How Frictionless Should Things Be?

Also, the dark web’s black market for stolen data and the future of economics.

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In recent years, tech companies have led the way in making products and services as easy to use as possible. For many, getting rid of the “friction” — for example, streamlining account login requirements and allowing for one-click ordering — was seen not as a choice but as a necessity. However, escalating concerns over cybersecurity are prompting companies and many others to rethink how frictionless things should be.

Reducing complexity has been a key driver of new technology throughout history, notes The New York Times columnist Kevin Roose. The question now is whether society is overpaying for convenience and, specifically, whether, for safety’s sake, companies should be “making things slightly less simple?” Roose interviewed more than a dozen tech executives and product designers about the trade-offs between seamless transactions and cybersecurity. What would happen, he asked, if companies like Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter introduced “speed bumps” and other features that slowed things down?

“There is nothing inherently good about complexity,” Roose offers. But given the risk of security breaches, there are lots of reasons “to ask whether certain technologies should be a little less optimized for convenience.”

Inside the Dark Web

What happens to all the financial and personal data that gets sucked up when companies like Target and Marriott get hacked? Who sells it and who buys it? These are among the questions that Kai Ryssdal, the host of Marketplace, which airs on U.S. public radio stations, recently put to security expert Stephen Cobb. Cobb, a veteran researcher at IT security firm ESET, reports that cybercriminals are becoming increasingly adept at navigating the “dark markets,” where stolen credit card information and Social Security numbers get packaged for sale. And until they are caught, they utilize many of the same technologies and marketing techniques as legitimate businesses. “It’s a thoroughly market-based system,” Cobb says.

One ray of hope is that 2019 may be a year when regulators clamp down harder on the shady business practices of data brokers, who have long used personal, location, and transaction data to gain insights into how people live. As reporters Aliya Ram and Madhumita Murgia write in the Financial Times, governments are under intense public pressure to regulate how personal data is collected and used — and whether the data can be sold. And in the wake of recent hacking incidents, they are taking heed. In Europe, the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), which took effect last May, gives individuals control over how their personal data is used. In the United States, the Federal Trade Commission has urged Congress to regulate data brokers (although so far there hasn’t been any legislation). Both France and the United Kingdom now have legal power to audit them.

What’s Next for Economics?

Every 10 years, The Economist asks noted economists to name up-and-coming researchers whose work addresses important policy questions and may shape the future of the field. Previous lists have included young scholars who went on to receive Nobel Prizes (Paul Krugman, for his groundbreaking work on international trade and economic geography; and Jean Tirole, for his work on market power and regulation). They also included Steven Levitt, who became coauthor of the 2005 best-seller Freakonomics, and Esther Duflo, an MIT researcher who looks at issues affecting poverty.

Critics complain that young economists, armed with their computers, have become too focused on narrow and data-heavy studies where the lessons aren’t broadly applicable (or perhaps are more enamored of their methodologies than the issues they’re examining). However, The Economist’s latest list has several exceptions. Nathaniel Hendren of Harvard, for example, looks at the impact of race on opportunity and social mobility in the United States. And Emi Nakamura of UC-Berkeley has studied the impact of the rise of women in the workforce on the rate of economic recovery after recessions. They are just two young economists who are tackling broadly relevant topics.



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