If Data Is the Fuel Our Digital World Runs On, Are We Having a Climate Crisis?

This week, we saw stories about data mismanagement affecting privacy, safety, money, and more. We also saw steps in the right direction. Is it too little, too late, or can we still save our digital world?

Christopher Watkins
Nov 8, 2019 · 5 min read
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If mismanagement and short-sighted exploitation of natural resources have left us with a serious climate crisis on our hands, and if — as is often said — data is the “new” most important resource — then are we now already facing the digital equivalent of a climate crisis? After reading the news this week, one can’t help but wonder.

This week certainly offered some head-scratchers, to say the least. Let’s get started!

So, sometimes, you read a story about some ostensibly new thing, and you think, wow, what a great idea, I never thought of that! Other times you read a story and think, blah, old news.

Then there are those special times when you read a story about some new thing, and you think, wait, that wasn’t a thing already? For example, in 2016, caramel-flavored M&M’s were announced.

Another excellent example of a thing that we can’t quite believe only just now became a thing (because it seems so obvious) comes to us this week from the MIT Technology Review:

“A new deep-learning system is working in tandem with human analysts to keep watch over roughly 17.5 million trades per day.”

One would have thought that the very technology-focused exchange would have been well ahead of the curve when it came to using AI to address fraud challenges. Apparently, however, they’re just now getting the memo!

In the NASDAQ’s defense, they weren’t the only organization this week to deliver a bit of a head-scratcher in the “that isn’t a thing already?” category.

From Vice, we learned that Airbnb is going to start verifying that their listings are accurate. The key word in that sentence being “start”:

“Today, we are making the most significant steps in designing trust on our platform since our original design in 2008,” Airbnb CEO and co-founder Brian Chesky said in an email to employees Wednesday. Chesky said that the company would undertake a year-long project to ensure that every home listed on the platform is accurately advertised.”

Good to know that they’re getting on this … now.

Here’s another one that, as soon as you hear it, will likely seem so obvious you can’t believe it wasn’t a thing already.

But first, before we share this, let’s set the stage a bit. To begin, we know that Facebook has an authentication problem when it comes to fake accounts. They also have a privacy problem. And, we also know that people, in general, are worried about facial recognition software. However, people also post images of themselves on Facebook all the time. Do you see where this is heading?

“In a Twitter thread, tech enthusiast and app researcher Jane Wong disclosed a discovery — Facebook is currently testing out a “video selfie” feature. In the several screenshots posted, the “Facial recognition-based Identity Verification” instructs users to “hold their phone at eye level” and asks them to “take a video selfie.” This video selfie feature requires users to look into an on-screen circle and turn their heads in different directions, allowing Facebook to get a complete view of the user’s face and confirm his/her identity.”

If only that were the end of Facebook’s privacy problems! Unfortunately, as we learned from ZDnet, their problems, in fact, continue:

“Facebook has quietly revealed another privacy breach involving approximately 100 developers. On Tuesday, Konstantinos Papamiltiadis, Facebook’s Director of Platform Partnerships said in a blog post that the names and profile pictures of users connected to Groups and the system’s API were accessible.”

Facebook takes up a great deal of real estate when it comes to privacy news, but that shelf space got a bit more crowded this week as Amazon returned to the headlines:

“Security researchers have discovered a vulnerability in Ring doorbells that exposed the passwords for the Wi-Fi networks to which they were connected.”

What this all boils down to, really, is a problem with data — how it’s acquired, how much of it is acquired, how it’s protected after it’s been acquired, what it’s used for, and more. DataVisor CEO Yinglian Xie penned a revolutionary piece for VentureBeat that was published this week, in which she directly took on the “more is more” culture of data acquisition:

“The common assumption in business today is that the more data your systems have access to, the more intelligent they will be. This is not always the case, however. And even where it is, the inverse — that less data must thus equal less intelligence — is emphatically not true.

When the assumption prevails that more data is a competitive business differentiator, businesses are, in effect, incentivized to pursue new and more ways to gather data — often to disastrous effect.”

Does Yinglian present a different approach? She does.

“The most crucial step is to move away from collecting and relying upon individual data and towards processing and analyzing aggregated data … The advantage of this approach is that, the more we can process data at the group level, the less we need to know about individual users. While this may seem paradoxical, the truth is that we can derive more relevant intelligence, even as we require less data.”

Data. It’s the fuel our digital economy runs on. Out here “in the real world,” we’ve already learned that irresponsible excess is dangerous when it comes to managing our resources. Clearly, we’re going to have to learn this same lesson in our digital world as well. The right steps are being taken, but more is still required.

Stay tuned for next week’s edition of This Week in Fraud News!


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