Observing Thinking

Observing Thinking
Observing Thinking

Friday, May 11, 2018

Whose data is it anyway?

Facebook was recently taken to task at a Senate hearing investigating their (lack of) privacy regulations that allowed a client to place a personality test on the Facebook website that not only used the results to target them with political ads that were (supposedly) based on their personality profile during the 2016 election. Not only that, the questionnaire was automatically shared with all of the subject’s friends, resulting in 87 million people who gave their personality profiles (which another company used to predict their voting inclinations) without any permission to do so by the subjects. So one of the questions raised was: did these targeted ads influence the 2016 election? In theory, Targeted Ads are more effective than random ones.

There was a recent cartoon in the New yorker magazine showing a man missing one shoe sitting in the subway next to a sign that reads, “Shoe for Sale” Now that’s targeted advertising!

For a very nice analysis of this very complex situation, see the graphical explanation at

Vox.com and search there for “cambridge analytica” and select the article that has the words “simple diagram”. Next search on “microtargeting” on the vox website for further exposition and implications.

The root of the problem seems to be that the Facebook business model is built on selling advertisement space through its platform and it can sell more space and make more money if it can provide advertisers with targeting information from a user’s profile (data that most users believe is private). But what wasn’t discussed much at the hearing was that Google’s 2017 ad revenue is estimated at around 95 billion dollars while Facebook’s revenue was (only!) about 40 billion. Together they represent about 60% of the US advertising market. While this is not necessarily a bad thing, it does raise the spectre of a duopoly which while seemingly only half as bad as a monopoly, will stifle free market competition.

Facebook’s strategy is to sell other companies its user profiles so the companies can target their ads more effectively, Google use a different strategy.

Imagine that it’s raining and you’re in a bus shelter waiting for your bus. Notice all the advertisements plastered on the walls. What sort of ads would you expect to see in a bus shelter? Certainly not ads for a Mercedes because most of your bus shelter audience is waiting for a bus and could not possible scrape up the cash for a luxury car. Well, as Investopedia puts it: “Google is the world’s largest bus shelter” and goes on to explain how Google makes money :

“Say you run a small company - a bakery located in Topeka, Kansas, for instance. It's safe to say that people who would Google the words "Topeka" + "bakery" would likely patronize your business. Buy an ad on a page that'd be visited only by people who are looking for a Topeka bakery, and you're targeting about as accurately as it's possible to target a potential clientele. “

This may seem somewhat abstract so let’s take a more concrete example. As an experiment I used Google to search on “tennis” and got a list of the sites you would expect from such a simple search, However, preceding them were four advertisements from businessinsider.com, tennis.com and espn.com and, not unsurprisingly, from Bayside Tennis and Health Spa right here in the good ol’ burgh which lets me know that Google knows where I live --- in a good sense, in a good sense.

But wait, there’s more. Scrolling down some more are four more Plattsburgh-related ads from: Plattsburgh High School, Plattsburgh City Recreation, Fred Villari’s Studios and Plattsburgh YMCA, followed by a cordial invitation to click on a link to “5+ more”. Not to mention pics of “Videos you might like”. Oh ... and two more “From the Web”,

You say you’re not satisfied, you say you want more examples ? Well, above the Business insider ad was the blue text, “This is everything that tennis icon Roger Federer eats and drinks for breakfast, lunch, and dinner” meaning that it was a link to another page. So I clicked on it which took me to another page with (you guessed it) more and newer ads starting with, “Today’s Mortgage Rate was 3.75% (in 48 point font) and inviting me to use its mortgage calculator which I did not click on because I had a pretty good idea where all of this was heading.

If you, dear reader, were to do the same search on “tennis” I would bet that the results would be somewhat different because Google has different profile data on you than it has on me( e.g. my zip code (very useful for targeting voting ads)). Google claims that your private data is not directly linked to you but to various categories that your profile suggests you belong to and they only “know” the IP address for your search source and destination. This is what they say.

So what can be done to insure that users of services like Facebook and Google can protect their privacy or is this the price we all must pay for the “free” service they provide?

Stay tuned.

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Is the Internet the “Permanent Record” we were told about in Grade school?

By now, I’m sure you know about the shocking Snapchat incident that occurred recently at SUNY Plattsburgh.

While the racist communication is, of course, the overriding issue, I was surprised by how much I did not know about the Snapchat app itself. Prior to the incident I was aware that it’s used primarily by folks in the 10-20 yrs old age range and its main appeal is that you can send “revealing” photos and/or juvenile remarks to anyone who also has the app on their smartphone and not fear the consequences because it’s designed to destroy both pics and text 10 seconds after they are received --- like messages that say “burn after reading”.

Not exactly. As anyone who knows anything about hackers knows that nothing is 100% private once it lands on the Internet because, like the game spies and counterspies play, a safety prevention that works now will be hacked or a work-around will be found in the near future. In the case of the Snapchat app, the designers have made it so that the sender of a stupid message and/or picture will be notified if the receiver takes a screen shot ( “screenshot”) of it. So if I know that My Stupid Message” has been screenshotted, I can:

a) Let the recipient know how disappointed I am in their nonsocial behavior and chose to break up with them.
b) Demand that the recipient destroy the message that reflects so poorly on my character.
c) Blithely ignore the faux-pas and get on with the rest of my life.

It appears that choice c) was the mistake the sender of the stupid racist message made and as we all know now, it back-fired.

Even I was smart enough to realize that even if the app sends a message back to protect the sender there is nothing stopping the recipient from taking a picture of the picture on a second phone and saving it for posterity -- or blackmail. Parents actually know what they’re talking about when they advise their children to ‘Be careful what you post on the Internet, it can come back to bite you.”

While it is possible that the sender was joking or being ironic, she should have known better. She should have known how offended and angry anyone in their right mind would be after the screenshot was plastered all over the Internet. But it was too late to undo the deed and a permanent record of her action know exists as data stored on the Internet. I remember being told when I was in third grade that our misdemeanors would go into our “permanent record” which could ruin our chances of getting that job we’ve always dreamed of. Turns out that threat was an empty one but that was before the Internet. Now there really is a permanent record of your transactions with the Internet and the whole world is still struggling to balance the need for privacy with the need for freedom of information.

According to the latest news (Feb 27) she has withdrawn from the college but her misguided actions can now follow her as long as she lives, and beyond. What a terrible waste of a life because of a bad decision made before her brain was fully formed.

Friday, March 30, 2018

Unintended Consequences

When the Internet began to evolve away from a purely text-based system delivered through phone connections and to include color graphics back in the early nineties, I recall the excitement and hopefulness we had that this wonderful new medium was going to change the world --- in a good way. We finally had the tool we needed to connect everyone on the planet to each other. We could begin to really solve our problems collaboratively because we could communicate universally.

What we failed to fully realize at that point, I think, was that GOSSIP is also a form of communication. Looking back, I believe that we were mesmerized by the good the Internet could contribute to the progress of mankind and overlooked the possibility that it might also have a dark side.

If all computers are connected then, at least in theory, if you could hack into one, you could use that as a starting point to invade all other computers on the network. When we had only single stand-alone (mainframe) computing, security was relatively easy . When I worked for the Navy, we programmers all had to show our badges to guards to gain access to the computer areas. Granted a bad actor could still figure out how to hack into the machine but given that we all had to have Top Secret clearances which entails a very very thorough investigation into your past, the chances were small.

We knew very soon that we would have to deal with issue of security against hackers ( see the excellent book, “the Cuckoo’s Egg” by Clifford Stoll written almost 30 years ago) but what we did not anticipate was the issue of Privacy. Anytime you have a networked (connected) society you will have its members concerned about their personal privacy. I’m not a psychologist or sociologist so I can’t say why this is. I can guess that it’s a good evolutionary trait so your genes can get into the next generation. I also think that we choose our friends based on how much privacy we feel we can give up to them. My best friends I trust the most and I require the least privacy from them.

So we had to balance two possibly conflicting goals: to insure Security as well as Privacy because the goals of Security very quickly started to poke their noses into our individual Privacy. (Note that Privacy and Security sometimes overlap in that we sometimes view protecting our privacy as part of the security system. Confusing huh?)

It was only a very short time before non-governmental businesses and corporations followed suit. Not only could they hawk their products and services to a global audience, they could buy user profiles from other companies that tracked where users spent most of the time. Currently the top three places are Facebook, Google and Reddit and they all sell user information. When I spend time on the Internet looking at used cars, it should come as no surprise to see pop-up ads on that subject.

Recently I turned on my smartphone and on the home screen was a frowny face followed by the message:
“3 people have unfriended you. Discover who unfriended you now! It’s safe and it’s free!”

Fortunately, I learned a long time ago that if someone advertises their product or service as “absolutely free!” you should feel free to hang up or look for the exit. This message cost someone some money so that it would pop up for me and I don’t believe the business model of giving away your product has ever succeeded .

Especially bothersome is the fact that this come-on must work well enough for the advertiser to continue to pay to display it. This means there are enough people who care enough about being unfriended to follow this link. I understand that no one enjoys being unfriended but what’s the protocol here? Do I risk further humiliation by asking the ex-friends why I’ve been dumped or the uncertainty of never knowing why? Certainly the advertiser hopes that I will grit my teeth and follow the link to find out who these 3 turncoats are. Oh, and on the way I’m sure I’ll be offered the opportunity to upgrade this service --- for a small fee.

For much much more information just search on the phrase: “the true purpose of social media sites is to sell advertising”

Saturday, December 9, 2017

Net Neutrality Nullified?

Lately, the news has been covering the possible demise of “Net Neutrality”. You may be asking yourself “Should I care and what the heck is it?”

As background information, recall that the original Internet was financed entirely by the citizens of US via the Department of Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) which needed a network of computer systems that were reliable enough to keep working under adverse conditions --- like a nuclear attack. The idea was to link together all of the government computers of various architectures to allow them to share information. Computers would be spread across the US so that if a computer in the network failed, the system could route information packets around it to one that was still online. It was called the ARPANET which evolved into what we today call the Internet.

“Net neutrality” is the principle that Internet service providers must treat all data on the Internet the same, and not discriminate or charge differently by user, content, website, platform, application, type of attached equipment, or method of communication. For instance, under these principles, Internet service providers are unable to intentionally block, slow down or charge money for specific websites and online content.” [Wikipedia]

Like any complex defintion, in order to understand it, several terms within it must first be defined: what is an “Internet Service Provider”, what is “Content” and what is a “User”? “User” seems obvious: you and me and everyone who uses the Internet is a user. Also, you, the User, are also a customer when you use (read,see, listen to, copy, share..) “Content” on the web. Content is provided by (wait for it...) a Web Content Provider like Google, Amazon, Facebook or Netflix. To complicate matters, a “Web Content Provider” is also called “Content Service Provider” so anyone who hosts a web page on the Internet is a Content Service Provider. For example, Google hosts free websites (like the one for this column: tec-doc.blogspot.com). Finally, an “Internet Service Provider” (ISP) provides access to the Internet for you, the user, (or the company you work for), and is generally paid for this service.

So, given the above definitions, what exactly is the problem? There appear to be two main issues: the first concerns how to govern the Internet. Who should set the rules(if any) and who shall enforce them? While this may on its face seem like a reasonably tractable problem, it unforunately is argued according to political views. If you’re a conservative you tend to favor letting private enterprise and the free market be the governing agency; if liberal, you favor government regulation because not only did the government (all citizens) spend the cash to create the Internet, you feel it will look out for not only your intersts but the the interests of everyone and not just corporate interests. Just as the railroads and telegraph/telephone technologies began with tracks and wires funded with government assistance, so too was the Internet; therefore let the government govern.

The other division of opinion is over the question, “Who shall profit from the Internet?” and that issue becomes fuzzier as there is a growing overlap of services between the Web Content Providers and the ISPs. For example an ISP, in additiion to providing the “pipes” for the information highway, can also provide email, video, and phone service to residential and business customers. So you are not limited to getting your movies only from Web Content Providers like Netflix or Amazon, because ISPs like Comcast and Charter supply them too --- along with high speed Internet.

Generally, Users and Web Content Providers side with Net Neutrality principles enforced by a government agency like the FCC because Users dislike monopolies which drive up their costs and feel their interests will be best served by laws passed by duly elected representatives. Web Content Providers tend to think Government control will be more even-handed and wil protect them from the ISPs overcharging them for service. The ISPs however, tend to favor the free market approach which would allow fast and slow lanes (at different costs) to better regulate traffic on information highway; this will increase their wealth which they can invest in new and wonderful innovations (which, to the chagrin of the othe stakeholders seems to be an accelerating rate of ISP mergers inevitably leading to monopolies).

If you’re still confused, welcome to the club. Perhaps the best advice I can offer for following this three-way tug of war is to “Follow the Money!”

Thursday, November 30, 2017

Automation Revisited

The cover of the Oct 23 New Yorker magazine shows a street person with his begging cup and his dog at his side.  The beggar looks despondent but the dog appears to be surprised by the robot dog on a leash held by a humanoid robot passing by. In fact, it’s all robots of various forms carrying various objects like coffee and smartphones --- not another human or real dog to be seen. One of the robots is dropping what, at first glance looks looks like several coins into the beggar’s cup but on closer scrutiny we realize they are not really coins as we know them, they are instead washers and flat gears --- obviously the standard currency in this hypothetical world.

Since the covers of the New Yorker are usually cartoons depicting an ironic situation, what’s the joke here? The irony appears to be that not only are we becoming more and more dependent on robots and more and more useless to one another, we are watching the steady march of automation gobbling up our jobs.   This is a fear that could be said to have started in earnest during the early 19th century when Joseph-Marie Jacquard invented an automated loom which resulted in riots by the local English weavers who saw (correctly) that this device from the devil would eventually put them out of their jobs. The leader of this insurrection was Ned Lud and so  the disparaging label “Luddite” became applied to anyone who rails against new technology whether or not it displaces workers.

In the early 21st century economists sought to allay this fear of automation causing jobs to be lost by claiming that, on the whole, automation creates more jobs than it displaces.
However, current research shows that this claim is an oversimplification. Job displacement is, as commonsense dictates, dependent on the job type. In essence, jobs requiring little education are much more likely to be replaced by robots. Of course, there will be exceptions. Compare two occupations: housekeeper vs radiologist --- which would you predict is most likely to be replaced by automation? Certainly the radiologist needs higher level skills than a maid, but a strong case can be made that it is the job of the maid that is more difficult to automate. For example how do you program into a housekeeping robot every situation which may arise and the actions to take when it does? For example, A human maid upon finding reading glasses next to the TV would put them back in their case. (“The Lights in the Tunnel: Automation, Accelerating Technology and the Economy of the Future by Martin Ford.)

Many of the points made by Ford are echoed in the article in the 10/23 New Yorker article, “Dark Factory” (Can Humans adapt to a robot workforce?) by Sheelah Kolhatkar. She argues that since near full automation is inevitable, the best solution is to bite the bullet and pay people who have lost their jobs to automation so that they may continue to consume goods and services and keep the economy from collapsing.
But where will this “guaranteed wage” come from?  Kolhatkar suggests that the businesses which save money by replacing human workers with machines be taxed to pay the displaced workers. Understandably, there will be a massive pushback against this idea as it smacks of Socialism but she believes attitudes can and will change especially under massive economic pressure.

Thanks to my natural talent for procrastination, I see that the Nov 13 issue of the New Yorker has all of its Letters to the Editor devoted to this article. One of them,by Robert B. Price, ends his letter with the observation, “Sometime in the next twenty-five to two hundred years, A.I. will be capable of writing its own code, and will do it much faster and better than humans. We need to think very seriously about that, and take steps to avoid the scenario ... on the cover of the magazine” [ the parade of robots walking by the despondant  human beggar and his bewildered dog].

Fortuneately, there are computer scientists  who realize that when robots are capable of building smarter, better, and faster robots, generation after generation,  this will result in exponential growth of their capabilites. And while we humans can do the same thing by standing on the shoulders of scientists before us, it is at a much slower rate than the robots can progress. How long will they put up with us?

Something to think about indeed!

Monday, November 13, 2017

Internet Addiction?

One of my simple morning pleasures is my coffee and the comics section of the PR and this
includes the Jumble and the  “Dear Annie” column. The July 7 column was from a reader who believes that she  is addicted to the Internet via her smartphone and wanted advice on how to deal with it.  My first response was, “Well, what exactly qualifies as an addiction? I absolutely must have my morning coffee, so is that an addiction?”

Glad you asked. According to the websites Wikipedia and Dictionary, an addiction is “A physical or psychological need for a habit-forming substance, such as a drug or alcohol.” Additionally it may be harmful and may require larger doses as time goes by to achieve the same effect.

Applying the above definiton to my morning coffee: Is it habit-forming:? Yes, of course. Does the habit  require increased amounts to achieve its effect?: Yes but I can control my consumption to just a cup and a half only at breakfast; Are there harmful effects? The science is still out on that one --- I remember when the consensus was that coffe was supposedly bad for you but the current theory is that coffee ingestion is OK in moderate amounts (less than 2 cups per day). So, all in all, I guess I have a mild addiction to coffee but nothing near alcohol or drugs and nothing to worry about.

Similarly, I can’t count the Jumble as an addictionfor the same reasons I gave for coffee. Brain games like the Jumble have been touted by their marketers as increasing memory retention, problem-solving skills and attention span as well as  a good way to hold off dementia. However, new research indicates these claim are false (or as some presidents might say ‘fake facts”). In fact, one of the largest markets for brain games is Lumosity which as been fined two million dollars for overly-aggressive marketing and fraudulent claims that “preyed on consumers’ fears”. (https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2016/jan/06/lumosity-fined-false-claims-brain-training-online-games-mental-health)

If we consider how much we rely on the Internet (via smartphone or personal computer), it would seem that there is a high potential for addiction. It is certainly habit forming, uses more and more of your time, and, in many cases, is harmful. There are studies that even social networking sites like Facebook are a downer.  Many reasons for this negative effect have been proposed but I favor the theory that jealousy plays a large role in the downer effect. After all, who wants to know that their bff consistently gets more likes than themselves which, like it or not, is a measure of our popularity. Surely I am at least as interesting as what’s-her-name. This can also lead to a feeling of loneliness rather than the togetherness that social neworks purportedly nurture. All you have to do is search on the phrase, “does facebook engender a feeling of loneliness or togetherness’ to see that this is real issue.

On the other hand, some researchers claim that the cause and effect actually goes the other way: lonely people tend to be attracted to Facebook and not the other way round..Either way the studies also show that Facebook and similar social sites do not alleviate the feeling of loneliness that brings many users to the site.

Also, there may be a link between loneliness and boredom: When we become bored, many use the technique touted in self-help books: “Find a creative outlet.”  While this works when the outlet is gardening or music or any activity which helps connect us back into the real world,  it does not work for the Internet because, it’s not the real world --- at best it is just a simulcrum of reality and at some level of consciousness we realize that. Then a vicious cycle begins: we spend more and more time on the Internet in a futile attempt to combat boredom which leads to more loneliness, which leads to....

So, what’s the moral of this story? I’m not sure, but I think it’s something like: Until a Time Machine is invented, be mindful of how you spend your time.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Cookies and Milk

I was reading Consumer Reports about how goods are marketed using algorithms. In simple terms an algortithm is like a recipe. Step-by-step, you follow the instructions and, if the recipe is correct and you have followed the intructions correctly, you will achieve the desired outcome (e.g. a German chocolate cake). Gastronomic dreams aside, I was reminded of the meme, "If you're not paying for the product, you are the product."  Or as they used to say, "There ain't no such thing as a free lunch"  --- a phrase that originated in the 1930s refering to the ploy used by saloons to attract customers who might be tempted to order a few drinks.

So, exactly how is this done? What is the algorithm being used by marketers to stimulate your spending behavior as well as their profits? In a word, “targeted ads” so that  when I visit a website supported by adverisements, I will see ads tailored to my browsing history  that have been selected by an algorithm.

I remember when, in the early stages of the Google mail app, there were ads on a sidebar along with the email responses which I accepted as the cost of doing business.  However, one fine day while reading the email response I had received from a friend a response to the question, “when are the Jewish Holidays this year?”  I noticed the ad was, “Learn Hebrew!”  Now there was a targeted ad that made me laugh.  Upon further reflection I wondered how Google knew the contents of my initial email so that it could search its list of advertisers for the appropriate response. Then I remembered that Google was embroiled in a controversy over the privacy of its email customers. Google had openly admitted that it had an algorithm that took your email as input, searched for key words (like Jewish) and then tailored the ads to reflect these key words.

The public reaction to this scheme was basically, “What!!! The computer is reading my emails? What happened to Privacy?” and so forth. Google’s response was to point out that while the algorithm was searching for keywords, it was not trying to analyze content; it was not really Reading because it had no understanding of what was written and furthermore, the analysis was destroyed after the ads were chosen. Well, as you may suspect, this explanation did not mollify everyone. How do we know that Google is not going to use this analysis to exploit us --- all we have is their word. It comes to down to the basic question of trust and since Google’s motto at the time was, “Do no evil” and besides, Gmail had become a necessary convenience, and so the controversy soon blew over. Unfortunately everything old is new again: Google mail is redesigned to put ads into your inbox and while they are labelled with the word “ad” in very small font, the odds are greater that you’ll open an email than read a sidebar ad.

Unfortuneately, this issue has evolved to a more insidious situation whereby your profile and preferenes are shared across websites so that ads can even more targeted. Data such as your web visitation history and what you purchased at which website as well as other personal information can be shared with other sites using a mechanism cleverly called a “cookie”. Who could be against a cookie? Who does not have fond memories of cookies and milk at bedtime? There are two kinds of cookies that every Internet user should know about: First and Third party cookies. First party cookies are useful and not dangerous if they are encrypted. They can store your password so you don’t have to type it in every time you log on as well as remember where you left off the last time you visited the site. Third party cookies, however, have the capacity to invade your privacy by constructing a list of your browsing history. You can block these cookies by searching on the phrase, “How do I disable third party cookies?”

I must admit mixed feelings about cookies and targeted ads: if I’m going to get ads as the price I have to pay for using an app then i’d rather they be based on my interests rather than some random selection. On the other hand I don’t need to be reminded that, “ Here is a product that you didn’t know you needed”.

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