In Conversation with: Bill Thompson

What do you get when you mix Philosophy, Applied Psychology, AI, Political activism and Unix programming with the Web?

In conversation this time is well-known BBC journalist, author and technology pundit Bill Thompson, who is surely an obvious candidate for the titles of both renaissance man and Web Scientist – he recently joined the board of Trustees at WST and we are delighted to welcome him. Ian Brown sat down to find out a little more about Bill’s road from Philosophy to Web Science and why he has been “thinking about the way the network is changing the world”.

Ian: Bill, you left Cambridge with a degree in Philosophy (with a side interest in Experimental Psychology) and decided to stay in Cambridge (post grad) to take a Diploma in Computer Science – how did that mix of disciplines shape your thinking?

Bill: I had initially been interested in the philosophy of mind and, from there, to how minds work (psychologically) and then whether it might be possible to build minds (machines that sense and think) using neural networks and artificial vision. From there I became interested in human-computer interaction and started to think more about how to build machines that might amplify our own minds.

Ian: What was the state of the tools available at that time to tackle those goals?

Bill: Well the technologies were starting to emerge – I joined Acorn just as someone was saying “what if we did something different and created a RISC processor..?” which was pretty interesting. As I moved through roles at Pipex and The Instruction Set I learnt more about programming, databases and networking and I attended the very first WWW Conference meeting Tim Berners-Lee (one of WST’s founders) in the process. Looking back I was on the periphery of some very interesting projects and impressive characters in AI and the Web throughout much of my education and early career.

Ian: Did you have a sense back then of how important these technologies were going to be and did you have a feeling whether the people were driving the technology or vice versa?

Bill: I think my views came together slowly over a decade between ‘84-‘94 culminating in helping to run a national body called the Community Computing Network through a growing sense of what computers could do for society and the social and political impact of technology. We wanted to help people see computing for what it could do socially as well as technically.

I think there was a sense of anticipation that technology could level the playing field between big businesses (or even oppressive states) and the rest of us – we were telling charities to embrace the same computing technologies as the big players with our slogan “If it can do it for them – it can do it for you! “. We realised we had to consider how technology is applied and not only the tools themselves. We wanted people to get engaged in owning/shaping their technologies for better social outcomes.

Whilst I had initially developed my thinking in the HCI world, I started to run into people (including Nigel Shadbolt – a fellow WST trustee) talking about Web Science – an approach that seemed to crystallise many of the things I had been thinking about in terms of interdisciplinary boundaries and adaptive models to describe fluid conditions and new technologies – in effect “thinking about the way the network is changing the world”.

Ian: I typically ask my “In conversation” guests which part(s) of Web Science particularly interest and attract them but I understand you’ve come up with a different definition of Web Science which addresses the moving target issue in Web Science.

Bill: I’ve really side-stepped the difficulties in defining what an ever-changing Web Science is by taking a cue from pragmatic Philosophy and focussing instead on what Web Science does* and, more importantly asking, “What do we need from Web Science?”. Web Science can usefully be defined by what we need it to do at any given point.

Ian: So let me ask you instead what do we need from Web Science now and is it the same as we needed when Web Science was founded over a decade ago?

Bill: Whilst its difficult to point to specific examples I think we need to understand (in a changing environment) where we can have most leverage to deliver the outcomes we think are most desirable for society as a whole. With 3 billion extra people coming online soon and technologies becoming more pervasive every year I think we are going to see a number of “step changes” in the Web we know today and a need to determine which aspects of this vast and growing system of interacting technologies that will need to be regulated. We can’t expect to build technologies with global reach and so many effects, both positive (e.g. economic) and negative (e.g. social/climate) effects and simply leave the world to cope. Web Science needs to research, reflect and advise on the impacts and (dis)benefits of these approaches, bringing a strong evidence-based historic viewpoint which will allow us to effectively learn from the past as we plan for the future – something which seems sadly lacking from the approach of some modern tech companies.

Web Science can help us to see that technology can be grounded in humanity and human processes in a rigorous and useful way. We can help people that aren’t really “noticing” these invisible/pervasive technologies by making clear to them that whilst society is indeed moulding the Web, the Web is also moulding society at the same time. I’ve been saying for the last 20 years that we need to stop thinking of “the Web” and “Cyberspace” as distinct places – they are simply new ways of expressing society and humanity with everything ultimately grounded in the real world with real-world costs and consequences.

There are many new freedoms (both positive and negative) that become possible on the Web. We need a level of rigour to balance those personal freedoms against the social responsibilities that maintain the Web as a viable and positive experience. Perhaps we need to be the “anti-poets” in this venture.

Ian: Bill, thanks for joining me in conversation – we look forward to another session soon.

Bill Thompson is an English technology writer, best known for his weekly column in the Technology section of BBC News Online and his appearances on Digital Planet, a radio show on the BBC World Service. 

He is a Trustee of the Web Science Trust (WST), an Honorary Senior Visiting Fellow at City University London’s Journalism Department, He is chair of the Centre for Doctoral Training advisory board, a member of the main advisory board of the Web Science Institute at the University of Southampton and writes for BBC Webwise.

Government agencies are tapping a facial recognition company to prove you’re you – here’s why that raises concerns about privacy, accuracy and fairness

 

 Beginning this summer, you might need to upload a selfie and a photo ID to a private company, ID.me, if you want to file your taxes online.

Oscar Wong/Moment via Getty Images

James Hendler, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

The U.S. Internal Revenue Service is planning to require citizens to create accounts with a private facial recognition company in order to file taxes online. The IRS is joining a growing number of federal and state agencies that have contracted with ID.me to authenticate the identities of people accessing services.

The IRS’s move is aimed at cutting down on identity theft, a crime that affects millions of Americans. The IRS, in particular, has reported a number of tax filings from people claiming to be others, and fraud in many of the programs that were administered as part of the American Relief Plan has been a major concern to the government.

The IRS decision has prompted a backlash, in part over concerns about requiring citizens to use facial recognition technology and in part over difficulties some people have had in using the system, particularly with some state agencies that provide unemployment benefits. The reaction has prompted the IRS to revisit its decision.

a webpage with the IRS logo in the top left corner and buttons for creating or logging into an account

 

 

 

Here’s what greets you when you click the link to sign into your IRS account. If current plans remain in place, the blue button will go away in the summer of 2022.
Screenshot, IRS sign-in webpage

As a computer science researcher and the chair of the Global Technology Policy Council of the Association for Computing Machinery, I have been involved in exploring some of the issues with government use of facial recognition technology, both its use and its potential flaws. There have been a great number of concerns raised over the general use of this technology in policing and other government functions, often focused on whether the accuracy of these algorithms can have discriminatory affects. In the case of ID.me, there are other issues involved as well.

ID dot who?

ID.me is a private company that formed as TroopSwap, a site that offered retail discounts to members of the armed forces. As part of that effort, the company created an ID service so that military staff who qualified for discounts at various companies could prove they were, indeed, service members. In 2013, the company renamed itself ID.me and started to market its ID service more broadly. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs began using the technology in 2016, the company’s first government use.

To use ID.me, a user loads a mobile phone app and takes a selfie – a photo of their own face. ID.me then compares that image to various IDs that it obtains either through open records or through information that applicants provide through the app. If it finds a match, it creates an account and uses image recognition for ID. If it cannot perform a match, users can contact a “trusted referee” and have a video call to fix the problem.

A number of companies and states have been using ID.me for several years. News reports have documented problems people have had with ID.me failing to authenticate them, and with the company’s customer support in resolving those problems. Also, the system’s technology requirements could widen the digital divide, making it harder for many of the people who need government services the most to access them.

But much of the concern about the IRS and other federal agencies using ID.me revolves around its use of facial recognition technology and collection of biometric data.

Accuracy and bias

To start with, there are a number of general concerns about the accuracy of facial recognition technologies and whether there are discriminatory biases in their accuracy. These have led the Association for Computing Machinery, among other organizations, to call for a moratorium on government use of facial recognition technology.

A study of commercial and academic facial recognition algorithms by the National Institute of Standards and Technology found that U.S. facial-matching algorithms generally have higher false positive rates for Asian and Black faces than for white faces, although recent results have improved. ID.me claims that there is no racial bias in its face-matching verification process.

There are many other conditions that can also cause inaccuracy – physical changes caused by illness or an accident, hair loss due to chemotherapy, color change due to aging, gender conversions and others. How any company, including ID.me, handles such situations is unclear, and this is one issue that has raised concerns. Imagine having a disfiguring accident and not being able to log into your medical insurance company’s website because of damage to your face.

 

 

 

Facial recognition technology is spreading fast. Is the technology – and society – ready?

Data privacy

There are other issues that go beyond the question of just how well the algorithm works. As part of its process, ID.me collects a very large amount of personal information. It has a very long and difficult-to-read privacy policy, but essentially while ID.me doesn’t share most of the personal information, it does share various information about internet use and website visits with other partners. The nature of these exchanges is not immediately apparent.

So one question that arises is what level of information the company shares with the government, and whether the information can be used in tracking U.S. citizens between regulated boundaries that apply to government agencies. Privacy advocates on both the left and right have long opposed any form of a mandatory uniform government identification card. Does handing off the identification to a private company allow the government to essentially achieve this through subterfuge? It’s not difficult to imagine that some states – and maybe eventually the federal government – could insist on an identification from ID.me or one of its competitors to access government services, get medical coverage and even to vote.

As Joy Buolamwini, an MIT AI researcher and founder of the Algorithmic Justice League, argued, beyond accuracy and bias issues is the question of the right not to use biometric technology. “Government pressure on citizens to share their biometric data with the government affects all of us — no matter your race, gender, or political affiliations,” she wrote.

Too many unknowns for comfort

Another issue is who audits ID.me for the security of its applications? While no one is accusing ID.me of bad practices, security researchers are worried about how the company may protect the incredible level of personal information it will end up with. Imagine a security breach that released the IRS information for millions of taxpayers. In the fast-changing world of cybersecurity, with threats ranging from individual hacking to international criminal activities, experts would like assurance that a company provided with so much personal information is using state-of-the-art security and keeping it up to date.

[Over 140,000 readers rely on The Conversation’s newsletters to understand the world. Sign up today.]

Much of the questioning of the IRS decision comes because these are early days for government use of private companies to provide biometric security, and some of the details are still not fully explained. Even if you grant that the IRS use of the technology is appropriately limited, this is potentially the start of what could quickly snowball to many government agencies using commercial facial recognition companies to get around regulations that were put in place specifically to rein in government powers.

The U.S. stands at the edge of a slippery slope, and while that doesn’t mean facial recognition technology shouldn’t be used at all, I believe it does mean that the government should put a lot more care and due diligence into exploring the terrain ahead before taking those critical first steps.The Conversation

James Hendler, Professor of Computer, Web and Cognitive Sciences, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

James Hendler, Professor of Computer, Web and Cognitive Sciences, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute
This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. 

Noshir Contractor on becoming ICA President

Contractor is the Jane S. & William J. White Professor of Behavioral Sciences in the McCormick School of Engineering, the Northwestern School of Communication, and the Kellogg School of Management, and director of the Science of Networks in Communities (SONIC) Research Group. He is a foremost researcher of network science, computational social science, and web science, specifically examining how social and knowledge networks form in business, scientific communities, healthcare, and space travel. 

Contractor’s post as ICA president will tap into his vast expertise in creating and nurturing diverse global networks.

“I consider ICA as being my perennial intellectual home since my days as a graduate student,” Contractor said. “It has given me a lot over the years, and I’ve seen it help a lot of people. And it has played a key role in conveying the significance of communication scholarship, to the broader scholarly community, to policy makers, and the public at large.”

The ICA is the preeminent professional organization for communication scholars and researchers from around the globe. It was founded over 50 years ago and comprises about 4,500 members in 80 countries. Building on its past accomplishments, Contractor wants to reimagine opportunities for growth, and as president-elect, he’s set a threefold agenda to expand representation, access, and unity within the ICA.

His first goal pertains to internationalization; while the ICA is indeed global, both leadership and membership is dominated by Americans, Europeans, and Australian/New Zealanders, annual conferences can be difficult to access for many members. There are relatively few members hailing from the Global South, Contractor said, and he is the first Indian and only the second Asian to be elected president. Reaching communication scholars from these underrepresented locations is of vital importance and will help to reposition the US as one of many, not among the only, hubs of communication research.

His second goal is to foster more cross-divisional scholarship. The number of subspecialties in the ICA has ballooned in the last decade, and communications scholars find themselves siloed in such specific divisions as mass, health, and political communication. Yet global problems—the coronavirus pandemic, for instance—are pandivisional and require more collaboration among scholars, Contractor noted.

His third goal is to leverage technologies to reimagine professional and pedagogical development, wherein members have access to more teaching and learning tools, a greater ability to create and share original content, and opportunities to build and grow mentoring networks.

“It is our goal to raise awareness of communication as a credible disciplinary landing ground for scholars,” he said. “I see my role as doing what I study, and that is building networks and nurturing those networks.”

Contractor joins the ICA Executive Committee now in his role as President Elect Select and will serve as President for the 2022-2023 year; he will remain part of the Executive Committee until mid-2026. He is the second sitting Northwestern professor to serve as President, the first being Charles Berger in 1995-1996. Ellen Wartella, the Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani Professor of Communication, served as president in 1992-1993, prior to joining Northwestern.

Contractor has held various posts within the organization and is an ICA fellow. He will succeed Mary Beth Oliver, Distinguished Professor of Media Studies at Penn State University’s College of Communications.

This article orginally appeared on Norwestern.edu and can be found here

Noshir Contractor elected president of ICA

WST Trustee and Web Science researcher Prof Noshir  Contractor has been elected as next president of the prestigious ICA ( International  Communications Association

Click here to see the details of the election.

About Noshir

Noshir S. Contractor is a Jane S. & William J. White Professor of Behavioral Sciences in the School of Engineering, School of Communication and the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, USA. He is the director of Sonic Lab and a Trustee of the Web Science Trust.

About the ICA

(from current presidents introduction)

ICA started 70 years ago as a small organization of U.S.-based researchers. It has expanded to boast more than 6000 members in over 80 countries. Since 2003, we have been officially associated with the United Nations as a nongovernmental organization (NGO).

We publish five internationally renowned, peer-reviewed journals: Communication, Culture, and Critique (CCC), Communication Theory (CT), Human Communication Research (HCR), Journal of Communication (JoC), and the Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication (JCMC). Journal of Communication is the world’s top ranked communications journal on SCIMAGO, and Communication Theory is ranked #5. 

Wendy Hall features in BBC’s Inside Science

In an era of cyber-crime, misinformation, disinformation, state-sponsored attacks on rival countries’ infrastructure, government-imposed internet shutdowns in places like Eritrea and Kashmir, the World Wide Web is an increasingly dark and troubled place. Making sense of how the internet has changed from the democratic, sharing, open platform it was designed to be, and predicting what’s next, are the web scientists.

Professor Dame Wendy Hall talks with BBC’s Gareth Mitchell about the issues with the web and how we interact with it in our daily lives, particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic, and why having web scientists is fundamental to how we learn to understand the Web.

Listen now

 

 

BBC Digital Planet Podcast

In a special edition podcast from the BBC’s Digital Planet, four key speakers from the 12th ACM Web Science Conference spoke with programme presenter Gareth Mitchell about Web Science and why it matters.

Featuring Professor Dame Wendy Hall, Vint Cerf, Carly Kind and JP Rangaswami, with expert commentary from Bill Thompson, the show highlights the importance of studying the Web and how it could be made better for humanity.

Listen to the podcast