John Naughton: How MIT was complicit in allowing Jeffrey Epstein to launder his reputation | John Naughton

The financier’s links to the institution are symptoms of a deep malaise in big tech

In the parallel moral universe known as the tech industry, the MIT media lab was Valhalla. “The engineers, designers, scientists and physicians who constitute the two dozen research groups housed there,” burbled the Atlantic in a profile of what it called the Idea Factory, “work in what may be the world’s most interesting, most hyper-interdisciplinary thinktank.” It has apparently been responsible for a host of groundbreaking innovations including “the technology behind the Kindle and Guitar Hero” (I am not making this up) and its researchers “end up pollinating other projects with insights and ideas, within a hive of serendipitous collaboration”.

That was written in 2011. In the last two weeks, we have discovered that some of this groundbreaking work was funded by Jeffrey Epstein, the financial wizard who took his own life rather than face prosecution for sex trafficking and other crimes. It should be pointed out that most of those researchers were entirely unaware of who was funding their work and some of them have been very upset by learning the truth. Their distress is intensified by the discovery that their ignorance was not accidental.

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John Naughton: Think your iPhone is safe from hackers? That’s what they want you to think…

Forget Apple’s much-vaunted iOS safeguards – attackers have been quietly breaking and entering for years

Whenever there’s something that some people value, there will be a marketplace for it. A few years ago, I spent a fascinating hour with a detective exploring the online marketplaces that exist in the so-called “dark web” (shorthand for the parts of the web you can only get to with a Tor browser and some useful addresses). The marketplaces we were interested in were ones in which stolen credit card details and other confidential data are traded.

What struck me most was the apparent normality of it all. It’s basically eBay for crooks. There are sellers offering goods (ranges of stolen card details, Facebook, Gmail and other logins etc) and punters interested in purchasing same. Different categories of these stolen goods are more or less expensive. (The most expensive logins, as I remember it, were for PayPal). But the funniest thing of all was that some of the marketplaces operated a “reputation” system, just like eBay’s. Some vendors had 90%-plus ratings for reliability etc. Some purchasers likewise. Others were less highly regarded. So, one reflected, there really is honour among thieves.

Nothing goes on iPhones that Apple has not vetted, whereas anything goes on Android. But iOS is a complacent monoculture

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John Naughton: Been duped on Facebook and Amazon’s platforms? Well, you’re not alone | John Naughton

Allowing third parties access to the online giants is as risky as it is profitable

Digital networks have two significant properties: they can expand very rapidly, given the right conditions, and, if they do grow, powerful network effects kick in very quickly. A network effect is the phenomenon whereby the value of a network increases according to the number of people using it. In the 1980s, Bob Metcalfe tried to quantify the multiplier effect of additional users with what became known as Metcalfe’s law, which says that the value of a network is proportional to the square of the number of users. A network with 10 users has a value of 100, but one with a thousand users has a value of a million (1,000 squared).

Ever since the web arrived, the overriding mantra of online entrepreneurs has been “get big fast”: recruit users or customers as quickly as possible to get to the point where the network effect kicks in and discourages potential competitors. For most of the successful firms, the way to achieve this was to offer free services. This was the route chosen by Google and, later, Facebook and YouTube. For Amazon, growth was achieved by low prices, efficient dispatch, good customer service, prompt delivery and a colossal inventory.

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John Naughton: Douglas Adams was right – knowledge without understanding is meaningless | John Naughton

Using supercomputers to explain life, the universe and everything takes us into territory previously only laughed at

Fans of Douglas Adams’s Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy treasure the bit where a group of hyper-dimensional beings demand that a supercomputer tells them the secret to life, the universe and everything. The machine, which has been constructed specifically for this purpose, takes 7.5m years to compute the answer, which famously comes out as 42. The computer helpfully points out that the answer seems meaningless because the beings who instructed it never knew what the question was. And the name of the supercomputer? Why, Deep Thought, of course.

Machine-learning may soon enable us to accurately predict how a protein will fold. But it won’t be scientific knowledge

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John Naughton: Behind the Screen review – inside the social media sweatshops

Sarah T Roberts’s vital new study demonstrates how online content moderation is a global industry that operates on the back of human exploitation

“All human life is there” used to be the proudest boast of the (mercifully) defunct News of the World. Like everything else in that organ, it wasn’t true: the NoW specialised in randy vicars, chorus girls, Tory spankers, pools winners, C-list celebrities and other minority sports. But there is a medium to which the slogan definitely applies – it’s called the internet.

The best metaphor for the net is to think of it as a mirror held up to human nature. All human life really is there. There’s no ideology, fetish, behaviour, obsession, perversion, eccentricity or fad that doesn’t find expression somewhere online. And while much of what we see reflected back to us is uplifting, banal, intriguing, harmless or fascinating, some of it is truly awful, for the simple reason that human nature is not only infinitely diverse but also sometimes unspeakably cruel.

A key question is whether the moderation task is ultimately a futile, sisyphean one

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John Naughton: Tech giants despise politics? Hardly – they are in the thick of it and being called out | John Naughton

Silicon Valley’s countercultural aura is gone now that Google develops AI for China and Palantir helps monitor immigration

If there was one thing that united the founders of today’s tech giants in their early days it was contempt for politics, manifested as suspicion of government and a pathological aversion to regulation (not to mention paying taxes). In part, this was a product of their origins in the counterculture of the 1960s. But the aversion endured as the companies grew. One saw it, for example, in the US poet and cyberlibertarian John Perry Barlow’s 1996 Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace. “Governments of the Industrial World,” it began, “I come from Cyberspace, the new home of Mind. On behalf of the future, I ask you of the past to leave us alone. You are not welcome among us. You have no sovereignty where we gather.”

For many years, Silicon Valley companies didn’t even bother to have lobbyists in Washington. As late as 2015, Eric Schmidt, then the executive chairman of Google, was predicting that authoritarian governments would wither away in a comprehensively networked world, which made some of us wonder what exactly Dr Schmidt was smoking.

Google’s bosses were running a secret project to build a search engine that would be acceptable to Xi Jinping and co. Eventually, it was scrapped

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John Naughton: From Watergate to El Paso: should we be relying on unelected bodies to protect us? | John Naughton

Web security firm Cloudflare’s decision to terminate 8chan as a customer is welcome, but risks setting a dangerous precedent

Last Saturday morning, a gunman armed with an assault rifle walked into a Walmart store in El Paso, Texas, and shot 22 people dead and injured 24 more. Shortly before he did so, a post by him appeared on the /pol/ [politically incorrect] message board of the far-right website 8chan. Attached to it was a four-page “manifesto”. The 8chan thread was quickly deleted by a site moderator (it was news to me that 8chan had moderators), but archived copies of it rapidly circulated on the internet.

“There is nothing new in this killer’s ramblings,” wrote one analyst who had read it. “He expresses fears of the same ‘replacement’ of white people that motivated the Christchurch shooter and notes that he was deeply motivated by that shooter’s manifesto.”

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John Naughton: Technology may not create inequality, but it certainly enables it to thrive | John Naughton

A few privileged workers benefit from the rise of the tech giants, but millions more suffer at their hands

Here is one of the great paradoxes of our time. The world is dominated by a few corporations that are among the most profitable companies in the history of capitalism. In the US (the home of these giants) and in the UK (an enthusiastic vassal state), parts of the economy are booming and employment is at record levels. And yet, in the middle of this astonishing prosperity, inequality is at levels not seen since the period before the first world war. In the US, the share of total income going to the top 1% of the population is now back to the level it was in the 1920s. And in the UK, more than 4 million people are trapped in deep poverty.

Since this catastrophic rise in inequality seems to be correlated with the rise of the tech industry, it’s tempting to see a causal link between the two. Tempting, but too simplistic. For while digital technology has been a central factor in what’s happened, it’s only a part of the story. More often, it’s been an enabler of other forces rather than a prime mover.

People wind up working for an algorithm rather than a human being

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John Naughton: Dominic Cummings: The feared T-shirt technocrat who scorns the political class

The Downing Street ideas man relishes challenges, but voices contempt for civil servants and their ministerial masters

Skulking in the background of TV news footage of Boris Johnson’s cabinet of C-list politicos, a strange figure in a T-shirt could be seen. His name: Dominic Cummings, now the prime minister’s senior adviser. He’s all forehead and no smile, clutching a pen and possibly a notebook, and doubtless making notes.

What a pity, one thought, that David Davis wasn’t round the cabinet table. In 2017 Cummings noted that Davis was as “thick as mince”, as “lazy as a toad” and as “vain as Narcissus”. As they passed him in the corridor on Thursday, many of Johnson’s new appointees must have wondered how they will be summarised in that notebook. We’ll have to wait a bit to find out.

The colossal resources needed to realise those dreams came from the bottomless well of wartime funding

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