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Amazon Sidewalk unveils more privacy issues (insert surprise here)

(TECH NEWS) Amazon is enabling the Sidewalk option on home devices, which is alarming from a privacy perspective under the guise of strengthening your home network.

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Amazon Sidewalk promotional image with key, dog, and phone in flat illustration style.

Alexa has become a staple of daily life for numerous people. As a digital assistant, Alexa’s worth is measured entirely by how often one would access the service, and can become invaluable in a number of situations. Voice commands are easy to issue and intuitively understand. I appreciate the ease the technology provides, as it can help shrink the gap between the less savvy users while still empowering them to embrace an increasingly digital world.

The concept of an always-on and potentially always-listening device has raised privacy concerns for a while now, and this has been magnified by the pandemic due to an increase of employees across the nation who work from home permanently. While the general idea is that Alexa doesn’t trigger an action or carry out a command without the wake word, it has been found to react to similar sounding words and phrases. For fun, South Park intentionally tried to interact with the devices during an episode to draw attention to the uneasy idea of everything being heard and transmitted to Amazon.

I could continue with numerous other instances – advocates questioning whether or not Alexa violates the privacy of children, eavesdropping on confidential information, and others if need be.

Most consumers are somewhat aware of this idea; after all, it’s easy to understand that the devices are designed to work at all times and act upon commands. There may not be complete comprehension with respect to personal data, but the general concept remains – the trade of convenience and privacy so that life can be made marginally less hectic through the use of miraculous and omnipresent systems that help guide our lives.

In short: Some people just really like to know the weather, or have a running grocery list, or instantly play music without breaking out of their current routine. Admittedly, it is an easy sell in a lot of regards.

Amazon, however, has brought forth another option that privacy advocates find troubling – the automatic execution of their Sidewalk service. Simply put, it takes Amazon connected devices – the Echo smart speaker, Ring Spotlight Cam, and/or Ring Floodlight Cam – and bridges them together to form a mesh-like network over Bluetooth or 900Mhz radio signals. The idea is appealing – it provides better connectivity to other smart devices, which can result in more stable connectivity and fewer dead zones across a home.

In theory, this is fantastic – users can now think of their devices as all sharing a unified network and wireless ecosystem that will help lower the chance of dropped signals, and allow them to speak commands from further away and better guarantee their action is executed. Even better (with a big asterisk, explained below), it can connect with devices in a neighbor’s home, building a network that stretches across multiple houses.

And so once again, this idea – in theory – is fantastic. However, there are a number of caveats and concerns that must be explored.

First, Amazon is choosing to turn this on automatically across the devices. Let’s set aside the idea that this shows a corporation making choices and decisions for their consumers (even though that alone should be a huge red flag) – the issue here is that Amazon is enabling a service by default, and requires someone to opt-out. This means that numerous users will not know it is on; perhaps they missed the announcement email, or don’t understand the ramifications, or otherwise feel unsure or unsafe in making changes to their devices.

It’s clear that Amazon knew a backlash would come from this, as they prepared a lengthy whitepaper detailing their commitment to privacy even with the Sidewalk service enabled. But advocates are rightfully upset in the face of Amazon’s handling of private information in the past and accusations of potential spying, and should question whether or not this is an attempt to become further entrenched in the homes of consumers.

The rollout – which was planned by the end of the year in the United States – appears to be live already (albeit sporadically). Users at Reddit are have found it enabled, and have pushed for others to turn it off immediately in the name of security and privacy. As such, despite Amazon’s insistence that this service is still in a planning phase, it has been stealthily deployed.

Another problem is that the service is designed to utilize a small bit of each owner’s bandwidth in order to run successfully. This means that neighbors could leach off each other, potentially directing traffic through someone else’s connection. In an age where service providers are planning to impose data caps and charge users for going over their allotment, this could potentially mean costs increasing despite no change in behavior. Also, who knows what your neighbors are searching for?

In the past – prior to wireless networks being the norm – it was common for hackers to participate in “wardriving,” which meant they would drive around and find open networks. While this could have been innocent in nature, it opened up the possibility of stolen data, slowed connectivity, and other issues. Amazon’s Sidewalk service essentially renews this kind of behavior and makes it the default choice for device owners.

Amazon has plans to introduce this service in other nations as well, and has already seen upset users lashing out on Twitter and in other spaces.

Perhaps most alarmingly is the idea that there is a distinct possibility that Amazon is preying upon the average user to simply not care enough to want to make this change, or perhaps ignore it outright. In turn, if they see adoption at a high percentage, it might only encourage further, similar actions. This is kind of a slippery slope argument, but it’s not uncommon for others to follow suit if there is money to be made.

The idea that a huge corporation can make such a change and essentially get by with “if you’re not doing anything wrong, you have nothing to worry about” while also dangling flashy, shiny baubles (in the form of “convenient features”) should absolutely cause users some level of stress and concern.

Privacy advocates continue to actively fight such things, and users should absolutely consider whether or not they want to freely give away the control of their devices and the protection of their personal data.

Lastly, If you’d like to check and/or turn Amazon Sidewalk off (and I personally suggest you do), please do the following:

  1. Open Alexa App.
  2. Go to Settings > Account Settings > Amazon Sidewalk
  3. Turn it off

Robert Snodgrass has an English degree from Texas A&M University, and wants you to know that yes, that is actually a thing. And now he's doing something with it! Let us all join in on the experiment together. When he's not web developing at Docusign, he runs distances that routinely harm people and is the kind of giant nerd that says "you know, there's a King of the Hill episode that addresses this exact topic".

Tech News

AI technology is using facial recognition to hire the “right” people

(TECH NEWS) Artificial intelligence (AI) technology has made its way into the hiring process and while the intentions are good, I vote we proceed with extreme caution.

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AI technology facial recognition

Artificial intelligence technology has made its way into the hiring process and while the intentions are good, I vote we proceed with extreme caution.

A UK based consumer goods giant, Unilever, is just one of several UK companies who have begun using AI technology to sort through initial job candidates. The goal of this technology is to increase the number of candidates whom a company can interview at the initial stages of the hiring process and to improve response time for those candidates.

The AI, developed by American company Hirevue, analyzes a candidate’s language, tone, and facial expression during a video interview. Hirevue insists that their product is different from traditional facial recognition technologies because it analyzes far more data points.

Hirevue’s chief technology officer, Loren Larsen, says, “We get about 25,000 data points from 15 minutes of video per candidate. The text, the audio and the video come together to give us a very clear analysis and rich data set of how someone is responding, the emotions and cognitions they go through.”
This data is then used to rank candidates on a scale of 1 to 100 against a database of traits identified in previously successful candidates.

There are two main flaws to this system. First, unless this AI technology is pulling from a huge diverse data pool it could be unintentionally discriminating against people without even being aware of it. Human bias is not as easy to remove from the equation as AI proponents would have you believe.

As an example, how does this AI handle people who are disabled or whose facial expressions that read differently than the general population, such as people with Down Syndrome or those who have survived traumatic facial injuries?

Second, seeking to hire someone who possess the same qualities as the person who was previously successful at a role is shortsighted. There are many ways to accomplish the same task with above average results. Companies who adopt this low-risk mentality could be missing out on great opportunities long-term. You will never know what actually works best if you don’t try.

The big question here is whether or not AI technology is ready to influence the job market on this scale.

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Tech News

The ‘move fast and break things’ trend is finally over

(TECH NEWS) Time is running out for this decade — and for a popular Big Tech phrase responsible for a lot of collateral damage. What’s next?

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big tech move fast break stuff

Time is running out for the decade. With less than 20 days left, it’s got us reflecting on the journeys of different economic sectors in the United States. And no industry has had a more tumultuous time of it than Big Tech.

A lot has changed in ten years. For starters, Americans have become increasingly disillusioned with Silicon Valley. The Pew Research Center found that only 50 percent of Americans believe technology firms have a positive effect on the country. That statistic is not too bad on its own, but that’s down 21 percent from only four years ago. Gallup found in 2019 that 48 percent of Americans also want more regulations on Big Tech. And The New York Times called the 2010s as “the decade Big Tech lost its way”.

Maybe that’s why big wigs at these tech firms have been quietly ditching a concept that was their Golden Rule in the early part of the decade: Move Fast and Break Things.

This concept is a modern take on the adage “you can’t make an omelet without breaking a few eggs.” For most of these firms, any innovation justified some of the collateral damage within its wake. And this scrappy “build it now and worry about it later” philosophy was a favorite of not just Facebook and Twitter, but also of many venture capital firms too.

But not anymore. Outlets from Forbes to HBR are saying this doesn’t work for Big Tech in the 2020s. Here are some reasons why it’s over.

Stability

The Move Fast and Break Things manta encouraged devs to push their coding changes to go live and let the chips fall where they may. But bugs pile up. Enter technical debt.

“Technical debt happens every time you do things that might get you closer to your goal now but create problems that you’ll have to fix later,” said The Quantified VC in an article on Medium. “As you move fast and break things, you will certainly accumulate technical debt.”

If enough technical debt comes into play, any new line of code could be the thing that topples a firm like a house of cards. And now that the consumer is used to tech in their daily routines, interruptions in service are extremely bad news for everyone.

As Mark Zuckerburg himself said it: “When you build something that you don’t have to fix 10 times, you can move forward on top of what you’ve built.”

Trust

To get back some of the trust that has ebbed from Big Tech over the years, firms can’t just keep with the Move Fast and Break Things status quo.

“The public will continue to grow weary of perceived abuses by tech companies, and will favor businesses that address economic, social, and environmental problems,” said Hemant Taneja in his article for Harvard Business Review. “Minimum viable products must be replaced by minimum virtuous products that … build in guards against potential harms.”

It’s not about chasing the bottom dollar at the cost of the consumer. Losing trust will hurt any company if left unchecked for long.

Innovation

There’s a cap on advancement in our current technological state. It’s called Moore’s Law. And we’re rapidly approaching the theoretical limits of it.

“When you understand the fundamental technology that underlies a product or service, you can move quickly, trying out nearly endless permutations until you arrive at an optimized solution. That’s often far more effective than a more planned, deliberate approach,” said Greg Satell in his article for HBR.

Soon enough, Big Tech will be in relatively new waters with quantum computing, biofeedback and AI. There’s no way to move as fast as these technology firms have in the past. And even if they could, should they?

Big Tech has experienced major growing pains since the dawn of our new Millenium. And now that some firms are entering their 20s, there’s a choice to be made. Continue to grow up or keep using an idea that’s worn out it’s welcome with the consumer and that has no guarantee will work with future technologies.

Maybe that’s why Facebook’s motto is now “Move Fast with Stable Infrastructure.”

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Tech News

Computer vision helps AI create a recipe from just a photo

(TECH NEWS) It’s so hard to find the right recipe for that beautiful meal you saw on tv or online. Well computer vision helps AI recreate it from a picture!

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computer vision recreates recipe

Ever seen at a photo of a delicious looking meal on Instagram and wondered how the heck to make that? Now there’s an AI for that, kind of.

Facebook’s AI research lab has been developing a system that can analyze a photo of food and then create a recipe. So, is Facebook trying to take on all the food bloggers of the world now too?

Well, not exactly, the AI is part of an ongoing effort to teach AI how to see and then understand the visual world. Food is just a fun and challenging training exercise. They have been referring to it as “inverse cooking.”

According to Facebook, “The “inverse cooking” system uses computer vision, technology that extracts information from digital images and videos to give computers a high level of understanding of the visual world,”

The concept of computer vision isn’t new. Computer vision is the guiding force behind mobile apps that can identify something just by snapping a picture. If you’ve ever taken a photo of your credit card on an app instead of typing out all the numbers, then you’ve seen computer vision in action.

Facebook researchers insist that this is no ordinary computer vision because their system uses two networks to arrive at the solution, therefore increasing accuracy. According to Facebook research scientist Michal Drozdzal, the system works by dividing the problem into two parts. A neutral network works to identify ingredients that are visible in the image, while the second network pulls a recipe from a kind of database.

These two networks have been the key to researcher’s success with more complicated dishes where you can’t necessarily see every ingredient. Of course, the tech team hasn’t stepped foot in the kitchen yet, so the jury is still out.

This sounds neat and all, but why should you care if the computer is learning how to cook?

Research projects like this one carry AI technology a long way. As the AI gets smarter and expands its limits, researchers are able to conceptualize new ways to put the technology to use in our everyday lives. For now, AI like this is saving you the trouble of typing out your entire credit card number, but someday it could analyze images on a much grander scale.

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