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Category Archives: Technology

Facebook scrutiny. Why everyone, not just the governments should do it

When it comes to foreign election interference, data theft, and broken promises about safeguarding privacy it’s Facebook and not just some secret government surveillance program we have to guard against. Mark Zuckerberg has become the face of a privatized Big Brother. Ironically it’s the government that’s now trying to peel back the curtain.

As Zuck faces questions on Capitol Hill this week this week, the questions about Libra, it’s cryptocurrency product have been asked. This blockchain product “could create a whole new threat to Americans and national security,” said Carolyn Maloney, Democrat of New York. Libra’s mission, according to the Facebook White Paper, is a simple global currency and financial infrastructure that empowers billions of people.”

The blockchain on which it is based is Libra, and the unit of its currency is also a ‘libra.’ It’s backed by Lyft, Spotify, Uber, and Farfetch among its tech partners.  But others are not well known, such as Bison Trails and Xapo which is a very large crypto storage service.

Much of this –and the lack of trusted names that are part of this group –should give us reason to read behind the lines of what comes out this week. Worth reading the article on The Verge, that called it an attempt to build the ‘Bank of Facebook.’ Or more to the point, that this blockchain move is its secret weapon that will help Facebook “to create a quasi-nation state ruled by mostly corporate interests.” Reuters reports that France and Germany have pledged to block Libra in Europe. Do they know something we don’t?

 

 
 

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Chandler data center’s super annoying hum. It’s the sound of us!

Chandler, Arizona with a population of just over 25,000 is growing so fast we see apartment complexes and retirement homes sprouting like weeds in the desert. Many of us in the once sleepy bedroom community bordering Gilbert wonder why. Is it the still rural quality –including the wafts of cow farms in winter– and the low crime rate? I drive past horses and goats on my way to work each morning, which is quite a refreshing alternative to being stuck on a freeway.

I just received my copy of The Atlantic, and just after the Jeff Bezos cover story is a piece titled, “The End of Silence” by Bianca Bosker. It’s about the annoying hum of a data center that has been bothering people in the vicinity of south Chandler. As the writer puts it, “Arizona attracts data centers the way Florida attracts plastic surgeons.”

The kicker is in the conclusion, where Bosker astutely observes that the groaning of the chillers that keep the data centers running is the sound of us, constantly Googling the odd recipes and trivia, and paying our bills online. In other words, we’ve done this to ourselves. And it’s moving in next door in a very real way.

I just hope the horse ranches and the grain elevators along Germann Road won’t be lost to our darn data.

 
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Posted by on October 16, 2019 in Technology

 

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Facial recognition, a weapon?

File this under “Sigh! We knew this was coming.”

The story is breaking that protesters are being tracked down by facial recognition software in several cities. But more alarming is how in Hong Kong, which is erupting right now, police are seeking out protesters, then grabbing their phones, and attempting to use the facial recognition software on the phones to unlock their phones.

Hong Kong was a colony of Britain until 1997, but is now a ‘special administrative region’ of China.

“Oh, how neat!” some people thought, when Hong Kong announced that it has facial recognition software in the airport so that passengers could pass through immigration and security smoothly. Likewise so many now use door bell cameras (such as Nest and Hello) that have facial recognition, not realizing the vulnerabilities they could bring.

Facial recognition is a short stop from racial and social profiling. Why is it that few people seem to care?

 

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Eavesdropping is a nice way of saying ‘spying’.

It comes as no surprise that the Amazon Echo speaker is listening more closely than people think. Let’s be clear: It’s not listening in, it’s eavesdropping. The word has been around for more than 300 years! It describes the act of someone secretly “listening under the eaves” to another.

Alexa is supposed to be in ‘listening mode’ only when the speaker is addressed. Last week, however, Amazon confirmed that some of its employees did listen to recorded conversations. Employees! Not Amazon’s software. Are you comfortable with that? Some folks secretly listening in under the Artificial Intelligence eaves? Oh sure, for ‘quality and training purposes’?only. All in the interest of Big Data. The Atlantic reports that millions of people are using a smart speaker, and many have more than one close by. (Read it: Alexa, should we trust you?”)

In May last year, the speaker recorded a conversation of a husband and wife and sent it to a friend. I wrote about a related matter a few weeks back. I’ll never be comfortable with a piece of hardware sitting in a room just there to listen to me. The Bloomberg article reports that some employees at Amazon listen to 1,000 clips of recordings per shift. Like some privatized surveillance company, laughing at all the conversations going on behind closed doors. Beyond eavesdropping, it is audio voyeurism! Aren’t you troubled by that?

We were once alarmed by having too many cameras aimed at us. Now it’s listening devices. Does the convenience factor blunt people to the privacy they give up?

 

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Things I get to hear about Alexa and Google Home!

Sure, you often hear of fancy ‘life hacks’ about people who program their smart speaker to turn on a coffee maker or help with math homework. But the stories I get to hear from young people on the experimental edge of the home-based Internet-of-Things (IOT) phenomenon range from the hilarious to the unsettling.

I’ve been writing about IOT for some time now. What gets me is how quickly people appear to want to hand off simple tasks like opening one’s window blinds, or turning on an appliance

“Alexa, turn on the bedroom fan!”

And then there’s the not-so-funny side to having an app for everything. Just take a look at the recent lawsuits and missteps by tech companies.

The baby monitor story is scary. A mother discovered to her horror that the baby monitor “was slowly panning over across the room to where our bed was and stopped.” That’s just one of the ‘things” we want our smart homes connected to.

How about door locks? You can’t make this stuff up: A man wearing a Batman T-shirt was  locked out of his home in September last year when his Yale lock, combined with his Nest security system thought he was an intruder. The man was in a Batman T-shirt. The ‘smart’ doorbell identified the cartoon character and tried to be too smart for the man’s liking. Sound a lot like the command, “Open the pod bay doors, HAL” in 2001: A Space Odyssey. Poor Dave was locked out with, “I’m sorry, Dave. I’m afraid I can’t do that!”

A side note on Facebook sneaky habit. As explained at Endgadget, “Privacy International study has determined that ‘at least’ 20 out of 34 popular Android apps are transmitting sensitive information to Facebook without asking permission, including Kayak, MyFitnessPal, Skyscanner and TripAdvisor. I don’t trust Mark Zuckerberg anymore. Neither his recent statement, nor his other numerous apologies. (Check last year’s apology!)  Which is another reason why I quit FB earlier this month.

 
 

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Leaving Facebook after nearly 12 years

I have had it with Facebook. I’ve also grown weary of what goes on in the name of being ‘social’ on Facebook.

Today I decided to quit the first social media platform I joined in July 2007. I don’t intend to ‘send a message’ to the founder, or to question those who find that it serves a great purpose. It’s just that for me, the great conversations I once envisioned and enjoyed have ceased to be fulfilling. There is too much noise on the platform, and the opportunity cost is not worth it.

I had ceased to share pictures on Facebook, and cannot imagine why we who inhabit so many networks need Facebook to be a de facto album; why every image we run into –whether it’s the decoration on the foam of a latte, or a sunset, or a meme needs to be uploaded, shared, and commented on. All of this is very odd, because back in 2010, in a series of workshops I conducted on how to put social media to use in business and communication, one of the modules was how to use Facebook. Imagine that – we actually went through a moment when this was necessary. The higher purpose of these workshops was to empower people to use emerging social media platforms to benefit society. It was not to turn the channels we created there into our personal daily press releases.

To put it another way, bluntly, Facebook has become a PR and propaganda machine. This is just one of the many Facebook behaviors that have set in, and these are often at odds with real life. I find it amusing how some Facebook users have begun to mimic each other in vocabulary and behavior. (Notice how words such as ‘stoked,’ ‘adorable,’ and ‘Yay!’ most people don’t use in life fills their feeds?) 

The other unintended consequence of always having an audience is that many who demonstrate humility in real life have developed an alter ego punctuated by braggadocio and ranting, knowing there’s an audience for this. Speaking of the audience triggering a behavior, consider what happened in New Zealand last week. That someone might use a live feed to carry out a horrific mass murder says something how “we shape our tools and then the tools shape us“. (A quote often attributed to Marshall McLuhan.) Connected to this is the ‘PDA’ problem, something we who make up the older generation of social media users used to find annoying in young people – the Public Display of Affection. Enough said.

I have stopped reading the tweets of my friends, former colleagues, and classmates. I prefer instead to message them directly or call them, should the need arises. For those who are shocked that I am unaware of a trip they have taken or a certificate their cousin’s child has been awarded because it was posted on Facebook, my response is, “You know my number – call me or text me.”

It is almost embarrassing to have to say that I teach communications –ever since I got into communications 21 years ago– and be on Facebook. And so I am deleting my account.

Worth citing: Mark Zuckerberg on what people are expecting of Facebook:

“I understand that many people don’t think Facebook can or would even want to build this kind of privacy-focused platform — because frankly we don’t currently have a strong reputation for building privacy protective services…” More here…

Updated: Facebook’s Data policy in its Terms of Usage section.

You probably agreed to this – Have you read this?

 
 

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Back to the future – Viewing the original 30-year old World Wide Web!

Want to check out what the early Web looked like? This is almost like being able to tune a transistor radio to listen to an oldies station. As the Web celebrates its 30th anniversary today, there’s a way to see what Tim Berners-Lee envisioned in March 1989. Built by CERN, the organization where Berners-Lee worked, it’s possible to look at the original web pages. Here’s how they explain it:

“The WWW Project merges the techniques of information retrieval and ‘hypertext’ to make an easy but powerful global information system.”

Berners-Lee’s  philosophy was that academic information should be freely available to anyone. This recreation includes a link to another information retrieval device that has gone the way of floppy discs and library cards –the phone book (for CERN).

As for his original brainchild, you can browse through his March 1989 proposal for the Web, and marvel at the details he outlined. His boss, who looked at his proposal, famously called it ‘vague but exciting.

[Interesting how I can ‘hyperlink’ that document above from 30 years ago, because of what he made possible. Equally interesting is that while Berners-Lee put hypertext into use, a fellow named Doug Engelbart (the inventor of the mouse) explained it –as ‘hypermedia‘.]

As we peel back the curtain and see how it all began, let’s appreciate those humble beginnings, and work toward a cleaner, more responsibly hyperlinked world. Social media has made a mockery of much of his vision, and we all have a part to play in how it evolves.

 

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