Friday roundup: A week in tech (07/12/18)

I knew 5G was going to lead to trouble.

At the weekend, would-be global-5G-delivering-wonder-firm Huawei saw its founder’s daughter arrested in Canada, where she now awaits extradition to the Land of the, still just about, Free.

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Meng Wanzhou, who is also the firm’s chief financial officer and deputy chair, was swept up by the scuffers in connection with possible violations of the US’s determined sanctions against current enemy-of-the-month, Iran.

Predictably, China is incensed and the Chinese embassy in Canada is demanding the CFO’s release etc. Huawei, meanwhile, is, equally predictably, playing dumb over the accusations.

Huawei is increasingly becoming THE tech global pariah. Last week, New Zealand became the latest country to forbid the firm from bidding for 5G licenses, over concerns about where it ends and the Chinese government begins.

According to various news reports, the troubled company is under investigation by US investigative types over suspected violations of sanctions against both Iran and North Korea (how many countries is the US currently enforcing sanctions against? There can’t be many left).

Additionally, some in the US boss class believe Huawei is a threat to the country’s national security, which is very serious indeed.

Yet – all this and glaringly corrupt crime nebulae Facebook remains at large and unmolested! What do you think of that?

***

The socialist paradise of Cuba is to get a big bag of 3G this week, gifting perhaps millions of its citizens the opportunity to stare at a small rectangle for most of the day.

Until now, islanders have had to rely on weird, archaic, slightly spooky things like internet cafes, with most of the population spending their time doing whatever it was we did 15 years ago.

Wonderful as the opportunity to go on Twitter and have utterly unproductive spats with idiots is, it won’t come cheap: 3G provider Etecsa wants $7 a month for a measly 600mb, but the average monthly wage on the island is only $30 – so you’ll have to be particularly desperate to view Dave from Axis Chemicals LinkedIn update on motivational management techniques to sign up.

For a communist people-loving state, Cuba seems reasonably relaxed about its subjects going on the internet, at least according to the information I am literally reading while I write this. Internet cafes in 2013; WiFi hotspots in 2015; home connections in 2017. Give it another 200 years and they’ll be allowed to make jokes about the government.

Interestingly, Etecsa hasn’t ruled out the possibility of ‘glitches’ within its 3G fabric – which might be code for ‘don’t look at stuff you’re not supposed to’. We shall see.

***

If you’re an O2 user you may have noticed that everything’s broken and the world’s come to an end. Having said that, there’s probably a very slim chance you can read this at all, so it’s all a bit academic really.

The big network provider’s…um…network went horribly down yesterday, plunging millions of screen-gazers into pre-internet primordial darkness.

(Anecdotally, my work phone is O2 and my personal phone is giffgaff, which is powered by O2, and I noticed nothing untoward going on. Having said that, I only use them to occasionally check the weather and to see if Holland & Barrett have sent me my latest £1.50 discount voucher, so I don’t think I truly fit into the ‘deeply troubled’ demographic.)

And this is a rolling news story: O2 is still blundering in the dark as I type, but is ‘confident’ everything will be fine at some point tomorrow (Friday).

And it’s not just O2 users who are feeling the pain: the bungling firm powers a wide-range of services, such as live bus timetables and payment systems – many of which also crumbled into digital oblivion in the mess.

Chief exec Mark Evans reckons the problem has been isolated and all will return to normal, claiming: ‘We have hundreds of people from both Ericsson and O2 working around the clock to identify the issue. We are starting to restore the network this evening, and we’re confident. Ericsson have given the assurance that by tomorrow morning it will have been fully restored.’

Do you remember, oh, some months ago or something when Visa’s network fell flat on its face, too? That was quite ominous. Back in the day, TVs never just stopped working – and if they had of, it would’ve made little difference as they weren’t interactive: you just looked at them.

But today, our payment methods and, increasingly, how we interact with the material universe hangs on the whims of vast and complex digital systems – systems that it’s imaginable collapsing, taking our access to the world along with ‘em.

Have a good weekend!

By Max Salsbury

Friday roundup: A week in tech (07/12/18)

Friday round-up: A week in tech (30/11/18)

Regular followers of this round-up may have noticed that I have implied on occasion that popular time-wasting exercise Facebook is run like some kind of vast international crime network.

Well, wouldn’t you know – now it’s official (sort of)!

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Appearing before a truly global hearing, and filling the giant and ominous gap left by elusive el capo Don Zuckerberg, Lord Richard Allan, Facebook’s vice-president of policy solutions, was told by MP Paul Farrelly that the thought that occurred to him was ‘racketeering’. Ouch.

Featuring inquisitive politicians from nine countries, and following the unprecedented seizure of a nest of Facebook documents by MPs on Monday, the committee grilled fall-guy-for-the-day Lord Allan – but were enraged and astonished by the continuing absence of boss M Zuckerberg.

The Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee tweeted: ‘9 countries. 24 official representatives. 447 million people represented. One question: where is Mark Zuckerberg?’

Where indeed. Ecuadorian embassy?

Canadian politician Charlie Angus joined in the fun, telling Lord Allan that ‘We’ve never seen anything quite like Facebook, where, while we were playing on our phones and apps, our democratic institutions…seem to have been upended by frat-boy billionaires from California’.

Well, quite.

So, what’s going on? Well, as you probably know by now, Facebook has an interesting relationship with its users’ data, and the fuss can really be distilled into a few words: Cambridge Analytica, Brexit, Trump, Russia.

And the event’s big reveal? Discovered amongst the seized documents was an email from all the way back in 2014 in which a Facebook engineer reported that huge amounts of user data were being pulled from the social network by Russian IP addresses.

Lord Allan didn’t seem to know much about any of this mischief and said he’d get back with more info. However, since then Facebook has said it looked into the matter at the time and ‘found no evidence of specific Russian activity’. Right.

In fact, Lord Allan didn’t seem to know much at all. He couldn’t name a single instance of his firm banning apps for breaking its rules; but later that day the Information Commissioner Elizabeth Denham told the hearing that Facebook informed the ICO it had banned 200 apps during the past summer alone!

If you’re still a Facebook user, I’d enjoy it while you can. I don’t think it’s going to be around much longer.

***

Now, here’s a couple of stories about various things going on concerned with China, determined as I am to be put on a dark list in some file in Beijing.

New Zealand has joined the growing list of countries to ban the use of tech built by Chinese firm Huawei, citing national security concerns.

With 5G networks being set up across the world, poor old Huawei keeps getting the bum’s rush when it knocks on the door to see if anyone wants its communications wares.

Australia has already forbidden the company from its 5G fields, while the US, UK, Germany, Japan and Korea are looking into things very closely.

It’s feared that with the line between Huawei and the nosey Chinese government being blurred at best, any kit laid down by the firm could be used for spying etc.

But perhaps there’s some good news after all: Papua New Guinea isn’t fussed and is planning to go ahead and allow Huawei to build some internet for it. Back in the summer, Papa New Guinea’s government avowed to build its own version of Facebook, so perhaps Huawei/the Chinese government can help out there, too.

What next? This isn’t much of a story but it’s mildly amusing/sinister. An AI system in the Chinese city of Ningbo spotted someone jaywalking and displayed their face on a billboard to shame them.

The only problem with this otherwise terrific scheme was that the shamed individual, Dong Mingzhu, had actually only appeared in image form on the side of a bus.

Ningbo police laughed that the silly AI system/overlord had made a silly mistake when it spotted Ms Dong’s visage in an advert. Good times.

***

Burnt-tasting coffee hawkers Starbucks has introduced a massive shakeup of its tax policies and will henceforth dutifully and happily pay its fair share.

Only joking. What the firm has actually done is pledged to block access to pornography over its free WiFi in its US shops.

Apparently, you’re not actually allowed to use its wireless to watch porn anyway – but now the firm will explicitly block its consumption.

I assume you’re thinking what I’m thinking: who on Earth would watch porn in public, in a coffee shop of all things, anyway?

Well, according to Starbucks, which has yielded to anti-porn group Enough is Enough, ‘it occurs rarely’. Thank heavens.

Enough is Enough successfully pressured McDonald’s into making its WiFi porn-tight back in 2016, and is furious that Starbucks apparently broke an earlier promise to do the same.

The group said: ‘Starbucks continues to serve up free, unrestricted WiFi to its customers, opening the door for patrons to view graphic or obscene pornography, view or distribute child pornography (an illegal crime) or engage in sexual predation activity.’

And there’s already been a reaction. According to abysmal celebrity ‘news’ site TMZ, porn website YouPorn is so incensed by the move that it has banned Starbucks products from its…make sure I spell this correctly…offices.

Not sure this is proper news, but it’s got WiFi in it so that’ll do. In the meantime, as the proscription doesn’t appear to be in force in the UK, I suppose you should take care where you sit/who you sit next to/what you touch if you happen to be visiting Starbucks.

By Max Salsbury

Friday round-up: A week in tech (30/11/18)

Friday roundup: A week in tech

By Max Salsbury

Airbnb has come over all principled and decided to stop listing Israeli settlement homes in the illegally occupied West Bank.

Though the decision has delighted the Palestinians, the Israelis are incensed and have threatened legal action (seems a little strong but certainly preferable to an airstrike, which might not be far behind).

Explaining itself, the internet-based ruiner of traditional hotel models said: ‘US law permits companies like Airbnb to engage in business in these territories.

‘At the same time, many in the global community have stated that companies should not do business here because they believe companies should not profit on lands where people have been displaced.’

That’s nice. Saeb Erekat, secretary-general of the Palestine Liberation Organisation, has backed the move, claiming that it was ‘crucial for Airbnb to follow the position of international law that Israel is the occupying power and that Israeli settlements in the West Bank, including occupied east Jerusalem, are illegal and constitute war crimes’.

However, outraged Israeli Tourism Minister Yariv Levin seethed, quite amusingly, that the move was ‘the most wretched of wretched capitulations to the boycott efforts’. I like that – ‘the most wretched of wretched’.

Anyway, something called the Yesha Council has joined the ‘not impressed with Airbnb’ side of the argument, complaining that the decision is the result of ‘either anti-Semitism or capitulation to terrorism, or both’. Ha, right!

Meanwhile, a spokesperson for the Palestinian tourist board didn’t really comment: ‘I’d like to say “Come and visit Palestine” but sadly it doesn’t exist and everything’s been blown to bits and nicked anyway.’

***

A site that specialises in indulging the whims of those titillated by anthropomorphised and sexualised animals has been hacked. Is nothing sacred?

The attack happened back in August which is why we’re only hearing about it now, naturally, and saw members’ email addresses, names and so on accessed and subsequently posted on a hacking forum.

Role-playing game ‘High Tail Hall’ offers screen-watchers the chance to customise ‘sexy furry characters’ and…I dunno…muck about, I suppose. However, the innocent-sounding if very singular activity drew the attention of hackers who apparently tried to spoil everything.

Owner HTH Studios have acknowledged the breach (nice of them) and said that they are now ‘using a much more advanced and stable security system’. Hmm, not sure if I was a fan of human-animal hybrid cartoony steaminess I’d be too soothed by that.

The hack is part of a wave of recent attacks on adult sites. Eight porn outlets were struck in October, including one enterprise charmingly titled ‘Wife Lovers’ which resulted in the exposure of over 1.2 million email addresses.

Seriously, porn fans: it might be time to return to the top shelf in the corner shop, where all you really risked was the internal ridicule of the store assistant as you made the shame-faced purchase.

***

Let’s end with something really depressing (I’ll start finding pleasanter stories as we approach Christmas).

The Americans have built themselves the world’s second most powerful computer – which they are going to use to simulate mass nuclear weapon launches and detonations. Isn’t that nice?

As actually using nuclear bombs on cities etc to test their efficacy is somewhat impracticable, ‘Sierra’ will run lots of scenarios to, I imagine, find out how the US might possibly ‘win’ a full global thermonuclear war.

The thing has 190,000 processing cores, which sounds like it might be enough to work out the best Brexit deal, and will be disconnected from external networks when its work begins, less nosey parties (such as the Russians or Google, for example) come poking round.

Basically, the US has a stupendous stockpile of nuclear bombs, missiles, shells, shoes perhaps, and needs a stupendous amount of computing power to work out what on Earth is should do with it all.

Now, how’s that supercomputer that’s going to work out how to feed everybody and make us kind towards one another coming along?

Friday roundup: A week in tech

Digital Transformation Arrangement: Listening to and acting on your concerns

Earlier this year, the Crown Commercial Service (CCS) announced that it had secured preferential pricing on a mix of Microsoft cloud services for public sector organisations through to 30 April 2021.

CCS signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) with Microsoft to ensure eligible public sector organisations continue to receive discounts on its cloud products.

The Digital Transformation Arrangement (DTA), as it’s called, will run for three years and will feature bespoke, public sector-focused product packages around cloud security and compliance, as well as Office 365 and Windows 10 offerings.

The DTA packaging and pricing attracted a good deal of concern and criticism from Socitm members. In June, we responded by contacting CCS and members’ concerns were conveyed to Microsoft the following month. CCS also offered to help individual councils with any proposals that they were currently considering.

Since then, Microsoft has announced further price increases to take effect in November 2018, generating further representations from councils to the Local Government Association (LGA) and ourselves.

Socitm, working with the LGA and CCS, has been engaging with our Microsoft colleagues to ensure that we are taking a leading position in conveying the issues and challenges facing the local government sector. These include the sector’s experience with the escalating costs of Microsoft’s products and services and the sometimes poor exploitation of the investments that have been made.

We have also contacted our LOLA international colleagues to ascertain whether they have similar experiences to share and whether they would be interested in making joint representations to Microsoft.

This briefing note reveals the list of actions generated from a meeting with Microsoft on 29 October.

Digital Transformation Arrangement: Listening to and acting on your concerns

Friday roundup: A week in tech

By Max Salsbury

Butter-fingered Google lost several million of its IP addresses this week – and you’ll have to continue reading this story if you want to find out more.

Monday’s event, which lasted over an hour, saw the firm’s omnipresent search function and a number of other services disappear, an occurrence that surely made some younger net users who have grown up in Google’s loving embrace swoon (it’d be like me waking up and finding there was no sky, or toast).

Anyway, though the tech monster has said nothing malicious was behind the micro-meltdown, some are suspicious because the incident led to traffic being misdirected to China Telecom, the friendly communications outfit owned by the friendly Chinese government.

Would you like a big heap of technical spiel? Why not – it’s Friday!

The leak begun when a small ISP in Nigeria called MainOne Cable Company uploaded tables into the internet’s global routing system, improperly declaring that its autonomous system 37282 was the proper path to reach some of Google’s 212 IP prefixes.

I hope that’s clear?

Good. Shortly after, China Telecom improperly accepted the route and told the world, which led to the Russian-based Transtelecom and others to also follow the route.

Worryingly, the redirected IPs sent out some of Google’s most sensitive stuff including its corporate WAN infrastructure and its VPN.

But the firm isn’t bothered. In a statement, Google representatives nonchalantly wrote: ‘We’re aware that a portion of internet traffic was affected by incorrect routing of IP addresses, and access to some Google services was impacted. The root cause of the issue was external to Google and there was no compromise of Google services.’

***

Sticking with China, the country has unveiled a virtual newsreader that can deliver government-endorsed b******t 24 hours a day.

The AI anchor has been crafted to mimic the facial movements and voice of a real human being, and can ‘read out’ whatever is typed into its ‘brain’.

Xinhua, China’s state news service, said that the thing could come into its own during breaking news updates, perhaps such as:

‘This just in – Chinese government best government ever says survey’

‘Voting booths open tomorrow – remember to stay in and not vote’

‘Eurasia has always been at war with Eastasia’

The digital abomination has been modelled on real life presenter Zhang Zhao who is, I assume, presently keeping a close eye on the job ad pages.

Michael Wooldridge, professor of computer science at the University of Oxford, told the BBC that it’s ‘quite difficult to watch for more than a few minutes. It’s very flat, very single-paced, it’s not got rhythm, pace or emphasis,’ – before adding ‘but that’s enough about Piers Morgan, show me this Chinese virtual presenter’.

***

Now, here’s a messed-up heap of a story, if it’s true: wretched Facebook has allegedly been at it AGAIN – this time by attempting to smear its critics by erroneously linking them to the billionaire philanthropist George Soros.

According to the New York Times, the squalid social media enterprise hired PR firm Definers Public Affairs to compose and publish negative articles about rival big tech outfits, in an effort to distract attention from Facebook’s own bulging catalogue of putrid incompetence.

And, again allegedly, one of the PR firm’s tactics was to suggest that groups critical of Facebook, such as Freedom from Facebook and Color of Change, are secretly backed by Mr Soros, the current bogeyman responsible for a majority of the world’s wrongs in the minds of a wide range of anti-Semitic nutcases.

Rashad Robinson, Color of Change’s executive director, called the antics ‘outrageous and concerning,’ as well he might.

Facebook’s compliant PR firm published its sub-Pravda drivel on NTKNetwork.com, which is designed to look like a real news site but is actually owned by Definers Public Affairs. These ‘stories’ were then picked up by right-wing ‘news’ sites like Breibart, which gleefully spread them further afield, like a burst sewer pipe spraying steaming effluence across the land.

Can you imagine? All this just to cover the backside of a business that mainly exists to host people’s boring anecdotes and cat photographs.

Despite ridiculing the firm for its many indiscretions in countless Friday roundups, it doesn’t appear that Facebook and its PR lapdogs have attempted to smear me with a Soros connection. It’s almost as if they’re completely unaware of this blog!

Anyhow, real journalists have written it all up properly here, and it’s well worth a read.

Friday roundup: A week in tech

Truth, reality and lawnmowers: why IT needs a purpose

By Phil Jackman, consultant, Guerrilla Working and former head of IT, Durham County Council

I am fascinated by truth and reality, and the things that we believe to be true which just aren’t. The truth is, in my view, that there is no such thing as truth. There is perception and probability. There are many things that we think are true, but which are figments of our imagination: companies, law, property ownership. They don’t exist in nature.

The problem that I think many of us face in IT is that we have so much technology we don’t know what to do with it. Yet getting people to use it is a perennial problem. There’s language we use in IT that isn’t always understood – I typed ‘cutting-edge tech’ in Google and got a whole series of lawnmowers. We talk about redundancy, meaning additional, back-up equipment, and people think about losing their jobs.

New things are happening every day – Bitcoin, drones, artificial intelligence, augmented reality. Yet, we can’t get people to press the button on a dialogue box that’s highlighted by pressing enter instead of using a mouse. There is a fundamental difference between people’s ability to use the technology and the exciting places we are going to go.

My view is that the way we think about work is just wrong. We are stuck in a paradigm where work is about control, it’s about making people do things instead of enabling and allowing creativity. The good news is that this is not just a public sector problem – it affects every single organisation that I have ever had the pleasure to work with.

I meet companies and they say to me ‘our IT is crap’, or usually something worse than that, can you come and help? Of course, but before I help you I’d like to sit down with the directors and senior managers and talk about the purpose of your company. That is a question that flummoxes every single person that I ask. If you don’t know the purpose of what you’re trying to do, then any technology will do it. If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will do.

There’s a story about Toyota, about a guy trying to sell them a system. He goes through the virtues of it, the functions and the features. The Toyota guy says sorry to stop you, but can you just tell me one thing – will this help me sell more cars? No, I don’t think so, the other replies. So the guy from Toyota says then I’m not interested, because my job is to sell more cars. Whether I’m in accounts, HR or on the production line, the job of somebody in Toyota is to sell more cars and any system I buy must meet that objective.

Stephen Kelly, the previous chief executive of Sage, once said to me – actually he was standing on stage – always take the opportunity to remind everybody what is important. He started all meetings talking about the customer, the production values, the company’s values. The truth is – if there is such a thing as truth – that people don’t know the purpose of their organisation, they don’t know how they fit in and they don’t see the bigger picture. If you have one job as a leader, that is it – remind people what the purpose of the organisation is and how you fit into it.

This is based on Phil Jackman’s talk at the Socitm North 2018 conference in Darlington on 18 October 2018. 

Phil Jackman’s blog: https://guerrillaworking.com/

Truth, reality and lawnmowers: why IT needs a purpose

Friday roundup: A week in tech

New Facebook Image

By Max Salsbury

Gaffe-plagued Facebook has had to apologise YET AGAIN – this time for a ‘white supremacist’ ad, a cock-up which, these days, is as expected as it is abhorrent.

The blundering firm approved the ad campaign that promoted the notion of ‘white genocide’ – a particularly insane and gross conspiracy theory that posits that the ‘white race’ is being exterminated by mysterious forces.

The chair of the Commons’ Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee, MP Damian Collins, isn’t impressed, tweeting: ‘Again, this is appalling and irresponsible – Facebook allowed advertisers to target users interested in “white genocide” – even in wake of Pittsburgh massacre.’

So, what’s going on this time? Is it the fault of Facebook’s algorithms missing the obvious? Well, according to news site The Intercept, which created the ad campaign to expose the social media firm, an actual human in Facebook’s marketing team approved the devious ploy.

Bafflingly, Facebook has stressed that the incident isn’t the same as last year’s anti-Semitic advertising disaster, as that was the fault of an algorithm, not a human in the marketing team. What?

I’m confused. Confused and tired. Confused and tired and depressed.

***

The dark, strange and possibly foreign power-backed campaign group Leave.EU has been forbidden and everyone involved with it jailed.

Not really. Actually, the enterprise has been hit with a £135,000 fine for breaching data laws, which is a start I suppose.

The outfit (creator, Aaron Banks) had a dodgy data-based relationship with insurance firm Eldon (owner, Aaron Banks) – or so the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) has concluded.

According to the ICO, Eldon’s customers’ data was accessed by staff at Castle Leave.EU. In 2015, a Leave.EU newsletter (‘Read all about it: Brexit will be Brilliant!’) was emailed to 319,000 addresses in Eldon’s database.

Sweet, pure Mr Banks boldly claimed that the ‘mistake’ was due to an error in the email distribution system (which doesn’t even begin to make sense when you think about it) and that he’d reported it to the ICO.

However, the ICO – which is the body doing the actual investigation, remember – said it had no record of any such report. Sheer farce.

And it seems the misuse of data cut both ways. The ICO also found that almost 50,000 Leave.EU fans were sent emails promoting GoSkippy without their consent.

Anyway, the fine will be the least of Mr Bank’s worries: he’s currently being investigated by the National Crime Agency over the ‘true source’ of the £8 million he handed to Leave.EU to help the UK ease into the Brexit paradise we all now inhabit.

What’ll happen next, I wonder? Referendum II? Prison? The plot thickens!

***

5G: salvation of western civilisation or over-hyped, costly white elephant, depending on your point of view.

The latest 5G speculation posits that it’ll be so good that it’ll replace the home broadband we currently have and love.

That’s the word from Dave Dyson, CEO of mobile network provider Three, who reckons 5G will be so reliable and speedy that people will be able to dispose of the fixed-line arrangements that currently pump Twitter, Russian propaganda and cat videos into their homes.

Said he: ‘Maybe not for the whole country, but certainly a significant majority of the country, I strongly believe 5G can offer a good enough home broadband experience for people to effectively ditch their copper connection.’

And I hope he’s right: my home broadband connection is a woefully pathetic, hateful, infuriating nightmare of a thing. I’ll take anything else that works!

4G’s successor could feasibly offer download speeds of 10GB a second, which should be enough to keep even the most seasoned of whiners happy – though the key word here is ‘feasibly’.

Three plans to launch its first 5G services next year; swifter EE, meanwhile, has already turned on nine 5G trial sites across London.

My Dyson’s vast optimism has been tempered by level-headed killjoy Andrew Ferguson, of news site Thinkbroadband, who warned: ‘Full-fibre services are going to beat 5G as you have a connection as stable as the one that will be feeding the mobile masts and thus the variables of signal strength dropping due to a bus passing the home are avoided.’

As covered in a previous round-up, this is all great news for manufacturers of expensive smartphones, as we’re all going to need to buy expensive new ones if we hope to access 5G.

It never ends.

Friday roundup: A week in tech