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Monthly Archives: July 2017

Technology In West Africa

What does the technology landscape looks like in West Africa? How is internet connectivity? Do people use Facebook and Google?

Internet connectivity has really soared in the last few years. I can get 3G in most major cities and 4G exists in a handful of places, or at least is advertised as existing.

Even just a few years ago, reporters needed to carry a BGAN, a portable satellite modem the size of a hardcover novel. I rarely take one. When I arrive in a new city, I always buy a SIM card with a data plan. But pretty much any cafe or restaurant will hand you a Wi-Fi password if you ask for it, and even small hotels in out-of-the-way places seem to manage to rig some kind of Wi-Fi system. One hotel in Maradi, Niger, about 400 miles outside the capital, had routers taped to the ceiling all over the hallways.

What kind of role does tech play in many of these developing African countries?

A lot of people in more-rural areas cannot afford TVs, and even if they can, in many areas electricity is highly unreliable, so mobile phones are a major source of news.

Phone credit is expensive and calls across providers cost extra. Some people have created an ingenious system called “flashing” — they call you and hang up so you dial them back and pick up the tab. I thought I was getting prank calls before I caught on.

WhatsApp groups are the new water cooler conversations where gossip and public announcements are shared via groups. West Africans move around a lot, so WhatsApp allows them a free way to stay in touch with family members living in other countries.

Mobile money — using a mobile phone to transfer payments — is also mainstream in many places and is a lifesaver for people who don’t have the option of bank transfers.

What tech is most important for you to do your job there?

Internet connectivity, by whatever means possible. Phone networks are often so bad that I make most of my calls using WhatsApp. People are really into it, so sources are more inclined to respond to messages on that platform than emails or regular phone calls. Business people and aid workers like Skype.

My iPhone saves me every day because I’m constantly moving around so I need an all-in-one device to access social networks, email, text, take photos, and use WhatsApp and my recording app. I recently dropped my phone in a toilet in Nigeria but managed to grab it quickly enough to salvage the hours of recordings I’d done with war victims before the device finally died. The nearest Apple store is thousands of miles away, and it was a company phone, so replacing it was stressful and involved stops in three continents.

How do you overcome connectivity issues?

Both cell and internet networks can be elusive, but they work well enough that when they don’t, I’m emotionally crushed or, more often, maddeningly annoyed.

I usually can’t stream video or download big files anywhere but in major cities, and even that is a challenge sometimes. The networks get really crowded, especially at night. WhatsApp and Skype calls are wonderful and clear but cut out a lot. Just dialing phone numbers sometimes takes five or six tries to get a clear line. It’s frustrating explaining to colleagues in New York that if they can’t reach me on the first try, just keep dialing and eventually they’ll get through.

Technology has really been pivotal in exposing abuse by authorities in West Africa in much the same way that it has in America. Videos of police abuse posted to YouTube and other social media in a number of nations have caused public outrage and, in some cases, led to firings of officers. In some countries, protesters and voters have used social media to organize during elections or social uprisings.

Governments have responded by cutting off internet access and shutting down mobile networks. In Cameroon earlier this year, people got around an internet blackout by typing up messages on phones and paying someone to haul them out of the blackout area and hit send.

Private financial data

Your only purpose as a corporation, the reason you were created and remain a going concern, is to collect and maintain people’s most private financial data.

Now you have fallen down on your only job — and spectacularly so. Hackers penetrated the spectral gauze of security surrounding your website, and over the course of nearly two months, they made away with the personal information of as many as 143 million Americans. It is the most important financial data available on any of us — our names, birth dates, Social Security numbers, home addresses and in some instances a lot more — and it was just sitting there on your site, all but wrapped up in a red bow.

So, Equifax, I have to ask: Now that you have failed at your one job, why should you be allowed to keep doing it?

If a bank lost everyone’s money, regulators might try to shut down the bank. If an accounting firm kept shoddy books, its licenses to practice accounting could be revoked. (See how Texas pulled Arthur Andersen’s license after the Enron debacle.)

Here’s one troubling reason: Because even after one of the gravest breaches in history, no one is really in a position to stop Equifax from continuing to do business as usual. And the problem is bigger than Equifax: We really have no good way, in public policy, to exact some existential punishment on companies that fail to safeguard our data. There will be hacks — and afterward, there will be more.

Experts said it was highly unlikely that any regulatory body would shut Equifax down over this breach. As one of the nation’s three major credit-reporting agencies, which store and analyze consumers’ financial history for credit decisions, it is likely to be considered too central to the American financial system; Equifax’s demise would both reduce competition in the industry and make each of the two survivors a bigger target. Raj Joshi, an analyst at Moody’s, said in a note to investors that Equifax was likely to be fine, as “the impact of the security breach will only modestly erode its solid credit metrics and liquidity.”

The two regulators that do have jurisdiction over Equifax, the Federal Trade Commission and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, declined to comment on any potential punishments over the credit agency’s breach.

Consumers also have piddling rights over how Equifax may continue to use their credit data. “There’s nothing in any statute or anything else that allows you to ask Equifax to remove your data or have all your data disappear if you say you no longer trust it,” said John Ulzheimer, a consumer credit expert who worked at Equifax in the 1990s.

But wait, it gets worse. You also can’t prevent Equifax from getting any more of your data.

“You might be able to casually say to your bank that you don’t want them to give information to Equifax anymore, but I don’t know that’s going to have an effect on anything,” Mr. Ulzheimer said. “You don’t control the rules of engagement.”

This isn’t just about Equifax. We live in the age of Big Data. We have allowed, mostly passively, the emergence of huge and exquisitely detailed databases full of information about all of us. Financial companies, technology companies, medical organizations, advertisers, insurers, retailers and the government — thanks to technology, they can all now maintain massive warehouses of information on just about everyone alive.

Yet in many cases these data stores are only lightly regulated, and compared with the scale of the data compromised, the punishment for breaches is close to nonexistent. There is no federally sanctioned insurance or audit system for data storage, the way the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation provides insurance and a wind-down process for banks after losses. For many types of data, there are few licensure requirements on organizations seeking to house personally identifiable information.

In many cases, terms-of-service documents indemnify companies against legal consequences for breaches. In fact, according to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, the credit-reporting service that Equifax is offering customers affected by this breach requires people to waive their legal rights to sign up.

“It is troubling that Equifax is forcing people to waive legal rights in order to receive fraud monitoring after the company’s breach put their personal information at risk,” Samuel Gilford, a bureau spokesman, said in a statement.

With all these ways of mitigating fallout from attacks, breaches keep happening — and in almost all cases, even when the data concerns tens or hundreds of millions of people, the companies that were hacked continue to operate anyway. See Yahoo, for instance, which hackers hit for 500 million accounts, and then again for one billion accounts — but which is still in business.

You might argue that not every data hack deserves a corporate death penalty. That’s reasonable. Neither Target nor Home Depot, for instance, is primarily in the business of storing your data. Both were hit in hacks for millions of people’s credit-card data, but after they offered some penance and promised to fix their systems, it’s not unreasonable that you would continue to shop at their stores.

Antivirus Software Government Computers

The concerns surrounding Kaspersky, whose software is sold throughout the United States, are longstanding. The F.B.I., aided by American spies, has for years been trying to determine whether Kaspersky’s senior executives are working with Russian military and intelligence, according to current and former American officials. The F.B.I. has also been investigating whether Kaspersky software, including its well-regarded antivirus programs, contain back doors that could allow Russian intelligence access into computers on which it is running. The company denies the allegations.

The officials, all of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity because the inquiries are classified, would not provide details of the information they have collected on Kaspersky. But on Wednesday, Elaine C. Duke, the acting secretary of Homeland Security, ordered federal agencies to develop plans to remove Kaspersky software from government systems in the next 90 days.

Wednesday’s announcement is the latest instance of the apparent disconnect between the Trump White House, which has often downplayed the threat of Russian interference to the country’s infrastructure, and front-line American law enforcement and intelligence officials, who are engaged in a perpetual shadow war against Moscow-directed operatives.

Kaspersky’s business in the United States now appears to be the latest casualty in those spy wars. Best Buy, the electronics giant, announced last week that it was pulling Kaspersky Lab’s cybersecurity products from its shelves and website, and the Senate is voting this week on a defense-spending bill that would ban Kaspersky Lab products from being used by American government agencies, effectively codifying Wednesday’s directive into law.

Kaspersky is considered one of the foremost cybersecurity research firms in the world, and has considerable expertise in designing antivirus software and tools to uncover spyware used by Western intelligence services. The company was founded by Eugene V. Kaspersky, who attended a high school that trained Russian spies, and later wrote software for the Soviet Army before going on to found Kaspersky Lab in 1997. He has insisted that neither he nor his company have active ties to the Russian military or intelligence services.

Yet despite its prominence in the cybersecurity world, its origins in Russia have for years fueled suspicions about its possible ties to Russia’s intelligence agencies. Federal officials have warned private companies to avoid Kaspersky software, and earlier this year the firm was removed from two lists of approved vendors used by government agencies to purchase technology.

At a Senate hearing in May, a number of senior American security officials, including the chiefs of the F.B.I. and the C.I.A., were even more blunt when asked if they would be comfortable with Kaspersky software running on their agencies’ systems: “No,” they said.

Still, Kaspersky’s software is believed to be used in many federal agencies, especially its antivirus products, though there is no reliable estimate of its ubiquity — government computer systems tend be a jumbled-together collection of often-aging software and hardware, and no central authority keeps track of who uses what.

Kaspersky’s software is also widely used by state governments and ordinary Americans. The company says it has more than 400 million users around the world. It also has a robust business analyzing and investigating cyberthreats.

Androids Dream of Being Featured in Portrait Competitions

The portrait was taken by the Finnish artist Maija Tammi. Ms. Tammi often collaborates with scientists, and her photographs and sculptures feature themes of death, decay and regeneration. Her work has included a photo series contrasting pictures of a rotting rabbit with those of cancer cells, and images of semen and breast milk that, seen up close, look like starry universes.

In the shortlisted portrait, Erica looks decidedly lifelike. The photograph, titled “One of Them Is a Human #1,” is part of a wider series by Ms. Tammi featuring androids.“I was curious to see if the time was ready for an android portrait,” Ms. Tammi said. She hopes that the photograph will provoke thought and conversation about what makes us human.

“I know that some people believe very strongly that a portrait of someone shows the viewer a deep psychological insight of the person who isn’t in the camera,” Ms. Tammi said. “We make the story of what we see in the portrait.”

Erica is the creation of Hiroshi Ishiguro, a professor at Osaka University’s Intelligent Robotics Laboratory in Japan. She was designed to have natural conversations with humans, integrating voice recognition and body language like blinking and head tilting. But for now, her conversational responses are limited and she is unable to move her arms or walk.

The decision to include an android’s portrait in the shortlist is controversial. The rules for the international competition, hosted by the National Portrait Gallery in London, say that the picture “must have been taken by the entrant from life and with a living sitter.” The rules define portraits as “photography concerned with portraying people with an emphasis on their identity as individuals.”

Laura McKechan, a senior communications manager at the National Portrait Gallery, said that the gallery had decided against barring the portrait from the competition, though it would consider whether the rules need to be changed in the future.

“It was felt that the subject of this portrait, while not human, is a representation of a human figure and makes a powerful statement as a work of art in its questioning of what it is to be alive or human and asks challenging questions about portraiture,” Ms. McKechan wrote in an email. “The ambiguity of this portrait makes it particularly compelling.”

The portrait’s inclusion in the shortlist is timely as the debate about how best to advance and regulate artificial intelligence intensifies. Elon Musk, the founder of Tesla and SpaceX, and Stephen Hawking, the celebrated physicist, have cautioned the public about the potential dangers of A.I. Recent science-fiction films like “Ex Machina,” “Her,” and the HBO TV series “Westworld” have also confronted the ethics and potential consequences of creating artificially sentient beings, whose motivations might not align with those of the humans who built them.