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Zero day

Tesla-crash-NYTimes-370.pngYears ago, an alarmist book about cybersecurity threats concluded with the suggestion that attackers' expertise at planting backdoors could result in a "zero day" when, at an attacker-specified time, all the world's computers could be shut down simultaneously.

That never seemed likely.

But if you *do* want to take down all of the computers in an area the easiest way is to cut off the electricity supply. Which, if the worst predictions for this year's winter in Britain come true, is what could happen, no attacker required. All you need is a government that insists, despite expert warnings, that there will be plenty of very expensive energy to go round for those who can afford it - even while the BBC reports that in some areas of West London the power grid is so stretched by data centers' insatiable power demands that new homes can't be built

Lack of electrical power is something even those rich enough not to have to choose between eating and heating can't ignore - particularly because they're also most likely to be dependent on broadband for remote working. But besides that: no power means no Internet: no way for kids to do their schoolwork or adults to access government sites to apply for whatever grants become available. Exponentially increasing energy prices already threatens small businesses, charities, care homes, child care centers, schools, food banks, hospitals, and libraries, as well as households. It won't be much consolation if we all wind up "saving" money because there's no power available to pay for.


In an earlier, analog, era, parents taking innocent nude photos of their kids were sometimes prosecuted when they tried to have them developed at the local photo shop. In the 2021 equivalent, Kashmir Mill reports at the New York Times, Google flagged pictures two fathers took of their young sons' genitalia in order to help doctors diagnose an infection, labeled them child sexual abuse material, ordered them deleted, suspended the fathers' accounts, and reported them to the police.

It's not surprising that Google has automated content moderation systems dedicated to identifying abuse images, which are illegal almost everywhere. What *has* taken people aback, however, was these fathers' complete inability to obtain redress, even after the police exonerated them. Most of us would expect Google to have a "human in the loop" review process to whom someone who's been wrongfully accused can appeal.

In reality, though, the result is more likely to be like what happened in the so-called Twitter joke trial. In that case, a frustrated would-be airline passenger trying to visit his girlfriend posted on Twitter that he might blow up the airport if he still couldn't get a flight. Everyone who saw the tweet, from the airport's security staff to police, agreed he was harmless - and yet no one was willing to be the person who took the risk of signing off on it, just in case. With suspected child abuse, the same applies: no one wants to risk being the person who wrongly signs off on dropping the accusations. Far easier to trust the machine, and if it sets of a cascade of referrals that cost an innocent parent their child (as well as all their back GMail, contacts list, and personal data), well...it's not your fault. This goes double for a company like Google, whose bottom line depends on providing as little customer services as possible.


Even though all around us are stories about the risks of trusting computers not to fail, last week saw a Twitter request for the loan of a child. For the purpose of: having it run in front of a Tesla operating on Full Self-Drive to prove the car would stop. At the Guardian, Arwa Mahdawi writes that said poster did find a volunteer, albeit with this caveat: "They just have to convince their wife." Apparently several wives were duly persuaded, and the children got to experience life as crash test dummies - er, beta testers. Fortunately, none were harmed .

Reportedly, Google/YouTube is acting promptly to get the resulting videos taken down, though is not reporting the parents, who, as a friend quipped, are apparently unaware that the Darwin Award isn't meant to be aspirational.


The last five years of building pattern recognition systems - facial recognition, social scoring, and so on - have seen a lot of evidence-based pushback against claims that these systems are fairer because they eliminate human bias. In fact they codify it because they are trained on data with the historical effects of those biases already baked in.

This week saw a disturbing watershed: bias has become a selling point. An SFGate story by Joshua Bote (spotted at BoingBoing) highlights Sanos, a Bay Area startup that offers software intended to "whiten" call center workers' voices by altering their accents into "standard American English". Having them adopt obviously fake English pseudonyms apparently wasn't enough.

Such as system, as Bote points out, will reinforce existing biases. If it works, it's perfectly designed to expand prejudice and entitlement along the lines of "Why should I have to deal with anyone whose voice or demeanor I don't like?" It's worse than virtual reality, which is at least openly a fictional simulation; it puts a layer of fake over the real world and makes us all less tolerant. This idea needs to fail.

Illustrations: One of the Tesla crashes investigated in New York Times Presents, discussed here in June.

Wendy M. Grossman is the 2013 winner of the Enigma Award. Her Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of earlier columns in this series. Stories about the border wars between cyberspace and real life are posted occasionally during the week at the net.wars Pinboard - or follow on Twitter.


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