Remedies large and small for our Internet ills (1)

“Breaking things is easy, dealing with the effects is hard.” –Tom Wheeler, August 2018

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I had a conversation this morning with a neighbor who, like some of my best friends, is a practising lawyer. The talk turned to privacy, which is of considerable interest to people who trade in privileged information.  

I had some unkind words for Google, and suggested he try using DuckDuckGo instead of the obvious choice. I had to spell the name several times. But what about all those other ways Google gets you, he asked — including Gmail, which I’d urged him to start using a few years ago, he reminded me.

Recent figures illustrate the uphill battle even this small step entails. As of July, Google’s search engine owned over 86% of the search market in the US. DuckDuckGo sits at 0.64%, comfortably ahead of MSN and Yandex RU. Continue reading

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

Love it or leave it: why you can’t negotiate with a smartphone

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Screen addiction is a fixture of modern life. So too is the belief system that goes with it.

We assume phones have made our kids depressed, isolated and suicidal. We assume that if phones are the problem, we can make them the solution — design them to be less addictive and users will break free. Or, as we saw in the previous post, start using time-management apps and stop wasting time on all those other apps.

Something wrong with this picture? Definitely, say two opinion pieces this week.

Said the spider to the fly. In the first piece, Guardian columnist Oliver Burkeman has a provocative question:  “Can you trust Big Tech to cure you of your smartphone habit?” He has his sights on the “digital wellness” movement, whose aim is to cure our tech addiction with more tech — a subset of the larger credo that sees tech as the fix for everything. Burkeman has spotted my new favorite self-improvement app: Forest, which displays a tree on your phone when you put it down. It gradually begins to grow — oops, and dies when you pick it back up. What will they think of next?

This incrementalism doesn’t solve anything. And really, do grown adults need to see a tree dying to remind them not to waste their lives? Worse, it perpetuates the original problem, leaving you stuck right where they want you, inside the walled garden with its lush, toxic flowering devices:

“… digital wellness aims to diminish your dependency on your devices – but at the cost of increasing your dependency on the corporations behind those devices. … More generally, it seems likely to weaken your self-discipline muscle, by outsourcing the job of managing your time and attention to a third party.”

Crisis without a cause. In the second piece, we find a bigger affront to conventional wisdom. As psychology prof Tracy Dennis-Tiwary writes in the NYT, “Taking Away the Phones Won’t Solve Our Teenagers’ Problems.” Not simply because that ploy, like the anti-app apps, won’t get a parent very far — but because there’s simply no evidence that the compulsive use of smartphones actually causes mental health problems like depression (some specialists see it differently, e.g. Jean Twenge, this lit review, this current study). 

Phones may look like the problem. For kids, however, phones are a symptom, and a very effective coping mechanism for the anxiety that fills their lives:

“… if smartphone addiction is a reflection of adolescent anxiety, cutting screen time may not solve the broader problems that drive teenagers to their screens. Just blaming the machines is a cop-out, a way to avoid the much more difficult task of improving young people’s lives so they won’t need to escape.”

Hard to dispute: ignoring the underlying problems is not a strategy, any more than blaming the devices and their makers.

But here’s the dilemma. You can’t change anyone’s compulsive attachment to their phone without taking it away first. Any more than you can run group therapy while the participants are still high. 

As I’ve explained ad nauseam, I’ve concocted a classroom experience that turns a very unpopular move — taking away student phones — into an unlikely success story. I retold that story as part of a recent report issued by Pew Research in conjunction with its experts survey on the future impact of digital technologies. Unlike the report discussed in the previous post, this one is more anecdotes than analysis: Stories From Experts About the Impact of Digital Life (pdf here).

Here, in slightly under 500 words, is why I’m a big fan of taking phones away — in the right circumstances (Stories, pp. 48-49):

“Several years ago I walked into my fourth-year class and, in a fit of pique, announced I was confiscating everyone’s phone for the entire three hours. I later upped the ante by banning all digital devices in favor of pen and paper. Some unusual revelations have emerged since then – including some happy outcomes from going digital cold turkey. The students in my courses are there to learn about telecom and internet technologies. On the surface, it looks like a perfect match: hyperconnected digital natives acquiring more knowledge about digital. If only. The sad truth is they suffer from a serious behavioral addiction that makes it pretty much impossible for them to pay attention to their instructors or classmates. 

“It also turns out these self-styled digital natives don’t know anything more about digital than their elders. At the start of classes, students react with predictable shock and annoyance when I confiscate their phones. Some even drop out rather than suffer the indignity of being offline for an entire class. Yet to pretty much everyone’s surprise, redemption comes to almost everyone. Within a month, I get enthused reactions about how good it feels to be phone-deprived. Grades go up, along with the quality of class discussion. Some students report this is the first time they’ve been able to concentrate on the course material. Or it’s the only course in which they’ve learned something. That would be flattering if it weren’t such a sad indictment of the state of higher education today, where classrooms have become a wasteland of digital distraction. 

“It’s tempting to assume our hyperconnected 20-somethings are the authors of their own fate, and have only themselves to blame for not getting the best from their education. Except it’s not that simple. First, students are behaving exactly like the grownups in our tech-addled culture, ditching their moment-to-moment social responsibilities for another jab at the screen. Second, the unseemly classroom behavior is a coping strategy for many students, who have to put up with indifferent professors and a pervasive campus culture that casts them in the role of customers rather than learners. And third, they have many enablers – the instructors who see not paying attention as the new normal; the parents who can’t bear to be out of touch with their kids for even an hour; and the campus administrators who turn a blind eye because of their own obsession with new technologies as a panacea for every institutional problem. For all their initial resistance, however, depriving students of their devices for three-hour stretches has turned out to be a remarkably simple and effective solution. There’s also good research that students are less effective at learning their course material when they’re online and ignoring the instructor. Not to mention studies showing that students learn more and better using pen and paper instead of keyboards and screens.” 

D.E.

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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 time online or less? Yes (1)


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Barely six months ago, some unusual critics told Apple it was making a big mistake in its iPhone design. It was doing too good a job — and making us too fond of the world’s greatest fetish object. Unusual because the critics included two of Apple’s biggest institutional investors (Jana Partners and CALSTRS: as noted in my January 31 post).

Making phones less attractive is one of the stop-gap remedies for the millions with a case of screen addiction. Along comes Apple’s recent Worldwide Developers Conference, WWDC, and babam! — we have software adjustments in the next iteration of iOS intended to appease the critics and save us from ourselves (WWDC keynote here).

iOS 12 will have two expanded controls plus a newish feature. Do Not Disturb (DND) gets auto-timing and a Do Not Disturb During Bedtime add-on. Notifications get less annnoying with Grouping and Instant Tuning. And add the new Screen Time feature, which tells you precisely how much of your life you’re wasting on your phone and where. 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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Security fatigue: problems in password paradise

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A new survey from the Pew Research Center paints a bleak picture of how Internet users feel about their online security. The report starts with bad news about passwords, the high profile tool in the toolkit: “69% of online adults say they do not worry about how secure their online passwords are.”

How does not worrying look in real life?

Consider the findings from Keeper, a vendor of password management software. It recently tallied its annual list of the world’s favorite passwords. The top 10 list opposite, taken from an analysis of 10 million sample passwords, illustrates pretty well what end-users mean by not worrying. These passwords are so terrible that the estimated crack time for the “safest” choice on the list (#6) is about 9/1000 of a second – for the others, the effective crack time is zero seconds. This preference for easy – and insecure – passwords goes hand in hand with a set of attitudes to online security that’s not easy to fathom.

To begin with, Pew notes a tension between lack of trust in institutions and reluctance to take personal action on security:

“[While] they express skepticism about whether the businesses and institutions they interact with can adequately protect their personal information, a substantial share of the public admits that they do not always incorporate cybersecurity best practices into their own digital lives.”

Internet users are right to feel skeptical. Site operators as varied as Target, Ashley Madison and Yahoo! have shown they’re not only lousy at network security, but irresponsible in disclosure and damage control. In December, Yahoo! admitted that hackers had breached its systems and stole information from one billion accounts – and had done so three years before management got around to discussing the attack publicly.

A second and more counter-intuitive finding concerns what people do in response to suffering from an actual online attack:

“Americans who have personally experienced a major data breach are generally no more likely than average to take additional means to secure their passwords (such as using password management software).”

What explains such quick dismissal of self-interest?

Despite being a part of daily life, I think most people find passwords not just difficult but, well, weird. The better they are, the worse they are, since what makes them hard to crack also makes them hard to handle. Unlike, say, car locks and safe deposit boxes, passwords work invisibly on assets that are also invisible. Even as we type them, they dissolve into rows of inscrutable little dots. Plus they’re often stored on remote servers, i.e. in the “cloud” – the perfect metaphor for a tool you can’t see or understand.

Perhaps this abstract quality is what prompts people to manage their passwords in another kind of remote cloud: their brains. Two-thirds of onliners (65%) say memorizing their passwords is their most used strategy, while 86% use memorizing as at least one approach. The way distant second? Writing passwords on a piece of paper, the most used method for only 18% of respondents.

Software developers look at this behavior and think they can put us out of our misery by selling us password management software – 1Password, Dashlane, Keeper, etc – the tools security experts recommend most highly.

The bad news, however, is that almost nobody uses them. A mere 12% of onliners say they use these applications at least sometimes, while those who say they use a password manager most often amount to a tiny minority of 3%. Pew cautions this is not niche behavior, as password software “is used relatively rarely across a wide range of demographic groups.”

There’s a useful lesson here.

People at the selling end of the consumer tech business see code as the solution to everything. If you have trouble remembering your passwords and that makes you unsafe and you’re generally miserable about it all, then you’re gonna love our software. What’s wrong with this logic is not how good the software is or how cheap or how user-friendly. The problem is that it’s software.

This mental fatigue extends far past security. It’s only part of the fallout from how mainstream consumers are taught to behave in the digital world – to expect everything we touch to be effortless, easy and user-friendly, even when it clearly isn’t. Vendors know their customers won’t take lessons, respond to scares or read the manual so they just pretend there’s nothing to learn in the first place.

Same deal with hardware. As a tech at the Apple Genius Bar once explained to me, customers come in with broken, manhandled $1500 machines they’ve never maintained or even cleaned, and leave with their repair ready for more abuse. Imagine treating a $1500 Weber gas barbecue that way.

The only way mainstream consumers are ever going to make peace with their devices – and their passwords – is by getting to know them better. Mystification is a terrible motivator, as I can attest after a decade teaching 20-somethings how their digital world works.

Getting this particular demographic to put down their phones, their ingrained habits and their fear of exploring technology (yep, you heard that right), is hard work for all. Like most people, students have been persuaded there must be an app for that – one that will allow them to learn how a data packet crosses the Internet without any effort on their part. Or while texting. Well, there isn’t and there won’t be.

I see a wholesale change in our approach to understanding digital technology as one of the most important educational missions of the next decade. I’ll be writing more about this educational challenge in the coming weeks and months.

(The Pew survey on cybersecurity is available here.)

D.E.

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Smart objects, dumb ideas: your hyperconnected future (Pew/Elon 2016)

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We’re all going to hell in an IP-enabled handbasket.

The bland-looking control panel depicted above is the heart of a smart home – automated up the wazoo, so your fingers can play master of the universe with the lighting, audio system, appliances, heating and cooling, sprinklers, pool, spa, garage door – and your alleged security system.

Alleged because smart homes, cars and all the other items you’ll be connecting to the public automated-cat_feederInternet will offer unprecedented opportunites for hackers to infiltrate your life. Most personal devices like computers are already insecure enough. But so-called “smart” devices will be far more difficult for consumers to organize, update and secure than the familiar devices we can see and hold. (If you think any object in our lives will be spared, check out the automated cat feeder adjacent, courtesy Wikipedia.) Continue reading