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Social media perils, dark web, AR museum guide and more: best of the week’s news

Image credit: Dreamstime

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.

Jonathan Wilson, online managing editor

Instagram worst social network for youth mental health, report finds

YouTube failing to protect kids’ data, consumer groups argue

A couple of stories about the perils of over-immersion in social media for young people, the accompanying photographs for each perfectly encapsulating the appeal of said platforms in question. The fact that Instagram has been rated as the worst social network for mental health surprised me, as it seems like one of the more innocuous options, being entirely image-driven. Perhaps that rating shouldn’t come as a surprise, though, as therein lies the problem for insecure teens (and post-teens). Instagram has - for many users - pared down one’s existence to its barest, most shallow essential: what you look like. If you have any self-doubt or longing for an alternative existence, seeing post after post of people apparently more attractive, more successful, happier and more popular than you is clearly not a recipe for good mental health. The fact that many of the images we see are fake - either because the person posting the images is pretending to be all those things when actually they’re even more desperate than the suggestible teens viewing their overblown ‘success’ story, or because the whole account is a fake identity, set up and spammed by Russian bots - doesn’t dissuade teens from obsessing over what they haven’t got. In fact, in the news this week was the story of a 20-year-old young woman from Caerphilly, a law student, who was so obsessed with living a ‘Kim Kardashian lifestyle’ (read: a grotesquely conspicuous over-consumption of material goods and an immature public display of overpriced ‘luxury’ possessions) that she lavishly overspent on trinkets and baubles, all funded by her (inept, as it turned out) cocaine-dealing boyfriend. Their fake lifestyle, bragged about on Instagram for the sole purpose of impressing total strangers, was their undoing. Now both of those foolish individuals are looking at long jail sentences. That, in a nutshell, is the kind of real-world repercussion that an obsession with Instagram is having on the mental health of some young people. Of course, using Instagram doesn’t automatically turn every teen into a deluded fantasist or hopelessly amateur career criminal, but some of the more vulnerable individuals amongst us definitely struggle to disassociate real from virtual life when they’re constantly comparing their life to that of others. Instagram, of course, is also owned by Facebook, as if we needed another reason to be concerned.

Meanwhile, YouTube - the teen’s TV channel of choice - stands accused of collecting data about children without the consent of their parents. Like the Facebook/Instagram parent/child company relationship, many people don’t click that YouTube is owned by Google and Google’s entire business model - as everyone knows - is predominantly built on and funded by advertising revenue. Data is Google’s lifeblood and, like the relentlessly bloodthirsty commercial vampire that it is, it needs more and more data with which to sustain its phantasmal existence. The data-blood of children, the data-blood of adults: Google doesn’t much care into which juicy neck it sinks its fangs, or which of its supernatural subsidiary spectres drains the data-blood on its behalf. Naturally, a YouTube spooksman emerged from the sweet embrace of the company crypt just long enough to declare that protecting children and families was a “top priority” at the shadowy video-sharing cabal, before vanishing with an eerie cackle in a puff of smoke.

Josh Loeb, associate editor

UK government to launch offensive against ‘dark web’ criminals

Why would any law-abiding person in the UK need to download Tor? Otherwise known as ‘The Onion Router’ as it’s a bit like an onion, it uses layers of encryption to enable a very high degree of online anonymity. It is the gateway to the appropriately labelled ‘dark web’.

Tor is a problem as it has helped paedophiles to exchange photos of themselves sexually abusing children. Serial sex offender Richard Huckle, who committed dozens of horrific attacks on children, was an avid dark web user until he was caught. That was one of only a small number of similar cases that have been pursued by the cops. Such investigations are incredibly expensive and resource-intensive. Huckle was only stopped after years and years of living out his appalling fantasises with impunity and documenting the abuse he inflicted with the help of Tor.

Islamist and far-right terrorists can relatively easily plot attacks online without fear of being detected thanks to Tor. Guns and drugs have also been dealt via the dark web, albeit with the caveat that these must be transferred physically from place to place as part of a transaction, meaning these crimes are somewhat easier to interdict.

The UK government, police and security services are all extremely frustrated about encryption generally – understandably so, as it significantly hampers their ability to fulfil their public protection remit. I accept that issues surrounding encryption aren’t always clear cut, particularly in countries with repressive regimes. I can also just about accept that in some very specific cases involving whistleblowers and journalists, use of Tor in the UK is probably justifiable.

But I fail to understand why any regular member of the public would feel they need to use it habitually, as at least one friend of mine seems to. This question is of sufficient interest to me that I took the liberty of contacting Joseph Carson, the man quoted in Jack Loughran’s article about the dark web.

Carson appears to have suggested in the past that it is a waste of money for the UK government to spend anything trying to tackle offenders who use online spaces to trade drugs, guns and child abuse snaps. When I spoke to him he appeared to suddenly change his mind about this, insisting that he is not against the law being enforced but thinks Tor technology itself is here to stay. That is a different point entirely and I wish he’d made that distinction clearer when first quoted by E&T.

I asked Carson why anyone who isn’t a criminal would download Tor in the UK. He muttered something about Islamophobia and said he was a Catholic from Northern Ireland, as if that explained everything. I found his reasoning hard to swallow.

So I ask again: why would any law-abiding person in the UK need to download Tor? Is it because they have concerns about personal privacy? If so, that would surely be vastly outweighed by the harms being done to society in general. Why should my desire for privacy override someone else’s right to life? Privacy is sometimes portrayed as being a left-wing or liberal cause, but the reality is that many of the most enthusiastic champions of it have a history of either traditional right-wing or libertarian political campaigning. Look no further than the privacy enthusiast Max Mosley, who backs hardcore regulation of the free press, or Matthew Elliott, the founder of Big Brother Watch and a key figure in Vote Leave. Such people tend, in my opinion, to dislike transparency and to be unhealthily suspicious of the state.

Mike Barton, one of my favourite UK police chiefs, recently said many vocal supporters of end-to-end encryption were “the same people who still want people to have automatic weapons in America. They say it’s a human rights issue.” There is a battle being fought between demands for privacy on the one hand and the need to ensure effective law enforcement on the other. Given the choice, I think I would come down on the side of the police almost always.

Tim Fryer, technology editor

Instagram worst social network for youth mental health, report finds

I chose this story as it didn’t have Facebook in the headline, but I could easily have chosen one of another dozen or so stories we have covered recently concerning social media, cyber security and related shenanigans.

At last people are waking up to the fact that ‘if they are not being asked to buy a product, they are the product’, when it comes to online services. It is not people but their digital twins that are the product of course, but none the less, stealing or selling a digital twin has a direct effect on the real person.

Personally, I prefer to think of these app developers as just that and not the leaders of technology that they are credited with being. They don’t really invent anything, they just come up with ideas of what they think people might want to do on their phones and get a reasonably clever person to code it up. Although I’m of an age when I am probably allowed to be grumpily dismissive of the whole sector, I am far from it. I happily do my banking, order taxis and all the rest from my phone – even communicate – but I am not obsessed by it. Well, unless there is a football match that I feel the need to have immediate updates from. The problem is that many of the younger generation, and increasingly older generations, are obsessed. And there is nothing in place to rein this obsession in.

So when we hear that Instagram can be detrimental for mental health, is there anyone who is surprised? When we are outraged at Facebook’s cavalier use of our data, do we vote with our feet and walk away from it?

We live in an age when mental illnesses are at last being recognised as serious, widespread and treatable. However, when we know that the narcissistic world of social media can prey on susceptible minds, what are we doing to exercise control? In reality, nothing. Good parenting and strict schooling (when it comes to using phones in school) will help, but unfortunately the capabilities of our devices are so fantastic that it will be difficult to wean ourselves off them. Maybe if they contained limits to gaming and social media time it would help, but realistically this would not happen even if it were possible. Sadly I think it is a curse of our age that will not go away.

Jack Loughran, news reporter

Virgin Galactic completes SpaceShipTwo test flight three years after fatal accident

Virgin Atlantic has had a lot of hype and years of development for something that will ultimately allow the super-rich to experience low gravity for about 20 seconds. Someone even died in the testing phase to make this thing happen. With tickets currently going for a cool $250,000, I’m assuming Virgin is hoping it will make its money back in spades, but how much demand for the project will there actually be? How many people can afford to chuck a quarter of a million at something that sounds like quite a cool, albeit short-lived experience? Virgin Galactic somehow even roped Malala Yousafzai into doing a promo video for them. I can’t see many of the impoverished women for which she is such a committed spokesperson taking a ride on the Galactic anytime soon. Still, Branson will always be there with his big ideas and billions of pounds to bankroll the project to completion regardless of eventual success.

Hilary Lamb, news reporter

Tutankhamen to guide visitors around Cairo’s Egyptian Museum via AR headset

This is the marvellous news that the long-dead boy king has been reanimated to show tourists his death paraphernalia. Visitors using the HoloLens AR headset will be able to (sort of but not really) explore the Pharaoh’s temple, in which Tutankhamen walks around and shows off his riches. It sounds remarkably silly, but it works. Visitors who used the headset spent five to seven minutes in front of exhibits, instead of the typical five to 15 seconds.

Rebecca Northfield, assistant features editor

Instagram worst social network for youth mental health, report finds

To be honest, social media can be damaging to your mental health, no matter your age. All social media users are guilty of posting some updates or photos as a way to show off how awesome their life is. It’s not meant to be callous or obnoxious, but everyone does it, so you have to make sure you keep up. Yet every time I see some sort of update from, let’s call her Karen, who tends to post about everything, like she’s been on her hollibobs, or went for a walk, or had milk with her tea, I imagine what she’s saying: “Look at me! I have a life! I can afford milk!” Shut up, Karen. Most of the time I’m impressed, or think “good for them,” but seriously, people like Karen need a slap. Also, when I see other people having an awesome life, I do get a bit sad sometimes that I’m not having that particular nice time. I wouldn’t want to go with that person, but still, I get sad. Everyone’s out to try and have a good life. I just don’t like the culture of having to update everyone else and show off.

Vitali Vitaliev, features editor

Tutankhamun to guide visitors around Cairo’s Egyptian Museum via AR headset

There’s no doubt: augmented reality technology is going to change the face of tourism forever. I first experienced its magic a couple of years ago in Paris while testing (then) new VR and AR apps developed by Dassault Systemes. One of them allowed me to fly freely above medieval Paris and then, while sitting on top of one of the turrets of the unfinished Notre Dame Cathedral (still under construction!) and beating my feet in the air, to watch medieval Parisians drinking, eating and going about their business below. Another AR app allowed me to jump a long queue and get inside that very Notre Dame Cathedral without leaving a cosy café across the road from it, from where I not only had a great view of the Cathedral but could also quietly and unhurriedly explore all the minuscule details of its interior from the screen on my laptop while sipping  cup of coffee.

And yet, having Tutankhamun himself as your museum guide, to my mind, stretches the AR possibilities a bit too far. It does sound a bit spooky to have a character who has been dead for over 3500 years, and whose mummified body you might have just seen under the bullet-proof glass dome in the same museum, coming back to life and speaking to you in English.

If the pharaoh-come-guide app takes off successfully (which I think it will), that would open some truly astounding possibilities, like, for example, Emperor Hadrian taking you for a ride along his own famous Wall and explaining its engineering and technical characteristics as you go. Or you could witness the 1793 beheading of Louis XVI with a running commentary by Dr Joseph Ignace Guillotin himself, who will most likely extol (in English with a heavy French accent?) the merits of his eponymous invention as the most humane tool of capital punishment.

Why not, when I recently heard animated gold bullion in the Bank of England Museum in London speak to visitors with the velvety voice of Stephen Fry? AR or VR had nothing do with the latter, which was but an ordinary ‘introductory video’ I hasten to add, so the success or failure of such unorthodox museum gimmicks is not really the question of technology, but rather that of good taste. Or lack of it.

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