Skip to content

Author: John Naughton

Want to advertise here? Email nathan@basitweb.co.uk to rent this space!

Think your iPhone is safe from hackers? That’s what they want you to think…



Forget Apple’s much-vaunted iOS safeguards – attackers have been quietly breaking and entering for yearsWhenever there’s something that some people value, there will be a marketplace for it. A few years ago, I spent a fascinating hour with a detective …

Why we should be very scared by the intrusive menace of facial recognition | John Naughton



When even Microsoft starts calling for government regulation, you know the technology is a problemOn 18 July, the House of Commons select committee on science and technology published an assessment of the work of the biometrics commissioner and the for…

The robots are definitely coming and will make the world a more unequal place | John Naughton



New studies show that the latest wave of automation will make the world’s poor poorer. But big tech will be even richerSo the robots are coming for our jobs, are they? Yawn. That’s such an old story. Goes back to Elizabeth I and the stocking frame, if …

How Silicon Valley’s whiz-kids finally ran out of friends | John Naughton



The tech founders said they were not like the evil capitalists of old. We should have known betterRemember the time when tech companies were cool? So do I. Once upon a time, Silicon Valley was the jewel in the American crown, a magnet for high IQ – and…

Trump’s banning of Huawei could be the beginning of the biggest trade war ever | John Naughton



Don’t expect the Chinese government to roll over in the fight against the tech giantUntil recently, the only thing the average citizen could have told you about Huawei, the Chinese tech giant, was that s/he hadn’t the faintest idea of how to pronounce …

The privacy paradox: why do people keep using tech firms that abuse their data? | John Naughton



Despite privacy scandals, Facebook is more profitable than ever – journalists must use the tools of tech to understand why

A dark shadow looms over our networked world. It’s called the “privacy paradox”. The main commercial engine of this world involves erosion of, and intrusions upon, our privacy. Whenever researchers, opinion pollsters and other busybodies ask people if they value their privacy, they invariably respond with a resounding “yes”. The paradox arises from the fact that they nevertheless continue to use the services that undermine their beloved privacy.

If you want confirmation, then look no further than Facebook. In privacy-scandal terms, 2018 was an annus horribilis for the company. Yet the results show that by almost every measure that matters to Wall Street, it has had a bumper year. The number of daily active users everywhere is up; average revenue per user is up 19% on last year, while overall revenue for the last quarter of 2018 is 30.4% up on the same quarter in 2017. In privacy terms, the company should be a pariah. At least some of its users must be aware of this. But it apparently makes no difference to their behaviour.

Continue reading…

Are big tech’s efforts to show it cares about data ethics another diversion? | John Naughton



Google’s establishment of an advisory council comes across as little more than window-dressing

You may not have noticed it, but there’s a feeding frenzy under way in the tech world. Traditionally, such frenzies are driven by greed. This one, interestingly, is driven by fear, though you’d never guess that from its cover story, which is that it’s all about “ethics”, specifically the ethics of using (and, more commonly, abusing) personal data. Suddenly, wherever you look, data ethics has become the obsession du jour of governments, tech companies and regulators. Everyone and his dog is now publishing data-ethics guides, codes and pious exhortations. The Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, for example, is setting up a Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation. Consortiums of tech companies have set up initiatives such as the Partnership on AI (motto: “The best way to ensure a good future for AI is to invent it together”). Google has published a set of “AI principles” and the other day followed up with an external advisory council “to help advance the responsible development of AI”. And so on.

I’ve been tracking this obsession for a while, tagging every instance of it that I found on the web with the software I use for keeping track of memes. At first, I thought that the accumulating stack of references was just a reflection of journalistic scepticism and my suspicious temperament. But it turns out that I was not alone in noticing this trend. No less a source than Gartner, the technology analysis company, for example, has also sussed it and indeed has logged “data ethics” as one of its top 10 strategic trends for 2019.

Continue reading…

From self-harm to terrorism, online recommendations cast a deadly shadow | John Naughton



The tragic case of Molly Russell has highlighted their malign influence

My eye was caught by a headline in Wired magazine: “When algorithms think you want to die”. Below it was an article by two academic researchers, Ysabel Gerrard and Tarleton Gillespie, about the “recommendation engines” that are a central feature of social media and e-commerce sites.

Everyone who uses the web is familiar with these engines. A recommendation algorithm is what prompts Amazon to tell me that since I’ve bought Custodians of the Internet, Gillespie’s excellent book on the moderation of online content, I might also be interested in Safiya Umoja Noble’s Algorithms of Oppression: How Search Engines Reinforce Racism and a host of other books about algorithmic power and bias. In that particular case, the algorithm’s guess is accurate and helpful: it informs me about stuff that I should have known about but hadn’t.

Continue reading…

Long untouchable, web giants now know what it feels like to be hunted | John Naughton



Governments, after years of indulgence, are rightly getting tough on social media sites

The key question to ask when a shocking tragedy comes to light is this: does it signify a scandal or a crisis? Scandals happen all the time in societies. They generate a lot of heat, outrage and public angst. But, eventually, the media caravan moves on and nothing much changes.

When in 2011, for example, the Guardian printed shocking revelations of tabloid phone-hacking and, particularly, the news that reporters had hacked the mobile phone of the murdered schoolgirl Milly Dowler, many observers concluded that this indicated a crisis for the British newspaper industry. Initially, the signs were promising: solemn statement by the prime minister, ubiquitous shock-horror-outrage, closure of a big newspaper, a judicial inquiry – all the trappings of a democracy embarking on radical reform. But in the end, nothing much changed. British tabloids are as intrusive and crass as ever. And the industry remains “self-regulated”. It was just another scandal, after all.

Continue reading…