Tor, An Ethical Dilema

tor

Over the summer I have been following reporting surrounding the TOR project. I have learnt some interesting things. I must admit that I tried to download the browser but I couldn’t work out how to get it up and running, but that is probably more due to my own incompetence than anything else.

Tor has some serious issues as far as ethics goes, because it is designed to help people to remain anonymous as they use the net. This may to some seem perfectly justified given that Google and their friends are monitoring our every move and storing it all for resale later, but it is also great for criminal activity.

Recently reports emerged from Russia that the head of the Federal Security Service (FSB) has personally ordered preparations for laws that would block the Tor anonymity network from the entire Russian sector of the Internet. Obviously his aim is not to stop people from anonymously using the Internet, but to fight crime. The agency initiated the move as internet anonymizers were used by weapon traffickers, drug dealers and credit card fraudsters, giving the FSB an obvious interest in limiting the use of such software.

Other reports claim that not all of Russian law enforcement are in agreement, because criminals tend to overestimate the protection provided by the Undernet, act recklessly and allow themselves to get caught. Here the so-called Undernet is the key though, as anonymity is difficult to police.

Other reports state that “Security experts have accused US law enforcement of taking advantage of a flaw in the Firefox Internet browser then exploiting it to identify and potentially monitor subscribers to Tor”. It appears that the malware comes from the USA, but nobody is admitting to creating it, and as the Russians accuse the FBI and vice versa, any truth will be difficult to find.

One truth is however that Tor allows for the proliferation of various forms of criminality and exploitation that I would rather not go into here. The problem remains though, do we have the right to online anonymity? If not who has the right to stop us?

To return to following the news, I read that workers at the NSA and GCHQ in the UK have been accused of leaking information that they have regarding flaws in the workings of Tor. These two organizations are extremely interested in the browser for the obvious reasons above, but there is more that you might expect here. According to the BBC “The BBC understands, however, that GCHQ does attempt to monitor a range of anonymisation services in order to identify and track down suspects involved in…….crimes”.

But! Tor was originally designed by the US Naval Research Laboratory, and continues to receive funding from the US State Department. It is used by the military, activists, businesses and others to keep communications confidential and aid free speech.

And it turns out that the investigating agency rely on Tor for their own work, to keep themselves safe and anonymous, so they seem to be in a bit of a contradictory position to say the least.

So there appear to be many unanswered questions about the level of anonymity achieved, who has access, who works to destroy and who works to aid the project, and once more I find myself looking into a murky world.

Be decisive!

Technology can be both a help and a hindrance.

Emails

An @ symbol in an envelopeEmails are a fantastic way to communicate. They are fast, they are fairly reliable, it is possible to tell when someone has received your message, you can send pictures and files via them etc.

I love emails, emails are great.

There is a problem with emails though. They have the ability to suck a massive amount of time from your life. According to this study, at work many of us spend over a quarter of our time dealing with emails. I have also heard statistics that we each spend an hour of our lives every day reading and replying to emails. I have access to emails on my phone and as am guilty as many other people, I check my emails every so often. Those ‘every so oftens’ add up though.

The reason I am writing this – and the reason for the title – is because I have just been decisive. This blog is a hobby for me. I enjoy writing, I enjoy updating/fixing the site, and I also enjoy reading what others write.

The thing that annoys me is I don’t particularly enjoy dealing with emails. It used to be okay when just 2 or 3 a day came in, maybe even enjoyable at that rate, but now I get hundreds each week, it has started to become a chore. A chore that I am maybe not always keeping on top of.

I try to deal with emails when they come in, but some are too time-consuming, so I will scan read them and then leave them for later. Later often never comes though.

Moving Forward

So, because this is a hobby, I want to spend time doing the things I enjoy. I can cope with a few small emails.

I have just marked all the emails in Technology Bloggers inbox as read. All those messages I had scan read and then left for later are now gone – all 120 of them!

That’s sorted the problem out for now, but what about the future? 3 lines. 3 lines is all you are getting. If you are going to contact us through our contact form, you can only write up to 500 characters – about 3 lines. You work hard to be clear and concise and I will do the same back.

If you want to take up the 3 sentence challenge, you might want to consider letting people know why your emails are so short.

Lets see if this works.

Smart Canes for the Blind

smartcane

Last week I wrote about Martina Caironi and prosthetic limbs. Today I want to sort of continue the theme by looking at technological aids for the blind or visually impaired. Many readers will have smartphones in their hands and smartmeters in their homes, but I would like to introduce you all to the world of smart-canes.

A cane offers a lot of information to a blind user, but it tends to concentrate on the floor or at best below knee level. Users can avoid objects that are attached to the floor, but overhanging tree branches and other free standing objects are much more difficult to detect. I would like to take a look at two possible solutions, one produced in India and relatively low cost, and the other produced in the UK and relatively high cost.

The Smartcane is the Indian solution, see the photo above. It costs about $50 US, and its designers say it is innovative and user centric. It detects obstacles using sonic waves and the presence of obstacles is conveyed through intuitive vibratory patterns. It is powered using a rechargeable Li–ion battery, and is seperate from the cane, so the user attaches the technology to their existing cane.

The Specs (as taken from the website):

Adjustable detection range: User can switch between long (3 metre) and short (1.8 metre) range mode depending on the usage scenarios such as outdoor, indoor or crowded places.
Ergonomic grip for comfortable holding and cane tapping: Can be held by different gripping styles, allowing users to use their natural cane holding and mobility techniques.
High detection sensitivity: The sensors can detect a 3 centimetre wide pipe from 3 metres distance, ensuring reliable detection of objects in the detection range.
Four intuitive and distinctive vibration patterns indicating obstacle distance.
Vibrations are uniformly produced on the entire grip: Non-localized vibration feedback allows user to conveniently grip the device.
Does not interfere with the auditory environment surrounding the user Vibrations allow discreet continuous use without making the user conscious or creating annoyance to others
Adjustable sensor orientation: Allows people of different heights and with different cane holding styles to direct the sensors appropriately.
In-built rechargeable battery with a long battery back-up: Removing of batteries for charging is not required.
Fully accessible user interface: Simple and distinguishable beeps to convey the battery charge status, low battery warning and charging status.
Failure detection of key components: Users informed immediately on failure of sensors and/ or vibrator through special alarm signals.
Detects fast approaching objects in the detection range: Especially helpful in detection of reversing vehicles.
Easy attachment / detachment from a white cane: Allows for compatible white cane replacement by the user himself.
Multiple colour options: Available in two non- flashy and elegant colours
Robust design: Can withstand accidental fall
Splash proof: Prevents damage during light rain
Conforms to international quality standards

Sounds like a deal to me!
In the UK users can order the above or splash out on another product called Ultracane. The Ultracane works in a similar way to the Smartcane, but it is a single piece of equipment. You order the cane by length. It boasts more or less the same technical specs as the above, but the batteries are interchangeable (so it does not look as if they are rechargeable in situ), it has a strap to aid in holding it, it is foldable and has a replaceable tip. It works over 4 mtrs in front (further than the Smartcane) and 1.6 mtrs in an upward direction. It also has a twin range, choice of tip, is shower-proof, and is available in any colour you like as long as it’s white.

UltraCane

UltraCane

It costs somewhere in the region of $900 in the UK, has a 12 month guarantee and there is a service centre in case of accidents.

I am sure that much of the difference in price is due to development expenses, the Ultracane was very much on its own when it was developed, and has been on the market for several years. The website hosts many happy testimonials. I am pleased to see the development in India though, as it may give many in the developing world access to the kinds of aids that we in Europe have. Ultracane has also developed the Ultrabike, giving the partially sighted the chance to take to the bike paths in safety.

Check out the websites linked above for more information.

Martina Caironi, Paralympians and prosthetics

martinacaironi

Last weekend I had the pleasure of talking to the Italian paralympian Martina Caironi. For those of you who might not know her, she won a Gold Medal in London in the 100 mtr T42 category in a new World Record time, Gold in the World Championships in the long jump and again in the 100 mtrs, and just last month took the World Record over 200 mtrs. This is her in the photo above, she is the fastest para-athletic woman on Earth.

I have long had an interest in prosthetics and the borderline between human and machine. Readers might remember the review of the film Fixed that I wrote last year, and some may even remember my first post here about elective amputation in favour of prosthetics.

So as you might imagine I had a lot to ask. Regarding where the human body ends and the prosthetic begins, Martina told me that the question is very much down to your own point of view. She said that she knows where her prosthesis is without looking, so it seems very much an extension of her body. She can stand on one leg. You would not even realize she was wearing it if you saw her walk across the street.

I wonder whether it actually becomes part of your body though, but I am not sure that this is the case. She explained that you have to learn how to use it, how much you can push without causing injury, and a great deal is down to the quality of the prosthesis. It definitely seems to be an instrument for her.

We also talked about parity between para and non para athletes. She said that in the UK there is parity, and the races have prizes. This is not however the case in all countries, and she gave me some examples where the race organizers “don’t even pay your hotel bill”. This was a debate that really took off in the UK after the London Olympics and Paraolympics. It was noted that gold medal winners in the Olympics go on to make a lot of money through sponsorship, but that paralympians do not always have the same opportunities.

If you search the Internet you find many examples of countries that offer the same prizes to both sets of athletes, but you also find articles that explain that paralympians are paid less because the governing bodies find it difficult to raise the same amount of sponsorship. I am pleased to say that Martina makes a living from her athletics today, and rightly so given her dedication.

If you would like to watch Martina winning her gold medal here it is.

I should tell you that I have known Martina for some years, she was one of my students when I was an English teacher in Italy. She lost the bottom half of one leg in a scooter accident, and for a while was on crutches as the wound healed and the prosthetic was prepared. The fitting process took some time, and was uncomfortable when it was not quite right, so we are dealing with a precise instrument that has to be well fitted. While running she uses a blade, if you are interested in learning how they work take a look here.

Most of Martina’s interviews that we find on the web are in Italian, which doesn’t say much for her charlatan English teacher, but one of the things that she maintains is that sport gives people who have lost some mobility the chance to push their limits. Instead of accepting limitations, it pushes the athlete into going ever further, acting as a positive force for well-being. It has given her the possibility of experiencing things that many of us might dream of, with the fortune of having access to such technology through a fine center of excellence here in Italy.

Readers might also want to take a look at the Robohand website. They use 3D printers to make prosthetics, and recently unveiled a project that aims to commercialize a prosthetic leg. I think this type of technology could bring vast improvements to the prosthetics world.

I also urge you to read this article by Erin Strait that is a free download. It describes the development of artificial legs in developing countries, the materials used and the costs. Some solutions are ingenious and not costly. See below for an artificial leg made from used bike parts, they cost less than a dollar each to make.

bike foot

Facebook’s Social Research Experiment

I-need-help1
Facebook are back in the news again, this time for conducting research without the consent of their users. Although maybe that is a false statement, users may well have signed those rights away without realizing too.

All Facebook did was to “deprioritizing a small percentage of content in News Feed (based on whether there was an emotional word in the post) for a group of people (about 0.04% of users, or 1 in 2500) for a short period (one week, in early 2012). Nobody’s posts were “hidden,” they just didn’t show up on some loads of Feed. Those posts were always visible on friends’ timelines, and could have shown up on subsequent News Feed loads”. This is the explanation offered by the author of the report about the experiment. Read the full text here.

Simply speaking they wanted to adjust the type of information a user was exposed to to see if it effected their mood. So if a user receives lots of positive news, what will happen to them? What will they post about?

Some studies have suggested that lots of Facebook use tends to lead to people feeling bad about themselves. The logic is simple, all my friends post about how great their lives are and about the good side we might say. I who have a life that has both ups and downs are not exposed to the downs, so I feel that I am inadequate.

This sounds reasonable. I am not a Facebook user but the odd messages I get are rarely about arguing with partners, tax problems, getting locked out of the house, flat tyres, missed meetings or parking tickets. I presume Facebook users do not suffer from these issues, they always seem to be smiling.

So in order to test the hypothesis a little manipulation of the news feed. More positive or more negative words, and then look to see how the posts are effected. The theory above does not seem to hold water as a statistic however, although bearing in mind the methodology etc (and the conductor) I take the claims with a pinch of salt. More positive words tend to lead to more positive posts in response.

Hardly rocket science we might say.

I have a degree in sociology, an MA in Applied Social research and work in the field. Conducting experiments of this type is not allowed in professional circles, it is considered unethical, there is no informed consent, rights are infringed upon and the list goes on. What if somebody did something serious during the experiment?

Of course “The reason we did this research is because we care about the emotional impact of Facebook and the people that use our product”.

If readers are interested in looking at a few other fun experiments that might be considered ethically dubious I can offer a few. Check out the Stanley Milgram experiment, where people administered (False) electric shocks to other people who got the answers to their questions wrong. Yale University here, not a fringe department of Psychology. Researchers were investigating reactions to authority, and the results are very interesting, but you couldn’t do it today.

Or how about the so-called Monster study. The Monster Study was a stuttering experiment on 22 orphan children in Davenport, Iowa, in 1939 conducted by Wendell Johnson at the University of Iowa. After placing the children in control and experimental groups, Research Assistant Mary Tudor gave positive speech therapy to half of the children, praising the fluency of their speech, and negative speech therapy to the other half, belittling the children for every speech imperfection and telling them they were stutterers. Many of the normal speaking orphan children who received negative therapy in the experiment suffered negative psychological effects and some retained speech problems during the course of their life. The University of Iowa publicly apologized for the Monster Study in 2001.

Terrible as these experiments may sound, they were conducted in the name of science. Their results may have proved useful. Facebopok (along with 23andME and other commercial entities) are behaving in the way they are because they want to make more money, their interest is solely there (even if they dress it up as better user experience). And in the case of Facebook they have access to 1.3 billion users, and mandate to do whatever they like with them.