A Mind @ Play

random thoughts to oil the mind

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Cybercrime and the DarkNet

Cybercrime and the Dark Net by Cath Senker

As society tries to catch up with the overwhelming advancements in technology of the past few decades, it is unsurprising that governments and legislators find themselves plugging the gaps where criminality can flourish. Developments in encryption, obfuscation, distribution and anonymisation give criminals and privacy activists alike a broad toolkit for conducting their activities away from prying eyes. In Cybercrime and the Dark Net, Cath Senker offers a brief and easily digested overview of this bewildering digital landscape. The book is essentially a collection of short vignettes covering a wide variety of different forms of cybercrime, with an essentially separate second section surveying the dark net.

This is a successfully written book, but unfortunately hardly a well-written one. There is nothing wrong with the craft, nothing wrong with the content per se, but it reads very much like an undergraduate essay written with an eye to meeting a word count, rather than sculpting a theory or trying to convey specific information. I would call the style journalistic, in the sense that there is a tendency to focus on individual instances, leading to sweeping generalisations without any valid attempt at contextualisation. We’re treated to two pages detailing an instance of a young American woman whose social security number had been stolen and used to file false tax returns. Senker makes some unfounded statements about what the thieves could have done with the information, and offers the rather dubious claim that people are now filing their tax returns earlier for fears someone else will file them first, before then revealing that the IRS responded to the woman in question saying that the issue had been settled. The victim never discovered how the security breach had happened, ergo this needn’t even have been a cybercriminal offence and has little relevance for the subject matter.

Senker has clearly done a decent amount of research into this subject. Give that this is designed to be a popular introductory book on the subject, a few small mistakes in the technical nuances are relatively moot, and can certainly be forgiven given that the author isn’t an expert in the field. Subjects are well introduced and explained, while plenty of footnotes are provided for those interested in following a matter of particular interest. But again, bearing more than a passing resemblance to a university essay, the text is peppered with quotes and statistics which only ostensibly support the text and in fact rather serve to bring up more questions. In a section on online grooming, we’re told that technology facilitates the contact between paedophiles and children. A fair claim, but to bolster this argument, the next sentence tells us that Childline reported a 50% annual increase in online grooming cases in December 2015. That’s it; the line is left without further comment. But how does this bombshell fact actually support her argument? Did technology change so significantly in 2015 to lead to such an explosion in online grooming? Is this part of a general year-on-year trend or a statistical outlier? Maybe this is evidence that support services are using more successful tactics to reach those in need and should actually be interpreted as a positive indicator? Or is this evidence of groomers changing their tactics? Since the site reveals that the sample size is only in the hundreds, it would seem rather sensationalist to see any significance in the figure, and its uncommented conclusion here seems not only unnecessary, but extremely misleading.

While many of the footnotes feel like cosmetic extras, there are also occasions in the text where it is anything but clear what the author actually wants to say. In the section covering the darknet and methods of encrypting emails, we’re told that Irish-Islandic privacy activist Smári McCarthy encourages people to use encryption to increase the costs of government surveillance. This is followed by the statement: ‘if they did the cost would rise from 13 US cents a day (9p) to US $10,000 (more than 7,000 GBP).’ The cost of what, government surveillance? Measured in what? Obviously this statement can’t be taken at face value, but I’m stumped as to what these numbers are supposed to refer to. She concludes this short section by stating that this might lead governments to place only suspicious persons under surveillance, or alternatively for governments to spend more resources on surveillance, driving ever more people to communicate via the darknet. While I don’t expect the author to have access to a crystal ball, the entire section is muddled and lacks clarity.

Frustrations like this sadly abound in this lightweight volume. Somewhere under the editor’s chisel there may be a fairly decent introductory book. As it stands, I found the numerous non sequiturs, sensationalist statistics, minor inconsistencies and incongruities to make this a dissatisfying reading experience. The book lacks a certain clarity of purpose and instead attempts to cover and tie together too many bases in barely 150 pages.

[Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash]

Captchivating, or Why I’m Doubting My Humanity

Yesterday, I failed a human test. Quarter of an hour clicking on random pictures trying to prove I’m flesh and blood to a machine. But the sad thing is: a machine would’ve done a better job.

Captcha Issue

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I don’t know how many attempts it took me until I stumbled across the combination they were looking for. The challenges were straightforward enough; something any human could do, surely? Except when you’ve failed for the third time, you start to wonder just how distinct the answer really is. Like identifying store fronts. For one thing, that’s a shop for me. It’d be helpful if the Yankee-Doodle-McNumpties could localise their bloody products! For another, what really constitutes a shop front? That colourfully pixelated image could be a market stall, an advertising banner or indeed a flower shop for all I can tell. And where does one draw the line? Does the hairdresser’s count as a shop? How about a funeral director’s?

And then there are the street signs. What exactly is one of those? For me, a street sign is one with a named road on it; anything else would be a road sign. Logically. Ignoring those doesn’t work, so maybe they should be included. But how far do you go? Do those pixels in the next box count? Does the edge of the sign? Does the post? What about that sign in Japanese? It could be an advert for free beeswax for all know. And that grey triangle is clearly the back of a road sign. Include it or no?

Even something as mundane as identifying roads left me scratching my head. I clicked whenever I saw tarmac, but apparently there’s more to roads than just the road itself. But then including every picture with a road sign didn’t seem to help either, and if we’re going to that extent, virtually all the horizontal landscape shots they show will probably have some kind of road component to it.

After a tiring quarter of an hour clicking through picture after picture, I finally lucked out and was verified as a human being (with some severe cyborg tendencies, it would appear). If I hadn’t been trying to donate, I’d probably have given up much sooner. Life’s too short for jumping through electronic hoops. Now where can I find an automated captcha script?

[Photo by Austin Chan on Unsplash]

Daily Links

The UK’s Brexit Options – Where’s Brexit heading? Always slightly on the periphery, there are plenty of options, neatly summed up in this infographic.

A Million Squandered – One of those simplest of ideas you wish you’d came up with: take a simple website and make a million with it. The MillionDollarHomepage.com was a roaring success in 2005, but as link rot gradually sets in, what will remain of this snapshot of internet history? How long does ‘content’ really last?

Roman Roads – Beautiful poster of the major Roman thoroughfares of circa 125 AD done in the style of a tube map.

Astronaut.io – Unnamed, unedited, unseen. Spin YouTube’s wheel of fortune and take a random look at what the world is uploading. A simple idea but so very effective. Watch a little happiness.

[Photo by Henry Be on Unsplash]

The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains

What the Internet is Doing to Our BrainsThis post is also available in English.

Der Klappentext behauptet, dieses Buch sei „Der stumme Frühling“ des literarischen Geistes. Zwar vergleicht man hier Äpfel mit Birnen, aber im Kern gibt es in diesem Buch eine provozierende Erörterung der Auswirkung verschiedener Techniken auf die Funktionsweise des Geistes. Carrs Hauptthese, die er in seinem Artikel „Is Google making us stupid?“ schon ausführlich erklärt, ist, dass das Internet Veränderungen in unseren Hirnen auslöst, die unsere Denk- und Erinnerungsvermögen nicht unbedingt positiv verändern. Grundsätzlich spielt das Internet die Rolle eines Universums der Ablenkung, das eine unendliche Vielfalt an leichter Unterhaltung und sinnlosen Unterbrechungen einführt, wodurch wir unsere Gehirne nach einem süchtig-machenden Muster von ineffektivem Multitasking trainieren. Wir heben die neue Technik auf ein Podest, als Eingang zu einer neuen Welt des Wissens und der Kommunikation, die viele Vorteile im Rahmen von sozialer Wechselwirkung, persönlicher Freiheit und wissenschaftlicher Bemühung mit sich bringt. Carr ist jedoch der Meinung, dieses Portal sei beileibe nicht ohne Nachteile, dass diese Technik unsere Fähigkeit des tiefen Denkens und das effektive Nutzen des Gedächtnisses beeinträchtigt.

Obwohl die Veröffentlichung seines Artikels / dieses Buches für Furore sorgte, worin der Autor als demagogischer Technikfeind dargestellt wurde, gibt es wenig luddistische Rhetorik hier, und das Buch ist mitnichten die großspurige Jeremiade, als die es oft abgestempelt wird. Das Buch selbst ist zum größten Teil gut geschrieben, die Kernargumente bleiben der Schilderung immer nah, und Recherchen, die die Behauptungen unterstützen, sind reichlich vorhanden. Sicherlich ist dies keine ernsthafte wissenschaftliche Arbeit und der Vorwurf ist wohl gerechtfertigt, dass sich Carr nur die besten Befunde herausgepickt hat, die seine These unterstützen. Dennoch bleiben genug Denkanstöße. Die Argumente des vorher erwähnten Artikels sind in dem Buch näher ausgeführt, mit interessantem, historischen Hintergrund, Forschungsergebnissen aus den Bereichen der Neurowissenschaft und Psychologie, und Parallelen zu anderen technischen Veränderungen. Trotzdem liest sich der Text phasenweise wie ein hetzend-geschriebener Studienaufsatz: Eine Kette von hoffnungsvoll würdigen Zitaten verknüpft durch gelegentliche Bindewörter („…und…“, „…aber…“). Die besten Kapitel sind die, wo sich der Autor vor dem Personalpronomen „ich“ nicht gescheut hat und die, die eigene Erfahrungen und Kämpfe des Autors mit der neuen Technik wiedergeben, sowie der leider allzu kurze Kapitel über den Einfluss des Internets auf den Verbrauch unserer Gedächtnisse.

Mit weniger als 250 spärlich gedruckten Seiten sollte dieses Buch selbst die Aufmerksamkeitsspanne von dem „novus homo“, den das Buch beschreibt, nicht erschöpfen. Es wird wohl für Menschen von Interesse sein, die auf beiden Seiten der Internetgeburt geboren wurden, und die gut recherchierten Berichte über historische Parallelen und psychologische Aspekte bieten viele kleine Leckerbissen für das Gehirn zu verdauen. Dass Carr getadelt wird, keine Lösungen zu den problematischen Entwicklungen, die er hervorhebt, anzubieten, zählt meiner Meinung nach zu den Stärken, nicht den Schwächen. Es handelt sich hier eher um einen Kommentar, und keine Kritik. Gesellschaftlicher Wandel lässt sich genau so gut aufhalten wie die Gezeiten, obwohl wir als Individuen unsere eigenen Wege beschreiten dürfen. Aber es ziemt sich für uns, diesen Wechsel wahrzunehmen.

The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains

What the Internet is Doing to Our BrainsDieser Eintrag ist auch auf Deutsch verfügbar.

The blurb claims this book to be a “Silent Spring” for the literary mind. That is certainly comparing apples to oranges, but at the core to this book there is a thought-provoking argument about the impact of various technologies on the workings of the mind. Carr’s main thesis (to be found almost in its entirety in his article “Is Google making us stupid?”) is that the Internet is changing our minds, our ability to think and the way we use our memories, and all this not necessarily for the better. Essentially, the Internet is a universe of distractions, offering endless light entertainments and pointless interruptions that train our brains into an addictive shallow pattern of ineffectual multitasking. We hold up the new technology on a pedestal as a doorway to a new world of knowledge and communication, bringing with it benefits for social interaction, personal liberty and scientific endeavour, but Carr claims that this portal is not without its drawbacks vitiating our ability to think deeply, or use our memories effectively.

Whilst much of the furore that came after the publication of his article/this book ascribes him to being a drum-bashing technophobe, there is little Luddite rhetoric here, and this book is far from the grandiloquent jeremiad its often labelled as being. The book itself is largely well-written, with the core argument never far from the narrative, and there is plenty of research here to back up the claims. Certainly this is no serious scholarly work, the charge often levelled at Carr that he only cherry-picked research findings which bolstered his main argument is probably justified, but there is enough food here for thought. The arguments of the aforementioned article have been padded out with some interesting historical background, findings from the realms of neuroscience and psychology, and parallels to other technological shifts, but at times it does feel like one is reading an undergraduate essay hurried off to a deadline: a string of hopefully worthy quotes, strung together by the occasionally conjunction (“…” and “…”, however “…”). The best chapters are those which don’t shy away from using the personal pronoun ‘I’ and reflect the authors own observant struggles with the new age technologies, and the sadly all too short chapter on the Internet’s influence on our use of memory is of its own a very thought-provoking aside.

At less than 250 sparsely-packed pages, this is a book that shouldn’t exhaust even the attention span of the novus homo it describes. It should be of interest to people born both sides of the Internet divide, and the well-researched reports on historical parallels and psychological aspects offer plenty of titbits for our minds to work on. The reproach that Carr offers no solutions to the problematic developments he highlights is, in my opinion, to the book’s strengths not weaknesses. It is a commentary, rather than a critique. Social change can be halted about as easily as the tides, though we might as individuals choose to tread our own paths. But it behoves us all well to acknowledge Change’s existence.

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