Silicon Valley Doublethink
21st August, 2015 —
On Tuesday, Aral opened The Conference in Malmö with his talk on Privacy, Data, Democracy. You can watch the video on The Conference’s site.
Ashley Madison and the importance of privacy
So you’ve probably heard of Ashley Madison by now? It’s the “world’s leading married dating service for discreet encounters.” Recently, hackers got into their site, and held the Ashley Madison database to ransom. The hackers called for the site’s owners, Avid Life Media, to take down the Ashley Madison site, and its sister site Established Men. (Established Men is a site aiming to “Connect young beautiful women with interesting men.”)
Avid Life Media didn’t take the sites down. So this week the hackers published two big database dumps, including the email addresses of Ashley Madison’s users.
There might be a few of you out there gleefully rubbing your hands about cheaters getting their come-uppance. But these aren’t just sites for dishonest and superficial individuals. On Reddit, a man from Saudi reached out for help:
“I am from a country where homosexuality carries the death penalty. I studied in America the last several years and used Ashley Madison during that time… I was single, but used it because I am gay; gay sex is punishable by death in my home country so I wanted to keep my hookups extremely discreet.”
Howard Oakley wrote a wonderful piece explaining how the Ashley Madison leaks exposes the lack of modern legislation protecting our data. He points out that, in UK law, we’re under the EU Data Protection Directive of 1995 which is based on recommendations made by the OECD 35 years ago. Long before the Internet was widely accessible. There are proposals for a new directive, but based on the proposals of 2012, there’s still inadequate protection for:
- dealing in improperly disclosed sensitive data, as we have seen following the Ashley Madison theft;
- measures to prevent data aggregation destroying anonymity;
- ensuring proper use of data irrespective of imposed privacy policies, to which very few individuals actually give free or informed consent;
- ensuring compliance with EU law by services which are operated from outside the EU, but provided to the EU.”
Howard also explains how tricky anonymisation can be in a web of endless datasets. If the Ashley Madison database was anonymised, it still wouldn’t take much to connect profiles to users in other datasets:
‘Data aggregation’ is a classic example of a problem that has arisen with the increasing availability of large datasets. It is common practice that, once personal identifiers are removed from databases such as the Electoral Register, legal constraints on their use are relaxed. However it is extremely easy for an organisation to acquire other databases (with some or all personal identifiers removed) which they can merge with the information, say, from the Electoral Register, and process to enable identification of individuals.
Events like this show the key problem with centralised datasets. Even if they’re anonymised, they’re just not safe.
Silicon Valley doublethink
In a long look at archetypes, outliers, and hacker culture, Brett Scott on Aeon has written about the gentrification of hacking. He explains Silicon Valley isn’t subverting the system in the way hackers would: “the influx into the scene of successive waves of ever less disaffected individuals results in a growing emphasis on the unthreatening elements of hacking over the subversive ones.”
Brett points out that people working in Silicon Valley startups are “highly educated tech-savvy people” and “loosely perceive themselves as rebels set against existing modes of doing business.” Yet, these individuals work for investor money, building network monopolies, “for the purpose of extracting windfall profit for the founders and for the investors that back them, and perhaps, for the large corporates who will buy them out.”
Characterising themselves as cool hackers serves Silicon Valley well. The drive for individual empowerment is similar to the drive for entrepreneurship. And it makes the industry look a lot “cooler” when they’re trying to attract new graduate talent from the same pool as Wall Street. However it is also deceptive:
“The revised definition of the tech startup entrepreneur as a hacker forms part of an emergent system of Silicon Valley doublethink:”
“individual startups portray themselves as ‘underdogs’ while simultaneously being aware of the enormous power and wealth the tech industry they’re a part of wields at a collective level”
Brett looks at Hackathons and how they embody the hacker ethic employed to serve corporate needs. This adoption has made the term hacker hollow and affected. Corporations like Google have made “hacking” about solutionism, and designing products guided by profit targets.
“The un-gentrified spirit of hacking should be a commons accessible to all.”
“In a world with increasingly large and unaccountable economic institutions, we need these everyday forms of resistance. Hacking, in my world, is a route to escaping the shackles of the profit-fetish, not a route to profit.”
What are those cheeky corporations up to this week?
Let’s see what all these “hackers” have been getting up to…
Things are getting Sci-Fi creepy in the world of Google/Alphabet’s Boston Dynamics. They’ve now created a humanoid robot that can now walk outside on its own. Mike Murphy’s short article is worth a read for a giggle and a scare.
Damien Williams has written about Google’s artificial intelligence capabilities and asks:
Do we really want Google (or Facebook, or Microsoft) to be [an artificially intelligent being’s] primary caretaker? Should a future, superintelligent, vastly interconnected, differently-conscious machine mind be inculcated with what a multi-billion-dollar multinational corporation considers “morals?”
Damien mentions Google’s supposed Ethics Board, where “all research points to it being internally funded, with no clear rules as to oversight or authority, and most importantly as-yet nonexistent.” Despite the lack of an Ethics Board, DeepMind’s algorithm already been put to use, and released to the public. And Google has been seeking patents on neural networks and other artificial intelligence architecture.
Damien explains that it’s not as simple as “Don’t Be Evil” or worrying about various individuals, and the impact their biases have on algorithms:
“more likely, a publicly traded corporation’s profit motives will almost always edge out any moral motives, as long as it’s operating within a capitalist system.”
And that’s why these corporations need genuine understandable transparency, and real outside oversight and regulation.
Regulation be damned, Uber still doesn’t care. It’s been discovered that Uber haven’t been properly performing criminal background checks on its drivers. Despite Uber claiming it performs “industry-leading” screening.
“Facebook is no longer just vying with Google but has overtaken it by a significant amount.”
Well, that’s scary. As well as Facebook being a “black black box in terms of how it operates,” it is also in control of exactly which news Facebook thinks you should read and care about.
Amazon has been exposed for having terrible work environments and working practices. Jeff Bezos, founder and CEO of Amazon, has refuted the claims, saying:
“It claims that our intentional approach is to create a soulless, dystopian workplace where no fun is had and no laughter heard.”
These poor working conditions are symptomatic of workplaces that value profit above the wellbeing of their employees. It’s what Brian Merchant of Motherboard describes as “the Future of Work.”
“While Amazon’s management does come off as particularly callous, many of the biggest grievances that employees shared—working extraordinarily long hours; enduring persistent stress and anxiety; getting penalized for taking time off, regardless of the cause; being “on duty” around the clock; and suffering an environment inherently less fair to women and to those who fall ill or spend more time with their families—aren’t particularly novel.”
And Brian may well be right. In a New York Times article on how “Data-Crunching Is Coming to Help Your Boss Manage Your Time,” David Streitfeld mentions many new startups aimed at increasing “efficiency” by keeping employees continually connected to their work. Not to mention the tracking devices that started off as a fun way to track your fitness progress, but have turned into yet another way for your boss to keep an eye on you.
- contacts, photos, or media files
- your phone’s GPS location or other forms of locating mobile devices (e.g., Bluetooth)
- sensor data (e.g., data about the speed of your movements, such as whether you are running, walking, or in transit)
- information related to your interactions with (integrated) Third Party Applications (such as Facebook Likes and posts)
Apple and Proactive
Wasn’t that a lot of depressing news? But there is some hope! Jonny Evans has written an article about iOS 9’s Proactive, the Apple’s alternative to Google Now. People using iOS will be able to benefit from the same features based on your habits with one key difference: your data is processed privately on your device. This is the opposite of Google Now, where all data is processed in the cloud, enabling Google to process and track you, sharing and selling your data wherever it wants.
Aral has spoken before about how Apple has complete competitive advantage over Google when it comes to privacy. Now Apple are proving that you can still provide the similar user experiences to Google, but without the toxic spyware.
Heartbeat Pre-Alpha Update
Since last week’s roundup, we’ve have two major Heartbeat releases, and should have another one soon. If you’re on the pre-alpha, check your email for your personal page link. You can find the latest release download link there. If you’re not on the pre-alpha, you can find the source on the forum.
Don’t forget to check out our forum to be notified of new releases and other updates.