If Facebook wants to be completely transparent, then its time for them to reveal their algorithm | Liam O’Dell

With the Department for Culture, Media and Sport’s Select Committee calling for more transparency around the business models used by social media platforms such as Facebook, the rise of data politics means that the algorithms can no longer be kept a secret.

It’s a system so mysterious that it’s become a game to content creators and data miners – a series of hoops to jump through that can get them to the audience they want. Crack the algorithm, and you crack a system which is, in essence, the hive mind of those which use said platform. Cambridge Analytica have shown that it can be done, which is why it’s time that the inner workings of social media sites are revealed to the public.

Photo: Anthony Quintano/Flickr.

This level of transparency was also called for by a report by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport’s Select Committee (DCMSC), along with a new definition for social media websites which are “not necessarily either a ‘platform’ or a ‘publisher'”.

There has been ongoing talk about Facebook’s precise role in the tech and media industries, and whether it is indeed a ‘publisher’. Yet, as the DCMSC notes: “Facebook is continually altering what we see, as is shown by its decision to prioritise content from friends and family, which then feeds into users’ newsfeed algorithm.”

More importantly, it’s time for social media platforms to fully disclose what exactly their algorithm is. The Cambridge Analytica scandal has shown that this is a serious ethical issue. It’s essential that something so impactful and manipulative is out in the open, so the public knows just how they are being influenced.

Recently, Channel 4’s Dispatches investigated how Facebook moderates content on its platform, and questions are being asked about what sort of content the site decides not to take down. Monika Bickert, Facebook’s Head of Global Policy Management, told the DCMSC that “our community would not want us, a private company, to be the arbiter of truth”, yet their systems display content in a particular way, and they still have to make decisions about what content they do not allow on their platform.

In turn, social media sites may claim that publishing extensive details about their algorithms may harm their company when it comes to competition, but this issue covers freedom of expression and democracy – two things which cannot continue to be sacrificed for protecting ‘trade secrets’.

Granted, knowing how such a system works may be a gold mine for those who seek to exploit it (clickbaiters, data miners and so forth), but when the general public know how a system can be cheated, they can also know how others can use it for monetary gain. Those who publish fake news will be faced with a fresh wave of scepticism when people know the tactics that they use.

If Facebook doesn’t want to be seen as an “arbiter of truth”, then the solution is simple: make the algorithm more transparent, and then the people can decide the truth for themselves.

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Enough is enough – the Tories must wake up and tackle the disability employment gap | The Friday Article

“We must close the disability employment gap.” It was a simple enough statement made by the Minister for Disabled People Penny Mordaunt on her website last year. A consultation on ‘work, health and disability’ and a commitment to halving said employment gap in 10 years was announced by the government a short while later. From a party that has passed ruthless reforms to disability benefits, it’s likely that it had a few disabled people scratching their heads. Have the Conservatives finally started to care about a group in society which they have cruelly targeted for years?

Disabled person in powered wheelchair driving down the street
The disability employment gap remains stagnant at 31.3%. Photo: Pixabay.

One only has to look at what was announced on Wednesday this week for the answer. The disability employment gap the Tories planned to work on cutting down has stayed at 31.3%, lingering above the 30% mark for a decade. If they really wanted to tackle the issue, then the changes would be visible – be it in the statistics or in public announcements. James Taylor, Head of Policy at the disability charity Scope, said ‘these figures should be a wake-up call to the Government’ and he is absolutely right. The latest data shows the Conservatives’ current approach is indolent, lazy and slothful.

Granted, it can be argued that ministers have 10 years to get somewhere close to closing the gap, but the fact that there have not been any significant updates since the consultation closed in February is a cause for concern. The Brexit argument is likely to be an excuse given by some for this work taking a back seat during the middle of the year (following the triggering of Article 50 at the end of March), but it’s always worth mentioning that there are other burning issues and injustices that need to be addressed whilst also focussing on those all-important negotiations in Brussels. A crumbling NHS, the housing crisis and many other social issues can’t be brushed under the carpet because of our vote to leave the European Union. Ministers are yet to provide an explanation as to why the disability employment gap remains at the current level, but no excuse is valid.

So what could possibly cause a lack of disabled people in employment? As much as it comes down to the current benefits system, a more ideological issue is the stigma, stereotypes and misconceptions surrounding disability that have been generated from years of Conservative policies. Confusing and complex regulations and assessments have degraded disabled people – presenting them as inconveniences or numbers to meet a particular quota.

Whilst assuming all employers see a disabled candidate or employee as a pain in the backside in terms of paperwork and workplace support is a completely inaccurate and flawed judgement, it’s likely that some employers are unaware of how they can support disabled people in their company. The communication between the government, firms and workers about such things is inefficient if not non-existent. It’s part of the reason why I’ve always been reluctant to tick the ‘are you disabled’ question on an application form. Aside from the fact that I don’t really consider myself disabled (except under ‘the social model’), the possible discussion about workplace support if I did mention it always felt daunting – where would I start?

Although the ‘work, health and disability’ consultation intends to look at how health and work interconnect, more needs to be done to address attitudes and improve communication. The communities of disabled people in society must continue to call for better support when it comes to employment – only then will we have the chance to wake Conservatives up from their slumber when it comes to addressing the needs of the community of disabled people.

Now, one can hope that a stat-obsessed government which always likes to shout about increased employment or a stronger economy will notice one of the more concerning pieces of data that has come from the Office for National Statistics’ latest release. If the state of the disability employment gap led to a planned reform of the Work Capability Assessment, then here’s hoping that the gap remaining static will finally prompt the Department for Work and Pensions to take action. Enough is enough.

 

Nearly 28,000 incidents of fare-dodging took place on the Underground last year, new data reveals | The Friday Article

Over 27,900 cases of fare evasion took place on the London Underground last year, a Freedom of Information request has found.

Photo: tseyin on Flickr. Licensed under Creative Commons – https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/2.0/legalcode.

The figure is higher compared to last year, where 27,413 occurrences took place.

The number has been increasing year-on-year except for 2012 – when it fell by over 2,500 to 13,825 cases. It then rose by nearly 8,000 to 21,810 the next year.

The statistics combine two different ways in which fare evasion is reported. Penalty Fare Notices are when people are charged for their first offence (such as failing to touch in their Oyster card), whilst Irregularity Reports are when individuals are considered for prosecution for repeat offences or other issues such as using a forged ticket.

Steve Burton, Transport for London’s Director of Enforcement and On-Street Operations, said: “The overwhelming majority of our customers pay the correct fare, however there is a minority who do attempt to travel without a valid ticket.

“We take fare evasion of any kind extremely seriously and we have reduced fare evasion on our rail and bus networks to around two per cent of all journeys, which is low compared to other transport authorities around the world.

“We widely communicate the consequences of being caught without a valid ticket and anyone failing to pay a Penalty Fare Notice is referred to a debt recovery agency.

“We are also working towards measures that will improve our ability to pursue those who don’t pay,” he said.

The data also revealed that from 2010 to 2014, over £2.6 million was collected in court costs for successful prosecutions for fare evasion for the underground. These costs are one of many sources of income used by the Transport for London (TfL), with money also coming from penalty fares and maximum fares income.

For the past two years, the most fare evasion offences took place on the Jubilee line, with the highest number of incidents before that (between 2010 and 2014) taking place on the Victoria line.

The request also discovered that there are currently 13 underground stations with one or more gate-free entrances. These include:

  • Chalfont & Latimer
  • Chorleywood
  • Finchley Central
  • Kensington Olympia
  • Mill Hill East
  • Pinner
  • Roding Valley
  • South Kenton
  • South Woodford
  • Woodside Park

The other three stations have ungated entrances temporarily. Euston Square will have a new gateline layout this year, whilst Crossrail enabling works at Moorgate has caused there to be gate-free access at the station. Bromley by Bow currently has no gates at present due to improvement works being made.

Despite not having a gate line, these stations do use card readers at entrances and exits for passengers to tap in and out.

More information about the penalties and enforcement procedures for fare evasion can be found on the Transport for London’s website.

Channel 4’s Hunted: A worrying insight into surveillance

“Everything you do now ends up in your permanent record. The best plan is to overload Google with a long tail of good stuff and to always act as if you’re on Candid Camera, because you are.” – Seth Godin

First it was Humans, which offered a slightly concerning, but mainly thought-provoking, insight into the rise of artificial intelligence. Now, the six-part, real-life series Hunted – which concluded last night – sheds a light onto the complex and powerful world of surveillance.

The show comes at a time when Home Secretary Theresa May’s new, proposed surveillance bill – dubbed ‘the snooper’s charter’ – raises questions about the ethics of spying on members of the public.

The real-life thriller, where 14 individuals go on the run, saw the country’s top detectives and analysts use high levels of surveillance to track them down.

In the first episode, ‘fugitives’ have their social media profiles scanned by detectives. Whilst some consider this an invasion of privacy, we can’t really complain when we volunteer this data ourselves.

With technological advancements leading to us placing so much of our private lives online, one of the questions we have to ask ourselves is how much of our private life actually is private? The answer: not much. Technology has become the main way to store data and communicate. If anything, the way to prevent our privacy from being breached is through going offline. But with technology being such a huge part of all of our lives, it’s become something we all have to accept – the small-print when it comes to signing up to email services and social networks.

Aside from how to best protect your privacy, Hunted shows the somewhat unethical methods the state can use to get information. In the third episode, we see the ‘hunters’ impersonate Ricky Allen in an attempt to get his friends and family to reveal information about his location. Similarly, later on in the series, we see the investigators use a phishing technique to gain access to someone’s iCloud so they can clone their iPhone. This type of impersonation (when the hunters sent texts pretending to be Ricky) must be illegal, surely? Whilst that may be a grey area, we all know that phishing – along with when the hunters hack a fugitive’s Facebook to display a wanted poster – are both illegal if a member of the public were to do these actions. This of course raises the debate of our country’s surveillance services using unethical means to protect our national security or for ‘the greater good’.

Another ethical question which is raised from the show is how the hunters place certain amounts of psychological pressure on the fugitives. Surely this raises questions from a human rights perspective – being almost like a form of psychological torture – as well as from an ethical perspective?

Lastly, another issue for discussion is the use of recording devices. In the world of journalism, the undercover news reports that use covert cameras can only be used when it is in ‘the public interest’. Two main ethical codes (Ofcom and IPSO) prohibit journalists from using covert recordings if it is not for that reason. Whilst this isn’t journalism, but surveillance, surely similar rules must apply to this too?

On the whole, it’s fair to say that the best way to protect yourself is by being offline, but with almost everyone having a smartphone these days, that is near enough impossible.

In terms of ethics, questions need to be asked as to how many rules can be broken by the state where it may be illegal for a member of the public to do the same thing. In particular, with this new ‘snooper’s charter’ bill, we need to ask what new powers this gives the state.

What do you think about the so-called ‘snooper’s charter’? Have you been watching Hunted? Comment below!

Liam