Blog Category: social impact of technology

rumblings in the times

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I read newspapers (seriously, print newspapers) as they pile up around my house.  A nice thing about such piles is they don’t admit order, producing serendipitous juxtapositions (I should credit my children at this point). The data-driven life is an article by a Wired writer that looks into wearable computing and how the ability to outfit oneself with sensors might better inform decisions and behavioral strategies. By my reading, it was a basically positive take on the application of technology to help people live better lives on their own terms, whatever they might be.

Next I came across Hooked on Gadgets, and Paying a Mental Price which took a fairly negative slant, ranging somewhere between blaming technology for diminishing our quality of life and attributing to it irreversible neurological damage. Continue Reading

Intended to deceive

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The ‘sphere is a-twitter about BP’s buying keywords (e.g., “oil spill”, “BP”, “gulf disaster”, etc.) to place links to their versions of the story at the top of the search results.  ABC News writes:

According to Kevin Ryan, the CEO of California-based Motivity Marketing, research shows that most people can’t tell the difference between a paid result pages, like the ones BP have, and actual news pages.

So we have two issues: one related to BP, and one related to the search engines.

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Unintended consequences

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On Thursday I saw Genevieve Bell’s entertaining PARC Forum talk titled “Feral Technologies: An ethnographic account of the future.” I learned all about animals–camels in Australia, rabbits in Australia, cane toads in Australia–each imported for specific reasons, each going feral and causing various kinds of trouble. Apparently there were also goats, donkeys, foxes, and other species, but she didn’t talk about those.

It was a good talk, following on her CHI 2010 keynote address. My problem with it was that the notion of unintended consequences of technology deployments (animal, mineral, or vegetable) is not particularly new.

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Risky Business

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A while ago I wrote about the general threats to one’s privacy posed by search engine histories. It appears that the threat is more than theoretical, as researchers at INRIA and UCI have shown recently. They were able to exploit security weaknesses in the Google Web History used to generate personalized suggestions through what they termed a “Historiographer” attack.

Google appears to be taking the researchers’ warnings seriously, and has modified some of its services to use HTTPS. Not all aspects have yet been secured, however.

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Joining the e-book annals: Alice on iPad

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A lot of people (like me) will use the iPad as an e-reader, among other things. It’s a good opportunity to play around with what a e-book actually can be, since the iPad offers things that Kindle can’t (color, animation…). I vote for more like this, please:

It’s in the iTunes store here.

Toward pragmatic definitions of privacy

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The success of de-anonymization efforts, as discussed here, suggests that older anonymization methods no longer work, especially in light of the large amount of publicly available data that can serve as auxiliary information. The quest to find suitable replacements for these methods is ongoing. As one starting point in this broader quest, we need useful definitions of privacy.

It has proven surprisingly difficult to find pragmatic definitions of privacy, definitions that capture a coherent aspect of privacy, are workable in the sense that it is possible to protect privacy defined in this way, and are sufficiently formal to provide means for determining if a method protects this type of privacy and, if so, how well.

The best attempt to date is the notion of differential privacy. Continue Reading

Social Media Overload

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In the aftermath of the recent SXSW event, Alexandra Samuel wrote on the HBR blog about five unsolved problems facing Social Media. She enumerated contact list overload, search overload, information overload, brand overload, and apathy overload. It’s not clear to me, however, whether these are pressing issues, and whether universal solutions to them would constitute an improvement over the current chaos.

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Whither data privacy?

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On Friday Netflix canceled the sequel to its Netflix prize due to privacy concerns. The announcement of the cancellation has had a mixed reception from both researchers and the public. Narayanan and Shmatikov, the researchers who exposed the privacy issues in the original Netflix prize competition data, write “Today is a sad day. It is also a day of hope.”

The Netflix prize data example is probably the third most famous example of de-anonymization of data that was released with the explicit claim that the data had been anonymized. These examples differ from the privacy breaches discussed by Maribeth Back in her post on ChatRoulette or the issues with Google Buzz discussed as part of Gene Golovchinsky’s post “What’s private on the Web?” . Those examples made sensitive information available directly. In the case of the following three de-anonymization attacks, the data itself was “anonymized,” but researchers were able, with the addition of  publicly available auxiliary information, de-anonymize much of the data.

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