If the Computer Said it, it must be True!

Well, maybe not.  “What Happens When GPS Can’t Find You?” is a commercial concern raised by a Wall St. Journal article.  Needless to say a business in today’s world is at risk if the GPS location associated with it is wrong, or just the path that is required to get there is not correct.  Consumers at best are frustrated, and may simply write off that operation.  In this case it is often not the business’s fault, but one in the GPS location service, or route mapping.

Behind this is a more pervasive and serious problem.  Often there is no way to “fix” these problems from the perspective of the consumer or the an affected business.  You may know the data is wrong, the route doesn’t work, and correcting the error(s) is not a straight forward path, and certainly not easy enough that the “crowd-source” solution would work. That is, many people might find the error, and if there were a simple way to “report” the problem, after the “nth” report, an automated fix (or review) could be triggered.

This is not just  GPS problem. I’ve found many web sites are validating addresses against equally flawed sources (perhaps even the USPS).  I can send mail to my daughter (and she gets it), I’ve even seen the mailbox on the side of her street. By one of the web sites I used to deliver items to her location is rejecting the address as “not known”… and of course there is no way to report the error. A related problem is entering an address in “just the right way” — am I in “Unit A101” or “Apt. A 101″ or maybe Apt A101”, note that the delivery folks can handle all of these, but the online ordering system can’t.  Technology design consideration: track such ‘failures’, and after some number, check the validation process, or better have a button such as “I know this is right, so please update the database”.

Online operations are losing business, as well as brick-and-mortar activities due to online “presumptions” of correctness .. and no corrective processes available.  It’s one thing when the word processor marks your spelling as “wrong”, but lets you keep it anyway.  It is another when medications or essential services can’t reach your location because the GPS or delivery address is not in the database, or is listed incorrectly.

Technology for Jobs for Technologists …

Employment is a key aspect of society, and using technology to help folks connect with jobs is an appropriate consideration for SSIT.  It is also an area where IEEE is now developing tools for IEEE members and employers. — IEEE is creating web site, IEEEExpo.org, to serve as a virtual “job fair”.  This is targeted at helping IEEE members and student members to connect with jobs that relate to their skills and interests.    What makes this different from a classical “job board” is the introduction of real time interaction opportunities with employers (ergo the Job Fair analogy) ….

While you can sign up and build a profile at any time via the link above, there will be real time events on Jan. 20, April 20, June 15 and Sept. 21st where participants can connect with employers.   Companies wishing to participate can go to : http://www.ieeeexpo.org/#!companies/mxfq6 to register to participate on the employer side.

Why is IEEE a particularly great opportunity for career development?

  • Our focus is on providing professionals with ongoing education (local seminars, publications, webinars, conferences, etc.)
  • Our members demonstrate by their engagement a commitment to ongoing education, and continuing to develop their knowledge.
  • Our engaged members (participants and leaders of events, publications, etc.) are acquiring essential applicable soft-skills in terms of team activities, leadership, communications and exposure to new ideas.
  • It is not surprising that IEEE publications are the most cited in U.S. patent applications.  Engineers and Technologists innovate — IEEE is the worlds largest technical professional society — our members are, appropriately, the most sought after potential employees on earth.


Information and media authentication for a dependable web

Guest author: Prof. Alessandro Piva (Bio Below)

The wide diffusion of the web and its accessibility through mobile devices has radically changed the way we communicate and the way we collect information about the world we live in. The social impact of such changes is enormous and includes all aspects of our lives, including the shape of social relationships and the process whereby we form our opinions and how we share them with the rest of the world. At the same time, web surfers and citizens are no more passive recipients of services and information. On the contrary, the Internet is more and more populated with contents directly generated by the users, who routinely share information with each other according to a typical peer-to-peer communication paradigm.

The above changes offer a unique opportunity for a radical improvement of the level of democracy of our society, since, at least in principle, every citizen has the ability to produce globally-accessible, first-hand information about any fact or event and to contribute with his/her ideas to general discussions while backing them up with evidence and proofs retrieved from the Internet.

The lack of a centralized control contributes to increase the democratic nature of the Internet, however, at the same time it makes the Internet a very fragile ecosystem, that can be easily spoiled. The ease with which false information can be diffused on the web, and the possibility of manipulating digital contents through easy-to-use and widely diffused content processing tools, casts increasing doubt on the validity of the information gathered “on-line” as an accurate and trustworthy representation of reality.

The need to restore and maintain trust in the web as one of our primary sources of information is evident.

Within the IEEE Signal Processing Society, the Information Forensics and Security (IFS) Technical Committee is involved in the signal processing aspects of this issue, with a particular attention to multimedia data (see the IEEE Signal Processing Magazine special issue on Digital Forensics, Vol 26, Issue 2, March 2009). It is a fact that multimedia data play a very special role in the communication of facts, ideas and opinions: images, videos and sounds are often the preferred means to get access to information, because of their immediacy and supposed objectivity. Even today, it is still common for people to trust what they see, rather than what they read. Multimedia Forensics (MF) deals with the recovery of information that can be directly used to measure the trustworthiness of digital multimedia content. The IFS Technical Committee organized the First Image Forensics Challenge, that took place in 2013, to provide the research community an open data set and protocol to evaluate the latest image forensic techniques.

However, MF tools alone are not the solution to the authentication issue: several key actions must be undertaken involving technological, legal and societal aspects.

What are your opinions about this topic?

Are we irremediably condemned to base our opinions, beliefs and social activity on information whose reliability cannot be determined?

Do you think that the involvement of a critical mass of researchers with different background – technological, legal and social  – could find a solution?

Are you interested in working on this topic?


Author: Prof. Alessandro Piva

IEEE Signal Processing Society Delegate on the SSIT Board of Governors

Associate Professor @ Department of Information Engineering – University of Florence (Italy)

Alessandro Piva is Associate Professor at the Department of Information Engineering of the University of Florence. He is also head of FORLAB – Forensic Science Laboratory – of the University of Florence. His research interests lie in the areas of Information Forensics and Security, and of Image and Video Processing. In the above research topics he has been co-author of more than 40 papers published in international journals and 100 papers published in international conference proceedings. He is IEEE Senior Member, and he is IEEE Information Forensics and Security Technical Committee Associate Member; he has served on many conference PCs, and as associate editor of the IEEE Trans. on Multimedia, IEEE Trans. on Information Forensics and Security, and of the IEEE Trans. on Circuits and Systems for Video Technology. Other professional details appear at: http://lesc.det.unifi.it/en/node/177

Cyberwar and Social Impact

War tends to have significant social impact.  Even back in the days of civilized warfare (civilians from Washington DC went to view the first battle of Bull Run aka Manassas, they were caught in the retreat of the Union forces) there were significant impacts on Society.  In the recent issue of Technology and Society, authors Flowers and Zeadally outline the challenges faced by Cyberwarfare.

When is a cyber abuse an act of war?  The abusers include script-kiddies, criminals, corporate/national espionage, civil protests, up to nation state attacks sometimes accompanied by ‘kinetic’ battles.  Events may go undetected for extended periods, or may take out significant military or economic targets (such as the power grid.)  And identifying the source of an attack can be difficult, particularly if the attackers choose to make it difficult.

This paper outlines nation state attacks ranging back to 1982, when a Soviet pipeline was destroyed, up to fairly recent events.  It also provides a country of origin count for attacks in 2013 — with Russia leading (1.15 million) then the U.S. (.86 million), and in case you were wondering, China comes in at #8 (.25 million) after Germany, Taiwan, Bulgaria, Hungary and Poland. Of course the source country does not mean it is a state sponsored attack, nor does it mean that it is directed at military objectives nor might it damage persons or objects.

The NATO Cyber Defense Center of Excellence have sought to define cyber warfare in the recently published Tallinn Manual on International Law Applicable in Cyberwarfare.  But many of the potential “Perps” are not likely to pay much attention to International Law, and of course the response to a given attack becomes problematic if the source or responsible parties cannot be identified — “beyond a reasonable doubt.”

The paper concludes that cyber attacks are increasing.  Which leads to the question of what might be done … by technologists, by citizens or by nation states.  What evils are creeping across your part of the web?  What might we do about it?


Culture vs Technology

Freedom of Speech vs the Right to be Forgotten …. Technology and Society, but whose society?  A recent European Court ruled that Google (also Bing, Yahoo, etc.) might be required to remove links that might be “accurate” but objectionable to the affected individual(s).  It is easy in a world with a dominating culture (U.S.A.) and particularly for technologists working in that culture (Google, et al) to adopt and apply the values of that culture (Free speech) without being aware of alternative cultural norms.

Apparently in Europe, particularly in Germany and France, have some precedents that suggest that prior offences, actions, public knowledge should become unaccessible in the present and future.  This is being considered as part of new E.U. Privacy legislation, and not just a court finding.

It is easy (particularly for those of us in the USA) to hold up the sacred right of free speech (as written in the book of Constitution, verse 1:1) and ignore the concerns, and abuses associated with this.  Some folks on-line are surprised that Facebook (or other) postings of their pictures/activities may result in them being expelled from college, fired, or fail to get a job. This “long tail” left by all of us in the exponentially growing web may contain many issues of concern.  For example, if I mention diabetes in this posting might I lose health insurance? Or if someone with a very similar name is leading a quite different life style, might I suffer some of the consequences?  And of course if I advocate an issue or candidate or religious affiliation could I find that I am persecuted in the media, or worse by police showing up  at my door (consider the recent transitions in Egypt… ops, there I go).

Consider one example, the widespread “sex offender” registration required by many US states.  This has  been a topic of non-academic discussion (Dear Abby) recently but presents an interesting reference. Note that the distinction between an individual found guilty of molesting children many times and a eighteen year old’s indiscretions with a seventeen year old can be indistinguishable in this context.  The public “right to know” would seem to apply in one case, and the chances of recurrence seems unlikely in the other —  yet both may lead to loss of job opportunities, shunning by neighbors, etc.

Facilitating the oppression of religious groups, political dissidents, or even un-informed misuse of the failings of youth seems a good rationale for a “Right to be Forgotten”.  At the same time,  and almost in the same breath, we can hear the need to know a political candidate’s racist remarks, the series of lawsuits brought against a used car dealer (the U.S. stereotype for a shady business),  or perhaps that my fiance has three divorces in the last five years. (This is hypothetical!)  The “Right to be Forgotten” may also be countered with the “Right to Never Be Forgotten”.  The Internet has created a global village — with all of the gossip and “everyone knows” implications of the spotlight of a small town.

This challenge is just beginning.  With face recognition and public web-cams, and many other sources of personal data being captured explicitly or implicitly how we deal with the diversity of cultural norms is non-trivial.

What are the issues you see?

Kicking the Online Habit

The spring issue of Technology and Society (T&S) starts with an editorial addressing Internet Addiction.  Perhaps the most disturbing example is the Sundance premier of Love Child.  This documentary covers the death of a child in South Korea attributed to her parent’s addiction to online gaming. They pled guilty claiming addiction as part of their defense, which is an interesting situation if not a precedent.  In South Korea, drunkenness is a form of addiction that mitigates legal liability, which provides a basis for the couple’s plea approach.  Apparently they also had little or no education on taking care of their premature baby. (One might wonder if a more realistic video game environment, they were raising a virtual child, might have lead to a different outcome.)

This captures the issue in a nutshell.  Video gaming can be an educational tool. But may result in problematic, or apparently, fatal responsibility failures.  The T&S editorial continues to outline other countries and situations that reflect the “Internet Addiction Disorder.”  When you combine gaming, with texting, email, web searches, smart-phone connectedness, and the increasing need to be on-line and/or have  remote access for your job, our screen times are rapidly expanding.  Since 2009 the average screen time for U.S. adults has  doubled.  Of course some of this is folks using their cell phones while watching TV and using their PC, but it is still a significant change in the way we use our time.

How much time is being used by these “brain suckers”? — (Curious that zombies have become a major horror show topic … perhaps there is more to this than we realize.)  To what extent are we losing essential aspects of society such as relationships, mindfulness, personal growth, productivity, etc?

And significantly, what can we do about it?  Your thoughts?  (as you read this online….)

Net Neutrality, Natural Monopolies and the Future of the Internet

A US Appeals Court struck down the FCC’s Net Neutrality requirements in a decision released on January 14th.  One month later, Comcast announced their desire to acquire Time Warner.  The LA Times coverage of this shows key characteristics of the companies involved. At the $ level, their market value, 2013 revenues and 2013 profits are: Comcast: $144 / 65 / 6.7 billion; Time Warner: $37 / 22 / 2 billion. These are not the key numbers.  Consider Comcast’s revenue sources: (in billions) Theme Parks 2.2; Broadcast 7.2, Film 5.5, Cable networks 9.2 and the Cable/Phone/Internet “last mile” 42 billion.

How do these two things relate? The now deprecated FCC requirement was :”Wireline or fixed broadband providers may not block lawful content, applications, services, or non-harmful devices. Mobile broadband providers may not block lawful websites, or block applications that compete with their voice or video telephony services.  … Fixed broadband providers may not unreasonably discriminate in transmitting lawful network traffic.”

Verizon’s objection to this was based (in part) on the bandwidth domination of services like NetFlix (32%) and YouTube (19%)  — Clearly there is a significant usage transformation as new technologies emerge … the web, then video streaming, and business built on these. The future for education (Udacity, TED.com, et al), gaming (Mindcraft, World of Warcraft) and future virtual reality environment will push this even further. And one can gain some sympathy for the companies trying to provide the bandwidth to support this.

But, here’s the rub. Reverse the FCC wording (which is what the court allows) and see how it reads: “Wireline or fixed broadband providers may block lawful content, applications, services, or non-harmful devices. Mobile broadband providers may block lawful websites, or block applications that compete with their voice or video telephony services.” — now go back and look at the businesses of companies like ComCast and Time Warner —- Movies, TV shows, …. what is called “content”, and now they can block access to competing content.

The rationale for the FCC involvement was the “Common Carrier” clause of the  U.S. Constitution and various Telecommuncations laws that acknowledged that the telephone lines, then Cable TV and finally some aspects of the Internet were “Common Carriers”. Other common carriers include the US Highway system, something more in line with the world view of the 1780’s when the constitution was written.  Associated with this are natural monopolies.  It does not make sense to have a dozen competing highway systems with tolls and blockades to prevent Coke trucks from using one, while allowing Pepsi to use that road.  This same situation exists historically in terms of delivering telephone service to all residences, not just the profitable ones. (Think rural areas where residences can be miles apart, or mountain canyons which limit viable density.)  In addition to providing AT&T (and a few other suppliers) a monopoly for phone service, the FCC prohibited them from providing services where this would be an unfair advantage.

All of this is out the window now, at least for the U.S. Internet.  A supplier can exclude access to web sites based on competition, or their political preferences.  Perhaps they can also be selective at a finer level, blocking some content while allowing other content.  “You really shouldn’t be reading this blog, so we won’t let you read that entry, but the next one is ok“.There are places in the world where either governmental controls or other vested interests may already have such control, but it is not consistent with the U.S self image.

Part of the problem is that natural monopolies still exist.  Fiber to the home is an excellent way to get high bandwidth, and a medium that can expand in bandwidth significantly. Running two fibers to the home is overkill (although a logical extension of the Phone and Cable connections.)  Access for right-of-ways precludes new suppliers in this market — in most cities it is phone, power, cable TV and the city itself … which is why some cities are starting to build fiber infrastructure.  Education, health care and other services may be of sufficient value to warrant public infrastructure.  Certainly exclusive controls by the ISP’s could lead to pressure for such and investment.

Wireless is a second natural monopoly.  You need towers-antenna sites and frequencies vary. Some are line of sight, others can interfere with in-premises devices, or with each other.  And of course many segments of the spectrum are already allocated.  So it is unclear that it is possible to have a truly competitive wireless environment either.  And all of that depends on having the bandwidth to provide for NetFlix 3.0 and other next generation services.

It will be interesting to see how the U.S. Moves forward with this new implicit Internet model.