Talking Vote Compass on ABC 666 Canberra

ABC logo“It’s not every day that I find myself agreeing with Senator Eric Abetz,” began my column at ZDNet Australia yesterday. But as the remainder of my 89-word opening sentence reveals, we’re in agreement over just one word: Orwellian.

My concerns were about the data being collected by the ABC’s Vote Compass project, and what it might end up being used for somewhere down the track.

You should probably read the full article for the nuances of what I’m on about, but here’s a taste.

Vote Compass may remove personally identifiable information (PII) from its data before sharing it, but it’d be an easy task for a third-party researcher to re-identify users by cross-matching Vote Compass’ data with their existing databases.

“Scientists have demonstrated they can often ‘re-identify’ or ‘de-anonymise’ individuals hidden in anonymised data with astonishing ease,” wrote law professor Paul Ohm of the University of Colorado in 2009. It’s become easier since, for everyone from Google, Twitter, and Facebook to all the less well-known data mining companies on the planet…

The Orwellian scenario implicit in all this is that secretive data mining companies could match your political beliefs with the psychology of how you make decisions (gleaned from that “What breed of dog are you?” questionnaire you filled out five years ago) and use that to generate (through your favourite news site) a selection of persuasive news stories, opinion pieces, and advertising designed just for you — and you’d never know.

Well this piqued the interest of ABC 666 Canberra, and earlier this morning I was interviewed by presenter Genevieve Jacobs along with the creator of Vote Compass, Cliff van der Linden.

Here’s the audio — and my apologies for it being cut abruptly at the end. Finger trouble on my part. Ms Jacobs was saying that the ABC is satisfied with the precautions being taken by Vote Compass, and I must stress that I have no direct issue with their work either.

The audio is of course ©2013 Australian Broadcasting Corporation.

The article I mention is How Companies Learn Your Secrets by Charles Duhigg of The New York Times.

Algorithms and the Filter Bubble

Title slide: Algorithms and the Filter BubbleHere’s the guest lecture I delivered at the University of Technology Sydney on 25 March 2012, “Algorithms and the Filter Bubble”. Full audio and slides for now, a transcript to follow in the next few days.

You might want to read the background material first. You’ll definitely want to look at the slides while listening to the audio.

The recording picks up immediately after I was introduced by lecturer, Dr Belinda Middleweek, using the opening paragraphs of my about page.

The audience was primarily first and second year students at the beginning of their media studies degrees. It seems that almost all of this material was brand new to them — though I did notice one geeky-looking lad nodding enthusiastically at mention of some of the more pervasive tracking techniques.

[When the transcript becomes available, this is where it will appear.]

This work is made available under a Creative Commons BY-NC-SA license. This presentation may be re-used for non-commercial purposes within the terms of the Creative Commons license. The non-commercial and share-alike conditions are required to adhere to the licensing of the imagery used. Please contact me if you require an alternative version. As a minimum, attribution should read: “Source: Stilgherrian.” Online versions must link the word Stilgherrian to the website at

Talking Yahoo!, Summly and more on ABC Local Radio

ABC logoThe $30 million purchase of internet startup Summly by Yahoo!, the fourth most-visited online service, certainly attracted media attention today — thanks to founder Nick D’Aloisio being just 17 years old. So yeah, I did some radio.

I’ve just finished talking about that — and a whole bunch of semi-related issues like robot journalists and data mining — on ABC Local Radio around NSW with Rosie Beaton, who’s filling in for regular presenter Dom Knight.

I thought we’d talk for maybe five minutes, but it ended up being a 20-minute chat. Here’s the entire audio.

The audio is of course ©2013 Australian Broadcasting Corporation, archived here because it isn’t being archived anywhere else.

Algorithms and the Filter Bubble: UTS guest lecture

Diagram of the Australian political Twitterverse: click for article "Twitter mapping and how we choose our own adventure"On Monday I’m delivering a guest lecture at the University of Technology Sydney. “Algorithms and the Filter Bubble” is the supplied title, and in theory I’ll be looking at Google (and friends), big data and personalised news filtering.

The students — who are, I’m told, “first and second year students who are at the beginning of their media studies degrees” — have been given some pre-reading: Eli Pariser’s book The filter bubble: what the Internet is hiding from you (specifically the chapter “The User is the Content”, pages 47-76 in the edition I’ve seen; check the Wikipedia summary), and David Beer’s paper “Power through the algorithm? Participatory web cultures and the technological unconscious”. I’m about to read them myself.

But I reckon the bleeding-edge action here is in advertising, not news, and especially the comprehensive data mining that allows, for example, Target in the US to figure out that a woman is pregnant just by her shopping list.

After I discussed these topics with the lecturer, I sent her a list of related material I’d written. I believe this has been sent to the students.

I also linked to my presentation at Consilium 2012: Social media is destroying society? Good!

Since then, ProPublica has posted an excellent article, Everything We Know About What Data Brokers Know About You.

I don’t know if non-students are allowed in, but the lecture is on Monday 25 March at 1300 AEDT in Room 56, Level 3, Building 6 (Peter Johnson Building), University of Technology Sydney, 702-730 Harris Street, Ultimo. In any event, I’ll be recording it and will post the audio and transcript here in due course.

For now, though, I suppose I should write the damn thing.

Talking data mining on ABC Gippsland

Every now and then I end up doing an explainer that starts at the very beginning — like this radio spot about data mining for ABC Gippsland this morning.

Breakfast presenter Gerard Callinan has posted the audio under the title Mapping key strokes. Who’s watching?

For many of us, the idea of going a day without using the internet either at work or at home is almost unimaginable. Have you ever thought what happens to the information that you leave behind when visiting your favourite websites? Every page you visit, every survey you take, every ad you click on builds up a profile which is used by marketing companies and increasingly, political parties to build up a picture about what sort of things you are interested in and how you might be swayed to buy items or even vote in an election.

Here’s a slightly different version of the audio here, with the volume re-normalised — which just means it’s now supposedly at the optimal volume.

I think Mr Callinan got slightly paranoid after he’d read a certain op-ed I wrote earlier this year.

I’m not so sure how well I explained things. This was a live-to-air piece at 0720 AEDT after I’d had just three and a half hours of sleep and a few hours dealing with, um, a very aggressive intestinal problem. So I wasn’t as focused as I’d like to have been.

If I had my time again, I’d have made sure to explain how the advertising embedded in web pages, or the Facebook “Like” buttons, allow those organisations to track you across multiple sites. And I’d have made sure to have a link I could give out for some concise “How to protect your privacy online” guides.

The audio is of course ©2012 Australian Broadcasting Corporation, but as usual I’m posting it here as an archive.

Inside my Dangerous Mind

My appearance at the Sydney Opera House Festival of Dangerous Ideas, which I’ve told you about before why aren’t you paying attention? — draws ever closer. It’s a week from today, and as part of the promotional lead-up they’ve posted a look Inside my Dangerous Mind.

It’s in question-and-answer format.

Q: What is a dangerous idea?

A: One where merely expressing it puts the speaker in mortal danger, or in danger of expulsion from society. Examples? Mate, your daughter would look fantastic being sodomised by a goat. Behead all those who insult the Prophet. Pouring the tea before the milk.

Well, I reckon you should read the whole thing.

See you next week? It’s Saturday 29 September at 1pm in The Playhouse at the Sydney Opera House. You can book online.