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Brislen on Tech

Paul Brislen. 05 October 2018, 5:19 pm

The ITP update is taking a break this week but will be back next week with a heap of updates. Here's TechBlog editor Paul Brislen's Brislen on Tech column.

We're not going to take it

When the news broke that Cambridge Analytica had been using data gathered through Facebook to pitch ideas and propaganda at users, I realised it was time to switch off my Facebook account once and for all.

Facebook has become the worst of both worlds - a mono-cultural publisher that adopts a "no care, no responsibility" approach to the content it displays.

That would be bad enough - simply being a home to the worst ravings of humanity this side of talk-back radio is fine and easily ignored. But Facebook took it further and began to tweak its settings so users (not customers, users) of the site wouldn't get the content they were looking for but would instead get served up a new feed based almost exclusively on how much money Facebook was paid to deliver that content.

Forget Aunty Mary's posts about how her garden is going - they're still there but you're unlikely to see them because they're buried under a series of ads and posts designed to do everything from sway your opinion on which brand of shampoo to buy.

And again, if Facebook had stopped there I would have been reluctantly happy to carry on using it. Advertising is fine and I have no problem with ads, even "targeted" ads (which never appeared to be targeted terribly well).

No, Facebook decided to sell our data to the highest bidder for political use. Instead of ads, Facebook allows its real customers to place content in the user's feed that is designed to sway political views, to reinforce prejudices and to gain clicks - angry clicks work just as well as positive supporting clicks - and so we have spawned a monster.

That was it for me. The idea that content I wanted to see would be available to me only after I'd waded through the morass of anti-vaccine, climate-change denier, politically tinged madness that was being pumped into my feed was just too much. I deleted my account finally (after much effort) and got rid of Messenger as well.

Now it turns out Facebook has also been a bit lax with its users' security and 40 million accounts have been exposed to the world for a period of time that suggests some ratbags have managed to secure a lot of personal information from a lot of accounts.

I'm a big fan of personal information and I like to keep mine personal. I'll share it where I have to but once shared it's very hard to get it all back in the bottle should it leak out.

Date of birth, mother's maiden name, your IRD number - some personal information is used to identify you to very specific organisations in a very specific way and is the sort of information that is almost impossible to change. Try ringing IRD to ask for a new number, or Births, Deaths and Marriages to ask for a new birthdate because someone online has stolen your details and see how far you get.

Now Facebook is staring down the barrel of yet more questions in the US Senate not to mention a more pressing problem in the form of the EU's new GDPR legislation which has quite a bit more of a sting in its tail. Fines of up to US$1.6 billion are enough to make any company sit up and take notice and that's precisely what Facebook should be doing.

Techblog - 90 million reasons to unsubscribe

Stuff - Facebook faces $1.6b fine after huge data breach

The Guardian - Facebook faces $1.6bn fine and formal investigation over massive data breach

Washington Post - The Cybersecurity 202: Facebook hack compounds the company's woes in Washington

We don't need another hero

Speaking of dumpster fires, the GCSB is warning that it has clear evidence of Russian government ties to a campaign of "malicious cyber activity" targeting international political institutions, businesses, media and sporting organisations.

While none of the named organisations are in New Zealand, the GCSB is happy to confirm work done its UK counterpart.

The head of the GCSB told Radio New Zealand:

"We have seen indicators, if you like fingerprints of types of malware, which the GRU is using, that is Russian Military Intelligence … we've seen those same indicators in New Zealand."

The Russians, of course, insist the software wasn't theirs and in fact was on holiday, visiting the saw mills in Tokoroa.

But I jest. Just.

And so with a background of mayhem, anarchy and dogs sitting in houses in flames, the internet seeks its hero, hoping against hopes we can find a way through the madness and back to the relative sanity, presumably of the dot com bubble era of 1998.

Enter Tim Berners-Lee.

Tim, you may remember, is the man credited as the "father of the world wide web" and while the usage of said WWW appears to have fallen mostly by the wayside, Tim remains a staunch advocate of a more open, accessible world and with that seemingly impossible rescue mission in mind, Tim has been hard at work on Solid, a new way to wrestle back control of your personal data from the nefarious porpoises of the internet as we know it in 2018.

Solid, the name of the product, apparently gives users an "unprecedented control of your data. Create, manage and secure your own personal online data store (POD). You decide who accesses it. We call this 'personal empowerment through data'" and it's one of the founding principles of Tim's new company, Inrupt (built to promote and develop Solid) and indeed of the internet itself.

But isn't this genie out of the bottle? If we've already shared our data, and if government-level actors are also keen on manipulating our feeds, isn't a new way to store information somewhat moot?

Not so, says Tim. It's not too late. Solid will provide all the office tools (calendar, email etc) and all the social media tools (Facebook, Twitter etc) and ultimately will provide the kinds of personal assistants that are coming to the fore (Siri, Alexa) but without losing control of your own data.

Developers are being invited to learn and to start work on the Solid equivalent of apps and services, all built with privacy first and foremost in mind.

It's a bold move - going up against the might of the FAANG (Facebook, Apple, Amazon, Netflix, Google) conglomerate, but if anyone knows about taking on the empire and subverting it to his own ends, it's Tim.

Fast Company - Exclusive: Tim Berners-Lee tells us his radical new plan to upend the World Wide Web

Stuff - How Sir Tim Berners-Lee's alternative to traditional internet would work

Solid - What is Solid

RNZ - Govt 'very concerned' about malicious internet activity - GCSB

Stuff - GCSB cites links between Russian government and series of 'malicious' cyber activities

Holding out for a hero

Speaking of subverting and taking on the might and all that jazz, the Green Party has come up with an interesting solution to the problem of our missing CTO.

You may recall the year-long search for a Chief Technology Officer which started with a hiss and a roar and ended with a resignation, an apology and quite a lot of Reckons from, well, people like me.

Now Green MP and tech-literate politician-about-town Gareth Hughes has come up with a suggestion. Instead of hiring one person to do the job of futurist for the government, why not give the job to InternetNZ?

InternetNZ was formerly known as the Internet Society and has, for the past 20-odd years, been one of the leading proponents of the internet to a largely uninterested New Zealand public. With its programme of work around the country under the NetHui brand, InternetNZ has helped shape some of the country's policy and legal activity, represented "the internet" in formal settings and has generally done quite well at educating MPs along the way (sometimes literally - it famously ran a Tech 101 class for MPs in a previous regime).

Giving the role of cheerleader and champion of innovation to InternetNZ makes some sense, because the organisation exists outside the reach of both corporate and political New Zealand - InternetNZ, you see, has its own stream of revenue in the form of the domain name registrations in the .nz namespace.

It's also largely bi-partisan. Current CEO Jordan Carter did stand for Labour in a long-forgotten election, but various key advisors and organisational leaders have worked on both sides of the House and generally speaking they put technology and the internet before party politics on most occasions.

It hasn't always been plain sailing for INZ. Some years ago the organisation went through some dark times and many thousands of words were wasted in the pursuit of a clearer understanding of what was going on, who was responsible and why we should care. In short: a peaceful coup, led by someone who wanted more control over the cash was defeated by an army of grumpy tech-heads (and there was never a reason to care really).

But that was many years ago and today the organisation has worked peacefully alongside other lobby groups, political parties of all colour and persuasion and has a broad church approach to its membership where hardly ever do the members threaten to sue each other any longer.

I can think of worse solutions to the problem, to be honest. And if not one organisation, there's always the option of a consortium including (for example) IT Professionals and NZTech to cover off the tech side, InternetNZ on the general internet society, and 20/20 Trust to cover off digital inclusion.

NZ Herald - Greens' left-field suggestion to resolve CTO mess - and unsuccessful candidate says she backs the idea


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