Social Legal and Ethical Aspects of High Tech


Simon Davies wrote an interesting blog post on “Why I’ve stopped caring about what the public thinks about privacy” in which he explains the trap of advocates for any social benefit caring too much about whether there is majority support for their position. I agree with him that privacy advocates who understand the importance of privacy rights and privacy practices should not despair when faced with survey after survey after experiment in which many people, often a majority, either state they don’t care very much about their privacy or demonstrate through action that even if they care about privacy, they ware willing to give it up for a small perceived benefit. However, I think Simon’s article needs further consideration. Of course those of us who see the importance of privacy should not give up our advocacy. However, we should understand where the apathy or even hostility to privacy rights comes from. We need solid empirical research on this and good conceptual presentations of why it happens. Only then can we try to apply force to the right levers to improve everyone’s access to privacy.

My own work on the psychological impact of social network site affordances shows some of the reasons why people’s responses to surveys show that they have limited their desire for privacy. It’s not that they don’t care, it’s that in order to maintain their sanity in the face of peer pressure and network effects pushing them into using things like Facebook, including using their “legal name” and having most things open on there, is to downgrade their privacy perceptions. If we can push back against the privacy invasive nature of these systems, giving people technological, legal and economic possibilities to connect without exposure, then I am sure that their reported perceptions of privacy will swing back.


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The ethics of big data is generating a lot of discussion these days. I read an interesting article today which showed that some managers in the health sector find the voracious attitude that “everything must go into the pot” “creepy”, while analytics professionals go on about the benefits of more (good quality) data giving more useful information. This article, though, was quite typical in the area in that it focussed on the US situation, with the problem that health-care providers in the US are driven by their revenue systems: the source of the data for big data health analytics in the US in the article is cited as the “Revenue Cycle Management (RCM) systems” which capture data mostly so that the healthcare provider can charge the right (i.e. the legally/contractually allowed) price to the funder. Of course it’s pretty much only the US that has this crazy system. Elsewhere there are fewer payers for healthcare for the majority of people, sometimes down to (almost) one in places like the UK. The US situation also raises large questions because of the crazy way its healthcare is funded in that patients are severely lacking in trust that the use of their data will not lead to significant individual problems, up to and including being sacked for being potentially too expensive to provide health insurance for.

Of course this does not mean that in other countries there are no big ethical issues with big data for health analytics. The proposals by the UK government to limit or ignore patients’ ability to opt out of the care.data program, through which private companies such as pharmaceutical companies would gain potentially significant private benefits alongside possible public health benefits, but with no guarantees of privacy or security of the data, raises similar questions to the century-plus debate about census data (before WWII ethnicity data in the US census was supposed to be inaccessible to the government at large – that guarantee was wiped away after Pearl Harbour, leading to the disenfranchisement, loss of property and internment of over 100,000 American citizens of Japanese descent).

Europe, with its more heterogenous health funding systems must explore the issues around all the models and not be driven by US-centric concerns.

Current Mood: (contemplative) contemplative
Current Music: Raiders of the Lost Ark Soundtrack

There are many science fiction stories published each year with wild speculation, and usually few details. It’s not unusual, therefore, just by the law of averages, for sometimes the SF to be followed by the  a discovery of (somewhat) matching science. An interesting piece on anti-agathic (delaying or removing the effects of ageing) work I saw today reminded me of a piece in a Heinlein novel. In “Methuselah’s Children” where a secret bunch of families with naturally bred longevity flee the Earth in an early spaceship because of the threat of a pogrom and/or being the subject of vivisection to discover the secret of their longevity. Returning to Earth after some interstellar adventures and with time dilation having kept them even younger than ever, they find that their existence spurred Earth to invest in anti-agathic research and discover a “blood cleaning” process which seriously reduces ageing. Not a novel idea, actually, as this Guardian article points out, the idea was proposed by Libavius in 1615. It’s looking like it might have potential, though. The work of Wyss-Coray on the effects of young mouse blood on old mouse brains (and vice versa) shows that transfusion of young blood into an old mouse causes a revival of neuron birth, while old blood in young mice retards such development.

There’s a horror story in here about, say, the Chinese communist party using both sides of this – harvesting young blood to keep their gerontcratic leaders healthy, while deliberately transfusing older blood into younger dissidents to dumb them down.

As that very good Guardian article mentions (it’s an in-depth and very well-written science piece, a rarity in modern journalism) though, it’s not just the idea of transfusions – we can hardly keep up with other demands for blood for transfusions in most societies. The idea that we could track the protein components of blood plasma as we age and filter out the ones which contribute to ageing and synthesise and add back the ones which promote health and youth, are interesting. Of course there’s also the idea that’s been used by a number of SF authors where by tinkering with ageing and encouraging bodily regeneration, we “use up” our body’s ability to regenerate and instead of gaining (near)immortality we die quicker (sometimes very quickly) though with amazing powers of regeneration in the (usually short) time. Again, this is perhaps a worry with these real science ideas.

Current Mood: Interested

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I signed up today for a conference in Spain. They are using PayPal for taking registration. I’m trying to avoid PayPal, but as the only alternative (bank transfer) is a real pain to do from Japan, I bite the bullet when the other party only offers PayPal as a sensible option. So, I was directed to a PayPal site to process the payment, having given them all the registration details they demanded (including them requiring a landline phone number! I just re-entered my mobile number, which they had already also required). The initial PayPal page was all in Spanish. There was no visible button for changing the language. An understandable (to me) bit asked for my country, so I selected Japan and the page renewed into English. Odd, but useful to me. So, I gave them my credit card details including the billing address and submitted them. The “review and confirm payment” page then came up in Japanese. These days I know enough Japanese to have been able to figure this one out.

So, PayPal displayed itself in three different languages during one transaction, with at no point that I could see a visible button to select a language I can definitely use, and with some apparently random selections of which language to display a particular page in. This is not good internationalisation.

Current Mood: (irritated) irritated
Current Music: Battlestar Galactica Season 4 Soundtrack

As part of my research I need to look into Amazon.com’s Kindle account offerings. Because of their setup with geographic rights restrictions it’s difficult to set up such an account without a US-registered credit card. Does anyone reading this have an Amazon.com Kindle account who is also available to help us get information about their practices? It’s nothing bad, it’s that we’ve been told Amazon.com provide a “Family Account” with features we’re recommending more service providers should give, but which aren’t available on Amazon.co.uk (and Amazon.co.jp’s account information is mostly in formal Japanese which is a bit beyond me).

Current Mood: Interested
Current Music: None

Despite their own advertising claims and hype, Apple did not invent the personal media player, the smartphone or the tablet computer. However, their second or third generation mass-market devices in these areas have clearly captured the market at a crucial time becoming the single largest provider of such devices and relgating their competitors to mostly fighting amongst themselves for second place. While Android devices outsell iPhones by more than 3:1 no single manufacturer was able to beat Apple for sales until Samsung pulled out of the Android pack in 2012. By this time, however, the name of the game was iSomething. Ask a teenager what type of mobile they have and they’ll often say an iPhone, even if it’s Android device. Similarly iPod and iPad have become the standard term for media players and tablets. With the release of the iPad mini, even mid-sized tablets no longer seem distinct from the fruity products.

This all seems good for the Cupertino mothership, with brand recognition supporting their product with much higher product margins than anyone else (Samsung sells more but makes less), while their tied-in software and content distribution system also buoys up their profits more than in the more open Android marketplaces.

But this is a double-edged sword as at least two companies have learned before: Kleenex and Hoover. They became so ubiquitous and their products so associated with the product class that they effectively lost much of their trademark protection due to genericisation. Google made a strong effort to prevent this, although both the OED and Miriam-Websters include the verb “to google” as a synonym for searching the Web, particularly but not solely with the Google search engine.

I am hearing a lot of usage of iPhone, iPod and iPad to refer to smartphones, media players and tablets, particularly at places like airports where we’re told to take our iPads out of bags and iPods/iPhones out of pockets for security screening, and on planes where we’re told to switch off our iPods/iPhones and iPads for take-off and landing, and only use our iPhones in airplane mode while in-flight.

While it may seem a boon to their current business model to be the poster-child of the current generation, becoming too generic can lose your edge in law and undermine your position in the market as the brand people will pay more for (which seems to be and remain the core of Apple’s approach [pun intended]).

Current Mood: Jetlagged
Current Music: Dune (2001) OST

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I know at least one of my LJ friends will have sympathy with this one. I’ve received the proofs for a new journal article(*). While most of the comments are reasonable there’s a pair that are rather stupid when taken together. In the paper we reference this paper:

Dick , A . R . and Brooks , M . J . ( 2003 ) Issues in automated visual surveillance . In: Sun e t al (eds .) .

which as anyone who udnerstands referencing can see then cross-references:

Sun , C . , Talbot , H . , Ourselin , S . and Adriaansen , T . (eds). ( 2003 ) Proceedings of the Seventh International Conference on Digital Image Computing: Techniques and Applications, DICTA 2003, 10 – 12 December 2003, Macquarie University, Sydney, Australia . CSIRO Publishing .

The copy editors have separately asked:

Please provide further publication details in the reference Dick and Brooks (2003).

and:

Reference Sun et al (2003) not cited in the text. Please cite in the text, else delete from the reference list.

Argh!

 

(*) From my web page “News” section about this paper: A joint paper with Dr James Ferryman of the School of Systems Engineering, University of Reading has just been accepted by Security Journal. The pre-print of The Future of Video Analystics for Surveillance and Its Ethical Implications is available from the The Open Depot.

Current Mood: (pissed off) pissed off
Current Music: None

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Academia.edu (an academoc networking site) has an interesting alert service whereby they email anyone whose page is accessed with a referrer URL from one of the main search engines, and give the search terms, the search engine and, where available (from the web server log of academia.edu rather than from the search engine), the country from which my page was accessed. It’s interesting to see how people find me and from where. Yesterday I got such an alert where one of my papers was found via a search on a minor paraphrasing of one of the significant sentences (i.e. not a linking piece of text but one of the presentations of the core ideas in the paper). Thinking about how I’ve worked in the past, I suspect this was an academic checking for plagiarism in a piece of student work that has made them suspicious.

Current Mood: awake
Current Music: None

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Having written far too many emails explaining my views on how academia can best move to toll-free access to the scholarly literature (often abbreviated as Open Access) I have written this up on my web site: How to Achieve OA.

Current Mood: (accomplished) accomplished
Current Music: Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence Soiundtrack

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Fascinating article in the Atlantic magazine showing pictures from the only official photographer in the Manhattan Project’s secret city.

Current Mood: artistic
Current Music: Battlestar Galactica (2003) Miniseries Soundtrack

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