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Thursday, August 07, 2014

Surveillance Will Continue Until the Paranoia Stops

Financial Review with Sinclair Noe

DOW – 75 = 16,368
SPX – 10 = 1909
NAS – 20 = 4334
10 YR YLD - .05 = 2.42%
OIL + .71 = 97.63
GOLD + 7.10 = 1314.00
SILV - .06 = 20.05

Normally, at least for the past 5 years, any dip has been seen as a buying opportunity. Lately, investors see a dip as reason to sell and ask questions later.

The Bank of England holds UK interest rates at a record low of 0.5% for another month. And the European Central Bank holds interest rates at 0.15% and announced they would keep rates low for an extended period of time. ECB President Mario Draghi warned there would be a "continued moderate and uneven recovery" in the eurozone. The annual inflation rate in the 18 countries of the eurozone was 0.4 percent in July, down from 0.5 percent in June; not quite deflation, but not headed in the right direction. Italy just announced its second consecutive quarter of negative GDP; which is the basic definition of a recession. Meanwhile, the website of the ECB has been hacked, and the hacker reportedly contacted the ECB and demanded a ransom for the stolen data.

The New York Times reported yesterday that a Russian crime ring had hacked more than a billion internet passwords, maybe more than 4 billion. It’s being called the biggest hack in history; which may or may not be accurate. Russian hackers are just a small part of the hacking world, about 2%. The major global hackers are Indonesia, China, the US, Taiwan, Turkey, and India. And while Russia may not constitute the same volume as other hackers, they make up for it in audacity; for example, the breach of the Target retail stores. And the recent tensions and sanctions between Russia and the US probably mean there will be no coordinated effort to crack down on international hacking. Of course, it might be argued that for true audacity, nobody can touch the NSA.

How dangerous is this hack? Hard to say. We still don’t know which websites were breached. We still don’t know how the hacked data will be misused. And we are being advised that the best thing to do is to change your password on various sites you use; which isn’t that difficult. There are, of course, companies that you can pay to provide cyber protection; coincidentally, these same companies are the ones that alert us to cyber problems; and I have a nagging suspicion some of them might actually create the problems in the first place. What this really does is to raise awareness that data hackers can collect almost anything, and digital security has been a weak spot in technological progress.

Perhaps braced by Moore’s Law, technology marches on; the journal Science reports that IBM researchers have developed a new computer chip they call TrueNorth.  The new chip was “designed to approximate the structure and function of the brain in silicon”, plus it is power efficient. The chip contains 5.4 billion transistors, yet draws just 70 milliwatts of power. By contrast, modern Intel processors in today’s personal computers and data centers may have 1.4 billion transistors and consume far more power, about 35 to 140 watts. The new chip weaves together all those transistors into an on-chip network of 4,096 neurosynaptic cores, producing the equivalent of 256 synapses. IBM has also tethered 16 of  these chips together in four four-by-four arrays, which collectively offer the equivalent of 16 million neurons and 4 billion synapses, showing that the design can be easily scaled up for larger implementations.

Think of the synapses as memory, and the neurons are the processor; working together they provide fairly complex pattern recognition, and what might be described as sensing capabilities. Right now, the chip is not real fast, but it can be strung together, and on a per watt basis, it really starts to fly. The low power consumption opens up a world of possible uses. This might be the chip that powers the internet of things, embedded in all sorts of devices and possibly revolutionizing mobile devices.

The big question is whether the chips can learn? Not yet, however IBM has already tested the chip’s ability to drive common artificial intelligence tasks, including recognizing images; TrueNorth was able to recognize things like people, cyclists, cars, buses, and trucks with about 80% accuracy. Keep in mind that this is a new chip, still in its early stages of development.  IBM is still investigating how to commercialize this processor and has made no commitments to either manufacture the chip itself or license the design out to others.

The problem with the idea of having even more devices than your smartphone and tablet gathering information for your convenience, of course, is the many ways all that data can be used against you. Traditionally, we think of the government as the invader of privacy, but as capabilities change, we see private corporations getting into the act. Last year the Wall Street Journal reported on new facial recognition technology; police could use an iPhone to take a photo, and then cross check the face in a criminal database; sounds good in the battle against terrorism, but the company that makes the technology wasn’t just considering sales to law enforcement, but also to the health care and financial industries. Yea, I don’t know exactly what those applications might be but I don’t think I like it.

Are health care companies going to start sensing every drop of sweat, every minute we work out, every time we puff a cigarette or sip a cocktail? Maybe we won’t even have to bother going to the doctor anymore. And what about the health insurance companies? Financial engineers believe they can pretty much put a price on anything. So what is your freedom worth? You need air, water, food, and relationships to survive. You want to go shopping, to the movies, to see friends. You have kids, romantic attachments, familial obligations. You like being able to travel, to explore, to watch TV. You need medical care. What are each of these worth? It’s a question that analysts are thinking about.

Or how about the school districts in Houston that require students to wear electronic tagging badges to improve security and increase attendance rates; the same electronic tagging badges formerly used to keep track of cattle.

The “Internet of Things” is probably the next Big Thing. How big? ABI Research estimates that over 30 billion devices will be connected to the Internet of Things by 2020; Gartner puts the number at 26 billion – not including 7.3 billion PCs, tablets, and smartphones. That’s a lot of internet-connected things, considering that there are “only” a little over 7 billion people on this planet, and many of those people are not connected to the internet, much less to electricity. And as technology increases and prices drop, in accordance with Moore’s Law, it opens up the possibility of connecting almost everything from the simple to the complex, and not only connecting, but sensing, monitoring, and controlling almost every facet of your work, home, and private life.

And then that brings us back to the hackers. How secure would all those embedded devices be in a world full of such things. You don’t need to break a code, it would be easier than ever to hack into everything you do, or think about doing. Don’t worry, I’m sure it will all work out fine, but the surveillance will continue until you stop being paranoid.

Some things never change. Bank of America is the latest big bank to work a deal with the Department of Justice. We’re still waiting for an official announcement but it looks like BofA has agreed to a $16 billion settlement for its role in the sale of toxic mortgage securities. The deal is reportedly for about $9 billion in cash and more than $7 billion in soft-dollar relief to consumers; things like loan mods or refi’s which they are supposed to be doing anyway; and this could still be a sticking point in the deal. The two sides continue to hammer out details and are still negotiating a statement of facts. For example, will BofA be forced to admit wrongdoing, and if so, will they actually describe what they did and who did it when they broke the law. Will they be able to deduct the fine from their taxes, thus sloughing off the burden onto taxpayers?

If or when the record deal goes through, Bank of America will have paid more than $50 billion in penalties and consumer relief in deals with government agencies, not including private investors, after acquiring subprime giant Countrywide and investment firm Merrill Lynch at the height of the crisis. And that raises the biggest question of all: how is it possible to cheat so many people out of so many billions without anybody actually breaking a law?

There is an interesting side case that is important to understand the BofA settlement. The bank had been low-balling the DOJ, offering to settle for maybe $3 billion, until last week, when Judge Jed Rakoff a federal judge in Manhattan ordered the bank to pay nearly $1.3 billion for selling 17,600 loans, many of which were defective. Bank of America had previously lost that case, which involved its Countrywide Financial unit, at a jury trial. Turns out, that going to trial was a very, very bad idea for BofA, and when Rakoff issued his ruling, the bank had no negotiating leverage in this case. The Department of Justice started preparing a suit to take to trial, and Bank of America returned to the negotiating table. The case before Judge Rakoff dealt with a Countrywide loan program known as the Hustle, which represented only a small fraction of the firm’s mortgage portfolio, meaning that penalties in cases dealing with larger programs could skyrocket.

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