How to protect yourself as the battle for responsible technology wages

This article originally appeared in Try This! — Tools for Journalism, our newsletter about digital tools. Want bite-sized news, tutorials and ideas about the best digital tools for journalism in your inbox every Monday? Sign up here.

As technology companies grow earnings to unprecedented levels and expand influence across the globe, there's a growing clamor for more responsible technology.

We've seen some uplifting results.

Since late 2016, thousands of employees from U.S.-based tech organizations such as Google, Apple and Amazon have signed a pledge to never create a database of Muslims in the United States, which President Trump has repeatedly called for in the past.

“We have educated ourselves on the history of threats like these, and on the roles that technology and technologists played in carrying them out,” the pledge states. “We see how IBM collaborated to digitize and streamline the Holocaust, contributing to the deaths of six million Jews and millions of others.”

In Facebookland, Mark Zuckerberg and others have been echoing Center for Humane Technology founder Tristan Harris and his call to focus on “time well spent,” which calls for technology companies to focus on helping consumers not waste time.

Whether the two interpret those three words the same remains to be seen.

It’s not all good news.

Earlier this year, the world learned that Google (which partially funds this newsletter) had signed a contract with the U.S. Department of Defense to build artificial intelligence to analyze drone footage. Though Google said the contract wasn’t related to combat uses, some employees resigned in protest. The search giant has since announced it won’t be renewing its contract with the Pentagon.

In Arkansas, Amazon’s Alexa nearly made an appearance on a court bench in a murder investigation. The smart home appliance was on location and likely listening in a case where a man was charged with the murder of his friend. Prosecutors ordered Amazon to turn over recordings from the Echo device but Amazon refused. The suspect later shared the recordings himself.

Though prosecutors couldn’t prove the man was guilty and dropped the case, it brought up interesting questions about whether smart home devices might “snitch” on their owners.

Here are a few small things you can do right now (like, right this instant) in the battle for more humane technology.

  • Read up on how to switch off microphones and active listening modes on your smart home devices.
  • Consider switching to the Firefox browser, which includes some handy built-in security features out of the box. 
  • If you’re a journalist or blogger, take this online risk assessment to see how at risk you are.
  • Try a password management tool to generate more secure passwords and break that nasty habit of using the same ones across different websites. I’m an outspoken fan of LastPass, but I’ve heard good things about Dashlane, too.

Right now, it's most important to know what information your devices, apps, browsers and other programs have access to or are collecting and how they're using that information. Sometimes that's in the terms of service (which you can use Terms of Service Didn't Read to parse on big sites, or these great questions from Lifehacker in other cases). Sometimes you just have to do a little research. 

In the age of big tech and big data, it pays to be a reporter before you click "register." 

MOVE IT: The days of creating animated stick figures with Flash and posting them on Newgrounds may be long gone, but that’s no reason the web has to be boring. My colleague Vanya Iliev has been testing out a tool called Tumult Hype to bring back some animation to the web. The tool uses a timeline like Premiere (or, for internet oldies like me, Flash before it) to create HTML5 animations that work on mobile and desktop alike. Look for it in a Poynter NewsU course sometime soon.

SO HOT: The temperature is rising. Yes, there have been hot years in the past. But there are more now. These are the best visualizations I’ve seen that illustrate global climate change since the (oft-attacked but never disproven) hockey stick more than a decade ago.

GET SOCIAL: There are the big challenges when creating images for social, such as figuring out what audiences actually respond to. Then there are the small challenges. I’m talking pixel-sized. When every social media site maximizes different image sizes, how do you remember which size to use? And can you maximize for all of them? Buffer has some answers.

40 BETTER HOURS: The New York Times put together a solid look at some journaling and note-taking apps out there. Writer Kit Eaton’s app of choice is Bear, an Apple-only tool with a minimalist interface. Eaton uses it to write and organize notes, but my friend Hannah Ulm has found it useful for keeping her team’s projects organized. Eaton recommends JotterPad for all you Android users.

UPDATES OF NOTE:

  • The New York Times app just got two new features that give readers more control over news consumption. The first is a text-only mode that should make All the News That’s Fit to Print available to those with even the worst of internet connections. The second is an auto-refresh toggle. Want the latest news every time you open the app? Or maybe you want to choose when to refresh so you can pick up the app where you left off? Now both are possible.
  • Facebook is removing its Trending feature “to make way for future news experiences.” A brief history: Launched in 2014, Trending was a news aggregation service built into Facebook. Two years later, conservatives criticised it for suppressing right-wing viewpoints, leading Facebook to replace human curators with algorithms. Lacking human oversight, 9/11 truthers and other junk topics rose to the top. As I write this, though, my trending topics all look legit and relevant. Farewell, Trending. Go off and dream of electric sheep

TOOLS I’M TRYING: I just wrapped up some fruitful conversations with the makers of Croma, a powerful tool that tags and categories archives for easy discovery; and SAM, a tool that monitors social media and other sources for crises and other news. I’ll report back soon. But in the meantime, I’d love to hear from you if you’ve used them before. What do you like? What could be improved? Let’s talk.

LET’S TALK IRL: Speaking of talking, let’s do it IRL at the IRE conference on June 14. I’m teaching a 5 p.m. session about digital tools with Samantha Sunne, who also has a digital tools newsletter (her’s is wayyy more focused than mine). Swing by and say hi.

Try This! is powered by Google News Initiative. It is also supported by the American Press Institute and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

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