Facebook fail, research after Brexit, frisky badgers and more: best of the week's news
Image credit: PA
E&T staff pick the news from the past week that caught their eye and reflect on what these latest developments in engineering and technology mean to them. For the full story, just click on the headline.
Josh Loeb, associate editor
Hat tip to Observer journalist Carole Cadwalladr for pursuing the Cambridge Analytica/Facebook story with ferret-like determination. It’s unusual for data-protection scoops to hit the big time in the way this one has, because most people can’t be bothered to change their password from ‘Password123’, let alone read through Facebook’s terms of service to find out how ‘their data’ - an abstract concept to most - is being misused. It’s just too unreal and, frankly, too boring to pay proper attention… until, that is, this scoop.
“A story always comes from a person,” Cadwalladr said in an interview with Press Gazette this week. “The tech bros really hated this story right from the start and I got a lot of pushback because I’m a woman and I’m middle-aged and I’m really not very technical. But of course it’s the political and it’s the human and it’s the social and it’s the philosophical bits of technology that interest me.”
I agree. The story hits my buttons because it is immediately relatable to real people. It’s not indecipherable ‘written by techies for techies’ geekery. The political consultancy at the centre of the storm stands accused of weaponising data from the Facebook profiles of 50 million of that network’s users to specifically target tailored propaganda material at swing voters in a bid to sway the outcome of the 2016 US presidential election. Real world, real effects.
Separately, Cambridge Analytica (CA) is accused of engaging in good old-fashioned entrapment, deploying “beautiful Ukrainian girls” - in the words of its chief executive - as bait in far-flung jurisdictions so as to capture, in compromising positions, the enemies of CA’s clients. That’s what’s known as attacking someone’s Achilles heel or exploiting an all-too-human (but specifically heterosexual male) frailty. No fancy technology is involved, just Ukrainian girls. Apparently, there is no technology yet developed to defend against the appearance of a gaggle of young Eastern European women in the hotel room of a heterosexual male seeking high office in some obscure country. Yes, it really is that base and Darwinian.
CA denies wrongdoing, but the company has hardly been cooperative with the watchdog now investigating this murky affair. CA is preventing the UK’s Information Commissioner from starting her forensic inspections of its computers, meaning a warrant has had to be sought. That’s slowed things down. Delaying tactics surely - and who’s to say that CA is not now destroying evidence? Facebook has also disgraced itself. Its founder Mark Zuckerberg did not deign to comment until influential corporations threatened to pull ads from his social network.
There are so many questions arising from Cadwalladr’s revelations that it’s hard to know where to start. At root there is the fundamental need for detail about who told what to whom and when. Perhaps the biggest hope is that, amid all their hubris, big tech firms may yet be brought low because of a simple thing: the human factor. In short, the clever-clever techies appear to have been taking regular folk for fools. It is the ordinary people they must now be made to serve.
Tim Fryer, technology editor
This was one of my main concerns when the whole Brexit debate came about: would we become isolated from the European scientific community? Academics like to work with the best partners when it comes to collaborative research. Many such partners are in the UK and during the EU’s Framework Programme 7 period the UK received nearly €9bn in EU based funding. As much of this is based on a competitive basis, it demonstrates the value that the UK brings to the Europe in this field. You have to be in it to win, of course, and if we don’t pay into the pot then we won’t be in the competition.
Idealistically, we should not be paying into this central fund – we have voted to leave Europe and so we should not be buying into the bits we want back. We can cope on our own. The British public has decided. Trying to buy back into trade deals, standardisation et al will come at a cost that will undoubtedly be higher than their proportional value during our EU membership.
For me, though, the argument to keep the scientific community intact was one of the strongest when it came to determining whether or not we should remain in the Union. It is scientists and engineers who will tackle the world’s great challenges – for instance, tackling climate change, energy and food provision, poverty, clean water, health and education – and for some of our most enquiring minds to be working against rather than with each is to no one’s advantage. Admittedly a bit of competition - and scientists and academics are competitive - can speed progress, but a fully staffed European team will find plenty of competition from around the globe.
Clearly, one step the UK government can make is to ensure that research funding which would have been channelled through the EU finds its way to UK institutions and that the seven Research Councils are sufficiently funded and directed to make sure that science and technology innovation can thrive. As far as European collaborations are concerned, maybe the way forward is for a more creative relationship between British and European centres of excellence, like the UK Catapult Centres and the German Fraunhofers for example. I’m not suggesting we sneak in the back door and don’t pay our way, just that we keep communications and collaborations open – for the benefit not just of the British and European scientific communities, but for society as a whole.
Lorna Sharpe, sub-editor
I suppose it’s inevitable that churches are going to bring in contactless payment terminals. We are all used to moving money from our own bank to someone else’s without ever seeing it go - and the one-off visitor who would happily drop a pound coin into a collection plate might be more inclined to make it a fiver electronically. All the same, I rather like the process of putting cash into an envelope on a Sunday morning and then putting that envelope into the basket as it’s passed around during the service - it’s a conscious act of participation, or - as our Methodist friends say - “our offering is part of our worship”. Technology is all very well, but let’s not forget psychology on the way.
Despite my comments above, I’m all in favour of technology when it helps us do things better. Because water pipes are usually buried, leaks can go unnoticed for a very long time, and shockingly the European Commission has found that in some countries anything up to 60 per cent of clean drinking water may be lost before it ever reaches the tap. Now drone-mounted remote sensing cameras are being used to detect changes in soil moisture and vegetation along the lines of pipes. It isn’t straightforward, but the technique can help flag up suspect areas for investigation and reduce some of that waste.
Jack Loughran, news reporter
Facebook has had a pretty rough week with all of the revelations about Cambridge Analytica and the resulting #DeleteFacebook campaign. But in reality any suggestion that Facebook will become the next MySpace seems wilfully ignorant. Facebook has its claws deeply embedded in the internet and it is definitely here to stay for the foreseeable future.
It may have lost some of its ‘street cred’ with ‘the young’uns’ but the older generation are now flocking to it like us millennials did back in the mid-noughties. Zuckerberg himself admitted that the campaign has not resulted in a “meaningful” number of account deletions and I can see why. While I would love to delete my own Facebook account, in reality it would mean that I missed out on events and messages from people who are steadfastly wedded to the platform.
The decision to silo the messaging service from the news feed several years ago was also a very clever move as it kept users like me, who were fed up of seeing holiday pics of people we haven’t spoken to in 10 years, still using at least part of the platform. They could see that while many people would eventually be fatigued by some of the key aspects that drew people to Facebook in the first place, the messaging service would be something that would be very hard to drop purely because everyone is now contactable through it.
The major alternative, in the UK at least, is WhatsApp - which is also owned by Facebook. While they haven’t figured out how to monetise that platform as of yet, by buying and owning all of the competition (they also own Instagram), they have effectively shored up their position so that even if one platform fails, they will remain dominant in social media.
Dickon Ross, editor in chief
We can assure our readers that E&T won’t be covering the Royal wedding in as much depth as many other media, but there is one question we stumbled across while researching our special features on the fascinating subject of gold: what makes Meghan’s ring different to those received by most brides – apart from the fact that it weds her to the fifth in line to the throne? It’s all about the much more serious subject of gold’s secret history. Gold has been bought, sold, stolen, melted down, reformed and on and on over hundreds or thousands of years. Your wedding ring might contain gold from ancient Egypt, mined by slaves or even Nazi gold. The manufacturing industry is concerned, too. Josh Loeb finds why it’s so hard to achieve and looks at efforts to trace and audit newly mined gold.
Every culture, in every age, just about anywhere in the world, prizes the element. It’s been mined, worked, worn, loved, borrowed, fought over, buried, recycled, stolen and just about anything else you can think of for thousands of years. It’s even been eaten. E&T’s special gold coverage looks at many of these aspects and more. You can find links to all our gold articles, including my introduction, online.
Dominic Lenton, managing editor
Ominous news from the US, where retail giant Walmart has been testing six-foot-tall robots that move slowly around the aisles of its stores to check where there are gaps on the shelves that need restocking. Sounds like a reasonable idea, particularly as they’ll be able to spot incorrect prices and things that are in the wrong place, two particular bugbears of mine. How often do you get to the checkout and find one of your small basket of items comes up at a higher price than you were expecting, then have to wait while a member of staff goes to the other end of the store to check? Maybe it’s just me. Then again, a bigger bugbear is the number of huge trolleys you often find blocking your way that humans are using to pick and pack shopping for online customers. Do we really want to add shuffling androids that are going to be working alongside them, slowly checking every shelf? I actually enjoy supermarket shopping and spending a leisurely hour or two over it. I just don’t want my carefully planned route disrupted by a bunch of robots, however hard they’re working to make my retail experience more convenient. And that’s before we get the inevitable breakdowns that are going to add a whole new dimension to the tannoy appeal for “Clean up in aisle eight”.
Some things you don’t really notice until they’re gone or are about to go. I was in my childhood home in Kent last weekend and, driving along a road I must have travelled down hundreds of times, realised it gave a sweeping uninterrupted view across the River Medway estuary to Kingsnorth power station. Like so many huge structures, it had become so familiar that I’d subconsciously eliminated it from my field of vision. Realising it was probably the last time I’d see it standing made me much more aware of how it dominated the skyline. Not any more, though. Judging by social media, lots of locals were a little sad that a long-standing landmark was disappearing, but hopefully that was tempered by the knowledge that Kingsnorth was responsible for huge amounts of pollution before it was decommissioned and that there’s really no way in which a chimney this big can be put to any useful new purpose. Comparing the before and after photographs, I’d challenge anyone to argue that the demolition hasn’t made a huge improvement to the view.
Rebecca Northfield, assistant features editor
Go for it, frisky badgers. Some amorous Suffolk badgers have forced a road to close due to their tunnelling. The road is sinking because the fluffy mammals’ instinct is to make their setts nice and cosy for their little ones. Basically, badger bonking has caused Suffolk Highways to get in touch with Natural England, to ensure they’re taking the right steps before repair work is performed in the summer time. Having this road closed means badgers can enjoy rumpy pumpy to their heart’s content and not be disturbed or put in danger by us pesky humans. I’ve always found badgers really endearing, so hearing that people are taking great care to make sure they can breed in peace is lovely. What do you reckon the sign at the site says? ‘EMERGENCY ROAD CLOSURE: RANDY BADGERS AHEAD!’
Vitali Vitaliev, features editor
Seeing the headline of this news story, I took a couple of salmon steaks (I love salmon!) out of the freezer and – “inspired by techniques used in the automotive industry” - rushed to my new second-hand Toyota Yaris, switched on the engine and tried to smoke the steaks by putting them on to the exhaust pipe (please don’t try this at home). After holding them there for about five minutes the result was probably healthy, but certainly not at all yummy, for it smelled and tasted of petrol and exhaust fumes. This little experiment was still useful, for from now on I will always read the story in full before undertaking any related action. The importance of small print.
I remember visiting the church that is officially Europe’s highest – the basilica of St Anna on top of a mountain in the Italian Alpine valley of Livigno. Inside, under the altar and along the walls, were rows of electric candles, which would light up only after a coin of any country and denomination was dropped into a special slot underneath. I remember then feeling irate at such obvious technology-assisted manifestation of pious commercialism (or was it commercialised piety?), so widespread in Italy, where one could often see crucifixes above supermarket cash registers and tills. Call me naïve, but contactless donation appears even more cynical. It makes the whole institution - in this case, the Church which by definition should be about compassion and communication, not about new ‘payment solutions’ - feel aloof, calculating and, yes, utterly ‘contactless’, too.
Jonathan Wilson, online managing editor
It almost doesn’t matter what this story is about: the combination of killer headline and hilarious accompanying image is solid gold. The fact that this story is actually about the monochrome mammals causing subsidence of a Suffolk road due to their building of setts in which to ‘Netflix and chill’ inna badger stylee makes this my pick of the year so far, never mind this week.
Having spent two days this week at a data analytics conference, hearing all about the behind-the-scenes back-end data gathering, scraping and generally crunching that major global companies deeply engage with in order to ostensibly ‘improve their services’ - ie to more effectively and efficiently sell us even more services and stuff, having peered into our virtual souls and learned precisely how to target our desires and weaknesses like some sort of unrelenting digital Eye of Sauron - I have a new understanding of exactly how important Big Data is going to be in the imminent future. There’s no hiding from it: Big Data is here now and it will affect each and every one of us. Just staying off Facebook is not going to be enough to keep you ‘free’. Practically every company, every business, every public-facing government or local council service you interact with is going to collect some data from you and that data is going to be fed into a database, which in turn is going to inform a machine-learning algorithm, which ultimately will draw certain conclusions and/or make certain predictions based on the information it has been fed. Data has a tremendous financial value these days and this will only increase dramatically in the future. To many people, this may sound like a horrifying prospect, but it needn’t be. What you should do, if you are at all concerned, is take a more responsible attitude towards your own data: what you share, who you share it with and what the company in question promises to do with it. Everyone wants to blame Facebook this week, but millions of people willingly handed over reams of personal data without giving the potential negative ramifications a second thought. The same is true of Google’s services: everything you do involving any Google service is being logged, analysed and monetised. If you’re comfortable with that premise - that you concede all rights to privacy by, say, using Gmail in return for getting a free, cool email address - carry on. If it makes you at all uncomfortable, you should investigate your options. You do, thankfully, still have some.