Digital tools

They’re not always for good. It's more complicated than that.

Reports of my demise (writing for this newsletter) have been greatly exaggerated.

On to this weeks’ briefing.

If it is not apparent, I am quite positive and reasonably optimistic about digital technologies and what they can do for us in business, but also what they can help us with for society. Steve Jobs once said that computers were like bicycles for the mind. He referred to a study done for Scientific American, where the Condor was outclassed by a human using a bicycle in terms of efficiency (distance travelled versus calories used). Humans classed well blow average without the bicycle.

But like any tool, digital technology is neither conscious nor sentient and is entirely amoral, as in without morals. Here are some tales of the negative aspects of digitalisation in our lives.

I put them here for discussion, and I make no judgement on them for the moment. I’m hoping to write about my complicated feelings on the subject and what we as individuals can do when we have issues of cognitive dissonance built up by using digital tech. Bear with me.

Google Maps goes Incognito

Google Maps on iOS has finally introduced an In Cognito mode. In Cognito, for those that don’t know, is a mode whereby the product, in this case, Google Maps, no longer permanently stores searched, GPS data and other personally identifying information on Google’s servers via the signed-in Google Account. Great news for lots of reasons, mainly ones that involve gaining a little privacy in one’s movements around the globe. It does, however, beg the question of what Google has been doing with data in the meantime. That’s for another day.

However, it doesn’t come without trade-offs. Any personalised features, like restaurant suggestions based on historical location data, no longer work. Google is indeed a digital company, and by that, I mean binary. It is either on or off. You either get privacy or none.

Announced in the same blog post, Google will provide a tool to bulk delete places you’ve visited through Google Maps Timeline feature.

With bulk delete, you can quickly find and delete multiple places from your Timeline and Location History all at once. You’ll still have the ability to delete all or part of your Timeline by date range from your Location History settings. 

Make no mistake. These features are a result of pressure from impeding cases on privacy violations amongst others, around the world. As Venture Beat put it:

The search giant’s renewed focus on privacy features follows several high-profile headlines over the past year, such as the Facebook and Cambridge Analytica data scandal. A Wall Street Journal report last summer revealed that Google+, Google’s social network, failed to disclose an exploit that might have exposed the data of more than 500,000 users. Following the news, Google announced that Google+ would formally shut down for consumers in August 2019, following a 10-month wind-down period.

The exit to the left-of-stage of co-founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page have left some to speculate that it is an abdication of responsibility ploy to avoid direct involvement in any future punishment. It’s hard to tell, but it isn’t outside the realms of possibility.

DNA, Genealogy and getting locked up

Wired reports that Verogen has just purchased an obscure genealogy website called GEDmatch. On the face of it, it seems innocent enough and not much to cause worry. Until, that is you understand about its history and recent events.

GEDmatch was an unknown site competing with the giants like and GEDmatch was a free site being run by a couple of men that are particularly talented in writing algorithms that ostensibly helped people find their relatives. Popular, in that it had around 1 million users, it was privacy by obscurity.

This all changed in April of 2018 when police used the site to identify a suspect in the 40-year-old the Golden State Killer cold case. Using the crime scene DNA in a rape case in Ventura County, police uploaded the DNA profile to GEDmatch. The site listed 10 to 20 distant relatives, whom all shared the same great-great-great-grandparents. After more investigation and elimination, police finally arrived at two suspects and ruled one out by a further DNA test, finally identifying the suspected culprit who is currently being held awaiting trial — a positive outcome

Verogen is a forensics giant and has a longstanding reputation of working with law enforcement to solve violent crimes using proprietary familial matching algorithms. This is where some conflict is brewing on the use of this technology when it is coupled with, for all intents and purposes, innocent user’s curiosity to build their family tree. Oblivious to the reality, family members a being dragged (with our consent) into helping identify suspects of crimes. In some instances, it is no longer what you’ve done that gets you caught, but what others are doing around you.

Some genealogists are already protesting and withdrawing support for this type of intrusion. Others are more hopeful that better policies and regulations surrounding Verogen will ultimately secure the database from abusive investigative powers.

It nuanced, isn’t it!

Any data, it seems, has value

In the US, California’s DMV (Department of Motor Vehicles) is selling drivers’ personal data for 50 million dollars.

From Motherboard:

DMVs across the country are selling data that drivers are required to provide to the organization in order to obtain a license. This information includes names, physical addresses, and car registration information. California’s sales come from a state which generally scrutinizes privacy to a higher degree than the rest of the country.

In a public record acts request, Motherboard asked the California DMV for the total dollar amounts paid by commercial requesters of data for the past six years. The responsive document shows the total revenue in financial year 2013/14 as $41,562,735, before steadily climbing to $52,048,236 in the financial year 2017/18.

The widespread abuse of data from each State’s DMV has ended up in multiple DMVs cancelling and restricting access to personal data. In California’s case, the requesters and buyers have not been revealed, but speculation has put LexisNexis on that list. LexisNexis is a data broker, and the final resting place of that data is not likely to please some. Some speculation suggests that data is also being sold to private investigators, one of which specialises in finding if spouses are cheating.

I’ve not come to a conclusion yet

I’ve highlighted a couple of instances where digital technology causes problems rather than saving them. And, if I’m honest, we all believed in those early days of the Internet, that things would be used only for positive means. That looks a little naive nowadays, much like how we were naive in thinking that nuclear science would only be used for the good of the people.

I have a complicated relationship with digital tools. On the one hand, they’re my bread and butter and the reason I have a job. I owe my life to them — I once sold a car to buy a computer, preferring to walk and catch the bus as long as I could compute. But on the other, I realise the danger of them, and how some take technology to produce the worst in humans.

I’m still working it out. Let me know your thoughts.

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Matthew Cowen @matthewcowen