John Naughton: Why ‘weaponised’ social media isn’t Brexit’s smoking gun | John Naughton

Investigations into the political role of data analytics are welcome, but they won’t explain why people voted for Trump or leaving the EU

Last May the UK information commissioner, Elizabeth Denham, launched a formal investigation into the use of data analytics for political purposes. This involved an initial exploration of what went on in the Brexit referendum campaign but potentially also in others. And given the global nature of digital data, the investigation also involved an investigation into how “companies operating internationally” were using the personal data of UK citizens for political purposes.

The overall goal of this inquiry was to understand how personal information was used in political campaigns. The commissioner was concerned about the “invisible processing” of citizens’ private data by algorithms that carry out data-matching and profiling – which of course is what Google and Facebook do for a living. Their automated engines were originally built to facilitate the targeting of commercial messages at their users. But what became clear in 2016 is that those same engines had been “weaponised” by political actors to deliver targeted political and ideological messages, and that’s a very different game. “When the purpose for using these techniques is related to the democratic process,” wrote Denham, “the case for a high standard of transparency is very strong.”

Related: How a half-educated tech elite delivered us into evil | John Naughton

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John Naughton: Data-hungry Facebook seeks younger recruits | John Naughton

The social network’s new Messenger Kids app is doubtless well intentioned – but also helps to get the under-13s hooked by the Facebook habit

In one of those coincidences that give irony a bad name, Facebook launched a new service for children at the same time that a moral panic was sweeping the UK about the dangers of children using live-streaming apps that enable anyone to broadcast video directly from a smartphone or a tablet. The BBC showed a scary example of what can happen. A young woman who works as an internet safety campaigner posed as a 14-year-old girl to find out what occurs when a young female goes online using one of these streaming services.

You can imagine what happened and if you can’t, go to the BBC site and search for “posing as a schoolgirl to expose online groomers”. No one who understands the internet would be surprised, given that the network holds up a mirror to human nature and much that is reflected in it is very dark. Another report claimed that children as young as nine who use the Periscope app are being groomed in this way, getting messages such as “show skirt under desk” (to cite one of the less explicit requests). Needless to say, Twitter (which owns Periscope) says that it has “zero tolerance” on this kind of thing. Which doesn’t quite answer the obvious question: what steps are you taking to ensure that children can’t use this app?

Related: Jeremy Hunt attacks Facebook over app aimed at children

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John Naughton: Twitter, Trump and the distortion of the public sphere | John Naughton

The president’s social media meddling remind us of how a good furore can turn an insignificant political party into a global concern overnight

In the 1930s, a maverick young journalist named Claud Cockburn resigned from the Times and, with £40 borrowed from an Oxford friend, bought a mimeograph machine (a low-cost duplicating machine that worked by forcing ink though a stencil on to paper). With it he set up the Week, a weekly newsletter available by subscription in which Cockburn printed news and gossip that came to him from his diverse group of contacts in both the British and German establishments.

From the beginning the Week printed stuff that the mainstream newspapers wouldn’t touch because of fears of running foul of the Official Secrets Act, the libel laws or the political establishment. Cockburn, having few assets and a rackety lifestyle, proceeded as if none of this applied to him. But people in the know – the third secretaries of foreign embassies, for example, or City bankers – quickly recognised the value of the Week (for the same reasons as they now read Private Eye). Nevertheless the circulation of Cockburn’s scandal sheet remained confined to this small elite circle – and its finances were correspondingly dodgy.

As a result of Trump’s retweeting, millions of people probably think that Britain First is a power in the land

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John Naughton: The trouble with big data is the huge energy bill | John Naughton

The power consumed by the internet giants’ massive server farms and the mining of the cryptocurrency are growing into a giant environmental headache

Once upon a time, a very long time ago – 2009 in fact – there was a brief but interesting controversy about the carbon footprint of a Google search. It was kicked off by a newspaper story reporting a “calculation” of mysterious origin that suggested a single Google search generated 7 grams of CO2, which is about half of the carbon footprint of boiling a kettle. Irked by this, Google responded with a blogpost saying that this estimate was much too high. “In terms of greenhouse gases,” the company said, “one Google search is equivalent to about 0.2 grams of CO2. The current EU standard for tailpipe [exhaust] emissions calls for 140 grams of CO2 per kilometre driven, but most cars don’t reach that level yet. Thus, the average car driven for one kilometre (0.6 miles for those in the US) produces as many greenhouse gases as a thousand Google searches.”

Every service that Google provides is provided via its huge data centres, which consume vast amounts of electricity to power and cool the servers, and are therefore responsible for the emission of significant amounts of CO2. Since the advent of the modern smartphone in about 2007 our reliance on distant data centres has become total, because everything we do on our phones involves an interaction with the “cloud” and therefore has a carbon footprint.

Related: Everything you wanted to know about bitcoin but were afraid to ask

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John Naughton: How a half-educated tech elite delivered us into evil | John Naughton

If our supersmart tech leaders knew a bit more about history or philosophy we wouldn’t be in the mess we’re in now

One of the biggest puzzles about our current predicament with fake news and the weaponisation of social media is why the folks who built this technology are so taken aback by what has happened. Exhibit A is the founder of Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg, whose political education I recently chronicled. But he’s not alone. In fact I’d say he is quite representative of many of the biggest movers and shakers in the tech world. We have a burgeoning genre of “OMG, what have we done?” angst coming from former Facebook and Google employees who have begun to realise that the cool stuff they worked on might have had, well, antisocial consequences.

Put simply, what Google and Facebook have built is a pair of amazingly sophisticated, computer-driven engines for extracting users’ personal information and data trails, refining them for sale to advertisers in high-speed data-trading auctions that are entirely unregulated and opaque to everyone except the companies themselves.

It never seems to have occurred to them that their engines could be used to deliver ideological and political messages

Related: Why Facebook is in a hole over data mining | John Naughton

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John Naughton: How Peppa Pig knock-offs bring home the bacon for Google | John Naughton

The content on Google’s YouTube Kids app is not always suitable for children – but who cares as long as the cash keeps rolling in?

The motto “don’t be evil” has always seemed to me to be a daft mantra for a public company, but for years that was the flag under which Google sailed. It was a heading in the letter that the two founders wrote to the US Securities and Exchange Commission prior to the company’s flotation on the Nasdaq stock market in 2004. “We believe strongly,” Sergey Brin and Larry Page declared, “that in the long term, we will be better served – as shareholders and in all other ways – by a company that does good things for the world even if we forgo some short-term gains. This is an important aspect of our culture and is broadly shared within the company.” Two years ago, when Google morphed into Alphabet – its new parent company – the motto changed. Instead of “don’t be evil” it became “do the right thing”.

Heartwarming, eh? But still a strange motto for a public corporation. I mean to say, what’s “right” in this context? And who decides? Since Google/Alphabet does not get into specifics, let me help them out. The “right thing” is “whatever maximises shareholder value”, because in our crazy neoliberal world that’s what public corporations do. In fact, I suspect that if Google decided that doing the right thing might have an adverse impact on the aforementioned value, then its directors would be sued by activist shareholders for dereliction of their fiduciary duty.

There seems to be a lot of stuff on YouTube Kids that is not violent but is disturbing in another sense

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John Naughton: Facebook is not listening to the fake news furore | John Naughton

Mark Zuckerberg’s absence from Capitol Hill to face questioning about the firm’s role in the spread of bogus election ads spoke volumes about his priorities

One of the most instructive sights of the week was that of representatives of Twitter, Google and Facebook getting a grilling from a US Senate judiciary subcommittee on Capitol Hill. The topic at hand? “Extremist content and Russian disinformation online”, which, translated, reads: how did Russian use of social media affect the outcome of the 2016 presidential election? The committee chairman, Senator Lindsey Graham, set it up nicely in his opening statement by quoting what Trump had said on Fox News on 20 October: “I doubt I’d be here if it weren’t for social media, to be honest with you.”

For three tech companies that, like all of Silicon Valley, loathe and despise politics, this was a nightmarish week. I mean to say, there they were, at the mercy of the low-IQ technophobes of Capitol Hill, live on C-Span (the congressional TV channel), something they had lobbied furiously to avoid. Their appearances were presaged by a flurry of press releases and revelations. The Russian exploitation of their advertising machines that they had once pooh-poohed was, it turned out, much more extensive than they had imagined. Facebook, for example, had belatedly discovered that 126 million people in the US may have seen posts produced by Russian-government-backed agents on its site. Very devious coves, those Ruskies.

The Republicans who control Congress have no intention of doing anything to regulate the tech companies

Related: Trick-or-treats and burger tweets: what tech CEOs did instead of testifying in DC

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John Naughton: Why we need a 21st-century Martin Luther to challenge the church of tech

It’s 500 years since Martin Luther defied the authority of the Catholic church. It’s time for a similar revolt against the hypocrisy of the religion of technology

A new power is loose in the world. It is nowhere and yet it’s everywhere. It knows everything about us – our movements, our thoughts, our desires, our fears, our secrets, who our friends are, our financial status, even how well we sleep at night. We tell it things that we would not whisper to another human being. It shapes our politics, stokes our appetites, loosens our tongues, heightens our moral panics, keeps us entertained (and therefore passive). We engage with it 150 times or more every day, and with every moment of contact we add to the unfathomable wealth of its priesthood. And we worship it because we are, somehow, mesmerised by it.

In other words, we are all members of the Church of Technopoly, and what we worship is digital technology. Most of us are so happy in our obeisance to this new power that we spend an average of 50 minutes on our daily devotion to Facebook alone without a flicker of concern. It makes us feel modern, connected, empowered, sophisticated and informed.

Related: Silicon Valley has been humbled. But its schemes are as dangerous as ever | Evgeny Morozov

Related: Facebook allowed advertisers to target ‘Jew haters’

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John Naughton: North Korea’s deadliest weapon? Its hackers | John Naughton

As Sony Pictures and the New York Federal Reserve will attest, the regime has become extremely skilled, and successful, at cyber attacks

Rule No 1 in international relations: do not assume that your adversary is nuts. Rule No 2: do not underestimate his capacity to inflict serious damage on you. We in the west are currently making both mistakes with regard to North Korea. Our reasons for doing so are, at one level, understandable. In economic terms, the country is a basket case. According to the CIA’s world factbook, its per-capita GDP is $1,800 or less, compared with nearly $40,000 for the UK and $53,000 for the US. Its industrial infrastructure is clapped out and nearly beyond repair; the country suffers from chronic food, energy and electricity shortages and many of its people are malnourished. International sanctions are squeezing it almost to asphyxiation. And, to cap it all, it’s led by a guy whose hairdo is almost as preposterous as Donald Trump’s.

And yet this impoverished basket case has apparently been able to develop nuclear weapons, plus the rocketry needed to deliver them to Los Angeles and its environs. Given the retaliatory capacity of the US, this is widely taken as proof that Kim Jong-un must be out of what might loosely be called his mind. Which is where rule No1 comes in. Kim’s priority is to avoid regime change. He knows that if you have nukes, then no one – not even Trump – is going to try any funny business, especially when it’s clear that a seriously aggressive move by the US would mean the death of hundreds of thousands of South Koreans. The North Korean leader’s rationale for developing nuclear weapons that are ready for deployment is identical to Britain’s rationale for renewing Trident: deterrence.

Last year, North Korean hackers nearly pulled off the greatest bank heist in history

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