Darlene Storm

DARPA cool or creepy: 'Good Stranger' to 'global brain' spying

September 07, 2011 12:54 PM EDT

Good stranger? If you walked into a hostile environment, could you project good will or detect who does not represent 'stranger danger?' DARPA's Good Stranger could save soldiers' lives, but DARPA's Global Brain may move beyond the 'Internet of things' to link your brain online so the government could monitor your mind. Could this domestic spying be constant, knowing all of your thoughts, feelings and actions?

Law enforcement from the Seattle and San Francisco Police Departments, as well as the Washington State Patrol are participating in a Pentagon research and development project called "Good Stranger." The goal is to improve communication skills and success of members of our Armed Forces in "unfamiliar, culturally diverse, and non-kinetic social interactions."

According to DARPA, role playing for Marines and Army costs $500 million per year. Yet this type of Good Stranger "street level" encounter training needs to go up from 5,000 Marines yearly to more than 50,000. Seattle PD's Critical Incident Training is a national "gold standard" in law enforcement, resulting in the use of force/citizen contact coming in at .13% compared to the average of 1% national use of force with citizens.

While it's obvious that actions speak louder than words and non-force tactics in "unfamiliar high-risk/high-consequence social environments" can save lives by defusing confrontations, here is DARPA's illustrative example of the Strategic Social Interaction Modules (SSIM) - "Good Stranger":

At the edge of Najaf in Iraq, LTC Chris Hughes knew he and his soldiers from the 101st were in trouble. Concerned the Americans were there to destroy their Mosque, an angry crowd had gathered to protect the site and prevent the Americans from passing through. To defuse the crowd's anger, Hughes ordered all weapons pointed down and directed troops to drop to one knee at the site of the Mosque. He further ordered the troops to smile at the Iraqis. The rowdy crowd, stunned by this unanticipated move, fell silent. Hughes was able to have his soldiers get up and walk away.

Iowa State University is also working on the Good Stranger Project to develop "Good Stranger" communication skills and behaviors to be used for positive outcomes without the use of force in dangerous environments. Can you spot a fake smile? VisualEmotion LLC research suggests to determine a genuine smile from a fake one, you need to look in the eyes. Like the Institute of Analytic Interviewing which helps train people to detect deception, VisualEmotion is a subcontractor in The Good Stranger research. The social interactions skills and traits are somewhat like a cross between good relations in a crisis atmosphere to excelling at Lie To Me.

(Update: ISU contacted me to say its research team was not awarded Good Stranger Project funding from DARPA, nor were the subcontractors mentioned above. ISU has now deactivated the Good Stranger Project link which was part of the proposal submission. 9/9/11) 

DARPA says its SSIM Good Stranger blends social science research and "multi-player squad size" technical solutions. "Our goal is a proof of concept that will have significantly advanced training and social simulation capabilities for future use. We expect multiple technical developments that can be implemented, independently in a wide range of possible simulation environments: Caves, Game systems, Laptops, Augmented reality." It adds that "all performers are expected to 'get out' and interact with warfighters, police officers, and other good strangers."

In a social-networked world, where the social engineer lives and dwells with the intent to destroy, how might a person "spot" these non-Good-Strangers' fibs and fakeness via texts, tweets, and comments on social media? DARPA has a way of making the far-out and freaky seem cool with a touch of creepy. What if, instead of "Good Stranger" tactics, warfighters used only their brains to tap into access of an "entirely new class of electronic system that can meet the demands" of complex and battlefield situations? According to IBM's Dr. Dharmendra Modha's presentation of "Cognitive Computing: The DARPA SyNAPSE Project," in the "tsunami of data" where the digital and physical worlds collide, "we are swimming in sensors and drowning in data." But the computers of today are merely "overgrown, highly powerful, expensive calculators" when compared to the human brain.

Systems of Neuromorphic Adaptive Plastic Scalable Electronics (SyNAPSE) is in its second phase, but The Register summed it up as "DARPA shells out $21m for IBM cat brain chip. Here, Skynet, Skynet." And it might be Skynet chilling, at least according to Surveillance in the Homeland's interview with author Elliot Cohen.

Cohen's book "Mass Surveillance and State Control: The Total Information Awareness Project," states that the point of DARPA's SyNAPSE program is to "create a global brain. The idea is to monitor virtually the whole earth, whether it's the seas, the air - and this includes humans as well as animals - in the most intimate and personal way, which would include monitoring humans' minds, their thoughts, their feelings, their actions."

Cohen told Surveillance in the Homeland that research into this "beyond 1984 vision" suggests DARPA would like to move beyond an interconnected Internet-of-things-world to a "Global Brain Initiative, which takes the concept one step further and replaces things with human beings - human beings go online. So it would be very easy, if this became mainstreamed, for government to keep constant surveillance on human beings in the most intimate ways."

That scenario seems like it would make for good fiction; I don't know about you, but even I can't summon up the paranoid mindset to swallow that one. We're only beginning to worry about cyber world attacks on hearts via pacemakers or insulin pumps that could cause death in real life and how to jam such wireless attack signals. Worry about a brain being hacked with a MITM attack for eavesdropping and domestic spying purposes? Yikes! We'll see though, maybe future folks will be all for their brains hooked to the Net so the government can "keep constant surveillance on human beings."