Welcome to the March 24th, 2019 episode of the Raymond Tec News podcast. Each week I curate the articles, tweets, and backchannel sources to provide a 15 to 20-minute summary of tech news.
I’ll start off, like I always do, with the headlines to keep you up at night; data breaches, privacy concerns, and security threats. I’ll follow with this week’s feature, search and recommendation algorithms. Then I’ll balance out the negative with a series of stories to restore your faith in technology, and, maybe, humanity.
Let’s dive in.
California-based Meditab, a supplier of electronic health records software, has been leaking thousands of records and doctor’s notes after one of their servers was improperly configured. TechCrunch
Family Locator, an app designed to help parents keep tabs on their children’s location, was leaking real time location information for weeks when its developers neglected to password protect it. TechCrunch
An unnamed company that sells software to spy on people has left their database unprotected on the internet revealing more than 95,000 images and 25,000 audio recordings that are extremely intimate in nature. Motherboard
Ransomware named LockerGoga has struck several large companies this week, including Norwegian aluminum manufacturer Norsk Hydro, and American chemical companies Hexion and Momentive. Motherboard
According to a report from the Office of the Inspector General, FEMA, the US Federal Emergency Management Agency, shared personal and financial information of 2.3 million disaster victims with an unnamed contractor. ZDNet
Security Researchers have identified new attacks that have targeted online bedding retailers MyPillow and Amerisleep. The Hacker News
The Pakistani hacker, known as Gnosticplayers, who’s been making headlines over the last couple of months hacking databases and selling user credentials is back with round 4, hacked from 8 websites. The Hacker News
Moving on to Privacy Headlines.
WhatsApp has rolled out a couple of new features to stem the tide of fake news. Unfortunately, these features are only for beta testers right now. 9 to 5 Google
IBM has been scraping Flickr images to train facial recognition systems without users’ consent. Slate
But, worse than that, the US government has been training their facial recognition systems using images of abused children and immigrants without their consent. Slate on US Government
The US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA, has been working on a secure voting system and is bringing it to a hacker conference for testing this summer. Sophos Naked Security
Utah has passed a first-of-its-kind legislation. The law reinforces our fourth amendment right protecting against unreasonable search and seizure of data stored on services like Google and Facebook. Wired
The UK is scheduled to introduce a porn blocker for internet users under the age of 18 next month. 76 percent of Britons surveyed were unaware of the coming censorship. The Verge
I reported last week on protests in Europe regarding the EU’s disastrous ACTA2 legislation. I’m happy to announce that more than a quarter of a million people joined in the protest movement to make their voices heard to stop a bill that will end a free and open internet. Twitter
Krebs on Security released a report this week that showed Facebook had been storing passwords in plain text for many years. Facebook acknowledged the report. Wired
But you don’t have to worry about hackers getting access to your stuff with those stolen passwords, because you don’t reuse passwords, right? If you’re not, I recommend LastPass. LastPass allows you to sync passwords securely across your computer, phone, and tablets. More than just keeping a list of your logins, it generates secure random passwords for you and on many websites allows you to change your password with just a couple of clicks.
Don’t get caught recycling passwords, use LastPass. You can learn more about LastPass by visiting my affiliate link at Raytec dot co slash LastPass, that’s r-a-y-t-e-c dot c-o slash l-a-s-t-p-a-s-s.
Let’s move on to security headlines.
Google has partially patched a five-year-old bug for its more than 2 billion Android users that could have allowed attackers to highjack any Android device with a simple web page. Wired
Intel released a bunch of patches last week to prevent against dangerous vulnerabilities. Sophos Naked Security
Microsoft has released Windows Defender extensions for Google’s Chrome and Mozilla’s Firefox browsers. Security Week
The Verge convened 5 experts to provide their opinions on whether the ban of Huawei products in the upcoming 5G infrastructure is warranted. 4 of the 5 experts agreed that banning Huawei was a smart move, because there are no truly independent private industries in China. The dissenting opinion stated that there was no clear motive nor previous evidence to suggest Huawei has sabotaged equipment on behalf of the Chinese government and therefore likely would not do so in the future. The Verge
The Christchurch massacre happened on Friday, March 15th. By Monday the 19th, scammers were already targeting philanthropists via phishing emails and fake crowd funding campaigns. Security Week
The UN has released a report stating North Korea has been using their cybercrime abilities to circumvent sanctions by stealing money from banks and cryptocurrency exchanges. Data Breach Today
Security experts in the Ukraine have been carrying out simulated cyber-attacks to prevent Russian meddling in their upcoming election, according to the Security Week blog. Security Week
Let’s move on to other headlines.
In a truth is stranger than fiction moment, AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson was doing a live interview announcing a new call authentication feature to reduce robocalls, when his apple watch rang with an incoming… you guessed it, robocall. CNET
Google+ will officially cease to exist on April 2nd, but the Internet Archive, also known as the Wayback Machine, has been hard at work archiving all public posts for posterity. 9 to 5 Google
Speaking at a Stanford computer science class, WhatsApp co-founder Brian Acton urged the students to delete Facebook citing Facebook’s inability to appropriately moderate content and their push to monetize every aspect of what’s its users share. The Verge
Myspace, yes, they’re still around, migrated servers recently and accidentally lost more than a decade worth of user’s music. TechCrunch
Airbnb has been quietly waging a legal war against local governments to avoid paying hotel and occupancy taxes. Wired
The chairman of the House Oversight and Reform Committee announced that Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump used private email accounts and personal WhatsApp accounts to conduct official government business. Washington Post
The US Department of Transportation is beginning an unusual probe in the Federal Aviation Administration’s approval of Boeing’s 737 Max 8 planes after recent crashes. The Verge
Presidential hopeful Beto O’Rourke remained all over my news feeds this week as experts talked about his hacker background. In my opinion, this was a brilliant way to get out ahead of any scandals that may arise in the future. One of the articles I read this week referred to a violent fictional story that O’Rourke wrote when he was 15 that could have been used against him; instead the article praised a teenaged boy utilizing his skills as a writer to avoid acting out this fantasy. Security Week
The former CEO of a popular Bitcoin exchange received only a suspended sentence in a Tokyo court after beating charges of fraud and embezzlement. Data Breach Today
A 20-year-old Dutch hacker was found guilty of crashing the BBC and Yahoo News websites when he was a minor but received no jail time. ZDNet
Mimicking offerings from Samsung and Huawei, the next generation iPhones may be able to wirelessly charge your AirPods and other devices. The Verge
Volvo continues its push to make driving safer. Beyond limiting its cars to a top speed of 112 MPH, it’ll also be installing inward facing cameras to analyze when drivers are distracted or intoxicated and trigger calls from Volvo’s On Call service, reduce the vehicle’s speed, or stop it completely. Wired
A study funded by Apple and conducted by the Stanford University School of Medicine has released results that Apple watches have successfully found irregular heartbeats in over 2,000 of the study’s 419,093 participants. The Verge
Mogul and Musician Moby has released his newest album exclusively to users of the Calm meditation app. This joint promotion for world sleep day contains 6 tracks each ~37 minutes in length. TechCrunch
Netflix has teamed up with survivalist Bear Grylls for their latest interactive show called You vs. Wild. The choose-your-own-adventure TV series will be available starting April 10th. The Verge
That’s it for other news. Now for this week’s feature story.
Contrary to what you heard at the top of the show an algorithm has nothing to do with former Vice President Al Gore or his ability to keep a beat. Algorithms predate the internet, Al Gore, and even computers.
Rather than convolute my story with an etymology lesson that starts in Persia in the year 825, let’s just say an algorithm is a set of rules that precisely defines a sequence of operations. Wikipedia
Let’s further put that in context for today: an algorithm is how a computer processes data. Come with me back in time to the late 1990’s. There were young entrepreneurs who saw great potential in the newly commercialized internet. These youthful visionaries knew the world could benefit by this linking of computers and the digitizing of all the world’s knowledge, but how could you make such a large catalog of information useful?
Companies like Yahoo! had people that scoured the web and built directories, like the yellow pages, to help people find what they were looking for. It had real live humans deciding what content others saw, which meant moderation was built in, but so was censorship. Leaving the decision up to human beings wasn’t really the best way to rank and present the internet, especially as it expanded exponentially. Besides that, it was expensive and time consuming. Wayback Machine – Yahoo | Wayback Machine – The Mining Company
Then along came a startup called Google. Google used what’s called a spider to crawl through the web automatically, creating an index of all the sites it could find. If all Google did was read every page on the internet and build an index that contained every word on every page, it wouldn’t make for a very useful search engine. If you searched for the word President, Google would return every webpage that had the word president on it. So, Google created a set of rules that would identify keywords on a page. This is an algorithm.
Now, in our example here, we see how Google identifies keywords to figure out where in the index a webpage would go, but now we encounter the problem of how to rank those pages. So, Google then identifies the number of other websites that link to that page with that keyword. The more sites and pages that point to a page on president, the higher that page is in the search results.
Cool, now we have a basic understanding of how Google works. All the same basic principles are applied to recommendation algorithms as well. Amazon keeps a shopping history for every user that visits its site. Let’s say you’re looking to invest in a new, red, Swingline-brand stapler. Amazon looks in its vast data stores and sees that out of 150,000 people who bought this item, 1,000 of them also bought a 10 pack of sticky notes. Now you see a link to that pack of sticky notes because you want a new stapler.
This all seems fine, right? So, why do algorithms get such a bad name? Well, once you understand how they work it’s easier to manipulate them.
Just from this brief description you know that by loading a page with keywords for Google to index and by getting lots of other pages to link to that page, you can quickly move up in Google’s search rankings. Using this knowledge, we pick keywords we know are being searched regularly and add those to our page, even if our page has nothing to do with those keywords.
Then we place links from regularly indexed sites, like social media, to the content we want to promote, and the search and recommendation algorithms do their magic promoting our content to the masses.
Now, we have a simple method for promoting whatever we want, globally. This is how word of the New Zealand massacre spread so quickly across the internet. A few malicious people creating content in the right places at the right times, and we have a virtual wildfire of hatred.
But it didn’t start with the massacre of innocent Muslims in Christchurch. There are countless stories of these algorithms being used for evil. YouTube’s recommendation algorithm has been called into question for helping conspiracy theorists and child abusers promote their content. Twitter and Facebook pushed video of a reporter shooting his former colleagues on live television in 2015. Pinterest’s algorithm is accused of driving a 14-year-old girl over the edge to commit suicide by emailing her images of self-harm.
So, how can it be fixed?
The answer is complicated and not one-size-fits-all. Swing too far into human moderation or keyword bans and the critics cry censorship. Change nothing and our existing problems are exacerbated by copycats.
The algorithm and its brawnier, brainier cousin Artificial Intelligence are creeping into more places in the world to make decisions for humans. Creating ethical automated decision-making systems are critical to our future.
I’ve included a bit more reading in the show notes if you’d like to get an idea of some approaches to solving this issue.
Alright, Let’s wrap up this episode with the good news.
The practice of payday lending is, somehow, still legal in the United States. For those unfamiliar, payday lenders provide a short-term loan and charge anywhere from 200 to 3,000 percent interest. They prey upon workers who live paycheck to paycheck and often get people caught in a cycle that can be nearly impossible to escape. Branch, an app designed for companies to schedule and manage their employees has launched a pay service that will advance workers their pay instantly for only a dollar ninety-nine. This feature also helps the companies by incentivizing workers to pick up less-desirable shifts by reducing the amount of time they have to wait for their pay. TechCrunch
Centuries of colonization, rebellion, and unstable governments have made it difficult for many African countries to build economies that allow local farmers and manufacturers to get their products to a wider market. The current age of smart phones and digital transactions have made a better life more realistic for many Africans. Benjamin Fernandes, a Tanzanian-born talk show host turned entrepreneur, has founded a new mobile payment app for the African market. He spent hundreds of hours discussing the challenges of getting paid with existing apps with people in his native Tanzania. There are currently about 282 different mobile money services available worldwide, about half of which are operating in Sub-Saharan Africa. Fernandes’ app, Nala, simplifies transactions by acting as a layer between users and all the various apps available to them. Now users can arrange the transaction very simply in one, easy to use app. TechCrunch
Farmers in the dairy industry prefer female calves for their milk production while those in the beef industry prefer males for their superior meat production. The cheapest option is to send the animal to the slaughterhouse. Most ranchers prefer their bulls to be dehorned. This used to be a painful process involving burning the horns off the animal. Thanks to technological advances in gene editing such as CRISPR and TALEN, researchers around the world are finding ways to make livestock production more efficient and humane. These two technologies use specially crafted bacteria to identify, remove, and replace specific sections of DNA to create animals with the desired traits. Beyond the efficiency and humaneness, these techniques can have direct human benefits, as well. In January, researchers in Great Britain announced they would be bioengineering chickens to be resistant to influenza, better protecting both poultry and human populations from the flu. Wired
Many episodes ago, I mentioned a new feature built into Skype that would automatically blur the backgrounds of your video calls, making calls with people you don’t know more secure. This week I found out how this feature was borne not from paranoia, but from love. A young software engineer at Microsoft named Swetha Machanavajhala was using Skype to keep in touch with her parents. Her parents’ internet connection in India was poor, the video was choppy, and it made it difficult for Swetha to read their lips, because Swetha was born deaf. She found it easier to concentrate on their lips when her parents dimmed the lights in the background of their calls. Now, with the aid of a little AI magic, Swetha and her parents can communicate more easily. Microsoft
That’s it for this week in tech news that matters to you. If you’ve enjoyed the podcast, please share what you found interesting in a post on your social media by linking to Raytec dot co slash listen. That’s r-a-y-t-e-c dot c-o slash listen. That will always link directly to the current episode’s show notes along with a podcast player. I really appreciate anyone who’s willing to share my podcast.
As always, there are bonus links in the show notes. Articles in this week’s extracurricular reading include how Pope Francis could shape the future of robotics, how to set up emergency location sharing on both Android and iOS, how to control tech companies without ruining the US economy, and so much more. The show notes have links to each of the podcast apps I’m listed on and links to my social media. If you have any information, updates, or constructive criticism, feel free to reach out via social media.
Thanks for listening and have a great week!
Cold open audio from “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” courtesy Netflix and NBC Universal.
All samples, sounds, and music are from FreeSound.org.