Here at BiTE HQ we try to be positive about the integration of technology and human life, and that’s incredibly easy to do. Impossible things happen every day — jetpacks and commercial space travel, mind-controlled prostheses and bionic exoskeletons. Because technology is amoral, responsible engineers and scientists are working to ensure we use our advances for good. For the most part, they succeed, and so we as a species succeed.
When we start to worry is when technology is used as a tool for targeting vulnerable members of society. When a government does so, the effect is breathtakingly dystopian.
For the perfect example of that look at the cyber-attacks, likely perpetrated by the Chinese government, on Uyghur Muslims. China has been targeting the Uyghur people for decades; in fact in 2013 Amnesty International reported the government was labeling Uyghur activities as “separatist,” and cracking down on "peaceful expressions of cultural identity". In the past year, Beijing has detained more than a million Uyghurs in internment camps, according to a United Nations human rights committee.
Both Android and iPhone users were targets of the hackers, and Volexity says at least 11 websites have been “strategically compromised and leveraged as part of a series of attack campaigns” aimed at the community. By using the affected websites (which include the Uighur Times, the Turkistan Press, Turkistan TV and the Uyghur Academy) hackers could infect visitors’ Android and iPhone devices and collect information including the unique identification number, the phone number, location, CPU data, username, and other sensitive details.
It remains to be completely proven if the attacks were at the behest of the state, but the past three decades of discrimination and abuse of the Uyghur community make it hard to imagine this was anything but a state-sponsored attack.
Photo by Jan Antonin Kolar
Who Watches the Watchmen?
While the Chinese government is using technology to spy on its citizens, we’re making fun of the proliferation of tiny big brothers in our private lives. It isn’t that we don’t care; it’s that it’s everywhere. The other night our Content Director was talking to a friend about wanting chocolate-covered pretzels, and two hours later was served an ad on Facebook. For chocolate-covered pretzels. No big deal, right? Except the conversation was in person.
What’s weird is how unconcerned consumers seem to be about the eyes and ears in every part of their lives. So what if Alexa listens to you talk in your sleep. You can order detergent while in the shower! And even though we completely recognize the surreal strangeness of talking to and being monitored by a brand, we’re letting it happen anyway.
Tech investor John Borthwick is sounding the alarm, though it remains to be seen if consumers will listen. “[F]rom a consumer standpoint, user standpoint…these devices are being used for what’s — it’s hard to call it anything but surveillance,” Borthwick says. “I personally believe that you, as a user and as somebody who likes technology, who wants to use technology, that you should have far more rights about your data usage than we have today.”
Look, we’re not being alarmist. Alexa is always listening. Google Home is always listening. And if the first-world luxury of getting a recipe for chicken Kiev or entertaining your children literally without lifting a finger is worth the possible intrusion of a corporation into every single detail or your personal life, knock yourselves out.
The pretzels, by the way, were delicious.
Photo by Octavian Rosca
The Lives of Others
Instagram is a funny thing. Half of us at HQ love it; half find it to be a baffling, intrusive hellscape. Both are right. It is a strange and rarefied world of idealized imagery and aspirational posturing, but like any social network, it’s also a wonderful way to keep up with the comings and goings of people you love.
Facebook, already a hotbed of internet shadowing, is currently working on an Instagram messaging app called Threads that will give your friends realtime updates on your location and speed of travel. Even on your battery life.
Designed to promote “constant, intimate sharing,” (which sounds creepy enough) Threads could also be seen to promote constant, intimate stalking. But the same can be said, we suppose, for any of the million social media apps we blithely let into our lives every day.
In its feeble defense, Threads will only share information with users on your “close friends” list. But if you’re anything like us (and statistically speaking, you probably are) you have close friends on social media you don’t necessarily know in real life.
We’re not sure how to end this without going on some screed about how we have allowed corporations to become ever-present and given them access to the minutiae of our lives. And while it’s fun to know where your dog-walker is right this second or to tell Alexa to play Despacito, if we don’t draw boundaries we’ll lose any concept of “privacy” we have left.
Maybe it’s already too late.