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Brislen on Tech

Paul Brislen, Editor. 26 July 2019, 8:30 am

Face off

If ever you needed more proof that social media giants want to own all our data the latest FaceApp noise should surely be enough.

FaceApp is an app that lets users take a photo of their face and then upload it to a server that will show an aged version of that photo. It's for fun, obviously.

What's worrying is not that FaceApp is the only app doing this - it isn't. It's also not about FaceApp being based in Russia while the servers are based in the US, giving New Zealand users very little legal might should the need arise. It's not even about the terms and conditions of use that are obviously one sided and favour the developer over users at ever step of the way.

All of that is sadly standard operating procedure for our brave new world.

No, what's really worrying is that all of this is widespread and well reported before this current round of selfie madness. FaceApp has been around for several years and has been in trouble several times before, so users should be well versed in avoiding such nonsense as "hey, let's upload a photo of me to a server so I can have some fun" without any though being given to the privacy implications of giving away your face to a service you don't control.

Once again, this is all about informed consent and about users being fully informed of the facts of the matter before they hand over yet more demographic data, yet more location-based information, yet more one-time-only privacy information.

Facial ID is fast becoming something governments and banking institutions use for verification. Later model mobiles use it, banking apps use it, border security forces use it and when you let some random online service take your image and use it for who knows what purpose, you're giving away something you can never get back.

It's high time our privacy laws were updated, that they took into account this kind of rubbish and that they give the Privacy Commissioner the power and the funding to make sure Kiwis are aware of what they're signing up for. Only then will I find these stories amusing.

Forbes - Viral App FaceApp Now Owns Access To More Than 150 Million People's Faces And Names

NZ Herald - FaceApp adds decades to your age for fun, but popular app raises privacy concerns (PAID)

BBC - FaceApp: Chuck Schumer asks for FBI investigation


Post CTO world

Do we need a strategy for tech for New Zealand? It's a question we've been pondering for some time. In the bad old days we had a lot of oddity from government agencies often working at loggerheads over issues key to the sector. One hand would cheer on intellectual property rights in the digital space while another would poo-pooh them and try to deliver something contrary. One department would be urging migrants to come to New Zealand with specific skill sets, another would be unwilling to encourage the notion that we might need fresh blood for tech-specific companies. Pro-cloud, anti-cloud. Research and development, innovation and entrepreneurialism, education and training - at various times we've seen all kind of swings and roundabouts when it comes to the tech sector, from politicians, department heads and even the Productivity Commission.

But with the crashing and burning of the planned "government CTO" position, where do we go from here?

I was always in two minds about the CTO role. Firstly, it really is two roles, not one.

From a daily management of IT perspective, treating the country as a single unified buyer has a certain rightness about it. Government as consumer of IT products and services does require a steady hand at the tiller and one that can be diplomatic about whether this District Health Board needs a bespoke service versus that government department's payroll billing engine. And so on.

So we need a chief CIO/CTO person to herd those cats and good luck to them.

But from a policy perspective we really do need a vision for the country as a whole. Education, welfare, health, employment, business development, our history and our future, all considered and rolled into one. We need politicians who understand the potential and can help steer New Zealand in the right way and we need a population that doesn't treat ICT or Tech or Digital or whatever term you want to slap on it as something that can only happen to other countries.

We need parents to understand the opportunities and to encourage their kids to take part. We need kids to understand the exciting world ICT can deliver and be encouraged and supported into that world. We really do have enough accountants and business managers - let's have a few more software engineers and developers.

We need someone driving all of that but I worry that if we had a single person responsible for this vision it would end up being siloed, pushed off to one side, conveniently ignored.

So perhaps in a post CTO world what we need is a unified vision, a strategy we can all get behind and which we can use as a framework for the next wave of New Zealand's life, not just a check-box on the election hoardings.

Techblog - New Zealand urgently needs cohesive strategy for tech

Digital Govt - Strategy


Fake news

As I write this the US Congress has just finished hearing from Robert Mueller about his probe into whether Russian parties tried to influence the US presidential election. There's been a lot of talk about the interference and the whole thing is now a political football with either side shouting "fake news" at each other.

But closer to home we have fake news being spread about New Zealand and about our proposed gun laws in particular.

A US publication (pro-gun) has announced to the world that the New Zealand gun buy-back scheme is failing because, as per its headline: "New Zealand Compliance Rate for Gun Buyback Program Stands at Less than 1 Percent."

That's probably quite accurate because the story was written two weeks before the gun buyback programme (sic) actually started operating. Since then it seems to be going quite well.

For a non-expert it would be quite hard to tell that this is an example of fake news. By "expert" in this case I mean anyone from outside New Zealand having a casual look at the story. It links to Radio NZ, to Stuff and to the Washington Post and has a veneer of respectability about it. It's quite hard to tell that it's made up unless you're paying close attention and for many readers that's simply not something they do.

I read a lot. Every morning I spend a considerable amount of time reading local press coverage of anything and everything. I do this professionally because many of my clients are in the news or are affected by news coverage and I need to be across what's being said about key issues, industries, competitors, regulations and a raft of other things. So I read constantly and I watch the videos and I listen to the radio and to the podcasts and I can't even begin to describe how hard it is to keep up with one market segment let alone a bunch of them.

My concern here is not for our gun laws. I'm reasonably confident that the proposed changes are vanilla enough for all parties (once the shouting dies down) and practical enough that they might actually make it through to implementation.

No, my concern is that if people are willing to spend money to try to manipulate the news about New Zealand gun laws, will they be equally willing to spend money to try to manipulate our elections and are we prepared for that, from a legal and from a technical point of view.

The short answer is I don't know but I'd really like to find out more. Is our Electoral Act up to the task of coping with fake news, fake advertising, online targeted campaigns and hyper-specific advertising? Is our cyber-security apparatus up to dealing with repeated and systemic attacks from off shore?

Never have I been more happy with our electoral system that relies on local school halls, highlighter pens and pieces of paper. We risk so much if we move away from that model. It might be all that stands between us and the kind of craziness we see in other jurisdictions.

Newsroom - US 'fake news' hits NZ gun buyback efforts

NPR - Mueller On Russian Election Interference: 'They're Doing It As We Sit Here'


Tag Cleaners

And finally, a follow-up to last week's horrible story of a US teen who was murdered and then photographed for use on social media.

While some users were searching for photos of the murdered girl, much as we saw with the Christchurch terror attack, a group of activist teenagers decided to balance the scales by posting positive images tagged in such a way as to counter the unpleasant images being published in her name.

These "tag cleaners" are mostly young women and social media savvy enough to be able to spread positivity in the face of such grotesqueness and "drown out gore, harassment and more by flooding a user's tagged photos with pleasant images", according to The Verge. It's benevolent spam and it helps counter the relentless unpleasantness that can become a central part of any search for details around someone who has been harassed, bullied or worse.

I can't imagine how hard it must be for family members who have experienced the loss of someone close to them in this way, but to be constantly bombarded by graphical images whenever they go online, or whenever they try to search for information about a victim beggars belief.

This clean-up approach is a practical way of doing what the social media giants say cannot be done, of balancing the hate with something positive.

It's a great story for a Friday in a particularly unpleasant period of time in which celebrity and hate have come to be paired together in such a vile way.

Techblog - Social media fails another crime victim

The Verge - Instagram 'tag cleaners' are fighting against digital vandalism


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