Thursday, September 24, 2020

A Brief History of Digital Technology Abuse: The First 40 Chapters

Digital technology, it's at the heart of modern life—our communication systems, our methods of travel and transportation, our education, entertainment, medicine, and much, much more—and it has a problem: we keep abusing it.

Graph of internet crime losses

You can think of this as a problem with the technology: it is inherently vulnerable to abuse. Or you can think of this as a problem with people: we keep exploiting those vulnerabilities for selfish ends. 

Either way, it is a big problem, one that keeps getting bigger.

[Insert standard paragraph full of statistics documenting the undeniable rise of technology abuse despite record levels of spending to prevent such abuse — including at least one graph to help visualize this trend and cite source—and remind readers the author has published peer-reviewed papers on this topic.]

Sadly, some people who develop new digital technology products continue to behave as though this problem doesn't exist, or if it does, it's not a big problem, and besides, it will soon be solved so that we can all enjoy the benefits of whatever new technology these people are bringing to market. 

It is for these people—the technophilic "an app can fix that" uber-optimistic, techbro' solutionists—that I have been sketching out a brief history of digital technology abuse. Here's a screenshot of the first 40 chapters:

[I apologize for using a screenshot and not a text-based table that folks can copy and paste (have you tried building a table in Blogger?). However, an easy to grab text list, in roughly chronological order, is included at the end of the article. Also, the table above should be read column-by-column, left to right, top-to-bottom.]

The idea is that each chapter in the list is a technology that has proven vulnerable to abuse. (You can play mix-and-match with these, for example, email is abused to distribute documents containing macro technology that is abused to infect personal computer systems with malicious code that abuses attached digital cameras to capture embarrassing images and threatens to share them through abuse of social media.)

Of course, you may take one look at this table and realize some technologies are missing. Indeed, you may want make your own list, and I think that's a great idea. My list is somewhat random and clearly not definitive. I don't apologize for this because a. I was in a hurry, and b. any attempt at a complete list would be too long for a brief history of digital technology abuse.

The Digital Technology Product Warning

The goal of the 40 chapter list is to challenge people to name one or more digital technologies that are not vulnerable to abuse. (To be clear, I can't think of one.) And if there are none, then I would argue that every new piece of code-based or code-enabled technology must now come with a warning, a warning that has to be included in any discussion, reporting, or promotion of that technology. The warning should read something like this:
This product includes digital technology that is vulnerable to abuse which could cause harm or injury, including but not limited to failure to function correctly, loss of privacy, and reduced security.
I am sure some people will object when governments start proposing that such warnings must appear prominently on existing products, and be included in any reporting of soon-to-be-released products. One likely objection is that: "There's no way you can prove our product will be abused." 

The counter argument is: "there's no way you can prove your product is immune to abuse, but there is a very long history of digital technology products being abused." (Insert handy reference to "A Brief History of Digital Technology Abuse: The First 40 Chapters," S. Cobb.)

Of course, savvy readers will know that many of the digital technology products upon which we have come to rely for the smooth running of our daily lives already include warnings. The problem is that these are not very prominent. Indeed, they are often buried deep within the manual. However, poke around and you will find that any product that runs code comes with a warning like this: 
This product uses software that is provided 'as is' without warranty of any kind, either express or implied, including, but not limited to, the implied warranties of merchantability and fitness for a purpose. In no event shall the supplier of this software/product be liable to you or any third parties for any special, punitive, incidental, indirect or consequential damages of any kind, or any damages whatsoever, including, without limitation, those resulting from loss of use, data or profits, whether or not the supplier has been advised of the possibility of such damages, and on any theory of liability, arising out of or in connection with the use of this software.
So, for example, the next time you go to unlock your car with your phone and find—as thousands of Tesla owners did recently—that this feature isn't working, well, too bad. You were warned. You have no legal recourse. That's just the way it is. If you check the Tesla documentation I'm sure you will find language like the paragraph above. (You might also find that the same language applies to the self-driving software—I don't have a Tesla handy or I would look myself, but not while driving.)

The point is, even a brief history of digital technology abuse should be enough to prove that humans have been developing new technologies faster than they have established appropriate ethical norms within the societies into which these technologies are deployed. I believe there is an urgent need for us humans to get serious about monitoring and controlling technology development and deployment in ways that facilitate closing the technology-ethics gap. 

We can think of this gap as: "a mismatch between the value rationality of our ends and the instrumental rationality of our means." That's a quote Phil Torres in Chapter 6 of his excellent book Morality, Foresight, and Human Flourishing: An Introduction to Existential Risks (available on Amazon and at Powell's, etc.). 

Another way of putting it comes from Swedish-American physicist Max Tegmark, as quoted by Torres: "A race between the growing power of technology and growing wisdom with which we manage it." There's no doubt in my mind that:
  • the race is on
  • it's a marathon and not a sprint
  • it's probably going to be a multi-generational relay
  • it's the most important race for the human race
  • right now we are not looking like winners
I will be returning to this topic, but for now I'm off to the mental gym to do some circuits. I'll just leave the text of the chapter list for A Brief History of Digital Technology Abuse right below here.

  1. Mainframes
  2. CPUs
  3. Terminals
  4. Minis
  5. Apples
  6. PCs
  7. Removable media
  8. Macros
  9. Modems
  10. BBSes
  11. Windows
  12. PKI/AES
  13. WANs
  14. Email
  15. Internet
  16. World Wide Web
  17. SMS
  18. Digital cameras
  19. USB
  20. Wi-Fi
  21. Web 2.0
  22. Bluetooth
  23. 3G-4G
  24. Smartphones
  25. GPS
  26. RFID
  27. Social media
  28. Cloud
  29. Machine Learning
  30. loT
  31. Connected cars
  32. Facial recognition
  33. Apps
  34. Blockchain
  35. Digital currency
  36. Autonomous vehicles
  37. Drones
  38. Edge computing
  39. 5G
  40. AI

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