Eavesdropping Media

Month: February, 2012

The vulnerability of an increasingly connected world

A great TED talk called “All your devices can be hacked” by Avi Rubin got me thinking about the vulnerability in the technology we use and depend on. The talk outlines a few examples of the security threats that emerge in an ever more technologically-dependant world. As cars, medical devices and mobile devices become more connected, they also become vulnerable to manipulation from the outside. Given the right tools, these devices can often be hacked.

The whole talk can be seen here:

But hacking is nothing new, so what’s the big deal? Well when the technology is being used to control real-life physical processes (as opposed to virtual processes), then any interference with this technology could have immediate and potentially very dangerous consequences in the real world. One of the most poignant examples Rubin gives in his talk is that of the pacemaker. If the pacemakers uses a wireless interface (which is a reality), then someone with the right tools could potentially hack into the device and affect the way the users heart is being regulated. Its a terrifying thought.

Rubin asks the manufacturers of these connected devices to pay greater attention to the possible hacks that correspond to these devices. Unfortunately right now, the push to be “first to market” may mean that some security testing for new devices is fast tracked. I think we need to look to policy makers and regulatory organizations to make sure that these devices get checked. The risks are becoming too great to be “laissez-faire” about it.

In a related article in “The Atlantic”, Why Cognitive Enhancement Is in Your Future (and Your Past), writer Ross Anderson interviews author and bioethicist Allen Buchanen about the ethical ramifications of these cognitive enhancements. Buchanen says that while many human enhancements may take the form of pills or Transcranial Direct Current Stimulation (a modern form of shock-therapy that apparently makes you smarter), some of these enhancements could take the form of high tech brain-to-computer interfacing technologies.

Besides the plethora of ethical dilemmas such technology carries (will only the rich get access, what if an immoral person gets access, etc.), we also need to ask, will this technology make our brains vulnerable to mind hacks? Will we soon have Dollhouse-inspired zombie cyborg army?

Unlikely. But before we jump to incorporate the next big technological advance into our lives, or our bodies, we need to get a real sense of the risks and gage whether these are really risks worth taking.

If you have read other articles or have some additional thoughts on this, please leave a comment!

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Killing the Messenger: Is climate change denial on the rise?

I have a new found belief in the future. It is surprising considering the cynicism I have been cultivating all these years. But I think through my personal interest in human history and my exploration of new media, I have come to realize that us humans are really quite resilient. You can throw a lot our way. And often we will take it on and find a way to deal. We also can create amazing things, solve problems in absolutely ingenious ways, and for the most part act in ways that do well by ourselves and others. And so I have a new found hope for our species.

But here comes the caveat. There is this huge part of the human spirit that is resilient and ingenious, but in all the wrong ways. It is self-destructive, irrational and means to do harm in the name of ideologies that have been twisted to fit its bidding. Let unchecked, it is very dangerous. It is the true “dark side” of our nature.

And this week I was reminded of that dark side while I was reading up on the latest about climate change.

The science hasn’t changed since I last checked. There is a strong consensus in the international science community that climate change is real, that human beings are behind it – mainly through our burning up of fossil fuel –  and that it will have huge global and likely catastrophic consequences for all life on earth (including ours) if we don’t act now to control it.

So with my faith in our ability to reason and to work out solutions, we need not worry though, right? We will totally invent the right technologies, push through the most effective policy, and change our consumer habits on an individual level. We will all do our part for the greater good!

Well, not if the dark side has anything to do with it. The parties that are interested in maintaining the status quo are obvious and easy to identify. They are corporations that are heavily invested in the current oil energy economy, heavy polluters, like chemical and mining corporations, politicians vying for financial backing from these corporations, countries that have large amounts of fossil fuel (ahem… Canada), and some naive souls who want so badly to believe that their actions don’t have consequences.

These groups don’t want climate change to be real because, if it is, then their actions will need to change dramatically in order for life as we know it to continue on earth. But unfortunately for them, the science is not in their favor.

But they too can use their big brain to find ways of dealing with this problem. And they have landed on the age old strategy: If you don’t like the message, kill the messenger.

And thus the “Global Warming is a Conspiracy” theory was born.

These powerful groups have tried a number of times to discredit the scientists that have confirmed the facts about climate change. They have leapt fanatically at any sign that the science may be even a little off. The leaked emails, the slightest mistake scrutinized and highlighted. All the volumes of solid science are ignored because one study from one university is found to be failing. Recently, we have also started to hear all sorts of new highly creative rationalizations for the strange weather patterns we are already seeing: “it is because of the sun spots” , “the equipment is wrong” or “it is the normal weather cycle of the earth, it gets warm between Ice ages”. The funniest has to be “God is punishing us”.

The organizations and individuals with vested interest in the status quo are working hard at discrediting those scientists working on climate change. But in doing so, they are pushing doubt on the whole institution of natural sciences in general (see this Guardian article for more). And apparently, in America, it is having an effect on public opinion. And according to this article, there is evidence to suggest the trend is spreading. This is a very scary development.

Surprisingly, it could be that last seemingly benign group – the naive people who want so badly to believe that nothing is changing – that are the most dangerous part of the equation. Many of these people don’t understand how the scientific method works, and so when told that it is dubious, they quickly doubt it. The danger is in the fact that these people are still voting. So they are voting for politicians that are telling then what they want to hear, all the while these politicians are making quick change from the companies wishing to keep policy in place to make their dirty industry ever more profitable. Take a look at the republican rhetoric. Its a race to be the top science skeptic. This what their base is asking for.

For all my hope and new found admiration for our species, I am not without concern about the actual outcome of this conflict. If we let politics, big money and naive wishful thinking prevent us from using our combined brain power to solve this problem, then the dark side wins…

But just to note, the “if you don’t like the message, you kill the messenger” strategy has never, in all of human history, worked for long. The message inevitably reaches home, one way or another.

Activists vs Oil Companies

As posted by Josh Darrach on Facebook, Feb 16th

Shy Internet Users: the reasons we are shy

Social media obviously favors the extroverts in our society  The people who post the most and say the most exciting things are the ones that get noticed. Those who join into to discussions and curate the culture get counted. They define the conversation, the trending topics. But what about the shy people? These people are often busy observing the more out-spoken people, without engaging.  But these people exist, and they are many. As a shy user for many years, I understand the reasons why. It was not that I didn’t have opinions, feedback, criticism.  There were just reasons I worried about sharing them openly.

The reason’s for shyness are numerous and sometimes specific to the individual. Some people are naturally shy, in life and online. They have fear of other people, or of being noticed. For a while the internet actually opened a number of doors to many of these naturally shy people, giving them a chance to get their ideas out in public without being recognized.

When social media came along, it in some way scaled that unlimited freedom back. All of the sudden you required a log-in, a link to your email, a profile pic. You had to come clean. And so that anonymity of the chat rooms and forums has started to fade away. There are still places where you can still be anonymous and within social media there are ways around this. But it takes time to make a new email account, to register a new user. And social media only really well works for you when you are being yourselves or at least some version of yourselves.

But I am not someone who is particularly shy in real life. And yet I, and others like me, have also had some trepidation with the whole social media phenomenon. Before sharing out lives, we wanted to watch to see how it would role out. And at every turn, we learned our content was no longer ours, that our private info was being callously shared. Some of us don’t like that. And we do care, even if companies and a large part of the media savvy world don’t seem to.

There are still reasons you should not share everything, but I worry these reasons are being forgotten. In a free society you should be able to share what you want without repercussions. But if the society starts to show signs of growing inequality, witch-hunt like mentalities (ex. in the name of stomping out terrorism), censorship and growing discontent, that free speech we so love could become a liability. Everything you have said is time-stamped. No one will need your neighbors to spy on you, you have already broadcast it. (I live in east berlin. Remember that only 25 years ago, people were still spying on each other here, with terrible consequences)

REVENGE OF THE SHY

Although shy users are not so visible and people have complained that they are not relevant, they still do matter. As Wired founding executive editor Kevin Kelly points out in this great article, the shy users, ex-users, unreliable users and spammers on social media skew the stats. They make some people, ideas or affiliations appear important when they aren’t. They make celebrities appear more “famous” than they actually are, companies more popular than their products actually will be. Social media fans are pissed at these so called “Ciphers”. But instead of railing against the shy users, why not first try and understand why they are shy, and find new ways to encourage them to join in on the worldwide brainstorm (that is the internet)!

Lastly, though once a shy user, I have switched over (to the dark side?) quite recently. Why? Well I decided that I know the risks, and I am willing to navigate them, if I can have a say in the way the world is being defined. But I still believe that the world would be wise to make platforms that are safe and fair to the shy user. They are an untapped part of the human common online intelligence, that I don’t think they should be ignored.