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The philosophy of phones: why it might not matter that you can't stop checking yours

A new paper on phantom phone vibration syndrome suggests that we rethink our negative approach to technology and its effects on us. 

Use a smartphone? Then it’s pretty likely that you suffer from something called “phantom phone vibration syndrome”, which roughly translates as “thinking your phone is vibrating or ringing when it’s not”. It also ties into related behaviours, like repeatedly checking your phone, even when you know it hasn’t lit up. 

In fact, phantom vibrations aren't really a syndrome. Researchers use the term because they don't really know what the phantom vibrations are, or what causes them. And yet the limited research into the phenomenon shows that somewhere between 70 and 90 per cent of regular phone users exhibit these strange, impulsive behaviours.  

The weirdest part, though, is that most of us don’t seem to mind. In both a 2012 study of almost 300 undergraduates and a 2010 study of 169 medical professionals, only around 2 per cent found the phantom vibrations “very bothersome”.  This hasn’t stopped researchers from worrying, of course – most studies try to connect the behaviours to a change in brain function brought on by technology.

Larry Rosen, a psychology professor who has written extensively on the subject, coined the term "iDisorders" to describe the ways technology may be impacting our psychological health. On phantom phone vibrations, he has this to say: “We are now so primed with anxiety…. that we misinterpret a simple signal from our neurons located below our pocket as an incoming message rather than as an itch that needs to be scratched.”

It is very tempting to charge our constant interaction with technology with a general increase in anxiety and decrease in attention spans. In the summer 2008 issue of the Atlantic, technology writer Nicholas Carr threw his hat into the ring with the headline “Is Google making us stupid?”:

Over the past few years I’ve had an uncomfortable sense that someone, or something, has been tinkering with my brain, remapping the neural circuitry, reprogramming the memory. My mind isn’t going – so far as I can tell – but it’s changing. I’m not thinking the way I used to think.”

But Robert Rosenberger, a professor in the philosophy of technology, has a slightly different take. In a new paper on phantom phone vibrations,  he suggests that we view technology as an extension of our existing senses, rather than a damaging new development somehow divorced from all the other technologies – from flints to Facebook – which we've used throughout history. 

“There are ways to talk about technology without reducing everything to brain rewiring talk,” he tells me over the phone. “Yes, you’re brain’s involved, but your brain’s involved in everything. There's a weird scientific legitimacy that comes from saying it's changing your brain, as opposed to just claiming it’s changing your behaviour or society. If I'm teaching you to drive, we wouldn't talk about brains. I would just say, OK, take hold of the steering wheel. ”

To counter this type of knee-jerk thinking, his paper on phantom vibrations, published in the journal Computers in Human Behaviour, includes a section on the philosophy of experience and phenomenology. Philosopher Martin Heidigger, for example, wrote about humans’ use of technology in the 60s, and noted that where we use technology as a tool, it simply becomes part of the user’s experience (he uses eyeglasses as an example). As Rosenberger paraphrases in his paper, “a user may remain barely aware of the device itself as it is used. Instead, it is whatever the device is being used for—whatever work is being accomplished with that device—that stands forward with significance.”

In this formulation, it’s not the, phone, glasses or book which are at the centre of our experience– it’s the communication from a friend, view of the sea, or story that our brains are really concerned with.  Rosenberger describes phones as a “mediating technology”, used to do the same old thing we always do: communicate.  

So how do phantom phone vibrations fit in? Rosenberger argues that they’re simply perceived by our brains as a “bid for attention made by another person”.  Vibrations in a pocket are easily suggested by fabric rubbing together, or a faint noise. Most of us who have experienced this have, too, thought we heard our name in a crowd, or spun round at a noise that turned out to be meaningless.

Personality seems to tie into the prevelance of the vibrations, too. Studies have found variously that those who are more neurotic are more likely to find the phantom vibrations annoying, while conscientious people tended to experience them less, and be less bothered by them. In one study, researchers tracked the phantom vibrations among medical students on different rotations, and found that students experienced more phantom vibrations during their year of internship, and far less once the internship ends.

This final piece of evidence backs up something Rosenberger put to me thus: “We could think of these phantom vibrations as a kind of bad habit – not a very bad one, as it’s not actually bothersome – which might be a more useful analogy than a rewired brain.” Yes, we check our phones a lot – but the effects can disappear quickly once the reasons for checking (emergencies while working on a hospital ward, for example) disappear.

Indeed, as communication devices become more wearable, they're likely to become even more embedded in our consciousness. Because Apple Watches, for example, don’t need to be physically taken out and looked at, the checking process is far less distracting, as this post on wearables from product designer Luke Wroblewski demonstrates.

We may be addicted to our phones, and we may check them too much – but if our technology is just an extension of ourselves, we’re only as bad as Charlie Brown, obsessively checking his postbox for Valentines, or a late commuter, straining for the sound of their bus rounding the corner. The technology and tools may change, but we're only as neurotic and anxious as we've always been. 

Barbara Speed is comment editor at the i, and was technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman, and a staff writer at CityMetric.

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How hackers held the NHS to ransom

NHS staff found their computer screens repleaced by a padlock and a demand for money. Eerily, a junior doctor warned about such an attack days earlier. 

On Friday, doctors at Whipps Cross Hospital, east London, logged into their computers, but a strange red screen popped up. Next to a giant padlock, a message said the files on the computer had been encrypted, and would be lost forever unless $300 was sent to a Bitcoin account – a virtual currency that cannot be traced. The price doubled if the money wasn’t sent within six days. Digital clocks were counting down the time.

It was soon revealed Barts Health Trust, which runs the hospital, had been hit by ransomware, a type of malicious software that hijacks computer systems until money is paid. It was one of 48 trusts in England and 13 in Scotland affected, as well as a handful of GP practices. News reports soon broke of companies in other countries hit. It affected 200,000 victims in 150 countries, according to Europol. This included the Russian Interior Ministry, Fedex, Nissan, Vodafone and Telefonica. It is thought to be the biggest outbreak of ransomware in history.

Trusts worked all through the weekend and are now back to business as usual. But the attack revealed how easy it is to bring a hospital to its knees. Patients are rightly questioning if their medical records are safe. Others fear hackers may strike again and attack other vital systems. Defence minister Michael Fallon was forced to confirm that the Trident nuclear submarines could not be hacked.

So how did this happen? The virus, called WannaCry or WannaDecrypt0r, was an old piece of ransomware that had gained a superpower. It had been combined with a tool called EternalBlue which was developed by US National Security Agency spies and dumped on the dark web by a criminal group called Shadow Brokers. Computers become infected with ransomware when somebody clicks on a dodgy link or downloads a booby-trapped PDF, but normally another person has to be fooled for it to harm a different computer. EternalBlue meant the virus could cascade between machines within a network. It could copy itself over and over, moving from one vulnerable computer to the next, spreading like the plague. Experts cannot trace who caused it, whether a criminal gang or just one person in their bedroom hitting "send".

Like a real virus, it had to be quarantined. Trusts had to shut down computers and scan them to make sure they were bug-free. Doctors – not used to writing anything but their signature – had to go back to pen and paper. But no computers meant they couldn’t access appointments, referral letters, blood tests results or X-rays. In some hospitals computer systems controlled the phones and doors. Many declared a major incident, flagging up that they needed help. In Barts Health NHS Trust, ambulances were directed away from three A&E departments and non-urgent operations were cancelled.

The tragedy is that trusts had been warned of such an attack. Dr Krishna Chinthapalli, a junior doctor in London, wrote an eerily premonitory piece in the British Medical Journal just two days earlier telling hospitals they were vulnerable to ransomware hits. Such attacks had increased fourfold between 2015 and 2016, he said, with the money being paid to the criminals increased to $1bn, according to the FBI. NHS trusts had been hit before. A third reported a ransomware attack last year, with Imperial College London NHS Trust hit 19 times. None admitted to paying the ransom.

Hospitals had even been warned of this exact virus. It exploited a vulnerability in Microsoft Windows operating systems – but Microsoft had been tipped off about it and raised the red flag in March. It issued a patch – an update which would fix it and stop systems being breached this way. But this patch only worked for its latest operating systems. Around 5 per cent of NHS devices are still running the ancient Windows XP, the equivalent of a three-wheeled car. Microsoft said it would no longer create updates for it two years ago, rendering it obsolete.

There are many reasons why systems weren’t updated. Labour and the Lib Dems were quick to blame the attack on lack of Tory funding for the NHS. It is clear cost was an issue. Speaking on BBC Radio 4’s PM programme on Saturday, ex-chief of NHS Digital Kingsley Manning estimated it would take £100m a year to update systems and protect trusts against cyber attacks. Even if that money was granted, there is no guarantee cash-strapped trusts would ringfence it for IT; they may use it to plug holes elsewhere.

Yet even with the money to do so updating systems and applying patches in hospitals is genuinely tricky. There is no NHS-wide computer system – each trust has its own mix of software, evolved due to historical quirk. New software or machines may be coded with specific instructions to help them run. Changing the operating system could stop them working – affecting patient care. While other organisations might have time to do updates, hospital systems have to be up and running 24 hours a day, seven days a week. In small hospitals, it’s a man in a van manually updating each computer.

Some experts believe these are just excuses; that good digital hygiene kept most trusts in the UK safe. "You fix vulnerabilities in computers like you wash your hands after going to the toilet," said Professor Ross Anderson, a security engineering expert at Cambridge University. "If you don't, and patients die, excuses don't work and blame shifting must not be tolerated."

It is not known yet if any patients have died as a result of the attack, but it certainly raised fears about the safety of sensitive medical records. This particular virus got into computer files and encrypted them – turning them into gooble-de-gook and locking doctors out. Systems were breached but there have been no reports of records being extracted. Yet the scale of this attack raises fears in future the NHS could be targeted for the confidential data it holds. "If it’s vulnerable to ransomware in this way, it could be vulnerable to other attacks," said Professor Alan Woodward security expert at the University of Surrey's department of computing.

In the US, there have been examples where ransomware attacks have led to patient data being sucked out, he said. The motivation is not to embarrass people with piles or "out" women who have had an abortion, but because medical information is lucrative. It can be sold to criminals for at least $10, a price 10 times higher than can be earned by selling credit card details. Dossiers with personal identification information – known as "fullz" on the dark web – help crooks commit fraud and carry out scams. The more personal details a conman knows about you the more likely you are to fall for their hustle.

Hospital data is backed up at least hourly and three copies are kept, one offsite, so it is unlikely any medical records or significant amounts of data will have been lost – although the hack will cost the NHS millions in disruption. A British analyst, who tweets under the name Malware Tech, became an unlikely hero after accidentally finding a killswitch to stop the virus replicating. He registered a website, whose presence signalled to the virus it should stop. Yet he admits that a simple tweak of the code would create a new worm able to infect computers.

Experts warn this event could trigger a spate of copycat attacks. Hacker may turn their eyes to other public services. Dr Brian Gladman, a retired Ministry of Defence director, and ex-director of security at Nato, points out that our entire infrastructure, from the national grid, food distribution channels to the railways rely on computer systems. We now face an arms race – and criminals only have to get lucky once.

"We’re going to get more attacks and more attacks and it’s going to go on," he said. "We’ve got to pay more attention to this."

Madlen Davies is a health and science reporter at The Bureau of Investigative Journalism. She tweets @madlendavies.

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