By Jonathan M. Gitlin
In this week's PNAS, researchers at UC Berkeley and the University of Toronto tackle a topic that is bound to spark controversy. I'll let the title speak for itself: "Higher social class predicts increased unethical behavior." The paper describes the results of seven studies—two field studies and five experimental tests—that sought to explore how socioeconomic status (SES) correlates with behavior that most of us would consider ethical.
Trying to reason out the impact of social status could send you running in circles. Could lower SES motivate individuals towards increased unethical behavior as a result of fewer resources and greater threat and uncertainty? Alternately, might higher SES and the greater resources and freedom that brings result in relaxed ethical attitudes? To figure out what was going on, the researchers performed a mix of controlled and real-world experiments.
The first two studies looked at whether SES could predict driving behavior, using the make, age, and appearance of vehicles as a marker for SES. (In other words, shiny new BMWs were assumed to be driven by high-status individuals.) The first looked at whether SES affected a driver's tendency to cut off other vehicles at a busy four-way stop in the San Francisco Bay Area. Even when controlled for time of day, the driver's perceived sex and age, and traffic, high SES individuals were significantly more likely to cut off other drivers.
The same effect was apparent when they looked at if SES affected whether a driver was more likely to cut off pedestrians at a crosswalk. Higher SES individuals were significantly more likely to do so.
Next, the researchers turned to controlled experiments. Participants were asked to read different scenarios of people unrightfully benefiting or taking something. Then they were asked how likely they would be to do the same thing. High SES participants were significantly more likely to report that they would engage in these unethical behaviors.
Study number four involved participants rating themselves on the SES scale to heighten their perception of status; they were then answered a number of questions relating to unethical behavior. At the end of the experiment, they were presented with a jar of individually wrapped candy and told that, although it was for children in a nearby lab, they could take some if they wanted. At this point you might be able to guess what the results were. High SES participants took more candy.
Attitudes toward greed were also examined. Study participants role-played a salary negotiation, acting as the employer. They were told before the negotiation that the job in question would would actually be eliminated in the near future. High SES participants were significantly less likely to be truthful about job stability, and significantly more likely to have favorable attitudes towards greed even when controlled for age, sex, ethnicity, religiosity, and political orientation.
The next study gave its participants the chance to cheat. The researchers let them play a computer game of chance (five rolls of a six-sided die), and asked them to report the results. Players were told them that they had an increased chance of a cash prize if they had higher scores, even though the game was actually fixed such that the total scores would always add up to 12. High SES positively predicted cheating, even when controlled in the same ways as the previous study.
The final test looked at whether encouraging positive attitudes towards greed would increase unethical tendencies in lower SES participants. These subjects were either neutrally primed by being asked to list three things about their day, or were positively primed by being asked to list three benefits of greed. Next, their attitude towards greed was assessed, and they were also questioned about their tendency to engage in unethical behavior at work (stealing, accepting bribes, overcharging).
By this point, you'll almost certainly surmise that positive priming for greed significantly increased favorable attitudes towards it, as well as unethical work behavior. Additionally, the higher a participant's SES, the more positive their attitudes were towards greed, and the greater chance they engaged in unethical behavior.
The researchers argue that "the pursuit of self-interest is a more fundamental motive among society's elite, and the increased want associated with greater wealth and status can promote wrongdoing." However, they point out that their findings aren't absolute, and that philanthropic efforts such as those of Bill Gates and Warren Buffet buck the observed trend, as does research which has shown a relationship between poverty and violent crime.
By Jonathan M. Gitlin
Mr. Dodd, I hear you’ve just given a speech in which you said “Hollywood is pro-technology and pro-Internet.” It seems you’re looking for interlocutors among the coalition that defeated SOPA and PIPA, and are looking for some politically feasible compromise that will do something against the problem of Internet piracy as you believe you understand it.
There isn’t any one person who can answer your concerns. But I can speak for one element of the coalition that blocked those two bills; the technologists. I’m not talking about Google or the technology companies, mind you – I’m talking about the actual engineers who built the Internet and keep it running, who write the software you rely on every day of your life in the 21st century.
I’m one of those engineers – you rely on my code every time you use a browser or a smartphone or a game console. I’m not exactly a leader among them as you would understand the term, because we don’t have those and don’t want them. But I am a well-known philosopher/elder of the tribe (I’ll name two others later in this letter), and also one of our few public spokespersons. In the late 1990s I helped found the open-source software movement.
I’m writing to educate you about our concerns, which are not exactly the same as those of the group of firms you think of as “Silicon Valley”. We have our own culture and our own agenda, usually coincident with but occasionally at odds with the businesspeople who run the tech industry.
The difference matters because the businesspeople rely on us to do the actual technical work – and since the rise of the Internet, if we don’t like where a firm’s strategy is going, it tends not to get there. Wise bosses have learned to accommodate us as much as possible and pick the few fights they must have with their engineering talent very, very carefully. Google, in particular, got its huge market capitalization by being better at managing this symbiosis than anyone else.
I can best introduce you to our concerns by quoting another of our philosopher/elders, John Gilmore. He said: “The Internet interprets censorship as damage and routes around it.”
To understand that, you have to grasp that “the Internet” isn’t just a network of wires and switches, it’s also a sort of reactive social organism composed of the people who keep those wires humming and those switches clicking. John Gilmore is one of them. I’m another. And there are some things we will not stand having done to our network.
We will not have it censored. We built the Internet as a tool to make every individual human being on the planet more empowered. What the users do with the Internet is up to them – not up to Hollywood, not up to politicians, and not even up to us who built it. Whatever else we Internet geeks may disagree on among ourselves, we will not allow our gift of fire to be snuffed out by jealous gods.
Because we will not have the Internet censored, we are also implacably hostile to any attempts to impose controls on it that could be used for censorship – whether or not that is the stated intent of the controls. That is why we were absolutely unanimous against SOPA and PIPA, and a significant reason that you lost that fight.
You speak as though you believe that the technology industry stopped SOPA/PIPA, and that by negotiating with the industry you can set up the conditions for a successful second round. It won’t work that way; the movement that stopped SOPA/PIPA (and is now scuttling ACTA) was much more organic and grass-roots than that. Silicon Valley can’t give you the political firepower or cover you’d need. All you’ll get from them is a bunch of meaningless press conferences and empty platitudes from CEOs who have nothing actually to gain by helping you and really wish you’d go away so they can get back to their jobs.
Meanwhile, the engineers inside and outside those companies will take it as their duty to ensure that you lose that battle again if you try to fight it again. Because there aren’t a lot of us, but the vast mass of Internet users – who do vote in numbers large enough to swing elections – have figured out that we’re on their side and we’re their early-warning system. When we sound the tocsin – as we did, for example, by blacking out Wikipedia – they will mobilize and you will be defeated.
Accordingly, one of the cardinal rules for any politician who wants to have a long career in a 21st-century democracy has to be “don’t screw with the Internet”. Because it will screw you right back. At least two primary challenges to SOPA/PIPA sponsors are in the news right now because they wouldn’t have happened without the popular outrage against it.
Hollywood wants you to screw with the Internet, because Hollywood thinks it has problems it can solve that way. Hollywood also wants you to think we (the engineers) are foes of “intellectual property” and in willing cahoots with criminals, pirates, and thieves. Neither of these claims is true, and it’s important that you understand exactly how they’re not true.
Many of us make our living from “intellectual property”. A few of us (not including me) are genuinely opposed to it on principle. Most of us (including me) are willing to respect intellectual property rights, but there’s a place where that respect abruptly ends. It stops at exactly the point where DRM threatens to cripple our computers and our software.
Richard Stallman, one of our more radical philosophers, uses the phrase “treacherous computing” to describe what happens when a PC, or a smartphone, or any sort of electronics, is not fully under the control of its user. Treacherous computers block what you can see or hear. Treacherous computers spy on you. Treacherous computers cut you off from their full potential as communications devices and tools.
Treacherous computing is our second line in the sand. Most of us don’t actually have anything against DRM in itself; it’s because DRM becomes a vehicle for treachery that we loathe it. Not allowing you to skip the advertisements on a DVD is a small example; not allowing you to back up your books and music is a larger one. Then there was the ironically pointed case of the book “1984″ being silently disappeared from the e-readers of customers who had paid for it…
Some companies propose, in order to support DRM, locking up computers so they can only only run “approved” operating systems; that might bother ordinary users less than those other treacheries, but to us would be utterly intolerable. If you imagine a sculptor told that his new chisel would only cut shapes pre-approved by a committee of shape vendors, you might begin to fathom the depths of our anger at these proposals.
We engineers do have an actual problem with Hollywood and the music industry, but it’s not the one you probably assume. To be blunt (because there isn’t any nice way to put this) we think Big Entertainment is largely run by liars and thieves who systematically rip off the artists they claim to be protecting with their DRM, then sue their own customers because they’re too stupid to devise an honest way to make money.
I’m sure you don’t agree with this judgment, but you need to understand how widespread it is among technologists in order to get why all those claims about “piracy” and lost revenues find us so unsympathetic. It’s bad enough that we feel like our Internet and our computers are under attack, but having laws like SOPA/PIPA/ACTA pushed at us on behalf of a special-interest group we consider no better than gangsters and dimwits makes it much worse.
Some of us think the gangsters’ behavior actually justifies piracy. Most of us don’t agree that those two wrongs add up to a right, but I can tell you this: if you make the technologists choose between the big-media gangsters and the content pirates, effectively all of us will side with the content pirates as the lesser of the two evils. Because maybe both sides are stealing on a vast scale, but only one of them doesn’t want to screw with our Internet or cripple our computers.
We’d really prefer to oppose both groups, though. Our sympathies in this mess are with the artists being ripped off by both sides.
Consider this letter our “Don’t tread on me!”. Our agenda is to protect our own liberty to create and our users’ liberty to enjoy those creations as they see fit. We have no give and no compromise on either of those, but long as Hollywood stays out of our patch (that is, no more attempts to lock down our Internet or our tools) we’ll stay out of Hollywood’s.
And if you’d like to discuss some ways of fighting piracy that don’t involve trampling on us and our users, we do have some ideas.
By: Charles Q. Choi
Contact lenses that help enhance normal vision with megapixel 3D panoramic images are being designed by scientists using military funding.
For those who do not want to rely on contact lenses, future versions could involve lenses directly implanted within the eye, researchers added.
Over the decades, the video displays that everyone from fighter pilots to the general public use have grown increasingly complex. One possibility for advanced displays is a virtual reality (VR) system that replaces our view of the real world with computer-generated vistas. Another idea consists of augmented reality (AR) displays that overlay computer-generated images over real-world environments. However, these often require bulky apparatus such as oversized helmets.
"Unless the display industry can deliver transparent, high-performance and compact eyewear, developers of augmented reality and other compelling media applications will simply fail to create the excitement that consumers crave and the functionality that professional users absolutely need," said Steve Willey, chief executive officer of Bellevue, Wash.-based company Innovega.
Now Innovega researchers funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and the National Science Foundation are developing novel contact lenses that can help view tiny full-color megapixel displays.
"Over the past months, we have demonstrated contact lens-enabled eyewear for mobile devices, including smartphones, portable game devices and media players that deliver panoramic, high-resolution experiences for entertainment and planned augmented reality applications," Willey said.
The new system consists of advanced contact lenses working in conjunction with lightweight eyewear. Normally, the human eye is limited in its ability to focus on objects placed very near it. The contact lenses contain optics that focus images displayed on the eyewear onto the light-sensing retina in the back of the eye, allowing the wearer to see them properly.
Conventional mobile device screens are often too small to read comfortably "and certainly too small to enjoy," Willey said. In contrast, Innovega's contact lenses could effectively generate displays with a screen size "equivalent to a 240-inch television, viewed at a distance of 10 feet."
Moreover, by projecting slightly different pictures to each eye, the display can generate the illusion of 3D. "You get full 3D, full HD, fully panoramic images," Willey said.
Although some might balk at using contact lenses, "100 million people already do, including 20 percent of the key target group of 18- to 34-year-olds, those involved in gaming and using smartphones," Willey told InnovationNewsDaily. "So we already have a built-in market. We envision that people who pick up their lenses every six months or so might switch to these lenses, picking them up from the same vendor they already do."
Potential consumer applications include immersive video, 3D gaming, mobile device interfaces and augmented reality applications. When it comes to potential military applications, "this could be the ultimate computer interface for the troops, something that's fully transparent and fully hands-free," Willey said.
"Think of individuals who pilot drones, the ones that fly or the ones for bomb disposal," Willey added. "Or think of medics, who can get information very quickly from the soldier and from headquarters and relay it back. Or think of soldiers who need a display who have a gun in their hands and can't have something obstructing their vision for safety and mobility issues, but need access to incredibly rich data such as maps that require full color and detail."
Potential medical applications include helping those with vision problems, including macular degeneration. "About 10 million people in the U.S. have macular degeneration, where the retina in their eyes is less able to discern detail," Willey said. One can imagine including a tiny camera on the bridge of the nose of the eyewear to allow wearers to zoom in on text on a screen or on a soup can, he explained.
Scientists at the University of Washington have conducted research into contact lenses that have displays within them. "However, all we saw reported there was maybe one or two pixels — they had LEDs encapsulated inside a lens, and somehow got power to it for a very short period of time," Willey said. "But they would have to deal with batteries and heating, and we already have megapixel displays. I think that research is more to develop an indicator rather than a display — maybe to give an idea of blood sugar level, for instance."
Innovega plans to deliver prototype devices over the course of 2012 and 2013. "In 2012, we're also aiming to get FDA approval for the contact lenses," Willey said. In 2014, Innovega plans to begin low-volume production for the defense community and possibly those with vision problems. The company also aims for a commercial launch of their product in 2014 or 2015, depending on whether deals can be reached with commercial partners such as gaming companies.
In addition to contact lenses, Innovega's patents also cover lenses implanted within the eye. "There are 900,000 cataract operations a year that replace some portion of the lens," Willey said. "You can imagine giving them a lens that not only helps with real-world vision, but also virtual reality, or access to the Internet."
Also, when it comes to the military, "special operations might really like the features involved with our system, but the last thing they want to worry about are contact lenses behind enemy lines," Willey said. "You might think of hardwiring these in to have them permanently."
Legal battle over crackdown on friends found in disused Aldwych tube tunnel days before royal wedding
They entered through Russell Square station. For 10 minutes, the four of them sprinted along the tracks of the Piccadilly line towards a disused tunnel at Holborn. Their prize: a sight of one of the great trophies of London's urban exploration scene – the abandoned platforms of Aldwych tube station.
The expedition last year was supposed to be the second last stop in a tour of the capital's 18 "ghost" tube stations. Instead it has sparked a legal battle over the human rights of a community of photographers dedicated to visually documenting restricted areas across the world – and pointing out security loopholes.
To avoid a regular tube service, the explorers chose Easter Monday – four days before the wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton. Above ground, one of the biggest security operations in the history of the Metropolitan police was swinging into action at an estimated cost of £20m. Officers searched lampposts and traffic lights for hidden bombs; 35 sniffer dogs scoured for traces of explosives; armed commandos trained to counter gun attacks and squads of police monitored the internet for potential plots.
And below the city, four members of the London Consolidation Crew exploration collective were running on the tracks. Their expedition was between 2am and 3am, when only maintenance trains are in use. But as one explorer, Otter, wrote on his website, Silent UK: "At any moment the track on which we stood could have gone live, its guest of honour a 40mph mass of iron and steel singing our last goodbyes."
From Holborn they noticed the rails turn rusty and saw piles of flyers collecting at the tunnel's edges. And then, like hikers who'd reached the best view from the mountain, they saw the forest-green tiles of the platform edge.
For the next four hours they photographed the ticket halls, deserted walkways and antique lift system. Like their other trips – to the roof of St Paul's cathedral, the London Olympic Stadium, Battersea power station – they were careful to leave things as they found them; graffiti is taboo for urban explorers. When the battery on their camera went flat, they got ready to leave. They were interrupted by a shout: "Get on the ground!"
CCTV operators had alerted British transport police, who had issued a terror alert. After infiltrating 200 sites across the city over 10 years and getting away with it, they were busted.
"Normally we would have been dished off to the graffiti squad," Otter says. "But because of the wedding we ended up with detectives much higher up."
The explorers were put in cells and interviewed. Their laptops, cameras and hard drives were confiscated. Otter says: "The police pretty quickly realised our intentions and let us go with a caution."
Three months later an unassociated group of explorers was arrested after accidently derailing a small electric train on a one-off joyride on London's mail rail, a 23-mile underground network that carried post until 2003. The incident sparked an ongoing court case alleging damage to government property and aggravating vehicle taking.
According to Bradley L Garrett, an urban explorer who is writing a PhD on the phenomenon, the mail rail incident reignited Transport for London's interest in the Aldwych four.
Last month TfL applied to issue anti-social behaviour orders which would not only stop them undertaking further expeditions and blogging about urban exploration but also prohibit them from carrying equipment that could be used for exploring after dark. Extraordinarily, it also stipulates they should not be allowed to speak to each other for the duration of the order – 10 years.
"To me, telling people they can't associate with their closest friends is an incredible invasion of human rights," says Garrett. "It's a complete overreaction and an amazing tack to take after the group already agreed to a caution." He thinks TfL's legal action is fuelled by a wider misunderstanding of what urban exploration is about. "What we do is very benign," he says. "The motivation for it comes from a love for the city – we want to interact with its hidden histories and forgotten stories and places."
A TfL spokesman said: "Trespassing on the tube network is illegal and extremely dangerous not just for the safety of the trespasser but also for the security of the railway. As several elements of the legal proceedings regarding the individuals who trespassed at Aldwych are ongoing we will not able to comment further until those have concluded."
Garrett disagrees that the asbos will protect the explorers from themselves. "Urban explorers operate with almost the same safety that track workers operate with," he says. "We have the equipment, we know what we're doing, we have the map of the entire system memorised – we don't take unnecessary risks."
The issue of under-prepared copycats is a sore point among urban explorers. In 2005, a 19-year-old woman died after breaking away from an underground party in the Odessa catacombs, a 2,500 mile tunnel network in Ukraine. Experienced explorers like those at Aldwych undertake painstaking research, training and equipment checks before each trip.
For Garrett, part of the goal is helping to iron out the security loopholes they exploit. But this "service to the city" has proved a double-edged sword. "What this all comes down to is the Olympics because what we're doing could make London's security seem weak, which is embarrassing for TfL," he says.
"But rather than stifling our free speech to tell Londoners there are security weaknesses all over the system, they should probably call us and bring us on as consultants to help fill these gaps."
Despite the legal battles and tightening security, London's urban explorers do not seem deterred.
"We're as active as we've ever been, we just don't share anything any more. We've been driven underground," Garrett says without acknowledging any irony. "Feeling you are pushing your mental and physical boundaries is what keeps people healthy and interested and turns them from inhabitants of a city to citizens – we are active citizens of London."
In a potentially troublesome decision, a federal district court has found that a start-up violated anti-spam and computer crime laws by creating and marketing a browser to let users view their social networking accounts in one place. The case demonstrates the difficulties facing those who seek to empower users to interact with closed services like Facebook in new and innovative ways.
Unfortunately, the latest round of the case has taken a downward turn in ways that could have serious implications for other innovators and users.
First, the court gave a tremendous cudgel to Facebook against commercial users who displease it when it decided that Power violated the federal CAN-SPAM Act by sending "misleading" messages. These messages encouraged users to send Facebook "Event" invitations to their friends to promote Power's service. As EFF pointed out in an amicus brief (pdf), though, the allegedly "misleading" elements of the message are supplied by Facebook itself—and can't be changed by users. This means that any user who sends a commercial message on Facebook is technically in violation of the law, since it appears to come from Facebook. The CAN-SPAM Act, passed in 2003, simply doesn't contemplate closed systems where the service provider controls many elements of a message.
To make matters worse, the CAN-SPAM Act only allows service providers to bring lawsuits, and it lets them seek crippling damages. Here, Facebook sought over $18 million. This is a clear example of a law vulnerable to misuse because technology has changed since it was written, and it wasn't even written a decade ago. EFF will be watching how Facebook and other services with closed messaging systems use CAN-SPAM in the future.
Second, the court found that Power violated state and federal computer crime laws merely by designing its tool to connect to Facebook using multiple IP addresses, which preemptively thwarted Facebook's efforts to keep users from accessing their Facebook accounts though the Power website. This precedent is especially troubling because these laws have both civil and criminal penalties. EFF is concerned that this precedent could be used in the future to criminalize the creation of tools that are capable of bypassing technological barriers, even if they are never actually used to do so, forcing innovators to anticipate every technical block that any interoperable system or program might possibly impose. This is an unworkable rule.
Facebook's case against Power is dangerous as a matter of policy, threatening to put the power of law—including serious criminal penalties—behind Facebook's anti-competitive decision to thwart consumer choice and innovation that doesn't meet its approval. It doesn't bode well for the future and should encourage all of us to think more seriously about the collateral problems created by closed networks.
Government Pressures Twitter to Hand Over Keys to Occupy Wall Street Protester's Location Data Without a Warrant
By Hanni Fakhoury
On October 1, 2011, over 700 Occupy Wall Street protesters were arrested on the Brooklyn Bridge. Most of the protesters, including Malcolm Harris, were charged with the mundane crime of disorderly conduct, a "violation" under New York law that has a maximum punishment of 15 days in jail or a $250 fine.
And yet on the basis of a charge no more consequential than speeding ticket, the New York City District Attorney's office sent a poorly worded subpoena to Twitter requesting "any and all user information, including email address, as well as any and all tweets posted for the period of 9/15/2011-12/31/2011" regarding Mr. Harris' Twitter account, @destructuremal. Unsurprisingly, the government wanted to keep it quiet, but thankfully Twitter didn't listen. Instead, as it has consistently warned law enforcement, Twitter notified Mr. Harris, who through his lawyer, Martin Stolar of the National Lawyers Guild, has moved to challenge the subpoena in court.
The subpoena is astonishing not only for its poor grammar, but also for the breadth of information the government wants for a trivial crime that hardly requires it. The government's request that Twitter hand over Tweets is unlikely to succeed because consistent with the Stored Communications Act, Twitter releases "contents of communication" (effectively Tweets and private messages between Twitter users) only with a search warrant. In any event, Mr. Harris' account is "public", meaning the government could obtain Tweets simply by checking out Mr. Harris' Twitter feed. Plus, requesting Tweets only highlights the absurdity of the entire situation: why would the government need Tweets from both before and after the October 1 protest to prove he was obstructing traffic on the bridge? Government fishing expeditions like this raise serious First Amendment concerns. Mr. Harris was very outspoken about his support of and involvement in the Occupy Wall Street movement. With this overbroad subpoena, the government would be able to learn about who Mr. Harris was communicating with for an extensive period of time not only through Tweets, but through direct messages. And with the government's request for all email addresses associated with @destructuremal, they could subpoena Mr. Harris' email provider to get even more information about who he communicated with. The First Amendment shouldn't be trampled with only an expansive subpoena in a case that barely registers as "criminal."
Given that much of Mr. Harris' Twitter information (like Tweets and followers) is already public, it's very likely that the government was really after something else: location data. By attempting to subpoena these records, the government can get around the Fourth Amendment's prohibition against warrantless searches by requesting information that includes IP addresses. Twitter keeps track of IP address information regarding every time a person logged into Twitter, as well as the IP address information related to a Twitter user's direct messages to other users, and the date and time information related to these log ins and direct messages. Armed with IP addresses, the government -- without a warrant -- can go to an ISP to determine who was assigned that particular IP address. And if that person connected on a mobile device -- which is where the majority of Twitter users access their accounts -- the ISP will hand over to the government the specific cell tower (and its corresponding geographic location) which that person used to access Twitter. This allows the government to piece together a map of where a person physically is when he opens Twitter on his smartphone, sends a direct message to a friend, or Tweets. And with that information, the government could get a record of Mr. Harris' movement over the three months it requested from Twitter. It's no surprise then that the government singled out Mr. Harris for this request: he currently has over 1,500 followers and 7,200 Tweets.
Allowing the government to gets its hands on this data with nothing more than an administrative subpoena renders the Fourth Amendment meaningless. Only with the protection of a search warrant, and the heightened judicial supervision that comes along with it, can the voracious appetite of law enforcement be curbed. As we've consistently argued, the Fourth Amendment protects this information. But another way to impose privacy protection from the prying hands of law enforcement is through Congressional reform of the badly outdated Electronic Communications Privacy Act ("ECPA"). As part of the Digital Due Process coalition, EFF has been calling for Congress to update ECPA to conform with the realities of the 21st century.
It looks like judicial momentum may finally be on our side. In January of this year, the United States Supreme Court issued a landmark decision in United States v. Jones (PDF), ruling that law enforcement could not physically install a GPS device on private property without a search warrant. The majority opinion resolved the Fourth Amendment issue by looking exclusively at the physical installation of the GPS device. Importantly, however, in a concurring opinion, Justice Sotomayor warned that "physical intrusion is now unnecessary to many forms of surveillance." Collecting IP addresses of a prolific Tweeter, and matching it with other easily obtainable information from other service providers, demonstrates this problem. In writing that society is unlikely to accept extensive warrantless surveillance as "reasonable", Justice Sotomayor called into question "the appropriateness of entrusting to the Executive, in the absence of any oversight from a coordinate branch, a tool so amenable to misuse, especially in light of the Fourth Amendment’s goal to curb arbitrary exercises of police power to and prevent 'a too permeating police surveillance.'” Similarly, Justice Alito's concurring opinion noted that with "dramatic technological change, the best solution to privacy concerns may be legislative."
Hopefully with the public breathing down its neck, Congress can finally act to fix a antequated set of laws. Malcolm Harris, like Birgitta Jonsdottir before him, took a stand to protect our privacy rights. You can too by telling Congress that its time to update ECPA and tell law enforcement once and for all that in order to get a person's location data, it needs to come back with a warrant.
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I have a new paper appearing at IEEE S&P with Hristo Paskov, Neil Gong, John Bethencourt, Emil Stefanov, Richard Shin and Dawn Song on Internet-scale authorship identification based on stylometry, i.e., analysis of writing style. Stylometric identification exploits the fact that we all have a ‘fingerprint’ based on our stylistic choices and idiosyncrasies with the written word. To quote from my previous post speculating on the possibility of Internet-scale authorship identification:
Consider two words that are nearly interchangeable, say ‘since’ and ‘because’. Different people use the two words in a differing proportion. By comparing the relative frequency of the two words, you get a little bit of information about a person, typically under 1 bit. But by putting together enough of these ‘markers’, you can construct a profile.
The basic idea that people have distinctive writing styles is very well-known and well-understood, and there is an extremely long line of research on this topic. This research began in modern form in the early 1960s when statisticians Mosteller and Wallace determined the authorship of the disputed Federalist papers, and were featured in TIME magazine. It is never easy to make a significant contribution in a heavily studied area. No surprise, then, that my initial blog post was written about three years ago, and the Stanford-Berkeley collaboration began in earnest over two years ago.
Impact. So what exactly did we achieve? Our research has dramatically increased the number of authors that can be distinguished using writing-style analysis: from about 300 to 100,000. More importantly, the accuracy of our algorithms drops off gently as the number of authors increases, so we can be confident that they will continue to perform well as we scale the problem even further. Our work is therefore the first time that stylometry has been shown to have to have serious implications for online anonymity.
Anonymity and free speech have been intertwined throughout history. For example, anonymous discourse was essential to the debates that gave birth to the United States Constitution. Yet a right to anonymity is meaningless if an anonymous author’s identity can be unmasked by adversaries. While there have been many attempts to legally force service providers and other intermediaries to reveal the identity of anonymous users, courts have generally upheld the right to anonymity. But what if authors can be identified based on nothing but a comparison of the content they publish to other web content they have previously authored?
Experiments. Our experimental methodology is set up to directly address this question. Our primary data source was the ICWSM 2009 Spinn3r Blog Dataset, a large collection of blog posts made available to researchers by Spinn3r.com, a provider of blog-related commercial data feeds. To test the identifiability of an author, we remove a random k (typically 3) posts from the corresponding blog and treat it as if those posts are anonymous, and apply our algorithm to try to determine which blog it came from. In these experiments, the labeled (identified) and unlabled (anonymous) texts are drawn from the same context. We call this post-to-blog matching.
In some applications of stylometric authorship recognition, the context for the identified and anonymous text might be the same. This was the case in the famous study of the federalist papers — each author hid his name from some of his papers, but wrote about the same topic. In the blogging scenario, an author might decide to selectively distribute a few particularly sensitive posts anonymously through a different channel. But in other cases, the unlabeled text might be political speech, whereas the only available labeled text by the same author might be a cooking blog, i.e., the labeled and unlabeled text might come from different contexts. Context encompasses much more than topic: the tone might be formal or informal; the author might be in a different mental state (e.g., more emotional) in one context versus the other, etc.
We feel that it is crucial for authorship recognition techniques to be validated in a cross-context setting. Previous work has fallen short in this regard because of the difficulty of finding a suitable dataset. We were able to obtain about 2,000 pairs (and a few triples, etc.) of blogs, each pair written by the same author, by looking at a dataset of 3.5 million Google profiles and searching for users who listed more than one blog in the ‘websites’ field. We are thankful to Daniele Perito for sharing this dataset. We added these blogs to the Spinn3r blog dataset to bring the total to 100,000. Using this data, we performed experiments as follows: remove one of a pair of blogs written by the same author, and use it as unlabeled text. The goal is to find the other blog written by the same author. We call this blog-to-blog matching. Note that although the number of blog pairs is only a few thousand, we match each anonymous blog against all 99,999 other blogs.
Results. Our baseline result is that in the post-to-blog experiments, the author was correctly identified 20% of the time. This means that when our algorithm uses three anonymously published blog posts to rank the possible authors in descending order of probability, the top guess is correct 20% of the time.
But it gets better from there. In 35% of cases, the correct author is one of the top 20 guesses. Why does this matter? Because in practice, algorithmic analysis probably won’t be the only step in authorship recognition, and will instead be used to produce a shortlist for further investigation. A manual examination may incorporate several characteristics that the automated analysis does not, such as choice of topic (our algorithms are scrupulously “topic-free”). Location is another signal that can be used: for example, if we were trying to identify the author of the once-anonymous blog Washingtonienne we’d know that she almost certainly resides in or around Washington, D.C. Alternately, a powerful adversary such as law enforcement may require Blogger, WordPress, or another popular blog host to reveal the login times of the top suspects, which could be correlated with the timing of posts on the anonymous blog to confirm a match.
We can also improve the accuracy significantly over the baseline of 20% for authors for whom we have more than an average number of labeled or unlabeled blog posts. For example, with 40–50 labeled posts to work with (the average is 20 posts per author), the accuracy goes up to 30–35%.
An important capability is confidence estimation, i.e., modifying the algorithm to also output a score reflecting its degree of confidence in the prediction. We measure the efficacy of confidence estimation via the standard machine-learning metrics of precision and recall. We find that we can improve precision from 20% to over 80% with only a halving of recall. In plain English, what these numbers mean is: the algorithm does not always attempt to identify an author, but when it does, it finds the right author 80% of the time. Overall, it identifies 10% (half of 20%) of authors correctly, i.e., 10,000 out of the 100,000 authors in our dataset. Strong as these numbers are, it is important to keep in mind that in a real-life deanonymization attack on a specific target, it is likely that confidence can be greatly improved through methods discussed above — topic, manual inspection, etc.
We confirmed that our techniques work in a cross-context setting (i.e., blog-to-blog experiments), although the accuracy is lower (~12%). Confidence estimation works really well in this setting as well and boosts accuracy to over 50% with a halving of recall. Finally, we also manually verified that in cross-context matching we find pairs of blogs that are hard for humans to match based on topic or writing style; we describe three such pairs in an appendix to the paper. For detailed graphs as well as a variety of other experimental results, see the paper.
We see our results as establishing early lower bounds on the efficacy of large-scale stylometric authorship recognition. Having cracked the scale barrier, we expect accuracy improvements to come easier in the future. In particular, we report experiments in the paper showing that a combination of two very different classifiers works better than either, but there is a lot more mileage to squeeze from this approach, given that ensembles of classifiers are known to work well for most machine-learning problems. Also, there is much work to be done in terms of analyzing which aspects of writing style are preserved across contexts, and using this understanding to improve accuracy in that setting.
Techniques. Now let’s look in more detail at the techniques I’ve hinted at above. The author identification task proceeds in two steps: feature extraction and classification. In the feature extraction stage, we reduce each blog post to a sequence of about 1,200 numerical features (a “feature vector”) that acts as a fingerprint. These features fall into various lexical and grammatical categories. Two example features: the frequency of uppercase words, the number of words that occur exactly once in the text. While we mostly used the same set of features that the authors of the Writeprints paper did, we also came up with a new set of features that involved analyzing the grammatical parse trees of sentences.
An important component of feature extraction is to ensure that our analysis was purely stylistic. We do this in two ways: first, we preprocess the blog posts to filter out signatures, markup, or anything that might not be directly entered by a human. Second, we restrict our features to those that bear little resemblance to the topic of discussion. In particular, our word-based features are limited to stylistic “function words” that we list in an appendix to the paper.
In the classification stage, we algorithmically “learn” a characterization of each author (from the set of feature vectors corresponding to the posts written by that author). Given a set of feature vectors from an unknown author, we use the learned characterizations to decide which author it most likely corresponds to. For example, viewing each feature vector as a point in a high-dimensional space, the learning algorithm might try to find a “hyperplane” that separates the points corresponding to one author from those of every other author, and the decision algorithm might determine, given a set of hyperplanes corresponding to each known author, which hyperplane best separates the unknown author from the rest.
We made several innovations that allowed us to achieve the accuracy levels that we did. First, contrary to some previous authors who hypothesized that only relatively straightforward “lazy” classifiers work for this type of problem, we were able to avoid various pitfalls and use more high-powered machinery. Second, we developed new techniques for confidence estimation, including a measure very similar to “eccentricity” used in the Netflix paper. Third, we developed techniques to improve the performance (speed) of our classifiers, detailed in the paper. This is a research contribution by itself, but it also enabled us to rapidly iterate the development of our algorithms and optimize them.
In an earlier article, I noted that we don’t yet have as rigorous an understanding of deanonymization algorithms as we would like. I see this paper as a significant step in that direction. In my series on fingerprinting, I pointed out that in numerous domains, researchers have considered classification/deanonymization problems with tens of classes, with implications for forensics and security-enhancing applications, but that to explore the privacy-infringing/surveillance applications the methods need to be tweaked to be able to deal with a much larger number of classes. Our work shows how to do that, and we believe that insights from our paper will be generally applicable to numerous problems in the privacy space.
Concluding thoughts. We’ve thrown open the doors for the study of writing-style based deanonymization that can be carried out on an Internet-wide scale, and our research demonstrates that the threat is already real. We believe that our techniques are valuable by themselves as well.
The good news for authors who would like to protect themselves against deanonymization, it appears that manually changing one’s style is enough to throw off these attacks. Developing fully automated methods to hide traces of one’s writing style remains a challenge. For now, few people are aware of the existence of these attacks and defenses; all the sensitive text that has already been anonymously written is also at risk of deanonymization.
 A team from Israel have studied authorship recognition with 10,000 authors. While this is interesting and impressive work, and bears some similarities with ours, they do not restrict themselves to stylistic analysis, and therefore the method is comparatively limited in scope. Incidentally, they have been in the news recently for some related work.
 Although the fraction of users who listed even a single blog in their Google profile was small, there were more than 2,000 users who listed multiple. We did not use the full number that was available.
By Stephanie Hegarty
We often worry about lying awake in the middle of the night - but it could be good for you. A growing body of evidence from both science and history suggests that the eight-hour sleep may be unnatural.
In the early 1990s, psychiatrist Thomas Wehr conducted an experiment in which a group of people were plunged into darkness for 14 hours every day for a month.
It took some time for their sleep to regulate but by the fourth week the subjects had settled into a very distinct sleeping pattern. They slept first for four hours, then woke for one or two hours before falling into a second four-hour sleep.
Though sleep scientists were impressed by the study, among the general public the idea that we must sleep for eight consecutive hours persists.
In 2001, historian Roger Ekirch of Virginia Tech published a seminal paper, drawn from 16 years of research, revealing a wealth of historical evidence that humans used to sleep in two distinct chunks.
His book At Day's Close: Night in Times Past, published four years later, unearths more than 500 references to a segmented sleeping pattern - in diaries, court records, medical books and literature, from Homer's Odyssey to an anthropological account of modern tribes in Nigeria.
Much like the experience of Wehr's subjects, these references describe a first sleep which began about two hours after dusk, followed by waking period of one or two hours and then a second sleep.
"It's not just the number of references - it is the way they refer to it, as if it was common knowledge," Ekirch says.
During this waking period people were quite active. They often got up, went to the toilet or smoked tobacco and some even visited neighbours. Most people stayed in bed, read, wrote and often prayed. Countless prayer manuals from the late 15th Century offered special prayers for the hours in between sleeps.
And these hours weren't entirely solitary - people often chatted to bed-fellows or had sex.
A doctor's manual from 16th Century France even advised couples that the best time to conceive was not at the end of a long day's labour but "after the first sleep", when "they have more enjoyment" and "do it better".
Ekirch found that references to the first and second sleep started to disappear during the late 17th Century. This started among the urban upper classes in northern Europe and over the course of the next 200 years filtered down to the rest of Western society.
By the 1920s the idea of a first and second sleep had receded entirely from our social consciousness.
When segmented sleep was the norm
"He knew this, even in the horror with which he started from his first sleep, and threw up the window to dispel it by the presence of some object, beyond the room, which had not been, as it were, the witness of his dream." Charles Dickens, Barnaby Rudge (1840)
"Don Quixote followed nature, and being satisfied with his first sleep, did not solicit more. As for Sancho, he never wanted a second, for the first lasted him from night to morning." Miguel Cervantes, Don Quixote (1615)
"And at the wakening of your first sleepe You shall have a hott drinke made, And at the wakening of your next sleepe Your sorrowes will have a slake." Early English ballad, Old Robin of Portingale
The Tiv tribe in Nigeria employ the terms "first sleep" and "second sleep" to refer to specific periods of the night
He attributes the initial shift to improvements in street lighting, domestic lighting and a surge in coffee houses - which were sometimes open all night. As the night became a place for legitimate activity and as that activity increased, the length of time people could dedicate to rest dwindled.
In his new book, Evening's Empire, historian Craig Koslofsky puts forward an account of how this happened.
"Associations with night before the 17th Century were not good," he says. The night was a place populated by people of disrepute - criminals, prostitutes and drunks.
"Even the wealthy, who could afford candlelight, had better things to spend their money on. There was no prestige or social value associated with staying up all night."
That changed in the wake of the Reformation and the counter-Reformation. Protestants and Catholics became accustomed to holding secret services at night, during periods of persecution. If earlier the night had belonged to reprobates, now respectable people became accustomed to exploiting the hours of darkness.
This trend migrated to the social sphere too, but only for those who could afford to live by candlelight. With the advent of street lighting, however, socialising at night began to filter down through the classes.
In 1667, Paris became the first city in the world to light its streets, using wax candles in glass lamps. It was followed by Lille in the same year and Amsterdam two years later, where a much more efficient oil-powered lamp was developed.
London didn't join their ranks until 1684 but by the end of the century, more than 50 of Europe's major towns and cities were lit at night.
Night became fashionable and spending hours lying in bed was considered a waste of time.
"People were becoming increasingly time-conscious and sensitive to efficiency, certainly before the 19th Century," says Roger Ekirch. "But the industrial revolution intensified that attitude by leaps and bounds."
Strong evidence of this shifting attitude is contained in a medical journal from 1829 which urged parents to force their children out of a pattern of first and second sleep.
"If no disease or accident there intervene, they will need no further repose than that obtained in their first sleep, which custom will have caused to terminate by itself just at the usual hour.
"And then, if they turn upon their ear to take a second nap, they will be taught to look upon it as an intemperance not at all redounding to their credit."
Today, most people seem to have adapted quite well to the eight-hour sleep, but Ekirch believes many sleeping problems may have roots in the human body's natural preference for segmented sleep as well as the ubiquity of artificial light.
This could be the root of a condition called sleep maintenance insomnia, where people wake during the night and have trouble getting back to sleep, he suggests.
The condition first appears in literature at the end of the 19th Century, at the same time as accounts of segmented sleep disappear.
"For most of evolution we slept a certain way," says sleep psychologist Gregg Jacobs. "Waking up during the night is part of normal human physiology."
The idea that we must sleep in a consolidated block could be damaging, he says, if it makes people who wake up at night anxious, as this anxiety can itself prohibit sleeps and is likely to seep into waking life too.
Stages of sleep
Every 60-100 minutes we go through a cycle of four stages of sleep
Stage 1 is a drowsy, relaxed state between being awake and sleeping - breathing slows, muscles relax, heart rate drops
Stage 2 is slightly deeper sleep - you may feel awake and this means that, on many nights, you may be asleep and not know it
Stage 3 and Stage 4, or Deep Sleep - it is very hard to wake up from Deep Sleep because this is when there is the lowest amount of activity in your body
After Deep Sleep, we go back to Stage 2 for a few minutes, and then enter Dream Sleep - also called REM (rapid eye movement) sleep - which, as its name suggests, is when you dream
In a full sleep cycle, a person goes through all the stages of sleep from one to four, then back down through stages three and two, before entering dream sleep
Russell Foster, a professor of circadian [body clock] neuroscience at Oxford, shares this point of view.
"Many people wake up at night and panic," he says. "I tell them that what they are experiencing is a throwback to the bi-modal sleep pattern."
But the majority of doctors still fail to acknowledge that a consolidated eight-hour sleep may be unnatural.
"Over 30% of the medical problems that doctors are faced with stem directly or indirectly from sleep. But sleep has been ignored in medical training and there are very few centres where sleep is studied," he says.
Jacobs suggests that the waking period between sleeps, when people were forced into periods of rest and relaxation, could have played an important part in the human capacity to regulate stress naturally.
In many historic accounts, Ekirch found that people used the time to meditate on their dreams.
"Today we spend less time doing those things," says Dr Jacobs. "It's not a coincidence that, in modern life, the number of people who report anxiety, stress, depression, alcoholism and drug abuse has gone up."
So the next time you wake up in the middle of the night, think of your pre-industrial ancestors and relax. Lying awake could be good for you.
Craig Koslofsky and Russell Foster appeared on The Forum from the BBC World Service. Listen to the programme here.
If everything from technology to politics will be different in the future, then so will human reproduction. That's why so much science fiction deals with the question of how humans make babies — or don't make them — in alternate worlds that are often quite close to our own. It's also why reproduction is a political issue. After all, a political campaign represents the promise of a new kind of future.
What will happen if the state takes control of human reproduction? The answers could be weirder than you think — and might terrify pro-life politicians as much as pro-choice advocates. Here are some of the scenarios supplied by science fiction.
State-controlled reproduction is a nightmare
Perhaps the best known work of science fiction about state-controlled reproduction is Margaret Atwood's Christian fundamentalist nightmare, The Handmaid's Tale. Written in the 1980s (and adapted into a film in the 1990s), it's about what would happen if right wing Christian politicians took control of North America in the wake of a nuclear disaster that's left most of the population sterile. Women who are fertile become "handmaids" in the homes of wealthy patriarchs whose wives cannot bear children. Handmaids undergo a humiliating ritual where the patriarch tries to get them pregnant while their barren wives watch - the idea is that God will approve of this because it emulates an Old Testament scenario and the wives are participating "willingly." In reality, the system turns women into property and also sets them against each other. Atwood imagines state-regulated reproduction as a horrific combination of authoritarianism in the public sphere, and spousal abuse and rape in the domestic one.
Other works imagine the state regulating reproduction using the carrot rather than the stick. Brave New World, published in the early 1930s during the height of the eugenics craze in the United States, imagines a future where the government breeds humans for specialized tasks. Some are designed to be strong but stupid low-caste workers, while others (the Alphas) are given perfect minds and physiques in order to take their places as societal leaders. Every child is also put through years of behavioral conditioning to reinforce their genetic predilections. The result is a society where everybody is content with their positions and sex is purely recreational. Similarly, the movie GATTACA imagines a future where everyone is genetically engineered for various class positions. Both stories include "wild type" characters, non-GMO people whose perspectives cast doubt on the justice of a system where the state determines who you are from conception onward.
You might think that these stories, to the extent that they are about gender, would be like The Handmaid's Tale, where patriarchs or a patriarchal state have decided to take away women's rights to choose how they'll reproduce. But that's simply not the case. In fact, feminist SF writer Sherri Tepper's novel The Gate to Women's Country offers an ambivalent portrait of a future matriarchal society devoted to the eugenics project of breeding men to be less violent.
You can find a similar theme even in B-movies like Hell Comes to Frogtown, set in a post-apocalyptic world where Rowdy Roddy Piper is captured by a gang of women who hook him up to a sperm-extraction machine so they can get some nice genetic material. A similar fate meets the main character in 1970s cult classic A Boy And His Dog, where a group of subterranean religious nuts capture the virile Don Johnson and hook him to their scary groin cage so they can suck out all his jizz before killing him. Both movies have elements of parody, but they also reveal fairly serious anxieties about men being raped.
The point is, the nightmare of state-controlled reproduction is something that haunts both the male and female imaginations. It's also bound closely with the fear of eugenics breeding programs and designer babies. When contemplating a future where the state takes a heavy hand in reproduction, humans worry about why, exactly, the government wants to take control. What's the payoff? A class of genetically-engineered worker bees? Babies for the chosen few?
When women control their own reproduction
One way to do an end-run around these questions is to focus on gender, rather than the state. What would happen if women had complete control over reproduction? This is a fantasy that a lot of feminists have had over the past century, partly as a reaction against the fears that Atwood voices in The Handmaid's Tale. Indeed, one of the first twentieth century works of science fiction, Charlotte Perkins Gilman's 1915 novel Herland, is about a lost island ruled entirely by women who reproduce by parthenogenesis. They've developed a just society, full of women who have no conception of the "real world" in 1915, where women would never work as warriors, politicians, or doctors. When a group of men accidentally stumbles on the island, Gilman takes the opportunity to explore what it would be like for her male peers to fall in love with women who treat men as their equals.
While Gilman's Herland is arguably a Utopia, feminists of the later twentieth century weren't so sure that a society controlled by women would actually be much better than old-fashioned authoritarian patriarchy. In the James Tiptree, Jr. story "Houston, Houston, Do You Read?", author Alice Sheldon imagines what would happen if some astronauts were knocked off course, Planet of the Apes style, and found themselves orbiting an Earth of the future. A plague has wiped out most of the Earth's population, including all the men, and women are now reproducing through cloning. Their culture has remained fairly stagnant, and the astronauts dream of taking over the female population through their amazing powers of leadership — or just through sexual conquest. Unlike the women in Herland, Sheldon's women couldn't care less about the men. They study the men, possibly getting ready for the old sperm extraction manoeuvre, and then plan to kill them.
Joanna Russ' short story "When It Changed" takes a similarly dim view of what an all-female society on a faraway planet would think about the first men they've encountered. Male astronauts arrive, treat the women condescendingly, and then claim that women on Earth have equal rights. The women have to restrain themselves from killing the men because the male point of view seems so obviously poisonous. In Nicola Griffith's novel Ammonite, the whole "male explorers arrive" problem is solved neatly. A planet full of women who reproduce using parthenogenesis are lucky enough to be immune to a planet-wide pathogen that kills all men. Any male astronauts will die immediately upon arrival, and all the happy lesbians are able to continue on their merry way.
Other authors, most notably Lois McMaster Bujold, imagine that women will take control of reproduction without needing to form female-dominated societies. Many of Bujold's science fiction novels include plots that revolve partly or entirely around the widespread use of "uterine replicators," or artificial wombs. In the novel Barrayar, our hero introduces the uterine replicator to her husband's patriarchal planet and proceeds to save the world. Similarly, the hero of Vonda McIntyre's Dreamsnake is a doctor who can manufacture personalized medicines using her own (modified) body as a chemistry lab. A side-effect of her powers is that she has complete control over when and how she becomes pregnant. In both novels, it's clear that part of what allows our women to be heroes is that they live in worlds where they control reproductive technologies.
Though some pundits claim that feminists want to destroy all men, it's clear from this broad range of stories by women that there is hardly a consensus about how awesome things would be if we could just have a matriarchy, or a world where women controlled reproduction. Even Gilman's female Utopia in Herland welcomes men, and the novel eventually becomes a story about how men and women who are equals can still love each other. Perhaps the most radical of these stories, "When It Changed" and Ammonite, are about women's ambivalence about female power. Russ and Griffith's characters prefer to live without men, but they show us female societies full of violence, strife, and problems.
The problem with abortion
When I was in seventh grade, I read a post-apocalyptic novel by Walter Tevis called Mockingbird that had a profound effect on me. I strongly identified with the characters, who were trying to preserve writing in a post-literate society. But one thing really confused me. To show how awful this future world was, Tevis noted that there were robots on every corner who would give an abortion on demand. Wait, what? As a horny teenage girl, a future full of free, anonymous robot abortion sounded pretty good. But Tevis was hardly the only science fiction writer who thought my idea of Utopia was a nightmare.
In the 1970s, Philip K. Dick made a permanent enemy of Joanna Russ and thousands of other pro-choice activists by writing a short story called "The Pre-Persons." It was about how Roe v. Wade would lead to a world where kids could be "aborted" until their souls entered their bodies — which the US government arbitrarily defined as the moment a child could learn algebra. By that logic, suggests Dick's main character, any adult who has forgotten algebra should be aborted too.
Dick, who described himself as anti-abortion, hit upon a science fiction trope that hasn't changed much since his story was published. Just a few years ago, Neal Shusterman's young adult novel Unwind dealt with almost the same scenario as "The Pre-Persons" — in it, parents can choose to "unwind" their teenagers, or kill them and allow doctors to harvest their organs. Similarly, in the recent stories Never Let Me Go, The Island, and House of the Scorpion, people are allowed to commission clones of themselves who will be raised to adulthood and then harvested for organs. In all of these tales, the soon-to-be-aborted organ donors are shown to be fully human, complex people whose lives are being tragically cut short by horrifically immoral laws.
These stories work with typical science fiction logic, asking how a current political issue (in this case, abortion) might evolve in the future. The fear driving these stories is twofold. First, they raise the question of whether it's appropriate for humans to set an arbitrary distinction between "alive" and "not alive" in the womb, allowing people to abort the latter but not the former. Second, these stories ask whether widespread abortion will usher in radically immoral social systems where people can legally kill autonomous adults for arbitrary reasons like not knowing algebra, or being born a clone.
Another crop of novels suggests that we're ridiculously human-centric for even thinking that these are moral issues. The Color of Distance, The Algebraist, and Triad all feature alien societies where adults routinely kill their children. In The Color of Distance, by Amy Thomson, a human scientist is appalled when she realizes the squid-like aliens she's been living with are regularly eating their own tadpoles. Any tadpole lucky enough to escape being eaten is allowed to mature into a teenager, but only a tiny handful of those teenagers — the smartest and most agile — will be allowed to become adults. The rest are killed. Thomson is careful to point out that the aliens think the human scientist is complete crazy for wanting to preserve every child. It would be completely unsustainable, and destroy their planet.
In The Algebraist, Iain M. Banks introduces us to the Dwellers, gas giant creatures who cheerfully watch their children being killed in the midst of a particularly dangerous airship manoeuvre. Like Thomson's aliens, the Dwellers simply don't fetishize the idea of preserving children's lives at all costs. Once a person has proven to be a competent adult, they have worth. But protecting a child just for the sake of "life" seems, to these aliens, simply wasteful and potentially destructive.
The real issue is child-rearing
All the stories I've discussed up to this point focus on reproductive rights as an issue that centers basically on conception. Mostly, they ask: Who controls how we have babies, and who says what kinds of babies we can have?
But I would argue that the real issue lurking beneath the surface of those questions is a single, stark query: Who is responsible for raising children?
This certainly goes a long way to explaining why concerns about aborting fetuses can so easily morph into concerns about raising teenagers, as they do in tales like Unwind. It also explains why the stories I discussed earlier, about the state controlling reproduction, are often implicitly or explicitly about eugenics. The goal of a eugenics breeding program isn't to control reproduction; it's to control the population. And that takes us into the realms of child-rearing, education, and ultimately the state control of adults.
One of the often-neglected aspects of the reproductive rights debate is that when women ask to control their reproductive systems, they aren't just saying they want to have sex without fear of pregnancy. Of course pregnancy sucks, and certainly the Alien movies demonstrate in fantastical detail why childbirth is completely gross. Controlling reproduction is more fundamentally about controlling the fates of children, and the adults who care for them.
Children, after all, represent years and years of work. Parenting may be a joy, but it's also undeniably a form of labor that can last a lifetime. So science fiction about reproductive issues often winds up focusing a lot on parenting — the good, the bad, and the ugly of being in charge of a child.
There was a creepy subplot on Battlestar Galactica where Starbuck is captured by the Cylons, threatened with forced impregnation, and is later imprisoned as the "wife" of the Cylon Leoben. She murders Leoben every time he comes into her prison cell (which she can do because there are a zillion copies of every Cylon), until he brings her a child he claims is hers. Suddenly, Starbuck is emotionally compromised. She wants to protect the child, though part of her wants to kill it, and as a result she can no longer focus on fighting Leoben. The arrival of this child is in many ways more traumatic than Starbuck's forced reproduction because it divides her loyalties and is an emotional distraction.
The idea that child-rearing divides our attention, making us less fit for heroism, is a theme in the Terminator series too. Though Sarah Connor is an incredible hero, she is often portrayed a bad mother, or at least a troubled one. John Connor has been raised in foster homes, as we learn in Terminator 2. In the Sarah Connor Chronicles series, Sarah struggles with devoting time to child-rearing when she has so many other responsibilities. Child-rearing, for women, provokes anxiety because it's so much work — and like Sarah Connor, they often have to do it mostly alone. The eponymous hero of Max Barry's corporate dystopia novel Jennifer Government is, like Sarah Connor, a single mother fighting impossibly brutal enemies. Jennifer's child is never far from her mind, and she's constantly having to take time off from her crime-fighting for mother duties in a way that Batman never would.
Men do struggle with single fatherhood in tales from Enemy Mine and The Road, to Deep Space Nine and Real Steel, and they are often just as torn apart by it as Sarah Connor is. Generally they have to carve out new emotional space for their children, as Hugh Jackman's character does in Real Steel. This can also mean acknowledging that they are unprepared for the rigors of juggling daily work life with daily child-rearing responsibilities. Captain Sisko on Deep Space Nine is probably the least troubled of the bunch in these stories, partly because he's lucky enough to have a self-sufficient, smart kid in Jake, and partly because it seems like the entire space station is willing to help him take care of his son.
Of course sometimes child-rearing is so awful that parents secretly wish they had aborted their kids. Certainly we can see this dark side of parenting in creepy-child movies like The Omen or even The Brood. In the world of A.I.: Artificial Intelligence, the mother leaves her emotionally distraught child-mecha David by the side of the road when he becomes too needy. And in classic short story "It's a GOOD Life," which became a famous Twilight Zone episode, a child with psychic powers controls everyone in his small town, threatening to send them "to the cornfield" if they show even a hint of displeasure at his bratty behavior. The message in these narratives is clear: The only thing worse than not controlling how you have children is not being able to control your children once they arrive.
It might be useful, as we contemplate the futures offered by science fiction and politics, to consider that the struggle over reproductive rights is really a struggle over parenting. It's not about when the child becomes "alive;" it's who will take care of the child when he's running around the holodeck. And it's not about the state forcing certain people to remain pregnant; it's about the state forcing certain people to spend two decades of their lives devoting an enormous amount of labor to child-rearing.
In Brave New World, Aldous Huxley asked what kind of society would be produced by a government that grew and reared children in laboratories. Today's science fiction urges us to ask similar questions about governments that force women and men to rear children that they don't want, cannot afford, and who require work that the adults around them simply cannot perform. What kind of world are we creating when humans cannot prevent unwanted children from beng born? More to the point, we have to ask what those children will think of us when they realize how much more political effort has been put into regulating reproduction than into child-rearing, schools, and activities for young people.
Right now, we live in a world that ignores the importance, expense, and labor of child-rearing. The more we neglect these issues, the more likely it is that our children won't mature into the kinds of autonomous adults who can prevent the equally horrific futures of The Handmaid's Tale and "The Pre-Persons."
By Dan Goodin
As Bruce Schneier spent the past decade watching the growing rash of phishers, malware attacks, and identity theft, a new Internet threat has emerged that poses even greater risks, the security expert said.
Unlike the security risks posed by criminals, the threat from government regulation and data hoarders such as Apple and Google are more insidious because they threaten to alter the fabric of the Internet itself. They're also different from traditional Internet threats because the perpetrators are shielded in a cloak of legitimacy. As a result, many people don't recognize that their personal information or fortunes are more susceptible to these new forces than they ever were to the Russian Business Network or other Internet gangsters.
"Taken as a whole, there's a lot of things going on that affect our industry from outside our industry," Schneier, who is the author of five security books, said during a Wednesday keynote at the 24th General Meeting of the Messaging Anti-Abuse Working Group. "These are things that might be imposed on us. More capability, more usability, less control."
The first of three pillars propping up this outside threat are big data collectors, which in addition to Apple and Google, Schneier identified as Amazon and Facebook. (Notice Microsoft didn't make the cut.) The goal of their data collection is for marketers to be able to make snap decisions about the product tastes, credit worthiness, and employment suitability of millions of people. Often, this information is fed into systems maintained by governments.
Schneier didn't discuss the effect this unprecedented level of data scavenging has on individual privacy. Instead, he focused on how it ties the hands of people working at ISPs and software companies who work to secure their customers' personal information.
"We in security face enormous threats here because there are things we might want to do that we won't be able to do," he told about 400 people attending the three-day San Francisco conference. "You could see a law that limits what we can do about cookie deletion." Laws that require smartphones or other devices to be equipped with unique identifiers aren't a stretch, either, he said.
Schneier said the threat is often obfuscated by the tremendous technical advances the big data players have offered. Google mail is a safer alternative for average users because there's almost no chance they'll ever lose a message. Apple's iPhone is wildly popular because it's easy to use and to date has proved largely impervious to real-world malware attacks. But behind the security and reliability, there are threats many don't consider.
"I can't find a program that will erase the data on this thing to a reasonable assurance without jailbreaking it," he said, holding up his iPhone. "For me that's bad."
The age of feudal security
He called the new model "feudal security" in which Kindle Fire owners trust their security to Amazon, iPhone users trust their Apple, and so on. As a result, the devices no longer come with general-purpose capabilities. Open environments are increasingly being replaced with closed systems that are designed to give users less control.
In addition to the threat from big data—which Schneier coined "the risks of Layer 8 and Layer 9 attacks"—he said Internet users are being harmed by the surge in government attempts to redesign Internet infrastructure. As more and more of the world goes online, it's a given more crime will follow, he said. As a result, laws such as the 1994 Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act—which mandated telecom companies redesign switches and other gears so law enforcement agents could tap them—are slowly being extended to Internet technologies, possibly such as Skype and Hushmail.
Another example is a push among governments in Europe to require ISPs to store logs of user activity for 12 months or longer in case the information is needed in an investigation.
"Here, we have an example of government coming in an effort they believe will make us all safer," he said. "I look at it and say it's much less safe because once you have that data you're going to have to secure it. And the securest thing you can do is to delete it. So again we're seeing people who are not Internet security people trying to push a security policy."
The third force of this outside, nontechnical threat is posed by a "cyberwar" arms race, in which countries around the planet develop weapons such as the Stuxnet worm, case each other's networks, and possibly even plant backdoors in case they're needed during a time of war.
"We're now living in a world where nations are stockpiling cyber weapons," he said. "The military industrial complex is alive and well and quite happy to spend lots of money on cyber weapons and cyberwar and cyber defense. This feels incredibly destabilizing to me. I'm not convinced these things couldn't go off by accident "
Schneier's hour-long talk barely touched on his newest book, Liars and Outliers: Enabling the Trust that Society Needs to Thrive, which was published earlier this month. He said Wednesday's talk was a preview of one he's scheduled to give next Tuesday at the RSA security conference.
By Timothy B. Lee
Two rulings this week helped to clarify the circumstances under which a defendant can be compelled to reveal the contents of an encrypted hard drive. On Wednesday, the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals let stand a judge's ruling in a Colorado case that the defendant in a mortgage fraud case could be compelled to produce the contents of her encrypted laptop. But on Thursday, the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals overturned a Florida contempt of court charge against a suspect in a child pornography case who refused to decrypt the encrypted contents of several hard drives.
While the two rulings reach opposite results, they don't necessarily contradict each other. The results turned on how much the government knew about the contents of the encrypted drives. In previous cases, the courts have held that when the government already knows of the existence of specific incriminating files, compelling a suspect to produce them does not violate the Fifth Amendment's rule against self-incrimination. On the other hand, if the government merely suspects that an encrypted hard drive contains some incriminating documents, but lacks independent evidence for the existence of specific documents, then the owner of the hard drive is entitled to invoke the Fifth Amendment.
For example, in 2006, a border guard in Vermont examined the contents of a traveler's laptop and found several files that appeared to be child pornography. But when the laptop was closed, the portion of the hard drive containing these files was automatically encrypted, and the government sought to compel the suspect to decrypt the files again. The court ruled that because a government agent had already seen specific incriminating files, compelling the suspect to produce those same files did not violate the Fifth Amendment's privilege against self-incrimination.
In the Colorado case, the police had intercepted a telephone conversation in which the defendant, Ramona Fricosu, acknowledged her ownership of the laptop and alluded to the existence of incriminating documents in the encrypted portions of the hard drive. The government successfully argued that this precluded her from claiming Fifth Amendment protection, since she had already acknowledged the existence of incriminating documents in the case. The Tenth Circuit let that decision stand on Wednesday, though it may consider the issue again later in the process.
In the Florida case, on the other hand, the government lacked any specific evidence about the contents of the encrypted hard drives. A forensic expert acknowledged it was theoretically possible that the drives, which were encrypted using TrueCrypt, could be completely empty. Hence, forcing the suspect to decrypt the drive would be forcing him to reveal whether any relevant documents exist, which would be inherently incriminating.
The government tried to get around this problem by offering the suspect, identified in the court filings only as John Doe, immunity in exchange for producing the documents. However, the immunity the government offered was extremely limited: the government promised not to use the fact that he was able to produce the documents against him, but it reserved the rights to use the contents of the documents against him.
But Doe still refused to decrypt the drives, arguing that he would still be incriminating himself if he helped produce incriminating documents.
In its Thursday ruling, the Eleventh Circuit agreed. It pointed to a 2000 Supreme Court case that arose out of the Whitewater investigation. In that case, a Bill Clinton associate named Webster Hubbell was compelled to produce incriminating documents after being granted limited immunity by the government. When the government used evidence from those documents against him, Hubbell appealed, arguing that the immunity he had been granted should have extended to the contents of the documents, not merely to the fact that he had been able to produce them.
The Supreme Court agreed, holding that the government could only compel a suspect to produce documents when it can describe those documents with "reasonable particularity." The government only knew that Hubbell was likely to have relevant tax and business records, it couldn't identify the specific documents it was seeking. And so the Supreme Court held that the government was barred from using the contents of those documents as evidence against him.
The Eleventh Circuit argued that exactly the same reasoning applies to an encrypted hard drive. When the government lacks any specific knowledge about an encrypted hard drive's contents—or, indeed, whether the encrypted drive contains any files at all—then compelling a suspect to produce incriminating documents stored on that hard drive violates the Fifth Amendment's protection against self-incrimination.
As for Fricosu, if she still refuses to decrypt the contents of her hard drive, or claims she has forgotten the hard drive's password, the judge will have the option to hold her in contempt. If he does so, this could lead to another round of appeals in which she could cite the Eleventh Circuit decision as a precedent. However, that decision may not be sufficient to save her, because the government has more specific evidence that the encrypted drive in her case contains incriminating documents.
Pro Tip: Even If Someone Has Faked A Damaging Memo About Your Organization, Don't Threaten To Sue Anyone Who 'Comments' On It
You may have heard that the Heartland Institute had some internal documents leaked recently, and noted the irony of the situation. If you don't know, Heartland is well-known in certain circles for its efforts to disprove that smoking causes any harm, as well as its efforts to deny climate change. The "think tank" also has done some telco policy issues, more or less supporting anything that involves not regulating telcos. The irony bit comes from the fact that a couple of years back, when there were some leaks of emails between scientists involved in climate change research, Heartland was one of the leading cheerleaders to push for misreading what was said in those emails to condemn climate change science.
Heartland is insisting that at least one document -- the one that's received the most attention and supposedly outlines the organization's dastardly plans -- is faked. Some observers have made compelling arguments that the document in question is, in fact, faked (and that's from someone who disagrees with Heartland Institute on the key issue of climate change).
I'm not going to comment on the leak or what's in the documents (either real or fake) because that's really not the kind of thing I care about that much. But, I will comment about one key thing Heartland said in its press release about the whole situation... where it effectively threatens to take legal action against anyone who comments on what's in the documents:
The individuals who have commented so far on these documents did not wait for Heartland to confirm or deny the authenticity of the documents. We believe their actions constitute civil and possibly criminal offenses for which we plan to pursue charges and collect payment for damages, including damages to our reputation. We ask them in particular to immediately remove these documents and all statements about them from the blogs, Web sites, and publications, and to publish retractions.Now, I don't care what you think of Heartland, climate change or anything along those lines. Whether you think it's a wonderful organization or an evil organization... one thing I would hope we could agree on is that threatening people for "commenting" on documents with legal action, even if the documents later turn out to be fake, is not a good idea. I can certainly understand the temptation to try to get people not to comment, but the threat is pretty clearly bogus. The documents -- and the leak of the documents -- even if faked or altered, are still a public interest issue, and it's hard to see how there's any law broken in commenting about what's in the documents. There may be legal issues for whoever leaked the documents, but those who are commenting on them? Sorry, that's just silly.
By CHARLES DUHIGG
Andrew Pole had just started working as a statistician for Target in 2002, when two colleagues from the marketing department stopped by his desk to ask an odd question: “If we wanted to figure out if a customer is pregnant, even if she didn’t want us to know, can you do that? ”
Pole has a master’s degree in statistics and another in economics, and has been obsessed with the intersection of data and human behavior most of his life. His parents were teachers in North Dakota, and while other kids were going to 4-H, Pole was doing algebra and writing computer programs. “The stereotype of a math nerd is true,” he told me when I spoke with him last year. “I kind of like going out and evangelizing analytics.”
As the marketers explained to Pole — and as Pole later explained to me, back when we were still speaking and before Target told him to stop — new parents are a retailer’s holy grail. Most shoppers don’t buy everything they need at one store. Instead, they buy groceries at the grocery store and toys at the toy store, and they visit Target only when they need certain items they associate with Target — cleaning supplies, say, or new socks or a six-month supply of toilet paper. But Target sells everything from milk to stuffed animals to lawn furniture to electronics, so one of the company’s primary goals is convincing customers that the only store they need is Target. But it’s a tough message to get across, even with the most ingenious ad campaigns, because once consumers’ shopping habits are ingrained, it’s incredibly difficult to change them.
There are, however, some brief periods in a person’s life when old routines fall apart and buying habits are suddenly in flux. One of those moments — the moment, really — is right around the birth of a child, when parents are exhausted and overwhelmed and their shopping patterns and brand loyalties are up for grabs. But as Target’s marketers explained to Pole, timing is everything. Because birth records are usually public, the moment a couple have a new baby, they are almost instantaneously barraged with offers and incentives and advertisements from all sorts of companies. Which means that the key is to reach them earlier, before any other retailers know a baby is on the way. Specifically, the marketers said they wanted to send specially designed ads to women in their second trimester, which is when most expectant mothers begin buying all sorts of new things, like prenatal vitamins and maternity clothing. “Can you give us a list?” the marketers asked.
“We knew that if we could identify them in their second trimester, there’s a good chance we could capture them for years,” Pole told me. “As soon as we get them buying diapers from us, they’re going to start buying everything else too. If you’re rushing through the store, looking for bottles, and you pass orange juice, you’ll grab a carton. Oh, and there’s that new DVD I want. Soon, you’ll be buying cereal and paper towels from us, and keep coming back.”
The desire to collect information on customers is not new for Target or any other large retailer, of course. For decades, Target has collected vast amounts of data on every person who regularly walks into one of its stores. Whenever possible, Target assigns each shopper a unique code — known internally as the Guest ID number — that keeps tabs on everything they buy. “If you use a credit card or a coupon, or ﬁll out a survey, or mail in a refund, or call the customer help line, or open an e-mail we’ve sent you or visit our Web site, we’ll record it and link it to your Guest ID,” Pole said. “We want to know everything we can.”
Also linked to your Guest ID is demographic information like your age, whether you are married and have kids, which part of town you live in, how long it takes you to drive to the store, your estimated salary, whether you’ve moved recently, what credit cards you carry in your wallet and what Web sites you visit. Target can buy data about your ethnicity, job history, the magazines you read, if you’ve ever declared bankruptcy or got divorced, the year you bought (or lost) your house, where you went to college, what kinds of topics you talk about online, whether you prefer certain brands of coffee, paper towels, cereal or applesauce, your political leanings, reading habits, charitable giving and the number of cars you own. (In a statement, Target declined to identify what demographic information it collects or purchases.) All that information is meaningless, however, without someone to analyze and make sense of it. That’s where Andrew Pole and the dozens of other members of Target’s Guest Marketing Analytics department come in.
Almost every major retailer, from grocery chains to investment banks to the U.S. Postal Service, has a “predictive analytics” department devoted to understanding not just consumers’ shopping habits but also their personal habits, so as to more efficiently market to them. “But Target has always been one of the smartest at this,” says Eric Siegel, a consultant and the chairman of a conference called Predictive Analytics World. “We’re living through a golden age of behavioral research. It’s amazing how much we can figure out about how people think now.”
The reason Target can snoop on our shopping habits is that, over the past two decades, the science of habit formation has become a major field of research in neurology and psychology departments at hundreds of major medical centers and universities, as well as inside extremely well financed corporate labs. “It’s like an arms race to hire statisticians nowadays,” said Andreas Weigend, the former chief scientist at Amazon.com. “Mathematicians are suddenly sexy.” As the ability to analyze data has grown more and more fine-grained, the push to understand how daily habits influence our decisions has become one of the most exciting topics in clinical research, even though most of us are hardly aware those patterns exist. One study from Duke University estimated that habits, rather than conscious decision-making, shape 45 percent of the choices we make every day, and recent discoveries have begun to change everything from the way we think about dieting to how doctors conceive treatments for anxiety, depression and addictions.
This research is also transforming our understanding of how habits function across organizations and societies. A football coach named Tony Dungy propelled one of the worst teams in the N.F.L. to the Super Bowl by focusing on how his players habitually reacted to on-field cues. Before he became Treasury secretary, Paul O’Neill overhauled a stumbling conglomerate, Alcoa, and turned it into a top performer in the Dow Jones by relentlessly attacking one habit — a specific approach to worker safety — which in turn caused a companywide transformation. The Obama campaign has hired a habit specialist as its “chief scientist” to figure out how to trigger new voting patterns among different constituencies.
Researchers have figured out how to stop people from habitually overeating and biting their nails. They can explain why some of us automatically go for a jog every morning and are more productive at work, while others oversleep and procrastinate. There is a calculus, it turns out, for mastering our subconscious urges. For companies like Target, the exhaustive rendering of our conscious and unconscious patterns into data sets and algorithms has revolutionized what they know about us and, therefore, how precisely they can sell.
Inside the brain-and-cognitive-sciences department of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology are what, to the casual observer, look like dollhouse versions of surgical theaters. There are rooms with tiny scalpels, small drills and miniature saws. Even the operating tables are petite, as if prepared for 7-year-old surgeons. Inside those shrunken O.R.’s, neurologists cut into the skulls of anesthetized rats, implanting tiny sensors that record the smallest changes in the activity of their brains.
An M.I.T. neuroscientist named Ann Graybiel told me that she and her colleagues began exploring habits more than a decade ago by putting their wired rats into a T-shaped maze with chocolate at one end. The maze was structured so that each animal was positioned behind a barrier that opened after a loud click. The first time a rat was placed in the maze, it would usually wander slowly up and down the center aisle after the barrier slid away, snifﬁng in corners and scratching at walls. It appeared to smell the chocolate but couldn’t ﬁgure out how to ﬁnd it. There was no discernible pattern in the rat’s meanderings and no indication it was working hard to find the treat.
The probes in the rats’ heads, however, told a different story. While each animal wandered through the maze, its brain was working furiously. Every time a rat sniffed the air or scratched a wall, the neurosensors inside the animal’s head exploded with activity. As the scientists repeated the experiment, again and again, the rats eventually stopped snifﬁng corners and making wrong turns and began to zip through the maze with more and more speed. And within their brains, something unexpected occurred: as each rat learned how to complete the maze more quickly, its mental activity decreased. As the path became more and more automatic — as it became a habit — the rats started thinking less and less.
This process, in which the brain converts a sequence of actions into an automatic routine, is called “chunking.” There are dozens, if not hundreds, of behavioral chunks we rely on every day. Some are simple: you automatically put toothpaste on your toothbrush before sticking it in your mouth. Some, like making the kids’ lunch, are a little more complex. Still others are so complicated that it’s remarkable to realize that a habit could have emerged at all.
Take backing your car out of the driveway. When you ﬁrst learned to drive, that act required a major dose of concentration, and for good reason: it involves peering into the rearview and side mirrors and checking for obstacles, putting your foot on the brake, moving the gearshift into reverse, removing your foot from the brake, estimating the distance between the garage and the street while keeping the wheels aligned, calculating how images in the mirrors translate into actual distances, all while applying differing amounts of pressure to the gas pedal and brake.
Now, you perform that series of actions every time you pull into the street without thinking very much. Your brain has chunked large parts of it. Left to its own devices, the brain will try to make almost any repeated behavior into a habit, because habits allow our minds to conserve effort. But conserving mental energy is tricky, because if our brains power down at the wrong moment, we might fail to notice something important, like a child riding her bike down the sidewalk or a speeding car coming down the street. So we’ve devised a clever system to determine when to let a habit take over. It’s something that happens whenever a chunk of behavior starts or ends — and it helps to explain why habits are so difficult to change once they’re formed, despite our best intentions.
To understand this a little more clearly, consider again the chocolate-seeking rats. What Graybiel and her colleagues found was that, as the ability to navigate the maze became habitual, there were two spikes in the rats’ brain activity — once at the beginning of the maze, when the rat heard the click right before the barrier slid away, and once at the end, when the rat found the chocolate. Those spikes show when the rats’ brains were fully engaged, and the dip in neural activity between the spikes showed when the habit took over. From behind the partition, the rat wasn’t sure what waited on the other side, until it heard the click, which it had come to associate with the maze. Once it heard that sound, it knew to use the “maze habit,” and its brain activity decreased. Then at the end of the routine, when the reward appeared, the brain shook itself awake again and the chocolate signaled to the rat that this particular habit was worth remembering, and the neurological pathway was carved that much deeper.
The process within our brains that creates habits is a three-step loop. First, there is a cue, a trigger that tells your brain to go into automatic mode and which habit to use. Then there is the routine, which can be physical or mental or emotional. Finally, there is a reward, which helps your brain ﬁgure out if this particular loop is worth remembering for the future. Over time, this loop — cue, routine, reward; cue, routine, reward — becomes more and more automatic. The cue and reward become neurologically intertwined until a sense of craving emerges. What’s unique about cues and rewards, however, is how subtle they can be. Neurological studies like the ones in Graybiel’s lab have revealed that some cues span just milliseconds. And rewards can range from the obvious (like the sugar rush that a morning doughnut habit provides) to the infinitesimal (like the barely noticeable — but measurable — sense of relief the brain experiences after successfully navigating the driveway). Most cues and rewards, in fact, happen so quickly and are so slight that we are hardly aware of them at all. But our neural systems notice and use them to build automatic behaviors.
Habits aren’t destiny — they can be ignored, changed or replaced. But it’s also true that once the loop is established and a habit emerges, your brain stops fully participating in decision-making. So unless you deliberately ﬁght a habit — unless you ﬁnd new cues and rewards — the old pattern will unfold automatically.
“We’ve done experiments where we trained rats to run down a maze until it was a habit, and then we extinguished the habit by changing the placement of the reward,” Graybiel told me. “Then one day, we’ll put the reward in the old place and put in the rat and, by golly, the old habit will re-emerge right away. Habits never really disappear.”
Luckily, simply understanding how habits work makes them easier to control. Take, for instance, a series of studies conducted a few years ago at Columbia University and the University of Alberta. Researchers wanted to understand how exercise habits emerge. In one project, 256 members of a health-insurance plan were invited to classes stressing the importance of exercise. Half the participants received an extra lesson on the theories of habit formation (the structure of the habit loop) and were asked to identify cues and rewards that might help them develop exercise routines.
The results were dramatic. Over the next four months, those participants who deliberately identified cues and rewards spent twice as much time exercising as their peers. Other studies have yielded similar results. According to another recent paper, if you want to start running in the morning, it’s essential that you choose a simple cue (like always putting on your sneakers before breakfast or leaving your running clothes next to your bed) and a clear reward (like a midday treat or even the sense of accomplishment that comes from ritually recording your miles in a log book). After a while, your brain will start anticipating that reward — craving the treat or the feeling of accomplishment — and there will be a measurable neurological impulse to lace up your jogging shoes each morning.
Our relationship to e-mail operates on the same principle. When a computer chimes or a smartphone vibrates with a new message, the brain starts anticipating the neurological “pleasure” (even if we don’t recognize it as such) that clicking on the e-mail and reading it provides. That expectation, if unsatisfied, can build until you find yourself moved to distraction by the thought of an e-mail sitting there unread — even if you know, rationally, it’s most likely not important. On the other hand, once you remove the cue by disabling the buzzing of your phone or the chiming of your computer, the craving is never triggered, and you’ll find, over time, that you’re able to work productively for long stretches without checking your in-box.
Some of the most ambitious habit experiments have been conducted by corporate America. To understand why executives are so entranced by this science, consider how one of the world’s largest companies, Procter & Gamble, used habit insights to turn a failing product into one of its biggest sellers. P.& G. is the corporate behemoth behind a whole range of products, from Downy fabric softener to Bounty paper towels to Duracell batteries and dozens of other household brands. In the mid-1990s, P.& G.’s executives began a secret project to create a new product that could eradicate bad smells. P.& G. spent millions developing a colorless, cheap-to-manufacture liquid that could be sprayed on a smoky blouse, stinky couch, old jacket or stained car interior and make it odorless. In order to market the product — Febreze — the company formed a team that included a former Wall Street mathematician named Drake Stimson and habit specialists, whose job was to make sure the television commercials, which they tested in Phoenix, Salt Lake City and Boise, Idaho, accentuated the product’s cues and rewards just right.
The first ad showed a woman complaining about the smoking section of a restaurant. Whenever she eats there, she says, her jacket smells like smoke. A friend tells her that if she uses Febreze, it will eliminate the odor. The cue in the ad is clear: the harsh smell of cigarette smoke. The reward: odor eliminated from clothes. The second ad featured a woman worrying about her dog, Sophie, who always sits on the couch. “Sophie will always smell like Sophie,” she says, but with Febreze, “now my furniture doesn’t have to.” The ads were put in heavy rotation. Then the marketers sat back, anticipating how they would spend their bonuses. A week passed. Then two. A month. Two months. Sales started small and got smaller. Febreze was a dud.
The panicked marketing team canvassed consumers and conducted in-depth interviews to figure out what was going wrong, Stimson recalled. Their first inkling came when they visited a woman’s home outside Phoenix. The house was clean and organized. She was something of a neat freak, the woman explained. But when P.& G.’s scientists walked into her living room, where her nine cats spent most of their time, the scent was so overpowering that one of them gagged.
According to Stimson, who led the Febreze team, a researcher asked the woman, “What do you do about the cat smell?”
“It’s usually not a problem,” she said.
“Do you smell it now?”
“No,” she said. “Isn’t it wonderful? They hardly smell at all!”
A similar scene played out in dozens of other smelly homes. The reason Febreze wasn’t selling, the marketers realized, was that people couldn’t detect most of the bad smells in their lives. If you live with nine cats, you become desensitized to their scents. If you smoke cigarettes, eventually you don’t smell smoke anymore. Even the strongest odors fade with constant exposure. That’s why Febreze was a failure. The product’s cue — the bad smells that were supposed to trigger daily use — was hidden from the people who needed it the most. And Febreze’s reward (an odorless home) was meaningless to someone who couldn’t smell offensive scents in the first place.
P.& G. employed a Harvard Business School professor to analyze Febreze’s ad campaigns. They collected hours of footage of people cleaning their homes and watched tape after tape, looking for clues that might help them connect Febreze to people’s daily habits. When that didn’t reveal anything, they went into the field and conducted more interviews. A breakthrough came when they visited a woman in a suburb near Scottsdale, Ariz., who was in her 40s with four children. Her house was clean, though not compulsively tidy, and didn’t appear to have any odor problems; there were no pets or smokers. To the surprise of everyone, she loved Febreze.
“I use it every day,” she said.
“What smells are you trying to get rid of?” a researcher asked.
“I don’t really use it for specific smells,” the woman said. “I use it for normal cleaning — a couple of sprays when I’m done in a room.”
The researchers followed her around as she tidied the house. In the bedroom, she made her bed, tightened the sheet’s corners, then sprayed the comforter with Febreze. In the living room, she vacuumed, picked up the children’s shoes, straightened the coffee table, then sprayed Febreze on the freshly cleaned carpet.
“It’s nice, you know?” she said. “Spraying feels like a little minicelebration when I’m done with a room.” At the rate she was going, the team estimated, she would empty a bottle of Febreze every two weeks.
When they got back to P.& G.’s headquarters, the researchers watched their videotapes again. Now they knew what to look for and saw their mistake in scene after scene. Cleaning has its own habit loops that already exist. In one video, when a woman walked into a dirty room (cue), she started sweeping and picking up toys (routine), then she examined the room and smiled when she was done (reward). In another, a woman scowled at her unmade bed (cue), proceeded to straighten the blankets and comforter (routine) and then sighed as she ran her hands over the freshly plumped pillows (reward). P.& G. had been trying to create a whole new habit with Febreze, but what they really needed to do was piggyback on habit loops that were already in place. The marketers needed to position Febreze as something that came at the end of the cleaning ritual, the reward, rather than as a whole new cleaning routine.
The company printed new ads showing open windows and gusts of fresh air. More perfume was added to the Febreze formula, so that instead of merely neutralizing odors, the spray had its own distinct scent. Television commercials were filmed of women, having finished their cleaning routine, using Febreze to spritz freshly made beds and just-laundered clothing. Each ad was designed to appeal to the habit loop: when you see a freshly cleaned room (cue), pull out Febreze (routine) and enjoy a smell that says you’ve done a great job (reward). When you finish making a bed (cue), spritz Febreze (routine) and breathe a sweet, contented sigh (reward). Febreze, the ads implied, was a pleasant treat, not a reminder that your home stinks.
And so Febreze, a product originally conceived as a revolutionary way to destroy odors, became an air freshener used once things are already clean. The Febreze revamp occurred in the summer of 1998. Within two months, sales doubled. A year later, the product brought in $230 million. Since then Febreze has spawned dozens of spinoffs — air fresheners, candles and laundry detergents — that now account for sales of more than $1 billion a year. Eventually, P.& G. began mentioning to customers that, in addition to smelling sweet, Febreze can actually kill bad odors. Today it’s one of the top-selling products in the world.
Andrew Pole was hired by Target to use the same kinds of insights into consumers’ habits to expand Target’s sales. His assignment was to analyze all the cue-routine-reward loops among shoppers and help the company figure out how to exploit them. Much of his department’s work was straightforward: find the customers who have children and send them catalogs that feature toys before Christmas. Look for shoppers who habitually purchase swimsuits in April and send them coupons for sunscreen in July and diet books in December. But Pole’s most important assignment was to identify those unique moments in consumers’ lives when their shopping habits become particularly flexible and the right advertisement or coupon would cause them to begin spending in new ways.
In the 1980s, a team of researchers led by a U.C.L.A. professor named Alan Andreasen undertook a study of peoples’ most mundane purchases, like soap, toothpaste, trash bags and toilet paper. They learned that most shoppers paid almost no attention to how they bought these products, that the purchases occurred habitually, without any complex decision-making. Which meant it was hard for marketers, despite their displays and coupons and product promotions, to persuade shoppers to change.
But when some customers were going through a major life event, like graduating from college or getting a new job or moving to a new town, their shopping habits became flexible in ways that were both predictable and potential gold mines for retailers. The study found that when someone marries, he or she is more likely to start buying a new type of coffee. When a couple move into a new house, they’re more apt to purchase a different kind of cereal. When they divorce, there’s an increased chance they’ll start buying different brands of beer.
Consumers going through major life events often don’t notice, or care, that their shopping habits have shifted, but retailers notice, and they care quite a bit. At those unique moments, Andreasen wrote, customers are “vulnerable to intervention by marketers.” In other words, a precisely timed advertisement, sent to a recent divorcee or new homebuyer, can change someone’s shopping patterns for years.
And among life events, none are more important than the arrival of a baby. At that moment, new parents’ habits are more flexible than at almost any other time in their adult lives. If companies can identify pregnant shoppers, they can earn millions.
The only problem is that identifying pregnant customers is harder than it sounds. Target has a baby-shower registry, and Pole started there, observing how shopping habits changed as a woman approached her due date, which women on the registry had willingly disclosed. He ran test after test, analyzing the data, and before long some useful patterns emerged. Lotions, for example. Lots of people buy lotion, but one of Pole’s colleagues noticed that women on the baby registry were buying larger quantities of unscented lotion around the beginning of their second trimester. Another analyst noted that sometime in the first 20 weeks, pregnant women loaded up on supplements like calcium, magnesium and zinc. Many shoppers purchase soap and cotton balls, but when someone suddenly starts buying lots of scent-free soap and extra-big bags of cotton balls, in addition to hand sanitizers and washcloths, it signals they could be getting close to their delivery date.
As Pole’s computers crawled through the data, he was able to identify about 25 products that, when analyzed together, allowed him to assign each shopper a “pregnancy prediction” score. More important, he could also estimate her due date to within a small window, so Target could send coupons timed to very specific stages of her pregnancy.
One Target employee I spoke to provided a hypothetical example. Take a fictional Target shopper named Jenny Ward, who is 23, lives in Atlanta and in March bought cocoa-butter lotion, a purse large enough to double as a diaper bag, zinc and magnesium supplements and a bright blue rug. There’s, say, an 87 percent chance that she’s pregnant and that her delivery date is sometime in late August. What’s more, because of the data attached to her Guest ID number, Target knows how to trigger Jenny’s habits. They know that if she receives a coupon via e-mail, it will most likely cue her to buy online. They know that if she receives an ad in the mail on Friday, she frequently uses it on a weekend trip to the store. And they know that if they reward her with a printed receipt that entitles her to a free cup of Starbucks coffee, she’ll use it when she comes back again.
In the past, that knowledge had limited value. After all, Jenny purchased only cleaning supplies at Target, and there were only so many psychological buttons the company could push. But now that she is pregnant, everything is up for grabs. In addition to triggering Jenny’s habits to buy more cleaning products, they can also start including offers for an array of products, some more obvious than others, that a woman at her stage of pregnancy might need.
Pole applied his program to every regular female shopper in Target’s national database and soon had a list of tens of thousands of women who were most likely pregnant. If they could entice those women or their husbands to visit Target and buy baby-related products, the company’s cue-routine-reward calculators could kick in and start pushing them to buy groceries, bathing suits, toys and clothing, as well. When Pole shared his list with the marketers, he said, they were ecstatic. Soon, Pole was getting invited to meetings above his paygrade. Eventually his paygrade went up.
At which point someone asked an important question: How are women going to react when they figure out how much Target knows?
“If we send someone a catalog and say, ‘Congratulations on your first child!’ and they’ve never told us they’re pregnant, that’s going to make some people uncomfortable,” Pole told me. “We are very conservative about compliance with all privacy laws. But even if you’re following the law, you can do things where people get queasy.”
About a year after Pole created his pregnancy-prediction model, a man walked into a Target outside Minneapolis and demanded to see the manager. He was clutching coupons that had been sent to his daughter, and he was angry, according to an employee who participated in the conversation.
“My daughter got this in the mail!” he said. “She’s still in high school, and you’re sending her coupons for baby clothes and cribs? Are you trying to encourage her to get pregnant?”
The manager didn’t have any idea what the man was talking about. He looked at the mailer. Sure enough, it was addressed to the man’s daughter and contained advertisements for maternity clothing, nursery furniture and pictures of smiling infants. The manager apologized and then called a few days later to apologize again.
On the phone, though, the father was somewhat abashed. “I had a talk with my daughter,” he said. “It turns out there’s been some activities in my house I haven’t been completely aware of. She’s due in August. I owe you an apology.”
When I approached Target to discuss Pole’s work, its representatives declined to speak with me. “Our mission is to make Target the preferred shopping destination for our guests by delivering outstanding value, continuous innovation and exceptional guest experience,” the company wrote in a statement. “We’ve developed a number of research tools that allow us to gain insights into trends and preferences within different demographic segments of our guest population.” When I sent Target a complete summary of my reporting, the reply was more terse: “Almost all of your statements contain inaccurate information and publishing them would be misleading to the public. We do not intend to address each statement point by point.” The company declined to identify what was inaccurate. They did add, however, that Target “is in compliance with all federal and state laws, including those related to protected health information.”
When I offered to fly to Target’s headquarters to discuss its concerns, a spokeswoman e-mailed that no one would meet me. When I flew out anyway, I was told I was on a list of prohibited visitors. “I’ve been instructed not to give you access and to ask you to leave,” said a very nice security guard named Alex.
Using data to predict a woman’s pregnancy, Target realized soon after Pole perfected his model, could be a public-relations disaster. So the question became: how could they get their advertisements into expectant mothers’ hands without making it appear they were spying on them? How do you take advantage of someone’s habits without letting them know you’re studying their lives?
Before I met Andrew Pole, before I even decided to write a book about the science of habit formation, I had another goal: I wanted to lose weight.
I had got into a bad habit of going to the cafeteria every afternoon and eating a chocolate-chip cookie, which contributed to my gaining a few pounds. Eight, to be precise. I put a Post-it note on my computer reading “NO MORE COOKIES.” But every afternoon, I managed to ignore that note, wander to the cafeteria, buy a cookie and eat it while chatting with colleagues. Tomorrow, I always promised myself, I’ll muster the willpower to resist.
Tomorrow, I ate another cookie.
When I started interviewing experts in habit formation, I concluded each interview by asking what I should do. The first step, they said, was to figure out my habit loop. The routine was simple: every afternoon, I walked to the cafeteria, bought a cookie and ate it while chatting with friends.
Next came some less obvious questions: What was the cue? Hunger? Boredom? Low blood sugar? And what was the reward? The taste of the cookie itself? The temporary distraction from my work? The chance to socialize with colleagues?
Rewards are powerful because they satisfy cravings, but we’re often not conscious of the urges driving our habits in the first place. So one day, when I felt a cookie impulse, I went outside and took a walk instead. The next day, I went to the cafeteria and bought a coffee. The next, I bought an apple and ate it while chatting with friends. You get the idea. I wanted to test different theories regarding what reward I was really craving. Was it hunger? (In which case the apple should have worked.) Was it the desire for a quick burst of energy? (If so, the coffee should suffice.) Or, as turned out to be the answer, was it that after several hours spent focused on work, I wanted to socialize, to make sure I was up to speed on office gossip, and the cookie was just a convenient excuse? When I walked to a colleague’s desk and chatted for a few minutes, it turned out, my cookie urge was gone.
All that was left was identifying the cue.
Deciphering cues is hard, however. Our lives often contain too much information to figure out what is triggering a particular behavior. Do you eat breakfast at a certain time because you’re hungry? Or because the morning news is on? Or because your kids have started eating? Experiments have shown that most cues fit into one of five categories: location, time, emotional state, other people or the immediately preceding action. So to figure out the cue for my cookie habit, I wrote down five things the moment the urge hit:
Where are you? (Sitting at my desk.)
What time is it? (3:36 p.m.)
What’s your emotional state? (Bored.)
Who else is around? (No one.)
What action preceded the urge? (Answered an e-mail.)
The next day I did the same thing. And the next. Pretty soon, the cue was clear: I always felt an urge to snack around 3:30.
Once I figured out all the parts of the loop, it seemed fairly easy to change my habit. But the psychologists and neuroscientists warned me that, for my new behavior to stick, I needed to abide by the same principle that guided Procter & Gamble in selling Febreze: To shift the routine — to socialize, rather than eat a cookie — I needed to piggyback on an existing habit. So now, every day around 3:30, I stand up, look around the newsroom for someone to talk to, spend 10 minutes gossiping, then go back to my desk. The cue and reward have stayed the same. Only the routine has shifted. It doesn’t feel like a decision, any more than the M.I.T. rats made a decision to run through the maze. It’s now a habit. I’ve lost 21 pounds since then (12 of them from changing my cookie ritual).
After Andrew Pole built his pregnancy-prediction model, after he identified thousands of female shoppers who were most likely pregnant, after someone pointed out that some of those women might be a little upset if they received an advertisement making it obvious Target was studying their reproductive status, everyone decided to slow things down.
The marketing department conducted a few tests by choosing a small, random sample of women from Pole’s list and mailing them combinations of advertisements to see how they reacted.
“We have the capacity to send every customer an ad booklet, specifically designed for them, that says, ‘Here’s everything you bought last week and a coupon for it,’ ” one Target executive told me. “We do that for grocery products all the time.” But for pregnant women, Target’s goal was selling them baby items they didn’t even know they needed yet.
“With the pregnancy products, though, we learned that some women react badly,” the executive said. “Then we started mixing in all these ads for things we knew pregnant women would never buy, so the baby ads looked random. We’d put an ad for a lawn mower next to diapers. We’d put a coupon for wineglasses next to infant clothes. That way, it looked like all the products were chosen by chance.
“And we found out that as long as a pregnant woman thinks she hasn’t been spied on, she’ll use the coupons. She just assumes that everyone else on her block got the same mailer for diapers and cribs. As long as we don’t spook her, it works.”
In other words, if Target piggybacked on existing habits — the same cues and rewards they already knew got customers to buy cleaning supplies or socks — then they could insert a new routine: buying baby products, as well. There’s a cue (“Oh, a coupon for something I need!”) a routine (“Buy! Buy! Buy!”) and a reward (“I can take that off my list”). And once the shopper is inside the store, Target will hit her with cues and rewards to entice her to purchase everything she normally buys somewhere else. As long as Target camouflaged how much it knew, as long as the habit felt familiar, the new behavior took hold.
Soon after the new ad campaign began, Target’s Mom and Baby sales exploded. The company doesn’t break out figures for specific divisions, but between 2002 — when Pole was hired — and 2010, Target’s revenues grew from $44 billion to $67 billion. In 2005, the company’s president, Gregg Steinhafel, boasted to a room of investors about the company’s “heightened focus on items and categories that appeal to specific guest segments such as mom and baby.”
Pole was promoted. He has been invited to speak at conferences. “I never expected this would become such a big deal,” he told me the last time we spoke.
A few weeks before this article went to press, I flew to Minneapolis to try and speak to Andrew Pole one last time. I hadn’t talked to him in more than a year. Back when we were still friendly, I mentioned that my wife was seven months pregnant. We shop at Target, I told him, and had given the company our address so we could start receiving coupons in the mail. As my wife’s pregnancy progressed, I noticed a subtle upswing in the number of advertisements for diapers and baby clothes arriving at our house.
Pole didn’t answer my e-mails or phone calls when I visited Minneapolis. I drove to his large home in a nice suburb, but no one answered the door. On my way back to the hotel, I stopped at a Target to pick up some deodorant, then also bought some T-shirts and a fancy hair gel. On a whim, I threw in some pacifiers, to see how the computers would react. Besides, our baby is now 9 months old. You can’t have too many pacifiers.
When I paid, I didn’t receive any sudden deals on diapers or formula, to my slight disappointment. It made sense, though: I was shopping in a city I never previously visited, at 9:45 p.m. on a weeknight, buying a random assortment of items. I was using a corporate credit card, and besides the pacifiers, hadn’t purchased any of the things that a parent needs. It was clear to Target’s computers that I was on a business trip. Pole’s prediction calculator took one look at me, ran the numbers and decided to bide its time. Back home, the offers would eventually come. As Pole told me the last time we spoke: “Just wait. We’ll be sending you coupons for things you want before you even know you want them.”