folks would never write an 8 line script when they could do a million line program with a 10000 page requirement document.

Linchpin theory ? (1)

xyourfacekillerx (939258) | about a year ago | (#42860675)

I know Linchpin theory is a lame reference, but this story does suggest its validity.

tldr: The Riot program can be used for social engineering, but social engineering can be used to render its inferences invalid and therefore dangerously unreliable.

Any chance this system can be used to trigger events, like, say, riots? Think about it. It's easy to observe social network and make statistical inferences about group behavior afk or not.

But that behavior is affected by the very data being measured; it is a dependent variable, so shouldn't it be possible to manipulate the data, and therefore determine with some choice the value of that variable?

Just like a flamewar on a message board can be ignited intentionally by a single calculated comment (c.f. oldschool troll, or the Real Original Troll), so intelligence agencies may replicate that phenomenon, giving them the power to stop riots before they happen, to disrupt them as they are happening, or more important, to cause them. And it can be used effectively to manipulate anything from political attitudes, voting trends, personal values, you name it.

FTA:

"We know where Nick's going, we know what Nick looks like," Urch explains, "now we want to try to predict where he may be in the future." ... The video shows that Nick, who posts his location regularly on Foursquare, visits a gym frequently at 6am early each week. Urch quips: "So if you ever did want to try to get hold of Nick, or maybe get hold of his laptop, you might want to visit the gym at 6am on a Monday."

They act like they are neutral observers. Is it inconceivable they can provoke Nick to tend toward behavior they determine? That's how marketing works, that's how the past two U.S. presidential campaigns worked. Does Nick post politics at 9pm after a few drinks with friends at a bar? Does he check in Foursquare at 7pm at the bar? So present to him some political advert around 7pm, and see if that influences his 9pm rants. Make sure he and his friends discuss the exact political issue you want them to discuss. And nothing you don't want them to discuss.

That being said, it shouldn't be too difficult to thwart the system. Nick could use deceit tactics and cause Riot to make the wrong predictions. A terrorist or drug cartel would surely understand the importance of this possibility. Any government relying on the software is liable to deceit. Hell, a foreign government like China or North Korea could just enslave citizens to create deceitful social network data, observe how the intelligence and/or military agencies of State XYZ reacts, and use that to model the information process of State XYZ for future exploitation.

It seems like a powerful tool for social engineering, but I wonder what degree of confidence they can prove to justify using the tool for security purposes. I guess those details and the math behind it are classified.

Connect this to a live drone (1)

fredrated (639554) | about a year ago | (#42860819)

and all of our problems are solved!

Re:Connect this to a live drone (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#42866467)

yeah you can just login to their accounts through their own devices i am imagining some sort of man in the middle 3g attack, or potentially something easier for them ;), sidestepping any security measures put into place by said content providers.

Am I in trouble yet? (1)

Snotnose (212196) | about a year ago | (#42860871)

No fb account, no twitter account, no google+ account (except for that default one they evidently made for me and keep telling me I should check).

When do they decide I'm an antisocial psychopath who gets bumped to the top of the watch lists?

Re:Am I in trouble yet? (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#42869475)

There is a berserk ex-cop running amok. Bet he did not have FB or active on social media, until he 'turned' .
Therefore it only has value after the fact, and probably way less than old fashioned files and interviewing the neighbors.

As for predicting future behavior, that is what the stock and futures and currency markets do (and the fed) and they get it wrong too.

If they are predicting that in the next 2 weeks, you will do roughly what you did 2 weeks ago, they are progressing nothing.

This is a clairvoyance project/scam, probably run by gypsies, who proclaim they will be right 50% of the time.

Programmer ethics? (5, Interesting)

Okian Warrior (537106) | about a year ago | (#42860941)

I've often wondered about the programmers who write these software packages.

The stereotype programmer is young, bright, scientific, idealistic, and concerned for global issues.

And yet, big companies have no problem staffing teams to write the software for predator drones, Carnivore [wikipedia.org] , Total Information Awareness [wikipedia.org] , and other packages which are used to violate human rights.

Where do these "programmers of dubious character" come from?

Many programmers say (when I ask) that they have high moral standards - more so than (they say) the average person. And yet, they work on all sorts of sketchy things.

Can anyone explain the disconnect? Is there a level of "bravery" associated with morality (ie - I'm against *this*, but not willing to lose my job over it)? Are moral arguments here (for example) just blowing smoke?

Re:Programmer ethics? (3, Informative)

the eric conspiracy (20178) | about a year ago | (#42861329)

Well, you have two data points. The existence of all sorts of software designed to take advantage of information easily available on the internet, and a 'feeling' that programmers possess some special moral character. The answer to this conflict is obvious.

The idea that programmers have some special moral character is nonsense.

Re:Programmer ethics? (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#42861395)

You only know nice people then. There are plenty of people I've even known personally who say they would happily code nefarious crap, or even work for Bad Companies for the sake of getting money, even if it made the lives of others worse. Keyword known.

Money drives them. Money drives pretty much most crime. Even at government level.

However, I still have no idea why US jailing system wants to imprison everyone ever. That makes 0 sense.

Re:Programmer ethics? (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#42861595)

It all boils down to money. Raytheon, as well as other major defense contractors, pay very well and can offer long term employment stability. A few years back, Raytheon recruited some of my friends by simply offering them 150% of their current salary at their current employer. That's difficult to say no to.

Also, these projects are long term and very large in scope. It's quite common for a programmer employed to not know or see the entire picture of what they are developing. Instead, they are tasked with implementing a few requirements for a sandbox that can be used for testing against some hardware device that implements some generic protocol. Other times, they do know the details and are often amused at how such press releases make it sound. Either it's the contractor themselves trying to look badass in order to swing a new contract, or it's some reporter who stumbles upon a project and begins to speculate to the extreme.

Re:Programmer ethics? (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#42861629)

The developers might not believe what they are doing is bad. They might believe software such as this benefits society. Even if they don't like the means, they may believe it justifies the ends.

Tough question (1)

YurB (2583187) | about a year ago | (#42861741)

If we rephrase your question into "Why do people obey when they get ordered to do bad things?" then this TED talk by Philip Zimbardo [ted.com] may explain some of the core problems with that (although it obviously shows much more extreme cases, sometimes even hard to watch.)

Oppenhiemer (1)

ThatsNotPudding (1045640) | about a year ago | (#42862287)

Robert Oppenhiemer was horrified by what he helped create. I assume during working on it, he justified doing so due to the goal of defeating a force of evil. I assume the current generation of worker bees think the same way. Or they're just jingoistic sociopaths.

Re:Programmer ethics? (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#42862313)

Can anyone explain the disconnect? Is there a level of "bravery" associated with morality (ie - I'm against *this*, but not willing to lose my job over it)? Are moral arguments here (for example) just blowing smoke?

Often times programs like this are large or abstract enough that it's difficult for one person to see the whole of the map, so to speak, and as a project or institution scales up it becomes increasingly unnatural to assume any sort of individual culpability for the outcome. I did an internship at a university not long ago where one of my co-workers was working on some AI routines for images that applied some context derived from the original text. We had lunch a few times and he filled me in on the problem and his approach, and the whole thing was indeed interesting. His research grant was being paid for by a defense-related body, who supplied him with plenty of legitimate and innocuous test data. But the same software could have been "weaponized" in a heartbeat, since his algorithm was solid, novel, and sufficiently general. He didn't care: he was working on something that interested him, making good money for it, and nobody was being harmed by *his* work.

I've met other folks who are actual employees of big, scary defense companies. One guy basically researches optimization problems all day for signal processing purposes. Drones? Nuclear simulation? He won't say, but I gather the math alone is incredibly interesting. Another fellow works specifically on non-weapons projects for a different organization but essentially programs FPGAs all day long. His verilog is owned by the organization and subject to export restriction. Is it a weapon? Probably not. But from what I understand, his product is excellent. Or what about the dude who just works IT for one of those companies? Where do you draw the line?

The trouble is that, while individual people understand the consequences of their own actions pretty well, once they become part of a team the blame begins to lift from their shoulders. Is it brave to back down from morally questionable projects? You bet - but if the project is the right size and the work is interesting enough, most bright people I've met will jump right on board.

Re:Programmer ethics? (1)

cayenne8 (626475) | about a year ago | (#42862523)

I've often wondered about the programmers who write these software packages.

The stereotype programmer is young, bright, scientific, idealistic, and concerned for global issues.

And yet, big companies have no problem staffing teams to write the software for predator drones, Carnivore [wikipedia.org], Total Information Awareness [wikipedia.org], and other packages which are used to violate human rights.

Where do these "programmers of dubious character" come from?

Well, two different concepts there.

One might have a moral compass, or thoughts on how things should be, but we are talking about people wanting to make good $$$, and that changes everything.

Most people work a job ONLY to earn money. So, you do what it takes to earn money.

I'd dare say most people find clubbing baby seals to death to be distasteful, but you'd find far fewer people that would turn down a job that make $250K/yr that had to do with somehow aiding that industry.

Personally, while I'm against such tools as RIOT, etc....I'd not have a problem at all if they paid me enough money to do it.

I doubt I'm in the minority on this....when it comes down to it, all a job is for, is money, and has nothing to do with your thoughts or outlook on life. You do what you have to do to make the most money that you can.

Plain and simple.

Re:Programmer ethics? (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#42864487)

Where do these "programmers of dubious character" come from?

You've been spending too much time on Slashdot.

I doubt these programmers are sitting in their chairs at work wringing their hands and thinking, "Now I'll be able to track EVERYONE! Muahahahahaha!" More likely they're thinking, "This could help the FBI track down rapists and murderers." They're not acting unethically; they're just acting according to a different set of ethics than yours.

Maybe if they took a step back and looked at the big picture, they might decide the drawbacks outweigh the benefits. But in that case, they're merely misinformed, not "of dubious character."

Can anyone explain the disconnect?

I applaud you for having a strong moral code, but you're also passing judgment on someone's character because they don't follow your particular brand of morality. May I humbly suggest that the disconnect is not with them, but with you.

Re:Programmer ethics? (1)

Dripdry (1062282) | about a year ago | (#42866171)

Programmer, meet money and security. Plus great benefits. And a great resume builder with the possibility of being cushy for life.
Or... take your chances in the slave mines with other people and hope you don't get downsized at 35.

That's my guess.

or they just realize that if they pass on it someone else will just do the job instead

Re:Programmer ethics? (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#42866487)

Lack of empathy. The opportunity to do the work is as much a matter of "I've got mine." as earning millions is to the business crowd.

Re:Programmer ethics? (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#42866809)

The stereotype programmer is young, bright, scientific, idealistic, and concerned for global issues.

He's also looking for a challenge and dreads having to do boring routine work for a living.

If you look at the security/defense sector then you'll notice that companies and government instituitions don't primarily advertise with "you'll get rich working for us" but with "you'll work with many of the brightest minds in the country on some of the most difficult & challenging problems you can imagine. You'll get access to theoretical knowledge and hardware that is several years ahead of what is openly available in academia or commerce. And don't you worry about budgets, funding won't be an issue.

Compare that to "we're looking for someone to maintain and update our 25 year old in-house business resource management software. Your predecessor quit unexpectedly so here are ten years of bug reports and no documentation. By the way our CEO asked about having the software run on his iphone.

Re:Programmer ethics? (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#42867009)

I (obviously) can't speak for the software engineers/ mathematicians of every company/agency in the industry, but of the ones I know about, recruitment within agencies is of growing concern when it comes to attracting the brightest from universities. Working in windowless offices, behind locked doors. Not being allowed to use a cell phone for 8 hours of the day. Being stared at every time you write something down on paper, etc. This is not attractive to the average graduate. What is attractive is the knowledge that your will make a measurable, important difference in the real, physical world, that could save peoples lives. What more could a mathematicians ask for?

When it comes to bending the moral compass with money, well, that is not in the interest of the agencies, and any recruitment process will involve in-depth psychological profiling of the prospect to ensure (or at least try to prevent) the likelihood that (for example) a grievance doesn't escalate in to Bradley Manning-esque debacles.

Re:Programmer ethics? (1)

Patman64 (1622643) | about a year ago | (#42869049)

Yeah, whenever I see I story like this I wonder to myself "How the hell can anyone work on this stuff and still sleep at night?" Either A. they don't realize that they're an active part of making the US a hellish dystopia, or B. really don't give a fuck about the world tomorrow and just want to get paid today.

So.... (1)

ceoyoyo (59147) | about a year ago | (#42861243)

Raytheon can track people who publish their GPS coordinates publicly on the Internet? OMG scary!

They're mining Foursquare. The POINT of Foursquare is to let people know where you are. By the way, how do I get fat defence contracts for writing trivial programs?

I am wondering (1)

Hickory Dichotomy (2836451) | about a year ago | (#42861497)

If you do not have accounts on any social networking site, such as Facebook, Myspace and their ilk (/. excluded), does it flag you as subversive? What are the prediction parameteres for those of us that shun most of the social stuff...just a thought.

Naturally (1)

joh (27088) | about a year ago | (#42862037)

It's just totally follows logically to think through what you could get if you would exploit just everything that people allow to leak online if you don't have to even LOOK as if you're caring for privacy or anything.

Seriously, it would be strange if something like that wouldn't exist. And of course as always YOU just need to be more cunning than THEM.

Do they have an ex-CIA agent for security? (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#42862051)

You are being watched. The government has a secret system: a machine that spies on you every hour of every day. I know because I built it. I designed the machine to detect acts of terror, but it sees everything. Violent crimes involving ordinary people, people like you. Crimes the government considered irrelevant. They wouldn't act, so I decided I would. But I needed a partner, someone with the skills to intervene. Hunted by the authorities, we work in secret. You'll never find us, but victim or perpetrator, if your number's up... we'll find you.

In Soviet Russia (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#42864781)

You jail Pussy Riot

Raytheon doesn't do for free (1)

Squidlips (1206004) | about a year ago | (#42865247)

"says it has not sold the software..." What a bunch of bull. Raytheon NEVER, EVER develops software just for fun. They must have had a contract by Big Bother before they wrote a line of code or paid a single programmer.

Re:Raytheon doesn't do for free (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#42866437)

it's called R&D. look it up.

Re:Raytheon doesn't do for free (1)

Areyoukiddingme (1289470) | about a year ago | (#42867049)

We know what it's called. We also know with absolute certainty that no modern corporation does it without getting paid first, second, and probably third. What do you think this is, 1960?

market opportunity (1)

mug funky (910186) | about a year ago | (#42866747)

there's an opportunity for anybody with some capital behind them to make an absolute killing selling phones that have no paper trail. cash or bitcoin. kind of like a legal black market.

kim dotcom? he's got reason to want to anonymize people again.

dissident activity requires anonymity. intel agencies should be worried that the path they are taking is going to force protest into a state that simply cannot be traced back to individuals. it's not too difficult to achieve, and if people follow simple rules they can not even be traced using heuristics.

imagine a large population of mobile devices with no names attached to them, no GPS location data, all speaking to each other through nonsensical names on a secure chat, talking in code and euphemism. it's not perfect, but it could arise while the three letter agencies are looking in the other direction (mining facebook for lolcats).

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