Blame it on the Algorithm

 

I don’t know anybody else – family, co-worker or friend – that has read the scary The New York Times article published on October 3: “Thousands of Sites at Risk After Facebook is Hacked”.

It gave me the creeps.

Authored by Mike Isaac and Kate Conger, it recalls how Facebook introduced its online tool called Connect back in 2008, praising it as some type of digital passport to the rest of the Internet. With a few clicks users were able to log in to other apps and sites using their Facebook passwords. Promptly adopted by thousands of businesses, including Airbnb and Uber, those users were now informed that they could have been exposed as Facebook’s computer systems were recently attacked. Facebook reported that the account entry keys of at least 50 million users had been stolen in the largest hack in the company’s 14-year history.

I am not on Facebook and I am allergic to all social media that I perceive as privacy-invasive. Or that requires that I’m continuously updating, refreshing, posting, un-posting, etc.

Life’s already too short to spend precious minutes and hours daily on such tasks. Technology is something I like to see working for me; not the other way around.

As if the latest Facebook news wasn’t bad enough, on October 9 Google informed it was shutting down Google Plus, “the company’s long-struggling answer to Facebook’s giant social network, after it discovered a security vulnerability that exposed the private data of up to 500,000 users” (Source: The New York Times, “Google Plus Shutting Down After User Data Was Exposed”, by Daisuke Wakabayashi). According to the article, Google didn’t report to its users that the security issue had been found in March “because it didn’t appear that anyone had gained access to user information and the company’s ‘Privacy & Data Protection Office’ decided it was not legally required to report it.”

Wow.

It’s Halloween month; evil spirits and beings must be on the loose.

I’m not on Google Plus either so I’m watching all this from a relatively safe distance, wondering how long it’s going to take for us, consumers, to be more respected by the technology giants. As the very ones who made them giants, one would think we deserved more consideration.

While doing the research for my upcoming novel, The Guardian, I read an array of publications and one book in particular stood out. Future Crimes – Inside the Digital Underground and the Battle for Our Connected World by Marc Goodman (First Anchor Books, 2016). A senior adviser to Interpol and FBI, among other impressive accomplishments, Marc Goodman teaches at Silicon Valley’s Singularity and wrote 500 emphatic pages to show his readers that “the only thing worse than being hacked is being hacked and not knowing about it” (p. 473). And to remind us that as consumers we should demand more responsibility from big tech Firms.

I cannot emphasize enough the need for every Internet user in your life to read Future Crimes. A few take-outs:

  1. “Security software and hardware products today are almost uniformly designed by geeks for geeks. (…)Meaning, who among us, can figure this type of message on our computer screens: ‘Alert: Host Process for Windows Service Using Protocol UDP Outbound, IPv6NAT Traversal-No, is attempting to access the Internet. Do you wish to proceed?’” (p. 462-3)
  2. “When security features are not designed well, people simply don’t use them. (…) The designers of these products need a gut-level understanding of how people interact with computers and smart phones.” (p. 463)
  3. “The estimated $400 billion in annual losses to the global economy because of cyber crime…” (p. 466)
  4. “Internet health, like public health, is a shared responsibility, and users must take stewardship over their networks and devices if we are to improve the overall safety of our techno-future. We have an obligation to do so.” (p. 469)
  5. “We are at the dawn of a technological arms race, an arms race between people who are using technology for good and those who are using it for ill.” (p. 473)
  6. Security cannot be an afterthought tossed into the mix after the machines have been built. Systems must be engineered to fail gracefully. Not cataclysmically. Secure and trustworthy computing must be the cornerstone of our technological future, lest the whole system come crashing down.” (p. 478)
  7. “How hard is it to break into the average computer system? Laughably easy. According to the Verizon study, once hackers set their sights on your network, 75 percent of the time they can successfully penetrate your defenses within minutes.” (p. 21)
  8. “Each algorithm is saturated with the profound human bias of the person or people who wrote the formula. But who governs these algorithms and how they behave in grooming us? We have no idea. They are black-box algorithms, shrouded in secrecy and often declared trade secrets, protected by intellectual property law.” (p. 409)
  9. “The near-total lack of transparency in the algorithms that run the world means that we the people have no insight and no say into profoundly important decisions being made about us and for us.” (p. 409)

10.“We saw a blatant example of this abuse in mid-2014 when a study published by researchers at Facebook and Cornell University revealed that social networks can manipulate the emotions of their users simply by algorithmically altering what they see in the news feed.” (p. 409)

11.”Facebook’s software developers have long lived by the mantra ‘Move fast and break things’. The saying, which was emblazoned on the walls across the company’s headquarters, reflected Facebook’s hacker ethos, which dictated that even if new software tools or features were not perfect, speed of code creation was key, even if it caused problems or security issues along the way.” (p. 449)

12.“In other words, Google’s argument is that by e-mailing any Gmail user, you have automatically waived any privacy rights and consented to its seizure and sale of your email message and its contents, even if you intended the message to be private and don’t have a Gmail account yourself.” (p. 67)

In The Guardian, one of the main characters is in deep trouble as the organization for which he works is breached; a nerve-wrecking event in many ways similar to the tech-horror (real) stories in Marc Goodman’s book. To fight the enemy, faceless and unseeable at times, the character is helped by someone I brought back from other books of mine – a scientist from Philadelphia (where else?). Having been in two other novels I wrote, good old Dr. Eric Volstaad and I are friends by now.

Last week I returned a sweater purchased on line. Minutes after the post office worker scanned the bar code on the package’s return label, I received an email from the retailer. Good news! Your return is on its way to us!

It’s technology like that also made possible for a wide number of crimes, unthinkable a few years ago, to now cripple our lives. Marc Goodman describes how an individual whose pacemaker is controlled via an app on his smart phone could be killed if a criminal decided to hack into his device, discharging a lethal dose of electricity remotely.

How will the good guys catch the bad guys if crimes like that start to happen in society? How can we be safe? Never mind guns and bullets. Even if we managed to eradicate them amongst ourselves, crime can still be perpetrated in much more insidious ways; without us ever seeing the faces of the criminals.

The character in my book could be me. He could be you. He could be a member of your family or a close friend whose business was hacked. He can certainly be one of the 50 million users affected by the recent Facebook breach. I kept turning the pages of Future Crimes and fighting a growing anxiety for how helpless and unprotected we allowed ourselves to become; victims delivered to the bad guys on a silver plate. I don’t want to be a victim.

Apparently, more people are beginning to feel like me. I was glad to read about an organization – named The Markup – dedicated to investigating big tech and its effect on society, whose site is scheduled to be up and running in early January 2019. For more details, here is The New York Times article published on 9/23/18, by Nellie Bowles:

News Site to Investigate Big Tech, Helped by Craigslist Founder

https://www.nytimes.com/2018/09/23/business/media/the-markup-craig-newmark.html

If you have no time for the entire article (lots of online shopping to do), here’s what made me really happy when I read it (italics are mine):

“When the investigative journalist Julia Angwin worked for ProPublica, the nonprofit news organization became known as ‘big tech’s scariest watchdog.’

By partnering with programmers and data scientists, Ms. Angwin pioneered the work of studying big tech’s algorithms — the secret codes that have an enormous impact on everyday American life. Her findings shed light on how companies like Facebook were creating tools that could be used to promote racial bias, fraudulent schemes and extremist content.”

Seems like we are slowly awakening to the harsh reality of our virtual world. When all things are interconnected, everything can come crashing down quickly.

First thing I did after finishing Marc Goodman‘s book? I covered the camera lenses on my laptop and changed all passwords I could think of.

Buying a sweater or a pair of shoes from an online retailer that delivers in 24 hours charging no shipping & handling is indeed a comfort for those who like me never enjoyed shopping malls very much. But oh the price we may be paying for this little comfort… It may turn out to be non-refundable. And we may be paying forever…

I understand I’m alone in the category of individuals who don’t enjoy being on Facebook. Or Google Plus (What? Who doesn’t like social media?). As further proof of my madness, this stubborn and unnatural attachment to privacy, Goodman reminds us of what Facebook’s CEO Mark Zuckerberg has argued – that “privacy is no longer the social norm” (p. 89).

Unfortunately, the more I hear about hacking, the less interested I am in opening accounts on different social media sites.

And I’m far from convinced the technology giants are doing all they can to protect you and me – the customer.

All I want is for the good people to be able to continue using the good things the Internet brings without the threat of being hacked and having your digital life robbed, sold and erased every time we buy toys on line. Now the Toys R Us is gone… Or pay bills. Or book our next trip and hotel stay. I want the good things of the Internet to remain good and then better. For that to happen we need big tech to help us; to come down from their pedestals and take responsibility for each line of code they write.

Let’s hope – I’m also reading a great book by Dr. Martin E. P. Seligman, the famous Penn University professor, psychologist, and author. It’s called The Hope Circuit (Hachette Book Group, 2018) and much needed after reading Future Crimes so I can face this Christmas season without a panic attack – that in the next decade, soon to start, we will smart up, finding ourselves well prepared to deal with what Goodman calls “the deepest, darkest recesses of the Internet – the Dark Web” (p. 244).

I’m hoping for a future where electronic crimes are the exception in our lives; when we won’t have to deal with mega cyber disasters as T.J.Maxx’s in 2007, Sony PlayStation gaming network’s in 2011 or Target’s and Experian’s in 2013. When we, The People – the good guys who use the Web for nothing more malevolent than school and work research,   Christmas shopping, and to buy and read books –   will always be ahead of the bad ones in technology.

Whether or not the character in my novel is to blame and invited the virtual disaster that engulfed his work and personal life, well, that’s for the book to reveal, but the fact remains that innocent people are the object of hacking attacks and find themselves striving to prove their innocence and recover order in their lives. Thanks to Dr. Martin Seligman’s work on positive psychology and techniques to cultivate optimism, I keep hoping the character in my novel will soon be a sad memory of our Web dark ages; when we’ll look back and shake our heads, astonished at how precarious our safety was in those distant Internet early days, wondering how we did even sleep at night…

In the meantime, please read Future Crimes by Marc Goodman to protect yourselves, your family, and businesses. I am not the author’s friend; I don’t know him in person at all; I’m not marketing for him. But certain sections of Future Crimes should be made mandatory reading for everyone that uses a computer or electronic device to access the Web; the ultimate manual of instructions that comes with your smart phone, tablet or computer. Warning! Don’t turn it on before reading this! Future Crimes is just the most must-read book these days, which I happened to purchase from Amazon.com. An online transaction, I hope I don’t have to pay with being hacked…

Be virtually safe this Halloween and shopping season. And at all times.

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