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EU digital minister labels celebs 'dumb' for naked selfies

02 Oct 2014

Politicians, eh? The incoming digital economy and society commissioner for the European Commission, Günther Oettinger, has not even set up his office with a plant and a picture and already he's in hot water for ill-considered comments.

During a meeting earlier this week he said that celebrities were "dumb" for putting nude pictures of themselves online.

"If someone is dumb enough as a celebrity to take a nude photo of themselves and put it online, they surely can't expect us to protect them," said Oettinger. "I mean, stupidity is something you can not - or only partly - save people from."

This statement, blaming the victims of a breach of their privacy and showing a slight misunderstanding of the cloud, has been rounded on by digital activists who see it as clear proof that Oettinger is not the right man to take on such an important digital post.

Pirate Party MEP Julia Reda has posted a blog criticising Oettinger, noting that it is somewhat worrying - as V3 would agree - that someone set to be in charge of European digital policy has either a misguided moral stance on the issue or a worrying lack of understanding of technology - or both.

"The person applying to be in charge of shoring up trust in the internet so that Europeans do more business online just victim-blamed people whose personal data was accessed and spread without authorisation," she wrote.

"By picking this example to make that point despite lacking an understanding of the facts, by making a mockery of what he should recognise as a serious problem and by doing it in this aloof and insulting tone, Oettinger is seriously calling into question whether he is qualified for the job of shaping our digital society for the next five years."

The BBC reported that a spokesperson for Oettinger said he was trying to make a point about cloud security, although he denied the chance to apologise for the remark.

"Everybody has a right to privacy. The EU Commission wants to make cloud computing safer." A noble aim, sir. But perhaps we may be so bold as to suggest that starting this mission by siding with the victims of a theft rather than blaming them tends to help.

One thing is for sure, Neelie Kroes would never have said any of this.

5G will be big business for telecoms operators

22 Sep 2014

Bag of money

For many years mobile operators have complained that their ability to make money has been curtailed. This has come from a combination of factors, chiefly falling revenues from phone, text and data services, and, conversely, the need to spend billions upgrading networks.

As such, the rollout of new services, such as 4G around the UK over recent years, has been seen as a chance for operators to finally start recouping some of these losses by charging consumers more for data.

However, there is one issue with this. Consumers still don't spend huge amounts of money. Well, not the amounts operators need to start turning over serious profits.

But, as businesses become increasingly mobile, there is a silver lining on the horizon in the form of 5G, which will take capacity, speed and coverage and improve them all massively. This could open a whole new possibility for telecoms operators to sell enhanced mobile services to businesses as a key part of their IT and communications needs.

This idea was espoused by Mischa Dohler, the chair professor in Wireless Communications at King's College London, while speaking at the 5G Huddle event in London on Monday, attended by V3.

His argument was that because the speeds and capacity of 5G are likely to be so far beyond the needs of consumers, many operators will gain more financial joy by focusing on B2B industries, such as oil and gas, construction, nuclear energy or transportation.

“The good news is that these sectors have lots of cash,” he added. "They all complain about a shortage of cash but really they have huge revenues and margins."

Dohler said the downside of pushing mobile services to businesses would be the high cost of entry to a new market, but he said that any incumbent or new players who do become established should be able to make good money.

"With a high entry barrier comes a high exit barrier, so unless you screw it up you shouldn't make a loss on this [5G]."

This will be music to the ears of telecoms operators, if it comes true.

Verizon $7.4m fine from US FCC shows limits of UK ICO power

04 Sep 2014

hand-dollars

The US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has handed down a huge $7.4m fine to Verizon for failing to give new customers the ability to opt out of marketing calls from the company.

The FCC's scary-sounding Enforcement Bureau’s found that Verizon failed to notify approximately two million new customers on their first invoices or in welcome letters, of their privacy rights. This included how to opt out from having their personal information used in marketing campaigns.

The fine is a huge amount for something so, ultimately, trivial as to be rung a few times by sales reps from the company, but it underlines the vast disparity between the US's stance on data privacy and the UK's.

The Information Commissioner's Office (ICO), which oversees issues of data protection and privacy in the UK, has come down hard on marketing firms in recent years, issuing fines of £45,000, £50,000 and £90,000 against companies that bombarded people with calls, despite being told to stop.

Comparing the two situations, the latter error seems the more egregious. While it may be annoying to not be told you have the right to opt out of marketing calls, to actively tell a company not to contact you and have them ignore that, seems so much worse.

Of course, it should be noted that the fines handed down by the ICO were against small to medium-sized companies, rather than a telecoms giant such as Verizon, and the FCC may have been making a point to other similarly sized companies of the seriousness of the situation.

Even so, though, a UK business giant could only face a fine of £500,000 from the ICO for any data or privacy error, so perhaps it's no wonder that, despite fines repeatedly being handed out by the watchdog, data breach incidents continue to happen.

London calling tech investment and skills away from the North

15 Aug 2014

London's Tech City and Silicon Roundabout are beacons of technology industry success, creating jobs in the capital and courting significant investment. But, arguably these achievements come at the cost of tech hubs beyond the city boundaries.

Head up the M1 and you'll encounter several other tech hot spots dotted across the North. Liverpool, Manchester and Newcastle all have their own takes on east London's Tech City.

Yet independent research by Policy Exchange has indicated that the capital is sucking up the lion's share of investment, and is luring northerners with digital skills to the city bright lights. This could end up putting the success of the North's technology sector at risk.

It noted, for example, that for those who have studied Science, Technology, Engineering or Maths (the STEM subjects) 35 percent, 34 percent and 52 percent of graduates end up leaving  the North East, North West and Yorkshire and the Humber respectively.

To combat these problems, Policy Exchange believes that setting up a transport infrastructure which better connects the North's tech hubs is the best way to further boost the nation's technology industry.

"Slow journeys make it harder for people to move between clusters to access and share work, ideas and opportunities and is a major barrier for foreign and London-based investors," it said in the report.

This may help, but Stuart Lynn, chief technology officer of Newcastle-based Sage, is not completely convinced. "The North is home to a wide talent pool of skilled business people and entrepreneurs but it's not just transport infrastructure that can help unlock business potential," he said.

Instead Lynn believes that investment in an improved communications infrastructure will be the key to invigorating the growth of technology hubs outside London.

"Technology acts as the bridge to cross any physical boundary. Effective communications infrastructure can link the North to the South and the rest of the world quicker and more effectively than any physical infrastructure ever could, and that should be the goal for these ambitious projects," he explained.

Whoever's recommendation is the correct course is slightly academic, as reworking either a transport or communication infrastructure will require significant investment which the North is failing to secure.

So it would appear that the North is in a catch-22 situation that might require a more innovative approach to give its tech sector a competitive chance against the might of London.

Black cabs take umbrage at Uber with London gridlock protest

11 Jun 2014

Whenever a disruptive technology arrives on the scene those who are threatened usually respond with anger and derision.

From the Luddite machine breakers of the early 1800s to Steve Ballmer's cheery dismissal of the iPhone, such reactions are commonplace. The outcome, though, is usually the same, as the disruptive ground-breaking technology continues to thrive and the older system struggles.

So, with this short revisionist history lesson, let us turn our gaze to the streets of London where on Wednesday afternoon black cab drivers staged a protest against taxi app Uber, claiming it is unfairly muscling in on their patch.

The cabbies say that because Uber allows unlicensed, untrustworthy individuals to run their cars as private hire vehicles, they are not only putting the public at risk but breaking the law by using a meter to calculate journey costs.

Transport for London referred the situation to the High Court as it said it wasn't sure whether an app generating a fee for a journey did represent an infringement of this law, but the cabbies are protesting anyway.

This means that streets across the capital have been gridlocked, causing mayhem for millions.

The timing of the protest was seized on by Uber for a fairly nifty piece of marketing, as it announced that its service can now incorporate black cabs, so that those seeking the nearest vehicle could end up in a traditional Hackney Carriage.

Whether black cabs want to be included on the service remains to be seen, as judging by today's protests they may well choose to have nothing to do with it in the future. Those who willingly reject the offer could well end up regretting it, though, if history does indeed repeat itself.

With some reports that downloads of the app have increased 850 percent as a result of the protest, the taxi brigade could have inadvertently started their own demise. Time will tell.

PRISM: Sir Tim Berners-Lee thanks Edward Snowden as US congressman pleads for silence

11 Mar 2014

Edward Snowden NSA Prism whistleblowerThe appearance of PRISM whistleblower Edward Snowden at any event is always going to cause controversy. However, turning up to speak at an event happening in the US – albeit on a satellite video feed – meant Snowden's appearance at the SXSW conference in Austin caused a storm.

The controversy began before Snowden even had a chance to open his mouth, when it was revealed that US congressman Mike Pompeo had pressured conference producers to retract their offer for the whistleblower to speak.

Specifically, Pompeo sent a letter to the organisers that said: "Mr Snowden's appearance would stamp the imprimatur of your fine organisation on a man who ill deserves such accolades. Rewarding Mr Snowden's behavior in this way encourages the very lawlessness he exhibited.

"Such lawlessness – and the ongoing intentional distortion of truth that he and his media enablers have engaged in since the release of these documents – undermines the very fairness and freedom that SXSW and the ACLU [American Civil Liberties Union] purport to foster. I strongly urge you to withdraw this invitation."

Putting aside the question of whether you agree with Pompeo's argument, for us here at V3 the really scary part is quite how removed it was from the opinions of most technologists at the conference. The moment he appeared live on the video feed Snowden was met with a rock star's welcome, with attendees clapping and cheering. One particularly enamoured attendee even wolf whistled.

The divide in opinion was further showcased during the question and answer session. Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the father of the web, extended his thanks to Snowden for leaking PRISM documents to the press.

This proves our worst fears are coming to pass and the PRISM scandal is causing a gradual, but increasingly large, rift between technologists and government agencies.

As we noted in our New Year PRISM feature, this is a terrible state of events that can only cause more harm than good. On one level this is because the PRISM revelations will undoubtedly damage international trade, with governments fearing that the NSA's far-reaching surveillance powers mean any US company cannot be trusted to handle data. This was already showcased in August 2013 when reports broke that the Chinese government planned to investigate IBM, Oracle and EMC, following concerns that the NSA could be using the firms' technologies for cyber espionage.

It's also bad because it has the potential to undo a lot of the positive work agencies such as the Cabinet Office and GCHQ – which is known to have used PRISM data – have done with the private sector to fight cybercrime.

Since launching the UK Cyber Security Strategy in 2011, the UK government has announced a steady stream of new initiatives designed to increase collaboration between the public and private sectors. The campaigns have had some success, but given the constant flow of new cybercrime campaigns it's clear there is still much to be done, which will require the public and private sectors to continue working together.

This schism shown by Snowden's SXSW appearance indicates that many technologists – and as a result companies – may no longer be quite so happy doing this. As a result, perhaps the most notable is not what Snowden said, but how it demonstrated the growing divide between government agencies and industry.

Here's hoping this isn't lost on the two sides and we can use the SXSW fiasco as a starting point for building bridges and finally have a frank discussion about mass surveillance and what needs to be done to repair the relationship between the public and private sector.

By V3's Alastair Stevenson

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

Worse than Orwell could ever imagine: UK spy drama takes dark twist

28 Feb 2014

An eye in close-up superimposted by a screen of random numbers

Ever since revelations of mass spying, data gathering and web surveillance broke last summer there has been shock and outrage at the government's intrusion into the lives of innocent web users around the world.

However, amid the entirely justified furore caused by the documents leaked by Edward Snowden, there has also been an underlying tone of ‘quelle surprise’.

We all used to joke that governments were spying on us and – hey presto – they were. And as they insisted on telling us, the data they gathered was only metadata, nothing that made citizens identifiable. Yes it was wrong, a bit over the top, but it wasn’t that bad, and after all, it was in our own security interests.

However, things have taken a darker, more insidious twist this week with the news that Yahoo webcam users were spied on by GCHQ and millions of images were taken and stored, many of which caught people in a state of undress.

This isn’t metadata. This is taking photos of people inside their own homes. MP David Davis said the revelations "exceeded even the worst Orwellian nightmares".

"Even in 1984 the citizen was aware that they were being watched,” he added.

It’s worth repeating to really drive this home: the UK government has taken photographs of millions of people inside their own homes, without their knowledge, in order to create a giant mugshot database of innocent citizens.

How on earth did such a system come to be in place? Who devised it, designed it, created and approved it? Who oversaw its operation? Did anyone ever raise a concern that this could be ever so slightly immoral, illegal, outrageous?

To date, the security services have managed to avoid any true scrutiny of their work, hiding behind bland stock statements or the classic ‘that’s a national security issue’ line.

Still, while it is unrealistic to expect spy chiefs to tell all about their efforts to protect us grateful citizens – What would they say anyway? Yes, we take naked photos of you, sorry – there are some with the power to keep the spies in line.

One of these people is the intelligence services commissioner, Sir Mark Waller. His role is to provide “independent judicial oversight” of MI5, MI6 and GCHQ and is appointed by parliament.

So his role should involve monitoring these agencies, and reporting on their work and how it is being conducted whenever he is asked to do so by those in the parliament that appointed him.

But in order to get Waller to do this, a committee of MPs – the Home Affairs Committee – have had to force him to do so, so they can find out more about what it is he’s actually overseeing. It’s positively Kafkaesque, to add to the Orwellian reference earlier.

Not only that, but Waller had tried to palm off the Committee by pointing its members in the direction of a report that covered the work of the services between January and December 2012, published in July 2013.

This was at the same time as the Snowden revelations were just appearing, and the report is no help seven months later, when the world’s understanding of the spying being carried out by governments is still only just being understood.

Waller will now give evidence on the 18 March, in a session that is likely to prove testy, and will no doubt feature the phrase ‘I can’t discuss that’ once or twice.

For the rest of us, we are now living in a world that is ever-reliant on digital communications, but where our own government is monitoring it all, from phone calls and emails, to taking photos of us in a state of undress, while those in charge are seemingly immune to any scrutiny.

Orwell may have been 30 years early in his predictions, but he was right. Terrifyingly right.

By V3's Dan Worth, who hears a clock striking thirteen

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