Technologically grim tales

What a way to end 2019.

The most dangerous people on the internet this decadeWired
In some cases these figures represent dangers not so much to public safety, but to the status quo. We’ve also highlighted actual despots, terrorists, and saboteurs who pose a serious threat to lives around the world. As the decade comes to a close, here’s our list of the people we believe best characterize the dangers that emerged from the online world in the last 10 years—many of whom show no signs of becoming any less dangerous in the decade to come.

It’s not just the people that are alarming, it’s the technology too, and what can be done with it, like this investigation into the smartphone tracking industry. (I didn’t even realise there was such an industry.)

technologically-grim-tales

Twelve million phones, one dataset, zero privacyThe New York Times
Every minute of every day, everywhere on the planet, dozens of companies — largely unregulated, little scrutinized — are logging the movements of tens of millions of people with mobile phones and storing the information in gigantic data files. The Times Privacy Project obtained one such file, by far the largest and most sensitive ever to be reviewed by journalists. It holds more than 50 billion location pings from the phones of more than 12 million Americans as they moved through several major cities, including Washington, New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles.

Each piece of information in this file represents the precise location of a single smartphone over a period of several months in 2016 and 2017.

But perhaps there’s some room for optimism? Here’s the New York Times again, gazing into their crystal ball.

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No more phones and other tech predictions for the next decadeThe New York Times
There has been a lot of gnashing and wailing about screen addiction, “sharenting” and the myriad other negative effects of all the devices we have come to rely on. (I am guilty as charged.) These gadgets have been designed to hook you, not unlike sugar or cigarettes or gambling or opiates. The well known techie Tristan Harris calls it “human downgrading” — and he’s right. But there is yet another opportunity here to push for design ethics, a movement that I think will gain traction as we all assess what our dives into digital have done to humanity. While our tech devices have, on the whole, been good for most people, there is a true business opportunity in making them work more efficiently and without a reliance on addiction. Whether we move toward more intuitively created tech that surrounds us or that incorporates into our bodies (yes, that’s coming), I am going to predict that carrying around a device in our hand and staring at it will be a thing of the past by 2030. And like the electrical grid we rely on daily, most tech will become invisible.

I love the sentiment, but remain very doubtful.

Happy New Decade

Happy New Year, and all that. At last, we’re in a decade with a normal name.

decades

Decadesxkcd

2020 is such a futuristic-sounding year.

It’s 2020 and you’re in the futureWait But Why
It’s also weird that to us, the 2020s sounds like such a rad futuristic decade—and that’s how the 1920s seemed to people 100 years ago today. They were all used to the 19-teens, and suddenly they were like, “whoa cool we’re in the twenties!” Then they got upset thinking about how much farther along in life their 1910 self thought they’d be by 1920.

To give us a sense of the decade we’ve just left behind, here, via Kottke, is a list of all the best ‘best of’ lists, if that makes sense.

Lists: Best of the 2010s decade
This page, compiled by @fimoculous, aggregates all of the lists related to 2010s decade.

As well as what you’d expect to find (34 lists in the Books category, and 120 lists in the Film category), there are a few more interesting ones.

Here’s an extra one to add to the list, before our futuristic hubris catches up with us.

From Glass to Fire Phone, these were the decade’s top tech flopsWired UK
Facebook Portal: In 2018, though, a scandal-infected Facebook was attempting to put out fire after fire – the Cambridge Analytica breach, Russian troll ads, the UN’s report on its role in Myanmar. With Facebook the absolute worst word in privacy and trust, no-one wanted a Facebook camera and microphone in their homes, especially one which the company admitted would track call data in order to serve ads to users.

Hiding behind cuteness

Earlier, I shared an article about the cute infantilization of corporate logos. It seems there’s a corresponding drift towards patronising, cartoony blandness in illustration too.

Don’t worry, these gangly-armed cartoons are here to protect you from big techEye on Design
How do the cheerful, Mastisse-like illustrations that fill up the corners of any given Facebook page temper the expectations of people using these platforms? Their palpable joy is friendly, approachable, inviting, even—all of which translates to trustworthiness. Facebook has of course, proven to be one of the most untrustworthy public-facing companies in the world, repeatedly spying on users and leaking private data with impunity. Between the Cambridge Analytica scandal and other outrageous mishandlings like Facebook’s role in inciting genocidal violence in Burma, the company’s public persona is now more than ever in need of a face-lift. As a quasi-monopoly, Facebook seems to never pay for its sins in terms of usership decline—we’re all still there, staring at pages that have become cuter and bubblier as the company they represent grows more and more powerful.

hiding-behind-cuteness-1

Quitting your pocket slot machine

Political misinformation, privacy screw-ups , harmful and manipulative content — let’s just switch it off.

The case for deleting your social media accounts & doing valuable “deep work” instead, according to Prof. Cal NewportOpen Culture
As for the claim that we should join him in the wilderness of the real—his argument is persuasive. Social media, says Newport, is not a “fundamental technology.” It is akin to the slot machine, an “entertainment machine,” with an insidious added dimension—the soul stealing. Paraphrasing tech guru and iconoclast Jaron Lanier, Newport says, “these companies offer you shiny treats in exchange for minutes of your attention and bytes of your personal data, which can then be packaged up and sold.” But like the slot machine, the social media network is a “somewhat unsavory source of entertainment” given the express intent of its engineers to make their product “as addictive as possible,” comparable to what dietitians now call “ultra-processed foods”—all sugar and fat, no nutrients.

It’s from three years ago now, but doesn’t get any less relevant.

Quit social media | Dr. Cal NewportYouTube
‘Deep work’ will make you better at what you do. You will achieve more in less time. And feel the sense of true fulfillment that comes from the mastery of a skill.

A life in print

Last year, Facebook gave us the option to download all our data. Katie Day Good, an avid Facebook user since the early days, took them up on the offer and, perhaps because of her former interest in scrapbooking, decided to print it all out…

Why I printed my Facebook
Other files were less amusing. “Advertisers Who Uploaded a Contact List With Your Information” was a 116-page roster of companies, most of which I had never heard of, that have used my data to try to sell me things. The document called “Facial Recognition Code” was disturbingly brief and indecipherable, translating my face into a solid block of jumbled text—a code that only Facebook’s proprietary technology can unlock—about 15 rows deep. Some documents held secrets, too. “Search History” revealed an embarrassingly detailed record of my personal obsessions and preoccupations over the years. Crushes, phobias, people I have argued with and envied―this was the information I never wanted to post on Facebook, but instead had asked Facebook to help me find. This information, along with the facial recognition codes of my children (which were not included in the .zip file, but which I assume Facebook owns), is the data I most wish I could scrub from the servers of the world.

All told, my Facebook archive was 10,057 pages long.

More data breach fines

Flying off to a nice hotel somewhere?

British Airways gets hammered with a record £183m fine for data breach
The incident came to light last September, when British Airways revealed that a sophisticated hack had led to 380,000 customer accounts being compromised, although that initial figure turned out to be an underestimation, with some 500,000 people actually affected, the ICO reckons.

Those folks had the likes of names, addresses, emails, credit card numbers and expiry dates – as well as the security codes on the rear of cards – stolen over a two-week period beginning on August 21, we were told at the time. Although the ICO claims that the thefts began occurring as early as June 2018.

Marriott to face £99 million GDPR fine from ICO over November 2018 data breach
The breach revealed in November 2018 involved the leak of 500 million customer records from the guest reservation database of Marriott’s Starwood Hotels and Resorts division. The attackers – who are unknown but believed to have links with China’s Ministry of State Security – appear to have had access to the system since 2014.

The organisation only became aware of the compromise in September 2018 following an alert from an internal security tool over an attempt to gain access to the reservation system. The company claims that it “quickly engaged” a group of security experts to investigate the apparent attack and “learned during the investigation that there had been unauthorised access to the Starwood network since 2014”.

Update 15/07/2019

Meanwhile.

Facebook’s $5 billion FTC fine is an embarrassing joke
Facebook’s stock went up after news of a record-breaking $5 billion FTC fine for various privacy violations broke today.

That, as The New York Times’ Mike Isaac points out, is the real story here: the United States government spent months coming up with a punishment for Facebook’s long list of privacy-related bad behavior, and the best it could do was so weak that Facebook’s stock price went up …

From some other perspectives, that $5 billion fine is a big deal, of course: it’s the biggest fine in FTC history, far bigger than the $22 million fine levied against Google in 2012. And $5 billion is a lot of money, to be sure. It’s just that like everything else that comes into contact with Facebook’s scale, it’s still entirely too small: Facebook had $15 billion in revenue last quarter alone, and $22 billion in profit last year …

That’s actually the real problem here: fines and punishments are only effective when they provide negative consequences for bad behavior. But Facebook has done nothing but behave badly from inception, and it has only ever been slapped on the wrist by authority figures and rewarded by the market. After all, Facebook was already under a previous FTC consent decree for privacy violations imposed in 2011, and that didn’t seem to stop any of the company’s recent scandals from happening. As Kara Swisher has written, you have to add another zero to this fine to make it mean anything.

A ‘fake’ arms race, for real

This essay from Cailin O’Connor, co-author of The Misinformation Age: How False Beliefs Spread, frames the issue of online misinformation as an arms race.

The information arms race can’t be won, but we have to keep fighting
What makes this problem particularly thorny is that internet media changes at dizzying speed. When the radio was first invented, as a new form of media, it was subject to misinformation. But regulators quickly adapted, managing, for the most part, to subdue such attempts. Today, even as Facebook fights Russian meddling, WhatsApp has become host to rampant misinformation in India, leading to the deaths of 31 people in rumour-fuelled mob attacks over two years.

Participating in an informational arms race is exhausting, but sometimes there are no good alternatives. Public misinformation has serious consequences. For this reason, we should be devoting the same level of resources to fighting misinformation that interest groups are devoting to producing it. All social-media sites need dedicated teams of researchers whose full-time jobs are to hunt down and combat new kinds of misinformation attempts.

I know I’m a pretty pessimistic person generally, but this all sounds quite hopeless. Here’s how one group of people is responding to the challenge of misuse of information and fake videos — by producing their own.

This deepfake of Mark Zuckerberg tests Facebook’s fake video policies
The video, created by artists Bill Posters and Daniel Howe in partnership with advertising company Canny, shows Mark Zuckerberg sitting at a desk, seemingly giving a sinister speech about Facebook’s power. The video is framed with broadcast chyrons that say “We’re increasing transparency on ads,” to make it look like it’s part of a news segment.

“We will treat this content the same way we treat all misinformation on Instagram,” a spokesperson for Instagram told Motherboard. “If third-party fact-checkers mark it as false, we will filter it from Instagram’s recommendation surfaces like Explore and hashtag pages.”

Oh Facebook, what have you done now?

The Register nails it, once again.

Let’s spin Facebook’s Wheel of Misfortune! Clack-clack-clack… clack… You’ve won ‘100s of millions of passwords stored in plaintext’
Facebook today admitted it stored “some” of its addicts’ account passwords in a plaintext readable format. For “some”, read hundreds of millions.

The antisocial network quietly made the mea culpa in a statement that followed its breathless announcement of the Oculus Rift S Virtual Reality headset. The password snafu confession was, as far as we can tell, forthcoming from the Silicon Valley giant only after investigative journalist Brian Krebs blew the lid off the blunder.

Other news sources are happy to pile in, of course.

Why Facebook waited 3 months to disclose its latest privacy screw-up
We reached out to Facebook in an attempt to answer this question, but unsurprisingly received no response as of press time. Troy Hunt, a security researcher perhaps best known for running the breach disclosure site HaveIBeenPwned, was significantly more willing to chat.

“I suspect Facebook decided not to initially disclose the issue as they had no evidence of the data being used maliciously,” he wrote over Twitter direct message. “I can understand that position insofar as whilst the storage was clearly improper, without a compromise of the stored data the impact on customers would have been zero.”

This, of course, assumes that the passwords weren’t improperly accessed. Facebook claims as much in its blog post, but that requires you to trust Facebook. Which, well, you’d be forgiven for not jumping at the opportunity.

They’re all talking about whether these plaintext passwords were accessed by Facebook staff, whether anything malicious happened, but I think they’re missing a question — how did this happen?

Facebook’s own statement:

Keeping passwords secure

Or rather, not keeping them secure.

As part of a routine security review in January, we found that some user passwords were being stored in a readable format within our internal data storage systems. This caught our attention because our login systems are designed to mask passwords using techniques that make them unreadable.

Obviously not designed well enough, because that didn’t happen this time.

In line with security best practices, Facebook masks people’s passwords when they create an account so that no one at the company can see them.

No it doesn’t.

In security terms, we “hash” and “salt” the passwords, including using a function called “scrypt” as well as a cryptographic key that lets us irreversibly replace your actual password with a random set of characters. With this technique, we can validate that a person is logging in with the correct password without actually having to store the password in plain text.

Yes yes yes, that’s all well and good, but that didn’t happen this time, because— ? Who knows, perhaps they’ll tell us the next time this happens?

Breaking up is hard to do

The techlash continues.

Elizabeth Warren proposes breaking up tech giants like Amazon and Facebook
At a rally in Long Island City, the neighborhood that was to be home to a major new Amazon campus, Ms. Warren laid out her proposal calling for regulators who would undo some tech mergers, as well as legislation that would prohibit platforms from both offering a marketplace for commerce and participating in that marketplace.

“We have these giants corporations — do I have to tell that to people in Long Island City? — that think they can roll over everyone,” Ms. Warren told the crowd, drawing applause. She compared Amazon to the dystopian novel “The Hunger Games,” in which those with power force their wishes on the less fortunate.

“I’m sick of freeloading billionaires,” she said.

She’s far from the lone voice on this issue.

Elizabeth Warren is right – we must break up Facebook, Google and Amazon
The current effort is bipartisan. At a Senate hearing I attended last week, the arch-conservative Missouri Republican Josh Hawley asked me, rhetorically: “Is there really any wonder that there is increased pressure for antitrust enforcement activity, for privacy activity when these companies behave in the way that they do?”

Hawley added: “Every day brings some creepy new revelation about these companies’ behaviors. Of course the public is going to want there to be action to defend their rights. It’s only natural.”

House of Lords report calls for digital super-regulator
The chair of the committee, Lord Gilbert of Panteg, called on the government to be less reactive in how it responds to digital risks: “The government should not just be responding to news headlines but looking ahead so that the services that constitute the digital world can be held accountable to an agreed set of principles,” he said.

“Self-regulation by online platforms is clearly failing and the current regulatory framework is out of date. The evidence we heard made a compelling and urgent case for a new approach to regulation. Without intervention, the largest tech companies are likely to gain ever more control of technologies which extract personal data and make decisions affecting people’s lives.”

You can always take matters into your own hands.

Goodbye Big Five
Reporter Kashmir Hill spent six weeks blocking Amazon, Facebook, Google, Microsoft, and Apple from getting my money, data, and attention, using a custom-built VPN. Here’s what happened.

Needless to say, it didn’t go well.

Fascinating and horrifying

Thirty years after it all started, the web is a very strange place indeed.

The Communal Mind: Patricia Lockwood travels through the internet
A few years ago, when it suddenly occurred to us that the internet was a place we could never leave, I began to keep a diary of what it felt like to be there in the days of its snowy white disintegration, which felt also like the disintegration of my own mind. My interest was not academic. I did not care about the Singularity, or the rise of the machines, or the afterlife of being uploaded into the cloud. I cared about the feeling that my thoughts were being dictated. I cared about the collective head, which seemed to be running a fever. But if we managed to escape, to break out of the great skull and into the fresh air, if Twitter was shut down for crimes against humanity, what would we be losing? The bloodstream of the news, the thrilled consensus, the dance to the tune of the time. The portal that told us, each time we opened it, exactly what was happening now. It seemed fitting to write it in the third person because I no longer felt like myself. Here’s how it began.

Some parts are much worse than others. Here’s a depressing look into the world of Facebook moderators; what they go through, what they have to put up with, how they are damaged as a result. I can’t help but wonder if the ends justify the means — do we really need all this?

The Trauma Floor: The secret lives of Facebook moderators in America
Over the past three months, I interviewed a dozen current and former employees of Cognizant in Phoenix. All had signed non-disclosure agreements with Cognizant in which they pledged not to discuss their work for Facebook — or even acknowledge that Facebook is Cognizant’s client. The shroud of secrecy is meant to protect employees from users who may be angry about a content moderation decision and seek to resolve it with a known Facebook contractor. The NDAs are also meant to prevent contractors from sharing Facebook users’ personal information with the outside world, at a time of intense scrutiny over data privacy issues.

But the secrecy also insulates Cognizant and Facebook from criticism about their working conditions, moderators told me.

It’s not just a problem with Facebook, of course.

Suicide instructions spliced into kids’ cartoons on YouTube and YouTube Kids
Suicide tips stashed in otherwise benign cartoons are just the latest ghastly twist in the corruption of kids’ content on YouTube and YouTube Kids. For years, the video-sharing company has struggled with a whack-a-mole-style effort to keep a variety of disturbing and potentially scarring content out of videos targeting children.

Better off without it?

It seems every day there’s a new delete-your-Facebook-account article doing the rounds, but what happens if you did? Would the effects on your wellbeing really be as positive as people suggest? New research would suggest the answer is yes.

What would happen if Facebook were turned off?
Those booted off enjoyed an additional hour of free time on average. They tended not to redistribute their liberated minutes to other websites and social networks, but chose instead to watch more television and spend time with friends and family. They consumed much less news, and were thus less aware of events but also less polarised in their views about them than those still on the network. Leaving Facebook boosted self-reported happiness and reduced feelings of depression and anxiety.

When Facebook’s troubles began

(Or rather, when our troubles with Facebook began.)

Things were very different in 2004.

15 moments that defined Facebook’s first 15 years
At that point, success meant having 250,000 users on the platform. In the decade and a half since, Facebook has added four zeroes to that figure, transforming from a website for poking your college crush to, arguably, the most powerful engine of communication in the world. Zuckerberg’s creation has, for better and for worse, forever changed how people connect, how businesses make money, how politicians seize power, and how information flows across communities and cultures. It’s where grannies share pictures of their grandkids and where state-sponsored trolls wage cyberwar against other countries. It’s how volunteers raise money for hurricane victims and how hate-mongers rally their followers to kill people.

I think this moment is the key one.

2. News Feed launches.
… But News Feed did more than alert users to the privacy risks inherent in all this sharing. It also began the process of consolidating a world of information into one, ceaseless scroll, personalized to every individual user’s interests and beliefs. The News Feed wrested control away from publishers, putting it in the hands of Facebook’s almighty algorithms.

Another take on that, from 2014.

How Facebook’s design has changed over the last 10 years
September 2006, a major development: Mini-Feed and News Feed debuted. These additions shook up the look of Facebook by shifting emphasis away from the profile and towards the actions people took on Facebook, moving the service from a directory to a feed. And people were not happy.

And this one, from 2013.

Facebook news feed changed everything
Looking back, it’s clear that news feed is one of the most important, influential innovations in the recent history of the Web. News feed forever altered our relationship to personal data, turning everything we do online into a little message for friends or the world to consume. You might not like this trend—or, at least, you might claim you don’t like this trend. But the stats prove you probably do. News feed is the basis for Facebook’s popularity, the thing that initially set it apart from every other social network, and the reason hundreds of millions of us go back to the site every day.

But news feed is bigger than that. Either directly or indirectly, it’s the inspiration for just about every social-media feature that has come along since. News feed paved the way for Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, Flipboard, and Quora—for every site that thrives off of the communities created by lots of people’s individual contributions. News feed changed the media (it’s hard to imagine BuzzFeed without it), advertising, politics, and, to the extent that it altered how we all talk to one another, society itself.

Who would have thought, at the time, that all that would lead us here — fake news and post truth.

Facebook partners with Snopes and Associated Press to tackle fake news
The update will make it easier for users to report hoax stories and also bring in third-party fact checking to investigate and flag reported stories. Facebook will also be looking at how many people share articles after they’ve read them and combine this data with disputed flags to push fake stories to the bottom of news feeds. Fact-checkers at ABC News, FactCheck.org, the Associated Press, Snopes and Politifact will be using a tool created by Facebook to help evaluate the truthfulness of stories that have been flagged as fake news.

That turned out not to be so easy.

Snopes ends their ‘debunking false stuff’ partnership with Facebook. Here’s why.
“It doesn’t seem like we’re striving to make third-party fact checking more practical for publishers — it seems like we’re striving to make it easier for Facebook. At some point, we need to put our foot down and say, ‘No. You need to build an API,’” Green said. “The work that fact-checkers are doing doesn’t need to be just for Facebook — we can build things for fact-checkers that benefit the whole web, and that can also help Facebook.”

Sounds like it wasn’t just a ‘bandwidth’ issue, but more a commitment to open systems versus closed. Once again, the people behind Snopes.com have my respect.

And for some further background reading, try these from Roger McNamee, author of Zucked – Waking Up to the Facebook Catastrophe.

How to fix Facebook—before it fixes us
An early investor explains why the social media platform’s business model is such a threat—and what to do about it.

How Facebook and Google threaten public health – and democracy
The sad truth is that Facebook and Google have behaved irresponsibly in the pursuit of massive profits. And this has come at a cost to our health.

Social media’s biggest challenge

The Children’s Commissioner for England, Anne Longfield, has issued a challenge to Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat and others that I think may be beyond them.

Social media urged to take ‘moment to reflect’ after girl’s death
In an open letter to Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp, YouTube, Pinterest and Snapchat, Anne Longfield said the suicide of 14-year-old Molly Russell has highlighted the “horrific” material that children were able to easily access online.

Here’s the letter, on the Children’s Commissioner website.

A public call for online platforms to do more to tackle social media content which is harmful to children
I do not think it is going too far to question whether even you, the owners, any longer have any control over their content. If that is the case, then younger children should not be accessing your services at all, and parents should be aware that the idea of any authority overseeing algorithms and content is a mirage. […]

The potential disruption to all user experiences should no longer be a brake on making the safety and wellbeing of young people a top priority. Neither should hiding behind servers and apparatus in other jurisdictions be an acceptable way of avoiding responsibility.

The recent tragic cases of young people who had accessed and drawn from sites that post deeply troubling content around suicide and self-harm, and who in the end took their own lives, should be a moment of reflection. I would appeal to you to accept there are problems and to commit to tackling them – or admit publicly that you are unable to. […]

It is your responsibility to support measures that give children the information and tools they need growing up in this digital world – or to admit that you cannot control what anyone sees on your platforms.

I really hope something comes of this. The social media companies say they’re working hard to create safe spaces, free from harmful content and disinformation, but where’s the evidence of that? Imagine if they did publicly admit they were unable to “accept there are problems and to commit to tackling them.”

Update 05/02/2019

A response from Instagram.

Instagram to launch ‘sensitivity screens’ after Molly Russell’s death
Adam Mosseri, who took over Instagram after the app’s founders departed suddenly in 2018, has promised a series of changes following the death of the British teenager Molly Russell, whose parents believe she took her own life after being exposed to graphic images of self-harm and suicide on Instagram and Pinterest.

Can’t go back

2019! As everyone else is greeting the new year with positivity and optimism for the future, I’m taking the contrary position and sharing some rather backward-facing articles.

Jason Koebler at Vice reminiscences about his old Tripod homepage (I had one of those!), and wonders whether he should rejuvenate it.

We should replace Facebook with personal websites
There’s a subtext of the #deleteFacebook movement that has nothing to do with the company’s mishandling of personal data. It’s the idea that people who use Facebook are stupid, or shouldn’t have ever shared so much of their lives. But for people who came of age in the early 2000s, sharing our lives online is second nature, and largely came without consequences. There was no indication that something we’d been conditioned to do would be quickly weaponized against us.

Wired’s Jason Kehe takes a step back from his iPhone.

Going dumb: My year with a flip phone
I felt like a wholer person. My mind was reabsorbing previously offloaded information and creating new connections. I was thinking more and better. My focus was improving. I thought I was breaking through.

In the end, I was not.

(He chooses a Kyocera phone, though I think we can all agree this was the best phone of its time.)

Web designer Andy Clarke shares the techniques he would have used back in 1998 to lay out a website — frames, tables and spacer gifs. Remember them?

Designing your site like it’s 1998
The height and width of these “shims” or “spacers” is only 1px but they will stretch to any size without increasing their weight on the page. This makes them perfect for performant website development.

Of course, these days we’re certain we know a much better way of doing all this. And that’s his point.

Strange as it might seem looking back, in 1998 we were also certain our techniques and technologies were the best for the job. That’s why it’s dangerous to believe with absolute certainty that the frameworks and tools we increasingly rely on today—tools like Bootstrap, Bower, and Brunch, Grunt, Gulp, Node, Require, React, and Sass—will be any more relevant in the future than elements, frames, layout tables, and spacer images are today.

What will all this look like in the next 20 years?

Facebook’s very relaxed attitude to our data

The Verge breaks down the latest story from the New York Times about Facebook’s data sharing agreements with Microsoft, Amazon Spotify and others.

Facebook gave Spotify and Netflix access to users’ private messages
I find it helpful to read the allegations in the Times’ story chronologically, starting with the integration deals, continuing with the one-off agreements, and ending with instant personalization. Do so and you read a story of a company that, after some early success growing its user base by making broad data-sharing agreements with one set of companies — OEMs — it grew more confident, and proceeded to give away more and more, often with few disclosures to users. By the time “Instant personalization” arrived, it was widely panned, and never met Facebook’s hopes for it. Shortly after it was wound down, Facebook would take action against Cambridge Analytica, and once again began placing meaningful limitations on its API.

Then basically nothing happened for three years!

Whatever is happening, it’s happening … now. It has been only two months since the largest data breach in Facebook’s history. It has been only five days since the last time Facebook announced a significant data leak.

On and on we go. The more we hear about how Facebook treats our data — and us — the more bored and relaxed we seem to be about it all. I can’t see this changing.

Update 20/12/2018

From Facebook: Facts About Facebook’s Messaging Partnerships
From Ars Technica: Facebook “partner” arrangements: Are they as bad as they look?

I still think Facebook has transparency and trust issues though…

Tim’s hippie manifesto

Some less than positive reaction from The Register and others to Tim Berners-Lee’s latest campaign to save the web from itself. To describe it as a hippie manifesto sounds a little harsh but, as I said before, I can’t see this making much difference unless Facebook and Google agree to give up power, money etc.

Web Foundation launches internet hippie manifesto: ‘We’ve lost control of our data, it is being used against us’
It identifies the same problems that everyone and their dog has been writing about for years: there is a digital divide; internet access can be expensive; an entire industry has grown up selling your personal data; governments abuse the internet sometimes; people use the internet to do unpleasant things like bully and harass people; net neutrality’s a thing.

It has some charts and stats. But basically it reads like a High School final project on the problems of the internet. Competent but not consequential. […]

But simply saying companies shouldn’t make money from personal data and governments shouldn’t turn off the internet is not going to achieve a single thing. There needs to be clear plan of attack, recognition of pain points for companies, a broad and well-organized campaign to engage and rally people.

Berners-Lee takes flak for ‘hippie manifesto’ that only Google and Facebook could love
Open-source advocate Rafael Laguna, co-founder of Open-Xchange, is suspicious that Google and Facebook – the companies most under fire for privacy and other human rights abuses – were first to voice their support for the Greatest Living Briton’s declaration. “They are the two outstanding creators of the problems proclaimed in Tim’s paper,” Laguna notes. […]

Laguna told us: “As we have seen before with ‘Privacy Shield’, I suspect this move will be used as ‘proof’ of their reputability – but I fail to see how Google and Facebook will genuinely adhere to the requirements laid out in the initiative. The only result I can see is that it gets watered down, that it remains a lip service and, worst case, the whole thing loses credibility.”

Can Tim Berners-Lee fix what he started?

We’re growing increasingly disillusioned with the web, but the guy behind it has a plan — a “Contract for the Web” that he hopes will set out our rights and freedoms on the internet.

Tim Berners-Lee launches campaign to save the web from abuse
“Humanity connected by technology on the web is functioning in a dystopian way. We have online abuse, prejudice, bias, polarisation, fake news, there are lots of ways in which it is broken. This is a contract to make the web one which serves humanity, science, knowledge and democracy,” he said.

For it to work, the big tech companies need to be behind it. No problem, right?

One of the early signatories to the contract, Facebook, has been fined by the Information Commissioner’s Office for its part in the Cambridge Analytica scandal; has faced threats from the EU for taking too long to remove extremist content; and has been sued for allowing advertisers to target housing ads only at white people. The firm, which has appointed the former deputy prime minister, Nick Clegg, to lead its PR operation, did not respond to a request for comment.

Another early signatory, Google, is reportedly developing a censored version of its search engine for the Chinese market. “If you sign up to the principles, you can’t do censorship,” said Berners-Lee. “Will this be enough to make search engines push back? Will it be persuasive enough for the Chinese government to be more open? I can’t predict whether that will happen,” he said. Google did not respond to a request for comment.

Hmm. I can’t see this making much difference unless Facebook and Google agree to– what, make less money?

“I was devastated”: Tim Berners-Lee, the man who created the World Wide Web, has some regrets
“We demonstrated that the Web had failed instead of served humanity, as it was supposed to have done, and failed in many places,” he told me. The increasing centralization of the Web, he says, has “ended up producing—with no deliberate action of the people who designed the platform—a large-scale emergent phenomenon which is anti-human.”

tim-1

“Tim and Vint made the system so that there could be many players that didn’t have an advantage over each other.” Berners-Lee, too, remembers the quixotism of the era. “The spirit there was very decentralized. The individual was incredibly empowered. It was all based on there being no central authority that you had to go to to ask permission,” he said. “That feeling of individual control, that empowerment, is something we’ve lost.”

That’s it in a nutshell, for me. The web just isn’t the same as it was at the beginning.

The power of the Web wasn’t taken or stolen. We, collectively, by the billions, gave it away with every signed user agreement and intimate moment shared with technology. Facebook, Google, and Amazon now monopolize almost everything that happens online, from what we buy to the news we read to who we like. Along with a handful of powerful government agencies, they are able to monitor, manipulate, and spy in once unimaginable ways.

Tim Wu is a law professor and ‘influential tech thinker’. Here’s his take on what went wrong.

Tim Wu: ‘The internet is like the classic story of the party that went sour’
Looking back at the 00s, the great mistake of the web’s idealists was a near-total failure to create institutions designed to preserve that which was good about the web (its openness, its room for a diversity of voices and its earnest amateurism), and to ward off that which was bad (the trolling, the clickbait, the demands of excessive and intrusive advertising, the security breaches). There was too much faith that everything would take care of itself – that “netizens” were different, that the culture of the web was intrinsically better. Unfortunately, that excessive faith in web culture left a void, one that became filled by the lowest forms of human conduct and the basest norms of commerce. It really was just like the classic story of the party that went sour.

The Guardian certainly likes to report on versions of this story, but only in November and March, it seems.

Tech giants may have to be broken up, says Tim Berners-Lee
Web inventor says Silicon Valley firms have too much clout and ‘optimism has cracked’ [November 2018]

Tim Berners-Lee: we must regulate tech firms to prevent ‘weaponised’ web
The inventor of the world wide web warns over concentration of power among a few companies ‘controlling which ideas are shared’ [March 2018]

Tim Berners-Lee on the future of the web: ‘The system is failing’
The inventor of the world wide web remains an optimist but sees a ‘nasty wind’ blowing amid concerns over advertising, net neutrality and fake news [November 2017]

Tim Berners-Lee: I invented the web. Here are three things we need to change to save it
It has taken all of us to build the web we have, and now it is up to all of us to build the web we want – for everyone [March 2017]

Remember the hacking cough?

More hacking schadenfreude, but with an added GDPR element this time.

First, the hapless Tories.

Major security flaw in Tory conference app reveals users’ data
Commentators said the flaw raised questions over the ability of the government to harness technology to solve issues around the Irish border and customs checks. The app may also have breached data laws. Its privacy policy states that it “complies with … the European Union’s general data protection regulation (GDPR)”.

Boris Johnson’s profile immediately vandalised with hardcore pornography in Tory conference app security blunder
The highly serious blunder allowed anyone to access details of hundreds of MPs including Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt and Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson – who have police protection and warn regularly of the hacking threat from Russia. But it also gave pranksters an opportunity to have fun with the profiles of prominent Conservatives.

And then Facebook. Again.

Facebook says at least 50 million users affected by security breach
Facebook said the FBI is now investigating. Because users in Europe are also affected, the company said it has informed data protection authorities in Ireland — where the company’s European headquarters are located. The Irish Data Protection Commission has asked Facebook to clarify the breach “urgently.” If Facebook is found to have breached European data protection rules — the newly implemented General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) — the company can face fines of up to four percent of its global revenue.

Facebook hack: Here’s what you need to do to secure your account
Critically, for European users, Facebook has been in touch with the Data Protection Commissioner in Ireland – where it is registered – to inform it of the breach. This will be the first data protection incident from one of the major tech companies since the enforcement of Europe’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) in May. GDPR gives regulators the power to issue huge fines but this is yet to be tested. In a statement the Irish Data Protection Commission said Facebook hasn’t given it many details yet. It is “concerned” that despite Facebook discovering the breach on Tuesday, it hasn’t been able to “clarify the nature of the breach and the risk for users at this point”.

Facebook gets away with it

Facebook fined for data breaches in Cambridge Analytica scandal
Facebook is to be fined £500,000, the maximum amount possible, for its part in the Cambridge Analytica scandal, the information commissioner has announced.

But talk about good timing.

In the first quarter of 2018, Facebook took £500,000 in revenue every five and a half minutes. Because of the timing of the breaches, the ICO said it was unable to levy the penalties introduced by the European General Data Protection (GDPR), which caps fines at the higher level of €20m (£17m) or 4% of global turnover – in Facebook’s case, $1.9bn (£1.4bn). The £500,000 cap was set by the Data Protection Act 1998.

Elizabeth Denham, the information commissioner, explains her real goal with this fine is to “effect change and restore trust and confidence in our democratic system.”

“Most of us have some understanding of the behavioural targeting that commercial entities have used for quite some time,” Denham said, “to sell us holidays, to sell us trainers, to be able to target us and follow us around the web.”

“But very few people have an awareness of how they can be micro-targeted, persuaded or nudged in a democratic campaign, in an election or a referendum.

“This is a time when people are sitting up and saying ‘we need a pause here, and we need to be sure we are comfortable with the way personal data is used in our democratic process’.”

I think we’re still some way off that; people just seem not to be bothered.

Facebook’s rise in profits, users shows resilience after scandals
Facebook Inc (FB.O) shares rose on Wednesday after the social network reported a surprisingly strong 63 percent rise in profit and an increase in users, with no sign that business was hurt by a scandal over the mishandling of personal data.

But maybe I shouldn’t be so pessimistic.

The digital privacy wins keep coming
Progress can be difficult to measure; it often comes in drips and drops, or not at all for long stretches of time. But in recent weeks, privacy advocates have seen torrential gains, at a rate perhaps not matched since Edward Snowden revealed how the National Security Agency spied on millions of US citizens in 2013. A confluence of factors—generational, judicial, societal—have created momentum where previously there was none. The trick now is to sustain it.

Let’s hope.

All as bad as each other?

Rhett Jones from Gizmodo strikes a cautionary note about Apple’s positioning following Facebook’s recent data sharing controversies.

Apple isn’t your friend
In its own deliberate fashion, Apple appears to see a market opportunity in the privacy debate that goes beyond polishing its own image. As headlines blared about Facebook’s latest data-sharing turmoil, the Wall Street Journal reported that Apple has been quietly planning to launch a new advertising network for the past year. It’s said to be a re-imagining of its failed iAd network that was shuttered in 2016.

[…]

Generally, more competition is welcome. If Apple is giving Facebook and Google headaches, we say that’s great. But it’s a thorny issue when we’re talking about a few billion-dollar companies exchanging places on the ladder as they strive to be trillion-dollar companies. It’s just not enough for the least bad megacorp to keep the evil ones in check.