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Social engineering

Originally posted on Always-On

Most people now accept that our world is in one way or another tied to or driven by technology, be it your mobile / cell phone, your computer, or even your video recorder. I, for one, see technology as an enabler. My business relies on various technologies for its very functionality. Technology has become a necessity of my working life.

Technology is now fashionable. Mobile phones are the very epitome of this techno trend and they have become social thermometers of trendiness. Among a wide age group, and from one end of the social spectrum to the other, they are the accessory of choice.

But in the mad rush to get the latest gizmo into the pockets of everyone between the ages of six and sixty, something got lost in translation. So when did technology go bad? No, we’re not talking about The Terminator or The Matrix, we’re talking about the gross neglect committed by manufacturers when they choose not to consider the social implications of their devices.

For instance, the Internet was devised as a research tool for academicians. In this scenario, there was no security model as there was no need for one. Now, all and sundry traipse up and down the information superhighway and we see the smog of data, a pall of effluence rising from the most infamous traffic jam in history: the head-on collision between the juggernaut that is spam and the long yellow bus full of noobs traveling along the information superhighway.

So we soon begin to see how the Internet has become a tool for pedophiles, criminals, bulk spammers, and other digital detritus to ply their trade. If the rules are weak, bad things will happen.

Who could have foreseen this? In the very early 80’s, no one. But that was then, this is now. Surely we’ve learned our lesson? Er .. no!

The fact of the matter is, even knowing what to avoid is not enough of an impetus to affect change. Especially when the next new whizz-bang feature on the current gadget is so alluring and appealing.

By way of example, look at the cameras built into mobile phones. In Japan, children and teenagers have been banned from news agents because of a spate of thefts involving kids photographing entire magazines and then sending the pages onto friends to read later. However you choose to look at that, it’s stealing, plain and simple.

But there’s a flip-side to this: the knee-jerk, political reaction that rushes legislation into place to fill holes that either can’t be filled or weren’t there in the first place; namely the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act of 2000.

In the UK, it seems that using a mobile phone with a hands-free kit is far more dangerous than talking to a passenger in the car you’re driving. Apparently the research supports this, but common sense doesn’t. In the end, which do you think will win out?

So you thought Microsoft was going to get away with it this time around? Wrong!

Within Microsoft Windows is a tiny little feature that can have a potentially ruinous effect on your life. A small option with big ambitions: a messenger system that allows for the instant pop-up of banner adverts and other nausea.

To the best of my knowledge, this problem has been fixed. But this demonstrates that no matter how egalitarian or philanthropic your ambitions might be, or your desire to create compelling features for your customers, someone will be waiting to exploit whatever system or mechanism you put in place.

Now we’re on the verge of the next craze with mobile / cell phones: push ring tones. Sounds great on the face of it. You get to choose and send the ring tone to the recipient’s phone, so you dictate what their ring tone sounds like when you call.

Does this not sound like the perfect vehicle to terrorize someone with crank, vile, and odious sounds, grunts, and other offensive expletives?

I could be wrong, but the difference here is that I’ve thought clearly about the social implications of what these people are throwing into a forest of waving arms, all eager to seize whatever is new this week, regardless of how it might change their lives .. be it for better or for worse…

By Wayne Smallman

Wayne is the man behind the Blah, Blah! Technology website, and the creator of the Under Cloud, a digital research assistant for journalists and academics.

6 replies on “Social engineering”

The social impact of a product is often given the lowest priority while it is being developed. Partly it is because it has (at least initially) little to do with profit margins, and secondly, it is hard to come up with all the applications!

Technology evolves.During the initial days of the internet, it was all text. No one expected computers to ‘evolve’ to support images and video!

However with cellphone cameras, industry knew exactly what was coming. But in this age of competition, no one can afford to think abt. those details lest another competitor beats them to the punch.

So, we are left to clean up after the mess… but societies evolve, standards evolve. Technology is a force that is changing the societies today, and that is perhaps in some ways both a good and a bad thing.

The excuse has always been that scientists only think new things up, they’re not responsible for the use to which they’re put.

Which is a crap excuse in some ways, especially when you look at Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

But on the other hand:
a) would any real progress happen if every scientist had to wrack their conscience before reaching out for knowledge and passing it on?
b) the real villains of the piece are the marketing people (yet again), whose sole aim is to make money out of whatever they’re given.

Evolution should sort us all out, and society in 50 years will look like an alien planet compared to 50 years ago. You mark my words young man he said feeling old 😉

You’ve correctly identified the two issues at the heart of the problem, but you’ve got them the wrong way around.

In the first instance, you have the marketing people who pick over ideas and other trivia, trying to create that essential product stickiness.

Sometimes, this is done in a pick & mix fashion from pre-existing technologies, which largely indemnifies the engineers.

In the second instance, you have the marketing people who pick over ideas and other trivia, trying to create that essential product stickiness.

Only this time, the ideas to be made solid cannot be found out in the wild, and it is the job of the engineer to make them real, which again largely indemnifies the engineers.

Rarely do you find technology that is designed to do wrong things — which is a topic for another up-coming article.

I agree that it is difficult to anticipate all the possible permutations, but it’s at least laudable to try and cover the obvious misuses of technology…

“but it’s at least laudable to try and cover the obvious misuses of technology…”

Yes, if you’re a person looking to “put the technology to some use”, but No, if you’re a scientist inventing something.

For example, if the person who invented the internal combustion engine was told about all the deaths his invention would ’cause’, he may have decided to shelve it. But would you now argue that we shouldn’t have cars/bikes/lorries/buses, etc? I know that’s an example of an incredibly useful invention that (maybe) ‘inadvertently’ causes death, but…
Another example, nuclear fision. Very useful in nuclear power stations and possibly space-craft engines – very bad in bombs.

I think we just have to take the rough with the smooth on this one (not that you can stop it anyway). I say, don’t blame the messengers (the scientists). I also think that the social impact can’t always be estimated (e.g. the internal combustion engine again). It’s easy to have 20-20 hindsight. It may be that this ‘pushing’ tones has other positive uses/impact that you and I are unable to envisage yet.

“For example, if the person who invented the internal combustion engine was told about all the deaths his invention would ’cause’, he may have decided to shelve it.”

That’s a good example, but it relies heavily on one major assumption: that anyone at such an early part of the twentieth century could have ever anticipated the popularity and subsequent wide-spread ownership of the car…

True, true, but you said yourself that nobody can predict technology trends.

And phones at the moment are not enabled to receive the data which says “here’s a ringtone” as well as “here’s a number that is calling you”. It’s also likely that phones will be endowed with a switch that says “don’t do anything with the ringtone you receive” even when they’re capable of it. So…. your phone will only ring with a callers ringtone if you want it to.

The ability to send data along with caller id is potentially useful because you could send a ‘profile’ with it that tells you exactly who’s calling, not just the number or ringtone. You’ve then got a business card appearing when it rings to enable you to be more discriminating. And, yes, that’s akin to spam on your mobile, and if it can go that way it surely will! (oh, I may be arguing with myself here), but whatever, safeguards will appear to avoid phone spam, etc.

Vorsprung Durch Technik.

(addendum: I know most mobiles are capable of receiving ringtones at the moment, but you have to receive and save, they won’t play automatically, even if you wanted them to)

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