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Distortions of existing data

Our reliance on Internet access to information means that, once we have chosen our keywords, the search engines give a list of options, and we invariably head for those at the top of the list. They therefore gain a higher ranking and rise even further up the list. I doubt that many people will search beyond a few pages of references for general enquiries, so the later items gently vanish into obscurity. Again I suspect that as a scientist my approach may be a little different from general users of search engines. When I try to find an article related to an obscure science problem, I will often persevere, and search down maybe 20 or more pages of potential articles. This can be rewarding, but I would never do this for a general-interest problem.

Overall, it means that it is possible to influence which items are seen near the top of the list. It is then a short step to influence the list, and those items in conflict with the views of the manipulator become buried. In many ways, this is worse than the pre-Internet situation, as formerly a library search was not prejudiced or easily influenced. It just needed patience and dedication. Overall, I find that the more extensive Internet searches tend to reveal cross-referencing and perpetuation of misquotations and errors. The party game of Chinese whispers, where a message becomes modified as it is passed on along a line of people, is quite similar.

Direct and intentional copying without revealing the source is plagiarism, and it a familiar practice using Internet searches (especially effective if taken from items appearing on later pages of the search list). Student essays generated by Internet searches will inevitably contain some plagiarism, and are criticized unless skilfully rephrased. Academic supervisors also extensively plagiarize, but invariably use many sources, and this of course is called research. Feelings about being plagiarized are mixed. I once found a book with an entire chapter lifted exactly from an article I had written (but the source was not cited). To some extent, I felt pleased that the writer had been so discerning! On another occasion I met a colleague who said he very much liked one of my science books, and even had an electronic copy on his pen drive. I did not know such an electronic version existed, but apparently it had been copied by his government for open use in their national laboratories. He gave me a copy!

Internet data are often updated or they may be deleted. It is also often quite difficult to guess at the accuracy of a source, even if it appears to come from a respectable establishment, rather than from a personal opinion or blog. In this sense the data and ‘facts’ are very different from written records in archives and old newspapers. In the pre-electronic cases, we may have been able to make a better value judgement as to the accuracy and possible bias.

Recent disquieting reports include the removal of material from the Internet because it cast influential people in a bad light. There was no question that they had acted criminally or in unsocial ways. However, if they were now rich and influential, then they claimed that they had the ‘right’ for previous acts and statements to be forgotten. This is a totally unacceptable premise; deletion should only be permitted if the original data were false, not to improve political or criminal image. The fact that the examples of deleted information only seem to be related to prominent and rich individuals is significant.

On social networks (e.g. Facebook), there is much information that is personal, false, or malicious, and it seems highly reasonable that there should be redress and data removed. But for genuine news stories, any selective removal, to please the affluent or powerful, is precisely the same rewriting of history that is undertaken by the victors in a war, or a dictatorial regime.

A final word of caution about sourced material is that it may not be accurate—not because the original was in error, but because in some intermediate repetition it has been modified. This is true not just of text, where, for example, there may have been translations and copying, but also of photographs. Glossy magazines abound with examples where an original photograph has been ‘touched up’ or blemishes have been air- brushed out. Better technology has made this distortion of the truth far simpler. As many skilled photographers know, it is now possible to modify electronic images down to the pixel level. Generally the aims are to improve the aesthetic view of the image, to slim a stomach, add more hair to a bald head, or include people who could not attend a group photograph, etc. The adage that a photograph cannot tell a lie is now totally wrong, and one must be cautious in viewing modern electronic images. The same skills in modifying photographs and electronic documents are of course criminally and politically exploited.

Confidence in security systems is strongly dependent on who might benefit by accessing it. If there are strong political or criminal motives to access, destroy, or alter stored records, then security will always be compromised. Secure systems are devised by humans. So if one group can write the relevant software, then an equally skilled group can break into it. Such a concern of potentially weak security was revealed in a disclosure that police surveillance-camera data were being backed up in commercial ‘cloud’ storage facilities. Such data may be legitimately accessed by many police departments, but inevitably this means that they cannot be very securely encrypted. So although ‘cloud’ stores may be excellent for personal items, it is open to abuse and alteration. In major criminal investigations, the camera evidence justifies greater protection.

I have mentioned encryption as adding a barrier in the defences of stored information and communication. Currently this can be reasonably well achieved as the computer power needed to break the encryption is limited to major computing systems and expertise. So for personal security, most governments can break encrypted signals. Higher barriers and better security may exist for government transmissions. In a book focussing on advancing technology, I should mention that one computing technique that has been in development for many years is termed quantum computing. It is hard to achieve and only very simple demonstrations have so far been successful. However, there is a real possibility that at some future date it will become feasible. Once this happens, it will be possible to break any of the currently used encryption codes.

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