Technology regulation in New Zealand needs overhaul

Many of you might have watched Terminator movies when you were kid. For those deprived of what was essential viewing for my generation, they were about the remnants of humanity versus intelligent machines created by Skynet which posed a threat to the human race. These movies were science-fiction at its finest. But 30 years after the first one, killer robots are not so far fetched now as we thought.

It is not just killer robots – more on that later – but also the misuse of drones, which have many practical military and civilian uses, around airports and the rise of the sexual robot that have raised concerns. A mixture of security, ethical and safety issues have arisen at a speed that New Zealand politicians seem to have been caught flat footed.

New Zealand politicians have been slow to catch on to the growing threat for example posed by the use of drones and lasers around airports. Not a month goes by without drones and/or lasers being implicated in a potentially dangerous act that could have brought down an aircraft. A few weeks ago drones held up or forced the diversion of aircraft at Auckland Airport for over an hour. Other instances have included interference around Christchurch Airport by people with lasers.

Whilst progress is being made in tackling the interference of aircraft by people wielding lasers, this is not the case with drones. In the case of lasers, criminal prosecutions have been brought against several people, which has sent a message that this is criminal activity that can be traced.

Drones pose a bigger risk. They can be made to hover for long periods of time, move randomly with the pilot having no chance to react in time and their physical mass is large enough that it would cause substantial damage to a plane. Coupled with the restrictions placed on aircraft flight paths around airports, the potential to cause a major civil aviation incident is very real.

It is time to ask questions of how appropriate sexual robots are. These are predominantly female gendered robots that imitate sexual favours being performed. As robots have no concept of ethics, given the just alarm over sexual violence, how appropriate is it for a person to act out their fantasies on a robotic being that cannot say no or physically reject inappropriate conduct. Without appropriate checks on what sort of functions a robot can and cannot perform, is technology lending itself inadvertently to some of the darkest and most dangerous of control over a human being?

But the most dangerous robotic menace are potential murder drones or killer robots that might open fire or otherwise use lethal force against a human being. The artificial intelligence race means that robots with a degree of humanoid intelligence already exist. This is not just a concern of mine, but a concern of human rights organizations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. Numerous countries are already calling for a ban of such technology and point to the certainty that rogue states such as – but not limited to – North Korea might get hold of it and would be most certain to use it against rivals.

Overhauling regulation does not necessarily mean bringing in a raft of new laws, although that will definitely be necessary in dealing with some types of technology. It might well be that existing laws are fine, but just need updating. In the case of drones for example new regulations will be necessary, including licensing, fines and operating compliance with the Civil Aviation Authority rules.

Time for Facebook users to re-examine their presence

As more news emerges about what went on with Analytica, I am sure that there are people who are actively weighing up their future use of Facebook. The revelations about potential misuse of member data to create targetted advertisements that may have influenced the U.S. Presidential election will have infuriated many Americans and non-Americans alike. As Facebook struggles to deal with the allegations swirling around, perhaps it is time for people to have a good hard look at their Facebook accounts.

For some people, their departure from Facebook will be natural in that for whatever reason they had decided it was time to let the social network started by Mark Zuckerberg  go anyway. For others it will come as a reaction to the worsening privacy breaches or the conclusion that their presence on it in terms of content they have put up and content they find is out of their control has gotten too much.

Facebook will not go into immediate decline. Barring Mr Zuckerberg shutting it down himself or some sort of major catastrophe (think of thermo-nuclear war), this network – love or hate it – will probably continue to grow on the back of new users in South Asia, Africa and Latin America.

For me as a user, despite being on Facebook every day, it has peaked. And in some respects it has started to decline. My friends list, despite making new friends outside of it, has remained largely stagnant for the last two years. A number of people who I used to be in semi-regular contact via Facebook Messenger have all but stopped using it, though they still maintain profiles – some of them have not actually posted anything themselves for months. I have taken down my photos from pre-2011 and the other day I downloaded a copy of all that I had put up on Facebook – it appears that I have been on it in some form or another since August 2007.

I know some people who have had business pages on Facebook have faced constant struggles with the company. They have ranged from security of the pages, to content going missing and in some cases the pages being suspended or somehow frozen for reasons that were never clear to them.

For me the constant sponsored advertisements have been a major problem. Having become aware that Facebook uses my content and data to help create targeted adverts and other content, believing that I will somehow change my already dim view of advertizing, I have significantly tightened up my settings.

But what really irks me is this potential global influence Facebook could have on elections around the world. This Analytica scandal and the politics that are happening around the fringe of it (including, but not limited to John Bolton) demonstrate to me that Mr Zuckerberg and his management team somehow believe themselves to be above the summons of elected officials. I am unclear about what domestic and international law says with regards to company officials being able to be summoned to another country to talk about actions that their employer has taken in breach of the law (domestic? international?). That said, I accept to be liable for summons by a particular country, a company may need a physical presence (office)in that country.

At the end of the day it comes down to risk. Unless it is banned by law or physically impossible to access in ones own country, no one is stopping a person from using Facebook, but one accepts that when they agree to the Terms and Conditions of Facebook, they accept that what their data is only safe from potential misuse if it has not been supplied.

Drones: A doubled edged sword

You see them hovering above events. The real “eye in the sky”, remotely controlled by someone nearby. Your friends might have one, or you might know people who use them for work purposes – or been unlucky enough to have a prying one hovering over your property.

Welcome – for better or for worse – to the world of drones.

I do not know anyone personally who owns a drone. I have wondered occasionally about the pros and cons of having one.

Let me be clear. Drones certainly have their uses. Civilian construction contractors often use them to view safely structures or dangerous terrain when working on projects. When the demolition phase of the Christchurch recovery was in progress drones were very useful for flying into and around buildings that were too dangerous to approach on foot. This also included houses in Scarborough, on the cliffs overlooking Redcliffs as well as other Port Hill suburbs.

Recreational users also find them popular. One example is a clip taken at Lake Coleridge at the end of Intake Road, gives a perspective on the Lake Coleridge power station intake that cannot be gained from foot access due to the safety hazards posed by the intake and it being in a fenced off area.

Drones also have military uses – and abuses. Surveillance of ones territory is one thing; using one to deliver lethal force is quite another (and a particularly concerning grey area of international law).

Civil Aviation Authority requires that all drone operators comply with their code for controlled devices. It does not matter whether you are a recreational user, civil or other user, there are certain things you can and cannot do.

Given that there are concerns about drone users who do not think about or have malicious intentions when they fly drones over private property, people who have not consented to being filmed and so forth, I believe a certification process is required. It is not that I believe drone use should be limited, but it is important to know and respect the fact that improper use of a drone can constitute serious criminal offending for which consequences are inevitable.

The concerns are justified. As the use of drones increases so will the likelihood of them being found in improper locations. The likelihood of of one endangering traffic, humans or aircraft due to being flown in circumstances where they should be grounded will increase.

And this is shown by the cases that occasionally appear before the Courts, in which drone users are charged because they put their craft in the way of helicopters or aircraft on legitimate business. One such case recently was a tourist who was made to forfeit his drone after flying it in front of helicopters trying to fight a scrub fire. He knew that it could potentially cause a crash. He had no reasonable explanation for his actions. Others have been prosecuted for flying their aircraft into flight paths of oncoming aircraft ranging from single seat private planes through to commercial passenger jets.

I am also aware of a couple of cases a few years ago where drones were seen hovering over peoples properties without their permission. One gentleman mentioned a drone hovering outside his place whilst his wife was home. Others mentioned concerns about users flying them overhead whilst children were playing. None of this is okay and breaches the C.A.A. rules. It also represents an unacceptable privacy invasion that no one should have to accept.

The number of drones is going to continue to grow as newer models come into the market and prices fall. So will the risk of improper use. I support a certification process for drones. Anyone over the age of say 16 should be permitted to buy one, but not before they get a certification to demonstrate they understand and agree to comply with legal obligations set down by the C.A.A. and other authorities. Repeated failure to comply should require forfeiture of the drone and of your certification.

Hazards of a computerized world

Sometime ago I watched a movie on T.V. called “I Robot”. It was about a time when robots did human office jobs with three rules to keep humans safe. However a detective becomes concerned that not everything is as it seems when the founder of U.S. Robotics is thought to have killed himself. He enlists the help of a robot and finds that a humanoid robot murdered him, and in doing so discovers a sinister conspiracy to enslave the human race to robots.

Call it what you wish, but I think I Robot raises some interesting, if not slightly disturbing questions about the extent to which we should rely on robots. But it also touched I thought on a deeper question about how much faith we should put in computers. Because without doubt the threat of cyber crime, cyber terrorism and possibly cyber violence – where machines commit acts of violence because the computer controlling them has gone rogue.

In the world of Star Wars, where droids perform all sorts of functions as manufacturing clones, being guards at military installations, serving as the flight mechanic in the starfighters and of course being C-3PO and R2D2, flashes of a mechanized world can also be seen. I particularly remember one incident where Admiral Ackbar and Commander Wedge Antilles have a disagreement about over whether the Commander, who wants to move his squadron somewhere after an exhausting operation is told to rest or a droid will be ordered to sedate him. Whilst I don’t see droids taking the place of nurses in the immediate future, it did raise an interesting question about the ethical issues that would arise should this ever happen.

Much more immediately though there are two particularly concerning cases that have come to my attention about instances of automated transport not going as it should. One involves a car and the other an aircraft.

The self driving car may sound great in theory, but does the potential for the computer controlling one to be hijacked or go rogue without reason raise any concerns? They should.

Does the potential for the computers on board an airline to go rogue cause you any concern as a passenger? It should. A case has already happened with a Q.A.N.T.A.S. flight where the computer suddenly stalled the aircraft sending it into a potentially catastrophic plunge for several hundred feet not once but twice in a matter of minutes. Yes, it is true that millions of people fly totally safely every day around the world. It is true that aviation is the safest form of transport by a long shot. Still, if a computer controlling an aircraft can go rogue on its own, what could it at the hands of a cyber hacker or if the aircraft has no manual over rides?

The potential for cyber hackers either acting on their own or at the directive of a Government or terrorist organization to take control of vital data systems and websites was graphically demonstrated last weekend. A ransomware bug called “Wanna Cry” was set loose by hackers and it struck 100 countries over about 48 hours. It takes computers hostage and threatens the owner with the loss of their files unless they comply with demands. To recover their files in the case of Wanna Cry, several hundred dollars worth of Bitcoin currency to a specified address. To ensure it was not dismissed as a joke full recovery was only possible if the specified demands were met within 3 days; partial recovery could be enabled by typing the word decrypt in like this: <decrypt> or full recovery by paying the specified amount.

And also, do we want to end up like the Simpsons do in one episode (or maybe it is the movie), where they move to a house where nobody has to do anything – it is all done for them by robots? Having literally all the time each day to do whatever you wish might seem great, but the Simpsons came to regret it.

The need to teach our senior citizens about scams

Recently there have been a spate of phone calls from “Microsoft Tech Support” or similar. The other day my home was rung by a person claiming to be a Micosoft technician. These are where people ring you claiming to be from Microsoft tech support and ask you for access to your computer so that they can access your computer. They tell you that there is a bug or a virus on your computer and that they can fix it.

Whilst many people will not fall for these scams, there are a couple categories of people who quite potentially will. One are the elderly who are easy prey, and can be quite vulnerable if they live alone and in need of any sort of contact. They very possibly do not understand the implications of what the callers are trying to get one to do, or they believe that there really is a problem with their computers. A degree of trusting that everything is genuine makes things easy. Other instances will involve them not being strong enough to simply say they are not interested and hang up.

Smell a rat? You should. There are several warning indicators that something is not quite right about this:

First and foremost, these people who ring you are most likely scammers. Most likely they are calling from another country. By ringing you, they are in effect acting as an agent for a potential trojan horse by getting you to lower your defences so they can insert something improper into your computer.

Second, Microsoft tech support will not ring you. In fact this is what the real Microsoft says about these scams – the information might not be specific to a New Zealand audience, but the implications are clear:

  1. This behaviour is a criminal offence in New Zealand
  2. Your computer can be exposed to malware, viruses, have data stolen off it or even completely hijacked
  3. If your system is in a network or open, you might be exposing other people and their machines to whatever illegal software that was put on your computer

So how do these scams work? The caller will most probably be calling from somewhere overseas. They might provide a fake number in your country to make their scam look more believable like an 09 area number from Auckland. These callers can be very aggressive. They are probably under pressure from their boss to churn through a set number of calls during their work until they get someone who bites and does what they want. The scams might be variations of old ones, but they all purport to be from Microsoft.

The simplest and most effective thing to do is simply say “Not interested” and hang up. In the case of the phone call to my place, the person who answered asked for their phone number, and the caller said “Fuck you”, at which point the person who answered hung up. If your phone records the number, do pass it on to your phone service provider and tell them it was a scam call. This will enable them to build up a picture of illegal activity going on, and possibly help the authorities bring the scammers to court.