The apostrophe apocalypse

It was immediately tempting to view the absence of apostrophes on new street signs in a North Yorkshire town as a real-life example of computer systems crushing human culture. Then, near-simultaneously, Apple launched an ad (which it now regrets) showing just that process, raising the temptation even more. But no.

In fact, as Brandon Vigliarolo writes at The Register, not only is the removal of apostrophes in place names not new in the UK, but it also long precedes computers. The US Board on Geographic Names declared apostrophes unwanted as long ago as its founding year, 1890, apparently to avoid implying possession. This decision by the BGN, which has only made five exceptions in its history, was later embedded in the US’s Geographic Names Information System and British Standard 7666. When computers arrived to power databases, the practice carried on.

All that said, it’s my experience that the older British generation are more resentful of American-derived changes to their traditional language than they are of computer-driven alterations (one such neighbor complains about “sidewalk”). So campaigns to reinstate missing apostrophes seem likely to persist.

Blaming computers seemed like a coherent narrative, not least because new technology often disrupts social customs. Railways brought standardized time, and the desire to simplify things for computers led to the 2023 decision to eliminate leap seconds in 2035 (after 18 years of debate). Instead, the apostrophe apocalypse is a more ordinary story of central administrators preferencing their own convenience over local culture and custom (which may itself be contested). It still seems like people should be allowed to keep their street signs. I mean.

***

Of course language changes over time and usage. The character limits imposed by texting (and therefore exTwitter and other microblogging sites) brought us many abbreviations that are now commonplace in daily life, just as long before that the telegraph’s cost per word spawned its own compressed dialect. A new example popped up recently in Charles Arthur’s The Overspill.

Arthur highlighted an article at Level Up Coding/Medium by Fareed Khan that offered ways to distinguish between human-written and machine-generated text. It turns out that chatbots use distinctively different words than we do. Khan was able to generate a list of about 100 words that may indicate a chatbot has been at work, as well as a web app that can check a block of text or a file in one go. The word “delve” was at the top.

I had missed Khan’s source material, an earlier claim by YCombinator founder Paul Graham that “delve” used in an email pitch is a clear sign of ChatGPT-generated text. At the Guardian, Alex Hern suggests that an underlying cause may be the fact that much of the labeling necessary to train the large language models that power chatbots is carried out by badly paid people in the global South – including Africa, where “delve” is more commonly used than in Western countries.

At the Premium Times, Chiamaka Okafor argues that therefore identifying “delve” as a marker of “robotic text” penalizes African writers. “We are losing sight of an opportunity to rewrite the AI narratives that exclude people in the global majority,” she writes. A reminder: these chatbots are just math and statistics predicting the next word. They will always regress to the mean. And now they’ll penalize us for being different.

***

Just two years ago, researchers fretted that we were running out of “high-quality text” on which to train large language models. We’ve been seeing the results since, as sites hosting user-generated content strike deals with LLM owners, leading to contentious disputes between those owners and sites’ users, who feel betrayed and ripped off. Reddit began by charging for access to its API, then made a deal with Google to use its database of posts for training for an injection of cash that enabled it to go public. Yesterday, Reddit announced a similar deal with OpenAI – and the stock went up. In reality, these deals are asset-stripping a site that has consistently lost money for 18 years.

The latest site to sell its users’ content is the technical site Stack Overflow, Developers who offer mutual aid by answering each other’s questions are exactly the user base you would expect to be most offended by the news that the site’s owner, the investment group Prosus, which bought the site in 2021 for $1.8 billion, has made a deal giving OpenAI access to all its content. And so it proved: developers promptly began altering or removing their posts to protest the deal. Shortly thereafter, the site’s moderators began restoring those posts and suspending the users.

There’s no way this ends well; Internet history’s many such stories never have. The site’s original owners, who created the culture, are gone. The new ones don’t care what users *believe* their rights are if the terms and conditions grant an irrevocable license to everything they post. Inertia makes it hard to build a replacement; alienation thins out the old site. As someone posted to Twitter a few years ago, “On the Internet your home always leaves you.”

‘Twas ever thus. And so it will be until people stop taking the bait in the first place.

Illustrations: Apple’s canceled “crusher” ad.

Wendy M. Grossman is the 2013 winner of the Enigma Award. Her Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of earlier columns in this series. She is a contributing editor for the Plutopia News Network podcast. Follow on Mastodon.

Review: More Than a Glitch

More Than a Glitch: Confronting Race, Gender, and Ability Bias in Tech
By Meredith Broussard
MIT Press
ISBN: 978-0-262-04765-4

At the beginning of the 1985 movie Brazil, a family’s life is ruined when a fly gets stuck in a typewriter key so that the wrong man is carted away to prison. It’s a visual play on “computer bug”, so named after a moth got trapped in a computer at Harvard.

Based on her recent book More Than a Glitch, NYU associate professor Meredith Broussard, would call both the fly and the moth a “glitch”. In the movie, the error is catastrophic for Buttle-not-Tuttle and his family, but it’s a single, ephemeral mistake that can be prevented with insecticide and cross-checking. A “bug” is more complex and more significant: it’s “substantial”, “a more serious matter that makes software fail”. It “deserves attention”. It’s the difference between the lone rotten apple in a bushel full of good ones and a barrel that causes all the apples put it in to rot.

This distinction is Broussard’s prelude to her fundamental argument that the lack of fairness in computer systems is persistent, endemic, and structural. In the book, she examines numerous computer systems that are already out in the world causing trouble. After explaining the fundamentals of machine bias, she goes through a variety of sectors and applications to examine failures of fairness in each one. In education, proctoring software penalizes darker-skinned students by failing to identify them accurately, and algorithms used to estimate scores on tests canceled during the pandemic penalized exceptional students from unexpected backgrounds. In health, long-practiced “race correction” that derives from slavery preferences white patients for everything from painkillers to kidney transplants – and gets is embedded into new computer systems built to replicate existing practice. If computer developers don’t understand the way in which the world is prejudiced – and they don’t – how can the systems they create be more neutral than the precursors they replace? Broussard delves inside each system to show why, not just how, it doesn’t work as intended.

In other cases Broussard highlights, part of the problem is rigid inflexibility in back-end systems that need to exchange data. There’s little benefit in having 58 gender options if the underlying database only supports two choices. At a doctor’s office, Broussard is told she can only check one box for race; she prefer to check both “black” and “white” because in medical settings it may affect her treatment. The digital world remains only partially accessible. And, as Broussard discovered when she was diagnosed with breast cancer, even supposed AI successes like reading radiology films are overhyped. This section calls back to her 2018 book, Artificial Unintelligence, which did a good job of both explaining how machine learning and “AI” computer systems work and why a lot of the things the industry says work…really don’t (see also self-driving cars).

Broussard concludes by advocating for public interest technology and a rethink. New technology imitates the world it comes from; computers “predict the status quo”. Making change requires engineering technology so that it performs differently. It’s a tall order, and Broussard knows that. But wasn’t that the whole promise the technology founder made? That they could change the world to empower the rest of us?

Intents and purposes

One of the basic principles of data protection law is the requirement for consent for change of use. For example, giving a site a mobile number for two-factor authentication doesn’t entitle it to sell that number to a telemarketing company. Providing a home address to enable package delivery doesn’t also invite ads trying to manipulate my vote in an election. Governments, too, are subject to data protection law, but they have more scope than most to carve out – or simply take – exceptions for themselves.

And so to the UK’s Department of Work and Pensions, whose mission in life is supposed to be to provide people with the financial support the state has promised them, whether that’s welfare or state pensions – overall, about 23 million people. Schools Week reports that Jen Persson at Defend Digital Me has discovered that the DWP has a secret deal with the Department of Education granting it access to the National Pupil Database for the purpose of finding benefit fraud.

“Who knows their family’s personal confidential records are in the haystack used to find the fraudulent needle?” Persson asks.

Every part of this is a mess. First of all, it turns schools into hostile environments for those already at greatest risk. Second, as we saw as long ago as 2010, parents and children have little choice about the data schools collect and keep. The breadth and depth of this data has been expanding long enough to burn out the UK’s first campaigner on children’s privacy rights (Terri Dowty, with Action for Rights of Children), and keep the second (Persson) fully occupied for some years now.

Persson told Schools Week that more than 15 million of the people on the NPD have long since left school. That sounds right; the database was created in 2002, five years into Tony Blair’s database-loving Labour government. In the 2009 report Database State, written under the aegis of the Foundation for Information Policy Research, Ross Anderson, Terri Dowty, Philip Inglesant, William Heath, and Angela Sasse surveyed 46 government databases. They found that a quarter of them were “almost certainly illegal” under human rights or data protection law, and noted that Britain was increasingly centralizing all such data.

“The emphasis on data capture, form-filling, mechanical assessment and profiling damages professional responsibility and alienates the citizen from the state. Over two-thirds of the population no longer trust the government with their personal data,” they wrote then.

The report was published while Blair’s government was trying to implement the ID card enshrined in the 2006 ID Cards Act. This latest in a long string of such proposals following the withdrawal of ID cards after the end of World War II was ultimately squelched when David Cameron’s coalition government took office in 2010. The act was repealed in 2011.

These bits of history are relevant for three reasons: 1) there is no reason to believe that the Labour government everyone expects will win office in the next nine months will be any less keen on dataveillance; 2) tackling benefit fraud was what they claimed they wanted the ID card for in 2006; 3) you really don’t need an ID *card* if you have biometrics and ubiquitous, permanent access online to a comprehensive government database. This was obvious even in 2006, and now we’re seeing it in action.

Dowty often warned that children were used as experimental subjects on which British governments sharpened the policies they intended to expand to the rest of the population. And so it is proving: the use of education data to look for benefit fraud is the opening act for the provision in the Data Protection and Digital Information bill empowering the DWP to demand account data from banks and other financial institutions, again to reduce benefit fraud.

The current government writes, “The new proposals would allow regular checks to be carried out on the bank accounts held by benefit claimants to spot increases in their savings which push them over the benefit eligibility threshold, or when people send [sic] more time overseas than the benefit rules allow for.” The Information Commissioner’s Office has called the measure disproportionate, and says it does not provide sufficient safeguards.

Big Brother Watch, which is campaigning against this proposal, argues that it reverses the fundamental principle of the presumption of innocence. All pervasive “monitoring” does that; you are continuously a suspect except at the specific points where you’ve been checked and found innocent. .

In a commercial context, we’d call the coercion implicit in repurposing data given under compulsion bait and switch. We’d also bear in mind the Guardian’s recent expose: the DWP has been demanding back huge sums of money from carers who’ve made minor mistakes in reporting their income. As BBW also wrote, even a tiny false positive rate will give the DWP hundreds of thousands of innocent people to harass.

Thirty years ago, when I was first learning about the dangers of rampant data collection, it occurred to me that the only way you can ensure that data can’t be leaked, exploited, or used maliciously is to not collect in the first place. This isn’t a choice anyone can make now. But there are alternatives that reverse the trend toward centralization that Anderson et. al identified in 2009.

Illustrations: Haystacks at a Moldovan village (via Wikimedia).

Wendy M. Grossman is the 2013 winner of the Enigma Award. Her Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of earlier columns in this series. She is a contributing editor for the Plutopia News Network podcast. Follow on Mastodon.

Review: A History of Fake Things on the Internet

A History of Fakes on the Internet
By Walter J. Scheirer
Stanford University Press
ISBN 2023017876

One of Agatha Christie’s richest sources of plots was the uncertainty of identity in England’s post-war social disruption. Before then, she tells us, anyone arriving to take up residence in a village brought a letter of introduction; afterwards, old-time residents had to take newcomers at their own valuation. Had she lived into the 21st century, the arriving Internet would have given her whole new levels of uncertainty to play with.

In his recent book A History of Fake Things on the Internet, University of Notre Dame professor Walter J. Scheirer describes creating and detecting online fakes as an ongoing arms race. Where many people project doomishly that we will soon lose the ability to distinguish fakery from reality, Scheirer is more optimistic. “We’ve had functional policies in the past; there is no good reason we can’t have them again,” he concludes, adding that to make this happen we need a better understanding of the media that support the fakes.

I have a lot of sympathy with this view; as I wrote recently, things that fool people when a medium is new are instantly recognizable as fake once they become experienced. We adapt. No one now would be fooled by the images that looked real in the early days of photography. Our perceptions become more sophisticated, and we learn to examine context. Early fakes often work simply because we don’t know yet that such fakes are possible. Once we do know, we exercise much greater caution before believing. Teens who’ve grown up applying filters to the photos and videos they upload to Instagram and TikTok, see images very differently than those of us who grew up with TV and film.

Schierer begins his story with the hacker counterculture that saw computers as a source of subversive opportunities. His own research into media forensics began with Photoshop. At the time, many, especially in the military, worried that nation-states would fake content in order to deceive and manipulate. What they found, in much greater volume, was memes and what Schierer calls “participatory fakery” – that is, the cultural outpouring of fakes for entertainment and self-expression, most of it harmless. Further chapters consider cheat codes in games, the slow conversion of hackers into security practitioners, adversarial algorithms and media forensics, shock-content sites, and generative AI.

Through it all, Schierer remains optimistic that the world we’re moving into “looks pretty good”. Yes, we are discovering hundreds of scientific papers with faked data, faked results, or faked images, but we also have new analysis tools to use to detect them and Retraction Watch to catalogue them. The same new tools that empower malicious people enable many more positive uses for storytelling, collaboration, and communication. Perhaps forgetting that the computer industry relentlessly ignores its own history, he writes that we should learn from the past and react to the present.

The mention of scientific papers raises an issue Schierer seems not to worry about: waste. Every retracted paper represents lost resources – public funding, scientists’ time and effort, and the same multiplied into the future for anyone who attempts to build on that paper. Figuring out how to automate reliable detection of chatbot-generated text does nothing to lessen the vast energy, water, and human resources that go into building and maintaining all those data centers and training models (see also filtering spam). Like Scheirer, I’m largely optimistic about our ability to adapt to a more slippery virtual reality. But the amount of wasted resources is depressing and, given climate change, dangerous.

Deja news

At the first event organized by the University of West London group Women Into Cybersecurity, a questioner asked how the debates around the Internet have changed since I wrote the original 1997 book net.wars..

Not much, I said. Some chapters have dated, but the main topics are constants: censorship, freedom of speech, child safety, copyright, access to information, digital divide, privacy, hacking, cybersecurity, and always, always, *always* access to encryption. Around 2010, there was a major change when the technology platforms became big enough to protect their users and business models by opposing government intrusion. That year Google launched the first version of its annual transparency report, for example. More recently, there’s been another shift: these companies have engorged to the point where they need not care much about their users or fear regulatory fines – the stage Ed Zitron calls the rot economy and Cory Doctorow dubs enshittification.

This is the landscape against which we’re gearing up for (yet) another round of recursion. April 25 saw the passage of amendments to the UK’s Investigatory Powers Act (2016). These are particularly charmless, as they expand the circumstances under which law enforcement can demand access to Internet Connection Records, allow the government to require “exceptional lawful access” (read: backdoored encryption) and require technology companies to get permission before issuing security updates. As Mark Nottingham blogs, no one should have this much power. In any event, the amendments reanimate bulk data surveillance and backdoored encryption.

Also winding through Parliament is the Data Protection and Digital Information bill. The IPA amendments threaten national security by demanding the power to weaken protective measures; the data bill threatens to undermine the adequacy decision under which the UK’s data protection law is deemed to meet the requirements of the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation. Experts have already put that adequacy at risk. If this government proceeds, as it gives every indication of doing, the next, presumably Labour, government may find itself awash in an economic catastrophe as British businesses become persona-non-data to their European counterparts.

The Open Rights Group warns that the data bill makes it easier for government, private companies, and political organizations to exploit our personal data while weakening subject access rights, accountability, and other safeguards. ORG is particularly concerned about the impact on elections, as the bill expands the range of actors who are allowed to process personal data revealing political opinions on a new “democratic engagement activities” basis.

If that weren’t enough, another amendment also gives the Department of Work and Pensions the power to monitor all bank accounts that receive payments, including the state pension – to reduce overpayments and other types of fraud, of course. And any bank account connected to those accounts, such as landlords, carers, parents, and partners. At Computer Weekly, Bill Goodwin suggests that the upshot could be to deter landlords from renting to anyone receiving state benefits or entitlements. The idea is that banks will use criteria we can’t access to flag up accounts for the DWP to inspect more closely, and over the mass of 20 million accounts there will be plenty of mistakes to go around. Safe prediction: there will be horror stories of people denied benefits without warning.

And in the EU… Techcrunch reports that the European Commission (always more surveillance-happy and less human rights-friendly than the European Parliament) is still pursuing its proposal to require messaging platforms to scan private communications for child sexual abuse material. Let’s do the math of truly large numbers: billions of messages, even a teeny-tiny percentage of inaccuracy, literally millions of false positives! On Thursday, a group of scientists and researchers sent an open letter pointing out exactly this. Automated detection technologies perform poorly, innocent images may occur in clusters (as when a parent sends photos to a doctor), and such a scheme requires weakening encryption, and in any case, better to focus on eliminating child abuse (taking CSAM along with it).

Finally, age verification, which has been pending in the UK ever since at least 2016, is becoming a worldwide obsession. At least eight US states and the EU have laws mandating age checks, and the Age Verification Providers Association is pushing to make the Internet “age-aware persistently”. Last month, the BSI convened a global summit to kick off the work of developing a worldwide standard. These moves are the latest push against online privacy; age checks will be applied to *everyone*, and while they could be designed to respect privacy and anonymity, the most likely is that they won’t be. In 2022, the French data protection regulator, CNIL, found that current age verification methods are both intrusive and easily circumvented. In the US, Casey Newton is watching a Texas case about access to online pornography and age verification that threatens to challenge First Amendment precedent in the Supreme Court.

Because the debates are so familiar – the arguments rarely change – it’s easy to overlook how profoundly all this could change the Internet. An age-aware Internet where all web use is identified and encrypted messaging services have shut down rather than compromise their users and every action is suspicious until judged harmless…those are the stakes.

Illustrations: Angel sensibly smashes the ring that makes vampires impervious (in Angel, “In the Dark” (S01e03).

Wendy M. Grossman is the 2013 winner of the Enigma Award. Her Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of earlier columns in this series. She is a contributing editor for the Plutopia News Network podcast. Follow on Mastodon

Selective enforcement

This week, as a rider to the 21st Century Peace Through Strength Act, which provides funding for defense in Ukraine, Israel, and Taiwan, the US Congress passed provisions for banning the distribution of TikTok if owner ByteDance has not divested it within 270 days. President Joe Biden signed it into law on Wednesday, and, as Mike Masnick says at Techdirt, ByteDance’s lawsuit is imminently expected, largely on First Amendment grounds. ACLU agrees. Similar arguments won when ByteDance challenged a 2023 Montana law.

For context: Pew Research says TikTok is the fifth-most popular social media service in the US. An estimated 150 million Americans – and 62% of 18-29-year-olds – use it.

The ban may not be a slam-dunk to fail in court. US law, including the constitution, includes many restrictions on foreign influence, from requiring registration for those acting as agents to requiring presidents to have been born US citizens. Until 2017, foreigners were barred from owning US broadcast networks.

So it seems to this non-lawyer as though a lot hinges on how the court defines TikTok and what precedents apply. This is the kind of debate that goes back to the dawn of the Internet: is a privately-owned service built of user-generated content more like a town square, a broadcaster, a publisher, or a local pub? “Broadcast”, whether over the air or via cable, implies being assigned a channel on a limited resource; this clearly doesn’t apply to apps and services carried over the presumably-infinite Internet. Publishing implies editorial control, which social media lacks. A local pub might be closest: privately owned, it’s where people go to connect with each other. “Congress may make no law…abridging the freedom of speech”…but does that cover denying access to one “place” where speech takes place when there are many other options?

TikTok is already banned in Pakistan, Nepal, and Afghanistan, and also India, where it is one of 500 apps that have been banned since 2020. ByteDance will argue that the ban hurts US creators who use TikTok to build businesses. But as NPR reports, in India YouTube and Instagram rolled out short video features to fill the gap for hyperlocal content that the loss of TikTok opened up, and four years on creators have adapted to other outlets.

It will be more interesting if ByteDance claims the company itself has free speech rights. In a country where commercial companies and other organizations are deemed to have “free speech” rights entitling them to donate as much money as they want to political causes (as per the Supreme Court’s ruling in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission), that might make a reasonable argument.

On the other hand, there is no question that this legislation is full of double standards. If another country sought to ban any of the US-based social media, American outrage would be deafening. If the issue is protecting the privacy of Americans against rampant data collection, then, as Free Press argues, pass a privacy law that will protect Americans from *every* service, not just this one. The claim that the ban is to protect national security is weakened by the fact that the Chinese government, like apparently everyone else, can buy data on US citizens even if it’s blocked from collecting it directly from ByteDance.

Similarly, if the issue is the belief that social media inevitably causes harm to teenagers, as author and NYU professor Jonathan Haidt insists in his new book, then again, why only pick on TikTok? Experts who have really studied this terrain, such as Danah Boyd and others, insist that Haidt is oversimplifying and pushing parents to deny their children access to technologies whose influence is largely positive. I’m inclined to agree; between growing economic hardship, expanding wars, and increasing climate disasters young people have more important things to be anxious about than social media. In any case, where’s the evidence that TikTok is a bigger source of harm than any other social medium?

Among digital rights activists, the most purely emotional argument against the TikTok ban revolves around the original idea of the Internet as an open network. Banning access to a service in one country (especially the country that did the most to promote the Internet as a vector for free speech and democratic values) is, in this view, a dangerous step toward the government control John Perry Barlow famously rejected in 1996. And yet, to increasing indifference, no-go signs are all over the Internet. *Six* years after GDPR came into force, Europeans are still blocked from many US media sites that can’t be bothered to comply with it. Many other media links don’t work because of copyright restrictions, and on and on.

The final double standard is this: a big element in the TikTok ban is the fear that the Chinese government, via its control over companies hosted there, will have access to intimate personal information about Americans. Yet for more than 20 years this has been the reality for non-Americans using US technology services outside the US: their data is subject to NSA surveillance. This, and the lack of redress for non-Americans, is what Max Schrems’ legal cases have been about. Do as we say, not as we do?

Illustrations: TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew, at the European Commission in 2024 (by Lukasz Kobus at Wikimedia).

Wendy M. Grossman is the 2013 winner of the Enigma Award. Her Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of earlier columns in this series. She is a contributing editor for the Plutopia News Network podcast. Follow on Mastodon.

Irrevocable

One of the biggest advances in computing in my lifetime is the “Undo” button. Younger people will have no idea of this, but at one time if you accidentally deleted the piece you’d spent hours typing into your computer, it was just…gone forever.

This week, UK media reported on what seems to be an unusual but not unique case: a solicitor accidentally opened the wrong client’s divorce case on her computer screen and went on to apply for a final decree for the couple concerned. The court granted the divorce in a standardly automated 21 minutes, even though the specified couple had not yet agreed on a financial settlement. Despite acknowledging the error, the court now refuses to overturn the decree. UK lawyers of my acquaintance say that this obvious unfairness may be because granting the final decree sets in motion other processes that are difficult to reverse.

That triggers a memory of the time I accidentally clicked on “cancel” instead of “check in” on a flight reservation, and casually, routinely, clicked again to confirm. I then watched in horror as the airline website canceled the flight. The undo button in this case was to phone customer service. Minutes later, they reinstated the reservation and thereafter I checked in without incident. Undone!

Until the next day, when I arrived in the US and my name wasn’t on the manifest. The one time I couldn’t find my boarding pass… After a not-long wait that seeemd endless in a secondary holding area (which I used to text people to tell them where I was just in case) I explained the rogue cancellation and was let go. Whew! (And yes, I know: citizen, white, female privilege.)

“Ease of use” should include making it hard to make irrecoverable mistakes. And maybe a grace period before automated processes cascade.

The Guardian quotes family court division head Sir Andrew McFarlane explaining that the solicitor’s error was not easy to make: “Like many similar online processes, an operator may only get to the final screen where the final click of the mouse is made after traveling through a series of earlier screens,” Huh? If you think you have opened the right case, then those are the screens you would expect to see. Why wouldn’t you go ahead?

At the Law Gazette, John Hyde reports that the well-known law firm in question, Vardag, is backing the young lawyer who made the error, describing it as a “slip up with the drop down menu” on “the new divorce portal”, noting that similar errors had happened “a few times” and felt like a design error.

“Design errors” can do a lot of damage. Take paying a business or person via online banking. In the UK, until recently, you entered account name, number, and sort code, and confirmed to send. If you made a mistake, tough. If the account information was sent by a scammer instead of the recipient you thought, tough. It was only in 2020 that most banks began participating in “Confirmation of payee”, which verifies the account with the receiving bank and checks with you that the name is correct. In 2020, Which? estimated that confirming payee could have saved £320 million in bank transfer fraud since 2017.

Similarly, while many more important factors caused the Horizon scandal, software design played its part: subpostmasters could not review past transactions as they could on paper.

Many computerized processes are blocked unless precursor requirements have been completed and checked for compliance. A legally binding system seems like it similarly ought to incorporate checks to ensure that all necessary steps had been completed.

Arguably, software design is failing users. In ecommerce, user-hostile software design is deceptive, or “dark”, patterns, user interfaces built deliberately to manipulate users into buying/spending more than they intended. The clutter that makes Amazon unusable directs shoppers to its house brands.

User interface design is where I began writing about computers circa 1990. Windows 3 was new, and the industry was just discovering that continued growth depended on reaching past those who *liked* software to be difficult. I vividly recall being told by a usability person at then-market leader Lotus about the first time her company’s programmers watched ordinary people using their software. First one fails to complete task. “Well, that’s a stupid person.” Second one. “Well, that’s a stupid person, too.” Third one. “Where do you find these people?” But after watching a couple more, they got it.

In the law firm’s case, the designers likely said, “This system is just for expert users”. True, but what they’re expert in is law, not software. Hopefully the software will now be redesigned to reflect the rule that it should be as easy as possible to do the work but as hard as possible to make unrecoverable mistakes (the tolerance principle). It’s a simple idea that goes all the way back to Donald Norman’s classic 1988. book The Design of Everyday Things.

At a guess, if today’s “AI” automation systems become part of standard office work making mistakes will become easier rather than harder, partly because it makes systems more inscrutable. In addition, the systems being digitized are increasingly complex with more significant consequences reaching deep into people’s lives, and intended to serve the commissioning corporations’ short-term desires. It will not be paranoid to believe the world is stacked against us.

Illustrations: Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell as temporarily divorced newspapermen in His Girl Friday (1944).

Wendy M. Grossman is the 2013 winner of the Enigma Award. Her Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of earlier columns in this series. She is a contributing editor for the Plutopia News Network podcast. Follow on Mastodon.

Core values

Follow the money; follow the incentives.

Cybersecurity is an intractable problem for many of the same reasons climate change is: often the people paying the cost are not the people who derive the benefits. The foundation of the Workshop on the Economics of Information Security is often traced to the 2001 paper Why Information Security is Hard, by the late Ross Anderson. There were earlier hints, most notably in the 1999 paper Users Are Not the Enemy by Angela Sasse and Anne Adams.

Anderson’s paper directly examined and highlighted the influence of incentives on security behavior. Sasse’s paper was ostensibly about password policies and the need to consider human factors in designing them. But hidden underneath was the fact that the company department that called her in was not the IT team or the help desk team but accounting. Help desk costs to support users who forgot their passwords were rising so fast they threatened to swamp the company.

At the 23rd WEIS, held this week in Dallas (see also 2020), papers studied questions like which values drive people’s decisions when hit by ransomware attacks (Zinaida Benenson); whether the psychological phenomenon of delay discounting could be used to understand the security choices people make (Einar Snekkenes); and whether a labeling scheme would help get people to pay for security (L Jean Camp).

The latter study found that if you keep the label simple, people will actually pay for security. It’s a seemingly small but important point: throughout the history of personal computing, security competes with so many other imperatives that it’s rarely a factor in purchasing decisions. Among those other imperatives: cost, convenience, compatibility with others, and ease of use. But also: it remains near-impossible to evaluate how secure a product or provider is. Only the largest companies are in a position to ask detailed questions of cloud providers, for example,

Or, in an example provided by Chitra Marti, rare is the patient who can choose a hospital based on the security arrangements it has in place to protect its data. Marti asked a question I haven’t seen before: what is the role of market concentration in cybersecurity? To get at this, Marti looked at the decade’s experience of electronic medical records in hospitals since the big post-2008 recession push to digitize. Since 2010, more than 150 million records have been breached.

Of course, monoculture is a known problem in cybersecurity as it is in agriculture: if every machine runs the same software all machines are vulnerable to the same attacks. Similarly, the downsides of monopoly – poorer service, higher prices, lower quality – are well known. Marti’s study tying the two together found correlations in the software hospitals run and rarely change, even after a breach, though they do adopt new security measures. Hospitals choose software vendors for all sorts of reasons such as popularity, widspread use in their locality, or market leadership. The difficulty of deciding to change may be exacerbated by positive benefits to their existing choice that would be lost and outweigh the negatives.

These broader incentives help explain, as Richard Clayton set out, why distributed denial of service attacks remain so intractable. A key problem is “reflectors”, which amplify attacks by using spoofed IP addresses to send requests where the size of the response will dwarf the request. With this technique, a modest amount of outgoing traffic lands a flood on the chosen target (the one whose IP address has been spoofed). Fixing infrastructure to prevent these reflectors is tedious and only prevents damage to others. Plus, the provider involved may have to sacrifice the money they are paid to carry the traffic. For reasons like these, over the years the size of DDoS attacks has grown until only the largest anti-DDoS providers can cope with them. These realities are also why the early effort to push providers to fix their systems – RFC 2267 – failed. The incentives, in classic WEIS terms, are misaligned.

Clayton was able to use the traffic data he was already collecting to create a short list of the largest reflected amplified DDoS attacks each week and post it on a private Slack channel so providers could inspect their logs to trace it back to the source

At this point a surprising thing happened: the effort made a difference. Reflected amplified attacks dropped noticeably. The reasons, he and Ben Collier argue in their paper, have to do with the social connections among network engineers, the most senior of whom helped connect the early Internet and have decades-old personal relationships with their peers that have been sustained through forums such as NANOG and M3AAWG. This social capital and shared set of values kicked in when Clayton’s action lists moved the problem from abuse teams into the purview of network engineer s. Individual engineers began racing ahead; Amazon recently highlighted AWS engineer Tom Scholl’s work tracing back traffic and getting attacks stopped.

Clayton concluded by proposing “infrastructural capital” to cover the mix of human relationships and the position in the infrastructure that makes them matter. It’s a reminder that underneath those giant technology companies there still lurks the older ethos on which the Internet was founded, and humans whose incentives are entirely different from profit-making. And also: that sometimes intractable problems can be made less intractable.

Illustrations: WEIS waits for the eclipse.

Wendy M. Grossman is the 2013 winner of the Enigma Award. Her Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of earlier columns in this series. She is a contributing editor for the Plutopia News Network podcast. Follow on Mastodon.

The second greatest show on earth

There is this to be said for seeing your second total eclipse of the sun: if the first one went well, you can be more relaxed about what you get to see. In 2017, sitting in Centennial Park in Nashville, we saw everything. So in Dallas in 2024, I could tell myself, “It will be interesting even if we can’t see the sun.”

As it happened, we had cloud with lots of breaks. The cloud obscured such phenomena as Bailey’s Beads and the diamond ring – but the play of light on the broken clouds as the sun popped back out was amazing all by itself. The corona-surrounded sun playing peek-a-boo with us was stunningly beautiful. And all too soon it was over. It seemed shorter than 2017, even though totality was nearly twice as long – 3:52 compared to about two minutes.

One thing definitely missing from Nashville was a phenomenon that’s less often discussed: the 360-degree sunset all around the horizon. Sitting in Dallas surrounded by buildings, the horizon was not visible as it was in that Nashville park.

On Sunday, April 7, it seemed like half the country was moving into position for today in a process that involved placing a bet on the local weather. I had friends scattered in Vermont, Montreal, and several locations in upstate New York. Our intermittent cloud compared favorably with at least one of the New York locations. Daytime darkness and watching and listening to animals’ reactions is still interesting…but it remains frustrating to know that the Big Show is going on without you.

The hundreds of photos on show hide the real thrill of seeing totality: the sense of connection to humanity past, present, and future, and across the animal kingdom. The strangers around you become part of your life, however briefly. The inexorable movements of earth, sun, and moon put us all in our place.

The toast bubble

To The Big Bang Theory (“The Russian Rocket Reaction”, S5e05):

Howard: Someone has to go up with the telescope as a payload specialist, and guess who that someone is!
Sheldon: Muhammed Li.
Howard: Who’s Muhammed Li?
Sheldon: Muhammed is the most common first name in the world, Li the most common surname, and as I didn’t know the answer I thought that gave me a mathematical edge.

Experts tell me that exchange doesn’t perfectly explain how generative AI works; it’s too simplistic. Generative AI – or a Sheldon made more nuanced by his writers – takes into account contextual information to calculate the probable next word. So it wouldn’t pick from all the first names and surnames in the world. It might, however, pick from the names of all the payload specialists or some other group it correlated, or confect one.

More than a year on, I still can’t find a use for generative “AI” that is so unreliable and inscrutable. At Exponential View, Azeem Azhar has written about the “answer engine” Perplexity.ai. While it’s helpful that Perplexity provides references for its answers, it was producing misinformation by the third question I asked it, and offered no improvement when challenged. Wikipedia spent many years being accused of unreliability, too, but at least there you can read the talk page and understand how the editors arrived at the text they present.

On The Daily Show this week, Jon Stewart ranted about AI and interviewed FTC chair Lina Khan. Well-chosen video clips showed AI company heads’ true colors, telling the public AI is an assistant for humans while telling money people and each other that AI will enable greater productivity with fewer workers and help eliminate “the people tax”.

More interesting, however, was Khan’s note that the FTC is investigating the investments and partnerships in AI to understand if they’re giving current technology giants undue influence in the marketplace. If, in her example, all the competitors in a market outsource their pricing decisions to the same algorithm they may be guilty of price fixing even if they’re not actively colluding. And these markets are consolidating at an ever-earlier stage. Snapchat and WhatsApp had millions of users by the time Facebook thought it prudent to buy them rather than let them become dangerous competitors. AI is pre-consolidating: the usual suspects have been buying up AI startups and models at pace.

“More profound than fire or electricity,” Google CEO Sundar Pichai tells a camera at one point, speaking about AI. The last time I heard this level of hyperbole it was about the Internet in the 1990s, shortly before the bust. A friend’s answer to this sort of thing has never varied: “I’d rather have indoor plumbing.”

***

Last week the Federal District Court in Manhattan sentenced FTX CEO Sam Bankman-Fried to 25 years in prison for stealing $8 billion. In the end, you didn’t have to understand anything complicated about cryptocurrencies; it was just good old embezzlement.

And then the price of bitcoin went *up*. At the Guardian, Molly White explains that this is because cryptoevangelists are pushing the idea that the sector can reach its full potential, now that Bankman-Fried and other bad apples have been purged. But, as she says, nothing has really changed. No new use case has come along to make cryptocurrencies more useful, more valuable, or more trustworthy.

Both cryptocurrencies and generative AI are bubbles. The difference is that the AI bubble will likely leave behind it some technologies and knowledge that are genuinely useful; it will be like the Internet, which boomed and busted before settling in to change the world. Cryptocurrencies are more like the Dutch tulips. Unfortunately, in the meantime both these bubbles are consuming energy at an insane rate. How many wildfires is bitcoin worth?

**

I’ve seen a report suggesting that the last known professional words of the late Ross Anderson may have been, “Do they take us for fools?”

He was referring to the plans, debated in the House of Commons on March 25, to amend the Investigatory Powers Act to allow the government to pre-approve (or disapprove) new security features technology firms want to intorduce. The government is of course saying it’s all perfectly innocent, intended to keep the country safe. But recent clashes in the decades-old conflict over strong encryption have seen the technology companies roll out features like end-to-end encryption (Meta) and decide not to implement others, like client-side scanning (Apple). The latest in a long line of UK governments that want access to encrypted text was hardly going to take that quietly. So here we are, debating this yet again. Yet the laws of mathematics still haven’t changed: there is no such thing as a security hole that only “good guys” can use.

***

Returning to AI, it appears that costs may lead Google to charge for access to its AI-enhanced search, as Alex Hern reports at the Guardian. Hern thinks this is good news for its AI-focused startup competitors, which already charge for top-tier tools and who are at risk of being undercut by Google. I think it’s good for users by making it easy to avoid the AI “enhancement”. Of course, DuckDuckGo already does this without all the tracking and monopoly mishegoss.

Illustrations: Jon Stewart uninspired by Mark Zuckerberg’s demonstration of AI making toast.

Wendy M. Grossman is the 2013 winner of the Enigma Award. Her Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of earlier columns in this series. She is a contributing editor for the Plutopia News Network podcast. Follow on Mastodon.