Weekend Thoughts - 3.24.18

Image  by  pasja1000 , courtesy of  Creative Commons  licensing.

Image by pasja1000, courtesy of Creative Commons licensing.

Happy Saturday y'all! Below, I have rounded up some things for you to think about this weekend:

1. Undoubtedly the biggest news this week was a scandal involving Facebook. It turns out that the political consulting firm named Cambridge Analytica harvested private data from more than 50 million Facebook profiles—mostly without consent. That data was used by Donald Trump's presidential campaign in 2016 and has ties to Steve Bannon and GOP megadonor Robert Mercer (who recently donated $1 million to MAPS), which has raised ethical and potentially legal questions about the firm's business practices. The hashtag #deletefacebook became popular on Twitter shortly after this story broke, and users have been leaving Facebook left and right. If you are interested in securing your Facebook account, it would be worth your while to check out Wired's piece The Complete Guide to Facebook Privacy, which has practical steps you can take to ensure that your account is as private as possible. However, you could also consider deleting your account entirely if you prefer. Just remember that even if you delete your Facebook account, the company may still be able to collect your data through its other apps—WhatsApp and Instagram. And plenty of other companies and websites are capable of collecting your information, anyway. Remember that if you're not paying for a product with money, you're almost always paying for it with something else. In this case it happens to be potentially sensitive private data.

2. Similar to the plot of an episode from Black Mirror's third season, China is expected to start banning citizens with a low "social credit" score from buying plane or train tickets for up to a year. This change will go into effect in May, and the social credit system will rate people based on criminal history, financial misdeeds, and what they purchase, say, and do. Citizens who receive a low score will face a variety of penalties; this travel restriction being one of the first to be announced. Hopefully this practice won't spread to other countries around the world, but we'll just have to wait and see.

3. One of Uber's self-driving cars struck and killed a woman in Arizona this week, which was the first time a pedestrian has died in connection with an autonomous vehicle. It still isn't quite clear how this happened, but some reports are saying that the woman walked across the road directly in front of the car—outside of the designated crosswalk and from the shadows—and that neither the vehicle's sensors nor the backup human driver were able to detect that she was there because it was nighttime. In other words, it sounds like this may have been the pedestrian's fault, not flaky software. However, even if Uber is to blame, the motivation for our society to transition to using autonomous vehicles is that they will be demonstrably better than human drivers—not 100% perfect. In my opinion, if self-driving cars are able to reduce car crash deaths by a significant amount then they should be considered a success.

4. Police in my hometown (Raleigh, North Carolina) recently obtained search warrants in order to ask Google to hand over data the company has about devices that were close to crime scenes at the time that the crime occurred. This is a new type of request, because the police are not looking for data related to specific users. Rather, they are asking to have the information about every mobile device within close proximity to the crime scene during the time that the crime occurred. And before. And after, as well—just for good measure. The data would be anonymized before the police get their hands on it, but it's creepy to think that our devices are continuously leaving breadcrumbs that could be used by police (or people with nefarious intent) to learn more about where we have been and where we might be going to next.

That's all for this week's edition of Weekend Thoughts. Until next week, keep thinking wilder.