posts about or somewhat related to ‘tech’

We have had a hard time thinking clearly about companies like Google and Facebook because we have never before had to deal with companies like Google and Facebook. They are something new in the world, and they don’t fit neatly into our existing legal and cultural templates. Because they operate at such unimaginable magnitude, carrying out millions of informational transactions every second, we’ve tended to think of them as vast, faceless, dispassionate computers — as information-processing machines that exist outside the realm of human intention and control. That’s a misperception, and a dangerous one.

Modern computers and computer networks enable human judgment to be automated, to be exercised on a vast scale and at a breathtaking pace. But it’s still human judgment. Algorithms are constructed by people, and they reflect the interests, biases, and flaws of their makers. As Google’s founders themselves pointed out many years ago, an information aggregator operated for commercial gain will inevitably be compromised and should always be treated with suspicion. That is certainly true of a search engine that mediates our intellectual explorations; it is even more true of a social network that mediates our personal associations and conversations.

Because algorithms impose on us the interests and biases of others, we have not only a right, but also an obligation to carefully examine and, when appropriate, judiciously regulate those algorithms. We have a right and an obligation to understand how we, and our information, are being manipulated. To ignore that responsibility, or to shirk it because it raises hard problems, is to grant a small group of people — the kind of people who carried out the Facebook and OKCupid experiments — the power to play with us at their whim.

Nicholas Carr, Los Angeles Review of Books. The Manipulators: Facebook’s Social Engineering Project.

FJP: For more on tech, media and algorithms, check our Algorithms Tag.

Too Many, Probably Way Too Many
An app that does a simple thing: tells you how often and where you check your phone. The results could be discouraging.
Via The Oracle:

A recent study released by Baylor University, published in the Journal of Behavioral Addictions, examined 24 cellphone related activities from 164 college students and found that women spend an average of 10 hours a day on their cellphones while men spend about eight. Of the activities measured, applications such as Pinterest and Instagram were significantly associated with an addiction to cellphone use. 
The idea of cellphone addiction might seem melodramatic but evidence suggests it’s real and here to stay. Fitness magazine reports a recent survey found 84 percent of the world’s population said they couldn’t go a day without using their cellphone and two thirds of teens and adults checked their phones every 15 minutes. 

Interested in the Baylor study? It’s available here (PDF).
Filed under: Things we’re not sure we want to know.
Image: Partial screenshot, CheckyApp.

Too Many, Probably Way Too Many

An app that does a simple thing: tells you how often and where you check your phone. The results could be discouraging.

Via The Oracle:

A recent study released by Baylor University, published in the Journal of Behavioral Addictions, examined 24 cellphone related activities from 164 college students and found that women spend an average of 10 hours a day on their cellphones while men spend about eight. Of the activities measured, applications such as Pinterest and Instagram were significantly associated with an addiction to cellphone use. 

The idea of cellphone addiction might seem melodramatic but evidence suggests it’s real and here to stay. Fitness magazine reports a recent survey found 84 percent of the world’s population said they couldn’t go a day without using their cellphone and two thirds of teens and adults checked their phones every 15 minutes. 

Interested in the Baylor study? It’s available here (PDF).

Filed under: Things we’re not sure we want to know.

Image: Partial screenshot, CheckyApp.

Behind-the-Scenes GoPro

For those curious about what kind of GoPro rigs athletes use. Also, The New Yorker does make videos and some of them are kinda interesting.

This.
Because Girls Who Code.
I would love it if transparency truly allayed anxiety in an informed, nonexplosive way,” Mr. Rudder told me. But in practice, he said, “it might increase anxiety.

Natasha Singer (writing in the Times) about Christian Rudder, president of OkCupid and the guy who wrote this, whose new book: Dataclysm: Who We Are (When We Think No One’s Looking) just came out.

Singer writes:

Mr. Rudder says he carefully considers the potential risks of OkCupid’s observational and product research on its members. But his dual role as the approver of company research and its chief interpreter is complicated.

“The people who are making the minimal risk decisions are the same people conducting the experiments,” he acknowledges. “It is a conflict of interest.”

Now Mr. Rudder is weighing the possibility of even greater research transparency. His book certainly urges companies to share more of their behavioral research findings with the public. But the outcry over his recent blog post suggests that many consumers are not aware of the extent to which companies already scrutinize and manipulate their online activities.

FJP: While the issues around social manipulation and the need for transparency make themselves pretty apparent, Rudder’s comment, quoted above, points to something perplexing. Maybe greater transparency about both data-gathering practices and interpretations of it (especially on networks where people have social and emotional investments) would increase our anxiety about what the data says about us. It echoes (in sentiment) something Kate Crawford wrote in The New Inquiry in May called The Anxieties of Big Data that’s also really worth reading. In it, she deconstructs the myth that more data means greater accuracy and also points this out: 

If we take these twinned anxieties — those of the surveillers and the surveilled — and push them to their natural extension, we reach an epistemological end point: on one hand, the fear that there can never be enough data, and on the other, the fear that one is standing out in the data.

More Reading: A pretty interesting long-form profile on Rudder. A fantastic essay from danah boyd on ethics and oversight in data manipulation. And, from the FJP archives, a reading list on the social, cultural and political issues/possibilities surrounding big data.

Those revelations sparked fresh fury in media circles, where retracting a story is viewed as a serious blow to one’s journalistic credibility—and to do so without notifying readers is a cardinal sin. Retracting four thousand posts without telling anyone is simply unheard of. To many in the industry, it smacks of a disregard for journalism’s basic tenets of accountability. That apparent disregard is especially galling when it comes from an upstart that is raking in VC rounds and gobbling up top journalists from established outlets that are struggling to survive.

That’s Will Oremus, Slate’s Senior Tech Writer, on the discovery that over 4,000 BuzzFeed posts mysteriously disappeared this year.

Founder/CEO Jonah Peretti confirmed that this was true, as BuzzFeed embarked on a project to take down sub-par posts earlier this year. His caveat, however, was that this was no breach of journalistic integrity as BuzzFeed began as a tech company, not a media company.

Point is, they employ journalists, produce an increasing amount of original reporting and long-form journalism, and they’re not the only media company to have tech roots or projects. And when that’s the case, it’s not a good idea to delete content from one part of your site without comprising the integrity of the other, unless you find a way to be very transparent about it.

Related: BuzzFeed’s Jonah Peretti Goes Long (on Medium with Felix Salmon).

Open Journalism on GitHub
Time to explore.
Image: Screenshot, Open Journalism Showcase on GitHub.
H/T: ONA Issues. 

Open Journalism on GitHub

Time to explore.

Image: Screenshot, Open Journalism Showcase on GitHub.

H/T: ONA Issues

Try to imagine a culture where no one has ever ‘looked up’ anything…

…In a primary oral culture, the expression ‘to look up something’ is an empty phrase: it would have no conceivable meaning. Without writing, words as such have no visual presence, even when the objects they represent are visual. There are sounds. You might ‘call’ them back – ‘recall’ them. But there is nowhere to ‘look’ for them. They have no focus and no trace.

Walter J. Ong, “Try to Imagine,” as quoted by James Gleik in The Information.

Today’s ponderable when (almost) everything is a quick search away.

Universal Converter Box
Via xkcd.

Universal Converter Box

Via xkcd.

We Are Nomads

We Are Nomads

Russian Hackers Stole a Billion Passwords. You Won’t Believe What Didn’t Happened Next

A team of hackers based in south central Russia stole over a billion passwords from sites large and small, The New York Times reported Tuesday.

The breach, conducted by a hacker group called CyberVor and discovered by a computer security firm, is the largest known to date but continues a trend of mass credential theft:

In December, 40 million credit card numbers and 70 million addresses, phone numbers and additional pieces of personal information were stolen from the retail giant Target by hackers in Eastern Europe.

And in October, federal prosecutors said an identity theft service in Vietnam managed to obtain as many as 200 million personal records, including Social Security numbers, credit card data and bank account information from Court Ventures, a company now owned by the data brokerage firm Experian.

The CyberVor hack appears impressively large (1.2 billion accounts stolen from 420,000 sites) but a number of commentators are skeptical that the breach is as extensive as the Times reports.

At Forbes, Kashmir Hill questions Hold Security, the firm the Times sourced its information to, for withholding information about what sites were hacked, and standing to benefit from the breach itself:

Panic time, right? You can’t even change your passwords to protect yourself because you don’t know which websites are affected or if they’re still vulnerable. This is the worst kind of news, spare on details and causing a panic without offering a solution. Oh wait, but there is a solution! You can pay “as low as $120″ to Hold Security monthly to find out if your site is affected by the breach [1]. Hold Security put a page up on its site about its new breach notification service around the same time the New York Times story went up.

Then there’s the issue of what CyberVor is or isn’t doing with the stolen user names and passwords.

Via Lily Hay Newman at Slate:

Strangest of all, the Times reports that the hackers are mainly just using the credentials to hack social media accounts and spam them. Which is weird, because when criminals steal valuable things, they usually try to sell them. Or if they steal things that give them access to money they take the money. So maybe the credentials aren’t that valuable on their own.

Russell Brandom at The Verge points out that CyberVor may have purchased the bulk of the credentials off the black market which, while serious, isn’t as disastrous as a full-fledged, successful botnet attack.

Still, the breach is a strong reminder of our collective vulnerability, and underscores the inadequacy of username password combinations. Increasing one’s personal digital security requires a few extra steps. While not foolproof, Newman offers some sensible recommendations:

The key is adding extra layers of protection. Using a password manager, or at least randomly generating strong passwords, eliminating duplicate passwords used on multiple accounts, and adding two-factor (or multi-factor) authentication everywhere it’s offered are all readily available steps that can help you protect yourself.

Takeaway: Digital security threats and the cybercrime that accompanies it cost the global economy somewhere in the neighborhood of $400 billion per year and affects tens of millions who have personal information stolen.

That said, articles such as this one from The New York Times oversells (1.2 billion credentials stolen!) and under-delivers (but we can’t tell you who might be at risk). With scant details on what individuals can do outside of paying its primary source for an audit, the worry is there’ll be a lot of hype with very little information to take action on.

1. Forbes clarifies that $120 is a yearly monitoring cost at $10/month.

A human author simply decides an interesting emotional path for the story, and the computer does the rest.

Margaret Sarlej, PhD candidate at University of New South Wales, to Phys.org. Computer writes its own fables.

We’ve written before about robots writing the news, now they’re writing fables.

Sarlej has written an application that takes 22 identified emotions used in fables, mixes and matches them with a plot, and pops out a written story.

Easier said than done. 

Via The Guardian:

Breaking stories down for a computer “involves not only encoding story elements like characters, events, and plot, but also the ‘common sense’ people take for granted”, said Sarlej. Telling a story is simple enough for a child to do, but stories are actually “incredibly complex”.

"For example, if Bob gives Alice an apple, Alice will have the apple, and Bob will not. To a person, that’s obvious, and doesn’t require explanation. If Bob punches Carl, people would generally assume Carl will be unhappy about it, but a computer doesn’t have the ‘common sense’ to make such an inference. In a computer programme, details like this must be explicitly spelled out," she said.

Current results are fairly rudimentary but, according to Scarlej’s supervisor, computers “will be making interesting and meaningful contributions to literature within the next decade.”

Evade Surveillance, Fashionably

Via Forbes

Clothing has historically played an important role in protecting our privacy, namely by covering up our “private parts.” But it can do even more to protect us. At hacker conference Hope X, designer Becky Stern of Adafruit gave a whirlwind tour of “disruptive wearable technology” — “disruptive” not in the Silicon Valley “oh-my-god-the-iWatch-is-coming” sense but in that it interferes with people’s attempts to invade your physical and virtual space. Instead of defending against lances and swords, this modern armor promises to thwart surveillance cameras, TSA agents, drone strikes, subway crowding, and cellular connectivity.

Read through to watch Stern’s presentation and see other clothing, makeup and accessory innovations.

Images: “The CHBL Jammer Coat is a piece of clothing that enables its user to disappear… The piece is made of metallized fabrics, which are blocking radio waves and shielding the wearer against tracking devices. You are no longer reachable on your mobile phone and no information from your credit card can be captured. The Wave Circle pattern of the fabric gives an illusion of strange multiple body parts, which hides and frees the individual physicality.” Via COOP HIMMELB(L)AU.

Hack the News, Playing With Words Edition
Disrupt to Bullshit replaces various versions of the word ‘disrupt’ with various versions of the word ‘bullshit,’ in all websites.
Bonus: “It is inspired by the plugins Cloud To Butt and Cloud To Butt Plus.”
Double Bonus: Available as a Chrome Extension and Firefox Add-On
Triple Bonus: You can review the code on GitHub
H/T: Evgeny Morozov

Hack the News, Playing With Words Edition

Disrupt to Bullshit replaces various versions of the word ‘disrupt’ with various versions of the word ‘bullshit,’ in all websites.

Bonus: “It is inspired by the plugins Cloud To Butt and Cloud To Butt Plus.”

Double Bonus: Available as a Chrome Extension and Firefox Add-On

Triple Bonus: You can review the code on GitHub

H/T: Evgeny Morozov