As a software engineer and now CTO of my own technology company I watch what happens out there in the big bad world fairly closely.
When I think back to the mid ninties when the web/email/internet became something I used on a near minute by minute basis professionally and increasingly outside of work I really did hold some kind of crazy hope that this would be the game changer it promised to be. In many, many ways it has. We are in my opinion still in the very, very early stages of the whole connectedness thing. The internet of things is still on the horizon and the internet has made so many things possible for so many that were not before it. All good …
However, the dark and seedy side of reality is never very far away.
I have gone through many phases of liking and hating Facebook. It’s actually a great tool for many things and simply a great idea … BUT …
Over the last few months there have been a number of events that have really changed my opinion. Firstly there was the Snowdon leaks about the PRISM system being used to spy on pretty much everything by the sounds of it. That wasn’t a surprise to me at all since William Binney has been banging on about the system for the last 12 years after he quit the NSA based on what they were doing using the software he had a very large hand in helping create. No-body really listened to him then so it takes the Snowdon releases to jolt a lot of people into realising that William was right all along. Fine …
Then we have Zuckerberg coming out and telling us that Facebook hadn’t even heard of PRISM.
“I want to respond personally to the outrageous press reports about PRISM:
Facebook is not and has never been part of any program to give the US or any other government direct access to our servers. We have never received a blanket request or court order from any government agency asking for information or metadata in bulk, like the one Verizon reportedly received. And if we did, we would fight it aggressively. We hadn’t even heard of PRISM before yesterday.
When governments ask Facebook for data, we review each request carefully to make sure they always follow the correct processes and all applicable laws, and then only provide the information if is required by law. We will continue fighting aggressively to keep your information safe and secure.
We strongly encourage all governments to be much more transparent about all programs aimed at keeping the public safe. It’s the only way to protect everyone’s civil liberties and create the safe and free society we all want over the long term.” – Mark Zuckerberg
So why then did the White House itself say the exact opposite to this and state that at that point in time the intelligence community had been directly accessing Facebook servers for nearly 6 years? Which is it Zuckerberg? This is double-speak. The keys to unravelling the truth lie in the use of the term “direct access” and I’m sure Zuckerberg hadn’t heard the term “PRISM” at that time, doesn’t mean that the intelligence community has “no access” to your servers nor can you assert that you’ve not been involved in PRISM since you don’t know what the codename of the project would have been internally to the intelligence community. They don’t broadcast things like that.
I actually feel sorry for the big tech companies involved in this since the legislation passed by the US government makes it near impossible for them to adhere to their own privacy statements and the respective laws of their country. It’s an impossible situation and makes a mockery of so many laws it’s a joke.
Then on top of all this Facebook announces a new feature on their mobile application that will listen in on your world and make suggestions based on the analysis of the audio that was captured. No different to what Shazam has been offering for long time but with a wider scope and arguably a more person centric focus. The other issue Facebook faces is ther default settings argument (for another post!) so the default setting for this new feature will be disabled rather than enabled. Which I guess is something but it still made me feel inclined to un-install the mobile application, which I did. I now use Facebook a LOT less and only through the (dolphin 🙂 browser.
Then we also find out that Facebook did in fact conduct what it calls “emotional contagion” studies on unwitting users. A practise deemed illigal in the laws of pretty much every country going. Really? For me this has all added up to starting to feel like I don’t want anything to do with Facebook. It has become a monster of epic proportions and I feel once any entity becomes that large and that ubiquitous it is also inescapably politicised.
Ever heard the saying “Don’t bite the hand that feeds you?” …
The ever ubituitous Google seems to have some very real abilities that you wouldn’t really think about unless it was studied systematically. Seems that some people have been doing exactly that and have stated that they have proved that Google search ranking manipulated the Indian 2014 election process. The article called DEMOCRACY AT RISK: HOW VOTERS IN THE 2014 ELECTIONS IN INDIA WERE MANIPULATED BY BIASED SEARCH RANKINGS. All rather eye opening really.
There was another incident I read about where a father in the US stormed into a large department store brandishing a fistfull of discount vouchers for pregnancy and a baby equipment. Ranting about the fact that his daughter was just 16 and most definitely not pregnant. Turns out that Google knew she was pregnant and through the great Google marketing engine some superstore gets her details and mails her a stack of bait. All before the parents knew …
Where on earth do you start with Amazon? I think it’s daft to slam a company for just being big but if you are going to be big, be responsible as well. It’s part of growing up after all it just seems so many big businesses don’t grow up they just get bigger. I have bought from them in the past and the service has always been really very good. There was a glitchy purchase a few years ago where no matter how much I complained about geting the wrong CD they just kept on sending me copies of the wrong one. I ended up with 5 copies of ISAN-Salamander … Anyway, I digress.
They do use ridiculous amounts of packaging for some items I’ve ordered but a lot of companies do that, I’ve seen whole cellophane wrapped wooden pallets to deliver a sheet of A4 paper but Amazon have been investigated in the UK for human rights violations and employment law violation. The BBC even made a documentary about it. Which at the time of writing this was still available to stream online. Where it documents the insane levels of monitoring and timing the members of staff are subjected to. This is no way to treat people at work, really it isn’t and Amazon should be ashamed of it.
Now on top of that it turns out that Amazon is now trying to bully the publishing industry. It seems that some new clauses in the Amzon agreements probably aren’t even legal under UK law.
Now it seems that even SoundCloud is going a bit mental. Seems they have given Universal Music the full blown access to their system so that they can simply login and cancel people accounts for copyright infringment. They are also using an automatic system that will simply remove the content if it thinks it is a copyright issue and that seems to be happening to people I know with original content. I’m all for protecting copyright, people – artists – need to eat and in some instances they also need to be able to be a professional one or all you’ll be left with a lot of enthusiastic amatures.
SSL & Security
There have been rumblings of Windows having a back door for spying for as long as I’ve been using the OS (over 20 odd years). This was all fine and can be brushed off as the ramblings of crackpots (I’ve been called that many times) but in recent years has taken on even wider “breaking open” of end users security which is about to reach a new standard. The Snowdon leaks also confirmed that yes indeed there were/are back doors and they have essentially broken the security mechanism of the internet.
There is a new version of these back doors in the offing … a standard built right into your motherboard. On a chip, called TPM. The idea is that the various crypto keys that are generated at the factory are burned into the chips. Great. Provided the author of those keys are honest enough to not keep copies we’re all good. But, just how likely is that? Hmm …
THEN, if this wasn’t enough things going on we also find out that SSL has been more or less crippled. So what, who cares? SSL is the only thing that keeps all your passwords and information flying around the internet unreadable unless its the intended recipient trying to read it. And even then there are caveats galore. As someone that has implemented a lot of security over the years this is a seriously big deal. That green lock icon used to mean something important. It got Tim Berners-Lee really irate.
“I think that’s appalling, deliberately to break software, Internet security is hard. All systems have undiscovered holes in them, and it’s only a question of how fast the bad guys can discover the holes compared with how fast the good guys can patch them up. So it’s naive to imagine that if you introduce a weakness into a system, you will be the only one to use it. A lot of the IT industry feels that’s a betrayal.” – Sir Tim Berners-Lee
On top of this some very large wholes have appeared in the OpenSSL library. What does this mean really? It means that a library of code (such as a single dll file) that is used by gazillions of servers running the internet is actually really very broken. So on top of alphabet soup agencies meddling with it you have developers innocently introducing wholes through the introduction of bugs in the code. Not a great situation as you can imagine.
So anyway, where does all this leave us?
The SSL stuff aside I’m feeling that I cannot understand why some compaies seem to be so willing to treat their users/customers/fanbase/lifeblood with such contempt. It just smacks of arrogance and a feeling of power that I certainly think is misplaced. If big banks can fail companies like Facebook, Amazon and SoundCloud should not be so complacent. On the other hand I really do think that something like Facebook has become just a bit too important to some quarters to allow it to fail, how ironic?
As software developer writing code and a business owner in the social media landscape I have felt for a few years that there will be some event, some revelation that will have a serious knock-on effects to the way people view social media and the way they interact with it, some are already very wary and distrusting and the social giants seem to be doing little to address that.
I was obviously wrong.
As far as I’m concerned some of the things I have mentioned above should be enough on their own to ring alarm bells for most but so far it seems to have largely gone under peoples radars. People are talking about it but I’m sure that at least 95% of people that are talking about it just aren’t in a position to appreciate the full ramifications let alone form adequate expressions of disapproval.
All I’m really saying is that we are giving these organisations and we should be holding them very, very accountable.