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Venmo voyeurs: why do we let friends see our financial transactions online? | Life and style

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Would you ever want your friends to see how many taxi rides you share on a wild weekend out? Who you had Thai noodles with on any given day? With whom you split rent and living expenses?

If the answer is yes, you are part of a cohort of Venmo users who use public transactions, which according to a 2018 study accounted for about 18 million people.

I am, willingly, one of them. Ever since I joined the payment service app, I’ve voluntarily displayed my financial transactions in my public feed. Between office lunches and happy hours, I’ve welcomed the ease of digitally settling a tab while attempting to garner a few laughs with my try-hard descriptions, like “adult diaper” (I don’t remember what this was for); “My fat ass” (probably food) and “Boulder holster” (yes, I paid a friend back for a bra).

I hoped my transactions would capture the attention of voyeuristic Venmo users who would be forced to think about whom I was paying and for what purpose. However cringey in hindsight, a part of me wants my friends to see a Venmo transaction for “So some improv comedians walk into a bar” and believe I might actually be a funny person, instead of a writer who took an improv class.

Before you ask, yes, every digital tool poses personal security risks – and yet it is not enough to make my transactions and friend list private. This is a bet Venmo co-founder Iqram Magdon-Ismail made early on: in 2012, he said “one of the reasons people prefer us and will prefer us in the future is just the fact that we are social. You get more value out of sharing with friends.” In short, openly and ostentatiously swapping funds is fun.

When Scottie Irbin, a 30-year-old bartender in Buffalo, New York first joined the app, he decided to lean into the feature, drafting outlandish descriptions he hoped would garner attention. On one occasion, he paid a friend on Venmo, writing “Sorry that I returned your butt plug late”, Irbin said. The next day, when his mom opened the app to Venmo him money for dog food, she saw the transaction and asked him about it. “My mom was very uncomfortable when she saw me the next day,” Irbin said. “I find it hilarious. That’s at my expense, I’m not making fun of anyone but me.”

For others, public transactions are a way to remind friends of your interests. Michelle Palmer, an orchestra manager from Pineville, Louisiana, most frequently pays independent artisans for jewelry and skin products on Venmo. She hopes her public transactions inspire friends to seek out those makers, too, acting as a de facto grassroots influencer on Venmo. The 35-year-old also enjoys reading through her friends’ public transactions, which motivates her to write cute descriptions herself.

Humans are by nature voyeuristic, said Harris Stratyner, a psychologist and clinical associate professor at Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai. This theoretically explains why others would find perusing public Venmo payments amusing. But for those who purposely keep their payments exposed, there is an element of exhibitionism, Stratyner said: “It gives people the option to surreptitiously show off.”

Critics are quick to call those with non-private Venmos psychopaths and exhibitionists, but public payers said they have nothing important to hide. Tyler Mulvey, a 29-year-old senior account executive from West Milford, New Jersey, said he regularly uses Venmo, from splitting groceries with his fiancee to divvying up a bar tab. He used to put lyrics to entire songs or recipes for banana bread in the transaction description until the app limited their character limit to 280.

After his fiancee’s colleague mentioned she saw one of Mulvey’s Venmos to his fiancee, she went private. He not only remained public, but began writing “raunchy” descriptions to catch the colleague’s attention. “I don’t think it’s psycho to keep your Venmo public,” Mulvey said. “I think it’s psycho to look – which I know makes me hypocritical – because if you think it’s psycho if somebody looks, then make it private. I don’t think the onus is on me to make it private, I think the onus is on you to not be a weirdo.”

Private citizens aren’t the only ones guilty of public Venmoing – but some public figures live to regret it. This spring, Representative Matt Gaetz’s 2018 public Venmo transactions to an accused sex trafficker were unearthed. Shortly after, BuzzFeed News purportedly discovered Joe Biden’s Venmo account via public friend lists on the app, sparking a debate surrounding Venmo’s public-by-default transactions and perpetually visible friend lists. As a result, Venmo announced users could make their friend lists private.

Although Venmo couldn’t be considered a social platform, some users don’t see the harm in keeping their transactions visible since they already divulge so much of their lives on other social networks. Caitlin Elliott, 31, a Lynchburg, Virginia-based student, is one of those people. “The privacy ship has sailed a long time ago,” she said. “I wear a watch with a GPS on it when I go running every single day. That’s got me down to the step on the sidewalk. Clearly I’ve made some concessions in my life.”

When Lauren Calise, who lives in Havertown, Pennsylvania, thinks about the fact that all of her social media profiles are private except for Venmo, she questions herself. The 21-year-old therapist frequently uses Venmo for paying rent, splitting groceries and meals with friends; regardless of the transaction, she’ll use a smiley face emoji as the description. But because she personally doesn’t use the app as a social platform, she assumes others won’t scrutinize her transactions, though she knows it isn’t out of the realm of possibility: her clients frequently discuss their Venmo behaviors, like monitoring the transactions of exes.

Still, she remains public. For now. “You’ve really got me thinking. If the other ones are private, maybe this one should be.”

Soon that choice will be taken away from her. Late last month, the company said it would go one step further: it would soon eliminate the global feed – a running collection of complete strangers’ transactions – in the new redesign.

While users will still be able to see their friends’ transactions (if their profiles are public), the days of snooping on strangers are over.

In a press release, Venmo said the change “allows customers to connect and share meaningful moments and experiences with the people who matter most”. Which, I’d argue, are the people who know me least.



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NFT trader OpenSea bans insider trading after employee rakes in profit | Non-fungible tokens (NFTs)

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A non-fungible token (NFT) marketplace has introduced policies to ban insider trading, after an executive at the company was discovered to be buying artworks shortly before they were promoted on the site’s front page.

OpenSea, one of the leading sites for trading the digital assets, will now prevent team members buying or selling from featured collections and from using confidential information to trade NFTs. Neither practice was previously banned.

“Yesterday we learned that one of our employees purchased items that they knew were set to display on our front page before they appeared there publicly,” said Devin Finzer, the co-founder and chief executive of the site.

“This is incredibly disappointing. We want to be clear that this behaviour does not represent our values as a team. We are taking this very seriously and are conducting an immediate and thorough third-party review of this incident so that we have a full understanding of the facts and additional steps we need to take.”

NFTs are digital assets whose ownership is recorded and traced using a bitcoin-style blockchain. The NFT market boomed earlier this year as celebrities including Grimes, Andy Murray and Sir Tim Berners-Lee sold collectibles and artworks using the format. But the underlying technology has questionable utility, with some dismissing the field as a purely speculative bubble.

The insider trading came to light thanks to the public nature of the Ethereum blockchain, on which most NFT trades occur. Crypto traders noticed that an anonymous user was regularly buying items from the public marketplace shortly before they were promoted on the site’s front page, a prestigious slot that often brings significant interest from would-be buyers. The anonymous user would then sell the assets on, making vast sums in a matter of hours.

One trade, for instance, saw an artwork called Spectrum of a Ramenification Theory bought for about £600. It was then advertised on the front page and sold on for $4,000 a few hours later.

One Twitter user, ZuwuTV, linked the transactions to the public wallet of Nate Chastain, OpenSea’s head of product, demonstrating, using public records, that the profits from the trades were sent back to a wallet owned by Chastain.

While some, including ZuwuTV, described the process as “insider trading”, the loosely regulated market for NFTs has few restrictions on what participants can do. Some critics argue that even that terminology demonstrates that the sector is more about speculation than creativity.

“The fact that people are responding to this as insider trading shows that this is securities trading (or just gambling), not something designed to support artists,” said Anil Dash, the chief executive of the software company Glitch. “There are no similar public statements when artists get ripped off on the platform.

“If Etsy employees bought featured products from creators on their platform (or Patreon or Kickstarter workers backed new creators etc) that’d be great! Nobody would balk. Because they’d be supporting their goal,” Dash added.



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British home computer trailblazer dies aged 81 • The Register

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Sir Clive Sinclair died on Thursday at home in London after a long illness, his family said today. He was 81.

The British entrepreneur is perhaps best known for launching the ZX range of 8-bit microcomputers, which helped bring computing, games, and programming into UK homes in the 1980s, at least. This included the ZX80, said to be the UK’s first mass-market home computer for under £100, the ZX81, and the trusty ZX Spectrum. A whole generation grew up in Britain mastering coding on these kinds of systems in their bedrooms.

And before all that, Sir Clive founded Sinclair Radionics, which produced amplifiers, calculators, and watches, and was a forerunner to his Spectrum-making Sinclair Research. The tech pioneer, who eventually sold his computing biz to Amstrad, was knighted during his computing heyday, in 1983.

“He was a rather amazing person,” his daughter, Belinda Sinclair, 57, told The Guardian this evening. “Of course, he was so clever and he was always interested in everything. My daughter and her husband are engineers so he’d be chatting engineering with them.”

Sir Clive is survived by Belinda, his sons, Crispin and Bartholomew, aged 55 and 52 respectively, five grandchildren, and two great-grandchildren. ®

A full obit will follow on The Register.

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UN human rights chief raises concerns over AI privacy violations in report

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‘AI tech can have negative, even catastrophic, effects if they are used without sufficient regard to how they affect people’s human rights.’

The UN’s human rights chief Michelle Bachelet called for a moratorium on the sale and use of artificial intelligence technology until safeguards are put in place to prevent potential human rights violations.

Bachelet made the appeal on Wednesday (15 September) to accompany a report released by the UN’s Human Rights Office, which analysed how AI systems affect people’s right to privacy. The violation of their privacy rights had knock-on impacts on other rights such as rights to health, education and freedom of movement, the report found.

“Artificial intelligence can be a force for good, helping societies overcome some of the great challenges of our times. But AI technologies can have negative, even catastrophic, effects if they are used without sufficient regard to how they affect people’s human rights,” Bachelet said.

“Artificial intelligence now reaches into almost every corner of our physical and mental lives and even emotional states,” Bachelet added.

Japanese multinational Fujitsu caused a stir when it announced plans to implement AI facial recognition technology to monitor employees’ concentration levels during meetings.

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The report was critical of justice systems which had made wrongful arrests because of flawed facial recognition tools. It appealed to countries to ban any AI tools which did not meet international human rights standards. A 2019 study from the UK found that 81pc of suspects flagged by the facial recognition technology used by London’s Metropolitan Police force were innocent.

Earlier this year, Canada banned Clearview’s AI facial recognition technology after the company violated Canadian privacy laws by collecting facial images of Canadians without their consent.

Bachelet also highlighted the report’s concerns on the future use of data once it has been collected and stored, calling it “one of the most urgent human rights questions we face.”

The UN’s report echoes previous appeals made by European data protection regulators.

The European Data Protection Board (EDPB) and the European Data Protection Supervisor (EDPS) called for a ban on facial recognition in public places in June. They urged EU lawmakers to consider banning the use of such technology in public spaces, after the European Commission released its proposed regulations on the matter.

The EU’s proposed regulations did not recommend an outright ban. The commission instead emphasised the importance of creating “trustworthy AI.”

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