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Why Data Privacy has become a Pipe Dream

If you’re active on WhatsApp, Facebook or any other social platform, you’re not as safe as you thought, writes
AARON THORNTON, MD of Dial a Nerd

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As you begin to read this, let’s perform a quick experiment! How many active conversations are you engaged in – right now – on WhatsApp? When was the last time you shared a picture or video on Instagram? Is Facebook currently open and active on one of your devices? And how many internet- connected devices are you using at this moment? Chances are, you have multiple devices running multiple applications most of the time. So what’s the problem, you ask? Since when did checking in with a high school buddy in Australia via Facebook become a dangerous act?  

In reply, we say, read on if you can stomach it!  

Nation-State Hacking & You  

It might seem like a laughably long shot to say that you are a key player in the increasingly sinister and sophisticated world of nation-state hacking. Well, you are. Given that individuals, businesses and governments are now constantly connected, round the clock, consumers and businesses have become fair game in cyber espionage. And as we create and share more and more data, both the value and accessibility of that data increases. According to a report by McAfee, IP theft now accounts for more than 25% of the estimated $600 billion cost of cybercrime to the world economy.    

With data having become the ‘new gold’, nation states are naturally pouring investment and key resources into building advanced cyber warfare tools. Indeed, entire divisions of armed forces as well as the upper echelons of corporate leadership are devising ways to harness data to gain economic, political and social power. At the highest level, tools and platforms are being developed with the specific aim of perpetrating cyber espionage and data theft. No surprise then, that the consumer and business environments are rife with increasingly advanced malware, ransomware and many other malicious hacking tools and methods.  

Still not convinced? Yes, we can smell the scepticism from here! So let’s take a moment to see how this has already played out, beneath our noses.  

Remember the Facebook–Cambridge Analytica data scandal of early 2018? For many, this was a watershed moment in the emerging war for consumer data – and the ensuing tensions between privacy, power and profit. Need a refresh? Well, in 2018, Facebook exposed data on up to 87 million Facebook users to a researcher who worked at Cambridge Analytica, which worked for the Trump campaign. In essence, the data was harvested without user consent and used for political purposes.  

Another chilling but less direct example can be found in Russia’s meddling in the 2016 U.S. elections. According to Politico, Russia launched a massive social media campaign to ‘sow discord’ leading up to the elections. The website reported that as early as 2014, an infamous Russian “troll farm” known as the Internet Research Agency – a company linked to Russian president Putin – developed a strategy using fraudulent bank accounts and other fake identity documents to “spread distrust towards the candidates and the political system in general.” 

When referring to the Russian hacks and their impact on election results, one U.S. Representative sagely noted: “They didn’t just steal data; they weaponized it.” 

Ignorance is not bliss 

Okay, so data is being ‘weaponized’, and ordinary people and businesses are being caught in the crosshairs of cyber warfare. A little bit frightening, but the good news is that savvy individuals like you can take steps to protect personal data and actively combat the creeping influence of juggernauts such as Facebook and Google.  

To begin with, awareness is key. As you engage with various platforms and applications at work and at home, take time to understand how your data is being used and what the terms of use are. Is your data being accessed and sold to advertisers? Have you consented to this? In addition to scrutinizing your consent, also pay close attention to how much data you share online – and the nature of the details you are divulging. Always keep in mind that hackers are employing smart social engineering tactics and using the details of your private life (birthdays, holidays, pet’s names, etc) to trick you into opening infected emails and clicking on malware. Whenever you are online, you are a target – and vigilance at all times is critical. Beyond that, it goes without saying that you must commit to following basic security protocols with your devices. So always keep software up to date and keep your data backed up so that you can reboot or wipe a device if needed.   

Now that we’ve left you sufficiently spooked, you can get back to those demanding WhatsApp/Facebook/Instagram notifications (same company, by the way)…albeit, we hope, with a slightly altered [cyber] worldview!  

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Spotify hits sweet spot

Streaming has shifted the music industry away from ownership and towards customer experience, writes ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK

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Last week marked the end of the beginning of the streaming music revolution. Apple announced the closing of iTunes, the 18-year-old platform that helped shift the music industry from physical to digital. At its height, in 2014, close to a billion people were using it.

However, the business model was still based on traditional ownership of music. Users either converted their physical music into digital tracks, or bought songs from iTunes. Apple founder Steve Jobs said back in 2003, when the iPod music player was launched, that consumers “don’t want to rent their music… They don’t want subscriptions”.

History proved him spectacularly wrong, and when streaming subscriptions services like Spotify and Pandora began taking off, even as iTunes hit the 800-million user mark, the company launched Apple Music in a dramatic acknowledgment that subscriptions were the future. It was also an admission that iTunes, which had also become a download service for movies and TV shows, had become top-heavy and frustrating to use.

Apple’s late arrival in the streaming world has cost it: In January this year, Apple Music reached 50-million subscribers – exactly half the number paying monthly subs to Spotify.

Spotify took South African music by storm when it launched here in March 2018, thanks to close collaboration with local artists.  It has a dedicated South African team that creates playlists for South Africans, in genres that appeal to local audiences. It also has a local ad sales team, and achieved early success with automotive brands like BMW and Mini using the platform extensively.

The company does not break down user statistics by country but, says Claudius Boller, managing director for Middle East and Africa, uptake exceeded all expectations.

“It’s been an amazing year,” he told Business Times. “Engagement in South Africa has crossed the world average. Users are extremely active, lean forward, and engage with playlists on a daily basis. We are not running many campaigns to move people from our free service to the Premium offering, but people do it right away.

“The metric we look at is how often and how long people use Spotify on average per day, and we have already seen those on premium subscriptions using Spotify much more than Facebook per day.”

The South African audience has another key differentiator, says Boller: “The market is extremely loyal. We know other music services have been in the market for many years. But when people make up their minds to try Spotify, they fall in love with it and continue to use it. The drop-off rate of people using our service is one of the lowest of all the markets in which Spotify operates.”

One of the secrets of Spotify’s success is the close relationship it builds with what it calls “the creative community” – both artists and labels.

“They are extra engaged, because of the data they are able to get. We give them a huge amount of data in a way that is very easy to digest. Through Spotify for Artists, they can see in real time how many listeners they have, their demographics, where they are listening, and where their audience is growing. If Jeremy Loops is doing very well in Australia, he can adjust where to promote his music and how to plan his touring schedule.

“We also use that data to work more closely with the creative community. We bring artists, labels and managers together for educational events so that they can get to know how to use the data. We give them practical advice, for example that they should release music on the same day on all platforms, including radio and streaming services, to maximise monetisation.”

Music entrepreneur Siya Metane agrees that audience data is one of the greatest benefits of streaming music. Better known as Slikour, founding member of the legendary hip hop group Skwatta Kamp, he now runs SlikourOnLife, an online urban music site and community with well over a million regular users. Understanding user trends has been at the heart of the growth of the platform, and he believes Spotify and its competitors add yet another dimension.

“The analytics that the streaming platforms provide give artists more insight of where their music is being consumed,” he says. “It is therefore giving the artists and their managers insight on where to invest nationally or globally. Such information has not been readily available to artists and managers before. Historically, everything was based on the physical purchase of a copy in a region – most of the time locally.”

But there is a downside, he says: “The cost of the streaming sacrifice is losing a whole R100 per album to a streaming company that pays you based on their pro rata plays on their service. Therefore only a few people can benefit. But streaming has definitely shifted the business from music alone to everything else music can influence.”

Both Vodacom and MTN have recognised the potential of streaming music to add value to their services, which are becoming increasingly commoditised. MTN late last year bought the local music streaming service Simfy Africa, and Vodacom in April this year launched its own streaming music service, called My Muze. The latter invites aspiring musicians to upload their music, with the possibility of being discovered and signed to a music label.

“The music industry has changed rapidly in recent times in that everything now lives digitally,” says Rehana Hassim, portfolio manager for music at Vodacom. “We also hope to attract new young consumers, to whom music remains one of the biggest passion points, providing various ways to engage with and consume the music they love.”

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AI reveals SA domestic abuse trends

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By Kriti Sharma, leading global voice on ethical technology and founder of AI for Good and Joanne van der Walt, Director, Sage Foundation 

Digital abuse, infidelity, and alcohol abuse are emerging as common conversation topics between victims of domestic violence in South Africa and rAInbow, an artificial intelligence-powered smart companion.

Developed with funding partner, Sage Foundation, and social justice organisation, The Soul City Institute, rAInbow allows users to ‘chat’ to a non-human over Facebook Messenger. It provides a safe space for domestic violence victims to access information about their rights, support options, and where they can find help – in friendly, simple language.

When we launched rAInbow in November last year, we didn’t expect that it would facilitate over 200,000 conversations with 7,000 users – 150,000 of those within the first three months of launch. One of the reasons we believe Artificial Intelligence (AI) can fill a gap in victim support is because many victims are uncomfortable talking to another person about their experience – due largely to social and cultural taboos, embarrassment, and shame.

The data gathered from anonymised rAInbow conversations** providesinvaluable insight into this complex issue; insight that we can use to improve our communication and prevention strategies.

Digital abuse: Behind the screens

Around 30% of rAInbow users believe it’s acceptable for their partners to check their phones and to insist on knowing who they’re talking to at all times.

Yet this constitutes a form of verbal and/or emotional abuse because abusers exploit technology and social media to monitor, control, shame, stalk, harass, and intimidate their victims. In conversations with rAInbow, many victims reveal that they don’t know what constitutes digital abuse because they can’t recognise the signs.

You could be a victim of digital abuse if your partner demands to know your passwords and who you’re talking to, reads your messages, and dictates who you can be friends with on social media.

The bottom line is, when you’re in a relationship, all communication with your partner – be it digital or face-to-face – should be respectful. You should never feel pressured into doing anything you’re uncomfortable with.

Infidelity: Is cheating really abuse?

Infidelity emerged as one of the main challenges facing rAInbow users in abusive relationships. In such cases, the cheating partner usually blames you for his/her cheating, does it intentionally to hurt you, or threatens to cheat again to control you. Infidelity is often accompanied by lying, manipulation, and blame-shifting – all recognised abusive behaviours.

Technology has exacerbated the problem. It’s now easier to access dating sites, pornography, and chat platforms, facilitating behaviour like ‘sexting’, which some people may consider infidelity.

‘Alcohol made me do it’

Alcohol and drugs are common triggers for violent episodes, with rAInbow users saying their partners were more likely to lash out at them verbally or physically after they’d been drinking. While alcohol itself doesn’t cause domestic violence, it can aggravate already tense situations.

Alcohol impairs people’s judgement and behaviour, to the point where they may lose control and become aggressive, short-tempered, and abusive. In most situations, the abusive partner will blame the alcohol for their actions and may not remember what they did or said the next day. The abused partner, however, has to live with the memories and after-effects of the abuse.

Everyone’s responsibility

In his State of the Nation Address earlier this year, President Cyril Ramaphosa said violence against women and children has reached “epidemic proportions” and that ending abuse would be made an urgent national priority. Corporates, NGOs, and ordinary citizens also have a responsibility to end the scourge.

Technology like rAInbow provides the vital information needed to start driving radical change – at policy and societal level. The conversations that rAInbow is having with users is making us think differently about how to approach this issue. It’s apparent that we need targeted, personalised education drives that help victims identify abuse and explain how and where to get help. It’s also apparent that there’s a strong need for information that can be accessed in a safe, anonymous, and non-judgemental space.

We need to use the aggregated data that’s available to us to make better decisions about action plans and strategies. Solutions like rAInbow can provide governments with the information they need to tackle abuse.

To find out how you can contribute to the rAInbow project, e-mail humans@aiforgood.co.uk.

** All conversational data is anonymised. It is used to improve rAInbow and help organisations make better decisions about where to focus their efforts to combat abuse.

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