50 years after internet conception, dark side stirs fear
On October 29, 1969, professor Leonard Kleinrock and a team at the University of California at Los Angeles got a computer to “talk” to a machine in what is now known as Silicon Valley.
The event gave birth to a network that later became known as the internet — hailed at first as a boon to equality and enlightenment, but with a dark side that has emerged as well.
As UCLA marks the anniversary, Kleinrock is opening a new lab devoted to all things related to the internet — particularly mitigating some of its unintended consequences on the internet which is now used by some four billion people worldwide.
“To some point it democratizes everyone,” Kleinrock told AFP.
“But it is also a perfect formula for the dark side, as we have learned.”
So much is shouted online that moderate voices are drowned out and extreme viewpoints are amplified, spewing hate, misinformation and abuse, he contended.
“As engineers, we were not thinking in terms of nasty behavior,” said Kleinrock, 85.
“I totally missed the social networking side. I was thinking about people talking to computers or computers talking to computers, not people talking to people.”
The new Connection Lab will welcome research on topics including machine learning, social networking, blockchain and the internet of things, with an eye toward thwarting online evils.
Kleinrock expressed particular interest in using blockchain technology to attach reputations to people or things online to provide a gauge of who or what to trust.
For example, someone reading an online restaurant review would be able to see how reliable that author’s posts have been.
“It is a network of reputation that is constantly up to date,” Kleinrock said.
“The challenge is how to do that in an ethical and responsible fashion; anonymity is a two-edged sword, of course.”
– Businesses being bad –
He blamed many of the internet’s ills on businesses hawking things that are outdated or unneeded, violating privacy to increase profit.
Instead of clever lone hackers that vexed the internet in its early days, bad actors now include nation states, organized crime and powerful corporations “doing big, bad things,” Kleinrock lamented.
“We were not the social scientists that we should have been,” Kleinrock said of the internet’s early days.
He regretted a lack of foresight to build into the very foundation of the internet tools for better authenticating users and data files.
“It wouldn’t have avoided the dark side, but it would have ameliorated it,” he said.
He remained optimistic about the internet’s woes being solved with encryption, blockchain or other innovations.
“I do still worry. I think everyone is feeling the impact of this very dark side of the internet that has bubbled up,” Kleinrock said.
“I still feel that the benefits are far more significant; I wouldn’t turn off the internet if I could.”
– What kind of beast? –
In the early days, US telecom colossus AT&T ran the lines connecting the computers for ARPANET, a project backed with money from a research arm of the US military.
A key to getting computers to exchange data was breaking digitized information into packets fired between machines with no wasting of time, according to Kleinrock.
A grad student began typing “LOG” to log into the distant computer, which crashed after getting the “O.”
“So, the first message was ‘Lo’ as in ‘Lo and behold,'” Kleinrock recounted. “We couldn’t have a better, more succinct first message.”
Kleinrock’s team logged in on the second try, sending digital data packets between computers on the ARPANET because funding came from the US Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) established in 1958.
Credit for creating the internet is a topic of debate, since there are a series of key moments in its evolution including arrival of protocols for how data is routed, and creation of the World Wide Web system of online pages.
The name “internet” is a shortening of the “internetworking” allowed when one computer network could collaborate with another, according to Marc Weber, curatorial director at the Computer History Museum in Silicon Valley.
“The billion dollar question is, what kind of beast has the internet become?” Weber asked.
“It has become the default main way for humans to communicate, and that is not small.”
While marking its 50th anniversary, the internet as we know it is a “rowdy teenager” in the eyes of Internet Society chief technology officer Olaf Kolkman.
“The internet has done more good than harm,” Kolkman said.
“The biggest challenge we have in front of us is that while we cope with big problems enabled by global connectivity that we don’t throw the baby out with the bath water.”
The high-tech start-up tackling online extremism
London (AFP) Oct 13, 2019 -
Vidhya Ramalingam believes it’s always possible to change, even for people deeply involved in the murky online world of jihadist and far-right extremism.
Her company Moonshot CVE has the ambitious aim of trying to get anyone tempted by violence back on the straight and narrow.
Over the last four years, the London-based start-up has grown quietly but not anonymously, if a recent partnership deal with Facebook is anything to go by.
US national Ramalingam and the firm’s co-founder Ross Frenett previously worked as researchers into extremism and believe radical groups are often one step ahead when it comes to technology.
“There was a lot of recognition that terrorists were using the internet in creative ways, that they were reaching young audiences, that they were able to innovate,” she told AFP in an interview.
“Yet those of us that were trying to counter them simply were moving too slowly and had too many constraints to actually replicate those methods for counter-terrorism purposes.”
That led to the idea of a technology start-up able to keep up with and fight against all forms of violent extremism, from jihadists and neo-Nazis, to nationalists and even “incels”.
But greater visibility has forced the company to take more security measures because of the sensitive nature of its work — and the potential for violence from the people it tracks.
– Reinforced doors –
The address of Moonshot CVE’s London offices is kept secret and most of its staff have no visible online presence.
Just to get into its premises in a nondescript building in the British capital, visitors have to pass through heavy armour-plated doors and a security check.
“We take precautions,” said Ramalingam. “We work on high-risk issues and we try and put as much into the public domain as possible.”
The start-up’s name refers to the act of launching a rocket to the moon — and gives an indication of its stellar ambition. The CVE stands for countering violent extremism.
It employs 40 people working in 15 languages, including English, French and Arabic, on 76 projects in 28 countries, with clients ranging from governments to technology firms.
One project is a collaboration with the Canadian government against jihadism and the far-right. Another works with the United Nations on online Islamist content in Asia.
The company has also had a partnership for several years with Google, using online advertising to target people looking up violent extremism on the net.
The Facebook contract involves Moonshot analysing how effective the social network could be to “deradicalise” users looking up extremist content.
Moonshot is classed as a “social enterprise” in that it reinvests most of its profits into the projects it develops and technology, guaranteeing independence.
It’s known for having developed the “redirect method” of finding individuals taken in by violent extremism then trying to make them change their ways.
That involves identifying people searching for such content online, finding out as much possible how they are doing it and what ideas they are looking for, before intervening.
That can even include direct contact, using social workers or mental health specialists who work in the “real world”.
– ‘Peace activists’ –
Jihadist online networks are known for being more difficult to infiltrate, and often use hard-to-access encrypted software such as the Telegram messaging app and other platforms.
Far-right extremists and white supremacists on the other hand are often more inclined to air their views openly, which makes them easier to find, said Ramalingam.
“Obviously, if we believe someone poses an imminent threat, that’s where it’s beyond our organisation,” she added. “Only on rare occasions we’ll engage with law enforcement on this.”
Since 2015, Moonshot has gathered huge amounts of data and experience, while Ramalingam says direct messages sent to users offering help have been particularly successful.
“I’ve worked with so many individuals that were deep in these sort of groups,” she said.
“They’ve now left and turned their life around and some of them have become peace activists.
“It’s a huge transformation. To my mind change is always possible because I’ve seen it with my own eyes. You have to have an optimistic view.”
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