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Our difficult relationship with the information we leave behind
It was at the end of two long days of standing in a shop and taking data from customers when I felt most uncomfortable for the first time. This guy, early twenties, looking east-London fashionable, wanted to buy a mug for which he would have to pay with three pictures from his phone. He did not hesitate for a second to unlock his smartphone and hand it over to me. Now I was flipping through naked and half-naked pictures of someone who seemed to be his girlfriend, just hoping to find any images we could actually display on the screens outside the store. He did not care the tiniest bit about handing these photographs to a complete stranger – but that stranger felt horribly awkward. I found a few seemingly meaningless pictures of buildings, sent them to our cash point and was relieved to return the phone and hand over the mug.
We had set up a store in Shoreditch's Old Street Station in London to find out how much value people place in their personal data. Our merchandise featured an exclusive letter K designed by London's street art icon Ben Eine – as an original art print, on T-Shirts and mugs. And people were ready to give us more or less anything, with little hesitation.
Even governments start understanding that there is something about data. In, what could be seen as a populist move, the French government announced a Digital Tax in March 2019. "This is about justice," French Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire said to AP. "These digital giants use our personal data, make huge profits out of these data ... then transfer the money somewhere else without paying their fair amount of taxes."
Some people might now ask: "yes, well, but how much valuable data would they actually have about ME? I am just an insignificant internet user, one amongst billions." Well, I asked myself a similar question and I simply double checked.
So, I decided to download all the data the big platforms had collected over the years. I started with Google. Eight minutes after requesting the archive, I received a message that my download was ready. "The Google data archive that you started on 03 April 2019 is ready. It contains your Android Device configuration service, Bookmarks, Calendar, Chrome, Classroom, Cloud Print, Contacts, Data Shared For Research, Drive, Fit, G Suite Marketplace, Google Help Communities, Input Tools, Google My Business, Google One, Google Pay, Google Photos, Google Play Books, Google Play Console, Google Play Games Services, Google Play Movies & TV, Google Play Music, Google Play Store, Google Shopping, Google+ +1s on websites, Google+ Circles, Google+ Communities, Google+ Stream, Groups, Hands-free, Hangouts, Hangouts on Air, Home App, Keep, Location History, Mail, Maps, Maps (your places), My Activity, My Maps, News, Posts on Google, Profile, Purchases & Reservations, Saved, Search Contributions, Shopping Lists, Street View, Tasks, Textcube and YouTube data." Just the list of services is already impressive.
Even more is the fact that the 6-part download was 10.8 Gigabytes big. That is a lot of data. I learned that on 10th October 2018 at 00:39:28 Moscow time I had checked the weather at London Heathrow. But then it was getting serious. My location data told me why I checked the weather in Heathrow.
On October 9th I left the Hotel Novotel Paddington in London at 10:03, spent the next four hours in our office on the other side of the street, then took a train to Heathrow Terminal 4, left at 4:48 pm to fly 2515 km in 4 hours 37 minutes, made it through all controls at Moscow Sheremetyevo Airport in 20 minutes and was back home at 12:23 am. When I started the weather app 15 minutes later, it still showed me Heathrow, although I wanted to check the weather in Moscow. Sounds scary? Well, it's a reality. It took me less than 10 minutes to combine that data and get a clear understanding of what I did that day.
It was a fascinating journey through that data. I learned that I had been to my hometown airport on a shocking 80 days or that I spend too much time in the nearby shopping mall. And that was just my location data from Google. An easier way than downloading that data is to visit your Google Maps timeline, btw.
Facebook took a minute longer to have my data ready. But then surprisingly it was only 193 MB in size. I learned that my friend peer group is "Established Adult Life" – so obviously Facebook believes me and my friends haven't failed in growing up. I wonder if there is a category "Never grown up" or similar… I find out that I rejected 54 friend requests. And I don't understand why role-playing games and Pampers are part of my ad interests.
The amount of data that is accumulated is enormous. And so is the level of detail. In the end, that makes it so valuable. Legitimate companies can learn how to better sell to you; illegitimate criminals can learn how to attack you. Hence, businesses get taxed (at least in France), criminals get prosecuted (in case they can be found).
That all seems straightforward, but one question remains: why is it so difficult for us to value our data? "To appreciate their data, people need to understand, or even feel, for example, that photos are not merely pictures and contacts are not merely addresses. These data categories are rather people's most valuable life memories and their representation of social connectedness and affiliation. The value of data needs to be communicated. Only then may people realise just how precious their data really is," said Astrid Carolus, a media psychologist from the German University of Wuerzburg.
Her team researched the physical effects of data loss. So they would measure the electrodermal activity on their face, analyse facial expressions and monitor the temperature of the nose tip. All these are indicators for emotional reactions: you start to sweat, the temperature of your nose tip decreases and you – well, make a sad or angry face. To test, they told participants that they would evaluate them for something on a screen, took the phone away (so that it won't distract) and then the researcher would come back after a while, claiming that a colleague accidentally deleted contacts, pictures, etc. from their phone.
The reactions were actually moderate. And the differences between important and unimportant data were minimal. "Our experiment shows that people – at least up to now – have rarely assumed their data to be valuable. It will be one of our future challenges to help people understand what companies already know: data is valuable", said Carolus.
Astrid Carolus researches any kind of human interaction with media.
University of Wuerzburg
Lack of emotion, a rather disillusioned approach to privacy on the internet – maybe people have capitulated? Then on the other hand: 25% of us are covering their webcam because they are afraid of being spied upon. Which is an interesting fact, if you combine it with Dr. Carolus' observation that people need to "feel" data. Actually, if we believe someone might be watching us, we indeed feel insecure. But that feeling is difficult to create with a document that is somewhere on a server far away.
The Data Dollar Store
The Data Dollar Store was a social experiment by Kaspersky to understand how much people value their data. In the video below you can see the first and only pop-up shop where one could only pay for goods with their data and how people responded to that.
The experience can change quickly though. When I sold Ben Eine's art, a woman quite easily gave me her phone to take screenshots of a few WhatsApp conversations from it. So I chose one (I had no clue what it was about) and reconfirmed that I was allowed to open it. Faced with the real situation of having to share that conversation with me, she suddenly changed and got quite emotional. I did not open that chat in the end – it was related to a personal crisis, I learned. Suddenly, she felt the data.
Another customer came back an hour after he had bought something. He had spoken to the friend who was part of the chat we took as 'payment'. He was very nervous when he came back, because his friend (whose name we had made unrecognizable on the screenshot) insisted to urgently take it off the screens. Both men were convinced that the conversation was somehow about drugs. The screenshot we had was a friendly chat between to pals, nothing worrying about it – but their memory of it made it incriminating for them. We took it off the screens.
It seems that the value we place in data indeed depends on an emotional connection. And maybe, realistically, we don't place a strong emotional value in most of the information we store on our phones, computers and in the cloud. About lots of it we forget quickly. Whole social media formats are built around the idea of data disappearing after a while.
But, even if we forget about it, the traces stay. Potential employers google your name, check your social accounts and like that try to get an idea of who you are. Ben Eine says that he only keeps an Instagram account for business and besides that doesn't use any social media, because "it never disappears". The vast majority of us has decided on a different approach.
But, there are a number of indicators that we actually do value the data that we share. A Frost & Sullivan study last year showed that a majority of users abandon services after a data breach.
If our current situation is a deal that people will actually accept forever is questionable. Too many data scandals in recent years made users more aware of the potential harm that can be done with the information – and more people than ever have been directly exposed to data loss. A recent piece of research indicates that 17% of internet users have seen private information about themselves or family members in public that shouldn't have been there. It leads to the fact that lots of people lose interest in improving privacy at all (13%) and don't make any efforts anymore to protect their privacy (19%).
If that is the case, should we maybe follow Ben Eine's suggestion? Let's hand that question over to you: Should everybody have a "data loyalty card" that gives you points for sharing data with companies and extra points if these companies lose your data?
Assistive tech is changing disabled people's lives
Independence has no price. For disabled people, new assistive technology can make all the difference. These recent examples show what's possible and set a standard for tech with a purpose far beyond speed and convenience.
Assistive technologies change lives
For some people with disabilities, doing daily tasks independently can be a challenge. Assistive tech (also known as adaptive technology) is any device or other means that means a disabled person can do more without support from for example, a care assistant.Assistive tech itself isn't new. Magnifying glasses for people with low vision date back to around 1250 and Braille came along in 1820. Technologies range from the relatively straightforward, like this text-to-speech app for people with dyslexia to more affordable high-tech artificial limbs like Motorica's:
What if everyone who needed it could use assistive tech?
A billion people or 15 percent of the world's population has some form of disability. But only 1 in 10 can access assistive technologies. While Motorica sets its sights on making prosthetics affordable for everyone, assistive technology is often expensive. With widespread adoption, how could these assistive technologies change lives for the better?
With more companies starting to understand the importance of assistive tech and disabled people increasingly spearheading its development, affordability can only improve in future.
Here are some compelling examples of assistive tech that's on the horizon or already here.
Computers can be challenging for people with some kinds of visual and motor impairments. Norwegian start-up No Isolation has stepped up to make computing more accessible with its one-button computer, KOMP. Here's how it works.
No Isolation also offers a rent-a-KOMP model as a way to make their assistive tech more accessible.
This smart cane uses ultrasonic sensors to identify obstructions like street signs and tree branches, sending out vibrations to warn its user. WeWalk also connects to a smartphone app, giving voice-activated directions and alerts to help find a misplaced or moved cane. There's even talk of connecting the cane to autonomous vehicles in future.
3. Fridai: Voice-activated gaming AI
Could voice-activated AI for billions of gamers with disabilities be the future of gaming? See for yourself in Tomorrow Unlocked's Defenders of Digital series:
For people with visual impairments, The Dot is a Braille smartwatch that gives users the time and date in Braille, and includes alarms, a Braille dictionary and the ability to answer or reject phone calls. On top of all that, a five-day battery life makes it all the more usable.
Useful for people with conditions like lateral sclerosis, spinal cord injury or multiple sclerosis (MS,) Open Sesame lets you control smartphones, tablets and computers with head movements. Like so:
Another piece of genius hands-free engineering, this time for people using electric wheelchairs. Munevo DRIVE is a pair of smart glasses that lets users manipulate their wheelchair using head movements. See for yourself:
One device theoretical physicist and author Stephen Hawking used to communicate involved him tensing a muscle in his cheek. Earswitch lets users operate it with a tiny, hidden muscle in the ear:
OrCam MyEye2 is a voice-activated, wearable assistive vision device that can read out any text and even tell you people's names using facial recognition, designed for people with vision impairment and reading difficulties. Here's how it works:
Cybathlon: Assistive tech’s ultimate showcase
With the pace of assistive technology development speeding up, Cybathlon is a great way to see the latest in assistive tech, with a competitive edge. At Cybathlon, people with disabilities compete against each other using their assistive tech to perform everyday tasks and more. We even made a film about it:
As with all new technologies that can improve lives, assistive tech needs regulation to make sure people's personal and sensitive data stays safe. What are your thoughts? Tell us how you see the future of assistive technologies on Twitter and Facebook.
Chatting with Leiden University space law expert, Tanja Masson-Zwaan
Law protects orbit from space cowboys, gold rushes and rogue satellite launches, but making it work for today's space exploration realities is challenging. I chat with International Institute of Air and Space Law's Tanja Masson-Zwaan (@tanjamasson) about the ins and outs of space law, as part of Tomorrow Unlocked's audio series Fast Forward.
Ken: What have been the biggest changes in space exploration since the Moon landings 50 years ago?
Tanja: Nowadays, it's not two superpowers – the US and the Soviet Union – but many more countries and start-ups, companies, even universities. That change raises legal issues because space law is based on states rather than corporations or entities. Under the many space treaties, resolutions and so on, states are responsible and liable, and must perform their activities in certain ways.
Companies becoming involved, maybe becoming the main actors, stresses the system. That's why we see new national legislation: States are making sure their companies and entities don't break the principles they signed up to.
Ken: So if I launch a satellite that damages someone else's satellite, my government is liable, rather than me?
Tanja: When a private entity launches and operates a satellite, it first needs state authorization and supervision – for instance, through a license from the government. If their satellite crashed into a satellite owned by another state, the state that launched the object is liable, not the private entity.
That's different from aviation. If you lose your suitcase, you can sue the airline. If your satellite is damaged, you will go to your Ministry of Foreign Affairs, who would present a claim to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the state that launched the satellite that caused the damage.
Ken: What's the legal position on mining in space?
Tanja: Extracting and commercially using space resources is essential for establishing a semi-permanent human presence on the Moon or Mars, or for using the Moon as a stepping stone to Mars. You wouldn't have to bring all the water you need from Earth – you could use water on the Moon and transform it into fuel to go to Mars. But whether you can use those resources or commercialize them is a legal question not addressed in space treaties.
Companies are asking, are we allowed to own and commercialize these resources? There is growing consensus that it's not illegal, but how do you make sure it happens in a regulated way and doesn't become a gold rush? The treaties also have a principle that benefits from space must be for all countries. Many conditions must be guaranteed. But how? That's the debate.
Ken: When the US planted its flag on the Moon in 1969, was that legally valid? Did they claim anything?
Tanja: The US explicitly said putting their flag on the Moon was an expression of pride about being the first nation to the Moon, not claiming to own the Moon. To claim the Moon is contrary to a cardinal principle of space law: You cannot own any part of outer space – but owning a part of space isn't needed to use it and its resources.
Ken: Growing up with the space race, I don't think many thought about the environmental impact. It seems like laws are needed in that area now.
Tanja: When the space era started, it really was a space race – neither side worried about what was going up. Scientists were excited just to be launching things into space. But space is getting polluted. There are also concerns about going to another celestial body and spoiling its pristine environment with bacteria. There are rules about what level of protection you must apply depending on the mission and where you're going.
We need clear environmental protection rules and enforcement, for example, obliging parties to do an environmental impact assessment. If we have a settlement on the Moon, we'll have to think about managing waste. The Apollo landings left bags of garbage on the Moon. If there will be a sustained human presence, will we have a landfill on the Moon? Are we going to put garbage into orbit? We'll need ways to keep it sustainable because we depend on space.
Ken: Is there a fundamental question around our right as a species to go into space? Some people feel passionately that we have no business on Mars because it's not our planet.
Tanja: And some cultures have special connections with the Moon and other celestial bodies. It's important to respect that. But humankind is driven to push frontiers and to discover. I like Russian rocket scientist Konstantin E. Tsiolkovsky's quote, "Earth is the cradle of humanity, but one cannot remain in the cradle forever." We should go out and explore, but show respect for other beliefs and the environments of other planets.
Ken: What is possible within the law to restrain corporate buccaneers from taking advantage of space?
Tanja: There are some space cowboys out there doing things that may raise concerns. Is that what we want?
I think we should appreciate the good being done alongside issues it raises. Elon Musk now operates a third of all satellites, and that happened in a year. If he launches the planned 42,000 satellites, how will we deal with that? He also says he will provide broadband to places on Earth that don't have it, and that's good. And he's developed reusable rockets, so he's contributing to space sustainability.
I think there needs to be a regulatory counterweight. The US authorities should ask those in Elon Musk's position to do environmental impact assessments and find ways to develop their plans without disrupting science and astronomy. It's give and take, but you have to appreciate what these people are doing – they have the money states never will.
Ken: What's next in your space law work?
Tanja: I've just started a big EU project researching the European position on space traffic management. We don't yet have rules on space traffic management nor space security and safety, like retrieving objects from outer space.
Ken: Could there be money in space salvage – bringing satellite components back to Earth?
Tanja: An analogy is salvaging wrecks on the sea. A shipowner can abandon a ship, and a salvage company can salvage it, selling the scrap metal. We have an extra problem in space because space object ownership is eternal – you can't abandon anything.
We need to get a space debris-removal industry going, but they'll need approval for every piece they retrieve. The state that launched it will be eternally liable if something else is damaged during space salvage.
We also need to make it possible to refuel or repair in space. So as well as space salvage, space sustainability may mean a new industry of in-orbit servicing.
Ken: So there are wider benefits to a focus on sustainability in space. Thanks for filling us in on space law, Tanja.
Tanja: You're welcome.
Tanja Masson-Zwaan features in the Tomorrow Unlocked audio series Fast Forward, Episode 6. Listen to Fast Forward and explore more interviews with featured experts.