Category Archives: Politics

Is this research ethical?

The Economist features face recognition on its front page, reporting that deep neural networks can now tell whether you’re straight or gay better than humans can just by looking at your face. The research they cite is a preprint, available here.

Its authors Kosinski and Wang downloaded thousands of photos from a dating site, ran them through a standard feature-extraction program, then classified gay vs straight using a standard statistical classifier, which they found could tell the men seeking men from the men seeking women. My students pretty well instantly called this out as selection bias; if gay men consider boyish faces to be cuter, then they will upload their most boyish photo. The paper authors suggest their finding may support a theory that sexuality is influenced by fetal testosterone levels, but when you don’t control for such biases your results may say more about social norms than about phenotypes.

Quite apart from the scientific value of the research, which is perhaps best assessed by specialists, I’m concerned with the ethics and privacy aspects. I am surprised that the paper doesn’t report having been through ethical review; the authors consider that photos on a dating website are public information and appear to assume that privacy issues simply do not arise.

Yet UK courts decided, in Campbell v Mirror, that privacy could be violated even by photos taken on the public street, and European courts have come to similar conclusions in I v Finland and elsewhere. For example, a Catholic woman is entitled to object to the use of her medical record in research on abortifacients and contraceptives even if the proposed use is fully anonymised and presents no privacy risk whatsoever. The dating site users would be similarly entitled to object to their photos being used in research to which they might have an ethical objection, even if they could not be identified from their photos. There are surely going to be people who object to research in any nature vs nurture debate, especially on a charged topic such as sexuality. And the whole point of the Economist’s coverage is that face-recognition technology is now good enough to work at population scale.

What do LBT readers think?

History of the Crypto Wars in Britain

Back in March I gave an invited talk to the Cambridge University Ethics in Mathematics Society on the Crypto Wars. They have just put the video online here.

We spent much of the 1990s pushing back against attempts by the intelligence agencies to seize control of cryptography. From the Clipper Chip through the regulation of trusted third parties to export control, the agencies tried one trick after another to make us all less secure online, claiming that thanks to cryptography the world of intelligence was “going dark”. Quite the opposite was true; with communications moving online, with people starting to carry mobile phones everywhere, and with our communications and traffic data mostly handled by big firms who respond to warrants, law enforcement has never had it so good. Twenty years ago it cost over a thousand pounds a day to follow a suspect around, and weeks of work to map his contacts; Ed Snowden told us how nowadays an officer can get your location history with one click and your address book with another. In fact, searches through the contact patterns of whole populations are now routine.

The checks and balances that we thought had been built in to the RIP Act in 2000 after all our lobbying during the 1990s turned out to be ineffective. GCHQ simply broke the law and, after Snowden exposed them, Parliament passed the IP Act to declare that what they did was all right now. The Act allows the Home Secretary to give secret orders to tech companies to do anything they physically can to facilitate surveillance, thereby delighting our foreign competitors. And Brexit means the government thinks it can ignore the European Court of Justice, which has already ruled against some of the Act’s provisions. (Or perhaps Theresa May chose a hard Brexit because she doesn’t want the pesky court in the way.)

Yet we now see the Home Secretary repeating the old nonsense about decent people not needing privacy along with law enforcement officials on both sides of the Atlantic. Why doesn’t she just sign the technical capability notices she deems necessary and serve them?

In these fraught times it might be useful to recall how we got here. My talk to the Ethics in Mathematics Society was a personal memoir; there are many links on my web page to relevant documents.

Regulatory capture

Today’s newspapers report that the cladding on the Grenfell Tower, which appears to have been a major factor in the dreadful loss of life there, was banned in Germany and permitted in America only for low-rise buildings. It would have cost only £2 more per square meter to use fire-resistant cladding instead.

The tactical way of looking at this is whether the landlords or the builders were negligent, or even guilty of manslaughter, for taking such a risk in order to save £5000 on an £8m renovation job. The strategic approach is to ask why British regulators are so easily bullied by the industries they are supposed to police. There is a whole literature on regulatory capture but Britain seems particularly prone to it.

Regular readers of this blog will recall many cases of British regulators providing the appearance of safety, privacy and security rather than the reality. The Information Commissioner is supposed to regulate privacy but backs away from confronting powerful interests such as the tabloid press or the Department of Health. The Financial Ombudsman Service is supposed to protect customers but mostly sides with the banks instead; the new Payment Systems Regulator seems no better. The MHRA is supposed to regulate the safety of medical devices, yet resists doing anything about infusion pumps, which kill as many people as cars do.

Attempts to fix individual regulators are frustrated by lobbyists, or even by fear of lobbyists. For example, my colleague Harold Thimbleby has done great work on documenting the hazards of infusion pumps; yet when he applied to be a non-executive director of the MHRA he was not even shortlisted. I asked a civil servant who was once responsible for recommending such appointments to the Secretary of State why ministers never seemed to appoint people like Harold who might make a real difference. He replied wearily that ministers would never dream of that as “the drug companies would make too much of a fuss”.

In the wake of this tragedy there are both tactical and strategic questions of blame. Tactically, who decided that it was OK to use flammable cladding on high-rise buildings, when other countries came to a different conclusion? Should organisations be fined, should people be fired, and should anyone go to prison? That’s now a matter for the public inquiry, the police and the courts.

Strategically, why is British regulators so cosy with the industries they regulate, and what can be done about that? My starting point is that the appointment of regulators should no longer be in the gift of ministers. I propose that regulatory appointments be moved from the Cabinet Office to an independent commission, like the Judicial Appointments Commission, but with a statutory duty to hire the people most likely to challenge groupthink and keep the regulator effective. That is a political matter – a matter for all of us.

Camouflage or scary monsters: deceiving others about risk

I have just been at the Cambridge Risk and Uncertainty Conference which brings together people who educate the public about risks. They include public-health doctors trying to get people to eat better and exercise more, statisticians trying to keep governments honest about crime statistics, and climatologists trying to educate us about global warming – an eclectic and interesting bunch.

Most of the people in this community see their role as dispelling ignorance, or motivating the slothful. Yet in most of the cases we discussed, the public get risk wrong because powerful interests make a serious effort to scare them about some of life’s little hazards, or to reassure them about others. When this is put to the risk communication folks in a question – whether after a talk or in the corridor – they readily admit they’re up against a torrent of misleading marketing. But they don’t see what they’re doing as adversarial, and I strongly suspect that many risk interventions are less effective as a result.

In my talk (slides) I set this out as simply and starkly as I could. We spend too much on terrorism, because both the terrorists and the governments who’re supposed to protect us from them big up the threat; we spend too little on cybercrime, because everyone from the crooks through the police and the banks to the computer industry has their own reason to talk down the threat. I mentioned recent cases such as Wannacry as examples of how institutions communicate risk in self-serving, misleading ways. I discussed our own study of browser warnings, which suggests that people at least subconsciously know that most of the warnings they see are written to benefit others rather than them; they tune out all but the most specific.

What struck me with some force when preparing my talk, though, is that there’s just nobody in academia who takes a holistic view of adversarial risk communication. Many people look at some small part of the problem, from David Rios’ game-theoretic analysis of adversarial risk through John Mueller’s studies of terrorism risk and Alessandro Acquisti’s behavioural economics of privacy, through to criminologists who study pathways into crime and psychologists who study deception. Of all these, the literature on deception might be the most relevant, though we should also look at politics, propaganda, and studies of why people stubbornly persist in their beliefs – including the excellent work by Bénabou and Tirole on the value people place on belief. Perhaps the professionals whose job comes closest to adversarial risk communication are political spin doctors. So when should we talk about new facts, and when should we talk about who’s deceiving you and why?

Given the current concern over populism and the role of social media in the Brexit and Trump votes, it might be time for a more careful cross-disciplinary study of how we can change people’s minds about risk in the presence of smart and persistent adversaries. We know, for example, that a college education makes people much less susceptible to propaganda and marketing; but what is the science behind designing interventions that are quicker and cheaper in specific circumstances?

RIP smart meters

The Telegraph has just run an op-ed they asked me to write over the weekend, after I pointed out here on Friday that the Conservative manifesto had quietly downgraded the smart meter programme to a voluntary one.

Regular readers of Light Blue Touchpaper will have followed the smart meter story for almost a decade, back through the dishonest impact assessment to the fact that they pose a threat to critical infrastructure.

Manifestos and tech

The papers went to town yesterday on the Conservative manifesto but missed some interesting bits.

First, no-one seems to have noticed that the smart meter programme is being quietly put to death. We read on page 60 that everyone will be offered a smart meter by 2020. So a mandatory national programme has become voluntary, just like that. Regular readers of this blog will recall that the programme was sold in 2008 by Ed Milliband using a dishonest impact assessment, yet all the parties backed it after 2010, leaving no-one to point out that it was going to cost us all a fortune and never save any carbon. May says she wants to reduce energy costs; this was surely a no-brainer.

That was the good news for England. The good news for friends in rural Scotland is high-speed broadband for all by 2020. But there are some rather weird things in there too.

What on earth is “the right of businesses to insist on a digital signature”? Digital signatures are very 1998, and we already have the electronic signature directive. From whom will businesses be able to insist on a signature, and if I’m one of the legislated victims, how much do I have to pay to buy the apparatus?

All digital businesses will have “to support new digital proofs of identification”. That presumably means forcing firms to use Verify, a dysfunctional online authentication service whose roots lie in Blair’s obsession with identity. If a newspaper currently identifies its subscribers via a proprietary logon, will they have to offer Verify as an option? Will it have to be the only option, displacing Facebook and Twitter? The manifesto also says that local government will have to use Verify; and elsewhere that councils must publish planning applications and bus routes “without the hassle and delay that currently exists.” OK, so some councils could so with more competent webmasters, but don’t worry: “hundreds of leaders from the world of tech can come into government to help deliver better public services.”

The Land Registry, the Ordnance Survey and other quangos that do geography (our leader’s degree subject) will all band together to create the largest open repository of land data in the world. So where will the Ordnance Survey get its money from then? That small question killed the same idea in 2010 after Tim Berners-Lee sold it to Cameron.

There will be a levy on social media companies, like on gambling companies, to support awareness and preventive activity. And they must not direct users, even unintentionally, to hate speech. So will Facebook be fined whenever they let users like a xenophobic article in the Daily Mail?

No doubt in view of the delicacy of such regulatory decisions, Leveson II is killed; there will be a Data Use and Ethics Commission instead. It will advise regulators and develop the principles and rules that will give people confidence their data are being handled properly. Wow. We now have the Charter of Fundamental Rights to give us principles, the GDPR to give us rules, and the ECJ to hammer out the case law. Now the People don’t have confidence in such experts we’re going to let the Prime Minister of the day appoint a different lot.

The next government will further strengthen cyber security standards for government and public services, so presumably all such services will have to use expensive networks such as the NHS-wide network from BT which will expect them to manage their own firewalls without telling them how to.

But don’t worry. It will become “as difficult to commit a crime digitally as it is physically”. There is text about working “with international law enforcement agencies to ensure perpetrators are brought to justice” but our local police force isn’t allowed to do anything effective about online accommodation fraud committed by a gang in Germany. They have to work through the NCA – who don’t care. The manifesto signals more of the same: the NCA will get to eat the SFO, which does crimes over £100m, leaving them even less interested in online crooks who steal a thousand pounds of deposit from dozens of students a year.

In fact there is no signal anywhere in the manifesto that May understands the impact of volume cybercrime, even though it’s now most of the property crime in the UK. She rather prefers to boast of the falling crime over the past seven years, as if it were her achievement as Home Secretary. The simple fact is that crime has been going online like everything else, and until 2015 the online part of it wasn’t recorded properly. This was not the doing of Theresa May, but of Margaret Hodge.

The manifesto rather seems to have been drafted in a geek-free room. And let’s not spoil the party by mentioning the impact that tight immigration targets will have on the IT industry, or for that matter on higher education. Perhaps they want us to hope that they don’t really mean that part of it, but perhaps we’d better make a plan to open a campus in India or Canada, just in case.

Video on Edge

John Brockman of Edge interviewed me in London in March. The video of the interview, and a transcript, are now available on the Edge website. Edge runs big interviews with several dozen scientists a year, with particular interest in people who do cross-disciplinary work. For me, the interaction of economics, psychology and engineering is one of the things that makes security so fascinating, as well as the creativity driven by adversarial behaviour.

The topics covered include the last thirty years of progress (of lack of it) in information security, from the early beginnings, through the crypto wars and crime moving online, to the economics of security. We talked about how cryptography can help less developed countries; about managing complexity in big projects; about how network effects lead firms to design insecure products; about whether big data can undermine democracy by empowering elites; and about how in a future world of intelligent things, security may become more about safety than anything else. Finally I talk about our current big project, the Cambridge Cybercrime Centre.

John runs a literary agency, and he’s worked on books by many of the scientists who feature on his site. This makes me wonder: on what topic should I write my next book?