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.
- 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 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
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
A new "lie detector" for Twitter is currently in development, and while the prospect of knowing whether your colleagues really enjoyed the delightfully Instagrammed salad may seem exciting, its true benefits could actually solve one of the biggest problems public social media platforms cause society: malicious untruths.
In the 2011 London riots, for example, rumours began to spread of tigers having escaped from London Zoo causing an uncomfortable mix of confusion, terror and humour. Could a machine-based lie detector, analysing language and context, have saved us from this bizarre state of affairs? According to the University of Sheffield's Kalina Bontcheva, lead researcher on project PHEME: perhaps.
There are four categories of tweets that misinform people, according to the project team:
The technology would take into account a number of tweet characteristics, including the authority of the user and their history on the site. A well-respected, verified journalist would be more authoritative than a brand new account which is spamming scandalous political rumours, for example.
There is no word on whether the analysis extends to metadata such as the location from which the tweet was sent, and the researchers currently have no plans to include media such as images in the analysis, which often form a key part of corroborating or dispelling rumours.
The results of searches looking at current events would then display on a "visual dashboard" to let the user know whether a rumour was likely to be true or not.
It's an interesting project which is expected to take three years to come to fruition. It would be reasonable to expect Twitter is doing exactly the same thing as it looks to serve one of its most active userbases: journalists and organisations like emergency services and charities.
By V3's Michael Passingham, who promises to tweet the twuth, the whole twuth and nothing but the twuth.
Intel CEO Brian Krzanich made his Reddit debut this week, taking questions from the internet in the form of an AMA (Ask Me Anything).
While he chose not to directly take on any questions that posed a great challenge, we gained a little insight into his outlook on the tech world and on Intel's successes and failures. We also discovered that he has a fairly 'unique' way of expressing himself in casual text-based conversations. We've tidied up his answers to make them more legible.
Posed a question regarding Intel's marketing lacking the 'cool' it once had, Krzanich said that Intel was planning a "revamp".
"I don't know marketing - clearly in engineering school you don't get much marketing training - but I agree we need to get some of the innovation and coolness back in to our marketing," he said.
Intel is known to have missed the mobile computing boat, failing to gain much traction in the smartphone and tablet sectors. The firm has plans to catch up, but Krzanich admitted that the company - which he took over in May 2013 - had failed to look far enough into the future.
"We wanted the world of computing to stop at PCs and the world - as it never does - didn't stop innovating. The new CEO of Microsoft Satya [Nadella] said it well the other day: 'Our industry does not respect tradition, it respects innovation.' I think he was 100 percent right and it's why we missed the mobile move," he said.
On 3D printing, the full potential of which hasn't even begun to emerge, Krzanich was hopeful: "I don't even think we've scratched the surface on how 3D printing will change the way things get made.
"New materials and capabilities will continue to be developed and be able to be 3D printed, and as that occurs more and more uses will be identified and whole industries will be changed."
From the Q&A, we also discovered Krzanich is fond of a chilled peanut butter and jelly (jam) sandwich, and - like Bill Gates - can jump over a chair, depending on its size.
By V3's Michael Passingham, who encourages you to Ask Him Anything
Some technology has the power to change society for the better. Smartphones, for example, have given awkward types something to stare at whenever a real-life interaction is proving uncomfortable: an astounding feat of technical engineering.
Google Glass might be the next piece of tech to drive social change, but with great power comes great responsibility. And that responsibility includes telling us to not "be creepy" while wearing them, which is exactly what Google has done.
Realising that people who pay $1,500 to be early adopters for an unproven, ungainly and unsightly new technology may quite possibly have some underlying social quirks, Google has published a guide to prevent users from becoming "Glassholes".
Google told early adopters, known as Explorers, to not "Glass out". "If you find yourself staring off into the prism for long periods of time you're probably looking pretty weird to the people around you. So don't read War and Peace on Glass. Things like that are better done on bigger screens."
Sports are also outlawed: "Glass is a piece of technology, so use common sense. Water skiing, bull riding or cage fighting with Glass are probably not good ideas."
If you're on a hot date, it's advisable to conceal Glass, too: "If you're worried about someone interrupting that romantic dinner at a nice restaurant with a question about Glass, just take it off and put it around the back of your neck or in your bag."
We'd advise hiding it pre-date, just so you don't make a strange first impression.
This final statement of the completely obvious pretty much sums up the whole post: "Don't be creepy or rude (aka, a 'Glasshole'). Respect others and if they have questions about Glass don't get snappy. Be polite and explain what Glass does and remember, a quick demo can go a long way. In places where cell phone cameras aren't allowed, the same rules will apply to Glass.
"If you're asked to turn your phone off, turn Glass off as well. Breaking the rules or being rude will not get businesses excited about Glass and will ruin it for other Explorers."
The future is here, and it's rude and disrespectful.
By V3's Michael Passingham, who's constantly making a glass of himself
With much of the south of the UK currently underwater and suffering from storm damage and power cuts, things are pretty bleak for many.
So anything that can make a small difference is to be welcomed and the good folks at Tech City have done exactly that by co-ordinating a ‘hackathon’ session in the capital to try and develop apps for those in flood-hit areas.
On Sunday around 200 developers, both individuals and employees from the likes of Twitter, Microsoft and Google, got together to use open data about the floods provided by the government to cobble together quick and useful apps that could prove helpful for those affected.
Teams were formed and each put together a two-minute pitch for judges from the Cabinet Office. Those picked out included UKFloodAlerts, which can be used to warn users of risks from burst rivers, power cuts or impassable roads.
Another chosen as a winner was called ViziCities that uses data from the ViziCities platform to make 3D maps of the flood level to make it clearer how areas have been affected.
Joanna Shields, Tech City UK chairman who led the initiative, praised the efforts of those involved and said it proved the “power of government opening up data”.
“In a meeting on Friday convened at No. 10 Downing Street, [the] government called on the tech community to best use its wealth of flood data and the response we’ve seen from developers has been fantastic,” she said.
“Over the course of the weekend we had hundreds of people volunteer their time to produce genuinely innovative apps that are testament to the creativity, imagination and generosity of our local tech community.”
The hope is that the apps will now go live and those in affected areas can get them on their phones and have a little more information about what's happening in their area. It may not be much, but it all helps, and underlines the potential of open data to help the public.
By V3's Dan Worth
A time capsule that included a computer mouse owned by the late Steve Jobs has been unearthed in California.
The capsule was buried in 1983 at the International Design Conference. It was filled with numerous items from the era, such as a Vogue magazine and a Rubik’s Cube. However, it was always known as the Steve Jobs’ Capsule because of the inclusion of his mouse that was used on his first Lisa computer.
The appearance by Jobs at the conference is regarded as a key moment in Apple's, and that of the wider industry's history, as he made several predictions there that came true.
“We will find a way to put (a computer) in a shoebox and sell it for $2,500, and finally, we’ll find a way to put it in a book," he said.
The capsule was supposed to have been dug up in 2000, but the coordinates of its location were lost when the conference went out of business. There it stayed until a TV show called Diggers got in on the act.
In a blog post promoting the find, the show explains that co-leads KG and Ringy had tracked down members of the capsule committee to discover the item's whereabouts.
As luck would have it the work proved successful and like modern-day pirates they uncovered the buried treasure. Like any good American should, the team whoop and holler with great excitement when they find the item, which you can see on 25 February, if you live in the US.
By V3's Dan Worth, who always has his head in the ground