Brave New World.

amazonrecs Allegedly “inspired” by my recent browsing history—a 3 lb bag of apples that I am quite sure I never viewed (I’d buy Greenmarket apples, hello?)—Amazon has helpfully suggested the following products for me:

an 8 oz. bottle of coyote urine
1,500 live ladybugs
a $600 stage fan with wireless remote (“Great for blowing fog!”)

And now that I have actually viewed these items, OMFG I cannot wait to see what product suggestions Amazon will have for me next! How about a big rubber fish head mask? Glow-in-the-dark toilet paper? An iPhone case made out of astroturf? Ooh! Ooh! A Donald Trump board game!* The possibilities truly boggle the mind.

Another thought occurred to me, and I really have to check myself here because it sounds more than a little paranoid. See, I’m pretty sure Amazon.com employs some of the most sophisticated software available to generate product suggestions. These programs keep track of everything I’ve ever viewed and purchased from Amazon of course, and probably every other online transaction I’ve ever made and website I’ve visited, my Facebook posts and Tweets, what I ate for lunch today, plus whatever else can be hoovered up by Big Data bots. Naturally, Amazon also tracks what its other customers bought after they viewed a three pound bag of apples, and all of this information is compiled and analyzed for the purpose of generating ads for those products and services I am most likely to purchase. That’s its entire raison d’être: to extract the maximum amount of cash from the Palace treasury as efficiently as possible. And somehow, all of this data mining and number crunching has culminated in a prediction that I just might be in dire need of a $10 bottle of coyote piss.

Are you with me so far? Okay good.

The United States government presently deploys thousands of federal, state and local organizations to engage in domestic surveillance for the purpose (allegedly) of counterterrorism—although as Loyal Readers™ well know, these programs are spectacular failures in this regard, and one never needs to look very far or wait very long for even more evidence of this rather critical fact that is never, ever mentioned in media coverage. Based on what we know for certain, surveillance agencies such as NSAC use big data analysis just like Amazon does, except that instead of generating tempting ads for coyote pee, the objective (again, allegedly) is to discover terrorist suspects and so-called “clean skins.” That is,

“people with no known affiliation to terrorism or crime, needles in a giant haystack that don’t necessarily look like needles. Or people who aren’t needles at all, but who might become needles in the future and thus warrant observation today.”

In other words, the data sets and search algorithms are different, but the underlying concept of predictive software is the same. But how good is the government’s technology at identifying potential terrorists: does its software serve up better or worse results than Amazon’s coyote secretions?

The question is more than academic. Because what’s at stake here is much bigger than the potential US market for coyote urine (how do they even gather that by the way…?). It’s the likelihood that any one of us can be designated a potential terrorist threat by the state, based on data that may not even be accurate: recall that I neither searched for nor viewed (much less purchased) a bag of apples in the first place. It’s one thing to write fun blog posts about Amazon’s bizarre product suggestions, but just try arguing that the government’s data is wrong at your military tribunal.

And it’s not just the false positives that matter, it’s the misses. Mohammad Youssef Abdulazeez, a 24-year-old Jordanian national born in Kuwait who visited the Middle East last year, just shot up a military recruitment center in a Chattanooga strip mall before attacking a Naval reserve center seven miles away, killing four Marines and wounding three others. He used an AK-47 style weapon‎ and had a fuckton of ammo in 30-round magazines. Yet before the shooting, none of his activities generated surveillance alerts or investigations by law enforcement?

All of which is to say—yet again—that mass surveillance is worse than useless, at least for its purported purposes.

Hey, does anybody have any good recipes for coyote pee?

__________
*Yes, these are all actual things sold on Amazon. Our civilization is imminently doomed, FYI.

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