March Roundup (Maths, Tech, Computing)

Can you believe we’re already a quarter of the way through 2018?! March had two significant events, the first being the Cambridge Analytica data breach scandal and the second being the death of Professor Stephen Hawking. I’ll admit the latter is less of a maths, tech or computing story, but I thought his passing was important all the same. Links to read further into the topics can be found at the bottom of the article as per usual.

Cambridge Analytica

Unless you have not read any news whatsoever for the past week or so, you should have already heard of the scandal surrounding the harvesting, distribution and use of personal data, involving Facebook and data analytics firm Cambridge Analytica. The information gathered from Facebook is alleged to have been used to influence the outcome of the 2016 US presidential election.

Cambridge Analytica aims to change audience behaviour in commercial or political situations for example through targeted advertising or audience segmentation. The company claims on its website that it has supported more than 100 political campaigns and within the United States alone it “played a pivotal role in winning presidential races”, most notably Donald Trump’s. The company is owned by billionaire Robert Mercer, whose family supported the Trump campaign, and from 2014-2016 had Steve Bannon, Trump’s former advisor, as its vice president. In 2014 a Facebook personality quiz developed by an academic at University of Cambridge named Aleksandr Kogan was released through an app called This Is Your Digital Life. This was done separately from Kogan’s work at Cambridge University, through his company Global Science Research (GSR). Users were paid to take the quiz and agreed to have their data collected for academic use. However, data on the user’s friends on Facebook, who had not agreed to have their data harvested, were also accumulated alongside the data of the person taking the quiz. Christopher Wylie, who used to work at Cambridge Analytica, claimed that around 270,000 users took the quiz, meaning that approximately 50 million Facebook users, mostly belonging to registered US voters, had their data gathered without explicit authorisation. Wylie also claimed that the data was sold to Cambridge Analytica, who then used it to help the Trump campaign, creating an algorithm to selectively show users the advert most likely to convince them to vote for Trump. For example, working mothers were shown a “warm and fuzzy” video advert in which Trump never spoke. Cambridge Analytica deny this stating that “This Facebook data was not used by Cambridge Analytica as part of the services it provided to the Donald Trump presidential campaign; personality targeted advertising was not carried out for this client either”. The whole point of Cambridge Analytica is to use data to change audience behaviour, but the key issue here is in the way they got that data. Facebook’s policies only allowed the collection of friends’ data to improve user experience in the app and barred the data from being sold on or used for advertising. Furthermore, at no point did the people whose data were gathered consent to having this data shared with Donald Trump’s election campaign or other such things. Jay Pinho, a commentator on advertising and political media, said that the Obama 2012 election campaign also gathered Facebook user data via an app, however, the users were aware that their data was being collected in association to the Obama campaign.

Since 2014, Facebook has changed the amount of data developers can gather, with its founder Mark Zuckerberg claiming that “this specific issue involving Cambridge Analytica should no longer happen with new apps today”. Zuckerberg said that some of the things Facebook would do to address current and past problems includes investigating all Facebook apps that had access to large amounts of information before the platform policies changed in 2014, banning developers that had misused personally identifiable information and telling everyone affected by those apps. On the latter statement, when Facebook found out that their rules had been breached, although they demanded that Cambridge Analytica delete all of the data (with Cambridge Analytica claiming that they deleted all the data when told to), the company never actually informed any of the users whose data had been used that their data had been collected without their permission. Zuckerberg has now been called by US senators to testify before congress about how Facebook will protect its users and has also been called on by a Commons parliamentary committee to give evidence abouts its use of personal data.

Channel 4 News sent an undercover reporter to pose as a Sri Lankan businessman wanting to influence a local election. Cambridge Analytica chief executive Alexander Nix was apparently filmed giving examples of how the firm could discredit political opponents by entrapment e.g. staging situations in which apparent bribery could be caught on camera. The firm denies all the claims and says the documentary was “edited and scripted to represent the nature of those conversations”. However, Nix has since been suspended, with Cambridge Analytica saying his comments “do not represent the values of the firm”.

Another branch of this story is the investigation into Cambridge Analytica’s connection to AggregateIQ – the digital agency used by the Vote Leave official campaign for Brexit. I haven’t actually done much research into this part of the scandal as I wanted to focus on the involvement of Facebook and Donald Trump’s campaign, however, I will link some articles that talk more about Cambridge Analytica’s role in the EU referendum if any of you want to read more about that.

Stephen Hawking

On the 15th of March, world renowned physicist Stephen Hawking passed away at the age of 76, living approximately 50 years longer than he was predicted to.

Stephen Hawking was born on the 8th of January 1942 in Oxford. He read natural sciences for his undergraduate degree at Oxford University before going on to study for his PhD at Cambridge University. At the age of 22 Professor Hawking was diagnosed with a rare form of motor neurone disease, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (A.L.S.) that left him in a wheelchair and having to communicate through a voice synthesiser. In 1974 Hawking was elected to the Royal Society and 5 years later, he became the Lucasian professor of mathematics at Cambridge, a post formerly held by Isaac Newton, Charles Babbage and Paul Dirac.

In 1988 Hawking published “A Brief History of Time”, regaling his most significant contributions to the fields of physics and cosmology. His earliest works focused on relativity, the idea that space and time can bend in the presence of matter and energy. Hawking showed, along with the mathematician Roger Penrose, that the Big Bang started from a singularity: under extreme conditions e.g. in the centers of black holes, space-time can simply end. Hawking also discovered that it was difficult to reconcile quantum mechanics with Einstein’s theory of relativity. Black holes are a region of space-time where gravity has become so strong that nothing can escape. Hawking calculated that black holes radiate a steady stream of particles (to quote Hawking in his book: “black holes ain’t so black after all”), known as Hawking radiation, gradually reducing the mass of the hole so that it will eventually disappear completely. This phenomenon is known as Hawking evaporation. “A Brief History of Time” was on the Sunday Times bestsellers list for an unbelievable 237 weeks, sold 10 million copies and was a large contribution to his emergence in popular culture.

Fatal self-driving accident

Earlier this month, a self-driving Uber vehicle hit and killed a pedestrian in Tempe, Arizona – the first reported pedestrian fatality due to a self-driving vehicle. The 49 year old woman, who was struck whilst she was crossing the road, was taken to hospital, but later died of her injuries. The car had a human safety driver in it during the crash, but was in autonomous mode and travelling at about 65 kilometres per hour without appearing to slow down as it approached the woman. Uber has suspended all testing while it investigates the crash, pulling all of its self-driving cars from public roads in Arizona as well as in San Francisco, Toronto and Pittsburgh.

In 2011 Nevada was the first US state to authorise experimental autonomous vehicles on public roads. The vehicles were treated like human learners, having to undergo a driving test with an examiner in the passenger seat. California followed shortly after, requiring companies to employ highly trained safety drivers, file reports detailing each bump/scrape and note every time a vehicle’s systems failed. Arizona opened the state’s road to autonomous vehicles in 2015, however, the regulations were much less strict than California’s. After Uber’s self-driving cars had their licenses revoked in California for not complying with its regulatory regime, they moved their testing across the border to Arizona. Arizona is home to around 100 of Uber’s self-driving test fleet. The cars have covered well over 3 million miles and completed more than 50,000 trips with non-paying public passengers. Interviews with former Uber employees indicate that because of the company’s rush to get its cars on public roads to be tested, the number of sensors used to detect objects on the road were reduced. According to Reuters: “In scaling back to a single lidar on the Volvo, Uber introduced a blind zone around the perimeter of the SUV that cannot fully detect pedestrians”.

Michael G Bennett, an Arizona State University associate research professor who studies autonomous cars said that the fatal accident “may be problematic for the industry because, one of their central arguments for the value of the technology is that it is superior to human drivers”.


Cambridge Analytica

  1. BBC (1)
  2. BBC (2)
  3. Cambridge Analytica
  4. The Guardian (1)
  5. The Guardian (2)
  6. The Gurdian (3 – Brexit Specific)
  7. The Guardian (4 – Brexit Specific)
  8. NME
  9. New Scientist
  10. Washington Post
  11. Vox

Stephen Hawking

  1. BBC 
  2. The New Yorker
  3. The New York Times
  4. The Guardian
  5. Time

Fatal self-driving accident

  1. New Scientist (1)
  2. New Scientist (2)
  3. The Guardian
  4. The Verge (1)
  5. The Verge (2)


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