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Brislen on Tech

Paul Brislen, Editor. 15 February 2019, 1:00 pm

It's all over red rover

I made my eldest daughter cry this morning. I told her about the robot on Mars, Opportunity, and how it was finally out of juice.

Only I made the mistake of telling her as I heard it - via Jacob Margolis, a US-based science journalist who tweeted: "The last message they received was basically, 'My battery is low and it's getting dark.'" and that really was that.

What an incredible story and an incredible piece of hardware.

Designed for a 90-day mission, Opportunity has exceeded all expectations and has clocked up 15 years trundling around another world, providing us with more than just a snapshot into our nearest neighbour.

As well as the science and understanding we've gained, Opportunity has also taught a whole generation of school children that may be living in the gap between one glorious space age of exploration with humans and the next but we are still out there, learning and exploring. That emotional connection is important if we're to get the next generation of explorers to think seriously about where to from here.

So my hat is off to all those out there pushing the boundaries and building kit that goes the distance, and then some, and who are standing on the shoulders of giants, if only so they can haul up the next person in line to give them a better view.

(To help the kid over her emotional response I played the cold opening to the episode of The West Wing. It may not have helped)

Nasa - NASA's Opportunity Rover Mission on Mars Comes to End

CNN - After 15 years, the Mars Opportunity rover's mission has ended

Wikipedia - Opportunity (rover)

XKCD - Opportunity Rover




File Lance Armstrong's autobiography under "fiction"

Imagine if you will that a publishing company had put out a book outlining why the Holocaust never took place. Or that vaccines were evil and destructive to your health. Or the cellphones gave you cancer. Or that aircraft contrails were actually a secret government conspiracy to spray everyone with some kind of mind or mood control agent.

Such books would no doubt be published, but would be hard to come by, probably not at the front of the book shop and probably not even in the "factual" section but more likely the "crackpot" section.

Bookshop keepers and librarians would no doubt be able to source such books for you, but would advise that they were poorly written and had little scientific veracity to back up their claims.

Sadly, the internet does not have such distinctions and the chain of command appears to be:

1: Think up idea.

2: Publish.

3: Be damned.

All of which is fine if the material being produced is visibly not true, but when it's disguised as fact, when the "bookshop" and "library" shelve the information alongside journalism and say "hey, it's not our fault if you can't distinguish between the two" then the outcomes are often life threatening.

Vaccines save lives. Every year. Gone are the days when measles or smallpox ravaged the population. Defeating such terrible diseases is one of humanity's defining points, but today we're seeing a rise in cases of diseases long thought wiped out because of a fear of vaccinations lead, in no small part, by claims going unchallenged.

US researchers have come to the alarming conclusion that a lot of the misinformation about vaccine safety is shared online by bots controlled by the same accounts that share a lot of misinformation about the US election process, about race and class and various other topics designed to disengage readers from the facts.

This misinformation campaign is aided and abetted by our social media platforms and their seeming inability to spend more than a moment or two trying to solve the problem of automated sharing of propaganda and lies.

Yes, I'm sure it's hard work and possibly very difficult but hey, social media makes all the money in publishing these days so you could try spending some on getting it right. Otherwise we're about to see an entire generation brought up to disbelieve basic truths and unable to trust the information in front of them.

BBC - Russia trolls 'spreading vaccination misinformation' to create discord

Science Daily - Bots and Russian trolls influenced vaccine discussion on Twitter, research finds

British Medical Journal - Vaccine safety: Russian bots and trolls stoked online debate, research finds


Where to from here?

Speaking of social media, once again I'm forced to poke Facebook with a stick over its seeming inability to support users' privacy.

I'll be brief.

The Privacy Commissioner had challenged Facebook over its seeming nonchalance towards the Cambridge Analytica scandal and was rewarded with a change in Facebook's terms and conditions to reflect his concerns.

Since then, Facebook has enjoyed even more criticism for its abuse of app development programmes and the harvesting of data without proper consents.

Now the Commissioner says Facebook and others should be more heavily regulated as a result, and it's hard to argue with his reasoning.

But it's not just Facebook that seems happy to turn a blind eye to the privacy of its users.

Google and Apple are coming under fire for allowing the Saudi government to launch an app that allows men to track and manage the movements of women.

Absher, which is available for download from the Google Play store and Apple's app store, is an e-government portal that allows Saudi citizens to engage with government for various paperwork related activities - registering a birth, licensing a car, getting a passport and so on.

But the app also allows Saudi men to restrict the travel of women by disallowing them to leave the country, and by limiting the dates and places women are permitted to travel.

Human rights groups have called on both Apple and Google to drop the app, and Apple CEO Tim Cook says he was unaware of the app and would be investigating it further.

At the time of writing the app is still available in the New Zealand App Store in the "productivity" section.

So what are our regulators doing about this state of affairs? Given these politicians are supposed to work for the good of the country, how's that all shaping up around the world?

Australia, as we have discussed in the past, has implemented a law designed to break encryption and security at the most fundamental layer by refusing to consider the technology itself and instead simply declaring that software developers will be responsible for ensuring the government can listen in when it wants.

That's not going too well despite the law already being used by some enforcement agencies.

In the US state of New Jersey workers who are billing the government for their time will be required to have their keystrokes recorded and monitored to prove how much they're working on a project for the government and how much time is spent goofing off doing other things.

New Jersey isn't alone - several US states are considering similar legislation under the guise of keeping contractors honest when they bid for government work.

So much for work/life balance, eh?

And in the UK it's soon to be illegal to view terrorist propaganda, even if someone else sends it to you. Think "rick-rolling" but with a 15-year prison sentence hanging over your head.

The new Counter Terrorism and Border Security Act 2019 includes a tasty little offence of obtaining information "likely to be useful to a person committing or preparing an act of terrorism"  and all you have to do is look at it once to be in breach of the law. An amendment that said a user would have to repeatedly download material to be liable was scrapped at the last minute.

It's very difficult to see any sign of any positive outcomes for us as a society if our political representatives and law makers are this inept. If they're not siding with big business, they're failing to hold online billionaires to account for their activities or they're introducing legislation that will have major impact on people and industries that they clearly don't care terribly much about.

NZ Herald - Facebook 'doubling down' on privacy abuse: NZ watchdog

Stuff - Apple and Google under fire for Saudi app that lets men track women

ZDNet - Australian anti-corruption bodies should get encryption-busting powers: PJCIS

The Register - If you want a vision of the future, imagine not a boot stamping on a face, but keystroke logging on govt contractors' PCs

The Register - One click and you're out: UK makes it an offence to view terrorist propaganda even once

UK Parliament - Counter-Terrorism and Border Security Act 2019


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