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ICO in tricky predicament with £200,000 fine for pregnancy charity

07 Mar 2014

tightrope

For years data protection watchdog the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) was regarded as a toothless tiger.

It sounded big and scary and delivered stern warnings about the importance of data protection, but it could do very little about any data breaches, except perhaps wag its finger.

Then in 2010 everything changed. It was given fining powers to the tune of £500,000 and since then it has levied over £4m against organisations. But some may now consider it something of a heartless hound.

The latest to fall foul of the ICO’s desire for justice is the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS). The charity provides help and guidance for women with an unplanned pregnancy, from abortions to counselling and more besides.

For some its work is contentious and in March 2012 an anti-abortion hacker used his computing skills to wreak havoc on its website, defacing it and stealing details about those who had contacted the charity for help.

The hacker – James Jeffrey – got almost three years in prison as a result of the incident.

As the hack affected personal details of members of the public, the ICO got involved and its investigation found several technical lapses at the BPAS that made the incident worse than it should have been.

The long and short of it is that the BPAS now faces a fine of £200,000 for an incident which, as its CEO Ann Furedi understandably points out, was caused by a hacker who is now almost seeing his actions rewarded.

“We accept that no hacker should have been able to steal our data, but we are horrified by the scale of the fine, which does not reflect the fact that BPAS was a victim of a serious crime by someone opposed to what we do,” she said.

“It is appalling that a hacker who acted on the basis of his opposition to abortion should see his actions rewarded in this way."

Furedi also said the fine was “out of proportion” when compared with others the ICO has handed out, especially when those organisations’ breaches were not caused by criminal behavior.

A trawl back through recent fines suggests this claim is not without merit:

- Glasgow City Council fined £150,000 after losing 74 unencrypted laptops, including one containing more than 6,000 people's bank records.

- Aberdeen City Council fined £100,000 after a member of staff inadvertently posted data relating to the care of vulnerable children online.

- Islington Council fined £70,000 after details of over 2,000 residents were released online due to a basic misuse of Excel by a staff member.

Even if the BPAS pays its fine early – by the end of March – it still faces paying £160,000, more than any of those listed above.

None of this is to say the ICO has acted unreasonably though: it has to enforce the law and if it encounters incidences of poor data protection – as in this case – it must take a stand so others sit up and take notice. If other firms and charities up their game after seeing a fine being levied, the public are better protected.

Conversely, if it does not issue a fine, it will be seen as weak and unwilling to take a stand, while any organisation that is fined can make a claim to being harmed. A council delivers vital frontline services and a fine will hamper its efforts to do this, it could be argued.

Clearly, this is a controversial case, driven by the scale of the fine. The fact this money will end up in government coffers – having been given to charity – is also questionable, as noted by Stewart Room, partner at law firm Field Fisher Waterhouse.

“The users of the BPAS charity services have high expectations of privacy and any security weakness that could expose them is bound to trouble the regulator,” he said.

“But the financial penalty regime here is moving money from the collection jar direct to The Treasury. Perhaps the cash could be better spent on improving security and data protection at the charity?"

The BPAS is now appealing the fine in what could prove a fascinating case to see if the ICO's desire to fine can be tamed.

By V3's Dan Worth

Bill Gates is worth 10 Nokias, reclaiming long-lost crown of world's richest person

04 Mar 2014

Bill Gates has reclaimed his title as the world's richest man, passing telecoms magnate Carlos Slim Helu for the top spot in Forbes' annual rich list with a current estimated net worth of $72bn.

To put that in perspective, Bill Gates now worth a little over ten Nokias, the company Microsoft is in the process of buying for $7.2bn. Gates – who is re-acquainting himself with Microsoft's product team as the firm's new technology adviser – hasn't held the top spot in four years

As a man who spends most of time these days on philanthropic schemes to spend his money on at every given opportunity, it's highly unlikely that he cares about a fairly superficial list of people in sharp suits.

There are plenty of familiar faces from the world of IT. Oracle's Larry Ellison ranks fifth, with a net worth of $48bn. You have to head down the list to 17th before you find another tech name; Google co-founder and chief executive Larry Page. Page is apparently worth $32.3bn, or 10 Nests, the connected home company Google bought in January for $3.2bn.

Amazon's Jeff Bezos is close behind at 18th, with $32bn in his metaphorical coffers, and Google co-founder Sergey Brin weighs in at 19th place, with $31.8bn. That's 11 Motorolas, if you're counting. Lenovo probably is.

Where's Mark Zuckerberg? He's down in 21st place with $28.5bn, or around one-and-a-half Whatsapps.

Other than tech, retail dominates the list, as do financial investments. The outspoken Carl Icahn is worth $24.5bn, which isn't bad for a man who expresses his business grievances on Twitter.

By V3's Michael Passingham, who's also worth it

HP needs to find its special sauce, and fast

22 Aug 2013

HP's financial results posted today do not paint a particularly pretty picture for the IT firm; the company has many fingers in lots of pies, but most of those pies are causing minor burns.

Personal computing was down 11 percent year-on-year, while printing also fell by four percent. Its enterprise division didn't just lose 9 percent of its revenue, but also lost its chief, as David Donatelli was shifted into another role within the company. The only ray of sunshine for HP was its software division, but even that only managed a one percent increase in revenue.

So where does HP go from here? Right now, analysts are unsure, with the company not giving clear pointers as to where its focus lies. What's worse, the places in which HP is losing revenue are all totally different aspects to its business, so it can't blame one particular part of the market.

The personal computing business is of course suffering much of the decline coming from the consumer side of things, according to Ovum analyst Tom Reuner, with consumers still unwilling to upgrade their laptops as often as they used to. The firm had previously toyed with the idea of selling off its personal computing arm, but Reuner isn't so sure that would go down well with investors. "It's such a large chunk you need something to replace it because top line is still important for investors." Indeed, personal computing is HP's biggest money spinner after its enterprise business, worth $7.7bn in the last quarter.

HP was also rumoured to be looking at making a play for the smartphone market but, again, with the market so utterly saturated by a combination of Samsung, Android and Apple, it would be a hard slog that probably wouldn't amount to much. "It's such a commoditised space, when you look at PCs and smartphones as a lever for other products and services but from a smartphone point of view it's more difficult to see where the turnaround could come from," explained Reuner.

So with enterprise still the biggest earner for the company but also appearing to be in significant decline, it only makes sense to oust the current head and look elsewhere. David Donatelli's replacement is Bill Veghte, previously the firm's chief operating officer. Veghte has strong experience in the competitive and burgeoning cloud business, and HP hopes that he will be able to better unite cloud and enterprise services.

It hasn't been all bad for HP, which secured a $3.5bn US Navy contract last month but, again, these huge deals don't always result in big profits. "But it is a promising promising sign that HP is able to be selected for major projects again," said Reuner

Meg Whitman has now been CEO for two years, a long period of stability for the firm, but she will need to find focus soon if HP is to continue on the road to recovery.

Written by V3's Michael Passingham, who prefers ketchup

Jane Austen beats Alan Turing to Bank of England £10 note fame

24 Jul 2013

Alan Turing was born in 1912 and hearlded as the father of modern computing

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a WiFi connection. So starts Pride and Prejudice (Are you sure? – Ed), the most famous work by Jane Austen, who will appear on the new £10 notes from 2017, replacing Charles Darwin.

This is to ensure that there will be a woman represented on UK banknotes, after the decision to replace Elizabeth Fry on £5 notes with Winston Churchill was agreed by the Bank of England.

But while Austen is a worthy choice, it does mean Alan Turing’s chance of financial fame has gone.

V3 has reported in the past how the famed codebreaker and genius of World War Two, who helped the Allies win the war, was a candidate for the new £10, with a petition issued by programmer Thomas Thurman racking up huge numbers of signatures – over 27,087 to be precise.

“Alan Turing is a national hero. His contribution to computer science, and hence to the life of the nation and the world, is incalculable. The ripple effect of his theories on modern life continues to grow, and may never stop,” Thurman wrote in the introduction to the petition.

Sadly, it appears these efforts were in vain, but it was still refreshing to see at the time that so many people wanted to celebrate Turing in this way.

“Most importantly, it got the country talking: people are debating the work of Turing and discussing his legacy, and as long as that continues, he cannot be forgotten,” Thurman told V3 in March.

However, some good news for the Turing brigade has come from the Bank of England's announcement: it will be reviewing the decision-making process for selecting future historical figures, as outlined by governor Mark Carney.

"We believe that our notes should celebrate the full diversity of great British historical figures and their contributions in a wide range of fields. The Bank is committed to that objective, and we want people to have confidence in our commitment to diversity," he said.

Still, if Turing has been denied his chance of wider fame and recognition, the government could at least do the decent thing and quash his historical conviction for homosexuality. Earlier this week Lords called on the government – once again – to overturn the ruling he received after the war he helped them win.

By V3's Dan Worth, who loves a fistful of £10 notes

Slow PC market finally catches up with Apple

24 Jul 2013

apple-imac-21-late-2012For more than a year and a half, we have been hearing about the declining PC market. It began with analysts warning of slow sales from component makers and forecasts that sales would fall short of expectations.

Before long, the PC vendors themselves were confirming the predictions, warning that their revenues would in fact be taking a hit as consumers migrated towards the sleeker, cheaper allure of the tablet. By the end of the year, the PC market saw its first overall decline in over a decade as sales fell from the previous year.

Apple, however, had largely defied that trend. The company was able to pick up market share with its line of Mac desktops and notebooks as the PC vendors saw losses mount.

Now, however, it appears that the trend has even caught up with Apple. Over the last quarter the company reported that the Mac line saw a decline from the previous year's quarter. While the decline was still slight, it was the first time Apple has had to acknowledge that it too is seeing its own desktop and notebook brand suffer from the tablet surge.

Of course, Apple is in a much better position than the likes of Dell, HP and many other Windows PC vendors. The company owns one of the chief culprits for the PC market's decline, the fantastically successful iPad. The tablet is not only helping to cut into PC sales, but it also brings in a tidy profit for Apple due to the firm's generous retail markup.

Furthermore, Apple's decline is hardly comparable to what many PC vendors have been hit with since early 2012. The company noted that while it lost some sales, the PC market has seen an even bigger drop over the same time period, suggesting that Apple actually managed to pick up market share due to attrition.

Still, the numbers remain significant in what they say about the market. Tablets are winning, PCs are losing, and not even Apple is immune to a trend that looks as if it will shape the way we look at both the consumer and enterprise IT markets in the coming years.

Dell war of words with Icahn heats up as vote nears

13 Jul 2013

A Dell logoDell shareholders are nearing the vote on the company's proposed buyout plan, and opponent Carl Icahn is upping his offer hoping to halt a deal at the last minute.

The investor activist said he would up his bid to acquire outstanding shares in the company with the addition of warrants, which could increase the per-share price stakeholders would collect in the sale and offer them the chance to re-purchase their shares at a later date.

The bid comes in the wake of announcements from Dell that three outside appraisal firms brought in to review the offers have accepted the company's original plan. That offer, backed by founder Michael Dell and an investment group, would purchase all outstanding Dell shares and effectively take the company private.

Icahn has long opposed the bid, claiming that the company's $13.65 per-share offer undervalues the company and rips off shareholders. He has since formed his own group, but the viability of the offer has been called into question by the company's special committee.

Now, as the vote nears, the company is trying to quell talk of an Icahn buyout once and for all. Additionally, it has spoken out against a call from Icahn to have Dell stock appraised.

“The Special Committee cautions Dell stockholders that Carl Icahn’s latest entreaties that they pursue appraisal with respect to the Dell acquisition misrepresent the risks and costs involved in this course of action,” the company said in a statement.

“Mr Icahn’s letters claim that seeking appraisal is a 'no-brainer' involving 'no risk' and that stockholders 'might get lucky' if they follow his advice.”

British Gas sees mobile apps as key to energy saving future

05 Jul 2013

British Gas Remote Control Heating app in use

While we enjoy a lovely, balmy summer (Is this right? – Ed) it's easy to forget that, as they say in Game of Thrones, Winter is Coming.

Ah, the crackle of a crisp winter’s night, eating hearty food, sitting in front of the telly without feeling guilty, running up astronomical heating bills…it’s part and parcel of the Great British Winter.

Of course, most people would rather do away with the huge bills we have to fork out to keep ourselves warm, especially when we’re often wasting energy on heating when we’re not even in, or it’s coming on too early or going off too late.

While this may be good news for the energy companies in theory, they’re actually making moves to simplify and improve our use of their services, both through smart metering technology, but also apps that allow us to run our heating more efficiently.

One such intiative that’s growing in size and awareness is the British Gas Connected Homes project run (obviously) by British Gas, which is centred around a mobile application called Remote Heating Control (RHC) that works on Android and iOS devices.

The app allows you to both control the timer for the heating in your home, and simply turn your heating on and off, from any location, so can ensure you’re not wasting money by pumping out heat when you’re not at home, or don’t really need it on.

Speaking with Kassir Hussain, the technology director of the British Gas Connected Homes project, it’s clear the firm is keen to end the issues seen by its customers around heating management, and it sees mobile technology as a key to this conundrum.

“How many times do you really look at your boiler interface? Most people just set it once and leave it and it’s the last thing on their mind to keep changing it, as they’re rushing around in and out of the house,” said Hussain.

“About £142 is wasted per year this way, and that’s a huge sum of money, so the RHC app should help reduce this: it doesn’t require any training and is easy to use, like most mobile apps.”

Installing the necessary kit on your boiler isn't cheap - a fully qualified engineer installation and the kit costs £229, although existing British Gas customers get a £30 discount. As this implies, the service is open to all homes, not just those with British Gas. The apps are free, though.

So far the firm has got about 20,000 units into people’s homes, but is hoping to increase this in the coming months and years by making people more aware of the capabilities on offer.

“We actually find people use it more when they’re just at home to adjust the temperature, whether in bed or in the living room, and this helps them better manage what they’re using. For some people the boiler is in an awkward place, under the stairs or in a cupboard, and they just can’t be bothered to alter it,” added Hussain.

British Gas Remote Control Heating app in use on an iPad

While the idea of controlling your heating from your phone or tablet is a bit far out for most people, it’s clear British Gas is determined that it can revolutionse this, and Hussain makes a valid point as to the future of the project.

“In the future we’ll wonder how we did without connected home technologies, just like we can’t imagine the world without lightbulbs now. We need to get out there and make people understand why this technology is so important to them.”

Come the winter, perhaps there will be a few more home owners able to use technology to save themselves a few pounds, while they curl up on the sofa with a plate of sausage and mash and the Game of Thrones boxset on the TV.

Online community rallies around atheist tornado survivor

01 Jun 2013

In the online world, natural disasters can bring out the worst in people. Whether it's troll comments, scam campaigns or bogus fundraisers, major storms and events often bring no shortage of bad news to report.

But they also bring about some remarkable stories of communities banding together and looking to help those on the other side of the world. One such story has arisen in the aftermath of the deadly Oklahoma tornadoes as one families courage to stand up for their convictions has united thousands of people around the globe.

Rebecca Vitsmun was one of countless people in the Oklahoma City area to see her family's home ravaged by the tornado. Grateful to be alive along with her young child, Vitsmun recounted her story to CNN reporter Wolf Blitzer.

Towards the end of the report, Vitsmun was prodded by the reporter as to whether she “thanked the Lord” for her survival. The woman was quick, but gracious to note that she was an atheist, leaving Blitzer somewhat dumfounded and caught off guard.

While Atheism is gaining acceptance in much of the western world, in the extremely religious Bible Belt region of the south, where Vitsmun lives, such views can be few and far between. That the mother would assert her stance at such an emotional and vulnerable moment touched home with many atheists around the globe.

In response, they kicked off a fundraising campaign to help recoup the family's losses and get them into a new or rebuilt home. Backers include comedian Doug Stanhope, who jokingly offered to send atheist “prayers” on behalf of donors.

The result has been nothing short of stunning. As of the end of the week, a campaign that had orignially set its target at $50,000, had raised more than $100,000 with more than 50 days remaining in the donation window.

In such a time of devastation, it is great to see communities of all religions, beliefs and convictions band together to help those in need.

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