The Conversation

Technology: Discussion of technology events and developments.

How Big Data Could Either Solve Corporate Diversity Issues or Make Them Worse

Oct 1, 2014 9:08 AM PT

Are you feeling a bit paranoid about the use of data-mining tools to sift through huge piles of online information to predict or manipulate your behavior?  How would you feel if companies started using Big Data to find job applicants, with an eye toward increasing racial diversity?

I couldn't get three paragraphs into an article on the subject at National Journal before my hackles went up, and that was one paragraph before concerns about how it could all go horribly wrong were explored:

Humans are fallible, biased creatures, and even the most well-intentioned hiring managers have a strong tendency to hire "look like me, act like me" candidates.

Those unintended prejudices in recruitment—whether racial, gendered, or economic—are shortcomings that a growing number of big-data firms are hoping they can help solve with their massive number-crunching operations. By mining troves of personal and professional data, these companies claim they can not only match employers with A-plus job candidates, but help close diversity gaps in the workforce, too.

"Big data in the workplace poses some new risks, but it may yet turn out to be good news for traditionally disadvantaged job applicants," said David Robinson, a principal at Robinson + Yu, a consulting group that works to connect social justice and technology.

Still, concerns abound. Earlier this year, the White House released a landmark report on big data, warning that the exploding enterprise could—intentionally or not—allow companies to use data to discriminate against certain groups of people, particularly minorities and low-income groups. That's also the fear of the Federal Trade Commission, which held a workshop last week exploring the concept of "discrimination by algorithm."

"Big data can have consequences," FTC Chairwoman Edith Ramirez said. "Those consequences can be either enormously beneficial to individuals and society, or deeply detrimental."

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HealthCareDotGov got hacked

Sep 4, 2014 5:58 PM PT

The first hacker attack on the ObamaCare federal exchange website - at least, the first one the Administration is aware of, and willing to admit to - happened in July, according to a report in the Wall Street Journal.  Reportedly one of the test servers got hacked, and while some malware was uploaded, we are assured no data was stolen.  

(Stop laughing about the "test servers."  They do test HealthCareDotGov nowadays, although that was evidently too much to ask before the damn thing launched.)

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Google Exec Wyler Exits Abruptly

Sep 3, 2014 4:53 AM PT

Considered a leader behind Google's "efforts to beam Internet connectivity across the globe via satellite," Greg Wyler left the company "abruptly" according to reports.

It remains unclear precisely why. There's more background here.

In another report, The Verge revealed Wyler reportedly left Google to work with SpaceX, but not as an actual employee. 

 SpaceX designs, manufactures and launches rockets and spacecraft. 

Wyler is the founder of O3b Networks, another company that also works on ways to bring internet access to the developing world.

Mystery of the Android attack towers

Sep 2, 2014 8:33 PM PT

Here's a little high-tech ghost story to give you chills, just in case you weren't already freaked out enough by the Nude Celebrity Hack, or the possible theft of a large trove of credit card numbers from Home Depot:

Typical smartphones have a number of potential data insecurities, caused by their constant efforts to connect with various networks, and the way they keep most of their background activities conveniently hidden from the user.  We just want the things to work.  We don't want our phone screens covered with impenetrable technobabble explaining exactly what the phone is doing at any given moment.

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Hackers break into cloud storage, unleash torrential rain of celebrity nude photos

Sep 1, 2014 1:45 PM PT

The Washington Post brings us a fresh lesson in the dangers of sending racy material into the Internet cloud, starring one of the most popular actresses in the world:

On Sunday, the Internet practically melted down when racy photos, allegedly of celebrities including “The Hunger Games” star Jennifer Lawrence, started surfacing around the Internet. As with any report of nude photos, people immediately questioned the authenticity. But the frenzy picked up when Lawrence’s publicist confirmed that these were stolen photos, and promised that there would be legal action.

“This is a flagrant violation of privacy. The authorities have been contacted and will prosecute anyone who posts the stolen photos of Jennifer Lawrence,” her representative said in a statement Sunday evening.

Buzzfeed reported that the Web forum 4chan was behind the leak, and that a “master list” of all the hacked celebrity photos includes Ariana Grande, Victoria Justice, Kim Kardashian, Rihanna, Kate Upton, Lea Michele, Kirsten Dunst, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, among others.

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Internet providers team up to block America's best Internet service

Aug 30, 2014 7:44 AM PT

It is widely held that one of the fastest Internet services in America, if not the fastest, can be found in Chattanooga, Tennessee.  They've got speeds that can reach 1 gigabit per second, which is around fifty times faster than the average in the U.S.  The high quality of this network has been bringing tech jobs to the area.  And yet, a partnership between Big Cable companies Comcast and Time Warner is trying to block expansion of the Chattanooga high-speed Internet service, along with a similar service in Wilson, North Carolina.

It's a good old-fashioned example of anti-competition, in which big players use political influence or legal challenges to keep a market closed up.  The twist is that in this case, the new players entering the market with superior service are municipal governments.  The broadband services in question are owned by the local governments.  The UK Guardian explains that the operation in North Carolina was launched expressly as a result of customer complaints about poor Time Warner service:

Chattanooga has the largest high-speed internet service in the US, offering customers access to speeds of 1 gigabit per second – about 50 times faster than the US average. The service, provided by municipally owned EPB, has sparked a tech boom in the city and attracted international attention. EPB is now petitioning the FCC to expand its territory. Comcast and others have previously sued unsuccessfully to stop EPB’s fibre optic roll out.

Wilson, a town of a little more than 49,000 people, launched Greenlight, its own service offering high speed internet, after complaints about the cost and quality of Time Warner cable’s service. Time Warner lobbied the North Carolina senate to outlaw the service and similar municipal efforts.

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Latest world power to have a top-secret drone program: Google

Aug 29, 2014 9:32 AM PT

There was some pretty wild talk coming out of Amazon a while back about using unmanned aerial vehicles to deliver packages.  It turns out Google wants to play too, and is already has a drone test program well under way.  The existence of this top-secret program was officially announced on Thursday.  From USA Today:

Dubbed Project Wing, the three-year mission successfully completed its first delivery Aug. 13, a bundle of Cherry Ripe chocolate bars. Over subsequent days, the team from GoogleX — the Mountain View, Calif.-based search company's exploratory technology arm — air-dropped a range of other farmer-friendly goods, from medicines to first-aid kits.

The flights were a direct response to GoogleX lead and Google co-founder Sergey Brin, who challenged his team to make a delivery to a real person via drone.

"We selected these items based on several conversations with local people about how aerial delivery might help them in their jobs," GoogleX said in a release Thursday. "Over the course of the week, the team ran more than 30 successful delivery flights. We are now back in California reviewing what we've learned."

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Target credit card hack much worse than originally thought

Aug 23, 2014 9:51 AM PT

The hackers who busted into the credit card system for Target stores hit a thousand other businesses too, in an online crime spree big enough to get the Department of Homeland Security involved.  The New York Times reports that DHS issued an advisory concerning the havoc wrought by the "Backoff" malware package on Friday:

The attacks were much more pervasive than previously reported, the advisory said, and hackers were pilfering the data of millions of payment cards from American consumers without companies knowing about it. The breadth of the breaches, once considered limited to a handful of businesses, underscored the vulnerability of payment systems widely used by retail stores across the country.

On July 31, Homeland Security, along with the Secret Service, the National Cybersecurity and Communications Integration Center and their partners in the security industry, warned companies to check their in-store cash register systems for a malware package that security experts called Backoff after a word that appeared in its code. Until that point, Backoff malware and variations of it were undetectable by antivirus products.

Since then, seven companies that sell and manage in-store cash register systems have confirmed to government officials that they each had multiple clients affected, the government said Friday. Some of those clients, like UPS and Supervalu, have stepped forward, but most have not.

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Did a U.S. defense contractor help create the next generation of spyware weapons?

Aug 16, 2014 6:50 AM PT

The Washington Post relates a fascinating little cloak-and-dagger story that ends with a heck of a punchline: a U.S. defense contractor was apparently working with foreign companies that create spyware and virus programs to develop new tools for spying on people, potentially both foreign and domestic.

CloudShield Technologies, a California defense contractor, dispatched a senior engineer to Munich in the early fall of 2009. His instructions were unusually opaque.

As he boarded the flight, the engineer told confidants later, he knew only that he should visit a German national who awaited him with an off-the-books assignment. There would be no written contract, and on no account was the engineer to send reports back to CloudShield headquarters.

His contact, Martin J. Muench, turned out to be a former developer of computer security tools who had long since turned to the darkest side of their profession. Gamma Group, the British conglomerate for which Muench was a managing director, built and sold systems to break into computers, seize control clandestinely, and then copy files, listen to Skype calls, record every keystroke and switch on Web cameras and microphones at will.

According to accounts the engineer gave later and contemporary records obtained by The Washington Post, he soon fell into a shadowy world of lucrative spyware tools for sale to foreign security services, some of them with records of human rights abuse.

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Anonymous: We're Not Known for Being 'Responsible'

Aug 15, 2014 11:05 AM PT

Anonymous released the name of the person they claimed shot Michael Brown. They got it wrong but that doesn't seem to bother the group very much. In fact they are taking credit for the police decision to release the real name of the officer today.

The person whose name Anonymous released Thursday wasn't a police officer, just a dispatcher. One member of Anonymous spoke to Mother Jones saying, "We are not exactly known for being 'responsible,' nor for worrying overly much about the safety of cops." In fact, the group has since suggested it hoped threats against an unrelated individual they publicly named as the shooter would force the police's hand.

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