The political economy of trust

Cambridge University has a new ‘strategic research initiative’ on Trust and Technology, on whose Steering Group I sit.

We’re having a big launch event on September 20, and so I’ve been brooding about the issues surrounding it. Much (most?) of the discussion of trustworthy technology is understandably focussed on the technology itself. But this ignores the fact that the kit doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Digital technology is now part of the everyday lives of [4 billion people] and our dependence on it has raised many questions of trust, reliability, integrity, dependability, equity and control.

Some of these issues undoubtedly stem from technical characteristics of the equipment (think of all the crummy IoT devices coming from China); others stem from the fallibility or ignorance of users (accepting default passwords); but a significant proportion come from the fact that network technology is deployed by global corporations with distinctive business models and strategic interests which are not necessarily aligned with either the public interest or the wellbeing of users.

An interesting current example is provided by VPN (Virtual Private Network) technology. This enables users to create a private network that runs on a public network, thereby enabling them to send and receive data across the public network as if their computing devices were directly connected to the private one. The benefits of VPNs include enhanced functionality, security, and privacy protection and they are a boon for Internet users who need to use ‘free’ public WiFi services in hotels, cafes and public transport. In that sense VPN is a technology that enhances the trustworthiness of open WiFi networks. I use an encrypted VPN all the time on all my devices, and never use an open WiFi network unless I have the VPN switched on.

Earlier this year, Facebook generously offered some of its users Onavo Protect, a VPN developed by an Israeli company that Facebook bought in 2013. A link to the product appeared in the feeds of some US Facebook IOS users under the banner “Protect”. Clicking through on this led to the download link for “Onavo Protect — VPN Security” on the Apple App Store.

The blurb for the App included a promise to “keep you and your data safe when you browse and share information on the web” but omitted to point out that its functionality involved tracking user activity across multiple different applications to learn insights about how Facebook customers use third-party services. Whenever a user of Onavo opened up an app or website, traffic was redirected to Facebook’s servers, which logged the action in a database to allow the company to draw conclusions about internet usage from aggregated data.

Needless to say, close inspection of the Terms and Conditions associated with the app revealed that “Onavo collects your mobile data traffic. This helps us improve and operate the Onavo service by analyzing your use of websites, apps and data”. Whether non-technical users — who presumably imagined that a VPN would provide security and privacy for their browsing (rather than enabling Facebook to track their online activities outside of its ‘walled garden’) understood what this meant is an interesting question. In August 2018, Apple settled the issue — ruling that Onavo Protect violated a part of its developer agreement that prevents apps from using data in ways that go beyond what is directly relevant to the app or to provide advertising, and the app was removed (by Facebook, after discussions with Apple) from the Apple Store. (It is still available for Android users on the Google Play store.)

And the moral? In assessing trustworthiness the technical affordances of the technology are obviously important. But they may be only part of the story. The other part — the political economy of the technology — may actually turn out to be the more important one.

The Google era

This morning’s Observer column:

This is a month of anniversaries, of which two in particular stand out. One is that it’s 10 years since the seismic shock of the banking crisis – one of the consequences of which is the ongoing unravelling of the (neo)liberal democracy so beloved of western ruling elites. The other is that it’s 20 years since Google arrived on the scene.

Future historians will see our era divided into two ages: BG and AG – before and after Google. For web users in the 1990s search engines were a big deal, because as the network exploded, finding anything on it became increasingly difficult. Like many of my peers, I used AltaVista, a search tool developed by the then significant Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC), which was the best thing available at the time.

And then one day, word spread like wildfire online about a new search engine with a name bowdlerised from googol, the mathematical term for a huge number (10 to the power of 100). It was clean, fast and delivered results derived from conducting a kind of peer review of all the sites on the web. Once you tried it, you never went back to AltaVista.

Twenty years on, it’s still the same story…

Read on

Those denials about the anonymous NYT OpEd: remember Watergate

From the New Yorker:

Everybody and his dog in the White House has been denying that they are the author of the anonymous OpEd published by the New York Times. Susan Glasser is not impressed:

The denials seemed like some of those pointless, if required, Washington rituals. After all, Mark Felt, the deputy director of the F.B.I. during the Nixon Administration, who had been Woodward’s original secret source about the Watergate scandal, denied publicly for years that he was “Deep Throat,” a fact pointed out on Twitter on Wednesday, as journalists circulated a copy of an old Wall Street Journal story with Felt’s denial as the lede. Felt revealed himself as Woodward’s source before he died, and Woodward later published a book all about their dealings, “The Secret Man,” another book that Sarah Huckabee Sanders presumably did not read but should have: at the center of the tale is the story of how the F.B.I., outraged by the flagrant lawlessness of the President, decided to use its powers to take Nixon on.

How to think about electric — and autonomous — cars

Lovely, perceptive essay by Benedict Evans. Here’s how it opens…

When Nokia people looked at the first iPhone, they saw a not-great phone with some cool features that they were going to build too, being produced at a small fraction of the volumes they were selling. They shrugged. “No 3G, and just look at the camera!”

When many car company people look at a Tesla, they see a not-great car with some cool features that they’re going to build too, being produced at a small fraction of the volumes they’re selling. “Look at the fit and finish, and the panel gaps, and the tent!”

The Nokia people were terribly, terribly wrong. Are the car people wrong? We hear that a Tesla is ‘the new iPhone’ – what would that mean?

This is partly a question about Tesla, but it’s more interesting as a way to think about what happens when ‘software eats the world’ in general, and when tech moves into new industries. How do we think about whether something is disruptive? If it is, who exactly gets disrupted? And does that disruption that mean one company wins in the new world? Which one?

Well worth reading in full.

Ten years on

If, like me, you see the events of 2016 as the long-delayed democratic response to the banking crisis of 2008, then you’ll like this essay by George Packer, which says, in part:

At first, American institutions responded with signs of health: the Federal Reserve stopped the free fall of the biggest banks; the press uncovered corruption and fraud; and a bipartisan Congress passed legislation to get credit flowing and rescue the financial sector. Then the electorate turned out the party in power. The financial crisis decided the election of 2008. Americans who might never have imagined themselves choosing a black President voted for Barack Obama because he understood the scope of the disaster and offered hope for a remedy.

But our democracy turned out to be unwell. The first symptom of sickness came within three weeks of Obama’s inauguration. In February, 2009, with the economy losing seven hundred thousand jobs a month, Congress passed a stimulus bill—a nearly trillion-dollar package of tax cuts, aid to states, and infrastructure spending, considered essential by economists of every persuasion—with the support of just three Republican senators and not a single Republican member of the House. Rather than help save the economy that their party had done so much to wreck, Republicans, led by Senator Mitch McConnell, chose to oppose every Democratic measure, including Wall Street reform. In doing so, they would impede the recovery and let the other party take the fall. It was a brilliantly immoral strategy, and it pretty much worked.

The President didn’t always aid his own cause. He had campaigned as a visionary, but he governed as a technocrat. His policies helped to end the recession within months, but the recovery was excruciatingly slow. The stimulus package could have been much larger, with added money for job creation; more indebted homeowners could have been kept in their houses. Perhaps Obama made too many compromises in the hope of appealing to a bipartisanship that was already dead. But his biggest mistake was to save the bankers along with the banks. After a financial crisis caused in part by fraud, not a single top Wall Street executive was brought to trial. The public wanted to punish the malefactors, but justice was never done.

In the years after the crash, you could feel the fabric of the country fraying…

Facebook’s whack-a-mole job will never be completed

Useful NYT report this morning:

Facebook’s fight against disinformation and hate speech will be a topic of discussion on Capitol Hill on Wednesday, when Sheryl Sandberg, the company’s chief operating officer, will join Jack Dorsey, Twitter’s chief executive, to testify in front of the Senate Intelligence Committee.

When it comes to public-facing pages, Ms. Sandberg will have plenty of company actions to cite. Facebook has taken many steps to clean up its platform, including hiring thousands of additional moderators, developing new artificial-intelligence tools and breaking up coordinated influence operations ahead of the midterm elections.

But when it comes to more private forms of communication through the company’s services — like Facebook groups, or the messaging apps WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger — the social network’s progress is less clear. Some experts worry that Facebook’s public cleanup may be pushing more toxic content into these private channels, where it is harder to monitor and moderate.

Misinformation is not against Facebook’s policies unless it leads to violence. But many of the private groups reviewed by The New York Times contained content and behavior that appeared to violate other Facebook rules, such as rules against targeted harassment and hate speech. In one large QAnon group, members planned a coordinated harassment campaign, known as Operation Mayflower, against public figures such as the actor Michael Ian Black, the late-night host Stephen Colbert and the CNN journalist Jim Acosta. In the Infowars group, posts about Muslims and immigrants have drawn threatening comments, including calls to deport, castrate and kill people.

As the social-media exec said to Kara Swisher, “there’s no fixing this”.

Quote of the Day

“Historically, Americans have been better at living democracy than at understanding it. They consider it a birthright and a universal aspiration, not a rare form of government that for two millennia was dismissed as base, unstable, and potentially tyrannical. They are generally unaware that democracy in the West went from being considered an irredeemable regime in classical antiquity, to a potentially good one only in the nineteenth century, to the best form of government only after World War II, to the sole legitimate regime only in the past twenty-five years.”

Mark Lilla

What’s significant about Wikipedia

This morning’s Observer column:

Since its inception, it’s been the butt of jokes, a focus for academic ire and a victim of epistemological snobbery. I remember one moment when the vice-chancellor of a top university made a dismissive remark about Wikipedia, only to have a world-leading chemist in the audience icily retort that the pages on his particular arcane speciality were the most up-to-date summary currently available anywhere – because he wrote them. And this has been my experience; in specialist areas, Wikipedia pages are often curated by experts and are usually the best places to gain an informed and up-to-date overview.

Because Wikipedia is so vast and varied (in both range and quality), the controversies it engenders have traditionally been about its content and rarely about its modus operandi and its governance. Which is a pity, because in some ways these are the most significant aspects of the project. The political events of the last two years should have alerted us to the fact that Wikipedia had to invent a way of tackling the problem that now confronts us at a global level: how to get at some approximation to the truth…

Read on

Quote of the Day

As one social media executive said to me recently, with an audible sigh: “For one set, we can’t take enough down; for another set, we can’t leave up enough. One side thinks social media enabled populism, while the other thinks the opposite. There will be no fixing this.”

Kara Swisher, writing in the New York Times.

How things change

When Pope Paul II came to holy catholic Ireland in 1979 his mass in Dublin’s Phoenix Park in Dublin is estimated to have been the largest gathering of Irish people in history with an estimated 1.25 million attending the event, nearly a third of the country’s population.

But this weekend only 130,000 attended Pope Francis’ mass in the same spot, illustrating the extent of the Catholic church’s decline in Ireland over the past four decades. Less than half the people holding tickets turned up at the event, with weather, travel restrictions and acts of protest all thought to have caused the low turnout.

Source