Friday roundup: A week in tech

New Facebook Image.jpg

Where can we start this week? Hellish state-on-state digital warfare or feverish idiocy? Let’s go with…

The floundering, data-eating/seeping, extremely suspect digital circus that is Facebook saw its value drop by an incredible $119 billion this week, following a string of high-profile bungles.

Amid an ocean of fake news, questionable data-sharing practices, state-sponsored democracy-tampering, good old tax avoidance, and, latterly, messy and poorly considered Holocaust denial analogies (© M Zuckerberg 2018), the social media firm reported its slowest growth in over two years.

However, the company still has a staggering 2.23 billion active users, who apparently happily and freely waste their time interacting with the network – which, if you think about it, paints a pretty grim picture of the state of our poor old bored race.

Daniel Ives, a man from a place called GBH Insights, might have been trying to help for all I know but probably won’t have soothed investors when he described the firm’s forecast as ‘nightmareish’ – incidentally, the word that most often comes to mind when I read or merely think about social media.

So, is this the end for Facebook? Well, I hope so, but probably not.

***

But, but! Maybe Facebook’s financial plight is all academic, as when the Russians turn the power off no one will be able to access it anyway.

According to the Wall Street Journal, Russian hackers have managed to engineer remote access to the control rooms of lots of American power suppliers, gifting them the ability to shut down networks if they so choose.

Weirdly, disturbingly, confusingly, the wrongdoers have been able to take over important control computers that aren’t even connected to the internet – which doesn’t seem to make any sense, but what do I know?

The US’s department of Homeland Security reckons the group behind the hacks has been traced to Russia and has claimed ‘hundreds of victims’.

Michael Carpenter, a former deputy assistant secretary of defence, gloomily predicted that the hackers have ‘been intruding into our networks and are positioning themselves for a limited or widespread attack’.

Still, I’m sure the US President will have strong words on the matter with his counterpart in Moscow during their next bewildering meeting.

I’ve said it many times before and I’ll bloomin’ well say it again: none of this happened when we only had Ceefax.

***

YouTube has removed some videos posted by a deranged right-wing conspiracy channel, in a move that looks like it might be trying to clear the decks of potentially community-shattering claptrap – but let’s not hold our breath.

InfoWars, a sort of open sewer of hearsay, lies, reaction, hate, spectacular stupidity and little else, has also been handed a ‘community strike’, meaning it can’t broadcast on YouTube for 90 days.

The deleted videos featured InfoWar’s overlord, Alex Jones, fuming about Muslim immigrants in Europe and a transgender cartoon – pretty disparate things for sure but equally potent flashpoints for the terminally berserk.

According to Mr Jones, Muslims are set to take over Europe (which, even if true, I don’t see why he should be bothered, living and fibbing in America as he does), while ‘Satanists’ were responsible for the transgender sketch (which suggests an entirely new direction for the Satan-loving, as far as I understand them).

Mr Jones and his underlings have long used YouTube to disseminate lots of other interesting theories, such as that the 9/11 attacks were perpetuated by the American government, and that 2012’s Sandy Hook school massacre was faked, with fake children, fake parents, fake blood, fake police, fakety-fake, etc.

Still, baseless drivel has a lot of fans: Mr Jones’ YouTube channel has 2.4 million followers, although they won’t be seeing much of him for the next three months.

In even better news, if InfoWars fouls up a bit more the channel could be permanently removed – and knowing the febrile nature of the ‘masterminds’ behind the operation, total shutdown looks a certainty.

YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, Google and others have a glaring, terrible problem with extremism, white supremacists and general lunacy, and though they certainly pay lip service to dealing with it, they only seem able to in bouts. What’s the major difficulty? If it’s a copyright situation involving money they seem to be able to act pretty sharpish.

The internet: terrific for paying your car tax; not so good for kindness and sanity.

Friday roundup: A week in tech

Friday roundup: A week in tech

Google.jpg

Google, everybody’s favourite tax-shy, Solomon-rich, data-harvesting, life-directing tech behemoth, has broken a new record – but not one it’s too pleased about.

The EU has fined the alarmingly ubiquitous search giant a record-breaking £4.9 billion for dodginess around its use of the Android operating system – chiefly, that it used Android to ‘cement its dominant position’ in the world of internet searching.

Now, though it sounds like a lot of money, Google has $103bn in cash reserves, so the pesky EU’s penalty shouldn’t upset things too much. However, unsurprisingly, the firm plans to appeal.

Google’s main EU nemesis, Competition Commissioner Margrethe Vestager – who has already handed the firm a £2.1bn fine over its shopping comparison service (currently under appeal) and has a third investigation into Google’s AdSense business underway – said that the decision ‘will change the market place’.

Basically, Google is accused of insisting that Android device manufacturers pre-installed the Google Search app and Google’s own browser, Chrome – or else they wouldn’t have access to its Play app store.

Furthermore, CC Vestager alleges that the firm paid manufacturers and mobile network companies to exclusively pre-install the Google Search app on their devices.

Google, understandably, is terribly unhappy about all of this, and so is someone else – America’s interesting leader, President Trump.

Fresh from a mind-boggling meeting with Russia’s equally thought-provoking boss, President Putin, Mr Trump furiously tweeted: ‘I told you so! The European Union just slapped a Five Billion Dollar fine on one of our great companies, Google. They truly have taken advantage of the U.S., but not for long!’

Days ago, and in an interesting change of direction after 70 years of pretty solid policy, Mr Trump stated that, after all, the EU is one of the US’s greatest foes – putting that ‘but not for long’ remark in a more sinister context. Are we actually going to be nuked by…the Americans? And not by accident?!

Anyway, enough about Trump and Russia. Let’s move on…

***

…to Trump and Russia. The US Department of Justice has charged 12 Russian intelligence officers with hacking the 2016 American elections.

The digital dozen are accused of using phishing emails to hack officials from the US Democratic party, and also pinching the data of half a million innocent voters.

US authority types along with millions of proud Americans are incensed that a foreign power would even dream of interfering with its democratic processes – something that America itself would never do, unless you want to count the many, many times the country has directly interfered in the democratic processes of sovereign states. But it seems cheap and accurate to point this out.

And so it goes on. Let’s see if there’s anything a little more cheery going on…

***

…and, oh dear: fake news and Holocaust denial.

Image-tattered Facebook has announced that it will not remove fake news from its network, because the stuff doesn’t actually contravene its ‘community standards’. Ha! ‘Community standards’ indeed.

Anyway, though the social media firm has made a real effort to let users know that it doesn’t approve of fake news, it also believes that people have ‘very different points of view’ and, thus, purging fluid mendacity would be ‘contrary to the basic principles of free speech’.

Instead, fake news will be ‘demoted’ in Facebook’s news feed.

Attempting to delineate and cement this position, Facebook boss Mark Zuckerberg joined in with a retrospectively regrettable example.

Speaking to a tech website (not this one, obviously) Zuckerberg said: ‘I’m Jewish and there’s a set of people who deny that the Holocaust happened. I find it deeply offensive. But at the end of the day, I don’t believe that our platform should take that down because I think there are things that different people get wrong. I don’t think that they’re intentionally getting it wrong.’

Holocaust deniers aren’t ‘intentionally getting it wrong’ eh? I think a lot, if not all of them are, aren’t they? I mean, come on.

What an amazing mess. I wonder what’s been going on over at Twitter this week? I daren’t look.

Friday roundup: A week in tech

Robotic process automation (RPA) without the robots

No Robot Zone

By the Orbis Robotics Team

Robotics is one thing, but this doesn’t mean that the only considerations are the robots themselves, not by a long shot.  We were at that stage in our RPA journey where we were less about the robots (although they are always in our thoughts as we design and plan building them) but we also needed to take into account the people in the Lab, the stakeholders and the system that we were going to use.

We spoke about procuring the Lab and the team self-teaching via YouTube and Google in our previous blog, but there’s only so much the team can learn within our short timescales without bringing the expertise of our IT team on-board… so that’s exactly what we did.

With more people in the mix, this was always going to become a more complex dynamic and there were times when risk taking became necessary otherwise things wouldn’t move forward – not exactly the kind of thing IT like to hear, or be part of with their love of governance.  So how do you tackle this conflict?  We got everyone into a scrum.  Not the rugby version I might add, although it was tempting, but the type that allows us to bring everything to the table with all team members involved.

The scrum did iron out our issues (after a few uncomfortable conversations) and we moved on to the system.  Let’s not forget that being part of a Council partnership, Orbis have very little money to be spending on what we need to be a reliable system that meets all our requirements.  It was time to go on the charm offensive…  Not that I want to say we are good when it comes to blagging, as we do pride ourselves on being honest and open, but we managed to negotiate a free trial of a system, for a few more months than first agreed, whilst we tested it and before we made a decision about which system we were going to procure.

We got the disc to get us started but we also needed to make sure we were communicating with all of our stakeholders and talking to the likes of Information Governance and Legal to ensure everything was above board. A blocker of some sort now could be detrimental as we were getting ever closer to our first overarching robot. We spoke about our robot familypreviously but these were the ones that had a specific task to perform.  We had moved on to the type of robot that performed a process from start to finish, not a task within the process.

So what have we learnt in this part of our journey?  (Non-rugby) scrums are a good way to get decisions made. There are a LOT of people that have something to say about a project so you must engage with them early and regularly. Oh and that when it comes to spending money, it’s always good to negotiate.

More about our RPA journey next month

Robotic process automation (RPA) without the robots

Friday roundup: A week in tech

New Social Media

Life on modern, tech-bejewelled planet Earth – a slice:

Something happens. A bad thing; on this occasion, some human beings are horribly trapped underground, and await rescue before time runs out and they are killed.

Media arrives, bedding amidst the authorities and the rescue teams. Like bacteria around a wound, they illegally fly drones over the scene of the unfolding tragedy and tune into the emergency services’ communications channels hoping for prime cuts of horror to thatch into their salacious, sensationalist drivel – because if these people are going to die, somebody may as well make a few quid out of it, right?

Enter stage left: one of the world’s richest and most enigmatic tech luminaries – with a tiny little submarine. Then Elon Musk, for it is he, actually turns up at the scene in person, for some reason.

The internet froths in a sea of reaction: Musk is a disgrace; Musk is a hero. Elsewhere, millions share dire memes, like they do when anything happens anywhere because that is what we do now. Opinion flows like thick effluence from an ocean-bound sewage outlet pipe.

Journalists build whole stories around tweets which are about people saying things about things that other people have said about the catastrophe. Reaction. Counter-reaction. Tweet, tweet, tweet. As is the modern way. (In fact, the once reasonably respectable Independent, now reduced to a web-only husk, has a top 100 stories site that is almost entirely fuelled by tweets, the more pointless, witless and unmoored the better.)

But it’s all over! Everyone’s been saved. The digital nexuses emit a collective sigh of relief and joy. The reporters go home. Musk retreats to his lair. Hurrah for us, and all the concern and love we so thoughtfully publically exhibited!

And now it’s a new day on Earth: the divide between rich and poor continues to swell; public services crumble a little more; the bodies of the war-mangled pile up in the globe’s long-running strife spots; poverty, preventable illness, despair and prejudice power onwards and upwards.

But who cares? With keyboards, electric telephones, mini-subs, reactions and memes at the ready, we eagerly await the next super-focused micro disaster to help pass the many frivolous hours between this life and the next.

***

Facebook is to be vaguely punished for its part in the Cambridge Analytica (CA) democracy-walloping fiasco.

The Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) has promised to hit the unspeakably rich firm with a £500,000 fine, after it failed to ensure that CA had deleted users’ data.

Though it’s not a great deal of money as far as Facebook is concerned, the ICO is confident that the penalty will damage the social media network’s reputation, which, it hopes, will prove far more costly.

And maybe there’s something in that. Facebook pumped out a good news ‘we’re lovely, so love us’ TV advert during England’s World Cup semi-final with Croatia on Wednesday evening, which must have been quite expensive considering the occasion. ‘Facebook has changed,’ according to the chime of the slightly nauseating advert’s timbre.

Anyway, the BBC has a very good and detailed report all about it here which I highly recommend.

***

And now news of the other great unravelling, possibly democracy-threatening and constantly controversial shambles of a social media network, Twitter.

Apparently, the firm has deleted a very impressive 70 million accounts since May, in a gigantic purge of the fake and suspicious.

Interestingly, the enormous account massacre was revealed by the Washington Post but hasn’t exactly been officially confirmed by Twitter. No doubt this is because though executing lots of bots and trolls is on one hand very good news, it’s very bad news if it rather illustrates to advertisers and investors that a great deal of your audience are either psychotic bigots or non-existent.

And, indeed, it looks like I’m right about something for once. Twitter’s shares have fallen 8.5% in the wake of the Post’s story, in anticipation of advertisers being turned off by the firm’s plummeting user count. (Here’s the evidence, at the bottom of the story, written by proper journalists, so you can have some faith in it.)

Friday roundup: A week in tech

Outsourcing: The Socitm view

Cybersecurity

This year’s annual Socitm President’s Conference in Glasgow hosted a breakout discussion on the findings of a forthcoming Socitm Policy Briefing research report on the future of IT outsourcing.

It was attended by a number of invited Socitm members, to review the draft findings of the research and to test these with the wider views of leading practitioners in council ICT departments.

Socitm has been advising its members to be cautious of naive outsourcing of ICT since the days of ‘compulsory competitive tendering’ (CCT) in the 1980s and early 1990s. At that time, such advice often flew in the face of central government policy that seemed to favour wholesale outsourcing of ICT in the public sector, as was the case across Whitehall.

Today, the picture is very different. Socitm policy advocates ‘smart sourcing’ as critical for successful ICT delivery – more aligned with common sense than past Whitehall policies. This is particularly important today, with cloud models offering more flexibility in scale and cost than traditional ICT outsourcing.

Not only are Whitehall departments pulling back from outsourcing: the trend is extending across the private sector as well. Whilst vindicated in its views, Socitm is also clear that ICT insourcing is not the answer (though some careful and selected ICT insourcing can be valuable).

These were views endorsed at the conference breakout session led by Socitm associate Jos Creese. Five key learning points emerged:

  1. Political dogma can get in the way of good ICT business choices, especially when these emanate from central government to local government. ICT choices should be decided based on risk, value, technology opportunity and other factors at a local level.
  2. It’s not a question of outsourcing or insourcing, but careful choice of delivery partners for ICT, as has always been needed. Some of the ICT skills that may best be retained in-house are: business analysis, project management, cyber security, digital architecture design, ICT strategy, and ICT operational delivery oversight, including contract management
  3. Bringing ICT services back in house is typically a complex change programme in its own right. Building ICT capacity from scratch takes time. Where ICT services have been outsourced for any duration, internal ICT skills may have been eroded significantly.
  4. Traditional ICT outsourcing models, including the contracts and the way services are designed and delivered, are based on a pre-cloud world, which is often no longer fit for purpose. The main suppliers know this and are gradually trying to change their service model, but this will take time. Councils that are locked into inflexible ICT outsourcing contracts need to consider their exit strategy and seek help if necessary.
  5. The balance of choices between ICT ‘insource’ and ‘outsource’ is not clear cut. Factors to consider include: the scale of the organisation, appetite for risk, culture, skills and the ICT starting point.
Outsourcing: The Socitm view

Friday roundup: A week in tech

facebook:twitter

Social media firms are actively trying to make their products as addictive as possible, a man who has helped to make social media as addictive as possible has said.

Speaking to the BBC’s Panorama show, Aza Raskin claimed that it’s as if companies are ‘taking behavioural cocaine and just sprinkling it all over your interface and that’s the thing that keeps you like coming back and back and back’.

Mr Rashkin, a tech engineer, designed infinite scroll, a common feature of social media interfaces that allows spellbound, stupefied users to trawl endlessly through a sea of empty gibberish while day and night pass silently around them.

The repentant engineer added that ‘behind every screen on your phone, there are generally like literally a thousand engineers that have worked on this thing to try to make it maximally addicting’.

Lots of other Road to Damascus Silicon Valley types also contribute to the Panorama special, expressing remorse for their past work at the likes of Facebook, where they were compelled to contribute to the farce called 21st century culture.

Anyway, a big, properly written and genuinely informative report can be read here.

Do you use social media? Would you like to comment on these issues? We’d love to hear from you. Please write to: Socitm, 8a Basset Court, Grange Park, Northampton, NN4 5EZ.

***

Everybody’s favourite internet oddity Kim Dotcom has lost the latest round of his long running battle to avoid extradition to the US.

Currently holed-up in his New Zealand lair, the creator of file-sharing behemoth Megaupload is wanted in America for copyright infringement and fraud.

But New Zealand’s Court of Appeal has ruled that Mr Dotcom and three of his cohorts can be extradited to the Land of the Free – where, if found guilty, the four may have to practice freedom in prison.

Last week, or last month, or at some point, Mr Dotcom announced plans to destroy Twitter and create his own new, shiny, special social media network that will take over the world – a grand scheme that extradition will surely interfere with.

And it’s not over: ‘We will seek review with the NZ Supreme court,’ Mr Dotcom’s lawyer TWEETED via the HATED Twitter network.

***

Aggrieved types who seek some form of relief by indulging in the mania of ‘revenge porn’ are about to feel the force of a souped-up legal system.

The Sentencing Council for England and Wales has instructed courts to hand down the harshest punishments for the repellent and pathetic activity – currently a maximum of two years in jail.

Judge Rosa Dean, of the Sentencing Council, said: ‘Our guidelines recognise and reflect the very intimate, personal and intrusive nature of these offences, which can have devastating, often long-term, impacts on victims and their families.’

There were 465 prosecutions for ‘revenge porn’ over 2016/17 in England and Wales, so it is hoped that the new guidelines, which come into effect on 1 October, may curtail things a bit – but, you know, if you’re vile, stupid AND angry it’s probably unlikely that the threat of silly old prison will deter you from your macabre mission.

***

Former fireplace salesman turned defence secretary Gavin Williamson was apparently interrupted by his iPhone during some debate or other in the House of Commons.

Problem-solver and future human ruler Siri burbled into life while the minister updated MPs on the battle against ISIS.

The much-loved and widely admired Speaker of the House, John Bercow, commented that it was a ‘very rum business’ – though I’m not sure if that was a reference to Mr Williamson’s past activities in his fireplace showroom or to the phone mishap.

Apparently, the Siri incident was not evidence of a wider security risk, as the minister doesn’t take the troublesome phone into important meetings. No, of course he doesn’t.

Hilariously, Mr Williamson said that it’s ‘very rare that you’re heckled by your own mobile phone’.

You can watch it here, if you can be bothered.

Friday roundup: A week in tech

Perfect Ed Sheeran scam shows financial scale of online fraud

Cybercrime den

By Ian Dyson, Commissioner, City of London Police

For the last 10 years, City of London Police has been the national lead police force for fraud. Fraud was seen 10 years ago as a growing threat that was beyond the capacity and capabilities of individual police forces. Roughly 70% of the frauds that are reported to us today are cyber-enabled.

There is a hierarchy of people involved in cybercrime. Right at the top, there are certain countries that are trying to hack into all sorts of systems. At the bottom, you’ve got 16-year-olds sitting in their bedrooms, pizza takeaway boxes around them, trying to hack into systems because it’s a test.

Research by the National Crime Agency shows that the majority of young people who get into this do so through gaming, where they start to look at ‘how can I get around the system’ for levels or layers. They aren’t interested in crime but in the technical challenge of defeating that system, and that is exploited by criminals. Some of these young folk are doing work in cyberspace and they have no concept that they are working for criminality.

In the middle, you’ve got criminality. Make absolutely no mistake about it, the majority of people trying to hack into your systems, the majority of the people trying to defraud the public or your organisation, are doing it for one thing only: money.

Organised crime and criminal gangs used to have their specialisms: drugs, firearms, counterfeit currency. Now this is not the case: they are into anything where they can make money. The internet allows people to make money at a scale they could not have dreamed of elsewhere. Why would anyone rob a bank these days?

One of the big frauds we’re experiencing at the moment is ticketing fraud. The days when you used to queue outside HMV on a rain-swept day to buy your concert tickets to see your favourite band are long-gone. Now you have to wait online with your finger hovering over the button; they say ‘now they’re for sale’ and in a couple of minutes they’re gone.

There are legitimate companies that do secondary ticket sales, but there are lots of criminals out there. Even a legitimate company will dispatch your tickets two weeks before the date. It’s perfect for the fraudster, because you have to wait before you realise you haven’t got your tickets. The fraudster is long-gone, having moved their website, phone and email address.

City of London Police paid for some advertising on Facebook for some Ed Sheeran tickets that were so cheap that anyone with any amount of common sense would have said there’s something wrong with this. We got interest and talked people through the process, asking them to pay by banker’s draft rather than credit card, which is a no-no online because you’ve got no protection. We took them through to where they would enter their details then told them ‘this is a City of London Police website, you’ve been scammed and here are some tips to avoid it in future’.

Had we decided to take the money from the people who were prepared to give it, in the eight hours that advert was up we would have taken £75,000. That’s why the criminals are into it.

This is based on Ian Dyson’s talk at the Socitm London and South 2018 conference in London on 15 June 2018

Perfect Ed Sheeran scam shows financial scale of online fraud