Category Archives: Politics

Don’t blame Cambridge for Facebook’s privacy crisis

Mark Zuckerberg tried to blame Cambridge University in his recent testimony before the US Senate, saying “We do need to understand whether there was something bad going on in Cambridge University overall, that will require a stronger action from us.”

The New Scientist invited me to write a rebuttal piece, and here it is.

Dr Kogan tried to get approval to use the data his company had collected from Facebook users in academic research. The psychology ethics committee refused permission, and when he appealed to the University Ethics Committee (declaration: I’m a member) this refusal was upheld. Although he’d got consent from the people who ran his app, the same could not be said of their Facebook “friends” from whom most of the data were collected.

The deceptive behaviour here has been by Facebook, which creates the illusion of privacy in order to get its users to share more data. There has been a lot of work on the economics and psychology of privacy over the past decade and we now understand the dynamics of advertising markets better than we used to.

One big question is the “privacy paradox”. Why do people say they care about privacy, yet behave otherwise? Part of the answer is about context; and part of it is about learning. Over time, more and more people are starting to pay attention to online privacy settings, despite attempts by Facebook and other online advertising firms to keep changing privacy settings to confuse people.

With luck, the Facebook scandal will be a “flashbulb moment” that will drive lots more people to start caring about their privacy online. It will certainly provide interesting new data to privacy researchers.

Making security sustainable

Making security sustainable is a piece I wrote for Communications of the ACM and has just appeared in the Privacy and security column of their March issue. Now that software is appearing in durable goods, such as cars and medical devices, that can kill us, software engineering will have to come of age.

The notion that software engineers are not responsible for things that go wrong will be laid to rest for good, and we will have to work out how to develop and maintain code that will go on working dependably for decades in environments that change and evolve. And as security becomes ever more about safety rather than just privacy, we will have sharper policy debates about surveillance, competition, and consumer protection.

Perhaps the biggest challenge will be durability. At present we have a hard time patching a phone that’s three years old. Yet the average age of a UK car at scrappage is about 14 years, and rising all the time; cars used to last 100,000 miles in the 1980s but now keep going for nearer 200,000. As the embedded carbon cost of a car is about equal to that of the fuel it will burn over its lifetime, we just can’t afford to scrap cars after five years, as do we laptops.

For durable safety-critical goods that incorporate software, the long-term software maintenance cost may become the limiting factor. Two things follow. First, software sustainability will be a big research challenge for computer scientists. Second, it will also be a major business opportunity for firms who can cut the cost.

This paper follows on from our earlier work for the European Commission on what happens to safety regulation in the future Internet of Things.

What Goes Around Comes Around

What Goes Around Comes Around is a chapter I wrote for a book by EPIC. What are America’s long-term national policy interests (and ours for that matter) in surveillance and privacy? The election of a president with a very short-term view makes this ever more important.

While Britain was top dog in the 19th century, we gave the world both technology (steamships, railways, telegraphs) and values (the abolition of slavery and child labour, not to mention universal education). America has given us the motor car, the Internet, and a rules-based international trading system – and may have perhaps one generation left in which to make a difference.

Lessig taught us that code is law. Similarly, architecture is policy. The architecture of the Internet, and the moral norms embedded in it, will be a huge part of America’s legacy, and the network effects that dominate the information industries could give that architecture great longevity.

So if America re-engineers the Internet so that US firms can microtarget foreign customers cheaply, so that US telcos can extract rents from foreign firms via service quality, and so that the NSA can more easily spy on people in places like Pakistan and Yemen, then in 50 years’ time the Chinese will use it to manipulate, tax and snoop on Americans. In 100 years’ time it might be India in pole position, and in 200 years the United States of Africa.

My book chapter explores this topic. What do the architecture of the Internet, and the network effects of the information industries, mean for politics in the longer term, and for human rights? Although the chapter appeared in 2015, I forgot to put it online at the time. So here it is now.

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.