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

Friday roundup: A week in tech

By Max Salsbury

A social media network designed especially for fascists/racists has been driven off the internet – because it turns out it’s full of racists and fascists.

“Twitter alternative” Gab – which is, incredibly, even worse than the actual Twitter – has been dumped by a number of tech services in the wake of last week’s Tree of Life Synagogue slaughter.

Alleged mass-murderer and Gab account holder Robert Bowers used the platform to post anti-Semitic rants, and posted ‘Screw your optics, I’m going in’ shortly before going on his rampage in Pittsburgh, which culminated in the fatal shooting of 11 people, including a 97-year-old woman. Say what you like about these fascists, they’re a courageous bunch!

Frequented by “freedom of speech loving” types, (who, for the most part, just happen to be hysterical racists, nationalists etc) presently webless Gab has said that it’s ‘ready and willing to work with law enforcement’ but has pointed out that Bowers also had accounts with other networks, such as Twitter, so blah blah blah.

But that’s not cut the digital mustard with the likes of PayPal, which has banned the firm from using its services, claiming that when ‘a site is explicitly allowing the perpetuation of hate, violence or discriminatory intolerance, we take immediate and decisive action’.

Meanwhile, domain registrar GoDaddy similarly moved to wash its hands of the online sewer, telling the BBC that after investigating complaints it ‘discovered numerous instances of content on the site that both promotes and encourages violence against people’.

Every week I write this stuff up – the intrigues and developments in the exciting brave new world of tech – and every week it seems to get bleaker, nastier, and more repellent and dangerous. I fancy a nice long offline holiday.

***

Meanwhile, over in the liberal, non-racist digital paradise of Twitter…

…the firm has confessed that it ‘made a mistake’ in not removing tweets from last week’s other high-profile right-wing psychotic, the bomb-mailing Cesar Sayoc.

After the 56-year-old’s arrest, Twitter user Rochelle Ritchie alerted her followers to threatening tweets she’d received from the Trump-worshipping dunce earlier in the year.

Rightly concerned, Ms Ritchie reported the tweets to Twitter – which replied, ‘we have reviewed your report carefully and found that there was no violation of the Twitter Rules against abusive behaviour’.

However, following Sayoc’s arrest the network made a sharp volte-face, apologising to Ms Ritchie and admitting it screwed up, with @TwitterSafety tweeting: ‘We made a mistake when Rochelle Ritchie first alerted us to the threat made against her. The Tweet clearly violated our rules and should have been removed. We are deeply sorry for that error.’

Anyway, Sayoc’s @hardrock2016 account has now been suspended – which, as I strongly suspect he’s going to be in prison for the rest of his life, seems as pointless as it is overdue. Still, nice gesture, sort of.

***

Tenuous tech-related news now. A man lost his job this week because of an email. (That’ll do, won’t it; an email?)

Replying to a journalist’s pitch to write a series on vegan dishes for Waitrose Food, the magazine he edited until this week, blundering William Sitwell wrote: ‘How about a series on killing vegans, one by one?’

The journalist bunged the email on Twitter, naturally, and Mr Sitwell quit. But should he have done?

Well, from a Waitrose perspective it probably makes good business sense to distant yourself from a high-profile employee who’s potentially annoyed lots of your customers, especially when you’re about to release a massive new vegan range which you’ve probably invested quite a lot of money in.

But it’s not about that, some have claimed. According to the likes of Peter Obore, Julia Hartley-Brewer and other cranky types, the episode represents an attack on freedom speech, because it was ‘a joke’ you see? Reee-aaa-llll—yyy?

Replace ‘vegans’ in Mr Sitwell’s email with ‘feminists’, ‘Christians’ etc. and it seems to be a lot more serious. Why’s it merely a joke if it’s about killing vegans?

I dunno, but it turns out that Mr Sitwell is best friends with Jacob Rees-Moog MP – which is probably enough reason alone not to employ him.

Anyway, the point of all this is: try not being an idiot, even in “private” emails. We live in the Age of Twitter. Everything ends up there. Duh.

***

You may have picked up on the government’s plans to impose a new sales tax on big US tech firms, announced by chancellor Philip Hammond in this week’s budget.

Well, you’ll never guess what: the Americans don’t like it.

According to US politicians and business types, the plans will violate tax agreements, damaging the chances of a good deal trade between the US and UK after Brexit.

Ha! Brexit keeps giving, doesn’t it? After we’ve left the biggest trading block in the world, we can go and form the BEST TRADE DEAL EVER with the friendly Americans, who’ll be able to demand almost anything they like. (If you think Google et al are getting away with murder now, wait till we’ve gone cap in hand to the US after March 2019.)

Republican Kevin Brady said: ‘If the United Kingdom or other countries proceed, that will prompt a review of our US tax and regulatory approach to determine what actions are appropriate to ensure a level playing field in global markets.’

And how much is the UK government planning on taxing some of the richest outfits in the history of the universe? 2%! Two per bloody cent! That’s even lower than the EVIL AND HATED EU’s proposals to tax big tech at 3%.

Excellent: big rich tech firms and Brexit all mixed in one vast vat of greed and mindlessness. A perfect recipe for greed and mindlessness.

Let’s hope for better news next week (but I sure as hell wouldn’t count on it). Have a good weekend!

Friday roundup: A week in tech

Socitm’s Pioneer Challenge lets Chorley test its cloud disaster recovery plan

By Emma Marshall, ICT and programme manager, Chorley Council

Chorley has a population of 115,800 people, up 11% in the last decade and with 19% aged 65 or over. As the population grows, the pressure and demand on our council services is increasing. We need to find a way to deal with that, with less resources and less staff.

Late last year, we had both our ICT and Digital strategies approved. These outlined a three-year plan enabling us to deliver improved and efficient digital services both to our residents and also to staff. This is essential to support flexible working, but also a first step towards the full-cloud strategy that we hope to achieve in the next five years.

Because our infrastructure was out of date and redundant, we have replaced entirely the hardware in our data centre and network. With Nviron, we have implemented Dell EMC vSan Ready Nodes, with data backed up to Amazon Web Services (AWS). Previously, we had our data spread over two data centres, with our back-up stored by Lancashire County Council in Preston. By moving to the cloud, we’ve been able to get rid of that, saving a subscription – it is possible for us to get the benefits of having two data centres for the cost of one. Our data is copied to the AWS back-up, and we don’t pay for any processing unless we spin up those services in the event of a disaster.

By moving everything to a single, simple management system, all from the same manufacturer, it makes it much easier to outsource work in the future. It’s future-proofed –within a five year period the hardware will not be fit for use, so we will be looking to move everything to the cloud. It enables our services always to be available, so if members of the public want to order a garden waste bin at 2am then they will be able to do that.

Why did we win the Pioneer Challenge? It’s our belief that many IT departments across UK think that ‘if you can see it, you can fix it’, and have a fear of something in the cloud. We’ve proved that, even though we are a local authority with only 250 staff and 50 elected members, moving to the cloud is possible and can be cost-effective. We are the first user of this solution in the UK and it is working well for us.

Through the Pioneer Challenge we won US$20,000 (£15,400) of AWS credit, which we have used for consultancy and to test our data fully before we roll this out. We are still in the implementation stages, due to be completed in the next few weeks. Because we have the AWS credits, we are going to be able to spin up a full disaster recovery environment to enable our users to test those services and use them for a prolonged length of time.

This testing will give us the assurance that the system is set up properly and is all working; it gives our members the confidence that the money they spent was well worth it. Also, for 15 years, we have had one outstanding audit action where we need to be able to prove that in the event of a disaster our data can be accessible. This ticks that box.

Socitm’s Pioneer Challenge lets Chorley test its cloud disaster recovery plan