When Technology Betrays Us. (Or, I hate my wretched cell phone.)

I just watched the movie Iron Man, for the second time. Entertaining, albeit sobering, reminder that our own nation’s superior advances in technology–in this case, weapons technology–can be hijacked by friends or foes and, eventually, used against us. Keeping our weapons out of enemy hands is a problem for the Department of Defense to worry about. I’ve got my own “technology trust issues” I’d like to vent about.

Let me start with my  touch screen cell phone. Formerly known as my trusted companion. Keeper of my diary, confider of private discussions. My personal assistant for goodness sake. For no good reason, “it” has turned against me. Randomly dialing people, exposing my conversations for all the world to listen in on. Sneaky thing does this when I least expect it. Like when I’m damning to hell the speeding cab driver, talking to myself, or whispering my sins to Father Mark in the confessional box. 

My phone has more commands and function buttons than my ridiculously over-engineered cable TV remote control. Still I have yet to locate what must be a simple “lock” or “please do not call anyone without my permission” request. Working on it.

Technological applications have the ability to betray insects, too, as it turns out.  Even the smartest of bugs: cockroaches. This New ScientistTech article explains how a matchbox-sized robot can “infiltrate a pack of cockroaches and influence their collective behavior.” The robot can “persuade a group of cockroaches to venture out into the light despite their normal preference for the dark, for example.” 

(Note to self: borrow that little robot to march the menacing mice out of my house and into an open flame.)

I’ve resorted to using this computer as my personal assistant, you see. I’m all synced up with my online contacts and online calendar (functions I used to depend on my cell phone to handle until it turned on me). However, I’m currently investigating options other than the computer and Internet largely because of stats like these, authored by Bill Gates of Microsoft, in this 2007 essay:

Today, connectivity – the basic foundation for anywhere access – can be a double-edged sword. Connectivity that streamlines the flow of information and communications can also open the door to malicious users. How widespread is the problem? In the United States last year, security breaches – some inadvertent, some purposeful and criminal – exposed the personal information of more than 100 million people. In 2005, 46 percent of fraud complaints filed with the U.S. Federal Trade Commission were Internet related. A 2006 report from the Cyber Security Industry alliance noted that 50 percent of Internet users are afraid their credit card information will be stolen.

Maybe my dearly departed Uncle Johnny was right when he gave me this counsel on one of my childhood birthdays: “Computers are stupid and evil. Waste of time. Just like that ballet nonsense. You should have learned something useful, like the foxtrot, Dummy.”
Fortunately for us, lots of smart people are working hard to find a solution to Bill’s concerns and instill trust in technology users (us). I had a feeling the defunct Office of Technology Assessment had a hand in investigating the matter back in the early 1990s, before their doors were closed. The OTA used to help Congress understand how technology and technology policy would most likely impact society. I dug around a bit and found this OTA report on Information Security and Privacy in Network Environments (1995).

In this report, the OTA studied “legal issues and information security, including electronic commerce, privacy, and intellectual property.” And the office identified “about two dozen possible options” in which “the need for openness, oversight, and public accountability–given the broad public and business impacts of these policies–runs throughout the discussion of possible congressional actions.”

Unfortunately, the OTA was caught in a bipartisan slapdown resulting in its closure right about the time this issue update was completed. Would people trust technology more today if the OTA’s recommendations had been implemented? I say, “yes.” It’s one of the reasons I am pushing for better, stronger OTA to be reopened. Better and stronger because, unlike the OTA of the past, the new OTA  will include public participation in important discussions of science and technology policies. Other countries do this. In fact, the E.U. and Denmark modeled our OTA to create their own OTAs but they one-upped us by including public participation.

Ah, once again, a great idea, hijacked.  Let’s get our OTA back.