Technology, Privacy and Innovation in 2014

Prediction lists for the coming year are always revealing, though perhaps more of the current public mood than the future. A write-up of the tech trends for 2014 by Fast Company’s design blog is hardly controversial, but what is interesting is how the areas they’ve chosen highlight the existence of two wider and seemingly divergent technological trends. This apparent conflict in the way technology is heading is far from problematic. On the contrary, it shows our success in adapting and experimenting with new ideas and in response to shifts in the social and political context, without the need for any central guidance.

One thing clear from Fast Company’s list is that 2014 will bring a continued increase in the volume and depth of the personal data we create. Things like Google Glass, the ‘quantified self’, hyperpersonalised online experiences and the interconnectivity of theInternet of Things all create new reasons and mechanisms for data capture. This in turn increases the value of our data to ourselves, the companies with access to it and, in some situations, the state.

However, the article also predicts that 2014 will see increasing concerns over cyber-privacy and a movement towards greater digital anonymity. Users will increasingly chose to control their own data and how this is profited from, whilst we will begin to discover the joy of ‘disconnecting’ from the digital world and see the creation of intentional blackspots.

The fact that we seem to be embracing deeper technological integration yet simultaneously finding ways to mitigate and avoid its consequences is certainly interesting. Does this show that we’ve raced forward too fast and are trying to claw back a space we’re realising we’ve lost? It’s perhaps possible that this is the case, but far from giving us cause for concern the two-track path we’re seeing shows the ability of consumers and the tech sector to adapt over time, and in turn gives some hints on the optimal tech policy.

Continue Reading…

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The net migration cap is hurting Britain

This morning’s Guardian carries a letter by the ASI, the Institute of Economic Affairs, the Institute of Directors, the Centre for Policy Studies, the Entrepreneurs Network and Conservatives for Liberty, on why we oppose the government’s migration cap. I wrote about why more free marketeers should care about immigration recently — we’re lucky that the UK’s foremost free market think tanks do.

The government’s net migration cap is hurting Britain’s economic recovery and long-term fiscal health. It can take around three months for a business to apply for a visa for a prospective employee, a significant unseen cost of the cap, and international firms may prefer to base themselves in countries where they can bring in staff from abroad more easily than they can in the UK.

Entrepreneurship is being affected, too: more than a quarter of Silicon Roundabout startup founders are foreign-born, and more than half of tech startups in California’s Silicon Valley are founded by immigrants. The cap on immigration is a cap on the innovative industries Britain needs to thrive.

According to the Office for Budget Responsibility, without net immigration of at least 260,000 people per annum, public debt will approach 100% of GDP by 2060 as we struggle to pay for a ballooning pensions and healthcare bill. Countless studies have shown immigrants create jobs, raise natives’ real wages and even boost productivity.

Public concerns about benefits tourism are legitimate but are better addressed by reforms that restrict access to the welfare state. The migration cap does not discriminate between the small number of would-be welfare tourists and the many people who would like to work productively to create a better life for themselves and their families. The cap is hurting Britain and should be scrapped.

Sam Bowman, Research director, Adam Smith Institute,

Mark Littlewood, Director general, Institute of Economic Affairs,

Simon Walker, Director general, Institute of Directors,

Ryan Bourne, Head of economic research, Centre for Policy Studies,

Philip Salter, Director, The Entrepreneurs Network,

Thomas Stringer, Director, Conservatives for Liberty.

Should fans be concerned by Bitcoin’s fall in value?

The last few months has seen a breathtaking rise in the price of Bitcoin. Starting around $15 at the beginning of the year, Bitcoin’s price went from round $200 to a peak of over $1,200 just during November. Then from early December BTC’s price began to falter, with a sudden drop and a low of $550 on the 18th: less than half its price just weeks before.

Commentary has been just as volatile, with some seeing BTC’s rising price as its explosion onto the scene and proof of its revolutionary potential. Others have scoffed, calling the whole thing a bubble inflated by overoptimistic geeks and people looking for a quick profit. Now that BTC’s price has come tumbling, should proponents of the crypto-currency be humbled and/or worried?

Recent rises and falls in Bitcoin’s price have reflected developments in China.  In November Bitcoin exchange BTC China secured $5m investment from Lightspeed Venture Partners, and surpassed Mt Gox as the largest exchange in terms of trading volume. However, on the 5th December the People’s Bank of China announced that it does not consider Bitcoin a currency, barring banks & other financial institutions from dealing with it. Around this time Bitcoin’s price took a sharp downwards turn. Then, on Monday, the central bank banned 3rd-party payment companies from working with Bitcoin exchanges. This left Chinese exchanges unable to take deposits, and the price cfurther tumbled.

This is potentially bad news for entrepreneurs who want to see Bitcoin widely adopted, as well as for more ideological fans who consider Bitcoin’s strength its decentralised and stateless nature. Governments will never be able to stamp out Bitcoin completely, but making it as difficult as possible to use will hamper the objectives of both groups. The Mercatus Centre’s Bitcoin Primer explicitly urges policy makers to consider the technology morally neutral, warning against restricting its development and its use by non-criminal users. Whilst China cracks down on BTC its uptake in developing countries -particularly amongst the unbanked-is strong, and Denmark has just announced that it will not regulate Bitcoin or its exchange. China may well realise that it is missing a trick and relax its hostility.

Nevertheless, innovation around this problem will occur if it continues. Bitcoin is a global start-up project, with swathes of  passionate and seriously techie fans.

Some take Bitcoin’s crash as proof that that it is an unstable and unsustainable folly- nothing more than a risky virtual commodity bet.

Certainly, Bitcoin’s volatility is an established fact, with its last big crash in April wiping out 80% of Bitcoin’s value over 6 days. Nevertheless, BTC has always recovered and increased in value. Indeed, since the 18th Bitcoin’s price has been creeping up yet again.

Calling bubbles is a funny thing, because both falls in price and continued rises offer ‘proof’ of the hypothesis. It is perhaps more accurate to say that Bitcoin is undergoing a long period of ‘price discovery’. A lot of purchases have been speculative or made out of curiosity, but as more users and ways to spend the currency emerge, so will a clearer and more stable idea of its price. Bitcoin’s shifting price isn’t even that much of an issue for those using it for purchases: vendors adjust their Bitcoin prices regularly to reflect the changing exchange rate. It is short-term investors and those calling Bitcoin the ‘new gold’ who should perhaps be more wary.

Others say that Bitcoin’s falling price reflects underlying concerns with the currency – such as issues with security and fraud, and exchanges’ ability to cope with demand. Some suggest these issues mean that Bitcoin will never be much more than a digital curiosity. But at the early stages of the computer and the internet few thought they would be so transformative, or could imagine how they would evolve. Bitcoin is certainty not ready for mainstream adoption or about to cause a central banking crisis, but that is zero reason to write it off.  So much of how Bitcoin can and should operate is yet to be discovered, let alone decided. Despite all the recent attention it is still in its infancy, and growing pains and price shifts are an inevitable path of its development.

Even if Bitcoin’s price were to come crashing devastatingly down, the world’s first digital, decentralised ledger-based currency has created a new paradigm: a new way of thinking about money, transactions, anonymity and even our relationship with the state. Even some of Bitcoin’s biggest fans say it could one of the alternative, retweaked and ‘improved’ cyrpto-currencies which will really take off.

On which note- why care about the price of Bitcoin when you can be an early adopting millionaire of everyone’s favourite meme-cum-cryptocurrency, the shibe-tastic, very money Dogecoin! (wow)

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Digital Conversations

Last week I went to an event put on by the Meetup group ‘Digital Conversations‘. Hosted by the digital agency Reading Room, the theme for the night was “Society, Government and Public Life”. Six speakers gave a range of short but varied and interesting talks, bringing together people from digital design, non-profits and the government.

The topics ranged from software design to government snooping via community engagement and smarter government services. It has become cliched to talk about these last two, especially alongside phrases like ‘the data revolution’ and ‘people power’. What’s less clear is if these ideas really mean something and in practice help forge better outcomes. In this way it was interesting and encouraging to see what people in a range of different jobs were doing within the intersection of technology and government.

Despite the breadth of topics, certain themes ran throughout the night. One was the use of digital technology to amplify the ‘soft’ power which citizens posses through traditional civic engagement.
Will Perrin from kingscrossenvironment.com gave his experience of holding government to account using methods from the humorous – sticking council logos on dog mess and blogging them – to the serious – using freedom of information requests to spark a corporate manslaughter investigation into TFL. The ability to use digital to empower citizens was shown to be even stronger within less developed and transparent states. For example, a basic app of the Nigerian constitution has allowed citizens to learn and assert their rights, and has been downloaded over 8 million times.

The event also highlighted the importance of the micro and designing for humans. Websites such as ‘What Do They Know‘ and ‘They Work For You‘ are popular because they take chunks of information and display them in a way which is easy for people to understand, informing and empowering them.

Designers should make sure the systems they create are designed with the user’s habits and needs in mind, instead of forcing them to tackle rigid and unintuitive systems. Similarly, whilst the concept of big, open date may be brilliant, it is essential that this data can be manipulated by all. Many potential users aren’t programmers or statisticians, and giant datasets which need APIs to navigate them can hinder as well as help analysis.

Government services benefit from this re-imagining. Dominic Campbell spoke about the Patchwork app designed to provide better collaboration within child protection services, and which was designed in response to Baby P’s case and the total failure of the incumbent ContactPoint system to prevent it. Despite retaining huge swathes of data on every single child from birth till 18, the expensive system raised serious privacy concerns, failed in its objectives and was ultimately scrapped. In contrast, Patchwork allows professionals to ‘group round’ children and share information only when necessary and in a way which is clear and intuitive.

It was interesting to see what attendees and speakers thought the future would hold for government. Some ideas were rather libertarian-friendly- for example, the goal of efficient ‘invisible’ government, which would do things like automatically create and process visa applications with the purchase of flight tickets. It was also encouraging to hear a speaker insist that a world in which 14% of the health budget comes from the sale of narcotics on a government version of Silk Road is not inconceivable!

However, some other ideas – such as government gathering social media data to create a ‘community hive mind’ -were rather more alarming. Most remarkable was the level of complacency of the organisers and attendees regarding mass government surveillance. One speaker’s entire presentation was summed up by a slide saying “NSA am I bothered? Not really LOL :)” Of course, not everybody is going to find the recent revelations earth-shattering, but it is unnerving to hear people working within these sectors have such little regard for civil liberties and privacy concerns.

When those responsible for designing government systems (and ultimately the use of citizen’s information) seem not to perceive potential abuses of state power and trust, it is hard to be enthusiastic about new government initiatives. With tech companies tightening security and encryption in response to Snowdon’s revelations, I don’t want well-meaning and forward-thinking designers to be asleep on the job, and dismissive of questions about the proper power balance between citizens and the state. This aside, it was really good to see such smart and engaged people talk about the exciting work they do.

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Tor, Bitcoin and the Silk Road: three forces for good

Since the arrest of Ross Ulbricht aka ‘Dread Pirate Roberts’ — the alleged mastermind behind the Silk Road — media attention has in part focused on the role of legal technologies Tor and Bitcoin in its operation. Silk Road was an online black market where all kinds of restricted and illicit goods (from illegal drugs to forged passports) were sold in an eBay-style setting. Because of the nature of its wares it made up part of the ‘deep web’ – accessible only by using software such as Tor, which enables user anonymity by obscuring their location and usage, making surveillance incredibly difficult. Its illegality also prevented customers from paying via card companies or PayPal, so business was done using the crypto-currency Bitcoin.

Whilst talk of Bitcoin and Tor is old hat amongst technophiles, reporting of Silk Road’s takedown is probably one of the first times that many people would have heard about such technologies. And, understandably, when their raised profile comes in association with a giant underground marketplace in drugs and a man charged with charged with ordering an assassination, people may be swift to discount them as ‘hacker tools’, or look upon them unkindly. (The Guardian’s leak of GCHQ’s presentation ‘Tor Stinks’, which depicts an apparently typical terrorist Tor user masked and toting an assault rifle (and sat in front of a giant onion) is in this respect both amusing and depressing.)

However, Tor and Bitcoin aren’t used just for shady dealings. Both can be used to great benefit — Tor in providing freedom and safety online, and Bitcoin in encouraging financial and monetary innovation.

There are huge numbers of people who aren’t terrorists, sex offenders or drug barons who benefit from anonymising software such as Tor, and those whose lives may depend on it. Tor allows people across the globe to communicate freely when doing so is risk and the internet is monitored or subject to blocks. It circumvents national firewalls, empowering and educating citizens who would otherwise be restricted. It allows whistleblowers to divulge their information anonymously, journalists to share news, and activists and citizens to criticise, dissent and organise in protest. Millions around the world benefit from Tor.

And it isn’t just citizens in oppressive regimes who benefit — Tor is used by the military in operations to protect their location whilst communicating securely. It could also be argued that concerned parents can help protect their child online by using Tor to mask their location. Whatever else Tor may be used for, its capacity to liberate and protect is great.

Similarly, the development of crypto-currencies such as Bitcoin carry with them great potential. Bitcoin is an open-source, peer-to-peer electronic currency. It has no central issuing authority; the money supply is increased as users’s computing power crunches numbers to verify pervious transactions. This has made crypto-currencies very interesting to those who wish to abolish central banks and establish new forms of currency. But Bitcoin also has a growing number of practical uses.

Increasing numbers of vendors are accepting payment in Bitcoins and it can be used to pay for things from WordPress services to pizza. It doesn’t require any third-party intermediary such as credit card companies or PayPal to process payments, making transactions cheaper and easier. This can lower transaction costs for businesses, which, were Bitcoin to become widely adopted could also be passed onto the consumer. The Mercatus Center’s primer on the currency suggests that this aspect of Bitcoin could also revolutionise the global redistribution of wealth. In 2012 immigrants to developed countries sent $401 billion back home to developing countries. The average fee doing so at places like Western Union is close to 10%, whilst fees for similar services using Bitcoin are less than 1% of the transaction. Wiring companies are looking at integrating Bitcoin services into their own, and if they were to do so this would be a tremendous boon for the poorer people of the world.

Transferring traditional currency into Bitcoins can also allow people to overcome domestic economic problems and the consequences of corruption. With tight capital controls and an inflation rate of 25%, it is no surprise that Argentinians are some of the most enthusiastic users of Bitcoin. Other great uses of Bitcoin, such as in conjunction with SMS banking in developing countries, are developing all of the time. Bitcoin definitely has the potential to be more than a plaything for nerds and a way of buying hash.

Cathy Reisenwitz is right: the world is less safe now that Silk Road is gone. The violence associated with drug dealing is not a consequence of the products, but of their illegality. As a stable, trusted and effective platform Silk Road removed that need for violence. Drug laws need a serious overhaul, and the user rating and delayed payment system of Silk Road offer a great model for a legal marketplace for drugs. I therefore think that it is great that technologies such as Tor and Bitcoin are being put to such use.

However, many will disagree. This is why it is important to point out the great potential and liberating capabilities of these technologies before people discount them, or worse turn against them. No technology in itself is ‘good’ or bad’ – what matters is how it is put to use, and while we worry about the potential dangers of new technology, we should remember its use in positive ways too.

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