It’s a personal thing.. but not really

The 20th anniversary of the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon have caused many to reflect on the way surveillance has become a way of life. Photo ID, security cameras, and areas of the commons that are out-of-bounds are now accepted parts of life together, even if they sit uncomfortably with us. Measures to control the pandemic (and consequently, people) have raised fresh concerns about how much privacy we are willing to sacrifice for safety, perceived or otherwise. 
The Triggernometry podcast hosted a noteworthy conversation last week, with Carissa Véliz, an Associate Professor of Philosophy at the University of Oxford. While a lot of Mad Christians are acutely aware of the pitfalls of online life, Professor Véliz’s insights into surveillance, data collection, and A.I. are well worth considering. 

A lot of people assume that data privacy is a personal thing. But Professor Véliz appeals to listeners to take their privacy very seriously, as there is no guarantee where your data goes. She uses the example of Cambridge Analytica, a consultancy firm involved in the Russian Collusion scandal during the Presidency of Donald Trump. While 270,000 people gave consent for the firm to use their data, Cambridge Analytica was able to gain access through that data to 87 million others. 

Professor Véliz is quick to point out that people who are collecting our data and recording aspects of our lives are rarely driven by malice. They generally just want to sell us things. But she says Big Tech and government are “creating an architecture of surveillance that is so good, if it were taken over [by bad actors], it would be impossible to resist.” As an example, she points to the Netherlands and France in the 1940s. While the Dutch kept exhaustive records about its citizens, France kept minimal data. Professor Véliz believes this accounts for the death toll in the Netherlands, where Nazis were able to easily find 73% of Dutch Jews. 

Professor Véliz has a few interesting suggestions to improve this situation. How about a control group for data collection algorithms before they’re released into the virtual wilds? (An algorithm used by the government of Michigan wrongly accused thousands of welfare fraud, ruining many lives.) On a personal level, Professor Véliz encourages people not to feed the machine by giving over your data unnecessarily. She suggests writing to political representatives and speaking to friends, making them aware that privacy helps us all.

This is not a time to worry, Mad Christian, but a time to be wise. There will be times to go with the flow and times to take a stand. Navigating the landscape of this decaying world, for ourselves and our families is wearisome. Yet this has always been the lot of anyone who would follow after Christ. 

We can trust our Savior, who’s eye is on the sparrow and who knew us before we were born. He keeps watch over us in ways that the world can never understand, he discerns our thoughts from afar, better than any algorithm. So we ask for wisdom, knowing God will give us power to stand in the day of evil. Just as Jesus’ words to his disciples were a great comfort to them, we know that he has sent us a Helper, “the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees Him nor knows Him; but you know Him, for He dwells with you and will be in you.”

Let’s support each other, in our churches and communities, even more as we look forward to that glorious day. Maranatha!

Rules are made to be broken

cyclone fence in shallow photography
Facebook has a fresh set of fires to put out, with news coming last week that the social media company has separate rules for several million VIPs. A leaked document says that many celebrities, politicians and “influencers” are on Facebook’s special whitelist, XCheck, meaning their posts are not subjected to moderation. Digital content moderation is a booming industry but is notoriously damaging to the humans who protect us from the most vile of content.

In another big story last week, a report concluded that Facebook has been aware of Instagram’s harmful affect on teenage girls, but has seemingly ignored it.

Bloomberg has reported about new details in a mysterious hack on Juniper, a company which develops and sells networking products. In 2015, suspected Chinese hackers gained access to data flowing through Juniper’s network. In details uncovered by Bloomberg, the hackers gained access through an algorithm, installed as a “backdoor” by the NSA. The case is an interesting study in how government’s desire to keep ahead of the bad guys often hurts the citizens they are trying to protect. In other news, IBM has found a booming “dark” market for cloud credentials.

For those playing along at home, the legal tussle between Apple and gaming company Epic seems to be drawing to a conclusion, with Forbes breaking down the outcomes of the latest ruling.

Life imitating art?

Not the Bee brought attention to an interview from 1976, with sci-fi author Arthur C. Clarke. Clarke proposes that the future would see people using a screen and keyboard for news and shopping . He also looked forward to radio wrist watches and phones that are “mobile.” The writer said he likes the idea that future media consumers would be blessed to only read the news they wanted, saving a lot of paper. Ah, Mr. Clarke, if only you knew…

In other tech news, Facebook is attempting to limit political content on its platform. It remains to be seen what Facebook thinks is “political.”

An interesting article from Vice follows the story of a hacker who spied for Apple. Andrey Shumeyko gathered information about stolen prototypes, leaked apps, and “anything he thought the company would find interesting and worth investigating.” Shumeyko says he decided to blow the whistle on Apple’s sketchy dealings when they wouldn’t pay for his service. In other Apple news, the tech giant is backing down on plan to scan photos on devices for child porn.

If airborne surveillance is ever a concern for you, here’s a pro tip— train your eagle to take down drones. Or better still, keep a pet alligator.

Who’s watching the henhouse

Vice has reported on the potential dangers of “netflow data.” It is an “open secret” in cybersecurity that Internet Service Providers collect data about which computer is connected to which, even across VPNs. Ostensibly, this is justified as a method of tracking stolen data but a threat intelligence firm says there is nothing to stop the bad actors, or our own governments from buying the information.

While we’re talking about privacy, Wired  has highlighted the rise of “geofence” warrants issued by police and law enforcement. A “geofence” request is an investigative technique that “collects data from any user’s device that was in a specified area within a certain time range.”

Billionaire spaceman, Jeff Bezos, is suing NASA after the space agency chose SpaceX to build its lunar landing vehicle. It would seem that a lot of Bezos’ crack talent see it as a fail, with CNBC reporting that many top engineers left after the bid fell through.

Apparently, iPhone 7 charges faster if users changed the region setting to France.

The whole wired world

It would seem that many Americans are cutting the cord. At least a little. News outlets recently reported that Netflix is “bleeding” subscribers in the USA.

In the continued tension between privacy and security, tech companies are inventing new ways of verifying who you are. Amazon is offering customers ten bucks (store credit) to store their palm print. And in another “pick one” moment, Apple has said it is building software for its devices that would help in the fight against child porn and exploitation. Sounds good, except this would involve scanning phones and even encrypted messages for explicit images, which has privacy advocates worried.

In some heartwarming tech news, a Japanese robotics company has opened a cafe with a twist. The cafe is tended by robots, which are controlled by remote workers. The robots are avatars for bed ridden or paralyzed people. The cafe gives the workers a chance to engage with people, and combats the loneliness of isolation.

Unfulfilled by Amazon

Amazon has pulled more than 400,000 products after the US Consumer Product Safety Commission filed a complaint against the retail giant. The products in question include flammable sleepwear, hairdryers that can electrocute you, and faulty carbon monoxide detectors. 

While we’re speaking about the world of online retail… You’re not crazy if you question what’s “real” any more. Even the word itself has to be qualified sometimes! But when it comes to product reviews online, it pays to take everything with a grain of salt. Several governments worldwide have been attempting to tackle the problem of “fake reviews” online. Businesses will go to great lengths to get five-star ratings for their products, including fabricating glowing recommendations. But it’s easier said than done.

The Apple app store has removed an app called Fakespot from its store at the request of Amazon. The app was designed to detect fake reviews, but Amazon maintained it was a privacy risk.

We have written before about the current fight by farmers for the right to repair their equipment. The FTC has voted to enforce right-to-repair, saying there is little evidence to “support manufacturers’ justifications for repair restrictions.” Large manufacturers, including such diverse companies as John Deere and Apple, have warned that letting third parties repair their products or people repairing things themselves will lead to reduced safety and breaches of privacy.