Friday roundup: A week in tech


The head of a tech firm has been arrested for doing unspeakably immoral things – well, it could be almost anyone, couldn’t it?

But it’s actually Vincent Ramos, CEO of Phantom Secure, a Canadian firm that has made $millions and $millions selling specially encrypted phones to drug dealers.

The company modified Blackberry devices to make them more secure for dangerous criminals, selling them on six-month subscriptions for between $2,000-$3,000.

America’s Department of Justice swooped on Mr Ramos in Seattle, and he faces life imprisonment if found guilty of racketeering and conspiracy to distribute drugs.

Speaking to the BBC, US attorney Adam Braverman said: ‘This organisation Phantom Secure was designed to facilitate international drug trafficking all throughout the entire world. These traffickers, including members of the Sinaloa Cartel, would use these fully-encrypted devices to facilitate their drug trafficking activities in order to avoid law enforcement scrutiny.’

Well. I don’t suppose Phantom Secure stand a ghost of a chance in court; their defence will simply be spirited away by the prosecution. A haunting case.


This is quite funny. Or sickening. Both, probably.

Uber-rich tax-hater Peter Thiel has accused European regulators of being driven by jealously, as they try to clampdown on the activities of Silicon Valley firms.

Speaking about EU plans to improve data privacy conditions across the continent, the PayPal co-founder whined: ‘The good reasons are these privacy concerns and the bad reasons are there are no successful tech companies in Europe and they are jealous of the US so they are punishing us.’ 

He went to say that ‘privacy in a digital era deserves to be rethought,’ however ‘as a libertarian I always dislike regulation’. As a ‘libertarian’…I ask you.

Anyway, Mr Thiel apparently has an emergency contingency plan to zip to a presumably comfy safe house in New Zealand at the first sign of societal collapse, where he will no doubt be free to practice unbridled unregulated libertarianism while the rest of us burn/starve/etc. Bully for him.


There’s a nice article here, so there is, about tech journalism’s tendency to consist almost entirely of what amounts to the promotion of new products, rather than critical analysis of said products, companies and other things.

Quoting another article, the piece reads: ‘Tech journalism has become tedious product journalism where printing the spec sheets for mass produced consumer products is celebrated as a great story and where there appears to be little understanding of bigger picture stories about how our digital technologies are transforming our industries, cities, and our societies, at a pace and scale that’s never been seen in our history.’

Well, regular readers will be well aware that words such as ‘celebrated’ and ‘spec sheets’ are rare if not unheard-of occurrences on this blog. So, tell your friends, tired as they probably are of boring, hype-filled product reviews dressed up as journalism, to bookmark, where a lugubrious cynicism still reigns.

Friday roundup: A week in tech

Socitm President’s Conference: In conversation with Martin Ferguson

Martin Ferguson2

With the excitement around the Socitm President’s Conference growing more and more by the day, we wanted to catch up with some of this year’s speakers to find out what they’re most looking forward to at the event and why you can’t afford to miss it! Read the interview below, which is the first instalment of our President’s Conference Speaker Q&As.

Martin Ferguson, Socitm’s director of policy and research, will be delivering the keynote address on the first day of the conference. His thought-provoking presentation will explore what lies in store for the future of public services.


Q1. What does it mean to be the keynote speaker for the first-ever Socitm President’s Conference?

A. I’m excited to be both keynote speaker and part of the team producing the first-ever Socitm President’s Conference.

In a year when so much in Socitm is changing – totally refreshed national and regional conferences, our new packages of Improve services, a revamped Inform research programme and a vibrant Socitm Advisory service – working with our members and partners, we have so much to offer!

Q2. What do you think the public sector might look like in 2030?

A. Public services are at a tipping point. Either we grasp a future that is ethical and secure, where public services conjoin to achieve politically contested outcomes supporting the well-being and prosperity of people in places, or we run the risks that harnessing data and new technologies threaten to undermine the very fabric of our society.

Q3. Is local government making sufficient use of technology, and is it using it well?

A. We have many leading examples reflecting the rich tapestry and diversity of places throughout the UK, while adhering to the principles of: Simplify – Standardise – Share.
Our series of Socitm Inform guides on Smart Places, Location Intelligence and Shared Services reveal a myriad of examples. While lack of capacity, investment, skills and risk adversity are just some of the barriers to be overcome in pursuit of innovation, we have outstanding examples of digital leadership: some of the leading exponents exist in local government in the UK (see our Modern Leadership Guide 6).

Q4. How do local authorities introduce software-based automation in a fair and ethical way? For example, should citizens be told they are talking to software, or is it OK to pretend they are talking to another human?

A. For me, the issue is not to whom the citizen is talking. Rather, it is whether a quality outcome is being delivered. The public are increasingly well-used to ‘talking’ to automated telephone systems, to interacting with maps depicting online order deliveries, to watching interactive TV and audio, to booking trains, flights, hotels and holidays online, to managing a host of specific home, work and leisure services through apps and, now to physically talking to technology based systems.

The trick is to ensure that the benefits and the outcomes are transparent to the user, rather than the frustration of being directed into some kind of technology ‘black hole’. If data is required, then explain why, assess the risks of sharing versus not sharing information, and only then do it.

Q5. How should staff be asked to work with automation – training software to eventually take over their jobs, or in partnership?

A. We need to be honest and open with staff about what is in prospect – not to give them a ‘fait accompli’, but to give them the opportunity to engage with the challenge and to become a part of the solution. We need to say to our staff: “Do your job as best you can, but always ask yourself, why do I do this, is it still necessary and can it be done better?” Innovation is everyone’s job.

This is the approach that has been taken at Aylesbury Vale District Council, where they have turned the organisation inside out, dispensing with traditional service departments and working with their staff to co-design and co-create services that have the well-being of citizens, local businesses and the place at their heart.

Q6. Why do you think adoption of new technology has been slower in the public sector versus the private sector?

A. We need to see the adoption of technology less as competition, more as co-opetition – local authorities working with the best that the private sector and its entrepreneurship can bring to innovate solutions and a future that benefits the well-being of people, places and productivity. Blind adoption of technology for its own sake benefits no-one.

Big outsourcing projects and public-private finance (PFI) initiatives have fossilised inputs and failed to deliver on outcomes, instead mortgaging the future against the present.
We would do well to look at the lessons from the likes of CivTech in Scotland, Data Mill North and new, streamlined approaches to procurement and partnership working with start-ups and SMEs in cities like Antwerp.

Q7. As the automation age inevitably draws ever closer and we see human roles evolve with the advent of machines, what can authorities do to prepare for the changes to come?

A. Encourage your staff to look outwards, not inwards. Adopt a constructively critical mindset. Engage at every level – with citizens and businesses, with universities and communities, with local and global interests. Above all, constantly seek to learn and be generous with your knowledge and expertise.

Q8. What advice would you give to anyone deciding whether or not to come along to the Socitm President’s Conference?

A. Broaden your horizons. Come prepared to give something to your colleagues. Be surprised by what you receive. Above all make the effort to come and participate. You won’t be disappointed.


The event in Glasgow on 8 and 9 May promises to inspire the Socitm community through a phenomenal line-up of expert speakers paired with a knockout conference agenda.

You can find out more information about the conference agenda and read Martin’s full profile here.

Socitm President’s Conference: In conversation with Martin Ferguson

Friday roundup: A week in tech


YouTube has been accused of being either incompetent or irresponsible – well, we all have bad days.

Having said that, few of us suffer bad days that are linked to far right, hate-filled propaganda videos – a nuisance that YouTube continues to struggle with.

And that is exactly what has riled MP Yvette Cooper, chair of the Home Affairs Committee, who is tired of the network’s inability to block a video that promotes the banned British Neo-Nazi gang, National Action.

Ms Cooper has flagged the video ‘at least seven times’ in the last year, and has even shown it to the firm’s CEO, Susan Wojcicki, but so far no dice.

Speaking about the video network’s failings, the MP said: ‘YouTube’s continued failure to deal with the same illegal extremist video is a complete disgrace – and shows the shocking lack of effort they have put into the most basic of their social and legal responsibilities

‘If this was a copyright issue they would take it down immediately and automatically, and would invest in the technology to sort it out.’

Responding to the grim issue, YouTube said: ‘We do not want National Action content on YouTube and while we recognise our systems haven’t worked 100% in this instance we’re getting faster at removing violent extremist content by investing in machine learning technology and by hiring more people.’

Same old, then.


Excellent news, portable energy source fans – the world’s first rechargeable proton battery has been built!

What’s a proton battery? you ask. Don’t worry, I don’t know either but, according to the Guardian article I took this story from, the latest invention is a big step towards a ‘cheaper and more environmentally-friendly’ battery, which must be a good thing.

Created by scientists at Melbourne’s RMIT university, the small prototype uses carbon and water rather than lithium (lithium is used in lithium batteries. I’m learning).

According to Professor John Andrews ‘lithium-ion batteries are great,’ which is nice of him to say BUT ‘they rely on ultimately scarce and expensive resources’.

His battery, on the other hand, has the great benefit of ‘storing protons in a carbon-based material, which is abundant, and we are getting protons from water which is readily available’.

Sadly, it won’t be available commercially for at least five to 10 years but, still, it’s not often I get to write a positive battery story – or, indeed, any battery story at all.


A dating app has banned guns from its network, which is the sort of sentence I’ve just had to get used to typing out in these dark, daft, increasingly incomprehensible times.

‘Bumble’ has forbidden its members from posing with firearms in their profile pics, in the wake of Florida’s school massacre.

Henceforth, new and existing snaps will be screened and any featuring weapons will be binned.

In a statement, Bumble said: ‘As mass shootings continue to devastate communities across the country, it’s time to state unequivocally that gun violence is not in line with our values, nor do these weapons belong on Bumble.’

I love the ‘gun violence is not in line with our values’. It’s somehow as profound as it is absurd.

The app’s founder (great name alert) Whitney Wolfe Herd has acknowledged that the gun ban will affect law-abiding owners, hobbyists and hunters – and, presumably, their admirers.


Friday roundup: A week in tech

LGA joins battle against fake news


England and Wales’ millions of internet-consuming residents have been issued with guidance to help discern so-called ‘fake news’ from regular news, courtesy of the Local Government Association (LGA).

Councils are becoming increasingly concerned about their citizens being hit with scammers claiming to represent their local authorities, thus the LGA is urging people to adopt a ‘three-stage fact-check’ to determine if online info is fake news, a scam, or some other nonsense.

And what does this ‘three-stage fact-check’ consist of, then, I hear you ask. Well, hang on a minute and I’ll tell you…right about…now:

Stage 1 – online readers should first check the source; if it’s from social media outlets such as Twitter and Facebook, then genuine accounts should be verified with a blue tick.

Stage 2 – the discerning reader should have a look into the media they are getting the info from. If it’s purporting to be a council website, then its URL should end, and should include basic council-related stuff like details about councillors and service contacts. Twitter and Facebook feeds should have a ‘straightforward, fairly formal tone about communication on behalf of a public body’.

Stage 3 – according to the LGA, this is the most important stage. Readers should finally ask themselves about the content before them and whether or not it’s something a council is likely to disseminate. If it’s sensationalist, out of character for a council, or appears to be politically biased, then a big red flag should start waving in your mind.

Cllr Simon Blackburn, Chair of the LGA’s Safer and Stronger Communities Board, said: ‘The ability to supply accurate information to residents is crucial to councils – whether it’s advising of closures owing to severe weather or updating on essential services. Fake news and misinformation can have serious consequences.

‘The best way to tackle misinformation is for residents to be constantly vigilant, and ask the key questions of any information they see online – who is supplying this information, how are they doing it, and what are they saying? If those questions set off any red flags or alarm, it’s worth cross-referencing information with other council communication channels, such as the council website, social media, or calling the council directly.’

Have a read of the LGA’s press release, which has a number of case studies on fake news incidents. For example, Nottingham City Council saw fake letters sent to some of its residents demanding they pay £120 or have their car taken away by a ‘toe truck’ – which must have raised eyebrows among even the most credulous of citizens.

LGA joins battle against fake news

Friday roundup: A week in tech

Social Media2

The world’s social media enterprises are failing miserably to tackle cyber-bullying – which should come as no surprise to anyone, as they tend to be uniformly useless at that kind of thing.

Now a charity has found that firms’ inability to prevent virtual intimidation and harassment could be damaging young people’s mental health.

The Children’s Society surveyed 1,089 11 to 25-year-olds and found that half had received threatening or unpleasant messages through email, texts and social media.

And the majority (83%) said they wanted firms to do more about bullying on their networks.

The report – ‘Safety net: The cyberbully enquiry’ – reads: ‘We heard how being bullied online, and the psychological trauma that can come with it, increases the chances that a child will go on to have poor social outcomes throughout their life.

‘Children and young people who are currently experiencing a mental health problem are more than three times more likely to have been bullied online in the last year.’

Meanwhile, 46% of girls said that using social media had a negative impact on their self-esteem, while 46% of girls and boys said that not getting ‘enough’ likes or followers made them feel inadequate.

Read the full report here.


Ho-hum. An app that rewards students if they put down their phones is set for a UK release, which is just terrific, isn’t it?

Students at the Copenhagen Business School built ‘Hold’ to tackle the problem of ‘device distraction’, whereby people stare listlessly at gibberish on screens for hours and hours  (which used to be TV’s job).

Anyway, students who download the app will be awarded 10 points for every 20 minutes they spend away from their phones between the hours of 7am and 11pm every weekday.

These points can then be exchanged for things like coffee and cinema tickets. How nice. Ten phone-free hours will earn you two coffees at Caffe Nero, but if you’re feeling really magnanimous you can use your points to donate books and stationery to schools.

Maths Mathisen, one of Hold’s developers, said: ‘Having come up with the idea for this app during my time as a student, I knew first-hand how difficult it is to concentrate while studying when you have the option to text, snap, or play games on your phone.

‘With Hold, our mission is to limit these distractions by rewarding students and giving them an incentive to focus on their work.’

Here’s Hold’s internet webpage.


The biblically error-prone Equifax has reported that the data breach it suffered last September was even bigger than it first thought.

The fantastically bungling company – which is, astonishingly, still in business – has revealed that a further 2.4 million of its long-suffering American customers had their details pinched in the breach, adding to the 145 million previously admitted to.

In a statement, the credit-rating firm said: ‘Equifax will notify these newly identified US consumers directly, and will offer identity-theft protection and credit-file monitoring services at no cost to them.’

Amazingly, though the breach cost Equifax $114 million, it still managed to make a profit, reporting earnings of $587.3m last year, up 20% on 2016. How is this even remotely possible? Seriously, what’s going on? I want to know.

Friday roundup: A week in tech

Moon to get 4G


You may not be able to get a mobile signal in Lower Middle-of-Nowheresville, Countryshire, but, rejoice – you may soon be able to get one on the moon.

Apparently tired with the pursuit of terrestrial phone coverage, the newly astrally-focused Vodafone and Nokia have teamed up with German space-probing outfit PTScientists to bring 4G to the earth’s most lunar of satellites.

But why? To beam lovely HD video of the moon back to earth-bound enthusiasts, of course.

Audi is also involved with the scheme, and will be supplying two quattro rovers that will zip about the moon’s surface, looking for interesting things.

And it’s Vodafone’s base station that’ll link up with the rovers and fire their images and videos back to earth through its 4G network, which electromagnetic wave fans may be interested to note will use the 1800 MHz frequency.

So, what’s Nokia contributing to this exercise? Sandwiches? Nope, the Finnish firm is actually building ‘space-grade’ networking equipment, that’ll apparently weigh less than a kilogram, so let’s hope it doesn’t just float off.

Marcus Weldon, a man who works for Nokia, said: ‘This important mission is supporting, among other things, the development of new space-grade technologies for future data networking, processing and storage, and will help advance the communications infrastructure required for academics, industry and educational institutions in conducting lunar research.’

Moon to get 4G

Friday roundup: A week in tech


Sinister online enterprise Facebook has been brought to book for some of its creepy activities, yet again.

This week, a Belgian court ruled that the firm must delete every scintilla of data it’s collected on people WHO DO NOT EVEN USE FACEBOOK – on the extremely reasonable grounds that it’s against the law.

According to Belgium’s privacy watchdog, the firm trampled all over the country’s privacy laws by lacing third-party sites with cookies.

Facebook, which intends to appeal and has said that it is ‘disappointed’ with the ruling, faces fines of £221,000 a day if fails to adhere (which is pretty small beer, really).

According to the court, Facebook must desist from ‘following and recording internet use by people surfing in Belgium,’ which really does sound very creepy indeed.

Surely, the myriad, complex ways in which Facebook harvests and stores personal data is going to become extremely pressing when the GDPR kicks in in May? Watch this space.


Some nice people have built a game designed to help people discern real news from so-called ‘fake news’, the young tearaway nuisance currently besieging the internet with its insidious mischief.

Created by the University of Cambridge’s Social Decision-Making Laboratory, which sounds like an interesting place to work, ‘Bad News’ encourages players to foster a social media following by posting controversial stories and images, just like in real, tepid, horrible life.

Disappointingly for a project led by Cambridge types, the game’s website reads ‘In this game you take on the role of fake news-monger [sic]’ (unless, of course, ‘fake news-monger’ is the name of the character you’re playing? Should be ‘Fake News-Monger’, then, but I digress).

Anyway, the spiel goes on: ‘Drop all pretense of ethics and choose the path that builds your persona as an unscrupulous media magnate [insert R. Murdoch, P. Dacre, etc. joke here]. Your task it to get as many followers as you can while slowly building up fake credibility as a news site [insert more R. Murdoch, P. Dacre, etc. jokes here].’

According to director Dr Sander van der Linden, the team are trying to ‘demystify and illuminate what these techniques are, how to spot them, how to recognise them, and not be influenced by them’.

And it’s hard not to wish them the very best: within approximately three seconds of last week’s Florida school massacre the internet was aflame with exceptionally tender-headed conspiracy accounts of the murders, which have apparently been eagerly swallowed by people for whom thinking is a tiresome, loathsome activity.


And now for something completely different. A 10,000-year clock is being built, for some vague reason.

If all goes according to plan, inventor Danny Hillis’ timepiece will tick once a year, while its century hand will move once, you’ve got it, a century. Apparently, the Long Now Foundation’s scheme is aimed at making ‘long-term thinking more common’. A cuckoo will pop out every 1,000 years, which is a nice touch, even if I’m unlikely to ever see it.

The slothful chronometer is being constructed on land belonging to Amazon’s Jeff Bezo. Naturally, the thing is going under a mountain he owns in the Texas desert.

Brian Eno has also got involved – unsurprisingly, as this kind of project has got his name all over it – and has made a ‘mechanical melody generator’ that’ll emit a unique chime every day for the next 10,000 years. Marvellous.

Anyway, according to a tweet from Mr Bezo, it’s ‘500ft tall, powered by day/night thermal cycles, synchronized at solar noon,’ – though he could be winding us up (sorry).

Strange times.

Friday roundup: A week in tech