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Hitting the Books: How can privacy survive in a world that never forgets?

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Hitting the Books: How can privacy survive in a world that never forgets?

As I write this, Amazon is announcing its purchase of iRobot, adding its room-mapping robotic vacuum technology to the company’s existing home surveillance suite, the Ring doorbell and prototype aerial drone. This is in addition to Amazon already knowing what you order online, what websites you visit, what foods you eat and, soon, every last scrap of personal medical data you possess. But hey, free two-day shipping, amirite?  

The trend of our gadgets and infrastructure constantly, often invasively, monitoring their users shows little sign of slowing — not when there’s so much money to be made. Of course it hasn’t been all bad for humanity, what with AI’s help in advancing medical, communications and logistics tech in recent years. In his new book, Machines Behaving Badly: The Morality of AI, Scientia Professor of Artificial Intelligence at the University of New South Wales, Dr. Toby Walsh, explores the duality of potential that artificial intelligence/machine learning systems offer and, in the excerpt below, how to claw back a bit of your privacy from an industry built for omniscience.

Machines Behaving Badly Cover

La Trobe University Press

Excerpted from Machines Behaving Badly: The Morality of AI by Toby Walsh. Published by La Trobe University Press. Copyright © 2022 by Toby Walsh. All rights reserved.


Privacy in an AI World

The Second Law of Thermodynamics states that the total entropy of a system – the amount of disorder – only ever increases. In other words, the amount of order only ever decreases. Privacy is similar to entropy. Privacy is only ever decreasing. Privacy is not something you can take back. I cannot take back from you the knowledge that I sing Abba songs badly in the shower. Just as you can’t take back from me the fact that I found out about how you vote.

There are different forms of privacy. There’s our digital online privacy, all the information about our lives in cyberspace. You might think our digital privacy is already lost. We have given too much of it to companies like Facebook and Google. Then there’s our analogue offline privacy, all the information about our lives in the physical world. Is there hope that we’ll keep hold of our analogue privacy?

The problem is that we are connecting ourselves, our homes and our workplaces to lots of internet-enabled devices: smartwatches, smart light bulbs, toasters, fridges, weighing scales, running machines, doorbells and front door locks. And all these devices are interconnected, carefully recording everything we do. Our location. Our heartbeat. Our blood pressure. Our weight. The smile or frown on our face. Our food intake. Our visits to the toilet. Our workouts.

These devices will monitor us 24/7, and companies like Google and Amazon will collate all this information. Why do you think Google bought both Nest and Fitbit recently? And why do you think Amazon acquired two smart home companies, Ring and Blink Home, and built their own smartwatch? They’re in an arms race to know us better.

The benefits to the companies our obvious. The more they know about us, the more they can target us with adverts and products. There’s one of Amazon’s famous ‘flywheels’ in this. Many of the products they will sell us will collect more data on us. And that data will help target us to make more purchases.

The benefits to us are also obvious. All this health data can help make us live healthier. And our longer lives will be easier, as lights switch on when we enter a room, and thermostats move automatically to our preferred temperature. The better these companies know us, the better their recommendations will be. They’ll recommend only movies we want to watch, songs we want to listen to and products we want to buy.

But there are also many potential pitfalls. What if your health insurance premiums increase every time you miss a gym class? Or your fridge orders too much comfort food? Or your employer sacks you because your smartwatch reveals you took too many toilet breaks?

With our digital selves, we can pretend to be someone that we are not. We can lie about our preferences. We can connect anonymously with VPNs and fake email accounts. But it is much harder to lie about your analogue self. We have little control over how fast our heart beats or how widely the pupils of our eyes dilate.

We’ve already seen political parties manipulate how we vote based on our digital footprint. What more could they do if they really understood how we respond physically to their messages? Imagine a political party that could access everyone’s heartbeat and blood pressure. Even George Orwell didn’t go that far.

Worse still, we are giving this analogue data to private companies that are not very good at sharing their profits with us. When you send your saliva off to 23AndMe for genetic testing, you are giving them access to the core of who you are, your DNA. If 23AndMe happens to use your DNA to develop a cure for a rare genetic disease that you possess, you will probably have to pay for that cure. The 23AndMe terms and conditions make this very clear:

You understand that by providing any sample, having your Genetic Information processed, accessing your Genetic Information, or providing Self-Reported Information, you acquire no rights in any research or commercial products that may be developed by 23andMe or its collaborating partners. You specifically understand that you will not receive compensation for any research or commercial products that include or result from your Genetic Information or Self-Reported Information.

A Private Future

How, then, might we put safeguards in place to preserve our privacy in an AI-enabled world? I have a couple of simple fixes. Some regulatory and could be implemented today. Others are technological and are something for the future, when we have AI that is smarter and more capable of defending our privacy.

The technology companies all have long terms of service and privacy policies. If you have lots of spare time, you can read them. Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University calculated that the average internet user would have to spend 76 work days each year just to read all the things that they have agreed to online. But what then? If you don’t like what you read, what choices do you have?

All you can do today, it seems, is log off and not use their service. You can’t demand greater privacy than the technology companies are willing to provide. If you don’t like Gmail reading your emails, you can’t use Gmail. Worse than that, you’d better not email anyone with a Gmail account, as Google will read any emails that go through the Gmail system.

So here’s a simple alternative. All digital services must provide four changeable levels of privacy.

Level 1: They keep no information about you beyond your username, email and password.

Level 2: They keep information on you to provide you with a better service, but they do not share this information with anyone.

Level 3: They keep information on you that they may share with sister companies.

Level 4: They consider the information that they collect on you as public.

And you can change the level of privacy with one click from the settings page. And any changes are retrospective, so if you select Level 1 privacy, the company must delete all information they currently have on you, beyond your username, email and password. In addition, there’s a requirement that all data beyond Level 1 privacy is deleted after three years unless you opt in explicitly for it to be kept. Think of this as a digital right to be forgotten.

I grew up in the 1970s and 1980s. My many youthful transgressions have, thankfully, been lost in the mists of time. They will not haunt me when I apply for a new job or run for political office. I fear, however, for young people today, whose every post on social media is archived and waiting to be printed off by some prospective employer or political opponent. This is one reason why we need a digital right to be forgotten.

More friction may help. Ironically, the internet was invented to remove frictions – in particular, to make it easier to share data and communicate more quickly and effortlessly. I’m starting to think, however, that this lack of friction is the cause of many problems. Our physical highways have speed and other restrictions. Perhaps the internet highway needs a few more limitations too?

One such problem is described in a famous cartoon: ‘On the internet, no one knows you’re a dog.’ If we introduced instead a friction by insisting on identity checks, then certain issues around anonymity and trust might go away. Similarly, resharing restrictions on social media might help prevent the distribution of fake news. And profanity filters might help prevent posting content that inflames.

On the other side, other parts of the internet might benefit from fewer frictions. Why is it that Facebook can get away with behaving badly with our data? One of the problems here is there’s no real alternative. If you’ve had enough of Facebook’s bad behaviour and log off – as I did some years back – then it is you who will suffer most. You can’t take all your data, your social network, your posts, your photos to some rival social media service. There is no real competition. Facebook is a walled garden, holding onto your data and setting the rules. We need to open that data up and thereby permit true competition.

For far too long the tech industry has been given too many freedoms. Monopolies are starting to form. Bad behaviours are becoming the norm. Many internet businesses are poorly aligned with the public good.

Any new digital regulation is probably best implemented at the level of nation-states or close-knit trading blocks. In the current climate of nationalism, bodies such as the United Nations and the World Trade Organization are unlikely to reach useful consensus. The common values shared by members of such large transnational bodies are too weak to offer much protection to the consumer.

The European Union has led the way in regulating the tech sector. The General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), and the upcoming Digital Service Act (DSA) and Digital Market Act (DMA) are good examples of Europe’s leadership in this space. A few nation-states have also started to pick up their game. The United Kingdom introduced a Google tax in 2015 to try to make tech companies pay a fair share of tax. And shortly after the terrible shootings in Christchurch, New Zealand, in 2019, the Australian government introduced legislation to fine companies up to 10 per cent of their annual revenue if they fail to take down abhorrent violent material quickly enough. Unsurprisingly, fining tech companies a significant fraction of their global annual revenue appears to get their attention.

It is easy to dismiss laws in Australia as somewhat irrelevant to multinational companies like Google. If they’re too irritating, they can just pull out of the Australian market. Google’s accountants will hardly notice the blip in their worldwide revenue. But national laws often set precedents that get applied elsewhere. Australia followed up with its own Google tax just six months after the United Kingdom. California introduced its own version of the GDPR, the California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA), just a month after the regulation came into effect in Europe. Such knock-on effects are probably the real reason that Google has argued so vocally against Australia’s new Media Bargaining Code. They greatly fear the precedent it will set.

That leaves me with a technological fix. At some point in the future, all our devices will contain AI agents helping to connect us that can also protect our privacy. AI will move from the centre to the edge, away from the cloud and onto our devices. These AI agents will monitor the data entering and leaving our devices. They will do their best to ensure that data about us that we don’t want shared isn’t.

We are perhaps at the technological low point today. To do anything interesting, we need to send data up into the cloud, to tap into the vast computational resources that can be found there. Siri, for instance, doesn’t run on your iPhone but on Apple’s vast servers. And once your data leaves your possession, you might as well consider it public. But we can look forward to a future where AI is small enough and smart enough to run on your device itself, and your data never has to be sent anywhere.

This is the sort of AI-enabled future where technology and regulation will not simply help preserve our privacy, but even enhance it. Technical fixes can only take us so far. It is abundantly clear that we also need more regulation. For far too long the tech industry has been given too many freedoms. Monopolies are starting to form. Bad behaviours are becoming the norm. Many internet businesses are poorly aligned with the public good.

Digital regulation is probably best implemented at the level of nation-states or close-knit trading blocks. In the current climate of nationalism, bodies such as the United Nations and the World Trade Organization are unlikely to reach useful consensus. The common values shared by members of such large transnational bodies are too weak to offer much protection to the consumer.

The European Union has led the way in regulating the tech sector. The General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), and the upcoming Digital Service Act (DSA) and Digital Market Act (DMA) are good examples of Europe’s leadership in this space. A few nation-states have also started to pick up their game. The United Kingdom introduced a Google tax in 2015 to try to make tech companies pay a fair share of tax. And shortly after the terrible shootings in Christchurch, New Zealand, in 2019, the Australian government introduced legislation to fine companies up to 10 per cent of their annual revenue if they fail to take down abhorrent violent material quickly enough. Unsurprisingly, fining tech companies a significant fraction of their global annual revenue appears to get their attention.

It is easy to dismiss laws in Australia as somewhat irrelevant to multinational companies like Google. If they’re too irritating, they can just pull out of the Australian market. Google’s accountants will hardly notice the blip in their worldwide revenue. But national laws often set precedents that get applied elsewhere. Australia followed up with its own Google tax just six months after the United Kingdom. California introduced its own version of the GDPR, the California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA), just a month after the regulation came into effect in Europe. Such knock-on effects are probably the real reason that Google has argued so vocally against Australia’s new Media Bargaining Code. They greatly fear the precedent it will set.

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NASA Says Hurricane Didn’t Hurt Artemis I Hardware, Sets New Launch Window

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NASA Says Hurricane Didn’t Hurt Artemis I Hardware, Sets New Launch Window

NASA’s Artemis I moon mission launch, stalled by Hurricane Ian, has a new target for takeoff. The launch window for step one of NASA’s bold plan to return humans to the lunar surface now opens Nov. 12 and closes Nov. 27, the space agency said Friday. 

The news comes after the pending storm caused NASA to scrub the latest Artemis I Iaunch, which had been scheduled for Sunday, Oct. 2. As Hurricane Ian threatened to travel north across Cuba and into Florida, bringing rain and extreme winds to the launch pad’s vicinity, NASA on Monday rolled its monster Space Launch System rocket, and the Orion spacecraft it’ll propel, back indoors to the Vehicle Assembly Building at Florida’s Kennedy Space Center. 

The hurricane made landfall in Florida on Wednesday, bringing with it a catastrophic storm surge, winds and flooding that left dozens of people dead, caused widespread power outages and ripped buildings from their foundations. Hurricane Ian is “likely to rank among the worst in the nation’s history,” US President Joe Biden said on Friday, adding that it will take “months, years, to rebuild.”

Initial inspections Friday to assess potential impacts of the devastating storm to Artemis I flight hardware showed no damage, NASA said. “Facilities are in good shape with only minor water intrusion identified in a few locations,” the agency said in a statement. 

Next up, teams will complete post-storm recovery operations, which will include further inspections and retests of the flight termination system before a more specific launch date can be set. The new November launch window, NASA said, will also give Kennedy employees time to address what their families and homes need post-storm. 

Artemis I is set to send instruments to lunar orbit to gather vital information for Artemis II, a crewed mission targeted for 2024 that will carry astronauts around the moon and hopefully pave the way for Artemis III in 2025. Astronauts on that high-stakes mission will, if all goes according to plan, put boots on the lunar ground, collect samples and study the water ice that’s been confirmed at the moon’s South Pole. 

The hurricane-related Artemis I rollback follows two other launch delays, the first due to an engine problem and the second because of a hydrogen leak.

Hurricane Ian has been downgraded to a post-tropical cyclone but is still bringing heavy rains and gusty winds to the Mid-Atlantic region and the New England coast.

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What You Get in McDonalds’ New Happy-Meal-Inspired Box for Adults

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What You Get in McDonalds’ New Happy-Meal-Inspired Box for Adults

You’ve pulled up to McDonald’s as a full-on adult. You absolutely do not need a toy with your meal, right? Joking. Of course you do.

The fast-food chain will soon sell boxed meals geared toward adults, and each one has a cool, odd-looking figurine inside. 

The meal has an odd name — the Cactus Plant Flea Market Box — that’s based on the fashion brand collaborating with McDonald’s on this promotion. 

According to McDonald’s, the box is inspired by the memory of enjoying a Happy Meal as a kid. The outside of the box is multicolored and features the chain’s familiar golden arches. 

The first day you can get a Cactus Plant Flea Market Box will be Monday, Oct. 3. Pricing is set by individual restaurants and may vary, according to McDonald’s. It’ll be available in the drive-thru, in-restaurant, by delivery or on the McDonald’s app, while supplies last.

You can choose between a Big Mac or 10-piece Chicken McNuggets. It will also come with fries and a drink.

Now about those toys. The boxes will pack in one of four figurines. Three of the four appear to be artsy takes on the classic McDonald’s characters Grimace, Hamburglar and Birdie the Early Bird, while the fourth is a little yellow guy sporting a McDonald’s shirt called Cactus Buddy.

In other McD news, Halloween buckets could be returning to the chain this fall. So leave some room in your stomach for a return trip.

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Why companies like iHeartMedia, NBCU rely on homegrown IP to build metaverse engagements

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Why companies like iHeartMedia, NBCU rely on homegrown IP to build metaverse engagements

To avoid potential blowback from a skeptical audience, retailers as well as media and entertainment companies are learning to invest in their homegrown intellectual properties while building virtual brand activations inside Roblox or Fortnite.

Take, for instance, when they get it wrong.

Earlier this week, Walmart launched its own Roblox world — called Walmart Land — and was roundly mocked for it across social media given the announcement’s disjointed brand message and apparent lack of life. In one viral tweet, a Twitter user described a clip of Walmart CMO William White introducing the Roblox space as “one of the saddest videos ever created.”

This video of Walmart’s chief marketing officer on a stage in Roblox talking about its new “Walmart Land” experience is one of the saddest videos ever created. pic.twitter.com/HtIIToShKs

— Zack Zwiezen (@ZwiezenZ) September 26, 2022

To some extent, this sort of criticism is to be expected during the early days of the metaverse.

“Walmart is an iconic brand; when you see them coming into a platform like Roblox, people are going to be 10 times more critical of what is being launched,” said Yonatan Raz-Fridman, CEO of the Roblox developer studio Supersocial.

But Walmart’s size is not its only disadvantage as it dips its toes into Roblox. Although Walmart has a widely recognizable brand, it owns few intellectual properties that users are actually interested in experiencing virtually — a shortcoming reflected by the somewhat cavernous emptiness of Roblox’s Walmart Land.

Provided by NBCUniversal

The success of other recent brand activations is evidence that media and entertainment brands are better equipped to build metaverse spaces that can dodge online skepticism, thanks to their wealth of owned IP.

“They are having to reinvent themselves, to a certain degree, but that is in their DNA,” said Jesse Streb, global svp of technology and engineering at the agency DEPT. “So they have a unique advantage over, say, some kludgy company that sells lumber, or a construction company.”

For example, iHeartMedia’s Roblox and Fortnite spaces were inspired by the mass media corporation’s wealth of popular real-life events, such as the Jingle Ball Tour and iHeartRadio Music Festival, with virtual versions of musicians like Charlie Puth performing pre-recorded concerts that allow real-time audience interaction.

“There’s a strong brand association with the IP, down to a station level — you’re in the New York area, you probably know Z100,” said iHeartMedia evp of business development and partnerships Jess Jerrick. “The same is true for the event IP, or the IP that we now have in the podcasting space, and of course our radio broadcast talent. So there’s no shortage of really strong IP we can bring into these spaces.”

Translating real-life properties into the metaverse is also an enticing prospect for brands that view metaverse platforms as an experimental marketing channel, allowing them to bring tried-and-true IP into their virtual activations instead of designing them from the ground level. This was part of the strategy behind the recent Tonight Show activation in Fortnite Creative, which was designed in collaboration between NBCUniversal and Samsung. “We’re looking at it holistically — how do we find fans in new ways, and use IP that fans love in new ways?” said NBCU president of advertising and client partnerships Mark Markshall.

Since opening on Sept. 14, iHeartLand has already enticed over 1.5 million Roblox users to visit. The company aims to retain that attention with a schedule of virtual programming featuring popular musicians and personalities.

“At our core, we are essentially an influencer network; our broadcast talent are some of the most connected, most engaging influencers at work in media today,” said Conal Byrne, CEO of iHeart Digital Audio Group. “That gives us this sort of superpower, to be able to go into new-ish platforms, like Roblox or Fortnite, because we talk to our listeners through those influencers.”

https://digiday.com/?p=468395

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