Acknowledging the good, the bad and out right ugly of social media


Soon Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern will address leaders of the political word and the technological world in Paris. She will be talking about the need to address hate speech on social media and how to stop the spread of videos recorded by attackers in the course of their acts of violence. As we wait for that address it is important to acknowledge the role of social media in our lives – good and bad.

Social media plays a critical role in New Zealand in dispensing information from the authorities. It came into its own during the earthquake emergencies of 2010 and 2011 where for example it was the media platform on which the Student Volunteer Army was launched. In the years since it has been used to update the public during the recent Christchurch terrorist attacks, numerous overseas emergencies such as tsunami events. The same authorities have realized that whilst establishing a channel for criticism of all sorts, and sometimes quite nasty stuff at that, it provides the public with a non urgent means of passing on information, making queries and helping with tasks such as solving crimes.It also helps to build a rapport with various agencies – notably New Zealand Police, New Zealand Defence Force – posting more light hearted content such as the “Pawlice – Doggo’s with Jobbo’s” series of posts of Police dogs and their handlers having fun.

The same social media has by orders of magnitude improved politicians ability to interact with their constituents, campaign during election periods and pass on information. All of the parties in Parliament have Facebook and Twitter accounts, which can be lightning rods of support for media savvy politicians.¬† as evidenced in the United States by Alexandria Ocasio Cortez’s ability to turn attacks on her back on the attacker (Fox News, Breitbart, et al). In equal measure when a politician does something particularly nasty such as attack a religious minority (Australian Senator Fraser Anning attacked the Muslim community on his Twitter account, which then got suspended), social media accounts become lightning rods of criticism. Given the ability that social media has provided politicians to do much of their constituency work, I cannot imagine any politician who tries to limit social media because of certain networks failure to shut down harmful content following the Christchurch terrorist attack.

Tragically social media when abused can be the focal point of dreadful consequences for some. Examples in point have been numerous and I have often found myself having to call out racism or other bigotted behaviour – comments about people of African descent being monkeys/chimpanzees; Muslims being goat humpers, kiddy fiddlers and such; Maori being barbaric savages, and so it goes on. Sometimes Facebook has done the right thing and blocked the person or taken down the offending content, but just as often it has left highly inflammatory stuff up. I have also found that – although they seem to have had second thoughts about this since – in its early days streaming live coverage of police trying to talk someone out of jumping off a building was apparently a thing and it would attack absolutely horrible commentary.

I have a Facebook account and a Twitter account as well as this blog. I operate three pages on Facebook – one for my Amnesty International group with input from Amnesty International New Zealand head office in Auckland, one calling for comprehensive reform of waste legislation and one for this blog. My Twitter account is so I can comment on tweets in a strictly personal capacity as myself. I owe the success of my blog, which on average at the moment gets about 200 visits a day and on occasion over 1,000 to extensive advertising I have done on Facebook.

The same Facebook, as I am sure is the case for millions around the world, has enabled me to make contact with people I have never met but am now good friends with. It has enabled me to maintain long distance friendships with people in Sweden, the United States and elsewhere. Obviously with family members living both here and abroad, making contact and showing them photos of things like birthdays, weddings, new borns and things the children have been doing, helps to close the distance in a metaphorical sense if not a literal one.

There is absolutely no doubt that we must improve our conduct on Facebook, Twitter and so forth. There is also no doubt that, despite their assertions to the contrary both and others like Instagram can do more. But this idea that all is hunky dory is complete and utter garbage. Don’t believe me? Former Facebook staff member and one of Mr Zuckerberg’s initial inner circle Roger McNamee wrote a book called “Zucked: Waking up to the Facebook catastrophe”. In Whitcoull’s now.

New Zealand needs to draw a line on New Zealander’s privacy


New Zealander’s spend much of their internet time using the services of a few very large tech giants. Facebook, Amazon, Google, Microsoft, Yahoo! are some of them.

I am no exception. I have this blog, which requires an e-mail account, which I have with G-Mail. I have a Facebook page for this blog as well as my own private profile. I have a Twitter profile. Across the course of my presence on the internet, I have downloaded applications from Google Play, both free and otherwise.

In order to supply those services and products it is understandable that they will need to store some basic data about their users. They will need to know that their users are verified and not some sort of computer bot. They will need data specific to the types of services and products they supply.

What is not so easily acceptable – and which should be the subject of honest, robust debate – is whether these companies should be able to build up a vast profile of ones internet footprint. Below is an example from Britain of how Google was able to do so.

A contributor to The Guardian wrote an article a few months ago about how much Google and Facebook for example were able to store about him. The results he found were rather startling. Google was able to store every single search, purchase, e-mail sent/received, app downloaded that he had done for nearly the last 10 years, in his case dating back to 2009. At the time of him publishing the article Google had 5.5 gigabytes of information about his activities.

A few weeks ago I deleted my Google + accounts. Aside from having barely used them since they were formed, wanted to reduce the footprint across which Google could collect data about me. Yesterday I became aware of how to check Google’s knowledge of the ads it displays that one might have clicked on – deliberately or accidentally. Over the next few days I am going to see how far I can reduce my Google Ads footprint.

Google is not the only tech company I am trying to reduce my online profile with. Facebook, long accused – justifiably so – of being in breach of the privacy laws of various national jurisdictions, has been issued ultimatim’s to fix the breaches and demonstrate having done so, for face sanctions.

In my case I have removed photos from prior to 2016. I have family and friends who used to be quite active on Facebook, who have stopped posting and have simply walked away from their accounts. Others have deleted their accounts outright when they have concluded that Facebook has access to too much of their private lives.

I am but a gnat against the likes of Google and Facebook, but I honestly believe that if first world nations made these companies respect their privacy laws, there might be a fighting chance of an overall sea change in how these companies view the world. If New Zealand took a stand and told these companies they would face sanctions for non-compliance, their contemptuous outlook might change. It would have a precedent to follow – other nations have already attempted to lay down the law to Facebook. How long before they try it on Google and the others?

Hopefully not long.

 

Autonomous robots pose undue risk


Autonomous robots pose an undue risk to humans and human activity.

To see what is meant by this statement, an autonomous robot helping to perform an operation contributed to the death of a patient on an operating table in Britain when it knocked the hand of an assisting medic at a critical phase in the surgery. Whilst the robot did not make the fatal moves that ultimately led to the patients death a few days later, it was considered to have contributed.

I believe that medical procedures being done on humans are too valuable to have robotic assistance for a number of reasons, the one above being just one:

  1. Could a robot be programmed to tell minute differences in what is being operated on, such as for example the space between a piece of embeded shrapnel and something important like an artery
  2. Would robots have a broad enough understand of human language and interactions to not misinterpret something and subsequently behave in a way surgeons or other specialists might not anticipate
  3. In a time pressured situation such as someone losing much blood and the bleeding needing to be quickly stemmed, could a robot react in time or understand the urgency

The medical profession would be wary of any robot technology that cannot be over ridden by a human being since artificial intelligence is not (yet!) able to distinguish situational issues with the clarity that would be necessary to be an effective tool. But there is a bigger problem. Da Vinci – as the one in the article was known – and like robots will only be as good as the humans who designed them and work with them.

Another example of dangerous autonomous robots are the development of military robots. These will have the ability to determine themselves who to kill. Britain is thought to be funding the development of such weapons.

Both ethically and legally this raises very serious and immediately potent questions about the sort of military weapons that should be developed. Legally it enters a part of the Geneva conventions that is very grey and which has not been a priority for politicians in terms of overhauling. Ethically weapons that develop an operational mind of their own is highly improper at best.

Even if the drones are securely controlled and operated under strict parameters, there is also always the risk that cyber hacking could break into the drone and make it go rogue. In a politically charged environment where cyber attacks are frequent there is no such thing as a cast iron guarantee that such technology will be secure.

New Zealand politicians are perhaps 15-20 years behind on their understanding of technology and the ethical and legal challenges its applications pose. This is a rather broad statement, but also one that has serious truth to it. Therefore it is highly unlikely that they have given thought to the potential hazards of killer drones and the short comings of robots in a surgery environment – though admittedly in the latter, the robot is clearly supposed to be helping in a procedure that ultimately makes the human better.

Will our politicians get with the times before technological best practices in New Zealand start involving robots in situations where the human is not necessarily in control?

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.