Emerging Technology

BEST OF THE WEB: How your personal data could be used to wage an online war

Patrick Stafford /

The amount of data being collected on the internet is astounding. Credit card details, names, addresses – every week it seems another company is warning its users to change a password to protect themselves from a possible leak.

So what would happen if that data fell into the hands of someone who wanted to do something particularly dangerous – even committing an act of terrorism?

Over at BusinessWeek, the publication has delved into the idea of data being used in the wrong way. It could happen more easily than you think. Calling SWAT teams on celebrities and even innocent bystanders has been done as a prank by various online groups.

The recent leaks regarding the NSA and various social networks represent a key realisation – we’re living in a time when data could be used against us.

It’s more likely than you’d imagine.

Let’s say a country or terrorist organization wanted to seed massive discord and, pretending to be a large public company, sent out “sample pack” fruit snacks with ricin in them to thousands of kids around the US.

Given the reach of our national media, the fact that the U.S. Postal Service takes pictures of all of our mail, and so forth, it’s possible that such an act could cause massive discord and illness. But it’s also quite likely the tragedy would be minimized by the systems of surveillance and control we’ve put in place.

As the piece explains, the American government is asking data scientists to come up with theories about how all this data may go wrong – “to put a number on a huge national screw-up, a sort of Pandora Probability”.

It sounds interesting. But as the piece points out, it’s problematic – and quite scary.

Once the government has a Pandora Probability, does it try—once again—to fence in scary parts of the Internet, or at least the parts that represent risk? Does it work backward to the source, to try to protect its citizens from giving away large, valuable parts of their own lives to their ever-pinging mobile phones?

Given our choice of two impossible tasks, wouldn’t it be better to keep the risky data from being created in the first place? Because knowledge has always been dangerous. And it always will be.

The truth about Marissa Mayer

Plenty has already been written about Yahoo! chief executive Marissa Mayer and her strategy in turning the company into a viable media entity.

But in this new piece over at Business Insider, the publication takes a different tack, delving inside the days when Mayer joined the company – and the shake-up it caused within the company.

Particularly telling is this anecdote about interim chief Ross Levinsohn giving a presentation on his vision for the company should he be kept on as the company’s permanent CEO.

During Levinsohn’s presentation, Loeb looked bored. He wasn’t paying full attention. As the interim CEO talked, Loeb stood at the back of the room and played with his BlackBerry.

One person in the room remembers watching Loeb texting for a while and then, “during the most important part of the presentation”, getting up and going to the bathroom for 10 minutes.”

Much of the information in this profile is contained in other stories, but it’s still an incredible mash-up of Mayer’s time at Yahoo!, a detailed personal history and a description of what she’s doing at her new company.

And it has plenty of reasons why people don’t like her, too:

John Battelle, who has put on several large tech conferences in the Bay Area, many of them featuring Marissa Mayer as a speaker, says of her: “I’ve never had a conversation with her when she wasn’t completely certain she was right.”

This pedantic style works when you are the traffic cop in a room full of designers and product managers, but it alienated some of Mayer’s colleagues over the years.

While there has been plenty written about Mayer, if you’re after a good, detailed history and analysis of her current position, this is a great place to start.

Facebook releases data on worldwide government requests

There has been much debate over the past few months about government interaction with social networks. Now, Facebook has entered the discussion.

The company has released its own report on requests from governments all around the world – and it has detailed which requests have been granted and which have been denied.

Of course, the details only go so far. But with between 11,000-12,000 requests, this is one report worth keeping an eye on in the future, if for nothing else than demonstrating how governments and social networks will increasingly interact in significant and crucial ways.

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Patrick Stafford

Patrick Stafford is a freelance journalist and a former deputy editor of SmartCompany.

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