A not-so-flat World – Friedman 2.0

I’m preping a program on the future and pursuing a number of related books that will not doubt result in Technology and Society blog posts in the future.  One recent (2016) book is Tom Friedman’s “Thank You for Being Late”.  Where I’m part way in, but clearly the technology impact considerations are top on his list.  You may recognize Tom with his prior best seller, “The World is Flat” … that pointed out how technology had changed the shape of the world.  Since that book (2005) the world has changed, significantly.  The future is arriving more quickly than he anticipated.  Like some other authors, he sees this window of time, and in particular from 2007 on, as a “dislocation” not just a “disruption”. The short take on this is a disruption just destroys your business (think PC’s and mini computers, Cell phones and land lines, Cars and horses) — it wipes some folks out, but the world keeps puttering along.  Dislocation makes EVERYONE sense that they are no longer able to keep up.  He suggests the last such disruption was the advent of the printing press and subsequent reformation (taking decades to play out, and only affecting the western world.)  Today’s dislocation is global, affecting almost every activity, and requires our serious attention and consideration.

His title results from some of his contacts showing up late for breakfast, and realizing that it gave him a few essential minutes to reflect on the deluge of changes and data he had been assimilating for the last few years.  A break he suggests we all need.

While there will be a few more posts based on this, I will point out a few essential factors he has surfaced so far:

  • Computing has gone past a tipping point with individual and networked power
    tasks that were unimaginable even a decade ago (2007) are propagating now.
  • Communications capacity has exploded (AT&T asserting 100,000 times as much traffic as their pre-iPhone exclusive in 2007) (note that year)
  • The Cloud and Big Data — we can now store everything (and we are), with tools (Hadroop being the leading example) that facilitate analyzing the unimaginable content. (since 2007)
  • Access has gone global – along with collaboration — and many other factors.
  • Sensors are everywhere — it is the “internet of things’ but more than that, “the machine” as he calls it, has ears, eyes, touch, (eventually taste and smell) almost everywhere (including every cell phone, etc.)

And all of the pieces of the equation are advancing at accelerating rates in an event he calls the “SuperNova”.

One key is that the changing of technology has passed our ability to adapt to the changes. A decade ago, we might have considered this a generational issue (us old folks unable to keep up with the younger ones. — “if you need help with your PC ask your grandchild”.) Today this challenge is penetrating every demographic.  It’s not that the world just isn’t flat anymore, it’s that we can no longer grasp sufficient information to identify what shape it is this year, and next year it will be different.

What factors are changing the shape of your world?

Police Cameras

My daughter is attending a citizen police academy. They discussed the challenges that police cameras (body, squad car, interview rooms, traffic monitoring, etc.) present — and these related, in part, to the objectives of having such cameras.

1) When an officer is apprehending a suspect, a video of the sequence covers a topic that is very likely to be raised in court (in the  U.S. where fairly specific procedures need to be followed during an arrest.)  Evidence related to this has to follow very specific rules to be admissible.  An example of this concept is in the Fort Collins Colorado police FAQ where they provide some specifics. This process requires managed documentation trails by qualified experts to assure the evidence can be used.  There are real expenses here beyond just having a camera and streaming/or transferring the sequences to the web. Web storage has been created that is designed to facilitate this management challenge. Note that even if the prosecution does not wish to use this material, the defense may do so, and if it is not managed correctly, seek that charges be dismissed. (For culture’s where defendants are not innocent until proven guilty and/or there is not a body of case or statutory defendants rights this may sound odd, but in the U.S. it is possible for a blatantly guilty perpetrator to have charges against him dropped due to a failure to respect his rights.)

2) There are situations where a police officer is suspected of criminal actions. For real time situations (like those in the news recently), the same defendants rights need to be respected for the officer(s) involved. Again close management is needed.

Note that in these cases, there are clear criminal activities that the police suspect at the time when the video is captured, and managing the ‘trail of evidence’ is a well defined activity with a cost and benefit that is not present without the cameras.

The vast majority of recorded data does not require the chain-of-evidence treatment. If a proper request for specific data not associated with an arrest results in data that is used in court, it is most likely to be by a defendant, and the prosecutor is unlikely to challenge the validity of the data since it deprecates their own system.

Of course there are other potential uses of the data.  It might contain information relevant to a divorce actions (the couple in the car stopped for the ticket – one’s spouse wants to know why the other person was in the car); or the images of bystanders at a site might impact the apparent privacy of such persons. (Although in general no right of privacy is recognized in the U.S. for persons in public.)

The Seattle police are putting some video on YouTube, after applying automated redaction software to protect the privacy of individuals captured in the frame. Just the presence of the video cameras can reduce both use of force and citizen complaints.

There are clearly situations where either the police, or the citizens involved, or both would find a video recording to be of value, even if it did not meet evidentiary rules.  Of course the concern related to such rules is the potential for in-appropriate editing of the video to transform it from an “objective” witness to bias it in one direction or another.

We have the technology— should we use it?  An opinion piece by Jay Stanley in SSIT’s Technology and Society journal outlines some of these issues in more detail.

Google Drive and the Titanic — UnSyncable

I have a number of files I want to share across my three primary computers, and have backed up in the cloud — “Just in case”. So when Google lowered the price for 100GB of cloud storage, I took them up on the offer … BUT …

Apparently they made a change in the last few days (Circa Feb 1, 2015) and now refuses to sync MP3 files.  Since the Drive APP does not correctly display large numbers of unsyncable files, I had to catch it in the act (with just 700+ of my 1900+ MP3 files.  The message is”Download error: You do not have the  permission to sync this file“. This apparently was applied to ALL MP3 files since it includes recordings of my wife, niece, and cousins as well as CDs and Vinyl “rips” I have done to allow me to listen to that music on my computer(s) — and for which I still have the original media (and I do not sell or share). So it appears that Google (perhaps under pressure from the music industry) has decided to ban MP3 files from Drive. (If you are a musical artist, you obviously need another supplier.) — [A later observation, after more experience and some useful feedback — while it is not clear what triggers Drive to make decisions about Permission to Sync, it is not the .MP3 characteristic alone — following guidance from  Google support, I completely reinstalled it on my Windows8 system and now things sync alright … hmm]

There is a valid copyright concern from IP owners related to sharing of their content.  Google has some experience with this with Google Books. They have argued “fair use” for wholesale capture, storage and indexing of libraries full of books.   Which was upheld in a 2013 court ruling. It is also worth noting that besides copyright for books and MP3 files, every item on Google Drive has an implicit or explicit copyright.  This Blog entry will have an implicit copyright as soon as I post it, actually I think it gains that status as soon as I type it in.  Every email, document, home movie or picture you take, etc. has applicable copyright law — and I can’t envision Google being able to sort out who has what permissions. And with a transition from “first sale” protections to licensing for works, things get more difficult.  If I buy a book, I can re-sell it (or a DVD, CD, etc) … but if I buy a license for something (software, ebook, etc.) …. my rights are limited by the license, not copyright law.  (Which is why Amazon could ‘take back’ copies of Orwell’s “1984” from Kindel devices.)

While seeking to understand the problems I encountered with Drive I  discovered an interesting variation on the problems.  A user reported a system infected with ransomware that encrypted his files and demanded payment to restore access.  The encrypted files  replaced the unencrypted files on Google Drive, which means his “backup” was no longer available (and apparently Google cannot restore prior versions of files.)

Cloud computing in it’s variations opens a batch of new Social Implications … Copyright, protection of content, loss of content, etc. What other challenges do you see for the Cloud?

US States use Big Data to Catch Big Thieves

Various states are using big data tools, such as the Lexus-Nexus database, to identify folks who are filing false tax returns.  A recent posting at the Pew Trusts, indicates that  “Indiana spotted 74,782 returns filed with stolen or manufactured identities as of the end of last month with its new identity-matching effort. Without it, the Department of Revenue caught just 1,500 cases of identity theft out of more than 3 million returns filed in all of 2013.”

The article goes on to outline other ways big data is being used by the states.  This can include the focus (e.g. tax refund validation) use of third party data sets, or can include ways to span state data sets to surface “exceptions”.  A state can cross check drivers license records, with car registrations, property tax records, court records, etc … to ultimately identify wrong-doers.

This harkens back in my own family experience when my daughter was working for a catalog sales company.  She was assigned the task of following up on ‘invalid credit cards’ to get valid entries to allow the items to ship.  She discovered via her own memory of contact data, that a number of invalid credit cards, being used with a variety of names were going to a single address.  She contacted the credit card companies to point out this likely source of fraud, only to find out that they incorporated the costs of credit fraud as part of their costs of doing business and were not interested in pursuing an apparent abuser.  Big data, appropriate queries and a willingness to pursue abuse could yield much greater results than the coincidental awareness of an alert employee.

So … here’s the question(s) that come to my mind:

  1. What are the significant opportunities for pursuing ne’er-do-well‘s with big data either by governments or by industry?
  2. What are the potential abuses that may emerge from similar approaches being applied in less desirable ways? (or with more controversial definitions of ne’er-do-well)?

Genomics, Big Data and Google

Google is offering cloud storage and genomic specific services for genome data bases.  It is unclear (to this blogger) what levels of anonymity can be assured with such data.  Presumably a full sequencing (perhaps 100 GB of data) is unique to a given person (or set of identical twins since this does not, yet, include epigenetic data) providing a specific personal identifier — even if it lacks name or social security number. Researchers can share data sets with team members, colleagues or the public.  The National Cancer Institute has moved thousands of patient datasets to both Google and Amazon cloud storage.

So here are some difficult questions:

If the police have a DNA sample from a “perp”, and search the public genome records, and find a match, or parent, or … how does this relate to U.S. (or other jurisdiction) legal rights?  Can Google (or the researcher) be forced to identify the related individual?

Who “owns” your DNA dataset? The lab that analyses it,  the researcher, you?  And what can these various interests do with that data?  In the U.S. there are laws that prohibit discrimination for health insurance based on this data, but not long term care insurance, life insurance or employment decisions.

Presumably for a cost of $1000 or so I can have any DNA sample sequenced.  Off of a glass from a restaurant, or some other source that was “left behind”.  Now what rights, limits, etc. are implicit in this collection and the resulting dataset?  Did you leave a coffee cup at that last staff meeting?

The technology is running well ahead of our understanding of the implications here — it will be interesting.

Your Data in the Cloud, like it or not!

Various suppliers of products & services are now integrating cloud operations as necessary aspects of their offerings.  This has raised questions in an article in Scientific American, “The Curse of the Cloud” (hard copy) and related online entry “We are Forced to Use Cloud Services” about who is in control of your data. Before we disparage this situation, we (technologists) need to consider why it is happening.

From a user perspective, having a “common” file structure between devices can be a real advantage.  My music is there, the files I need for this meeting, when I’m on the road. For those of us using online email services (Gmail, Hotmail, etc.) this is a common concept. Once upon a time (like 3 years ago) I’d email myself a file just so it was stored in the implicit cloud. Google has made that explicit with Google Drive and the aps environment.  And specific services like iTunes/iCloud, Microsoft with Windows 8, Chrome/Android have also been structured to preserve “context” in the cloud that can span multiple systems.  This includes the automated password completion data your browser so kindly provides.  In short, your bank account access is now only as safe as your Gmail or other auto-login product’s protection. Ditto your online health records, etc.

Why?  The technological answer is simple — single devices fail, automate backup. Also for apps that run in the cloud, they can be automatically maintained, less user fuss – more secure. But there is a dark cloud above this silver lining called “vendor lock in”.   Microsoft has constantly been challenged with “how can we sell you another copy of xyz?” (DOS, Word, etc.) Historically this has been accomplished by periodic updates and eventually making an old version obsolete in terms of support, security, file formats, etc. Today the solution is Office 365, where you subscribe to the use of the software, and must connect every 30 days or “lose it”.

Your Data Are Ours” — and of course the data you store in these locations has limited practical portability to a competing environment.  Typically you can export, or “save as” a file in an common format and move it, but with some data files (music) built in DRM may prevent that.  (An interesting example was Amazon’s removal of Orwell’s 1984 from all of the Kindles that had downloaded it when they found they were in violation of copyright. There is some irony in giving Big Brother that capability.)

As the Scientific American article points out, participation in these services is no longer optional. It is the only way to sync your calendar, etc. with the new iOS, and is strongly encouraged by Microsoft Windows 8.  Needless to say, a Chrome book, is marginal “For those rare times when you aren’t connected to the web“.

As you may have noticed, some of these suppliers are also selling or compelled to provide access to your content by the “authorities”. For each country the “authorities” varies, but includes NSA and such.  If you are engaged in a business that spans international boarders, and tries to maintain trade secrets from foreign competitors, you may want to think twice, or even a dozen times, before committing  critical data to the cloud.  Consider the liability of an “innocent” memo stored in the cloud (email, or even just a draft — early draft given version rollback) … that reveals just a bit too much about some key secret.  Back in the last millennium, when lawsuit “discovery” entailed providing access to your file cabinets to an army of paralegals one of them tripped over this comment in one company’s files: “XYZ corp is eating our lunch, we need to buy them out or burn them down” … written prior to the fire that destroyed XYZ corp’s facilities.  Such a cute turn of phrase would be far easier to find with a good search engine and authorized (or even unauthorized) access to your files.

There is a solution which I think might work: buy your cloud services from NSA. Consider this. NSA has the worlds leading experts on cyber-security, and while an obvious target for attack, is probably one of the best defended. They have data centers that can handle the load (if they can ever get the generators in Utah working), and they probably have more restrictions on their abuse of the data than any other entity (with increasing restrictions every day.) — and best of all, they already have a copy (I think I’m kidding here.)

Paul Cunningham

Paul Cunningham
Dublin, Leinster; Ireland
SSIT Volunteer since: 2.013
picture of Cunningham SSIT Roles
2013 – 2016: Chair, UK & Ireland Chapter
2016 – 2018: Member, Board of Governors
2016 – Present: Associate Editor, IEEE Technology and Society Magazine
2015 – Present: Chair, SSIT SIGHT
IEEE Roles
SSIT Board, Member IEEE Technical Activities Board, Conference Committees, IEEE Section/Chapter
SSIT 5 Pillars Interest:
Humanitarian/development, Sustainability, Technology Access, Ethics, Impact of Emerging Technology
Founder and Coordinator, IST-Africa (www.IST-Africa.org); Founder and Coordinator, mHealth4Afrika (www.mHealth4Afrika.org); Visiting Senior Fellow, Wrexham Glyndŵr University (Wales)
Web site & Social Media
IEEE Senior Member in UK and Ireland Section of Region 8

Last updated: 02/02/2017