Let’s just say that it’s been a bit of a doozy of a year for the world of tech. For a good while now, roughly one-third of daily headlines seem to be directly related to one of the largest tech companies in the world: Google, Facebook, Twitter, etc. Suddenly the general public is angry, asking for answers to fairly basic questions about privacy and who has access to our data.
Keeping up with it all has been tough, and with the state of things it almost requires the commitment of a full-time job. So instead, we’re going to do a rundown of the biggest stories, with the help of two experts from the field.
In this corner we have Mr. Tejas Viswanath. He’s the founder of Chaldal, which has become one of the largest grocery delivery services in Bangladesh. His elaborate system of micro warehouses aims to serve customers in as little as 15 minutes, and that’s a feat when you consider the insane amount of traffic seen in Bangladesh’s big cities. Basically, each tiny warehouse is set up within a former apartment building or a similar structure with ample vertical space. Then sorting robots are used in tandem with human employees to locate items and expedite orders with a level of speed and efficiency we don’t really have an equivalent to here in the U.S. That kind of innovation is rare, and with any luck Viswanath’s forward thinking approach to logistics may one day be granted to American side companies as well.
And in this corner we have Mr. Ahmed Ilyas. He’s been named an MVP (most valuable professional) by Microsoft for three consecutive years. Microsoft saves this honor for their elite developers, and Ilyas has been a shoe-in every time. On top of all that, his software company, Sandler Software, has served high-profile companies both in the U.S. and abroad, updating outmoded systems and streamlining operations for everyone from the National Maths and Science Initiative to General Electric. He also maintains an idealistic company vision that places huge importance on altruistic aims, and on making tech that helps humans, not just profit margins.
Both gentlemen kindly agreed to give their takes on this year’s tech news. They were also nice enough to get into some analysis to help determine which stories are legitimately significant and which have been a little overblown.
Facebook and Fake News
In April, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg was asked to testify before Congress, in regards to the proliferation of fake news on the site during the 2016 U.S. presidential election as well as information sharing not explicitly authorized by users. Zuckerberg promised that the company would be taking great efforts to prevent further posting of fake news. Cambridge Analytica, accused of orchestrating the spread of fake news, had been barred from Facebook entirely.
But ever since, the press has been watching Facebook closely, reporting heavily on those aforementioned efforts to nip fake news in the bud. Is it working? Eh, kinda.
So what do we do with Facebook? Do they deserve to be brought down, abandoned to the ash heap of history?
Well, no, but we do need to change the way we think about Facebook and social media in general, says Ilyas.
“Facebook is a blessing and a curse at the same time. I guess with any platform, it grows into something more than what it was originally intended to be, and this is a prime example because Facebook was intended to let you communicate online with friends and family. But as the years went on, more and more features were added to encourage users to see Facebook as a social platform. Then came in the business and political aspects, which were trying to make Facebook the go-to place for just about everything. Facebook should have implemented stricter security measures a long time ago, and now they’re suffering because of it, and rightly so. It should send a signal to other companies as well as individuals interacting with Facebook to think twice. Right now, I don’t think that Facebook will stop spreading false information. The data is just too large and it continues to grow. We should also use common sense and not just believe everything that is being said or told to the users.”
And he’s right. The sheer amount of data buried in major sites like Facebook has spurred the creation of the big data profession, which attempts to catalog as much of this information as possible, and find ways to turn that data into valuable assets, and ultimately into revenue. As it appears right now, Facebook hasn’t been able to keep up with that wave of data, at least not so far.
Viswanath added some perspective to the issue, noting that fake news as a whole, although a very hot topic since the election, has been around since long before the first computer or dial-up internet connection.
“I think the debate needs to shift. We are angry now because we, the public, have just found out what has been going on for decades. There’s a lot of discussion regarding fake news these days, largely centered around Facebook and the most recent presidential election, but misinformation as a coordinated campaign has been practiced for decades, if not centuries. And misinformation used for political gain is just propaganda. What has actually changed is the ease with which it can now be executed. Automated systems for detecting fake news is a cat-and-mouse game. As the detection algorithms become smarter, so will the campaigns. There’s also another side to fake news, which is intentionally reporting only some of the facts, which helps promote a particular agenda. What do we do about those? I’m not trying to say that any work against fake news is pointless. We’ll be able to identify and shut down poorly orchestrated campaigns. But what this points to is the need to instill into people some level of critical thinking. Those who are not familiar with technology and how easy it is to make viral content are highly susceptible to being influenced by false information.”
This speaks to another very important issue of its own, which is simply that even tech-savvy cultures like ours generally fail to educate the public as to how they can more safely interact with the internet and the slew of booby traps hidden inside it. Psychoanalysts in fact are still unsure of the long-terms effects of internet usage on the human brain, and we may not have an answer to this question for decades to come.
Google Developing Censored Search for China
Just this month, Google attracted the country’s anger (albeit temporarily) after it was leaked that the web giant has been quietly developing a version of their search engine for China, in cooperation with Chinese censorship laws. Of course, back in 2010, Google swore that they would never do such a thing. As Michael Scott would say, “Well well well, how the turntables.”
But what does that mean for us? Our internet access is not heavily censored by the federal government, not yet anyway.
Tejas says Google shouldn’t just be worried about public opinion — the even bigger threat is the possibility of mutiny within the company. And indeed, many Google employees recently voiced their dissent to Google’s leadership as well as to the press. Are the (arguably) most talented developers in the world headed out the door?
“As long as Google continues to be the best search engine around, the public will continue to use it. What Google needs to worry about much more is employee turnover and the subsequent loss of talent, which could negatively affect its future to a serious degree. Google is where it is today due to the sheer brilliance of their workforce, who have been recruited under the ‘don’t be evil’ mantra, and now they’re suddenly uncertain of what their work really involves. This could certainly spell trouble for Google in the days to come, unless management takes steps to correct it.”
And this internal moral compass has proven to be more much more common among younger tech employees, potentially speaking to future widespread shifts in how we relate to tech, and what role we see it playing in our lives.
Ilyas is all for the employee protest, but he also points out that, from a business perspective, working with China is almost a no-brainer. It represents a huge market, and that ultimately means more money, period.
“There are pros and cons here. Google employees had strong beliefs and protested against doing this practice, so to me it shows that there’s at least some sense of morality and ethics within the organization. However, from the business perspective, it is completely understandable why Google wanted to reach out to China and comply with their laws. That said, they should think carefully about this and not view it solely from a business perspective. In order for any business to grow, there must be demand, and demand comes from consumers. But it should never be exclusively about profit. If you care about your brand, then you should have a good mindset about balance, ethics and morals. But on the other hand, if you only care about data and profit, then really, this does become a recipe for disaster sooner or later.”
This brings us back to the question of what a company actually stands for versus the ideals it announces to the public, often promising that their top priority is the consumer’s well-being. I think lots of us have questioned those statements for a while now, but Google’s 180 on this particular stance has only heightened concerns that consumers are actually being overlooked in favor of the almighty dollar.
Tesla Hammered By Expectations
Elon Musk’s future-car company Tesla has had a rough 2018. First there were the rumors that the company wouldn’t be able to meet their production quotas for the brand spanking new Model 3. Then there was the rogue employee who claimed that Tesla and Elon himself knew about an ongoing problem with defective batteries. Then, after getting an earful from stockholders and the media, Mr. Musk teased the world with the possibility that he might take Tesla private.
According to Ilyas, it seems like Tesla either didn’t have the time to test their methods or just willingly avoided that crucial step. The result? Well, we’ve seen it play out already.
“I admire what Tesla has created and their incredible ability to keep jobs right here in the U.S.. That’s a philosophy that I take to my own businesses, but I think Tesla added too many ingredients to the mix and did not really do a thorough investigation into how this would pan out. For example, they used a lot of automation, which should be helpful in theory, but in reality this caused a big delay in production. They didn’t know how much automation to use or how best to use it and in what areas it would help. With anything, you should do a trial run and see how things go before having implementing new features or methods across the board. I guess this was overlooked. Also, the ambitions were probably set too high. Sometimes companies do get ahead of themselves when things are going well, and this is a prime example.”
And things had indeed been going well for Tesla for quite a while. The Model S and Model X are fantastic cars, and they bring with them an immediate status boost. These aren’t just cars for the wealthy, these are cars brought back in a time machine, outrunning our primitive gas-guzzlers. Success of that caliber almost inevitably runs into conflict, as evidenced by absolutely any episode of VH1’s ‘Behind the Music.’
Viswanath has a similar too-big-for-their-britches view of the situation. He says Tesla is so far ahead of its time, ahead of our time, that it’s creating a lot of friction with reality itself, and that it could do well to learn from some other car companies, companies which may look boring and traditional in comparison.
“Tesla has redefined what a car can be, and in so many ways they’re ahead of everyone else. As a result of their lofty ambitions, we have the smoothest cars in the industry and so many supporting technologies have improved. Tesla has gotten to where it has by completely rejecting all conventional thinking, which carries with it the risk of ignoring age-old wisdom, like good operational processes. Companies like Toyota have spent the better part of a century working to optimize their production, and this is what Tesla needs to study and learn. What we’re witnessing is a company that has been up in the clouds, and now it’s facing a dose of reality.”
The fate of the Model 3 is yet to be seen. So far, it has received mixed reviews from car critics, though for the most part it pales only in comparison the the earlier, and more expensive, Tesla models.
Google Tracking User Location
A report by the Associated Press revealed that Google has been logging user data basically at all times, including location data, and they do this by making it somewhat unclear whether or not you’ve told them they can’t. Some industry analysts have claimed that this represents usage of dark patterns by Google, a phrase which refers to tech practices that are essentially meant to trick users into doing something that benefits the company, without the user’s full knowledge of the consequences of the action or even what exactly they’re authorizing.
Tejas is hesitant to go that far with his criticism. To him, it has more to do with a much bigger and ongoing problem: none of us really understand the importance of personal data and how to protect it. Even tech companies that have committed to acquiring user data don’t really know what to do with it.
“Well, first, I won’t say that Google intentionally went against the users’ preferences. Companies are built on the principle of collecting as much data as possible so that it can be analyzed later. And sometimes a company gets so big, like Google, that it has no idea that it is tracking location in a dozen different places. So this was very likely bad product design as opposed to blatant use of ‘dark patterns.’ That is not to say there aren’t evil companies out there, but my instinct says they’re exceptions, not the rule.Even very well educated computer scientists find it difficult to truly understand what kind of personal data a company has gotten hold of. Back when I was in college, I had this revolutionary idea where all your data is stored on an online drive that only you can access. I dismissed this idea back then, since the service provides no incentive to switch to this system from the rosy data-rich wonderland other tech companies were already building. Maybe with the help of some legislation this may actually be possible. Such a world would be a huge win for users, as it would mean their data no longer gets locked into silos, and we’ll be put in total control of all our data.”
And this could certainly be where data security is headed, but for now, most of us have floated personal information to any number of sites and companies, probably so many that we can’t even keep track of them all. And every one of those companies, without exception, is potentially vulnerable to cyber attacks.
Ilyas agrees, noting that the issue applies across the entire industry, and that this apparent struggle between individuals and companies over personal privacy will be hard-won, but that it’s ultimately one worth fighting.
“It certainly is a worldwide problem. The software or service should comply with users’ options and not the other way around. What would be the point of giving an option and then ignoring it? You lose the trust of the user who will not buy the same brand of phone or service the next time around. This is a case where there are other hidden agendas which are unclear to the users, and users must be informed. It’s only fair, especially when trust is added to the equation. Some people feel uneasy that they are being tracked or located in one way or another. It gives them a feeling of being violated, which should just never happen. More companies, not just Google, should be fair and honest about their intentions. It’s gone far enough in the direction of misleading the consumer. The public have the right to know these things, especially if they are spending money on the product in question.”
The difficulty in establishing these basic rights of the average person in relation to a tech giant is largely that the only means of coordinating an effort would have to be centered around pleas to the federal government for stricter regulation. Unfortunately, the Trump Administration has already come out, on multiple occasions, against corporate regulation in any context.
Now we’ll move on to the broader trends, the general direction of the tech sector in regards to security, how data is handled, and the possibility of cryptocurrencies becoming a more widely accepted form of legitimate currency.
First up …
Too Many Data Breaches to Mention
Several large companies have experienced major data breaches in 2018, including social media site Reddit, as well as a number of fast food chains across the country. No one knows exactly how many users could have been affected in these attacks, but the estimates are in the millions.
Why? Shouldn’t huge corporations have some of the most advanced digital security systems in the world?
Mr. Ilyas, tell us what you think.
“Companies are very quick to build websites or services for the consumer, but they never really test things properly or fully understand the ramifications of data breaches. Companies need to start taking security very seriously, from the moment they launch their product. Even simple things like firewalls or enabling security features provided by the other services they use can be crucial. Very simple things like these can go a very long way. The companies should continue to reinvest in their systems and security, not just getting things out there to make a quick buck. That quick buck leads to hundreds and thousand of dollars or more in fines and penalties for data breach. Our individual data is important and should be treated with great respect and sincerity.”
The dangers of making this data vulnerable is often swept under the rug in favor of rushing a product to market. And part of that is our fault. We want the newest versions of anything as quickly as possible, and have gotten accustomed to receiving updates with great regularity.
Mr. Viswanath says that these companies need to come to grips with the kind of power and expertise these hackers are bringing to the table. For one thing, working in large numbers helps them keep up attacks around the clock.
“Information security requires relentless focus on ensuring you’re covering all your bases all the time. There are no vacations or holidays in this line of work. For smaller companies, this is especially difficult. Large companies can grow complacent if management doesn’t understand their own security services. Even with everything done properly, perfect security is a myth. If you’re a high-value target like a cryptocurrency-trading platform, you’re always at war, facing an army of best-of-the-breed hackers, and you’ll need your own army to counter them. On top of that, we now empower people without formal computer science educations to build websites and mobile applications. The best hope they have against getting hacked is to be unimportant enough to not draw the attention of the prominent, powerful hackers.”
This lack of a barrier of entry can be especially troubling in the case of small business owners who may try to implement their own ordering system or even a contact form on their website, instead of making these features available through a third-party site, and one that is more likely to have a robust security system already in place.
Cryptocurrencies Experience Extreme Highs and Lows
Cryptocurrencies are no longer just for programmers and developers. Bitcoin’s value spike last fall drew the attention of the press as well as that of casual investors. The latter were generally just normal schmos who heard success stories of the lucky few who put in very little and cashed out high, extremely high, some of them making off with enough money to start a company, or buy a house.
Since then, Bitcoin has sunk and competing cryptocurrencies have been jostling amongst themselves for a sense of legitimacy.
So is it time to hop off the bandwagon or are cryptocurrencies in fact the future of how we buy things, both online and IRL?
Viswanath reminds us that the technology behind cryptocurrencies is so fascinating and open-ended that the fate of this purely digital economy doesn’t rest solely with big names like Bitcoin.
“The true innovation behind cryptocurrencies is the blockchain. It’s a system that maintains a peer-to-peer ledger, trusted by a large number of users, without needing a central authority like a government to manage it. Various cryptocurrencies are just different forms of this blockchain. The technology behind blockchain is so simple and elegant you don’t need a programming background to understand what it is. We’re currently in the very early stages of exploring this fascinating new technology, so it’s impossible to predict all the innovations it will drive. So while, right now, this appears to be a playground for specialists, nothing prevents non-experts from learning about it and being able to design new services by using it. There are many exciting companies that are working on making blockchain more accessible to the average person, and whoever gets it right could certainly change the way currency works.”
It’s an opportunity for disruption, and the excitement is all around the industry. In a way, we’re all learning about cryptocurrencies together, trying to nail down exactly how we want them to fit into each of our lives. Exciting? You bet. Terrifying? Also yes.
The Real-World Value of Data
As we discussed earlier, sites like Facebook and Google are grabbing user data left and right, often fencing this data to advertisers and the like. The potential monetary value of this data is huge. So, do we all have a case? I asked Mr. Ilyas whether we the users should be paid for the data being taken from us, often without our knowledge.
“I believe this should be the case because there are some services online that collect more information about us than what is actually needed. This is where data gets mishandled or security breaches occur, resulting in the loss of large amounts of data. It seems that companies want your data, your personal data, and then share it to give you better experiences. However, this is never really the case. If companies want your data then they should justify the reasons for having it. And if it is more than just your basic information, then yes, they should pay users for that data. I believe that formal contracts should be put in place between the tech company and the user that works in favor of users, not the tech company. Some companies do a great job of explaining the data they are collecting and why, but we need to see more of this from tech companies, following a standard practice they legally need to adhere to.”
And it’s in a company’s best interest to do just that. Sites that overreach, asking for too much of your info end up leaving a bad taste in your mouth, and as Ilyas said above, you’re less likely to return to a product or a brand after an experience like that.
The Bottom Line
The tech industry is in a moment of flux. On the whole, the technology itself advanced faster than we could handle, and while many of these advances ultimately benefit the user, we need to catch up with the potential consequences of these advances, and users need to have an increased sense of agency when it comes to their own privacy. No company is too big to fail, and there will always be room for new ideas, for young blood with more responsible, altruistic aims.