The Privacy Olympics, Breaking The Blockchain, and Early Breast Cancer Detection With AI

This week in tech

Photo by Maxime Horlaville on Unsplash

The competition among tech companies to be perceived as the most privacy preserving has finally begun in earnest. The last few years has felt like an endless wave of data-privacy scandals. Those scandals drove the adoption of privacy focused legislation like CCPA and GDPR, and brought the spotlight to tricky issues like data anonymization. Now, finally feeling the pressure, companies are competing to convince consumers that they’ll actually protect your privacy.

In March, Mark Zuckerberg penned the manifesto for Facebook’s new “privacy-focused vision” as well as an Op-ed in the Washington Post that also spoke to privacy issues. At the F8 conference earlier this month Zuckerberg et al continued to push the idea that they’re committed to building a more private future. This week at Google I/O the focus was also on privacy and their CEO, Sundar Pichai, penned his own op-ed for the New York Times. Google’s conference was coupled with several privacy focused feature announcements, and new documentation for their privacy policies, especially regarding the Nest family of products. Even the CIA is getting in on the action by making their website available via Tor.

As Wired describes, many of Google’s changes still put the responsibility on users to carefully manage their privacy settings. Plus, given the privacy efforts of most companies so far, we have good reason to be skeptical. For example, contract workers in India are reading your Facebook posts to help train AI tools according to Reuters. Amazon workers are listening to your Alexa queries for the same reason according to Bloomberg and The Verge.

Nevertheless, I think this is good news for everyone. Even if it starts with begrudging and superficial changes, companies are now aware that privacy preservation is an important part of their brand. Reporters know that articles about privacy violations get attention. Regulators realize their constitutes care about those same violations. Elizabeth Warren, a 2020 presidential candidate, and Chris Hughes, co-founder of Facebook, have both called for Facebook to be broken up, partially over the privacy issues that have plagued the company. I wouldn’t give anyone a gold medal yet, but I still say let the Privacy Olympics begin.

In security, Israel blew up a building where they say hackers from Hamas had set up shop. While it’s surely not the first time physical violence has been deployed against hackers, it does represent a convergence of offensive hacking with conventional warfare. Malware like Triton can be used to inflict physical damage just as deadly as any missile and these capabilities force nations to shift their view of hackers from unarmed intelligence gatherers to potentially deadly military assets. As a result it’s quite possible that more nations will begin to respond to cyber attacks the way Israel just did: with conventional force. Also in security, Wired reported more details on the ongoing supply chain attacks, and the messaging company Slack says it’s being targeted by all kinds of hackers keen on intercepting corporate secrets.

The bad fortunes continue in the world of blockchain. Research firm Gartner claims, “by 2023 90% of blockchain-based supply chain initiatives will suffer ‘blockchain fatigue” based on a survey they recently conducted. Plus, the cryptocurrency exchange Binance had over $40 million stolen by hackers. While the crypto-bubble seems to be bursting, it’s good to remember that the end of the dot-com bubble was hardly the end of the Internet. Blockchain may have been overhyped, but that doesn’t necessarily mean the technology won’t mature into something ubiquitous and useful as the internet has done.

Finally, there have been some incredible advancements in healthcare and biotech. MIT researchers have created new deep learning model that can detect breast cancer up to 5 years earlier than previous methods and — unlike previous such models — it performs equally well for black, asian, and latina women as it does for white women. Plus, a genetically engineered virus was used to save a teenager from a deadly bacterial infection, and an app that can detect kidney problems by examining photos of your urine received approval from the FDA as a Class II clinical grade diagnostic device. It is the first smartphone-based system to receive such approval.

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