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Limiting the Influence of Tech When You Report on It
It made an impression on me that even the mere idea of being surveilled can chill people’s behavior.
Now I view privacy not so much as the ability to keep your personal details away from prying government agencies or companies. Privacy is the right to choose which entities access information about you, control how those entities use your data, check the fairness of data-based decisions made about you, and correct errors.
Since American consumers currently lack those kinds of rights over most of their data, I’ve grown fond of tools that lift the hood on online tracking and profiling.
One tool I use on my laptop is Disconnect, a service that shows you the third parties tracking you on every site. When I was reading articles this morning about the Trump administration, Disconnect counted 78 advertising networks, analytics services and others tracking me on HuffPost; 24 trackers on The New York Times site, and 19 on The Washington Post.
What could be better about some of these tools?
ProtonMail can be cumbersome. The service encrypts your emails before they reach the ProtonMail server. As a result, you can’t search the texts of your emails for keywords if you use the free service. You can search only the subject lines.
It’s a constant reminder that ceding to online surveillance is much more frictionless than trying to limit it.
Recently Apple investors raised concerns about smartphone addiction and children. Is this a problem and are there adequate solutions?
I’ve heard from many parents, including a few physicians, concerned about the amount of time their kids are spending online at school and at home. It’s so difficult to find the right balance between making sure our children are fluent with online tools and protecting them from getting sucked in by habit-forming video platforms and social networks. Many parents feel they are up against a powerful, interlocking ecosystem, designed to hook their kids on constant scrolling, watching, and clicking.
Given the vast ecosystem, however, singling out Apple as the culprit seems to me a little bit like blaming only soda can manufacturers for Americans’ addiction to sugary beverages. Yes, it would be terrific if Apple introduced new control options for parents. But if shareholders want to fault companies for manipulating or addicting users, they should also be taking a hard look at Facebook, YouTube, Instagram, Snapchat, Netflix and many more.
Even small user-interface changes could make a big difference. Imagine if the default setting for streaming video services wasn’t autoplay.
On a larger level, we’ve seen over the past year how some Big Tech companies initially refused to take responsibility for the spread of fake news and other side effects of their innovations. In that context, platforms that nudge children and adults to stay online are merely one symptom of a much bigger problem.
You wrote a series last year examining tech industry influence in American public schools. Now you’re looking into Silicon Valley’s increasing footprint in the health sector. What are the similarities and differences?
There’s huge hype around the idea that tech can improve education. Same goes for health.
So far, however, there’s not much rigorous evidence that learning apps on their own improve students’ educational results. Likewise, there is little hard evidence that health apps by themselves reduce disease.
Still, I’m optimistic about the potential for software in health.
That’s partly because a few tech companies are participating in rigorous studies, called randomized controlled trials. In these studies, researchers randomly select some volunteers to try a new intervention. By comparing the results in the treated and untreated groups, researchers could identify apps that do make significant health contributions.
Beyond your job, what tech product are you currently obsessed with in your daily life?
Every weekend, I try out a new recipe from NYT Cooking. And while I’m cooking, I listen to podcasts.
I’m currently devouring Uncivil, a history podcast on the Civil War. It unfolds like a detective story. And while you’re engrossed in the plot twists, it neatly obliterates the standard American narrative of the Civil War.
Right now, my family is on a bit of a Brit TV binge. We just watched the second season of “The Crown,” the fictional series on Queen Elizabeth II, and “The Coronation,” a glowing documentary featuring the real QE2. And we raced through “Prime Suspect: Tennison,” the prequel to the classic TV police procedural that starred Helen Mirren.
I also just took an audio boot camp course at Columbia University School of Journalism. Now I’m teaching myself to use Hindenburg, a radio editing program.
Are you doing anything unusual to limit the spread of your data?
It may seem quaint, but I still relish the idea that people in a democratic society have the right to be anonymous in public. I think Americans should be able to attend political protests or drive to the grocery store in our pajamas without being recognized by government agencies or companies.
The recent proliferation of face recognition software, however, poses huge risks to public anonymity. In simple terms, face recognition software works by scanning a photo of your face and then converting your facial topography into a unique code, called a face print. The benefit — as well as the hazard — is that a company that takes a face print from one photo of you could potentially use it to identify you in any other photo or video frame.
I may be particularly attuned to the fragility of public anonymity because, like many journalists, I’ve been doxed.
So, as an experiment, I’ve been limiting photos of myself online to see whether I have any control over how they spread. As a kind of inside joke, my Twitter avatar is an illustration that Minh Uong, the art director in the Times’s Business section, created for an article I once wrote about the risks of facial recognition.
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