Technology should not be blamed for problems in society

Feature by Nick Barron

As ever, technology is being blamed for all of society's ills. A look at the facts behind the stories exposes some flaws.

As ever, technology is being blamed for all of society's ills. A look at the facts behind the stories exposes some flaws.

It doesn't seem to matter what year it is, new technology is always the whipping-boy for society's concerns about the depravation of its population and descent towards anarchy.

In the wonderful book The Victorian Internet, Tom Standage explains how, back in the early days of the telegraph, it was blamed for pretty much the same things the internet now takes the flack for. It would lead to the breakdown of families, increase crime, reduce public morals… all the usual tabloid headlines. Of course, while the telegraph changed society, much as the internet has, most of our problems have deeper causes in biology and psychology, not technology.

Crime is a good case in point. Criminals are always quick to adopt technologies. Social networks, wireless communications and location-based services seem to be the favourite candidates at present. There are a few high-profile examples of where people have been assaulted and even murdered after making dubious friends on Facebook. But the far more common crimes by non-Facebook friends, family and strangers get much less publicity. Facebook is just another “stranger danger”, the risks of which are always misunderstood.

Online services are also, apparently, the new way that burglars select their targets. Recent headlines announced that “four out of five burglars” used Twitter or Facebook to select their targets. However, the actual survey (www.friedland.co.uk/en-GB/News/Pages/Whats-your-status.aspx) tells a more subtle story. Of 50 former burglars, 78 per cent said they “strongly believed” that social networking services are being used by current burglars. No evidence was presented to verify this, and the survey questions have not been published (review any decent psychology textbook for how to get the answers you want with carefully worded questions).

Call me an old cynic, but is the average burglar really going to browse Facebook and Twitter, trying to find likely targets, and turn up after they Tweet “Off to LHR, LOL!”? Or are they going to stick to simpler, low-tech methods like walking along the street and looking at houses?

Interestingly, the same survey suggested the most common lures for burglars were leaving windows open and valuables on display. How these can be exploited remotely is beyond me.

Then there are location services. Amusing as sites like PleaseRobMe.com are, I've yet to hear of a single verified case of crime committed based on location services. Given that the same survey suggests the average burglary takes less than ten minutes, you'd have to be pretty unlucky to have a Twitter-following crook in range. Risks around location services are certainly not to be ignored, but it's a manageable problem. The biggest issue is when it happens automatically, rather than with approval.

There have even been suggestions that tech-savvy crooks are locating laptops and satnavs hidden from view by using Bluetooth “pingers”. Dig a little deeper into the story, though, and you find that the spate of thefts was unexplained, so someone with a poor understanding of Bluetooth and laptop power management assumed there must be a technical explanation. The idea that crooks wait in service stations and watch people hide their valuables is obviously too old-school (my advice, always lock your laptop in the boot at the start of the journey, and take your satnav with you to the coffee shop).

The risks of social networking sites are not to be ignored, but are largely similar to those involved with face-to-face meetings. The common advice of “don't add anyone you don't know as a friend” seems to only apply online, despite you being far more likely to be at risk from a physical acquaintance.

Us security people commonly befriend strangers (or “make new friends”, as I prefer to put it) online – some I have still to meet in person. That, after all, is how I got this job as SC columnist, so don't expect me to give up my dangerous habits any time soon.

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