I Saw It On the Internet So It Must Be True

I Saw It On the Internet So It Must Be True

Understanding Confirmation Bias

When you see a story on the Internet that matches what you already believe, it feels true. Right. Everything you’d expect to see in the world. And when you see a story that doesn’t match your beliefs, you’re more likely to be skeptical and doubt the veracity of the information. That’s what confirmation bias is all about. It’s about confirming what you believe, whether or not it’s actually true.

According to Psychology Today, confirmation bias “occurs from the direct influence of desire on beliefs.” It makes sense, really. Who goes around thinking, “I’m wrong! I’m wrong!”? If you think you’re right, you’ll naturally tend towards information confirming your beliefs. Technology LOVES to enable that for you!

How Technology Makes Confirmation Bias Worse

Confirmation bias isn’t new, but technology today makes it easier to experience. Content providers like YouTube and Instagram want you to spend time on their sites. The more time you spend with them, the more money they make. And they encourage you to spend that time by feeding you stories or posts related to what you’ve viewed and spent time on in the past. (We talked about this in our post on Information Silos.) The more times you see posts that align with your beliefs, the more confirmation you’ll receive that your beliefs are true.

Technology does more than just guide us towards material it thinks we’ll want to see. The sheer amount of information out there means people have to make pretty hard choices about what they pay attention to. The World Economic Forum recently reported that people spend an average of 2.5 hours a day on social media. Expand that to just surfing the web, and that goes up to an average of 7 hours a day! With that much information flowing through our devices into our heads, is it any wonder people will key into what makes them feel better about what they think they know?

So what, though? Why is it a problem that the Internet confirms my belief that cats are gods and rule the world? As long as that’s as far as it goes, it isn’t. Unfortunately, there is a lot of evidence that confirmation bias feeds more than viral memes. It also feeds extremist viewpoints and scary organizations. 

What Can You Do About Confirmation Bias in 5 Minutes

  • Rather than searching for information that matches what you know, try looking for information to refute the idea. For example, don’t just search for the “best.” Also, try the corresponding search for the “worst.”
  • Before you share a post or an idea online, stop for a second and ask yourself whether you’d still believe and share this information if the opposite was published by the same experts and sources?

What Can You Do About Confirmation Bias in 15 Minutes

  • Rather than trying to prove something to be true, spend a few minutes trying to prove it false, either by searching for different terms or becoming your own “devil’s advocate.’
  • Spend time looking through the sites listed on Media Bias/Fact Check and pick at least one news source outside your usual preference. 

What Can You Do About Confirmation Bias in 30 Minutes (or more)

  • You can do this one by yourself or with a team. Try running your belief through an exercise called the Six Thinking Hats. This technique takes a while to work through, but the idea is that you approach solving a problem or thinking through an idea in six different ways: structured, creative, positive, emotional, critical, and factual. The point is to do all six because they’ll each allow for exploration of a different facet of the topic. By the time you’ve gone through all six, you’ll be closer to a more well-rounded truth than you were before.

Wrap Up

Confirmation bias isn’t a technology problem, though technology definitely offers the perfect environment to feed this way of thinking. As long as you’re aware of it and willing to step back when needed, you can go on being quite certain that cats are gods. After all, you saw that truth on the Internet – it must be true!

Posted by heather in Communication, Line Dancing, 0 comments
Your Digital Body: Bias and Biometrics in Tech

Your Digital Body: Bias and Biometrics in Tech

What can possibly be more uniquely you than your physical body? Fingerprints, iris patterns, voice… These (and more) are what biometrics is all about. Biometrics are generally used in two ways: to determine if a person is who they claim to be or to find out who a person is by searching a database.

Believe it or not, the use of biometrics as a means of identification has been documented back nearly 4,000 years ago, when Babylonians used fingerprints to sign contracts. Since then, fingerprints and other forms of unique physiological data have been used to identify individuals for a variety of reasons, such as to identify criminals or to authorize access to a resource like a document or a physical location. With modern computers (including smartphones and tablets), it is easier than ever to automatically take a complex image and compare it in detail to an image on record. Sounds pretty much perfect… or does it?

Bias in Biometrics

True story: a friend of mine tried to use one of the automated passport scanners to get through customs. It kept telling him that it didn’t see his face for a photo, even though he could clearly see himself on the screen. The officer minding the queue walked over and put a piece of paper over my friend’s head to add just a bit of shade, and suddenly everything worked. My friend is white and bald, and the glare from the overhead lighting on his head tricked the software into thinking his face wasn’t there. 

There are lots of stories out there about biometric-based services unable to handle dark skin tones, light skin tones, congenital disabilities, transgender faces, and so on. Much of the earlier modern bias resulted from the use of very limited datasets that contained more of one type of image than any other. For example, a database might have thousands of fingerprints to use for testing purposes, but they would include just one skin tone for the hands. Or a database might have a million faces, but mostly from middle-aged white males. Anyone that fell outside the parameters of what the developer tested for might be identified as “not white,” but uniquely identifying them would fail. 

The good news is that, at least when it comes to biased datasets causing havoc, there are efforts to improve the space. This has been a particularly important area of research for Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning (AI/ML) and organizations like the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (more commonly known as the OECD; think high-powered, treaty-based, international organization) have guidance for how these types of systems should be designed. Microsoft, a company that does quite a bit with AI, has some pretty extensive guidelines and governance as well. So there is hope and some established guidelines out there. These guidelines, if followed by everyone, would greatly improve the computer bias in this space.

Other weaknesses of biometrics

If everything works as intended, biometrics are a great way to uniquely identify yourself to a computer. As long as no one does something gruesome to steal a body part, it’s all you, right? Well, sort of. The problem is that yes, your fingerprint (or face print, or iris pattern, or whatever) is on your physical body, but as soon as you scan it to be used for identification and access, it becomes an electronic asset. And as we all know, electronic assets can be hacked and stolen. Some call this the ‘fatal flaw’ of biometrics.

Back in 2019, a data breach of a company called Suprema exposed records affecting 1 million people, including fingerprint data, facial recognition data, face photos of users, unencrypted usernames and passwords, and more. And when those kinds of records are stolen, it’s not like you can actually change the information. You can change a password or PIN code, but you can’t (practically speaking) change your fingerprints. In those cases, all you can do is participate in identity theft prevention programs that will at least prevent new accounts that involve things like credit checks from happening without lots of hoops to jump through. All credit agencies have these kinds of programs (here’s one from Experian, and they’ll communicate things like fraud alerts to the other big credit agencies like TransUnion), as do some government agencies.

What you can do in 5 minutes

  • Make sure that the devices that are using biometrics have an alternative way to access the device, like setting a passcode for when facial recognition doesn’t work.
  • Use that passcode every once in a while so you don’t forget it!

What you can do in 15 minutes

  • Sign up for a credit monitoring service that will keep an eye out for when and where your information might be exposed in a data breach so that you’ll know when to take further action to prevent accounts from being opened with your information.

What you can do in 30 minutes

  • Interested in really learning more about the challenges of biometrics? Read this fascinating pre-print study submitted to the IEEE Transactions on Technology and Society to learn more!

Wrap Up

Biometrics are pretty cool, and if your accounts are using them as part of your login process, that means you’re using multi-factor authentication (MFA). You get a gold star! But, alas, biometrics are not perfect and while your physical attributes are yours, once they have been turned into bits and bytes on a computer, they can be stolen and used. 

If you have a choice between biometric MFA or no MFA, go ahead with the biometrics. If you have a choice between some other factor–like an authenticator app–and biometrics, go with the authenticator app. No technology is perfect, so the goal is to make it harder for hackers to get to your accounts rather than impossible.

Good luck! It’s a crazy world out there.

Posted by heather in Data Security, Topic, Line Dancing, Subject Level, 0 comments