privacy


With advances in machine learning and a growing ubiquity of “smart” technologies, questions of technological agency rise to the fore of philosophical and practical importance. Technological agency implies deep ethical questions about autonomy, ownership, and what it means to be human(e), while engendering real concerns about safety, control, and new forms of inequality. Such questions, however, hinge on a more basic one: can technology be agentic?

To have agency, technologies need to want something. Agency entails values, desires, and goals. In turn, agency entails vulnerability, in the sense that the agentic subject—the one who wants some things and does not want others—can be deprived and/or violated should those wishes be ignored.

The presence vs. absence of technological agency, though an ontologically philosophical conundrum, can only be assessed through the empirical case. In particular, agency can be found or negated through an empirical instance in which a technological object seems, quite clearly, to express some desire. Such a case arises in the WCry ransomware virus ravaging network systems as I write. more...

Making the world a better place has always been central to Mark Zuckerberg’s message. From community building to a long record of insistent authenticity, the goal of fostering a “best self” through meaningful connection underlies various iterations and evolutions of the Facebook project. In this light, the company’s recent move to deploy artificial intelligence towards suicide prevention continues the thread of altruistic objectives.

Last week, Facebook announced an automated suicide prevention system to supplement its existing user-reporting model. While previously, users could alert Facebook when they were worried about a friend, the new system uses algorithms to identify worrisome content. When a person is flagged, Facebook contacts that person and connects them with mental health resources.

Far from artificial, the intelligence that Facebook algorithmically constructs is meticulously designed to pick up on cultural cues of sadness and concern (e.g., friends asking ‘are you okay?’).  What Facebook’s done, is supplement personal intelligence with systematized intelligence, all based on a combination or personal biographies and cultural repositories. If it’s not immediately clear how you should feel about this new feature, that’s for good reason. Automated suicide prevention as an integral feature of the primordial social media platform brings up dense philosophical concerns at the nexus of mental health, privacy, and corporate responsibility. Although a blog post is hardly the place to solve such tightly packed issues, I do think we can unravel them through recent advances in affordances theory. But first, let’s lay out the tensions.   more...

podcast

Last week The New Inquiry published an essay I wrote about science journalism podcasts syndicated on NPR. Shows like Radiolab, The TED Radio Hour, Hidden Brain, Invisibilia, Note to Self, and Freakonomics Radio, I argued, were more about wrapping pre-conceived notions in a veneer of data than changing minds or delivering new insights into long-standing problems. Worse yet, social and political issues that might be met with collective action are turned into wishy-washy “well isn’t that interesting” anecdotes:

Topics that might have once been subject to political debate or rhetorical argument–work demands, exposure to toxins, surveillance, the limits of love, even Marxian alienation–become apolitical subjects for scientific testing. But the results only lead to greater and greater complexity, prompting introspective thought rather than action.

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PowellThe hack and leak of Colin Powell’s emails have brought with them a national conversation about journalistic ethics. At stake are the competing responsibilities for journalists to respect privacy on the one hand, and to inform the public of relevant ongoings on the other.

Powell’s emails, ostensibly hacked and leaked by Russian government forces, revealed incendiary comments about both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. Known for maintaining a reserved and diplomatic approach, the indiscreet tone of Powell’s emails had the appeal of an unearthed and long suspected truth.

The news media responded to the leaked emails by plastering their content on talk shows and websites, accompanied by expert commentary and in depth political analyses. Line by line, readers, viewers, and listeners learned, with a sense of excitement and validation, what Colin Powell “really thinks.” more...

DroneNick Bilton’s neighbor flew a drone outside the window of Bilton’s home office. It skeeved him out for a minute, but he got over it. His wife was more skeeved out. She may or may not have gotten over it (but probably not). Bilton wrote about the incident for The New York Times, where he works as a columnist. Ultimately, Bilton’s story concludes that drone watching is no big deal, analogous to peeping-via-binoculars, and that the best response is to simply ignore drone-watchers until they fly their devices away. With all of this, I disagree.

Drone privacy is a fraught issue, one of the many in which slow legislative processes have been outpaced by technological developments. While there remains a paucity of personal-drone laws, the case precedent trends towards punishing those who damage other people’s drones, while protecting the drone owners who fly their devices into airspace around private homes. Through legal precedent, then, privacy takes a backseat to property.

Bilton spends the majority of his article parsing this legal landscape, and tying the extant legal battles to his own experience of being watched. He begins with an account of looking out his window to see a buzzing drone hovering outside. He is both amused and disturbed, as the drone intrusion took place while he was already writing an article about drones. He reports feeling first violated and intruded upon, but this feeling quickly fades, morphing into quite the opposite. He says:   more...

u22
Blacked out Twitter image from my post last week

Netiquette. I seriously hate that word. BUT an issue of internet-based-etiquette (blogger etiquette, specifically) recently came to my attention, and I’m interested in others’ practices and thoughts.

As a blogger, I often analyze content from Facebook and Twitter. In doing so, I usually post images of actual tweets, comments, and status updates. These are forms of data, and are useful in delineating the public tenor with regard to a particular issue, the arguments on opposing sides of a debate, and the ‘voice’ with which people articulate their relevant thoughts and sentiments.

As a common practice, I black out all identifying information when reposting this content. Last week, I posted some tweets with the names and images redacted. A reader commented on my post to ask why I did so, given that the tweets were public. We had a quick discussion, but, as I mentioned in that discussion, this issue deserves independent treatment. more...

Can a gift be a data breach? Lots of Apple product users think so, as evidenced by the strong reaction against the company for their unsolicited syncing of U2’s latest album songs of innocence to 500 million iCloud accounts. Although part of the negative reaction stems from differences of musical taste, what Apple shared with customers seems less important than the fact that they put content on user accounts at all.

u2-apple-eventWith a proverbial expectant smile, Apple gifted the album’s 11 songs to unsuspecting users. A promotional move, this was timed with the launch of the iPhone6 and Apple iWatch. And much like teenagers who find that their parents spent the day reorganizing their bedrooms, some customers found the move invasive rather than generous.

Sarah Wanenchack has done some great work on this blog with regards to device ownership—or more precisely, our increasing lack of ownership over the devices that we buy. That Apple can, without user permission, add content to our devices, highlights this lack of ownership. Music is personal. Devices are personal. And they should be. We bought them with our own money. And yet, these devices remain accessible to the company from which they came; they remain alterable; they remain—despite a monetary transaction that generally implies buyer ownership—nonetheless shared. And this, for some people, is offensive.   more...

fb-privacy-checkup

Today, Facebook announced some significant changes in its approach to privacy: New users now start with “friends only” as their default share setting and a new “Privacy Checkup” will remind users to select audiences for their posts (if they don’t, it will also default to “friends only”).

This announcement is significant in that it is the first time that Facebook has ever stepped back its privacy settings to be less open by default. This appears to contradict a widely held assumption that Facebook is on a linear trajectory to encourage ever more sharing with ever more people. Media reports have pitched this as a victory for users, who are supposed to have forced the company to “respond to business pressures and longstanding concerns” or “bow to pressure.” more...

ZunZuneo was named for the slang term used to describe a Cuban Hummingbird’s tweet

The Internet seems both excited and generally confused by the U.S. government’s failed entre into Cuban Social media via its version of a bare-bones Twitter, called ZunZuneo. The confusion is not unwarranted, as the operation includes the United States government, two separate for-profit contractors, (and eventually, a management team who didn’t know they were part of an International government sponsored ruse), key players and various bases of operation which span the globe, from Spain to the UK to the Cayman Islands and Nicaragua, and, of course, tens of thousands of Cuban citizens who gratefully began using a new mysterious messaging service that made instantaneous text-based mobile communications financially accessible in 2010, and then inexplicably disappeared in September 2012.

This long form article from the Washington Post does a nice job disentangling the ins and outs of the story, based on documents leaked to the Associated Press. I highly suggest you take the time to read the piece, but in very short summation, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) collaborated with Creative Associates and eventually, Mobile Accord, to distribute a Twitter-like service (ZunZeneo) to Cuban citizens, with the hope of eventually utilizing the service to incite political mobilization against communist regimes. Mostly, though, the operation never went beyond gaining users through shared news stories and sports commentary. They ran out of money in 2012, Cuban users lost the service, and no revolutions were incited. It’s all general buffoon-like and harmless (except, of course, for all of the money), begging for cynical commentary and smart jokes about a deeply ineffective U.S. government. Except, something very serious happened in the process, something that should make us all—both Cubans and Americans—pretty ticked off. more...

Three articles came out this week that help me develop my concept of droning as a general type of surveilance that differs in important ways from the more traditional concept of “the gaze” or, more academically, “panopticism.” There’s Molly Crabapple’s post on Rizome, the NYTimes article about consumer surveillance, and my colleague Gordon Hull’s post about the recent NSA legal rulings over on NewAPPS. Thinking with and through these three articles helps me clarify a few things about the difference between droning and gazing: (1) droning is more like visualization than like “the gaze”–that is, droning “watches” patterns and relationships among individual “gazes,” patterns that are emergent properties of algorithmic number-crunching; and (2) though the metaphor of “the gaze” works because the micro- and macro-levels are parallel/homologous, droning exists only at the macro-level; individual people can run droning processes, but only if they’re plugged into crowds (data streams or sets aggregating multiple micro- or individual perspectives).

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