Christmas week: Tech roundup #5

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A man has flown to Russia to tell it to stop attacking the UK with cyber weaponry – or, by Jove, there’ll be trouble, so there will.

Boris Johnson, for it is he, will warn the Russians that Blighty is a nice place that has no malicious digital intentions, but does have the technical prowess to launch avenging strikes against beastly types that would use the internet in an improper manner.

The amusing-to-some MP will be the first foreign secretary to visit Russia in five years. I wonder what they’ll make of him.

Johnson, who is famous for a carefully curated ineptness that masks a deeper genuine ineptness, will meet with Sergei Lavrov, Russia’s foreign minister, and chat about things like North Korea, Syria, 2018’s World Cup, and probably where Moscow’s best places to meet women are.

According to the chief executive of GCHQ’s National Cyber Security Centre, Ciaran Martin, Russia is ‘seeking to undermine the international system’ – by which I think he means that the country is ‘trying to muscle in on the US and UK’s divine right to rule all’.

Apparently, UK-Russia relations are at an all-time low, worse than at any time since the Cold War. And we’ve sent them Boris Johnson. Hmm.

***

If you’re looking forward to unwrapping your Sega Xbox or Sony Cube this Christmas, beware: videogame addiction is to be recognised as an OFFICIAL DISEASE in 2018.

The World Health Organisation’s (WHO) 11th Edition of the International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11) will formally class playing too much Sonic the Kangaroo or Super Mario Fighter as a genuine mental health disorder.

According to the WHO’s draft text, doctors might like to make themselves aware of symptoms such as the patient giving priority to videogames ‘to the extent that gaming takes precedence over other life interests’; an inability to control how often or how long they play games for; and if they ignore gaming’s ‘negative consequences’ whatever they may be.

I’m no doctor, but surely the above red flags could be applied to someone obsessed with football, or fashion, or badger watching, or anything that consumes a great deal of someone’s time to the detriment of other activities? Actually, ignore that: I speak from a position of gross ignorance.

Having said all that, if you are planning on playing some videogames over Christmas, do try to enjoy yourself. We can worry about the months of therapy in the new year.

***

The Ministry of Justice (MoJ) is scouting for a system to help support its plans to stop drones delivering things to prisoners.

Apparently, the MoJ has about £7 million to play with – so anyone with the right digital kit that can support a specialist team of prison officers as they tackle the menace of airborne mobile phones and heroin could have a nice 2018.

Back in April, a team was created to inspect drones downed during forays into prisons, in an attempt to trace the villains responsible for them. Prisons minister Sam Gyimah said: ‘The threat posed by drones is clear, but our dedicated staff are committed to winning the fight against those who are attempting to thwart progress by wreaking havoc in establishments all over the country.’

I’m no prisoner governor, but if you’ve got complete dominion of some of the most secure buildings in the country, how difficult can it be to stop drugs and phones being shipped in apparently at will? Obviously, it’s extremely difficult.

Anyway, that’s all the tech news for 2017. I hope you’ve found some of it interesting, or at the very least mildly diverting. What digital craziness will 2018 deliver?

Merry Christmas from everyone at Socitm!

Christmas week: Tech roundup #5

Christmas week: Tech roundup #4

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There’s a strange new scam in town involving iTunes gift cards, so you’d better keep reading if you want to know what it is.

According to HMRC around 1,500 people have been hit by the con in 2017, which sees cold-calling fraudsters convincing their victims to buy iTunes vouchers to pay off outstanding tax bills.

After buying the vouchers, the swindlers, who pretend to be from HMRC, demand to know the voucher codes – which they then either sell elsewhere or use to redeem products.

The fraud seems to work because many of the victims don’t know what an iTunes voucher is. Most of those hit by the scam are aged over 65, and have lost an average of £1,150 each.

HMRC director general of customer services, Angela Macdonald, said: ‘We urge people with elderly relatives to warn them about this scam and remind them that they should never trust anyone who phones them out of the blue and asks them to pay a tax bill. If you think you’ve been a victim, you should contact Action Fraud immediately.’

According to Apple, which is working with HMRC to tackle the scam, the charlatans are using the same device to get people to pay bail money, utility bills and debt collection fees.

There are a number of obvious jokes to be made here about Apple working with HMRC, but I’ll leave them to your imagination.

***

A man who tried to privately share his phone number with another man accidentally shared it with the world, which doesn’t sound like much of a story but it is Christmas.

Tech conjurer Elon Musk posted his electric telephone number on the popular communications system Twitter, in a ham-fisted attempt to give it to fellow digital giant John Carmack.

Though he swiftly deleted the message, he wasn’t quick enough and some of his 16.7 million followers got an eyeful of it. Tsk, the price of popularity.

Bored journalists at America’s CNBC network tried ringing but were greeted with the wacky message ‘By the Gods you’ve done it. Somehow, you’ve found your way here to me. I offer you my congratulations and my respect’.

John Carmack was one of the founders of videogame company ID, which was responsible for such classic titles as Doom and Quake, and nowadays heads up virtual reality outfit Oculus.

It is unknown why Musk wanted to talk with Carmack: could be about virtual worlds and geothermal-powered anti-gravity spacecraft; could be recent plot developments in Emmerdale. Who knows what the great and good discuss behind closed doors?

***

If you’re fed up with 4G and are desperate for some 5G action I have some good news: two legal challenges that have been holding up the rollout have been vanquished.

Both EE and Three launched actions over Ofcom’s plans to restrict the amount of the 5G spectrum that a company can own.

EE, which belongs to BT, was upset at Ofcom’s plans to limit portions of the pie to 37%; while Three wanted it dropped to 30%. EE, which currently holds 42% of the UK’s mobile spectrum, believes the regulator’s caps are against consumers’ interests (and, of course, detrimental to its profits, but it hasn’t come out and said that).

Now the challenges are over, Ofcom has said it plans to start auctioning off the 5G spectrum as soon as possible – or maybe not, as Three plans to take its grievances to the Court of Appeal.

Ofcom isn’t impressed by Three’s persistence, saying that ongoing legal entanglements risk spoiling a ‘golden opportunity for the UK to achieve leadership in 5G’.

‘We’re disappointed that Three is seeking permission to appeal to the Court of Appeal,’ the regulator grumbled on. ‘We believe the High Court judgement is clear and Three’s actions may further delay the auction, which is not in the interests of the UK.’

Anyway, here’s to nice, fast 5G in 2018 – and to BT getting its hands on yet more important communications infrastructure.

Christmas week: Tech roundup #4

Christmas week: Tech round-up #3

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If you’re frustrated with your lack of high-speed broadband (BB), help is on the way – though, somewhat ironically, you’ll have to wait until 2020 for it.

The UK government has ruled that homes and businesses should have a legal entitlement to tiptop BB, promising that the whole country will be able to get at least 10Mbps by 2020.

Rejecting an offer by BT’s shambolic Openreach operation to bring proper BB to 1.1 million rural residences, the government reckons its Universal Service Obligation will solve everything.

Speaking on the BBC’s Today programme, digital minister Matt Hancock said: ‘Access means you can phone up somebody, ask for it and then someone has the legal duty to deliver on that promise. It is about having the right to demand it, so it will be an on-demand programme. So if you don’t go on the internet, aren’t interested, then you won’t phone up and demand this.’

How interesting. I wonder how that’ll work out.

Responding to the development, BT said something really funny [my bold italics to emphasise sardonic astonishment]: ‘BT and Openreach want to get on with the job of making decent broadband available to everyone in the UK, so we’ll continue to explore the commercial options for bringing faster speeds to those parts of the country which are hardest to reach.’

***

The distinctly un-Christmassy and nightmarish stand-off between North Korea and America has taken another turn – this time into the realm of digital mayhem.

According to the US, the North Koreans were certainly behind the WannaCry virus attacks that struck computers across the world back in May – pulling off the stunt through the conduit of the mysterious Lazarus Group.

Once again, I find it very odd that a country that isn’t even on the internet and that probably uses Commodore 64s to run its missile program is capable of orchestrating sophisticated global cyberattacks, but what do I know?

The US’s sudden confirmation backs up the UK security services’ assertion in October that it was the secretive communist state what did it.

Speaking last week, a spokesperson at Britain’s National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC) said: ‘Our assessment has been that North Korean actors known as the Lazarus Group were very likely responsible for the WannaCry attack back in May this year.’

Of course, the US and UK would never dream of launching pre-emptive cyberattacks on other countries themselves. No, sir.

Anyhow, neither country will confirm whether or not it’s instigated revenge cyber-mischief against North Korea, though Donald Trump is thought to have unfriended Kim Jong-un on Facebook.

***

Before we all had computers and electric iPhones, the only password we had to remember was the one needed to gain access to the treehouse den. Nowadays, sadly, we need loads of ‘em for the various parts of our lives that are tied, forever, to the internet.

Every year, just for fun, a firm called SplashData reveals a list of the year’s most popular passwords, as revealed by loads of stolen logins (I’m assuming Splashdata aren’t behind the thefts themselves).

Here’s 2017’s list:

  1. 123456
  2. Password
  3. 12345678
  4. qwerty
  5. 12345
  6. 123456789
  7. letmein
  8. 1234567
  9. football
  10. iloveyou
  11. admin
  12. welcome
  13. monkey
  14. login
  15. abc123
  16. starwars
  17. 123123
  18. dragon
  19. passw0rd
  20. master
  21. hello
  22. freedom
  23. whatever
  24. qazwsx
  25. trustno1

Any you recognise? Imagine having to type ‘iloveyou’ every time you log-on to pay British Gas. Also note the cunning, clever types who have attempted to stump the hackers by modifying the old favourite ‘12345’ with the devilish ‘123456789’.

SplashData’s CEO, Morgan Slain, said: ‘For goodness sake, why are people so stupid?’

No, he didn’t. What he actually said was: ‘Unfortunately, while the newest episode may be a fantastic addition to the Star Wars franchise, ‘starwars’ is a dangerous password to use. Hackers are using common terms from pop culture and sports to break into accounts online because they know many people are using those easy-to-remember words.’

Anyway, hope you enjoyed that. I wonder what will make it on to next year’s list. Can’t wait.

Christmas week: Tech round-up #3

Local CIO Council discusses cybersecurity funding bid

securityBy SA Mathieson, editor of Socitm In Our View magazine

The Local Public Services CIO Council has discussed a bid for government cybersecurity funding, made on behalf of members of the Local Government Cybersecurity Stakeholder Group, including Socitm and the Local Government Association.

The funding would enable the local government sector to carry out research to understand current cybersecurity arrangements. It would also put in place support and assistance for English local authorities using already-existing organisations, such as Socitm and the network of warning, advice and reporting points (Warps). The council discussed the bid at its meeting in London on 6 December.

If approved, the first year of what is planned as a three-year programme will focus on research and analysis of local authorities’ capabilities and weaknesses. In its second year, the programme would target councils and Warps in need of support and assistance, based on the initial research. It could also work on particular local government systems identified as being at risk.

For councils, the programme would aim to help them embed cybersecurity in corporate arrangements such as business continuity and civil contingency plans; make cybersecurity part of councils’ standard ‘business as usual’ work; put reporting and escalation plans in place; nominate a named senior officer and a lead member with responsibility for cyber security; and put in place appropriate training for all staff and councillors.

The programme would also aim to recruit all councils as active members of a Warp, which would themselves implement reporting and escalation plans along with training and assessment work. A ministerial decision on funding is expected early next year.

* A fuller account of the LCIOC meeting will be available for Socitm members in the publications section of the website http://www.socitm.net in the New Year.

Local CIO Council discusses cybersecurity funding bid

Christmas week: Tech round-up #2

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Is Facebook having an unfavourable effect of your health? Well, Facebook has a cure: more Facebook.

Remarkably, the social media giant has acknowledged that its gigantic time-wasting machine can be bad for people’s mental well-being – but believes that the cause is part of the cure and that users should attend to their online relationships with more vigour if they want to stay sane.

Simply stunning.

According to a blog written by Facebook’s own researchers ‘passively consuming information’ on the platform can leave digital socializers ‘feeling worse’. (Worse than what? Half an hour on Twitter?)

But that doesn’t mean you should abandon Facebook and try doing something with at least a semblance of meaning or substance. The post goes on to recommend employing some features the site has recently added, such as its ‘Snooze’ function, which shuts certain people, pages and so on off for a month so you can take a break from the stress/horror of it all. FFS.

Quoting the network’s overlord, Mark Zuckerberg, the blog reads: ‘We want the time people spend on Facebook to encourage meaningful social interactions.’ I’ll give him this much: he’s certainly imaginative.

***

It’s a sad and familiar tale as old as Time itself: one day, you’re being validated by none other than the President of the United States and have become the focus of the world’s attention; the next, you’re expelled from Twitter.

Jayda Fransen and Paul Golding, the two toppest dogs with far-right hate club Britain First, have had their Twitter accounts suspended for breaching the network’s new rules aimed at combating abuse.

Last month, some of the cheerful group’s anti-Muslim videos were retweeted by Donald Trump – who, astonishingly, is yet to have his own account suspended – which they celebrated as a terrific coup.

With one of their chief digital outlets knocked out, the gruesome Golding and Fransen may have to take to the real world to spread their message. Opps! Maybe not: Fransen was arrested in Belfast last week in connection with behaviour lively to stir up hatred, with Golding joining her in the slammer for some reason.

Maybe it’s time to try something new? Myspace?

But enough about that. What about Twitter’s strange, confused, sluggish response to the fetid mess? Watching the social media network react to real time global events and online hostility is as fascinating as it is infuriating. They are literally making things up as they go along.

Briana Wu, an American anti-harassment campaigner, recently slammed Twitter’s uneven approach to policing its own network, saying that you can ‘report the same behaviour one day and it’s acted on. The next day it’s not. Unless you are investing more in personnel and training staff in subjects they may not understand, this isn’t going to solve it.’

Still, maybe the new year will present a good opportunity for a fresh start?

Christmas week: Tech round-up #2

Christmas week: Tech round-up

Christmas Technology

The world’s most famous talking plastic tube has been accused of being politically biased, which is not a sentence I imagined I’d ever have to write.

Amazon’s talking/listening/life-organising device, Alexa, is, apparently, a closet liberally-minded sweetheart – or, depending on the depths of your feelings, a lefty, commie, traitor, social justice warrior, mind-control thing.

Outraged types are outraged that when asked things like ‘Are you a feminist?’ the contraption replies ‘Yes, I am a feminist, as is anyone who believes in bridging the inequality between men and women in society’. What unspeakable insolence!

If asked ‘Do black lives matter?’ Alexa says ‘Black lives and the Black Lives Matter movement absolutely matter. It’s important to have conversations about equality and social justice,’ which certainly won’t go down very well in some quarters.

It is important to remember at this juncture that Alexa was built in 2014, not 1814.

Anyhow, exasperated American conservative bigwig David Horowitz was moved to say that Silicon Valley’s ‘encoded intelligence is decidedly leftist’ – which is an odd thing to accuse some of the richest, tax-shyest people in the world of being but there you go.

***

The forever bungling Uber has been accused of more misdeeds, and this time it involves KGB/CIA-style spying antics – which all seems very exciting and astounding for a company that ultimately merely orders people taxis, but we do live in very strange times.

Last week, a US court released a letter alleging that the firm created a covert undercover surveillance unit to pinch its competitors’ plans

The letter has emerged as part of Uber’s legal squabble with Waymo, a self-driving car firm that insists Uber stole some of its tech ideas.

Former Uber employee Richard Jacobs wrote the accusatory letter back in May, in which he claimed that ‘these tactics were employed clandestinely through a distributed architecture of anonymous servers, telecommunications architecture, and non-attributable hardware and software’.

Responding to the letter’s allegations, Uber said: ‘While we haven’t substantiated all the claims in this letter – and, importantly, any related to Waymo – our new leadership has made clear that going forward we will compete honestly and fairly, on the strength of our ideas and technology.’

I’m not sure what to make of that statement, to be honest. What’s exactly being said/admitted/denied?

***

More Ofcom news now. The communications regulator has been very busy of late, dishing out tellings-off and reminding the British public that the digital services they receive are often rubbish and unacceptable.

According to its latest update, there are more than one million ‘forgotten homes’ in the UK – that is, residences that are lumbered with terrible broadband speeds, not homes that have slipped into some weird mirror/shadow dimension.

Ofcom says that 4% of British homes and offices can’t access speeds of at least 10Mbps, which is understood as the bare minimum needed to enjoy a modern internet experience.

You won’t be surprised to learn that rural households are suffering the worst of it, with 17% of countryside families spending their evenings glaring in despair at the iPlayer’s whirling circle.

Ofcom’s CTO, Steve Unger, said: ‘Everyone should have good access to the internet, wherever they live and work. Our findings show there’s still urgent work required before the people and businesses get the services they need.’

If you’re interested, the government’s target speed for reasonable broadband is 30Mbps. With this in mind, tonight I’m going to perform a speed check on my own connection – 1. To make sure I’m getting the service I’m supposed to, and 2. Because I have very little else to do.

Christmas week: Tech round-up

Facebook isn’t ‘ripping society apart’ says Facebook

Facebook

Facebook has countered claims by a former employee that it’s ‘ripping society apart’, claiming that it wouldn’t dream of doing such a thing.

Last month, Chamath Palihapitiya, Facebook’s former vice-president for user growth, warned that ‘we have created tools that are ripping apart the social fabric of how society works,’ which is about as cutting as you can be about something, short of accusing it of eating the last After Eight Mint.

According to Palihapitiya, Facebook’s ‘Like’ culture has led to the earth’s despairing hordes turning to digital outlets for validation, self-esteem and joy.

Seeming to acknowledge that their ex-executive’s words might reflect poorly on its business model, the social media network has now responded. In a statement, it said: ‘When Chamath was at Facebook we were focused on building new social media experiences and growing Facebook around the world. Facebook was a very different company back then and as we have grown we have realised how our responsibilities have grown too.’

Hmm. Responsibilities, eh? But, anyway, moving on, the statement continues: ‘We take our role very seriously and we are working hard to improve. We’ve done a lot of work and research with outside experts and academics to understand the effects of our service on well-being, and we’re using it to inform our product development.

‘We are also making significant investments more in people, technology and processes, and – as Mark Zuckerberg said on the last earnings call – we are willing to reduce our profitability to make sure the right investments are made.’

Got all that? Well, I don’t know much about this ‘Like’ culture tearing society apart angle (it seems to me that masses of people will always find deeply dull and meaningless ways to pass the time) but one way you can certainly do a lot of society shattering is to allow very large, rich and powerful tech companies to not pay much, if any, tax. Because, you know, tax tends to pay for the infrastructure that keeps society together.

Not that the newly socially-conscious Palihapitiya is likely to be too concerned about Facebook’s tax arrangements – he’s a venture capitalist these days, and those guys have got some very interesting ideas about how society works.

Earlier this month, Facebook announced the launch of a new messenger service aimed at children. Messenger Kids will allow under 13s, the only citizens on the planet not legally allowed on Facebook, to sign up to a slimmed down version of the main service – which you could argue will act as a gateway to the ‘adult’ version in later years.

The launch was condemned by health secretary Jeremy Hunt, who warned the social media network to ‘stay away from my kids’.

Facebook and responsibilities…what a thought.

Facebook isn’t ‘ripping society apart’ says Facebook