Data an­a­lyt­ics should serve to pro­tect in­ter­net users

The Irish Times - Business - - BUSINESS TECHNOLOGY - John Holden

‘Hide Your kids, hide your wife!” That was the in­ter­net joke du jour in 2010 when Huntsville Alabama res­i­dent An­toine Dod­son was in­ter­viewed by a lo­cal tele­vi­sion news out­let about the at­tempted rape of his sis­ter in the Lin­coln Hous­ing Project.

De­spite the sub­stance of the news re­port re­lat­ing to an at­tempted rape, the in­ter­net gods de­ter­mined its ul­ti­mate dig­i­tal legacy would be cat­a­logued in the “com­edy” sec­tion of the world’s largest vir­tual video store, Google.

Let’s hope no one finds any­thing funny about the cur­rent in­ter­net-based hor­ror story in­volv­ing the death of al­most 200 teenagers, and count­ing, world­wide. The Blue Whale Chal­lenge is an on­line “game” – played prin­ci­pally by teenagers – which is in essence a se­ries of dares (50 in all) which par­tic­i­pants must broad­cast com­plet­ing on var­i­ous so­cial me­dia sites.

Be­gin­ning with rel­a­tively mi­nor dares, such as watch­ing gory hor­ror movies to smok­ing mar­i­juana and sneak­ing out of their par­ents’ house in the mid­dle of the night, the game quickly turns more se­ri­ous as dares be­gin to es­ca­late. Those still “in the game” af­ter about a dozen tasks must carve a pic­ture of a blue whale into their arms with a knife and film the act.

The 50th and fi­nal dare, how­ever, is the most ter­ri­fy­ing of all and, sadly, has been com­pleted by ap­prox­i­mately 200 play­ers world­wide: sui­cide.

The blue whale moniker comes from the nat­u­ral phe­nom­e­non of blue whales ap­par­ently beach­ing them­selves de­lib­er­ately in or­der to die.

Ori­gins

The ori­gins of the chal­lenge have been traced back to Rus­sia, where the largest num­ber of sui­cide vic­tims have been re­ported. About 150 play­ers of the game in and around the largest coun­try in the world have taken their own lives. Now a

We have built com­plex data an­a­lyt­ics sys­tems that can in­ter­pret how an in­ter­net user is feel­ing, yet there is lit­tle or no in­ter­est in de­sign­ing sys­tems to de­ter­mine how old a user is and whether the con­tent they are search­ing for is age ap­pro­pri­ate

Prof Barry O’Sul­li­van, Data An­a­lyt­ics in Ire­land

num­ber of cases have arisen in In­dia and the United States.

Who would cre­ate, and sub­se­quently per­pet­u­ate, such a “game”, know­ingly and watch as the death toll – com­prised mostly of vul­ner­a­ble and im­pres­sion­able teenagers – rises glob­ally? That we may never know.

A more suc­cinct ques­tion, there­fore, is why greater se­cu­rity is yet to be put in place by com­pa­nies like Google and Face­book to make it more dif­fi­cult for vul­ner­a­ble teenagers to ac­cess and par­tic­i­pate in games like the Blue Whale Chal­lenge.

Data

The cold truth is that data is the most valu­able cur­rency on the dig­i­tal mar­ket. The more data il­lus­trat­ing peo­ple’s be­hav­iour on­line they can col­lect, the more money they can make from tar­geted mar­ket­ing and ad­ver­tis­ing.

“I find it amaz­ing how we have built com­plex data an­a­lyt­ics sys­tems that can in­ter­pret how an in­ter­net user is feel­ing, yet there is lit­tle or no in­ter­est in de­sign­ing sys­tems to de­ter­mine how old a user is and whether the con­tent they are search­ing for is age ap­pro­pri­ate,” said Prof Barry O’Sul­li­van, a co-di­rec­tor at the In­sight Cen­tre for Data An­a­lyt­ics in Ire­land.

“It should be rel­a­tively straight­for­ward to tell a 15-year-old from a 50-year-old based on the lan­guage they use, the things they ‘like’ etc.”

The clos­est ex­am­ple we have here of dan­ger­ous dig­i­tal “games” go­ing vi­ral was the 2014 phe­nom­e­non Neck Nom­i­na­tion – an on­line drink­ing game which re­sulted in at least five fa­tal­i­ties in the UK and Ire­land.

“There is no ques­tion that so­cial me­dia has the power to make chil­dren and younger peo­ple do things that seem com­pletely ir­ra­tional, up to and in­clud­ing be­hav­iour that could kill them,” said O’Sul­li­van in an in­ter­view about dig­i­tal vi­o­lence.

O’Sul­li­van and many other dig­i­tal ex­perts ad­mit polic­ing the in­ter­net is rife with “chal­lenges” of its own, not to men­tion vir­tu­ally im­pos­si­ble ones.

Still there are work­able op­tions avail­able to en­gi­neers that could bet­ter reg­u­late, say, the age of con­sent for cer­tain web­sites.

It is likely “Change Is Gonna Come” but not be­fore the com­mer­cial and po­lit­i­cal will to do so ex­ists.

It is im­per­a­tive that this is tack­led promptly.

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