A Tech Too Far

Always read the fine print. Actually, scrap that. Don’t bother. You don’t read it. I don’t read it. We all want facebook on our phones. And whatsapp. And Instagram. These things are tools of the modern age. These services provide that “connectivity” that people have been lauding. And besides, if you don’t agree with sharing your pictures, snippets of your voice picked up by microphone and data on where you live and your viewing habits, well, facebook, Whatsapp and instagram don’t want you.

No, wait. Go back to the fine print. You can choose to “out” of these options. And it is definitely for the best. Why? Well, let’s have a look.

Andy Jones, who wrote an article on behalf of the ‘i’ newspaper titled “Why your social media activity could stop you getting a mortgage” scared the s#!t out of me.

Released today (21st September, 2018), Andy reported that mortgage providers and insurance firms are trialling the use of social media services on people who are seeking their services. No longer will providers request information from banks on your spending habits, but they will look at your viewing history as well.

“Promoting their service, The Online Me, Hello Soda says: “Every time you make a submission for a loan, a house, or a job, someone is vetting your social profiles.” That’s about as comforting as the thought of a stranger standing at the end of your bed.

HMRC, that scourge of the commoner and hero of the super-rich (see upcoming blog) openly says it will “observe, monitor, record and retain internet data” which is available to everyone including “blogs and social networking sites where no privacy settings have been applied.”’

The reason that mortgage lenders and insurance companies plan to do this is because they will better get an insight into your history, your holidays, how you spend your money and so forth. If you are holidaying every month and you’re not rolling in spondulicks then they would bring in a bunch of sun-deprived voyeurs to do a thorough search. When I read that article my immediate thought was: what does my social media say about me?

You see the danger of this now?
Imagine, in a society in the not so distant future, that you go on your annual family holiday and take a picture of the whole lot of you by the pool. And then you get home and apply for home insurance. Your case is decided by someone in an office clicking their way around your facebook profile.

How did they pay for that holiday? Was it with credit? Do they have a credit card? How do they pay that money back? How often? Have they missed any payments? Did they pay for it using nectar points or clubcard points? Let’s look at that image, where did they go? They had their locations settings on when they posted. That’s handy. Spain! Aha, okay. South east Spain. A villa. Aha! Less than five minutes from the sea. On a hilltop. I bet they paid extra for that view. How much was it exactly? Okay, let’s backtrack. Where does this person live? Eastbourne? Hmm… best do a google map search and see what kind of house they have.

If you think I’m dancing with hyperbole, I’m really not. The searches undertaken by the HMRC could “include anything from evidence of lavish spending on faceback to Google Earth pictures proving you have had an extension.” Forget that you paid for that extension with cash that your grandma left you, you have had the extension and that is what matters.

Imagine you wanted to travel the world. You want to have a bunch of adventures and when you get back you want to buy a house. You want life insurance. If something were to happen to you, your partner or the person with their name on your will no longer have to worry that they cannot pay for that house. You will get back from travelling and post a travel album. There you are smiling on top of Kilimanjaro. And an insurance company now has the rights to check out your lifestyle as part of their cover.

Cue the person considering your case, clocking in, sitting at their computer, clicking a few buttons and having access to your profiles.

Ah, they like expensive hikes. Is that jacket North Face? Hmm, that looks like specialist gear to me. Perhaps they spend frivolously. That would have to be taken into consideration.

There you are, arms wide at the top of a cliff, embracing the world with the wind in your hair.

Hmm, what does that say about them? They are after life insurance after all. I’ll put in the report: “likes to take risks”. It’ll likely increase their premiums but it is for the best.

And there you are strapped to another human being as you plummet toward the earth, smiling at the camera, enjoying one of the best, most thrilling and memorable moments you will ever experience.

Okay, wow. Skydiving in New Zealand! I’ll put: “Puts themselves in harm’s way. Likes extreme sports. Higher risk of injury or casualty.”

This is purely speculative, I cannot stress that enough. But I am, however, convinced that insurance companies are becoming more malign in their actions.

In 2016 I purchased insurance for my car. Fire and theft were included. In 2017 I used a comparison site in order to find my next insurer. I found one I liked and went to their page. After answering the questions I was met with that usual five to eight pages that ask you what extras you might like to include in your policy i.e. breakdown cover, jelly-bean scent, you name it. On the first page it asked me if I wanted to include fire and theft for an extra fee. That raises two questions. The first: why was that not included? Second, why are they charging extra for something that should already be included in everyone’s insurance plan?

It is common knowledge that companies are purchasing data. Fintech is a flourishing sector and the more personal it becomes, the more effective it becomes. And the easier it becomes to separate consumers from their money. I’ll be honest, I love when Man-Booker Prize winners are announced. I know that I am probably going to buy the latest winner and probably a couple more authored by the runners-up. If these books have been shortlisted for the most prestigious award in the world of literature…I want them.
That time of the year would be an easy target for advertisers. Waterstones, Amazon, Foyles, it does not matter. I would probably be susceptible.

Let us go back to that annual family holiday. It takes place in the same few weeks every year (as most peoples do considering families are limited to school term times). You have been targeted by a whole bunch of advertisers and marketing companies putting forward things you may or may not need for your holiday. But the fear is that it could get even more personal. If an algorithm can detect brands in the photos you post, you may be directed deals from that brand in the future. Your taste in cars, motorbikes, foods, jewellery, clothes. It can all be used in order to entice people to purchase goods they do not need. But when advertisements are tailor-made around your lifestyle it would become considerably harder to resist.

When I have looked at travel destinations on google, I often get suggestions afterward on places to go and gear to buy on what I recently believed were unconnected pages i.e. pinterest and instagram. This is something that anyone with a social media account experiences day-to-day.

The things that I have mentioned are not some strange conspiracy in which the “establishment” are dominating the world, it is just the future of marketing and risk management. As Rana Foroohar says in the Financial Times post (17th September, 2018) when reporting on a senate meeting regarding fintech, the Treasury “talks approvingly of data sharing among technology companies and big banks to improve efficiency, scale and lower consumer prices.

“The report puts rather less focus on the on the systemic risk and predatory pricing that could emerge if the world’s largest technology companies and the biggest banks on Wall Street share consumer data.”

As mentioned above, this is the possible future of marketing and risk management. But it is marketing and risk management that poses the danger of exceeding a moral boundary.

We are living in an age where the online and the offline world’s perimeters are blurring. We see something funny or something bad and we either tell our friends, or tell the world via a post. Or both. We want to take photos a certain way because we have seen something like it online. We share photos (don’t even get me started on the overkill of parents posting umpteen number of baby pictures) and we share memes. We share life quotes, music videos, book recommendations and generally scream our point of view into what is essentially…storage space. And why do we do it? Because it’s fun.

Maybe it is best that, however, that you pick and choose your data settings wisely. Because fun is not worth painting yourself a target for corporate interest.

Pollution, pregnancy & false data

“Air pollution passes from pregnant women to placenta” – Peter Stubley, i, 17th September, 2018.

My last blog post was dedicated to the effects of pollution on people’s health – dementia in the older generation and early deaths predominantly in children, but also in adults. Well, not too long after this study was released I was shocked to read the latest update.

In an article by Peter Stubley in the i, he claims: “Evidence that air pollution passes from pregnant women’s lungs to the placenta has been found for the first time” before going on to say: “Previous research has indicated links between pregnant mothers’ exposure to air pollution and premature birth, low birth weight, infant mortality and childhood respiratory problems.”

For example on the 1st September, 2008 the Society for the Study of Reproduction (SSR) published a paper giving evidence that they had tested on mice and concluded that “In humans, adverse pregnancy outcomes (low birth weight, prematurity, and intrauterine growth retardation) are associated with exposure to urban air pollution.”

This is, however, the first time that definitive evidence has been gathered from placentas from Caesarean section births and confirmed the thesis. “Researchers detected what they believe are tiny particles of carbon, typically created by burning fossil fuels, after five non-smoking mothers living in London…”
The idea that children might be born into this world with a running chance has now been extinguished. Particulates are so dangerous that they effect children before birth. This news was on page 13.

I read that article and sped off to research the issue. This morning before I stepped out of my house to do my morning tasks, I heard something else on the radio that made me stop in my tracks. This news was that executives from Volkswagen, Daimler and BMW have now been known to have meetings with the agenda to deliberately avoid competition. The result: instead of trying to come up with innovative engine designs that would effectively reduce emissions, they held off such advances in order to sell their backlog of diesel and petrol cars.

This is an additional finding in what is currently being called Dieselgate, the scandal broken in 2015 in which Volkswagen was found to be taking part in emissions manipulation. This was done during the testing phase in which the emissions numbers were tampered with in order to make selected cars seem greener. More recent information (as published on 18th September, 2018 by Benjamin Wehrmann on cleanenergywire.org) has brought to light that Volkswagen CEO, Herbert Deiss, knew about his company’s emission fraud software long before he had originally conceded when the story was first broken.

Diesel emissions as we know are among the worst offenders when it comes to pollution. In London the primary culprits are delivery vans, hire vehicles (that are not subject to the toxicity charge, or T-Charge as it is better known) and congestion created by cycle lanes and lack of infrastructure. The city has suffered from illegal levels of particulates since 2010 and is close to Delhi and Beijing in level of toxicity according to an article by Leslie Hook and Steven Bernard and published in the Financial Times on 21st August, 2018.

The problem is that whilst the congestion charge and T-charge seem like an understandable way to deter people from driving into the city centre, business still needs to continue as usual and therefore the charges will be paid in order for trade and traders to access the city. Charges simply do not dampen the effects of what Defra called “the largest environmental health risk in the U.K”. Make no mistake, this claim is not limited to the U.K’s metropolis.

When you first click on to the Airlabs homepage, a company mentioned in Pollution & Dementia (5th September, 2018) you are met with a startling statistic. “92% of the world’s population are exposed to unsafe levels of air pollution”. If you doubt the sincerity of this claim maybe take into consideration the Financial Times finding that Airlabs founder, Sophie Power, has deemed the threat of particulates so severe that she has installed an air filter inside her child’s pram. And with good reason.

Another worrying piece of information provided by Airlabs is that pollution hotspots are “places with a high density of people, high emissions and long dwell time. Hotspots in cities usually occur at transport hubs, in parks and playgrounds close to roads, outdoor eating/drinking areas and inside ground floor shops along high streets.”

So, pretty much everywhere we like to go.

Now, consider that particulates are causing dementia, early deaths, and now entering the bloodstream from the lungs and effecting unborn children, the case for change is more evidential and urgent than ever.

Links:

Peter Stubley

i

https://www.independent.co.uk/news/health/air-pollution-pregnant-women-london-study-placenta-first-evidence-a8539861.html

Airlabs

http://airlabs.com/

@air_labs

Financial Times

https://www.ft.com/content/9c2b9d92-a45b-11e8-8ecf-a7ae1beff35b

Leslie Hook: @lesliehook

Steven Bernard: @sdbernard

cleanenergywire.org

https://www.cleanenergywire.org/factsheets/dieselgate-timeline-germanys-car-emissions-fraud-scandal

Benjamin Wehrmann: @BenJoWe

Pollution & Dementia

When 97% of climate change scientists agree that humankind is damaging the planet, it is time to listen. More importantly it is time to act. And, due to recent findings, we need to act now.

Last year an article grabbed my attention. The article was by Katie Forster and published in the Independent, 4th January, 2017. The claim in the article was that living near major roads can “increase the risk of dementia”, particularly when you live within fifty metres of a major road. This was from a study in Ontario, Canada. Having spent twenty-nine of my thirty years living by the side of one of my town’s major roads, I wanted to know more.

Because of the noise emitted from major roads sleep can often be fitful and it is proven that failure to reach R.E.M sleep (or prolonged R.E.M sleep) can lead to memory problems. After all, R.E.M sleep aids “memory consolidation” (the process by which we turn short-term memory into long-term memory) and also boosts capacity for problem-solving skills and aids creativity. So, while noise pollution was a factor in the rise of dementia, another factor was raised but shrugged away. That factor was whether emissions had anything to do with the increase in dementia.

That story in 2017 died down rather quickly and I had not heard much more about it, until a week ago. It was Tom Bawden’s article, written on behalf of the ‘i’ newspaper (28th August) which looked at new research that shows pollution is in fact a contributor to cognitive ability.

“Living in highly polluted areas over long periods of time could hit your verbal and mathematical abilities in later life”. This was the title of Bawden’s article and this time the study was undertaken in China, one of the world’s leading polluters. Lead author of the study Xin Zhang is quoted in the article as saying: “We find that long term exposure to air pollution impedes cognitive performance in verbal and maths tests. The effect of this air pollution becomes more pronounced as people age.”

Cities are by far more prone to the effects of carbon monoxide but the inhabitants see it as a price to pay in order to be surrounded by work and culture. But is it really a price worth paying? Schools in London are advised to keep children indoors during playtime when congestion and lack of circulatory weather patterns creates dense clouds of pollution. To put it into perspective of just how congested London’s air is, Bonnie Christian of Wired released a piece on 2nd February of this year that just one month into 2018 London reached and surpassed its legal pollution limit for the entire year. The title of the article – “How to breathe cleaner in London’s pollution-filled air” – highlights very well the mind-frame adopted by London’s inhabitants. I raised my eyebrows at this title. After all the only time people need a survival “how to” is when they are entering a hostile environment.

Emissions are the cause of “early deaths” – death that occurs before the average age of death in a certain population – “contributed to by PM2.5 (which is particulates in the air that are smaller than 2.5 micrometres)”. In 2009 the Committee on the Medical Effects of Air Pollution (COMEAP) put the deaths caused by PM2.5 as 29,000. In 2015 nitrogen dioxide was reported to have been responsible for 23,500 deaths according to Defra.

The information above is provided for their respective years. If these numbers of deaths are happening year on year it is clearly a problem of pandemic magnitude. Why is this not splashed on the front page of every newspaper? Why are there no emergency meetings being held in which the government divert sources and funding to help combat the toxification of the air we breathe?

The evidence proving that greenhouse gas emissions are getting worse is exponential. Satellite footage from NASA, NOAA (National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration) as well as research undertaken by scientists from all over the world have proven with myriad statistics that levels of nitrous oxide, carbon dioxide and methane are on the rise. This is reflected by the rise in global temperatures, major depletion of Arctic ice as well as landlocked ice in Greenland.

Pollution poses a threat in our streets, but it does not stop there. Studies have also suggested that the level of C02 in the air is causing “key crops” to wield less nutrients. As many as “half a million Britons could become deficient in protein” as well as suffer from a depletion in sufficient levels in zinc. The study by Harvard University (funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation) states that “the populations of 18 countries may lose more than 5% of their dietary protein by 2050 due to a decline in nutritional value of rice, wheat, and other staple crops”.

Globally, 76% of the population derives most of their daily protein from plants. Zinc and protein are much needed throughout pregnancy, infancy and childhood in order for children to be able to properly develop both physically and mentally.

Pollution is seen as a distant nuisance. A wrong that will be righted by future generations. We believe, or choose to believe, that someone will come up with a new piece of technology that will clean the oceans. Another piece of technology that will bring back the trees and another that will clean the air. The truth is technologies exist but not on the scale that we need in order to see the vast degree of change needed.

The study from China is a game changer. It highlights the fact that pollution is no longer a layer thickening the atmosphere far above our heads and far from our conscious. Pollution is at street level and pressing up against our doors. Particulates stick in our lungs. Our children breathe them in on their ways to and from school and when they go outside in the playground. The eldest members of our society lose their mental faculties and slip away.

The question is: how are we going to deal with that danger at our door?

There is some good news on this front. Start-up company, Airlabs, has trialled pollution traps around bus stops in heavy-traffic areas which, according to Bonnie Christian’s article, filtered “97 percent of nitrogen-oxide from the air so commuters could breathe easy while waiting for the bus.” Christian’s article was one of the most informative in highlighting solutions to the pollution issus (link below). Christian mentions Dutch artist Daan Roosegaarde designing and creating the solar-powered Smog Free Tower which has the “capacity to suck up 30,000 cubic metres of polluted air per hour, cleaning it at a nano-level and releasing the clean air back into the city.’ These are now being used in Tianjin, Dalian and Beijing as well as Rotterdam.

This is a great step in the right direction, but we need more initiatives. Pollution traps at every bus stop and street corner. Every city should introduce Smog Free Towers and aid in the cultivation of plant life. The problem is that, although these technologies are a fantastic move forward in combating air pollution, they are reactive. The very infrastructure that we use and rely on is fossil-fuel dependent. Be it the cars and buses that congest our streets or the container vessels chugging across our oceans, it would be a herculean undertaking to make the transition to green power, but not at all impossible. Naomi Klein in her bestselling book –This Changes Everything, makes a brilliant case of how the green energy movement would create a new global economy.

This kind of change needs to happen soon. Early deaths through respiratory illnesses and early onset dementia simply can no longer be justifiable when we have the potential for change at our feet.

https://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/health-and-families/health-news/dementia-develop-living-near-major-main-road-study-mental-disorder-lancet-a7507616.html

https://inews.co.uk/news/environment/how-air-pollution-can-reduce-your-verbal-and-maths-skills/

https://www.wired.co.uk/article/london-pollution-toxic-levels-2018