Facebook may be the least of our worries

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It’s no fun being a pessimist. But the leading indicators keep suggesting life online will get a lot worse before getting better. Let’s see what we can foretell from these four recent items…

  • Facebook’s market cap plunges 19%
  • Your smart-TV is spying on you
  • Teens are online constantly
  • Phones in class impair performance

1. Facebook: schadenfreude. Last Thursday Zuckerberg dropped a theoretical $19 billion from his net worth, as investors blew off $119 billion of the company’s stock-market value — the biggest one-day drop in stock-market history. Investors were annoyed about Facebook forecasting a drop in revenue and continuing rise in expenses, not about the company’s tacky treatment of its users — although the increased expenses probably have something to do with remediating said tacky treatment. Continue reading

Internet good or bad? Yes (2)

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The Internet keeps getting busier — more people going online and spending more time once they get there. It’s also becoming a worse place to be, on almost any objective measure: mental health, privacy, safety, social cohesion, cyberwarfare, etc.

Can we love the Internet and still hate what it’s doing to us?

In two reports released in April, the Pew Research Center provides some surprising answers. The first report doesn’t bury the lead. It’s entitled “A Declining Majority of Online Adults Say the Internet Has Been Good for Society” But there’s a sharp counterpoint accompanying that finding. These respondents see good for themselves as individuals — but for society, not so much (gen-pop survey here). Continue reading

More cures for the dumb things we do with smartphones

“The largest supercomputers in the world are inside of two companies — Google and Facebook — and we’re pointing them at people’s brains, at children.” –Tristan Harris, Center for Humane Technology

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Our culture’s dominant behavioral addiction has caught the attention of two types of experts: psychologists and engineers. The psychologists have been represented in book format by, among others, Sherry Turkle (Reclaiming Conversation, 2016); Adam Alter (Irresistible, 2017); and Jean Twenge (iGen, 2017). The engineering camp has been slower off the mark and full of surprises — not the least being a backlash against addictive devices and services by some of the very guys who invented them.

Here’s a word from the turncoat technologists and four other parties determined to make your life a better place to be.

1- Early Facebook and Google Employees Form Coalition to Fight What They Built

Eating their young. The Center for Humane Technology is a big deal for several reasons. First, it’s the brainchild of a group of Silicon Valley A-list technologists from the big firms being blamed for creating the addiction epidemic in the first place. They include the inventor of Facebook’s “like” button and a number of other engineers and VCs who played key roles at Apple and Google. Tristan Harris, former Design Ethicist at Google, is the director.

  • Second, they have serious funding, incuding $7 million from advocacy group Common Sense Media, plus another $50 million in air-time from the likes of Comcast and DirecTV.
  • Third, the group is mounting a huge outreach campaign — The Truth About Tech — that will be rolled out to 55,000 public schools to raise consciousness among educators, parents and students.
  • Fourth, they’re going to Washington to lobby for legislation that aims to curtail the power of the biggest tech companies.

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The dumb things we do with smartphones

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In the previous post, we discussed ways to mitigate the potential harms of digital life. In my responses to the Pew/Elon survey questions, I took two unvarnished truths for granted.

First, unless you’re shilling for Google or Facebook, the harms stemming from digital life are no longer “potential.” Second, we’ve barely begun to think seriously about mitigating any of the harms. That’s especially the case at the personal level: behavioral addiction is up there with cyber-terrorism when it comes to a long-term fix. 

Below are some ideas mooted recently for stemming the towering tidal wave of compulsive and anti-social behaviors sweeping our society — what you might call the Smartphone Crisis. 

1 – France Moves To Ban Students From Using Cellphones In Schools

I recently interviewed an undergrad from the University of Toronto who grew up in London but was educated in the French lycée system. She says phones were nowhere to be seen in any of her classes — part of the strict French approach to education.

So it was a little surprising to read that the French Minister of Education himself decreed recently that he’s banning phones from all primary and secondary school classrooms. That’s especially surprising since France passed such a law — seven years ago. As one high-ranking teachers’ union official put it, presumably speaking of their recalcitrant students, “It is extremely difficult to get respect.

Part of the problem may be of the minister’s own making. He seems to be carving out exceptions before he even starts: “You may need a mobile phone, for example, for educational purposes, for emergency situations…” Oops. As soon as you allow that phones have any legitimate purpose in the classroom then students, vendors and campus admins will all find ingenious wedges to beat the system. Among the biggest opponents to a ban are parents worried about being out of touch with their kids for a few hours. Continue reading

How to mitigate digital harms? First, be very patient (3)

And on to the third and last main question of the Pew/Elon survey. The tough one — ok, smart guy, you got any solutions? Or to quote the original:

“Do you think there are any actions that might successfully be taken to reduce or eradicate potential harms of digital life to individuals’ well-being?”

I’m a pessimist about the harms but an optimist about solutions:

  • Yes, there are interventions that can be made in the coming years to improve the way people are affected by their use of technology.
  • No, there are not interventions that can be made to improve the way people are affected by their use of technology

So, “yes” is the answer here. And finally…

“Please elaborate on your response below about why you do or don’t think there can be actions taken to mitigate potential harms of digital life.” Continue reading

Are digital technologies bad for us? (1)

Of course they are. Just ask the phone addicts ditching the millions of colors on their hi-res screens in favor of boring old black and white.

This ploy to rescue some personal agency from the jaws of the phone monster is part of a much larger trend engulfing our tech-addled culture. Everyone’s worried. The worries are popping up everywhere — like the New York Times, which asks this week, Is the Answer to Phone Addiction a Worse Phone?

The NYT piece does a nice job of exposing the absurd lengths we’re going to in our digital lives. What’s unusual is that it takes the underlying problem for granted — “twitchy phone checking” — and goes right to a coping mechanism. These days we’ve agreed on a long list of digital evils, from homicidal texting behind the wheel to the end of online privacy. We’ve also agreed on a short list of culprits, with Facebook, Amazon and Google at the top of the list.  Continue reading

As online threats multiply, who’s the hacker now?

March was a tough month for hackers.

First we learned from WikiLeaks that the CIA has an arsenal of code designed to break into the world’s phones, cars and TVs, not to mention old-fashioned computers. Then the US authorities announced indictments in the largest hacking case on record: the breach of half a billion Yahoo accounts in 2014. Two of the men charged are Russian spies.

The Kremlin is becoming particularly adept at blending high espionage and lowdown criminal pursuits like the online theft of other people’s data. The king of that particular castle is Evgeniy Bogachev, the guy opposite with his Bengal cat and matching pyjamas. They say he’s extremely wealthy, and once had upwards of half a million computers under his command. He’s also a criminal standout for having a $3 million FBI bounty on his close cropped head. Back home in his redoubt on the Black Sea, however, Bogachev is a popular asset among intelligence operatives.
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Who wants to be safe? Online protection as a black box

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Hacking that affects individuals is very widespread. The Pew Research Center reports nearly 2/3 of online Americans have experienced some form of data theft. A total of about 50% of onliners think their personal data are less secure than five years ago (see previous post for other details).

What does “data theft” look like? Pew examined seven types, and found that only two – fraudulent credit charges and stolen tax refunds – entailed direct financial loss. The others involved some less definable harm, such as an attacker getting his hands on social security numbers or login credentials for social media accounts. We call it “compromising” the data.

This amorphous concept of “compromised data” is growing into one of the chief barriers standing in the way of advances in cybersecurity for end-users. It takes what’s already invisible and annoying (see: strong passwords), and adds a hefty dose of abstraction. Exactly when can we say a piece of data has been sufficiently “compromised” to start worrying and take action? What kind of action?

WhatsApp: how secure?

Let’s look at WhatsApp to see how a popular messaging service handles security for a billion users – and how adding security can actually lead to trouble as well as safety.

Last year WhatsApp announced deployment of end-to-end encryption (E2EE) for all messages and media crossing its systems. Their FAQ assures users that everything they send is “secured from falling into the wrong hands” – right from the sender’s device all the way to the recipient’s (hence “end-to-end”). Marketing wants to be reassuring, not to mention emphatic as to why their platform is better than competing platforms. Continue reading