Saturday 01 July 2017

The Dark Side Of Data Encryption

Our increasing reliance on digital information has made the use of data encryption a necessity to protect our privacy and ownership of our personal data. Encryption ensures that only authorized personnel who possess the decryption key can fully access our data. Moreover, it allows our financial and medical information to be kept safe by third parties such as banks and hospitals and free from being abused by malicious threat actors. While the security benefits of data encryption are undeniable, recent cyberattacks by nefarious attackers using malwares to encrypt user data without permission also highlight the dangers from misuse of such practice. In May 2017, the WannaCry ransomware attack crippled computer systems worldwide by spreading through a previously unknown exploit in the target computers’ operating system that was leaked by hackers. The ransomware encrypted user data and then demanded a ransom payment in exchange for data recovery. The cyberattack received unprecedented media attention because of the significant service disruptions and economic losses resulted from its impact on hospitals, manufacturing plants, transport companies, financial institutions, government agencies, and elsewhere affected by the attack. Although the cyberattack was mitigated soon after its initial outbreak, the fallout had since led to a call by both governments and academics for an urgent need to establish the ethics on the responsible use of data encryption. This way, we can feel assured that our private data will be protected from intruders who seek to destroy the footprints of our digital life.

By Philip Jong • At 12:01 AM • Under Column • Under Tech • Under World
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Sunday 01 January 2017

I, Robot: Revisited

Isaac Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics, introduced in Runaround first published in 1942 and later republished in I, Robot in 1950, describes a set of “moral” directives by which a robot must obey when interacting with humans and each other. Though these laws were entirely fictional constructs, they had nonetheless become the underpinning for the framework in modern science (in the fields of robotics and artificial intelligence) in dictating how robots should behave when they functioned autonomously. Yet, it is now known that Asimov’s laws have significant shortcomings and fail frequently to provide fundamental safeguards against unpredictable behaviors in robots that may put human lives in jeopardy. Importantly, these laws ignore that robots are merely tools, at least in its present form, so that humans, not robots, are ultimately the responsible agents who must be held accountable for any wrongdoings committed by them. Indeed, in 2013, the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council and the Arts and Humanities Research Council working group of the British Research Council declared a set of 5 rules dictating how robots should be used in society and 7 principles guiding how robotics research should be ethically conducted. An important conclusion drawn from this declaration is the recognition that robots must not be used for exploitation by evoking emotional responses in humans wherein robots are disguised to have human-like features. This restriction precludes the use of robots solely to entertain humans, when such entertainment involves physical or even mental abuse of either robots or humans (a common narrative theme explored in science fiction). With rapid advances in artificial intelligence, however, it is a near certainty that machine ethics guiding the autonomous behaviors of artificial moral agents will collide with human ethics which currently posit human concerns to be the overriding determinant of robot behaviors.

By Philip Jong • At 01:01 AM • Under Column • Under Tech • Under World
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Friday 01 July 2016

Brexit: A Sign Of A Conflicted Nation

In June 2016, the historic European Union referendum held in the United Kingdom resulted in a majority vote favoring the withdrawal of the country’s membership from the European Union. This marks the first nation in history intending to invoke Article 50 in Title VI of the Treaty on European Union that entitles any member state the right to leave the union in accordance with its own constitutional requirements. Dubbed Brexit (a catchy portmanteau of the words “British” and “exit"), the political movement that ultimately led to the referendum had garnered divided opinions and heated debates before the vote among the nation’s populace. Proponents argued that membership with the European Union has long undermined United Kingdom’s national sovereignty and control of its own immigration policy, while opponents argued that such membership has benefited the country by removing trade barriers with other European countries and reducing needless bureaucracy now handled at large by the European Union. The result of the referendum has had an immediate impact on the nation’s political landscape, including the resignation of Prime Minister David Cameron who had campaigned for the country to remain with the European Union. Importantly, the referendum has shed light on the marked geographic disparity within the United Kingdom on the support for Brexit. Whereas voters in England and Wales voted in majority to leave, voters in Northern Ireland and Scotland voted in majority to remain. Indeed, rumor is already circulating on a second Scottish independence referendum to determine whether or not Scotland will remain with the European Union in defiance of the United Kingdom. Notwithstanding the eventual fallout of Brexit, this referendum represents, at a minimum, a clear sign of a conflicted nation—a nation that is struggling with its own identity, from both within and without.

By Philip Jong • At 12:01 AM • Under Column • Under World
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Friday 01 January 2016

The Psychology Of Stupidity

All of us, without exception (dare I say it), have engaged in some embarrassing acts which can be described as “stupid” in hindsight. Nowadays, with the popularity of social media, there is no shortage of examples of such acts on display by inept individuals who are quick to be ridiculed in public for their mischief. Yet, the psychological bases driving these individuals to commit stupid acts are poorly understood. In 1976, economic historian Carlo Maria Cipolla proposed the “basic laws of human stupidity”, in which an individual is considered to be acting stupid if the resultant action by the individual causes harm to others while deriving no personal gain or, worse yet, causing harm to oneself in the process. Stupidity, therefore, does not mean a lack of intelligence, for intelligent individuals can still perpetrate acts that may be stupid (alas, I am among the guilty party). Likewise, stupidity differs from ignorance, since individuals who act stupidly do so willfully despite being aware of the negative consequences of their actions. Rather, the act of stupidity is best described as a maladaptive behavior in extremis, adopted by an individual in reaction to a circumstance to which a well-defined response dictated by social norms already exists. Most recently, researchers from Eotvos Lorand University in Hungary and Baylor University in the US used standard psychometric techniques to define the dimensions of so-called unintelligent behavior. They found that stupid acts are those engaged by perpetrators in which there is a disconnect between confidence and competence, a lack of self-control, or a tendency toward absentmindedness. Importantly, the degree of stupidity is directly proportional to the assumed responsibility of the perpetrators and the severity of the consequences resulted from their failure. Regardless of the scientific explanation behind stupidity, it is almost always better to think twice before acting so that we do not find ourselves rationalizing our stupid actions with equally stupid reasons.

By Philip Jong • At 01:01 AM • Under Column • Under Life • Under World
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Wednesday 01 July 2015

The Ethics Of Hypocrisy

In recent months, several notable public figures who are outspoken defenders of ethics and morality have themselves been found guilty of the very same morally corrupt behavior against which they have been preaching publicly. Though rampant nowadays in an age when anyone and everyone can proclaim to be a public moralist under false pretense, hypocrisy as a human fallacy has been practiced for as long as philosophers have debated on the ontology and epistemology of the human condition. Samuel Johnson’s condemnation of hypocrisy in The Rambler in 1750 famously characterized hypocrites as individuals who cowardly express “zeal” for certain desirable “virtues” which they neglect to practice and who falsely claim to have conquered their own “passions” without having earned their true “victory”. While the psychological roots from which behaviors of hypocrisy stem are still up for debate, modern studies in psychology have theorized hypocrisy to be rooted in errors in human judgment and decision making that lead to self-serving bias and other attributes of self-deception. Further, individuals who are in power are most prone to the fallacy of hypocrisy, as they are easily able to position themselves on moral high ground to challenge the beliefs and values of others but are simultaneously quick to protect their own moral stance from ever being judged. Worst yet, hypocrites undermine the effort of truly moral leaders to be recognized and inspire, forever sinking humanity into a proverbial state of moral low ground and corrupted ethics.

By Philip Jong • At 12:01 AM • Under Column • Under Life • Under World
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Thursday 01 January 2015

The Rise Of Cyber Vandalism

Vandalism was first coined by the Bishop of Bios, Henri Grégoire, to describe the deliberate act of destroying paintings, books, and other properties of cultural values during the French Revolution. It was named after the Vandals who looted the city they invaded during the Sack of Rome in 455 AD. In modern times, vandalism refers to the willful destruction of either private or public physical property without permission. The advent of the information age, however, has spawned a new type of vandalism—cyber vandalism. Most frequently, these cyber vandals exploit the openness of the internet to perpetuate acts of online sabotage, spreading messages of propaganda or stealing private data or personal information for nefarious use. In recent years, these acts of cyber vandalism have extended beyond attacks against governments or nation states for political gains to corporations with an intent to embarrass, defame, or humiliate these companies for their business practices. Regardless of the motives of these cyber vandals, there is simply no justification for their crimes and the damages they are causing—economic or otherwise. Importantly, when these crimes directly threaten the online security and safety of a nation’s citizens, this new form of vandalism may become the next frontier of warfare that will need to be fought in the digital world.

By Philip Jong • At 12:01 AM • Under Column • Under Tech • Under World
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Tuesday 01 July 2014

Right To Be Forgotten (Or Not)

In May 2014, the European Court of Justice upheld the right of an individual to stop unwanted personal information from being circulated on the internet by a search engine. Most often, such information is of an embarrassing or sometimes criminal nature which, if wildly disseminated, may stigmatize the involved individual for life. Proponents of this right to be “forgotten” consider it a paramount element of international human right, while opponents denounce the same right as a challenge to the fundamental right to freedom of expression and as a form of global censorship. Importantly, this right is distinct from the right to privacy, with which it is frequently conflated, since it deals with information that is already publicly known but may be difficult to access otherwise. When the information concerns criminal history, the right must also be balanced against public safety. Yet, even if this right is upheld, any singular governmental effort to reinforce the right may be of limited success, as such information—once released—is likely accessible by means outside of a government’s control. Most ironically, individuals who are launching legal efforts wanting to have their own past forgotten by the internet are themselves inadvertently aiding its dissemination (the so-called Streisand effect)—placing themselves squarely in the center of public attention at where they least want to be.

By Philip Jong • At 12:01 AM • Under Column • Under Tech • Under World
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Wednesday 01 January 2014

On Being A Role Model

American sociologist Robert Merton popularized the theory of role models when studying the socialization of medical students. According to Merton, a role model is an individual who attains a significant status in an established social structure to which a certain set of desirable behaviors is ascribed. The concept is an extension of Merton’s own theory of reference groups that explains why we judge our own behaviors by comparing ourselves against others who occupy certain social roles to which we aspire. Sadly, today we are often too quick to endorse an individual as a positive role model merely by some limited accomplishment which that individual has achieved, while being blinded to other conduct of the same individual which is otherwise unbecoming for a role model. Worst yet, we often misjudge a prominent celebrity to be a role model by wealth or fame alone, mistakenly believing that these are desirable qualities of humanity for which we must strive. While no individual is without faults, positive role models seek to redeem their own failings and do not justify their bad behaviors as a necessity for success. In other words, being a role model is more than just achieving success in life: it is how this success is achieved through positive and moral behaviors, which we seek to mirror in our own lives, that is the essence of a good role model.

By Philip Jong • At 12:01 AM • Under Column • Under World
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Monday 01 July 2013

Mob Mentality Of The Net Generation

The ease by which crowds can congregate online anonymously has given rise to a new kind of negative mob mentality of the net (or internet) generation. Under the false guise of freedom of speech, these mobs feed on each others’ blinded anger and misplaced self-entitlement to viciously demean, chastise, and humiliate some individual for an alleged act of wrongdoing. These attacks have little regards for the whole truth, and their punishments are disproportionate to the severity of the supposed crime. Politicians and celebrities, in particular, make for easy targets for a mob who sees fit to practice its brand of social justice in order to bring them down from their ivory towers and perched pedestals. Social psychologists have theorized that the loss of personal identity in a crowd (deindividuation theory) frees an individual from social restraints and weakens the personal control of impulsive behaviors that are otherwise antisocial. This deindividuation then allows the participant to blindly follow the collective consciousness of the crowd (emergent norm theory) imprinted by self-imposed leaders whose disruptive behaviors are seen as the norm when they go unchallenged. American psychologist Philip Zimbardo’s famed Stanford prison experiment is prima facie of the permissive power of deindividuation in dictating negative crowd behaviors. Alas, regardless of whichever theory is correct in explaining mob mentality, it does little to curb the online behavior of the perpetrators or help the victims of mob attacks in the cyberspace.

By Philip Jong • At 12:01 AM • Under Column • Under Tech • Under World
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Tuesday 01 January 2013

Surviving The False Apocalypse

Throughout human history, many false prophecies had been made about the impending end of the world. Most commonly, the supposed apocalypse was to be preceded by some significant calendrical date, religious event, or cosmological phenomenon. Indeed, the practice of eschatology (the study of doctrines concerning the end of the world) was prevalent historically in many cultures. The oldest such recorded prediction, made by the ancient Assyrians, prophesied that the world would end not by a catastrophic heavenly strike but by the inevitable corruption of men. Millennia later, German astronomer Johannes Stöffle foretold that a massive deluge would ravage the world as predicted by an obscure planetary alignment. Likewise, French astronomer Camille Flammarion warned that the reappearance of Halley’s Comet would bring upon destruction to the world by bathing the planet in a cloud of toxic gas stemmed from the comet’s tail. In recent years, many unscrupulous self-proclaimed soothsayers falsely touted other oncoming catastrophes, ranging from holocaust to judgment day. Most recently, the Mayan apocalypse was supposed to herald the end of the world, coinciding with the last day of the Mesoamerican Long Count calendar used by the Mayans. In reality, the alleged date simply signified the end of a calendar cycle and the start of another. In fact, the original Mayan scriptures contained no doomsday predictions, the latter of which were entirely myths created by popular culture. In other words, the world would never end simply on a man-made falsehood.

By Philip Jong • At 12:01 AM • Under Column • Under World
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