What’s in Your Computer (and phone, and WiFi)?

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Lenovo

This week the news is full of Lenovo, a computer manufacturer that has been selling machines that they have already fitted with what some call Malware or just Adware. Magic in the machine indeed!

The mal/adware in question is made by a company called “Superfish.” The software is essentially an Internet browser add-on that injects ads onto websites you visit. Details here.

Besides taking up space in your computer, the add-on is also dangerous because it undermines basic computer security protocols.

That’s because it tampers with a widely-used system of official website certificates. That makes it hard for your computer to recognize a fake bank website. This means that you are more likely to give all of your personal data away, let nasty things into your computer, and allow people to monitor your use.

No good I hear you say, and all so that they can feed you adverts while you are browsing.

Hidden Extras?

But this news does bring up another question, what else is in the computer? What else is it programmed to do? The simple answer is that I and probably most of you do not know. We have bought a machine that does the things we want it to do, but who knows what else?

Now as I eat my breakfast, I like to read the ingredients on the side of the packet. It is good for language skills as it is usually in several languages. But can I do this with my computer? You don’t get much in the way of documentation with a $400 laptop. Certainly not considering what is inside it.

So the computer company in question have disabled something at their end and the problem is resolved. But if they tell you that they fixed the problem are you going to believe them? After they did something that put your computer and everything saved on it at risk? Or should you put a new operating system on the new machine, wipe the hard drive and start again?

Why do we trust these manufacturers when they consistently do things that are not in our interest? WiFi providers that con your computer into trusting fake certificates so that they can block certain sites (and read your mail or follow your searches)? Samsung that record your voice through your smart TV and send it non encrypted over the Internet to unnamed third parties, social media sites and search engines that collect your data, mobile phone companies that map your every movement, the list goes on.

So if you cannot trust wifi, or computer manufacturers, or Google, or Facebook, or Samsung to treat our data securely and correctly, who can you trust? And more to the point why are we giving them our lives to play with?

Mind Your Language in front of the TV

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Privacy

I have a friend who puts tape over the webcam on his laptop while he is working, because he believes that people can hack into his computer and watch what he is doing. I must admit I thought it was a bit strange at first, but then hunting information I discovered that it was not only possible, but a well known crime involving organized gangs.

The UK recently took down a Russian website that was showing live webcam, taken without the knowledge of the people that were taking the footage. The incident not only involved security cameras, but all types of baby monitors and practically anything that has a camera and transmits data wirelessly.

Check out this article here.

Smart TV

But this is small fry really when you read this week’s news. A large TV manufacturer which has a product that recognizes voice controls seems to have been transmitting everything said in front of the TV to a third party.

They do this so that said third party can sieve through the words used to see if a command has been given. But there are many unanswered questions. Who is the third party? What are they doing with my data? Is it secure? The list goes on.

But said company are not trying to hide what they are doing:

Voice Recognition

You can control your SmartTV, and use many of its features, with voice commands.

If you enable Voice Recognition, you can interact with your Smart TV using your voice. To provide you the Voice Recognition feature, some voice commands may be transmitted (along with information about your device, including device identifiers) to a third-party service that converts speech to text or to the extent necessary to provide the Voice Recognition features to you. In addition, ******* may collect and your device may capture voice commands and associated texts so that we can provide you with Voice Recognition features and evaluate and improve the features. Please be aware that if your spoken words include personal or other sensitive information, that information will be among the data captured and transmitted to a third party through your use of Voice Recognition.

I am not sure that everyone who buys a TV of this type reads the Global Privacy Policy – SmartTV Supplement however, and they might be giving away a lot more than they would like to without knowing.

The BBC carries an article about this news with all of the names included. I think it is probably true though that if one company do it, then so do all the others.

The Edge of Knowledge

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What do you think about machines that think? Or should I say machines who think? That is the 2015 EDGE question.

Edge of Knowledge

Edge.org was launched in 1996 as the online version of “The Reality Club” and as a living document on the Web to display the activities of “The Third Culture”. What is the third culture? Oh to put it in their words.  ‘the third culture consists of those scientists and other thinkers in the empirical world who, through their work and expository writing, are taking the place of the traditional intellectual in rendering visible the deeper meanings of our lives, redefining who and what we are’.

And members (Edgies) have been responding to an annual question now for some time.

What should we be worried about? What is your favourite explanation? How is the Internet changing the way you think? What will change everything? You know, just regular questions. OK big questions.

And this group contains a lot of famous names. Well this group is made up of famous people is a better description, from many walks of life, and so the answers are extremely interesting. Go and check a few out on the website.

Artificial Intelligence

As is the preamble on the website:

“In recent years, the 1980s-era philosophical discussions about artificial intelligence (AI)—whether computers can “really” think, refer, be conscious, and so on—have led to new conversations about how we should deal with the forms that many argue actually are implemented. These “AIs”, if they achieve “Superintelligence” (Nick Bostrom), could pose “existential risks” that lead to “Our Final Hour” (Martin Rees). And Stephen Hawking recently made international headlines when he noted “The development of full artificial intelligence could spell the end of the human race.”

But wait! Should we also ask what machines that think, or, “AIs”, might be thinking about? Do they want, do they expect civil rights? Do they have feelings? What kind of government (for us) would an AI choose? What kind of society would they want to structure for themselves? Or is “their” society “our” society? Will we, and the AIs, include each other within our respective circles of empathy?”

So how close are we to these predictions, dreams and nightmares? There is plenty of stuff on the web to feed the interested, and surely enough developments will surely move in that direction. Last week we learned that a computer can work out aspects of your personality thanks to your social media use (see the post here). But intelligence? Computing variables is not intelligence.

And can we say that learning is intelligence? Computers can certainly learn, but can they think? Can they reason? What does it mean to think? To make a decision based on what? If the decision is based on experience then to some extent it is a calculation, or a computation, and if that is the case then a computer can think.

So back to the question. What Do You Think About Machines That Think?

Don’t Like Me (you give your personality away)

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Likes and Dislikes

I know what I like, and I know what I don’t like, but the problem is so does everyone else. Who would have thought that just liking something on Facebook could be so important. Recent research seems to show that studying what you have liked can tell more about your personality than you would imagine.

University researchers have just published a study (read it here) called “Computer-based personality judgments are more accurate than those made by humans”. They claim that what you ‘like’ on Facebook gives away your personality, to the point that a computer program can gauge your responses to questions better than your friends can.

Well how can that be? Judging personality is a honed social skill, but their research based on just over 86000 volunteers and their friends’ responses seems to prove the theory that computers can do it better with just information about what you like via Facebook.

As the researchers say in their report, “Computers outpacing humans in personality judgment presents significant opportunities and challenges in the areas of psychological assessment, marketing, and privacy”.

Predicting Personality

Their findings show that with a sample of 100 likes, the computer can outperform your friends in predicting your answers to the questions of a standard personality test. Obviously the more likes the computer has, the better it performs, so this means that every like has its place, tells a story, guides a narrative, and defines the computers definition of who you are.

So if you like certain types of things, your personality is likely to reflect this. If you like dancing and having a sun tan, you are probably extrovert, if you like Salvador Dali you are probably open to experience and more adventurous with your lifestyle choices, you get the picture? This leads to the machine being able to better predict if you will deviate from social norms or stay within them, experiment or not.

Well if a computer can determine that I am (as we all know after the brain electrocuting experiments) open to experience, then that could possibly be used to market stuff to me, to guess how I might live my life in terms of personal choices (including health risk), and to put me into a little box for insurance or job hunting purposes. They are better at predicting life outcomes than my friends. This is serious!

Obviously computer power will massively increase in the future, and we will no doubt see the development of automated personality assessment tools. How they will be used is anybody and everybody’s guess, and all they need is for us all to continue to give all of this free data away to Facebook.

Anyway, if you are interested, I don’t like Dali, or Iggy Pop, or the KLF Arts Foundation, and only listen to Beethoven, I don’t use Tor and I drive a Skoda. I must have the perfect personality for any highly paid and respectable job. Find me on Linkedin, I don’t use Facebook.