So why are Internet users resigned to being surveilled?

This morning’s Observer column:

It would be patronising to assume that every internet user – except for the occasional geek – is a mug. Some people do read the terms and conditions to which they have to agree when signing up to use “free” internet services. They fully realise that “if the service is free then you are the product”. And yet they persist in using it. Why?

One possible reason is that they place a value on those “free” services. Various studies have tried to estimate what that value might be. A study by the consultancy company McKinsey, for example, asked 3,360 consumers in six countries what they would pay for 16 internet services that are now largely financed by ads. The conclusion was that households would pay €38 (£27) a month on average for those services. From this, McKinsey estimated that “free” internet services generate €32bn of consumer surplus in America and €69bn in Europe.

These calculations are music to the ears of Facebook and Google executives, who interpret them as proof that consumer tolerance of corporate surveillance is really evidence of “rational” economic behaviour. People put up with companies spying on them because they get a good deal out of it.

Into this comforting ointment, three academics have just implanted a number of flies…

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Learning to read

Today’s Observer column:

I never thought I’d find myself writing this, but the Daily Mail has finally done something useful for society. Mind you, it’s done it unintentionally: it didn’t know it was doing good. But still… It would be churlish not to acknowledge its achievement…

Sounds improbable? I know. But read on

The biggest question posed by the Anderson Report

This morning’s Observer column:

When, in the summer of 2013, Edward Snowden began his revelations of the shocking scale of the electronic surveillance currently practised by the NSA and its overseas franchises in Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, the big and obvious question was: is this just another scandal; or is it a real crisis?

Until this week, I’d have said that it was just another scandal…

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Ed Snowden has definitely had an impact but…

This morning’s Observer column:

For anyone still in doubt about the impact of Edward Snowden’s revelations, it might be instructive to review what has been going on in the US Congress over the last few months, with legislators grappling with bills aimed at curbing the surveillance capabilities of the NSA and other federal agencies. In the end, in a classic congressional farce, there was a brief intermission in the NSA’s data-gathering capabilities, after which the Senate passed a bill to end the agency’s bulk collection of the phone records of millions of Americans.

At one level it’s a significant moment: one in which – as a Guardian leader writer put it – “an outlaw rewrites the law”. And in a few other countries, notably Germany, Snowden’s revelations do seem to be having a demonstrable impact – as witnessed, for example, by the Bundestag’s inquiry into NSA surveillance within the Federal Republic.

These are non-trivial outcomes, but we shouldn’t get carried away…

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An iCar? Really? Is Apple smoking its own exhaust?

This morning’s Observer column about the strange fascination that the automobile industry has for otherwise sane geeks:

I remember once being in a British shopping arcade on the day that the local Apple Store opened for the first time. Long queues had formed from the moment the arcade gates had been unlocked that morning. Then came the magic moment: the glass doors opened, a hush fell on the assembled crowd, a group of T-shirted staff walked out, formed a human avenue leading into the store and then clapped rhythmically as the mob surged in. It was a truly extraordinary moment in which the conventional marketing mantra about the customer being king was turned on its head. In the case of Apple, it seemed, the customers felt privileged to be allowed to enter the store.

At the time, I concluded that much of this Apple worship could be put down to the astonishingly charismatic personality of Jobs. He was, after all, the only chief executive in the history of the world to be accorded the kind of adulation normally granted to rock stars and messiahs. Apple was obviously a one-man band and he was the Man. It seemed reasonable to conclude when he died, therefore, that the cult of Apple would diminish or at any rate that its share price would have peaked. An Apple car? Computer firm hires automotive engineers Read more

How wrong can you be? Jobs has been succeeded by Tim Cook, a nice man for whom the phrase “charisma deficit” might have been invented. But the cult of Apple is still going strong…

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Why Bitcoin is interesting

This morning’s Observer column:

When the banking system went into meltdown in 2008, an intriguing glimpse of an alternative future appeared. On 31 October, an unknown cryptographer who went by the name of Satoshi Nakamoto launched what he described as “a new electronic cash system that’s fully peer to peer, with no trusted third party”. The name he assigned to this new currency was bitcoin.

Since then, the world has been divided into three camps: those who think that bitcoin must be a scam; those who think it’s one of the most interesting technological developments in decades; and (the vast majority) those who have no idea what the fuss is about.

I belong in the second camp, but I can see why others see it differently…

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Implications of a new machine age

This morning’s Observer column:

As a species, we don’t seem to be very good at dealing with nonlinearity. We cope moderately well with situations and environments that are changing gradually. But sudden, major discontinuities – what some people call “tipping points” – leave us spooked. That’s why we are so perversely relaxed about climate change, for example: things are changing slowly, imperceptibly almost, but so far there hasn’t been the kind of sharp, catastrophic change that would lead us seriously to recalibrate our behaviour and attitudes.

So it is with information technology…

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Missing the Beats

This morning’s Observer column:

This time last year Apple paid $3bn to acquire a company called Beats that made overpriced headphones and ran an unsuccessful music-streaming business. This acquisition made Beats co-founder Dr Dre the first hip-hop billionaire at the same time as it baffled many observers of the industry. For example, Benedict Evans, a seasoned analyst, tweeted: “If you think Apple’s lost it, Beats deal is confirmation. If you don’t, it’s… perplexing. Few really convincing rationales.” This columnist was likewise puzzled. Apple normally designs and makes its own kit, and if it wanted to do headphones it would certainly do better than the Beats products. So the conclusion had to be that if Apple didn’t want Beats for the headphones, it had to be the music-streaming service that it craved.

And so it has proved. We have just discovered – in a roundabout way – just how much Apple wants to get into the streaming business…

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Magical thinking in surveillance circles

This morning’s Observer column:

The power of magical thinking – the notion that you can make something happen merely by thinking about it – has been much in evidence in the current election campaign. And that’s not entirely surprising, because as politicians get desperate, rationality goes out of the window. What is surprising, however, is when high government officials – for example, heads of intelligence and law-enforcement agencies – begin to show clear signs of the syndrome.

Exhibit A in this respect is James Comey, the current director of the FBI. Mr Comey has become so exercised by the decisions of Apple and Google to implement strong encryption in their devices and services that he appears to have lost his marbles. “I am a huge believer in the rule of law,” he told reporters last September, “but I am also a believer that no one in this country is above the law. What concerns me about this is companies marketing something expressly to allow people to place themselves above the law.”

It’s good to know that the FBI director believes that nobody should be above the law. Except, of course, for his colleague, the former NSA director, James Clapper, who lied under oath to the US Congress about the existence of bulk data collection programs and yet remains at large. But we will let that pass: after all, as Oscar Wilde observed, consistency is the last refuge of the unimaginative, and Mr Comey is nothing if not imaginative….

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Our fragile, incomprehensible networked world

This morning’s Observer column:

At first sight, it looked like an April Fools’ story. The US Department of Justice is seeking to extradite a day-trader from Hounslow to stand trial on charges that he brought the US stock market briefly to its knees on 6 May 2010. Navinder Singh Sarao is accused of using a computerised share-trading program to manipulate the market for S&P 500 futures contracts on the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, thereby adding (so the prosecution alleges) to wider selling pressure that caused the Dow Jones industrial average to plunge briefly by 6% before bouncing back.

In that short interval, stocks in huge companies such as Procter & Gamble dropped by 25% and established companies such as General Electric and Accenture briefly traded as penny shares. The British courts, not to mention the rest of us, are invited to believe that this mayhem was caused by a 36-year-old geek in the bedroom of his parents neat semi-detached house under the Heathrow flight path.

There are, it seems to me, only two possible interpretations of this. One is that Mr Sarao is indeed responsible for the chaos. The other is that the US authorities have no real idea who is responsible, but need to make an example of somebody and Mr Sarao will do nicely. Either way, we are left with a really alarming conclusion, namely that we have constructed a world that is totally dependent on systems that are a) astonishingly fragile and unpredictable, and b) incomprehensible not only to the average citizen but to those who are supposed to regulate them…

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