/ Tom Craver / 6 am Wed, Aug 20 2014
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  • A future dictator's guide to disrupting protests

    A future dictator's guide to disrupting protests

    Watching the small-town cops of Ferguson play GI Joe with their Army-surplus machine-guns is scary enough -- but what happens when the tech-smarts of Google trickles down to the Barney Fifes of America? Tom Craver speculates on tomorrow's dissent-suppression tactics, and offers some countermeasures.

    I was watching the Google I/O 2014 keynote video in which a couple protesters interrupted things, and that got me thinking how that probably irritated Google. I don't know if Google would -- but what might an organization with hefty technical chops do to render such disruptions ineffective?

    We have only to look to the perverse idea of 'free speech zones' to find examples of others who will likely be eager to apply any technologies that help give them more exclusive control over the flow of information. If some 'bad guys' acquire some of the tech savvy of Google, how might they go about suppressing the speech of protesters? What new technologies might protesters use to disrupt official presentations?

    Noise cancellation quickly comes to mind - capturing voices and projecting ‘anti-sound' to make a speaker or protester unintelligible if not inaudible to most their intended audience. This might work well if a protester jumps up in a public forum where the organizers control the sound system. Get a microphone up close to isolate the protester's voice, filter out other sounds, and generate the out of phase anti-speech to silence the protester. It wouldn't be perfect -- but mixed with already louder amplified speech from an official speaker, it might be sufficient. Audible disruptions would be kept brief, and no more last defiant shouts would be heard as the protester is dragged from the room.

    A related tactic that would work when a speaker's voice can't be cancelled would use delayed audio feedback to induce confusion. Hearing one's own voice with about half a second of delay will cause most speakers to pause and stutter and sound foolishly incoherent. This method may also work on groups of demonstrators trying to chant in unison, if played loud enough to be heard over their chant.

    False flag chanting is a slightly more devious technique, and can be a low tech approach to protest disruption. Protests are often only loosely controlled by their organizers, making it fairly easy for skilled provocateurs to get inside the protest group's command and control by applying the OODA method. Agents in the crowd could start chanting catchy slogans that nominally seem to match the protesters' cause -- but make the protesters who pick up the chant sound ill-informed or potentially violent.

    But suppose the protesters are too well organized to allow in agents, or arrive unexpectedly. In that case the false flag chant tactic might be applied more stealthily using ultrasound beamed sound that can only be heard in a small spot, to suggest a chant to an enthusiastic protester. The sound beaming technology could be turned on an individual speaker in combination with the half-second delay tactic. Protesters are less likely to take media coverage away from their target, if their representatives seem inexplicably incoherent, while in the background their crowd is reciting stupid or vicious chants. A politician subjected to the 'speech confusion ray' might appear senile or inarticulate to potential voters.

    Could a couple hundred smartphones held by protesters be synchronized by a clever app to create a sonic phased array, to target confusing sound at official speakers, or perhaps painful sound at riot police? The positioning and timing precision required may be beyond today's phones, but with future mobile devices optimized for the overlay of augmented reality gaming on the real world -- as Vernor Vinge portrayed in 'Rainbows End' -- an app to do these things may become practical.

    On the topic of augmented reality, Microsoft's Illumiroom technology seems applicable in this field. It measures a room to generate a 3D model, which is used to modify projected video to eliminate any distortions from projecting onto a non-flat surface. This appears to work best in dark settings and for a fairly small viewing area. To me, that sounds similar to a darkened theatre, as seen from the speaker's podium. How would an audience react to a speaker that keeps stopping to stare at distractions in the audience that no one else could see, or perhaps ducks to hide behind the podium from some threat only the speaker can see?

    If the 3D mapping portion of Illumiroom technology can be accelerated to real time, it should also be possible to project imagery onto a speaker. Subtle shadows might be projected onto the speaker's face to alter their apparent facial expression, making them appear angry or inappropriately amused. Manipulating shadows could also make a politician look very old and unappealing. More simply, graffiti might be projected onto speakers to make them look foolish. Protesters' signs might also be obscured or even modified to read as the opposite of their intent, no matter how vigorously they are waved. Potentially, a technique analogous to the anti-sound technique might be applied, to make protesters nearly vanish from the sight of their intended audience -- projected invisibility.

    So is the point of this article to educate 'the bad guys' in how much more they could be doing to suppress protest and confine free speech? Or to give protesters new ideas to torment 'the man'? Both outcomes may happen -- but more likely it is only a matter of time before technologies such as these are independently applied or invented. Perhaps take it as a challenge -- how would you detect and counter these high-tech, free speech disruption tactics?

    -Tom Craver


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    Notable Replies

    1. zikzak says:

      This is a neat idea for an article, and a good exercise in thinking about the future of power. But the actual ideas suggested are silly.

      Using a sound system to drown out a speaker isn't exactly cutting edge, and delayed or chopped up live audio would be no less disruptive to the event than blasting polka music. As for noise cancellation, it just doesn't work that way, unfortunately (or fortunately, I guess!). You need a known point where the sound waves will overlap in a predictable way, and you calibrate your "anti-sound" to that exact point. Everywhere else, your "anti-sound" is just the original sound replayed.

      Directed ultrasound is cool tech, but protest disruptions aren't exactly press conferences. You're talking about someone yelling a simple, pre-scripted slogan in the midst of a lot of noise - a little voice in their ear wouldn't even be noticeable, let alone distracting.

      And "false flag chanting", really? Protesters who infiltrate a corporate meeting didn't just wander in there following a crowd, they're not the suggestible sheep you think they are.

      As for the projection stuff, I guess never say never, right? Nothing wrong with a little speculation about what crazy tech we might invent in the future, even if it's a long shot. But "projecting shadows"? I dunno, man.

      Here are some forms that I see the future of anti-dissent technology advancing and perfecting:
      - "Mind control" tech, which leverages sophisticated and fine-grained control over media, social networks, and the flow of discourse over the internet to influence the public mind on a large scale.
      - Bio-power weapons like tazers, tear gas, LRADs, etc, which use our physical reflexes (usually the pain response) to force involuntary compliance without injuring us.

      Those things already exist - at least in rough form - so maybe yours are better. But I guess my point is that the future of power probably doesn't involve a higher-tech implementation of traditional modes of control (like censoring a speaker), but rather weird end-runs around the whole problem-space. Making it so that such disruptions just don't matter, because the meaningful social control is exerted elsewhere.

    2. Does this technology do anything to get rid of the white people? Does this technology do anything to get rid of their psychotic white supremacy issues?

      I mean ...

      "Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping."

      ... that was what I was told to do in emergencies where I had to watch from a distance. Look for the helpers.

      None of the helpers are white. The white people are agitators. The white people have guns. The white people have killed two black people. They white people have tanks. The white people are throwing bricks.

      The white people have their black people, too. They have already played all of their "we've got black friends" cards.

      I don't see cops anymore.

      I see the white people are just there making everything really really bad.

    3. Well the facial projection mapping looks like it's already been done http://www.businessinsider.com/projection-mapping-like-digital-makeup-2014-8 i'd imagine with a powerful enough projector and some NSA type computing power you could project anyone you want into a crowd (edit either onto the face of an unsuspecting person or more probably a plant whose face you've mapped to make the projection simpler) subtly enough to fool the phone cameras of anyone around especially at night (edit - perhaps a couple of projectors from different perspectives), would be easy to assert that someone was at the 'scene of the crime' in realtime, but then i start thinking about reflective makeup to mess with their games....it's an endless power battle

    4. Then the protesters should retaliate with "Yakety Sax".

    5. Actually, here's what really clever dictators will do.

      When a police shooting happens, you suspend the cop (with pay) while a long and full investigation is carried out.

      You send in a trained, ranking officer to talk with the parents and the aggrieved community. If they want to have a protest, you let them, and you also talk with the local business owners and make sure that both the protesters and the business owners know where the lines are.

      Ideally, you work with the protest leaders to have their action, on the thesis that their protest will be heard, and in fact, should be heard.

      Then you let the protest happen, staying back only to protect the businesses and safety of people outside the protest (and vice versa). If the protesters become violent despite all this work, you then have the support of both the protest leaders and the business community to come down on them, which you do, following the law.

      The investigation into the shooting takes a long time, but is legal and fair. When the results come out, they are barely news. If the results incur further protest, follow the same rules as above.

      This is the most devious tactic of all, because it makes people feel like they are being heard, and it vents their anger and energy in a way that doesn't harm the status quo.

      After all, being a dictator is hard. Why be stupid and stir up opposition unnecessarily? The best opponent is the one who has no grievance and no reason to fight you.

    Continue the discussion bbs.boingboing.net

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