Category Archives: Science

Undercover Psychologist on the BBC

So I wrote a post a few weeks ago about some new software that looked to help emails self destruct, hoping to spark a debate about online privacy. I got in touch with the producer of the BBC World Service’s Digital Planet and got commissioned to do a radio piece on it. You can download the podcast here, my piece starts at 13.40. It is also available on the website to stream directly (Episode 11/08/2009).

I interviewed one of the inventors Yoshi Kohno, Assistant Professor at the University of Washington and Peter Sommer, a Digital Forensic Specialist and Visiting Professor at the London School of Economics.

It was great to make the blog go auditory and hopefully there will be more to come soon.

If you want more audio from me, though completely different, satirical podcast exits are located here or on itunes


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Private Parts

‘Never write anything in an email that you wouldn’t want your mother to read’. The idea behind the saying is that nothing on the internet ever dies, and could one day come back to haunt you. Unfortunately roughly 85% of the emails I send I would rather not have read by my immediate family.

Realistically a throwaway email or Facebook message never truly gets thrown away. Recent cases of information interception, specifically tabloid phone-tapping, have featured prominently in the news. It seems reasonable to assume that emails are an even easier target. You can only guess what Damian McBride would have given for those emails he sent to Derek Draper to stay private.

Researchers at the University of Washington have released a paper and an open source beta version of a piece of software that aims to change the way sensitive messages are sent over the internet. Other encryption services are available but they usually require some element of trust in a third party or some additional key which may be retrieved retrospectively.

The team in Washington have created Vanish, a piece of software which takes a body of text from an email or online message; encrypts it with a key, which never gets revealed to the user, destroys the local key copy and sends it in fragments via peer to peer sharing (such as bit torrent).

Peer to peer systems are also known as Distributed Hash Tables (DHT). The fragmented data sent is lost as the DHT’s evolve. DHT nodes carrying information cleanse themselves over time, a process known as ‘churning’.

The receiver uses the same software to convert the encryption. After 8 hours (or multiples thereof) the message then becomes purely the random encryption. The original message is rendered inaccessible by either party (or by any third party) forever. The software takes only seconds to work for normal sized emails and messages. Watch a cool demonstration video here.

The reality is that many social networking sites and ISP’s archive data for long periods of time. Some of which you may want to keep private. Sure it’s great to look back at old emails you sent and had completely forgotten about. It is fascinating to revisit the mistakes of your life which you have invariably forgotten, repeated, forgotten, repeated and forgotten again. Or is that just me? Either way there are certainly some messages which need not linger in the aether forever.

The debate about this type of technology is incredibly interesting. It seems that this type of software will benefit the Damian McBrides of this world but more worryingly the criminals and terrorists. Some may argue that ordinary, law-abiding people have nothing to fear by having all their messages stored. Something about this perspective worries me a lot.

There will, most likely, be governmental objections to this type of software. If it, or some other software, takes off and becomes ubiquitous, the culture change will be pronounced. Is it important that we can send all data privately; or should we just accept that there is no such thing as true privacy on the net? Are consequences for what you put out into cyberspace fair enough?

Should we safely assume that ‘the man’ does not care about your membership to Nipple-Tasslers Anonymous or that you got off with your boyfriend’s best mate last weekend?

One of the most popular email providers Gmail; already scans your email to offer targeted marketing based on the content of your message. This is pretty obvious to anyone reading emails, especially when your spam folder has adverts for SPAM alongside. This seems neither particularly malevolent or sophisticated.

Are the desirable interceptions and consequences of data monitoring enough for us to relinquish our everyday privacy concerns?

The internet and cloud-computing in particular, are becoming more prominent in our lives. As we give more of ourselves away publicly, it seems vital, to me, to be able to keep some things genuinely private. We just have to make sure we find out about those hidden terror plots somehow too…

There are complex debates to be had but I think the answer can simply be summarised like this :

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I’m amazed we didn’t think of it before.

The undercover psychologist satirically reviews the news every week, check it out here or on itunes

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Review with additional musings: Debate ‘Whose landscape is it anyway?’

Last night I attended a fascinating debate entitled ‘Whose landscape is it anyway?’. The panel was chaired unobtrusively by the BBC’s environment correspondent Sarah Mukherjee and featured distinguished guests: economist Nicholas Stern, writer Tahmima Anam, historian Ramachandra Guha, and environmental scientist Debal Deb.

The format was unusual and its brevity was both its strength and its weakness but I think it was an extremely useful discussion. Each panellist initially spoke for around 5 minutes concerning the topic of land ownership and its consequences for the environment.

The hugely diverse panel led to a wide range of subjects being highlighted and after this a between-panel discussion ensued. The most optimistic panellist seemed a surprising candidate in Nicholas Stern, the economist and writer of the Stern Review into climate change.

Whenever I think deeply about climate change I struggle to be optimistic but when asked about why he holds such a perspective, Professor Stern replied ‘because I am sick of being pessimistic’. He stated that if you are hopelessly pessimistic you should ‘get a hat and write a letter of apology to your grandchildren’.

I am always cautious about these approaches to engaging people with climate change. There is a notion that doom-mongering and pessimism does result in ambivalence and plans for future apologies rather than direct action. If you do not believe that advocates of optimism are genuine, that instead they are trying to patronize, then this approach is just as unsatisfactory.

Stern does seem to be genuine with his hope, and alluded to the role of undeveloped technology as a genuine source of optimism. After the panel discussion, questions were invited from the audience. A Doctor who works for the Millennium Seedbank at Kew Gardens highlighted how many citrus trees are being planted in places where the efficiency of their water use is wildly inappropriate. There are indigenous sources of vitamin C which have much lower-impact irrigation. Rather than magical technofix solutions, these are the kind of practical actionable things that must be rectified now, and I believe this is what Professor Stern was angling toward.

Debal Deb articulated his frustration with the consumerist ethic and, aside from Professor Stern’s book plug toward the end of the debate, everyone seemed to agree. At one point an audience member questioned Stern’s reluctance to call for the end of capitalism. Earlier Stern had argued that growth will have to continue for 60 to 70 years. ‘To tell all nations with growth aspirations, which is virtually all of us, to stop growth now is the most impractical politics of all.’ Discussion of poverty, which had been so high on the agenda, highlighted the massive need for growth in huge parts of the world.

A gentleman at the back of the audience seemed frustrated that the panel where not making enough suggestions for what we should do. Tahmima Anam suggested that it is not for the panel to make these decisions and that the front line workers are the future solution-providers. She suggested that decentralised governance is extremely important, and the role of the state recurred frequently through the debate.

I was fascinated to hear Stern’s thoughts but Ramachandra Guha was probably my favourite contributor. He argued that the idea of capitalism vs communism or conservatisim vs socialism are anachronistic dichotomies that will not navigate us through these major challenges. He invoked Kolakowski’s call for us to be conservative liberal socialists, borrowing appropriate ideas from each strand. Post duck-housegate we look at the public desire for ‘new politics’ and this gives me hope that partnership through shared ideals is the way forward.

Former American Defence Secretary and later President of World Bank Robert McNamara died this week and a quote of his reminds me of the importance of collaboration: ‘I don’t believe we should ever apply our power unilaterally. If we can’t persuade nations with similar values, we’d better re-examine our reasoning.’

Tahmima Anam argued that the solutions must be as big as the problems and here her argument for decentralisation becomes slightly weaker. I think that everyone can agree that centralised governments are responsible for much of what has happened but these governments are made up of individuals and they chased the growth aspirations of individuals too. If you think that governments are a big part of the problem then I fail to see how they cannot be a big part of the solution.

Whether they will arrive at that solution remains to be seen. Professor Stern highlighted how water is being drilled like oil which is massively disturbing the surrounding water table and no-one has ownership of this water, if you can get it, it is yours. Tahmima Anam described how Bangladeshis are creating floating gardens to cope with the influx of saltwater onto their land, and that they must spend all day searching for freshwater.

Water shortage is the next big global crisis and who owns this water was a question that was never going to be addressed in 90 minutes but these types of debates are important. A 5 hour long debate achieving equally few solutions would only serve to turn people off more.

Succinct and frequent debates with such high calibre guests will hopefully put these issues on the map, and stop people from giving up and buying hats when their voices, interest, support and dissent are badly needed.



The Undercover Psychologist does a weekly satirical radio show you can download it here if you wish… or on itunes

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Viral Pathways on the Internet

Researchers at the University of Michigan published a novel study this week, called ‘Social Influence and the Diffusion of User Created Content’ looking at how social influence works through social networking. The study was funded by the National Science Foundation and looked to take advantage of the new cyber trail that our online transactions leave behind.

They looked at Second Life, the virtual-world social network which has the capacity for users to share and adopt each others gestures and behaviours. The researchers looked only at gestures (otherwise known as assets) which are simple to produce, freely available and widely distributed. These assets may include dance moves, laughs and claps that the virtual you can perform. Overall they studied data concerning 100,229 users and 106,499 assets, between September 2008 and January 2009.

It is possible for users to buy such assets from online stores but the researchers found that 48% of assets transferred were distributed between ’friends’. Friends are described as ‘users with a reciprocated permission to see each others online status’, though I don’t think this definition of friendship will make it into any greetings cards.

It almost goes without saying that everyone should be extremely cautious about extrapolating this study but there is something undeniably fascinating about the level of detail that the researchers could investigate. They had precise information about when and where each asset was transferred; something almost impossible to pin down in the real world.

The researchers suggest that early adopters of assets are not the same as influencers – people responsible for passing on a lot of assets. They also report that the number of ’friends’ one has is not a significant predictor of adoption influence. Now these are not revolutionary findings and are fairly intuitive but what intrigues me is how we, and marketing strategists, look at the distribution of behaviours.

On your homepage, Facebook details the things your friends are signing up to and becoming fans of. This seems to be a reaction to this type of research and something that will evolve and increase as the data trail becomes more explicit. To understand further how a cat puppet playing a keyboard becomes an internet sensation or a phrase becomes a meme, this type of social research is important. The frustration implicit in translating online research to the ‘real world’ is placated by our ability to see unprecedented details about how these things are transferred. The researchers in this paper sometimes described the distribution of behaviours as analogous to the spread of a virus and whilst this is not something anyone will be rushing to cure, studying it will shape the viral pathways of the future.

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Washing Our Hands of the Problem?

I would suggest that most people see the washing of hands to be a good thing. If you asked a room full of people whether they washed the hands thoroughly after using the toilet the vast majority, if not all, would say they did.

The real experience of using public toilets certainly leads me to feel that this does not translate into people’s behaviour, and recent research supports this. Scientists from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine swabbed 409 commuters at transport hubs in 5 major cities in England and Wales. The findings from this study suggest that faecal bacteria was present amongst an alarming proportion of those tested.

Town Males with faecal bacteria present Females with faecal bacteria present
Newcastle 53% 30%
Liverpool 36% 31%
Birmingham 21% 26%
Cardiff 15% 29%
London 6% 21%

These statistics seem to reflect my personal experience; that frequently people forget, or choose not, to wash their hands. Does this count as anti-social behaviour? People will remember the prevalence of the norovirus in the news last year, and hand-washing was postulated as one of the simplest ways to prevent transmission. The implications of not washing your hands seems to occur on an economic and social level as well as a personal one.

I have never chastised anyone for not washing their hands in public, perhaps I internally cringed slightly, but never outwardly. I guess the use of chastised is inappropriate. People tend to not respond well to being told off. This is especially true when they appear to have digressed a socially accepted norm. On a conscious level most people seem to think that washing hands thoroughly is a good thing, but unconsciously we like to defend our behaviour patterns as they are the outward displays of our personality. Equally sometimes people forget things that are a part of a frequently repeated routine.

So should I, should we intervene to interrupt these behaviour patterns, or should we just wash our hands of the responsibility? Having spent today thinking about it I think the best way may be to use some humour.

‘The sinks are over here mate!’ could be offered as helpful advice to someone heading in the wrong direction, moving to the exit without washing their hands.

Whether I feel comfortable doing this, I don’t know. If however, I develop a stomach bug after a long tube ride, I may not be able to hold myself back any longer.


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