As the technological realm becomes more pervasive, whom can we trust? Each week, Liberty Nation brings new insight into the fraudulent use of personal data, breaches of privacy, and attempts to filter our perception.
Bill Gates is often lauded for his philanthropic works promoting vaccines and genetic engineering as ways to heal the world. In a remarkable twist of fate, he has now teamed up with Harvard to fix climate change – by blocking the sun’s rays from reaching the Earth. The Stratospheric Controlled Perturbation Experiment (SCoPEx) in geoengineering will launch a balloon into the atmosphere and release calcium carbonate and other materials above the Earth’s surface, in the hope of filtering the sun’s rays. Yes, Simpsons fans, he is literally “doing a Mr. Burns” – but instead of reviled as a villain, Gates is seen as a hero.
The initial experiment will only last a few hours, but weather manipulation is fast becoming the new frontier in climate science. But that’s not what this column is about. Microsoft has recently been in the news, when employees protested after realizing they have no control over how their work will be applied in the real world. Gates also met with Google to promote artificial intelligence in health care at the 2019 Human-Centered Artificial Intelligence Symposium at Stanford University. “The world hasn’t had that many technologies that are both promising and dangerous — you know, we had nuclear energy and nuclear weapons,” he said, referring to the double-edged nature of AI. So, is Microsoft and its technology a force for good or evil in the world?
Working on a Universal Digital I.D.
Last week, we looked at the pressure being put on Mastercard to evaluate the “human rights” records of customers, with the implication that financial services would be denied to individuals and groups who are seen to breach such rights. In December 2018, Mastercard announced it was working with Microsoft to develop a “universally-recognized digital identity” for individuals.
“Voting, driving, applying for a job, renting a home, getting married and boarding a plane: what do these all have in common? You need to prove your identity,” tweeted Mastercard. According to an accompanying press release, all this is very inconvenient, as personal identification must be submitted separately for each of these unconnected activities. Keeping relevant passwords and documents places a “heavy burden” on people. The answer, say Microsoft and Mastercard, is to create a centralized digital identity where each person’s information could be kept in one place and used to gain access to financial services, government programs, commerce and other digital services like email, social media, streaming and so on.
As usual, this is couched in the cushy terms of autonomy: “We have an opportunity to establish a system that puts people first, giving them control of their identity data and where it is used,” said Ajay Bhalla, president of cyber and intelligence solutions at Mastercard. Joy Chik, corporate vice president of identity, at Microsoft, added “We believe people should be in control of their digital identity and data, and we’re thrilled to first work with Mastercard to bring new decentralized identity innovations to life.”
The inversion here is remarkable, particularly the use of the word “decentralized” to describe what essentially aims to be a single global system in which everybody would house and access all their most sensitive personal data. It would surely be easy to cut off “undesirables” from all key services at one, under such a system.
Microsoft on Fake News Vs. Real News
Android and Windows 10 users may be familiar with Microsoft’s Edge internet browser. As part of its Defending Democracy Program, Microsoft integrated Newsguard – a news filter service founded in 2018 – into the Edge browser app on mobile devices (phones, tablets etc.). Newsguard assigns “Nutrition Labels” or quality ratings to news sources, and, according to its website, “uses journalism to fight false news, misinformation, and disinformation … to help readers and viewers know which ones are trying to do legitimate journalism—and which are not.”
Whereas those wishing to use Newsguard previously had to actively download the browser extension, Edge users can now just press a button within their existing browser to find out which media outlets are considered “reliable.” While most mainstream news organizations are approved, or green-rated by the app, some of the most recognizable sites on the “naughty list” include Infowars, Wikileaks, Breitbart, and Russian outlets RT and Sputnik.
“Releasing on the Microsoft Edge mobile apps is a milestone in the fight to bring consumers the information they need to counter false information, misinformation and disinformation online,” said Gordon Crovitz, Co-CEO of NewsGuard, in a press release. “We appreciate the opportunity to work with Microsoft, which is taking the lead among technology companies in providing its users with the information they need to counter unreliable news sources.”
Newsguard, in the usual friendly language, says that it does not block the user from accessing news outlets because that “would violate free speech values,” but rather that “we simply bring more information to news consumers.” Indeed, the app does provide extra information to the user – information able to control the way the public perceives news and media outlets.
But perhaps this is actually a valuable service? After all, a January Gallup Poll – supported by Newsguard and one of its investors, the Knight Foundation – found that, in a sample of “likely ‘NewsGuard users,’” 89% of social media users and 83% overall respondents want search engines and social media sites to incorporate the company’s ratings and reviews.
Politically Correct Addition to MS Word
Microsoft is always updating its software, and June is set to launch a new, artificial intelligence-driven set of features to the widely-used MS Word program. The AI “Ideas in Word” addition will involve several features designed to improve users’ writing, but the most notable one is intended to make your writing more politically correct. The program will analyze the language used in a document not just for spelling and grammar errors, but also for PC faux pas. As well as measuring a text’s vocabulary, conciseness and other linguistic features, new “inclusivity” and “sensitive geopolitical references” measures will suggest politically correct alternatives to potentially offensive words and phrases; the gender-neutral term “congressperson” rather than “congressman” for example, or “person with a disability” to replace “disabled person.” Additionally, the AI will scan documents for language that may be offensive to somebody in another country or culture.
The suggestions are optional, and the writer may choose to ignore or accept them. Presumably, the data collected by the AI will be transmitted to Microsoft and used to further “train” the machine learning program. As Mark Wyciślik-Wilson of BetaNews.com points out, even without AI, Microsoft is already trying to collect as much of your Office usage data as possible. Of course, this may all be moot before long, as AI is well on the way to writing its own news articles and stories – whether future incarnations will have PC programming is yet to be seen.
In the comments sections of various media outlets, some had recommended the free word processing program LibreOffice, a program released by the German charity The Document Foundation as an alternative to Word – but this author can neither confirm nor deny its superiority.
Emails Exposed to Hackers
Finally, the Silicon Valley giant revealed that email services it runs, including Outlook, Hotmail and MSN had been open to hackers for two months, between January 1 and March 28, 2019. The company admitted that non-corporate users had been targeted, and 6% of emails accessed by cybercriminals who were working via the customer support portal.
Most of the hackers obtained not the content of emails themselves, but related information such as the name and email address of the account holder, email subject lines, and email addresses of contacts. Microsoft did acknowledge, however, that a small number of users had been notified that the hackers may have gained access to their email contents. The breach was apparently the result of a Microsoft support agent whose credentials were compromised, and the company said that it has removed and blocked the perpetrator, as well as notifying the affected users. It has, however, admitted that affected users may face additional spam and phishing emails as a result of the breach, and advised them not to open emails received from unfamiliar email addresses. Microsoft also recommends that users change their passwords as a general precaution.
That’s all for this week’s edition of You’re Never Alone. Check back next Monday to find out what’s happening in the digital realm and how it impacts you.
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