In the Name of “Digital Sovereignty”

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Russia’s cyber world has grown in recent years, and now has more than 80 million users, or about 60% of the population. But in the name of digital sovereignty, Russian authorities are stepping up efforts to corral it, part of a worldwide race between running online technology and the desires of law enforcement to keep tabs on all that activity. The battle lines are forming around the challenge of encryption, which companies are increasingly upgrading in the post-Edward Snowden era to satisfy the privacy concerns of customers.

Russian authorities are fighting back with a law that comes into effect in September, requiring all global Internet platforms, such as Twitter, Google, Facebook, and Apple to store data of Russian users on Russian servers. Furthermore, it directly warned that due to the encryption employed, Russian servers may be forced to take down entire platforms in order to block one piece of objectionable content.

The idea is that data stored on Russian servers will be protected from the prying eyes of the US National Security Agency. Experts say it may also rope off Russian cyberspace and make it easier for Russian authorities to control what their own citizens are posting and reading on the Internet. The main way Russian authorities have been doing that so far is through a complex register of banned websites that Russia-based ISP’s are required to block.

The list currently contains over 10,000 websites, mostly for content even an ardent civil libertarian might have trouble defending, such as child pornography, pro-terrorist agitation, and sites that glamorize suicide. Last week, the Russian communication supervising entity Roskomnadzor sent out warning letters to Google, Twitter, and Facebook, reminding them that they are required by Russian law to hand over data about any Russian blogger who has more than 3,000 readers daily. Any user of the services who posts items calling for “unsanctioned protests and unrest” must be blocked, and due to the companies’ use of https encryption, that could force Russian ISPs to block the entire site.

In barely three months, the new law requiring all companies that operate in Russian cyberspace to store the data of all Russian users on local servers will come into effect. Experts say the law is a sweeping declaration of “digital sovereignty,” but it’s also impossible to guess how it may be enforced. And while Russia may be using its own unique mixture of threats and ill-focused laws to try to address the encryption challenge, it is a global issue.

Kiss the Internet Goodbye?

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I have already commented on the announcement earlier this week that Facebook has set up an index for over a billion Facebook content posts broadly categorized as news, but it prompts an interesting (and perhaps worrying) end game for us to consider. What if the web as we know it is in fact an artifact of the accidental way the web got started? What if it’s going away, and soon? Here’s why:

The web evolved as a bunch of separate web sites loosely linked together. Some of those sites got huge and became their own empires. Many are small and millions are pretty much moribund. As bandwidth availability grew and broadband speeds over cellular traffic became more common, the web developed a class system. Some sites like Google, Facebook and Amazon load super-fast all the time. In the case of Google and Facebook, the sites they link to don’t; they may be slow and clunky or not load at all if the load is too high.

That leads to a very spotty end user experience. Some links load, some don’t. Google has had their own content presented as part of search results for a good while now. It shows up as the “Knowledge Graph” to the right side of the results set for questions with a clear answer. These might be general topics, but they are often time sensitive.

For example, search for Al Capone and the knowledge graph takes you to where he is buried, among other things. If you click that link, it takes you to a results page and Knowledge Graph for Mount Carmel Cemetery. Not only can you find out about that place, but you can also find the opening hours and get directions all without leaving Google hosted pages. Now search for Red Sox. The results set gives you the basic facts: tonight’s game time and where to find tickets, all without leaving Google.

The Facebook announcement that they will be offering what amounts to a news/content search on their site means that very soon, everyone on Facebook (and for some, Facebook is most of the Internet) will be able to search and view a vast amount of content exclusively on Facebook. If I were a news publisher, I’d want to load content onto Facebook before any other place.

The third major factor is the app. Partly in response to the horribly clunky, ad-loaded and hard-to-navigate websites which make up much of the net, we now use apps for almost everything. In many cases the apps may duplicate content available on sites, but they typically load faster and are easier to navigate.

In a world where we can get most of what we need — certainly all the news and shopping we need — on Apps, Google direct or Facebook, why would we want to click away from what we know to be safe, fast-loading and easy to navigate areas to the residual, perhaps vestigial, site-based Internet? The Internet as we know it is dead; it just hasn’t stopped moving yet.

Getting On The Wrong Side Of History

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I’m the first to admit that I simply don’t understand how part of America thinks. I think it’s insane how so much of the conversation is driven by thinking which in the vast majority of the civilized world would be thought of as simply nonsensical. The poster child for the kind of intellectual dishonesty which drives much of this thinking is of course Indiana who passed a “Defense of Religious Freedom’ bill which essentially gave anyone with “sincerely held religious beliefs” the right to refuse service to anyone they don’t like without fear of legal consequences. As you have no doubt noticed the roof caved in on the Governor with major companies and even the NCAA threatening or taking punitive action. The response by Indiana legislators has been that they will pass “clarification” language which makes it clear that the bill does not entitle people to withhold services….really? The honest thing would have been to simple repeal the legislation as a bigoted rush of blood to the head and move on.

What’s remarkable is the role which social media has played in orchestrating the backlash against this ill thought legislation. Apparently the vast majority of internet users think that it’s It’s not OK to discriminate  in the US. Companies which do so run the risk of serious financial impact…even jail in extreme cases. For the legislator to craft a bill which could encourage (but certainly protects) companies who wish to discriminate on pretty much any grounds they care to is shocking. Social media led an onslaught of bad publicity against this move. I’m sure there are many people who wish they could safely discriminate for any reason but the increasingly diverse majority of this fail country are down with that and social media empowers that discussion.

I’ve remarked before that social movements like the Arab Spring and the over throw of dictatorships in places like Myanmar and Egypt has been made possible by social media which acts as the spotlight to focus on dark deeds. Whether it’s the continued mass imprisonment of young men of color for minor drug crimes, the reckless murder of those same young men by our over armed police or the the deliberate attempt by a group of ideological driven anti gay bigots to cloak their primitive thinking in religious garb social media is making it uncomfortable or impossible to maintain an uncivilized social norm which is calculated to preserve the rights of the powerful over the powerless.

It’s a bit embarrassing for what is supposed to be an advanced country to be passing retrogressive legislation only for that legislation to be protested and essentially over thrown by the social media tools  invented in that country which is being used by people in much poorer places to over throw tin pot dictators….but if it gets the job done I’m all for it.

Who is Going to be Your Facebook Heir?

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Will written, check. Funeral plans set, check. But there is something else you didn’t think you would need to do before you die; give someone permission to respond to comments, post photos, etc. on your Facebook account.

The world’s biggest online social network said Thursday that it will now let users pick someone who can manage their account after they die. Previously, the accounts were “memorialized” after death, or locked so that no one could log in.

But Facebook says its users wanted more choice. Beginning in the U.S., Facebook users can pick a “legacy contact” to post on their page after they die, respond to new friend requests and update their profile picture and cover photo. Users can also have their accounts deleted after their death, which was not possible before.

Facebook accounts are memorialized at the request of loved ones, who must provide proof of the person’s death, such as an obituary. Facebook tries to ensure that the account of the dead user doesn’t show up as a “suggested friend” or in other ways that could upset the person’s loved ones.

The social media giant has nearly 1.4 billion users, and won’t say how many accounts are memorialized, though Facebook product manager Vanessa Callison-Burch said there have been “hundreds of thousands” of requests from loved ones to do so.

Other Internet companies also offer ways to posthumously manage your accounts. On Google, a tool called “inactive account manager” lets you choose to have your data deleted after three, six or 12 months of inactivity. Or you can choose someone, such as a parent or a spouse, to receive the data. The tool covers not just email but also other Google services such as Google Plus, YouTube and Blogger.

Twitter, meanwhile, will deactivate your account if contacted by a family member or a person authorized to act on behalf of your estate, after verifying not only that you died but that the Twitter account is yours, since many people don’t use their full names on the site.

Measles: Boiling My Blood…Again

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The recent furor over the measles outbreak illustrates almost perfectly a fault lines which runs through our society. For what is supposedly the worlds most right and powerful country we are mind-blowingly stupid about some issues. I’m a foreigner…I chose to move my life to the US and I’m very happy that I have. I love this country…but good lord people! I have no idea where it comes from but there is a fiercely anti science/common sense thread which runs deep in our society. It typically doesn’t do much more than cause debates over well established science like evolution and the existence of angels (more Americans believe in angels than evolution) but the measles outbreak clearly illustrates that it can cause real harm also. Between 2001 and 2011 the median number of measles reported per year in the US was 62. This year one month in it’s 102.  That seems to put us on track for a 20x the norm year.  There are third world countries with higher inoculation rates than the US.

The mere fact that there is absolutely no credible scientific fact to support not immunizing doesn’t seem to matter. This is even becoming a political issue with lunatics on both the right and left are using immunization as a totem for their brand of selfishness. It beggars belief that supposedly educated people can be so blinded by a quasi religious rights/civil liberties concoction of complete garbage. I’m old enough that I actually had measles, and German measles and chicken pox the hard way as a kid. some of my earliest memories are from the misery those diseases caused.  I’m also asthmatic so it’s lucky I didn’t get killed by complications.

I get that the gun nuts are so powerful that we will have to endure a school shooting per month for the foreseeable future, and I get that we don’t want to curtail any aspect of our society in-order to mitigate climate change…but we are killing our children through this blind ignorant anti science nonsense. If we make the mistake of further politicizing this issue the various factions will dig in, it will become like every other issues which are regarded as settled law in most civilized countries and we will kill more of our kids.  If you have any doubt at all watch this video. Penn and teller (as always) hit the nail right on the head. Not immunizing our children is Bullshit and we should stop the madness.

The Jobs Problem?

 

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The recent furor over horrible (if not actually criminal) behavior at Uber has led me to wandering about the culture of our industry…in short is tech turning nasty? I’ve been in tech in one form or another for most of my career. On the whole most the tech people in it fit nicely into the stereotype of socially awkward but nice weirdos.  Many of the management were a little less likable but still not horrible by any means. Although as an industry we have been traditionally a pretty homogeneous bunch in recent years we have seen some very nice growth in both ethnic and gender diversity….but there’s a “but” here.

Anyone who has read my blog will know that I’m a huge fan of Steve Jobs. He was our Da Vinci and his pointless entirely avoidable death robbed us of several decades of innovation.  However pretty much anyone who met him (including myself) would testify that he was at best rude and prickly…at worse a total A-hole. Just after his death a few years back the fabulously well written biography by Walter Isaacson revealed just how gratuitously rude, arrogant  and unpleasant Jobs routinely was. To a person everyone in our industry has read that book….many times in some cases.  It’s a new kind of tech bible and it clearly teaches that nice guys finish last. I haven’t met that meant real A-holes in our industry…but the one thing that they all had in common was their love of quoting Jobs on almost every topic. It’s weird and disturbing and growing….and I hate it.

Russia…Really?!

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As a sixties baby growing up in London the Russians represented real and impending destruction…indeed when Regan assumed power we were reasonably sure it all be over and sooner rather than later. As the USSR collapsed Russia regressed to something close to its peasant roots until Czar Putin reestablished the monarchy.  Nowadays, Russia is a hot bed of tech innovation and in my industry, we spend inordinate amounts of time and effort fending off Russian hackers and bots. I’ve had the pleasure of meeting many Russians and in the vast majority of cases they have been charming  educated folk…a little crazy in some cases but still.

All of this makes me wonder why on earth a good percentage of the Russian population is made up by apparently rabidly homophobic monsters.  Granted there are still an extraordinarily large number of states in the US were you can be fired for simply being gay…so we shouldn’t be too smug…but a good majority of Americans almost certainly wouldn’t join in beating a gay person to death on the street…or film it or post it online.  If that happened it’s likely that the police would get involved and (who knows) the perpetrators would likely be prosecuted.  Not so in Russia. There it’s common place for people to suffer outrageous assaults, even murder, simply for being gay. A climate of intolerance is encourage even codified by the government.

The most recent manifestation of this lunacy comes to us from St Petersburg where a monument to Steve Jobs (in the form of a giant cell phone) has supposedly been taken down by the company which erected it simply because Tim Cook recently came out as gay.

If this is true (and there may be some uncertainty around the timing) it’s as silly as it is sad. It may be especially ironic because Russians (who can afford them) simply love all things Apple.  A much more sincere idiotic reaction might be for Russians to stage iPad burnings where their beloved status symbols would be ritually incinerated…but that’s never going to happen.  Meantime I go out of my way not to buy anything made in Russia.  Granted that’s a reasonably futile gesture as most of what we buy from Russia is in the form of oil and raw materials and it’s hard to tell whether the gas you are putting in your tank is supporting oppression…but the thought is there.

Apple and Facebook are Paying for Female Employees to Freeze Their Eggs

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Career women, have you placed your family-making plans on the back burner? Maybe that’s not far enough. It may be time for cold storage.

Silicon Valley giants Facebook and Apple will now pay for employees who want to freeze their eggs. This is strange new ground even for technology companies who are famous for luring talent with big money and glorious perks.

Facebook recently introduced this coverage under its surrogacy benefits. Beginning in January, Apple will pick up the tab on bills up to $20,000 for egg-freezing procedures taken by its female employees. This is in addition to Facebook’s $4,000 cash bonus to new parents and Apple’s 18-week paid maternity leave. In a field that is dominated by men, these moves may be another push to make Silicon Valley friendlier to top female talent – or at least, top female talent that wants to lean in before it comes time to burping up.

The move by Apple and Facebook may explain a trend that is already in motion among young female executives. Women don’t want to let their careers or not meeting the right partner affect plans for their ideal families.

The idea behind offering this option to female employees seems innocent enough. It gives women an option to delay childbirth to focus on their careers. But while some are embracing the idea as a step toward closing the gender gap, not everyone is warm to it. Critics say this is just one more way to put the workplace before having a family.

Facebook and Apple have not come out and said this was an attempt to narrow the divide between opportunities for male and female employees. However, there is a major gender gap in tech. It’s easy to see the connection between the perk and the two tech giants who offer it.

Government Agencies Look to Tweaking Technology Instead of Innovation

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The future of government innovation in services and service delivery won’t necessarily be found in new technologies, but will instead come from remixing current technologies in new and interesting ways.

Anyone who drives has seen the sight – the car pulled off to the side of the road with a police car, lights flashing madly, parked in behind it. Drivers get pulled over for a number of reasons but the most common reason is exceeding the posted speed limit.

According to Statisticsbrain.com, an average 112,000 people per day receive a speeding ticket and at an average cost of $152 per ticket issued results in over $6 billion generated for government just from speeding tickets. That means that government agencies in the U.S. receive on average $300,000 in revenue per year per police officer just from speeding tickets.

Beyond radar and laser detectors, jammers, license plate covers and all of the other technologies drivers employ to try to avoid the dreaded speeding ticket, the newest technology in the driver-versus-police battle seems to be crowd sourced information.

For example, Waze is a social navigation, GPS, maps/traffic app that is available on both the Android and iOS platform. Besides crowdsourcing information on traffic flow, accidents, debris in the road, other Waze users also enter when they see a police officer on the road. Using location services like cellular and Wi-Fi triangulation, GPS networks, and other beacons, Waze can track your location and let you know when a police officer has been identified near you. So it is a legal way to know when there is a police officer right around the corner.

The technologies that enable Waze may also be the basis for the replacement of the traffic officer and the traffic stop. Since Waze and other navigation apps know where you are located, they can accurately calculate your speed at any given moment. This technology could feasibly also track when you don’t stop at a red light, or go the wrong way down a one way street, or a multitude of other traffic violations. The thing missing is positively identifying the driver as compared to someone just riding in the car. That is where the FBI’s Next Generation Identification System (NGI) comes in.

The NGI has recently been launched, and is a large facial imag4 capture system that includes a database to store millions of face pictures and the analytics software to effectively compare and identify facial images. Assuming that it were legally possible to combine the tracking technologies behind Waze or the onboard navigation system with cameras and the NGI system, it become technically feasible to issue accurate speeding tickets without the involvement of a human police officer. No need for traffic officers anymore and the revenue generated per police officer goes up.

This is all really cool for law enforcement and public safety agencies, but what does this mean for other government agencies? The key components that government agencies look for are that:

  • Innovation will be found through present technologies. Most innovations in government services will come from new ways of mixing current technologies and not necessarily new technologies. This example employs a mix of all of the four pillars – Social (found in Waze), mobile, cloud (found in the storage architecture for the NGI and in the navigation apps), and Analytics (found in the analytics necessary to determine the speed and in the facial recognition) which are hardly new technologies but combined in new and unique ways to improve mission efficiency and effectiveness.
  • The examination of service and delivery mix will be forced by innovation. New technology mixes will force government agencies to rethink services and how they are delivered. In this case, the manpower necessary for traffic enforcement could be reduced and redirected. In other cases such as disaster response, it may not reduce the workforce necessary but may increase the speed of response and the effectiveness of that response.
  • Privacy needs to be addressed. Any mixing of the four pillar technologies in government will have a necessary privacy component that needs to be included.

You Are Now Even More the Product

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“If you aren’t paying for the product….you are the product” is a widely used maxim in Silicon Valley.  Facebook has been the poster child for this for a while and it has just opened up another aspect of ‘you the product’. Facebook has just announced the release of its next ad product Atlas.  What it’s doing is using all the data it has collected about you (it says always anonymously) and is making it available to the world of advertising beyond the properties they operate. Essentially Facebook will offer an ad tag to publishers and app makers all over the web. Then as the publisher or app loads  the ad managed by Facebook, Facebook will use everything they know about you to serve a super targeted ad based on what you are interested in.

If you are a keen golfer Google will target golf ads to you as you search, it will target text ads to golf themed content  and will chase you around the web with retargeted display ads as you view content on other sites like CNN. The problem with that approach is that it’s heavily dependent on cookies which don’t work on mobile devices and are increasingly less effective on desktops devices.  Now Facebook will take all the info you have discussed and posted about to create a profile of your interests which doesn’t require search info or cookies to serve to you across different kinds of devices. It does that through the mobile Facebook app which tells the mothership that you are about to view an ad served by any app on your mobile device.  It’s both clever and a little creepy and likely to further bolster Facebook in their ongoing war with Google.