The disparity in powers between the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) and Ofcom has once again been highlighted after the latter was able to fine BT £800,000 for the late launch of a text-to-speech service – far in excess of anything the ICO can issue for data loss incidents.
The ICO can issue fines to a maximum of £500,000 for breaches of the Data Protection Act – breaches that often result in sensitive personal information being lost or stolen, causing huge distress for those concerned.
However, Ofcom – which in 2013 fined TalkTalk £750,000 for some nuisance calls to customers – has been able to issue a far larger fine to BT for the late launch of the Next Generation Text Service (NTGS).
The NTGS helps people with hearing or speech impediments to either type what they want to say and have it relayed to the person on the other end, or, if hard of hearing, to have what someone says to them translated to text to read on screen.
Ofcom issued the fine because BT was five months late in launching the service, putting it live in October, when it was slated for an 18 April launch.
BT explained that the delay was caused by a problem with the sound quality of emergency calls, something that came to light at a late stage of the development process.
Claudio Pollack, Ofcom’s consumer and content group director, said the size of the fine showed how seriously the organisation took this failure.
“The size of the penalty imposed on BT reflects the importance of providing an improved text relay service to its customers with hearing and speech impairments,” he said.
BT must pay the £800,000 penalty to Ofcom, which will then pass it on to HM Treasury.
In a statement BT apologised for the delay but said that since going live it was please to hear positive feedback from users.
“We’re sorry we had to postpone the full launch of the Next Generation Text service. This was because of a safety issue with the quality of emergency calls that could have put users at risk," it said.
"The service has been warmly welcomed by users. Hearing and speech impaired people can now make faster, more fluent phone calls using ordinary smartphones, tablets, laptops and PCs, as well as existing specialised terminals.”
While no one would disagree that providing such a service is important and that BT’s failings warranted some form of reprimand, the scale of the fine when set against the ICO’s powers once again shows the madness of the current data protection regime.
The only hope is that when the new European Data Protection Regulation comes into force – which looks increasingly likely – the proposal for data watchdogs to be able to fine firms a portion of their annual turnover will make it to the statute books.
This should make the financial penalties for data protection breaches far more terrifying to big businesses, making data protection a more important consideration, and giving the ICO the chance to issue fines that will really make people sit up and take notice.
Modern life is a near-constant battle against cables. Like amorous electrically charged snakes, metres of micro USB wires entwine themselves with the chalk white cables from Apple's portfolio of proprietary cables, never to be put asunder.
Often when a smartphone bleats its final cry for battery life, the right cable is never easily available. And then you stand on a plug.
But help may be at hand in the form of wireless charging furniture revealed at MWC by flat-pack products and meatball giant Ikea.
The BBC reported that Ikea's Home Smart line will initially range from lamps to coffee and bedside tables that eschew cables for a more harmonious way of filling up lithium-ion battery-equipped devices.
Ikea has used the QI wireless charging standard, which will make its charging spot compatible with the new Samsung Galaxy S6.
Through the power of inductive charging, devices with embedded magnetic coils can draw a small electromagnetic field without the need for unsightly wires.
Those with mobile devices incompatible with the QI standard need not worry, as Ikea will provide phone cases that allow the devices to benefit from cable-free charging.
Ikea fans with a suite of incompatible furniture can also breathe easy in the knowledge that the company is offering standalone wireless charging pads that can be fixed onto existing furniture, meaning that hours of poring over instructions on a Sunday afternoon will not have been wasted.
The Wireless Power Consortium said that there are 81 compatible wireless QI smartphones in the worldwide market, meaning that Ikea's Home Smart range has the potential to sit in a leading position when it come to power-infused furniture.
Ikea will launch the wireless charging products in the UK in April.
People who find they turn the air blue when screw A does not match figure A's image will be happy to know that Ikea is not the only company pursuing wireless charging. Starbucks, Huawei and Lenovo are also dipping their corporate toes in the market.
Adding wireless charging into furniture may sound like a great and much desired feature for everyday living, but it does raise questions about recycling.
With extra technology fitted into furniture, V3 wonders whether Ikea has made a range that makes the disposal of unwanted furniture a lot more difficult.
The number of people tapping away on smartphones in public is evidence of how deeply technology has penetrated everyday life.
But technology has now entered the afterlife following the news that Facebook will provide the ability to appoint ‘heirs' to manage an account when its owner dies.
The company explained how a ‘legacy contact' can be added to an account, allowing the assigned person to write a final post to be displayed on the deceased's timeline.
The account will then become a digital memorial which Facebook claims will allow other users to "pay tribute to the deceased".
Legacy contacts will also have the option to change the account's profile picture, meaning that the departed will have relinquished control over their final image.
Those looking to set up a legacy contact will need to pick a trustworthy friend who doesn't take advantage by adding an embarrassing picture to the memorialised profile.
More disturbing still is the ability for the heir to respond to new friend requests, opening up the potential for confusion, disruption to grieving, and rumours of a user's death being greatly exaggerated.
Those concerned about digital skeletons in the closet will be relieved to know that legacy contacts are not granted permission to sift through private Facebook messages.
Legacy contacts can also ask Facebook to permanently delete the account on its owner's death, bypassing the potential for any misunderstanding and inappropriate posting.
At first glance, the addition of legacy contacts on Facebook might seem macabre. But it highlights a growing concern about the status of someone's online information when they die.
Google introduced its take on digital heirs back in 2013, giving users the option to decide on the future of their data when they shuffle of the mortal coil.
The increasing amount of personal information people are pushing onto the internet will no doubt lead to more online services offering the option to assign digital heirs.
This might seem strange to non-digital natives and people who shun social networks, but for active users and future generations, the legacy of personal digital data is likely to receive the same level of consideration as physical possessions in the last will and testament of the deceased.
If a human being represents a kilobyte of data, and a London bus a megabyte, what would you use to represent a gigabyte? Or a terabyte? Or even a zettabyte?
Any ideas? Well the answers, in corresponding order, are: The London Eye, the BT Tower and the entire continent of Europe. Well done if you said any of those.
Now, taking this unscientific scale to its extreme conclusion, what object or thing could represent the Internet of Things, and the unfathomably vast amounts of data it will generate? Any ideas? The answer is the universe.
This is the theory of Kevin Ashton (pictured below on the far left), the man who invented the phrase ‘The Internet of Things’. Ashton was speaking at an event at the BT Tower on Wednesday evening, attended by V3.
Ashton’s Scale of Data lacks any clear consistency, but the point is clear. The IoT is going to be huge. It is going to be so far beyond anything we have known that our entire understanding and concept of ‘data’ will become useless.
And this is not something that is going to happen, but already is happening. Ashton started with the idea of the mobile phone. These are networked devices that can be used to plot locations, track movements and gain insights.
The Ebola outbreak that ravaged western Africa was controlled by plotting the movement of people through their mobile phones, and working out their connections with other people, to enable officials to plot and then contain the disease.
Another example of the IoT that’s often cited is driverless cars. As vehicles are connected with all sorts of sensors it will enable them to drive themselves and transmit all this data for analysis. This idea is gaining momentum, and even the UK government has approved trials of driverless cars on UK roads.
Ashton pointed out that driverless cars already exist in commercial environments. The giant trucks used in bauxite mines in Western Australia, for example, now operate without drivers (pictured below).
“The self-driving car is already real,” said Ashton. “Five to 10 years from now, every car will have self-driving capability, whether you want it or not. We're 15 years away from cars without steering wheels being available.”
A final example Ashton cited was RFID, a technology he helped create, which is now used in supply chains across the world to track objects and generate data that can be used to make more informed decisions.
All of this was making the point that the IoT is already here and is only going to grow. This led Ashton to pose a final question.
“If you came here tonight thinking 'Is the IoT going to happen to me?’, well it is going to happen to you whether you like it or not. Is it going to be an opportunity or a threat: that’s your choice.”
Cloud computing is heralded by many as the future of IT, but it's an occasionally obtuse subject despite the government wanting the public sector to embrace cloud migration.
However, selling cloud services to the public sector, often seen as stuck in the analogue age of paper documents and Windows XP, can be a bit of a challenge even for hardened IT suppliers.
So, in a creative attempt to solve this, the Government Digital Service (GDS) has created three fictional 'government buyers' for cloud vendors to target.
With names as everyday as Gareth Holmes, Patricia Greene and Jess Clarke these are three characters that have been assigned persona-specific ‘buys', ‘hopes' and ‘fears' when it comes to cloud procurement so vendors know how to pitch their products accordingly.
GDS also indicated how evangelical the three are when it comes to technology, procurement processes and desired outcomes.
I just don't want to get into trouble
First up is Gareth, a tech architect working for the government. Gareth is a cloud buyer who has good technical knowledge but needs a helping hand with procurement, according to Mark Branigan, a researcher at the Cabinet Office and Gov.uk blogger.
"Gareth wants a straightforward process he can follow which will reassure him that he's following the right procurement steps," he said.
Poor Gareth is made out to be a bit of a feckless coward, desiring "short and convenient processes" and shunning anything that requires innovative thinking and investment in time.
Still, he's noted for his rock climbing and love of the great outdoors, so perhaps he's simply wasted in the stuffy confines of government IT.
Two chickens and an eye for procurement
Meanwhile Patricia (pictured right) is an IT procurement specialist but lacks Gareth's technical prowess. She hopes to end up with the right cloud service to suit her department's needs, and fears the opposite result.
Branigan, perhaps erring on the side of patronising, explained that customers like Patricia need to "understand how services are described by suppliers so that she can find services that will meet her requirements".
GDS felt it was important to note that Patricia enjoys spending time looking after her two chickens, something V3 was not aware of as having a direct influence on cloud procurement desires.
'She enjoys Zumba and vampire books'
Last, but by no means least, is Jess (pictured), a project manager who cares about services that are delivered on time, on budget and provide direct outcomes.
Branigan paints Jess as an uncompromising customer. "Any delays caused by a procurement process are unacceptable to her, and she is very price sensitive," he said.
Jess does not like to waste her time understanding technology or procurement, either, instead preferring to dedicate herself to Zumba and vampire books.
"Jess needs a service which allows her to very quickly analyse her options and find the right product. She does not want to concern herself with the intricacies of the procurement process, and relies on others around her to look after this part," he said.
It's interesting to see the government exploring ways to simplify the process of selling cloud and IT services to the public sector, particularly given the focus on digitalising public services.
However, Branigan added: "We know that users don't always fit neatly into boxes and we test these personas regularly against the buyers we talk to in the lab."
With a get-out clause like that, V3 is left wondering whether the whole exercise was really worth it. We are, however, curious to learn more about this 'lab' Branigan mentions.
Microsoft founder and general do-gooder Bill Gates has expressed concerns about artificial intelligence (AI), warning that dystopian futures portrayed in series like Battlestar Galactica and Terminator could become a reality.
Gates issued the warning during a Reddit question and answer session, arguing that artificially intelligent systems could become a threat to humanity if left unchecked.
"I am in the camp that is concerned about super intelligence. I agree with Elon Musk and some others on this and don't understand why some people are not concerned," Gates said in response to a question about the threat posed by AI.
"First, the machines will do a lot of jobs for us and not be super intelligent. That should be positive if we manage it well. A few decades after that, though, the intelligence is strong enough to be a concern."
Gates is one of many tech moguls to warn of the danger posed by AI. Professor Stephen Hawking expressed concerns about self-learning machines earlier this year, and Tesla founder Elon Musk argued that AI poses the biggest risk to humanity if it is not properly monitored and controlled.
Luckily for the tech-savvy members of society, Gates said that humans are likely to serve some purpose for our robot overlords in the immediate future.
"It is safe for now. It is also a lot of fun and helps shape your thinking on all issues to be more logical. There is a prospect for change in this area for the next generation, but that is true for most fields and understanding how to program will always be useful," he said.
Gates' comments follow the widespread release of Microsoft's Cortana digital voice assistant. Cortana debuted on Windows Phone 8 and allows web searches and the opening of apps using voice commands.
Cortana's answers are based on data stored in the user's Microsoft account and the public internet, and the service will be integrated into Microsoft's Windows 10 operating system.
Gates closed his doomsday report by promising that Cortana will not betray us and is simply a useful service designed to help, not rule over, humans.
By V3's Alastair Stevenson
Cyber security is normally highlighted as a concern for corporations and celebrities, not something to worry school children.
But a group of students aged nine to 17 from the Digital Youth Council showcased an internet safety tool at BETT 2015 consisting of a series of mini games aimed at educating kids about online threats such as data theft and hacking.
The tool injects fun into the complex and often sinister world of cyber security, and was developed using the resources of Virgin Media Business, which established the Digital Youth Council in December 2014.
V3 wondered whether kids really need to concern themselves with the threat of cyber attacks, but Gerry Arthurs (pictured), director of public sector at Virgin Media Business, suggested that it is not as unusual as one might expect.
"The idea was generated by the children themselves, and it was they who communicated to us not just the cyber security [concerns], but the fallout, the stress and panic that they could see in their parents when they thought things had gone wrong," he said.
Arthurs explained that today's children are "much more educated in what's occurring in the world around them", and are aware of news coverage of major cyber attacks.
He also pointed out that today's children have experienced cyber attacks first hand. His 12-year-old daughter suffered emotionally when her Instagram account was hacked, which made her more aware of data protection.
The Digital Youth Council has taken a positive step towards cyber security education, but it shows just how rampant cyber attacks have become when children are directly exposed to and affected by malicious hacks simply because they have access to the latest technology.
The flipside is that increased awareness may make it easier to tackle cyber threats as children avoid the digital mistakes of their parents.
It also hammers home the extent to which technology is embedded is in the lives of children, as many have access to cutting edge hardware from the moment they are able to swipe a touchscreen.
Some could argue that this access leads to a loss of innocence, but technology is a way of empowering children and allowing them to be more innovative in their learning and development.
It is inescapable that future generations will be more tech-savvy than their predecessors, and keener to adopt the latest cutting-edge technology.
There has been little in the way of direct action from major companies to address the gender imbalance in the technology industry, despite calls from the government throughout 2014 and numerous diversity reports revealing that major firms have a serious workforce imbalance.
More women are entering the industry via corporations or their own digital start-ups, resulting in positive reactions from women already established in the field, but IT and the surrounding sectors remain male dominated and few women fill high-level positions.
However, Intel has now thrown its hat into the ring with a pledge to increase diversity across its entire workforce by 2020 by hiring and retaining more engineers and computer scientists who are women or from under-represented minorities.
Rather than backing a programme or supporting an external organisation, Intel has put its money where its mouth is and will invest $300m to increase the company's diversity, hoping that its example will encourage other tech players to do the same.
Intel chief executive Brian Krzanich revealed the Diversity in Technology initiative at CES 2015 in Las Vegas.
CES is an event known for courting tech enthusiasts with consumer products, and may not seem the likely place to launch a diversity strategy. But with the industry's eyes glued to Las Vegas for several days, it presented a powerful platform for Intel to get its message across.
And the message is that action is needed, not just from Intel but from the technology industry as a whole if diversity is to be achieved and not merely encouraged.
In a surprising move, Krzanich said that the pay of Intel's leaders will be linked to the performance of the initiative in their areas in a bid to galvanise change from within.
Krzanich's CES keynote is a refreshing change from the situation last year, which saw Microsoft's Satya Nadella offering negative advice for women in tech, and appears to present an answer to the gender imbalance as the technology industry enters a new year.
If 2014 was a year in which women and diversity in technology was discussed, Intel may have made 2015 the year in which action is taken.