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a portrait of Tenochtitlan

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The year is 1518. Mexico-Tenochtitlan, once an unassuming settlement in the middle of Lake Texcoco, now a bustling metropolis. It is the capital of an empire ruling over, and receiving tribute from, more than 5 million people. Tenochtitlan is home to 200.000 farmers, artisans, merchants, soldiers, priests and aristocrats. At this time, it is one of the largest cities in the world.

Today, we call this city Ciudad de Mexico - Mexico City.

Not much is left of the old Aztec - or Mexica - capital Tenochtitlan. What did this city, raised from the lake bed by hand, look like? Using historical and archeological sources, and the expertise of many, I have tried to faithfully bring this iconic city to life.

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29 days ago
Awesome, def worth a click-thru
Bend, Oregon
26 days ago
Agreed, the graphics in the article are better than these charming hand-drawn maps :P
26 days ago
Agreed, the graphics in the article are better than these charming hand-drawn maps :P
27 days ago
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Every New Car Is a 'Privacy Nightmare,' Mozilla Researchers Conclude


Modern cars are a “privacy nightmare” that collect vast troves of personal data and demand owners allow manufacturers to share or sell highly sensitive information such as disability status, genetic information, facial templates, and even sexual activity, according to a Mozilla Foundation analysis of car company privacy policies.

The Mozilla Foundation spent 600 hours of research studying 25 privacy policies for major car brands. None of them met the Foundation’s minimum standards around security and privacy; all of them claim the right to collect huge amounts of personal data in dozens of categories from both the car and associated apps. Eighty-four percent of the brands studied share or sell personal data and “inferences” about you based on the data they collect, such as how intelligent you are, your abilities, and your interests. More than half of the companies will share your information with government or law enforcement based on a simple request, not requiring a subpoena. The vast majority of car companies, 92 percent, give drivers “little or no control over their personal data,” Mozilla also found, with the two exceptions being European-based brands Renault and Dacia, which have to comply with the GDPR privacy law.

But Mozilla Foundation holds special antipathy for Nissan, whose privacy policy it calls “probably the most mind boggling creepy, scary, sad, messed up privacy policy we have ever read” because “They come right out and say they can collect and share your sexual activity, health diagnosis data, and genetic information and other sensitive personal information for targeted marketing purposes.” Nissan also discloses that it will share and sell "Inferences drawn from any Personal Data collected to create a profile about a consumer reflecting the consumer’s preferences, characteristics, psychological trends, predispositions, behavior, attitudes, intelligence, abilities, and aptitudes" to others for targeted marketing purposes.” 

“Please people, if you care even a little about privacy, please stay as far away from Nissan's cars, apps, and connected services as you possibly can,” Mozilla warns. A Nissan spokesperson did not immediately respond to a request for comment. 

While Nissan’s privacy policy is the most dystopian, all of the companies collect masses of data about the people who drive their cars. Some also collect tons of data about the world around the car. While Nissan’s privacy policy ranks as the creepiest, Tesla scored the worst on Mozilla’s scorecard, with its malfunctioning Autopilot function and
“Full self-driving” beta program which is not actually self-driving and frequently attempts to do very dangerous things leading to analysts penalizing it for “untrustworthy AI.”

Even when car companies aren’t actively selling your data to brokers, they are vulnerable to hacks or other leaks and breaches. For example, Volkswagen and Audi, Toyota, and Mercedes-Benz have all recently suffered data leaks or breaches that affected millions of customers.

Unfortunately, if you want to purchase a privacy-focused car, you’re shit out of luck. As Mozilla’s report summarized it, “they’re all bad.” The most you can do is sign their petition, which politely asks car companies to stop data collection.

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27 days ago
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Dog autism? 37% of US dog owners buy into anti-vaccine nonsense

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The anti-vaccine rhetoric that dogged COVID-19 responses has now gone to the dogs, literally.

A little more than half of surveyed dog owners—53 percent—questioned the safety, efficacy, and/or necessity of vaccinating their beloved four-legged family members. The study, published recently in the journal Vaccine, involved a nationally representative group of 2,200 American adults, of which 42 percent (924) made up the analyzed subgroup of dog owners. Overall, the findings add to concern that the anti-vaccine sentiments that flared amid the pandemic have fanned out broadly, undermining even routine childhood vaccinations.

That concern was supported by the new study, which found that the dog owners who espoused "canine vaccine hesitancy," or CVH, were more likely to embrace misinformation and falsehoods linked to human vaccines. And those anti-vaccine beliefs were potent. Responses from the CVH dog owners suggested that 56 percent opposed mandatory vaccination against rabies, a 100 percent fatal condition.

In a particularly striking finding, the study found that 37 percent of all dog owners believed vaccines could cause their pets to develop cognitive problems, such as "canine/feline autism."

To be clear, vaccines do not cause autism. This falsehood has been thoroughly and repeatedly debunked for years; the plethora of data on vaccine safety shows absolutely no link between vaccination and autism. Further, "canine autism" (aka "canine dysfunctional behavior" on the Internet) is not a real condition. A veterinarian who was not involved with the new study confirmed to Ars that it is not an established diagnosis, though dogs can suffer behavioral and cognitive disorders unrelated to human autism.

Nevertheless, anti-vaccine bunkum has clearly metastasized to our furry companions. The lead author of the study, Matthew Motta, told Ars over email that he and his co-authors expected some vaccine hesitancy among pet owners but still found the results "pretty surprising."

“We were shocked”

Motta, a professor of Health Law, Policy, & Management at Boston University's School of Public Health, conducted the study with his sister, Gabriella Motta, a veterinarian at Glenolden Animal Hospital in Pennsylvania, and Dominik Stecula, a political scientist at Colorado State University.

The team set out to "put numbers to the anecdotal stories we'd become familiar with over the years," Motta told Ars. But, they were surprised by the findings on two levels: first, "We were shocked to uncover just how prevalent canine vaccine hesitancy is," and second, "to observe just how powerful CVH can be in explaining why some people might choose to not vaccinate their pets, and hold positions that undermine universal rabies vaccine coverage."

Motta was also taken aback by the responses related to "canine autism," which he, too, noted was not a valid diagnosis.

"On the one hand, perhaps this shouldn't be so surprising—these numbers match up fairly well with our previous research, as well as other public opinion polling, benchmarking the number of Americans who believe the same about the Measles, Mumps, and Rubella vaccine," he said. "Still, to see that so many dog owners misapply concerns about a human diagnosis to their pets was, in my view, pretty surprising."

Motta and his co-authors wrote that the findings raise worrisome questions about the health of pets who may not receive life-saving vaccinations, like those against parvovirus. It also raises concerns about the potential that rabies vaccination coverage in the US could dip below the 70 percent level needed to prevent the deadly disease from spreading to humans from dogs, which are responsible for 99 percent of human rabies cases globally. Last, they also worry about additional stress and disease risks to veterinarians and their staff.

For now, the study is just the beginning of the work to quantify and understand vaccine hesitancy among pet owners. Motta says he and his co-authors had for years seen anecdotal evidence that Americans were becoming hesitant to vaccinate their animals, but, he said, "To our knowledge, no one had made an effort to attempt to quantify this phenomenon."

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33 days ago
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Cory Doctorow: Free Markets

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If you learned your economics from Heinlein novels or the University of Chicago, you probably think that “free market” describes an economic system that is free from government interference – where all consensual transactions between two or more parties are permissible.

But if you went to the source, Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations, you’ll have found a very dif­ferent definition of a free market: Smith’s concern wasn’t freedom from governments, it was freedom from rentiers.

A rentier is someone who derives their income from “economic rents”: revenues derived from merely owning something. With a factory, you have workers who contribute labor, you have investors who build and maintain the physical plant, and you have the landlord, who siphons off some of the revenues derived from this activity because of his title to the dirt underneath the factory.

Every dollar the landlord extracts is a dollar that can’t go to the workers as wages, nor can it be rolled into the upkeep and improvement in the factory, nor can it enrich the shareholder.

One of the most powerful ways to extract rents is to have a monopoly. A ferryman who charges high prices isn’t necessarily extracting rents (because someone else can build a bridge or run a rival ferry service). But if the ferryman uses his profits to suc­cessfully lobby for a ban on bridges and competing ferry services, then he’s extracting rents, because the price his passengers pay are high because there’s no alternative.

There’s more than one way to get a monopoly, though: the ferryman can use his “monopoly rents” (the excess profits he extracts because he has no competitors) to buy out any upstart competitors. If a competitor won’t sell, the monopolist can mobilize monopoly rents to drive them out of business in other ways – by poaching all the rival’s key employees, offering high salaries paid for with excessive profits.

Or the monopolist can lower the price of a ferry ticket, to below the cost of operating the ferry service, subsidizing the fare out of his monopoly rent war chest until the competitor goes bust and sells out at pennies on the dollar – and then the price goes up again.

That’s why the technical definition of a “monopoly” isn’t simply a seller who faces no competition: instead, a “monopolist” is someone who can set prices without regard to the market. In competition law and economic theory, monopolies are about “market power,” the power to set prices – not just the number of sellers. The reason we care about sellers is because we care about the power to set prices, and the fewer sellers there are, the fewer barriers there are to setting prices.

Monopolies are self-reinforcing. While the lion’s share of monopoly rents are paid to shareholders, canny monopolists hold back some of those rents for special projects: bribing politicians (or funding ballot propositions) to secure favorable treatment, buying out new market entrants, or securing those upstarts’ doom with predatory pricing and other dirty tricks.

A rentier (one who lives off of economic rents) with a monopoly is a powerful force for shaping markets. Say the ferryman decides that round-trip passage will cost $100. Now, only merchants who expect to earn $101 at the market that day can make the crossing. That means that the shoppers either pay extra to cover the merchants’ ferry tickets, or that some of the things shoppers want are simply not available because they don’t want them badly enough to pay the premium to cover the ferryman’s vigorish.

A market is “free” if what’s for sale and how much it costs are set by the capabilities of producers and the desires of buyers. Every rent collected in the market whittles away that freedom, as choices about what to sell and what to buy disappear into the pocket of a rentier who owns things instead of making things.

2020 was a hard year, but for me, it had a bright spot: In September, I launched and executed the most successful audiobook crowdfunding cam­paign in history. I made $267,613. In the space of a month, I went from worried about my family’s finances to completely secure about our ability to pay our mortgage and taxes and add a good chunk to our retirement ac­counts. It was an extraordinary month.

But I wish I hadn’t had to do it.

If you’ve read this column before or paid atten­tion to my work over the years, you know that I’m violently allergic to “digital rights management” (DRM), the software wrappers that Big Tech puts around digital books, movies, music, and games, purportedly to prevent unauthorized copying.

If stopping unauthorized copying is DRM’s job, then I think we can all agree that it’s a dismal failure. Every DRM-restricted work available to stream or download is also available as a free, unauthorized file somewhere on the internet, the DRM having been removed by some enterprising member of the public.

But DRM serves a much more commercially important role: it allows for rent-seeking. Section 1201 of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (1998) felonizes removing or tampering with or bypassing DRM, even when no copyright infringe­ment takes place. Violating this law comes with heavy penalties: a five year prison sentence and/or a $500,000 fine (other countries, including the EU states, Canada, Australia, Japan, Mexico, etc. have their own versions of this law, thanks to the energetic arm-twisting of the US Trade Representative).

What this means is that while DRM-breaking is widely practiced by noncommercial, anonymous individuals and collectives, it is almost never undertaken by commercial firms. There is no DRM-breaking USB stick hanging in the checkout aisle at Walmart. You can’t buy a DRM-breaker at Amazon and have it delivered the next day. The phone-screen repair place on the corner won’t jailbreak your phone while they’re fixing your screen.

As a copyright proprietor – an author – this is a grim situation. If I al­low Big Tech monopolists to put their DRM on my books, then they – not I – get a permanent veto over how my books can be used: which devices can display them, and on what terms. If you have $500-worth of my books locked up in Apple or Google or Amazon’s proprietary wrapper and I have a dispute with them and leave the platform, the cost of you following me to a competitor is the $500 it will cost you to buy those books all over again.

This turns Big Tech into the ferryman, controlling access to the market­place, extracting rents. The more DRM-locked books they sell, the more leverage they have, the more rent they receive. I’m 49 years old, and if all goes according to plan, I’ve got at least another quarter century of novel-writing in me. At the rate things are going, I could easily live to see the perfect capture of publishing by a handful of tech companies, either on their own or after corporate mergers with entertainment companies (think of likely tie-ups like Apple-Disney, or Universal-Comcast-Simon-and-Schuster, or Google-Hachette).

Preventing that kind of market capture and rolling back the existing mo­nopolization is a structural project, not an individual one – something for lawmakers and regulators, not authors, to oversee. As I write these words (in the wake of a failed coup, days before the Biden inauguration, in the midst of an impeachment), there’s a few bright lights on our horizon, such as the smart money that says Biden will make Rohit Chopra the next chair of the Consumer Finance Protection Bureau. Chopra is a fearless fighter, who roiled his fellow commissioners during his years at the FTC by proposing breakups and criminal prosecutions for corporations who engage in repeated wrongdoing. His catchphrase is “FTC orders are not suggestions.”

But I’m not going to pin all my hopes on a single (potential!) Biden ap­pointment. With or without Chopra, regulators will only act to the extent that there is a live controversy over this issue – to the extent that authors are loudly resisting the rent-extraction that’s bleeding them out.

So I won’t allow DRM to be wrapped around my books, and I never have, and I make a lot of noise about this fact. Thankfully, Tor’s got my back on this and, even more thankfully, all the ebook platforms make DRM optional, even the dominant one: Amazon’s Kindle store.

When it comes to audiobooks, it’s a different story.

Amazon controls a massive swathe of the ebook market. About 40% of the ebooks sold by the Big Five (Four? Maybe, by the time you read this, depending on the Simon and Schuster/Random House merger) publishers are sold through Amazon’s store. Amazon is also a publisher, and it locks its own “self-published” authors into DRM – which, in turn, locks them into Amazon as their sole retailer.

When it comes to audiobooks, the competitive landscape is far worse. Amazon’s audiobook division, Audible, controls the vast majority of the audiobook market. In many genres, it accounts for more than 90% of sales.

Audible – like Kindle – is also a publisher. None of the “Amazon origi­nal” books and audiobooks are available to libraries (Amazon says that libraries should spend public money buy their patrons Kindle and Audible subscriptions, and subject them to the fine-grained surveillance that comes with using Amazon’s digital products).

As with the Kindle program, creators who publish their audiobooks with Amazon must submit to having those recordings wrapped in DRM and being locked for all time to Amazon’s platform.

Unlike the Kindle, this mandatory DRM policy also applies to audiobooks that Amazon doesn’t publish. No matter who foots the bill for the record­ing and engineering, no matter who holds the copyright to the text and the reading, Amazon demands that every audiobook it sells, in its monopolistic audiobook store, be wrapped in its proprietary lockware.

That’s why none of my audiobooks are available on Amazon’s Audible.

And the fact that my audiobooks aren’t available on Amazon’s Audible – with its 90% market-share – is why no publisher wants to pay for my audio rights.

Which is how I came to be running that $267,613 Kickstarter.

Tor was about to publish Attack Surface, the third volume in my multi-bestselling Little Brother series. They paid a good price for it, but when it came to the audio rights, Macmillan said if I wanted to let them have them for free, they’d make an audiobook and market it, but they weren’t in a posi­tion to pay me for an audiobook that they couldn’t sell in the most popular audiobook store. Which, you know, fair enough.

So I retained the rights. I produced my own audiobook, read by the amaz­ing Amber Benson, produced by the incredible Skyboat Media, directed by the incomparable Cassandra De Cuir, and mastered by the brilliant John Taylor Williams. I paid to produce it, so I own it, so I can do whatever I want with it, including pre-selling it on Kickstarter.

My readers liked the idea!

Not only did they pre-order 6,700+ copies of the audiobook at $15/each, they also bought the previous audiobooks in the series (the Little Brother audio came out from Random House Audio in 2008; I produced my own edition of Homeland in 2013), as well as all three ebooks.

I acted as ebook retailer for my publishers, collecting the full retail price and remitting 70% of that money to my US and UK publishers based on where the readers were located, just like Amazon would. Come the next royalty period, my publishers will remit 25%-50% (depending on the deal) of that money back to me, as my royalty.

Between ebooks, audiobooks, and some special perks, I grossed $267k; about $130k of that went straight out again to my publishers, and about 30% of that will come right back to me as a royalty. I’m calling that a success.

What happened next was something I hadn’t anticipated at all. I never trusted apps or the cloud, so whenever I buy something on the internet, I download it to my computer and then sync it to my phone. It’s clunky, but it’s better than having all that stuff happen without any control or oversight, such that a tech company could delete my media at will or lock me out of my collections. My books are mine.

I started using this stuff early on, tethering devices like the Creative Labs Nomad to my laptop with a fat-tipped USB cable and dragging files onto it while its batteries rapidly discharged.

My first iPod was a revelation. I was on a business trip in New York City and I walked into a Broadway electronics shop and bought one. I pulled out my Mac laptop and plugged it in and it began to charge and sync. By the time I reached a diner a few blocks away, it had hundreds of tracks on it and enough charge to play them through my new earbuds. I listened all the rest of that day, recharging in my hotel room that night.

Over the years, things got more complicated, and eventually standalone audio players disappeared into smartphones, and one step at a time, I acquainted myself with the extra steps to download some MP3s from the internet and play them on my phone:

* get them on my laptop,

* unzip them,

* plug in my phone,

* tell my phone to mount itself as a drive (but at the root of the filesys­tem, not in the photos directory; if I tap the wrong button, disconnect and start over),

* navigate to the Music directory,

* drag over the files,

* disconnect,

* find the third-party audiobook player (because the built-in MP3 player that came with the OS doesn’t know how to treat an MP3 as an audiobook file) and tell it to reindex its files, then

* listen.

If that process sounds cumbersome to you, it is. If it sounds unfamiliar to you, you probably get your media through Audible.

Here’s what the procedure is for Audible audiobooks:

* pay for the book,

* wait for it to download,

* start listening.

That raises two questions:

  1. Why is the process so cumbersome if you don’t use an app to deliver your digital products? and,
  2. Why doesn’t everyone just use an app to deliver their digital products?

These both have the same answer, as it turns out: rent.

Apple and Google have a duopoly over mobile operating systems. Each operates an exclusive app store for its platform. Both platforms insist that you use their proprietary payment-processing service as a condition of be­ing in the app store.

And both app stores charge a 30% commission on their payment pro­cessing.

30% is a lot.

For perspective: I am a retailer for the $20 Random House audio edition of Little Brother, and sold many thousands of copies of it in my Kickstarter. My retail cut on that audiobook is 20% – so when I sell a copy of this au­diobook for $20, I pocket $4 and send $16 to Random House (which then pays me a royalty out of the remaining $16 a few months later).

If I were to sell my books through my own app on either platform, I would have to pay either Google or Apple (two of the largest, most profitable, least-taxed companies in the history of the human race) $6 for processing the payment (remember, I have to use their payment processor). Which means that every time you bought a Little Brother audiobook from me, I’d lose $2 in the process.

Now, there’s an alternative: I can sell through the Apple Books platform (which takes a rake of 30%), or through the Play Books store (it varies but at least 30%), or through Audible (same same, plus I have to let them use DRM to lock my customer to their store until the heat death of the universe).

You may have noticed that Audible is not owned by Apple or Google: do they pay the 30% cut? Not as far as anyone can tell (the deal itself isn’t public). Apple, Google, and Amazon routinely cut sweetheart discounts on payment processing for each others’ digital services.

What if I sold the book to you on the web, then sent you some kind of app to download it? That almost works, but both companies have a habit of shutting down apps that do this, claiming some kind of terms-of-service violation. Everyone from Epic (publishers of Fortnite) to WordPress to Spotify to Basecamp have been caught up in these shenanigans.

Apple and Google are serious about keeping their 30% ferryman’s rake on everyone they row to the market. They use lawsuits to kick out noncompliant apps and DRM on their devices to keep apps out after they’ve been tossed (Google’s Android devices are better on this second front). Both companies make billions in economic rents on app purchases.

Can it really be a coincidence that both companies have also made it nearly impossible to download a file from the internet and get it to play on your phone without an app?

Unfree markets are the order of the day: not because governments intervene in them, but because they don’t. Predatory mergers have clustered publishing, payment processing, app delivery, distribution, and most other parts of the book world into industries dominated by five or fewer firms; some sectors (on­line bookselling, national book retail) are dominated by one firm. In many cases, the same firm appears in multiple places in the value chain, letting it flank the sectors it doesn’t control and squeeze them as a supplier on one side and as a customer on the other.

I sold over 20,000 ebooks and audiobooks to 6,283 Kickstarter customers. I estimate that about 10% of them had serious difficulties figuring out how to get their books onto their mobile devices. Handling tech support for more than 600 people was a lot of work, but it also paid well: recall that the Kickstarter brought in $267,613.

I’m going to do more of this kind of thing in the future – of course, who wouldn’t after an initial suc­cess like that? – but in the weeks after the Kickstarter concluded, I went from feeling like I’d discovered a secret tunnel that would get me to the market without paying off a rent-seeking ferryman, to thinking that I’d merely discovered a small hole under a fence, one that was sure to be repaired in the near future.

As I write this, Bertelsmann – Random House’s parent company, which bought Penguin in 2013 – is seeking regulatory approval to buy Simon & Schuster. Meanwhile, the Big Five publishers and Amazon are being sued for price fixing over the deal the publishers struck with Amazon over the last price-fixing lawsuit (Amazon was the aggressor then, and Apple the co-defendant).

When monopolists control the way to the market, all the other market participants have to form cartels to fight them. The reason the Big Six publishers col­luded with Apple to fix prices was that Amazon was destroying them. The reason the Big Six have turned into the Big Four is that the only way to survive the mobile duopoly and the ebook monopoly is to merge and merge and merge.

After all, when different companies collude on prices, that’s an antitrust violation. When different divisions of the same company collude, that’s just do­ing business. If you want to collude with a competitor without getting sued, you just need to buy them first.

Amazon is already one of the world’s largest publishers, and you can only buy Amazon original books on Amazon’s platforms. As cartels merge to monopoly, it’s only a matter of time until Amazon – flush with excess billions in COVID cash – starts snapping up publishers. And if they don’t (or even if they do), Apple and Google can’t be far behind in similar plans.

The Trump administration and nearly every state Attorney General in America launched serious anti-trust action against the Big Tech giants in the last days of 2020. The Biden administration says it’ll keep the heat on, and the EU is also making extremely serious noises about pro-competition rules for the tech giants.

It’s long overdue. Only time will tell if it’s too late.

Cory Doctorow is the author of Walkaway, Little Brother, and Information Doesn’t Want to Be Free (among many others); he is the co-owner of Boing Boing, a special consultant to the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a visiting professor of Computer Science at the Open University and an MIT Media Lab Research Affiliate.

All opinions expressed by commentators are solely their own and do not reflect the opinions of Locus.

This article and more like it in the March 2021 issue of Locus.

Locus Magazine, Science Fiction FantasyWhile you are here, please take a moment to support Locus with a one-time or recurring donation. We rely on reader donations to keep the magazine and site going, and would like to keep the site paywall free, but WE NEED YOUR FINANCIAL SUPPORT to continue quality coverage of the science fiction and fantasy field.

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36 days ago
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Traveling in the Climate Crisis: "Nobody Wants to Hike Through a Dead Forest"

Wildfires, flooding, algae blooms – many tourists in Europe and further afield experienced extreme conditions this summer. What might the future hold? Researchers have already begun studying what climate change might have in store for the tourism industry's future.

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42 days ago
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The Right to Not Have Your Mind Read


Jared Genser in many ways fits a certain Washington, D.C., type. He wears navy suits and keeps his hair cut short. He graduated from a top law school, joined a large firm, and made partner at 40. Eventually, he became disenchanted with big law and started his own boutique practice with offices off—where else—Dupont Circle. What distinguishes Genser from the city’s other 50-something lawyers is his unusual clientele: He represents high-value political prisoners. If you’re married to a troublesome opposition leader in a place where the rule of law is thin on the ground, one night the secret police might kick in your door, slip a hood over your spouse, and vanish into the dark. That’s when you call Genser.

Earlier this year, Genser helped obtain the release of two men who had run for president against Daniel Ortega, Nicaragua’s on-again, off-again strongman, and found themselves imprisoned for their trouble. He still remembers the early-morning call letting him know that his clients were airborne and headed for Dulles International Airport. But not every case ends in a euphoric release. Genser has represented the three most recent imprisoned winners of the Nobel Peace Prize, including the Chinese prodemocracy activist Liu Xiaobo, who died in custody at the age of 61, and Ales Bialiatski, who was just sentenced to 10 years in a grim penal colony in Belarus, where inmates receive beatings between long shifts of hard labor.

Genser’s clients face the full technological powers of the Leviathan. By the time they’ve been arrested, in many cases after a mass protest, they may have been spied on for months, if not years, by plainclothes police and networks of cameras. Their personal messages, website clicks, and purchases could already be in the hands of the state. Post-arrest, they may be tortured by agents looking to extract the sort of secrets that a prisoner stores only in the inner sanctum of their mind: future plans, the names of people who send them money, any informants they might have in government. Genser's clients have even been subject to electrocution, and recently, he has begun to worry that dictators will soon have access to another tool of interrogation: mind-reading devices that no human being can resist.

In theory, nothing about the brain’s squishy wetware prevents its internal states from being observed. “If you could measure every single neuron in the brain in real time, you could potentially decode everything that was percolating around in there,” Jack Gallant, a cognitive scientist at UC Berkeley, told me. That includes “all of your perceptions, all of your intentions, all of your motor actions, and also a bunch of stuff you’re not even consciously aware of,” he said.

Scientists have no way of measuring the individual activity of every neuron in the brain, or even a sizable fraction of them, so mind reading of the sort that Gallant described would be impossible. But there are cruder ways to get at neural data: A person could be slid into an MRI machine, for example, and have their brain’s activity imaged by a head-permeating magnetic field. Configured in a certain way, an MRI can detect minute, local shifts in oxygenated blood flow inside the skull. Because neurons that have just fired tend to need more oxygen, these shifts are a decent proxy for the brain’s activity. They give a blurry afterimage of thought.

In 2011, Gallant published a set of experiments that pushed mind-reading technology into a new era. He asked volunteers to watch hours of video clips while their head was stuck in an MRI, and then trained a neural network on a dataset that linked every moment of each video to the brain activity recorded by the machine. Afterward, he asked the volunteers to watch new videos. When Gallant’s team fed the resulting data into the AI, it was able to generate very rudimentary reconstructions of some of the new imagery.

Genser worries that the same approach—using learning algorithms to correlate neuronal activity with mental states—could be scaled up in power and eventually deployed in wearable, mind-reading caps. He imagines secret police plopping one onto a client’s head. They could then ask questions, he said, while watching a real-time feed of whatever pictures or words popped unbidden into a prisoner’s mind. “This will transform interrogations around the world,” he told me.

Genser first became concerned about this risk in 2017, when he met Rafael Yuste, a Spanish American neurobiology professor at Columbia University. Yuste, now 60, helped create the project that became President Barack Obama’s BRAIN Initiative, and has since become a prominent scientific voice arguing that advances in AI and neuroscience may require a new legal regime. He told me that he thinks of it as his second career. Shortly after he met Genser, he invited him to be a co-founder of the NeuroRights Foundation. Among its goals: a globally enshrined right to mental privacy and free will that would forbid anyone from ever using brain-imaging technology to force open a rear window onto your theater of consciousness.

I asked Gallant about the urgency of this campaign. He is well positioned to know how soon this technology could really be upon us: In addition to his pioneering image-reconstruction work, he has mentored several of the field’s younger practitioners. (His former student, Alexander Huth, runs a lab at the University of Texas at Austin that recently managed to reconstruct the rough gist of a text narrative that had been read aloud to a person in an MRI machine.) Gallant told me that the deep-learning revolution of the past 10 years has yielded greater success in decoding brain activity. The reconstructed imagery from his 2011 mind-reading study wasn’t very precise. “If you look at the pictures, it’s not random; there’s something there,” he said. More recent work, like that from a team led by Yu Takagi at Osaka University, in Japan, produced more-accurate reconstructions of mental imagery. Scientists are getting better at reading minds.

[Read: How brain scientists forgot that brains have owners]

That’s not to say that the world’s tyrants will soon be buying mind-reading kits off the shelf. The mental reconstructions that are possible right now are a far cry from the where-is-the-rebel-base scenario that Genser fears. Even if methods like the ones described above could be used in interrogations, there would be practical challenges. Takagi’s and Huth’s experiments required research subjects to spend many motionless hours inside an MRI machine to generate training data for AI models. That alone could pose problems for, say, a dictator who hoped to peer inside the head of his prisoners. If someone wanted to resist, Gallant told me, “all they would have to do is wiggle their head a little to mess up the signals.”

Companies are developing portable helmets that use small, pulsed lasers to monitor changes in the brain’s blood flow. In 2021, a start-up called Kernel debuted a model that cost just $50,000. But the spatial resolution of the brain data they capture is lower than the data you get from an MRI machine. According to Gallant, the helmets are able to gather sufficient data to tell whether a person is sleeping, or whether they’re paying attention, but not to perform image or narrative reconstruction. Overall, he told me, he shares Yuste’s belief that this technology will eventually pose new ethical concerns, but he made clear that, in his view, mind-reading caps are a long way off.

In the meantime, Genser and Yuste are working on other threats to mental privacy that aren’t quite as lurid. In recent years, the consumer market for devices that collect brain data has been growing fast; even Apple has applied for a patent on a new earbud outfitted with electrodes that could, in theory, detect brain activity. Medical devices that use this technology are of course highly regulated, but products that you can buy with a few taps on Instagram may not be.

The NeuroRights Foundation recently reviewed the user agreements of 17 neurotech companies for a report that it plans to release in September. The agreements cover headsets that record electrical activity generated by the brain to monitor sleep patterns, mental concentration, or even meditative calm. “Every one of them takes possession of all the brain data of the user,” Yuste said. To be clear, this sort of brain data could not be used to read someone’s inner thoughts; at best, it provides something more like an impressionistic image of their mental state. Marcello Ienca, a philosopher at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne, told me that even these data deserve special protections.

“In the digital world, we have been trading privacy for services almost nonstop for the last 20 years,” he said. But however mesmerized we might be by the dopamine slot machines that are our social-media feeds, our online activity is still voluntary. We can decide whether to post a given thought on Instagram, or to keep it in our minds, where it’s not accessible to the outside world, Ienca said. When it comes to brain data, we may not even know what we are sharing, and companies may be in no rush to tell us. Nor would we know where our data might end up: Yuste told me that almost all of the user agreements reviewed for the NeuroRights Foundation’s forthcoming report allowed the company to send data to third parties.

In some workplaces, sharing brain data may become a condition of employment. Chinese companies are reportedly using neuromonitoring technology to record the brain activity of high-speed-train conductors and people who execute important functions in nuclear plants, Ienca said. These devices may be recording only concentration levels and emotional states. But nothing prevents those companies—or the Chinese military, which is reportedly also monitoring cognitive focus in troops—from banking as much brain data as they can for later analysis. “If this isn’t a human-rights issue,” Yuste said, “what is a human-rights issue?”

Jennifer Blumenthal-Barby, a medical-ethics professor at the Baylor College of Medicine, isn’t quite sure that it’s a human-rights issue, or at least not a novel one. When I spoke with her, she pointed out that we already have a right to privacy under international law. Under Article 17 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights—a treaty that has been ratified by 173 countries, including the United States—“no one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy.” (Of course, dictators have routinely flouted the very treaties their countries have signed.) Many countries have also passed domestic laws that forbid various invasions of privacy. These existing treaties and laws could cover cases where a person’s mental states are read without their consent, Blumenthal-Barby said.

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Genser and Yuste disagree, and argue that without more-explicit guarantees, current human-rights law may not protect mental privacy. But Blumenthal-Barby said that such guarantees, if enacted, could be overly expansive. “We have to be able to draw a line,” she told me. “We read off people’s mental states by their behavior all the time without their consent,” by looking at facial cues or gestures or body language, and “we don’t want to include those cases.” In place of a catch-all mental-privacy right, she said that she’d be a lot more comfortable seeing laws that address specific technologies—consumer headsets, for instance—that could be used to retrieve brain data without consent.

Yuste and Genser are still focused on getting the word out about their efforts—they recently collaborated on a documentary about neurotechnology with Werner Herzog—but they have also achieved genuine legislative victories. Yuste was instrumental in the drafting of a law passed by Chile’s national legislature near the end of 2021, which enshrined several neuro rights. (Memories of Augusto Pinochet’s purges and mass internments are still fresh in Chile’s national psyche, he told me.) The NeuroRights Foundation is now working with Brazil to draft a constitutional amendment modeled on Chile’s law. Yuste said they’re also in talks with Colorado’s governor about the first such legislation at the state level in the United States.

Genser told me that it takes at least a decade to stand up a new international rights treaty, but that changes in how current treaties are interpreted could be achieved on a much shorter timeline. If Gallant is right that we won’t see anything close to a mind-reading helmet for a while, the NeuroRights Foundation may not need to rush. That’s not to say that the group’s work isn’t useful, if only to name the risks, but it’s operating in a competitive space. A great many people are currently scanning the horizon for threats from emerging technologies, especially those powered by AI. Policy makers are doing their level best to address the most pressing threats. The line between foresight and alarmism can sometimes seem blurry, like the readout from an MRI.

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