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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

Twitter 'lie detector' aims to catch out malicious rumour-mongers

21 Feb 2014

Twitter

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:

  • Speculation – such as financial guesswork
  • Controversy – unproven accusations
  • Misinformation – accidental untruths
  • Disinformation – malicious untruths

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 chief Krzanich discusses mobile market, peanut butter and chairs

20 Feb 2014

Intel CEO Krzanich with Quark chip at IDF 2013

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

Google pens "Glasshole" guide for awkward Glass Explorers

19 Feb 2014

Google Glass is not the most subtle wearable tech

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

Tech City hackers work on flood apps from open data sources

17 Feb 2014

jabra-office-flood

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 

Steve Jobs time capsule unearthed with Lisa mouse after 30 years underground

14 Feb 2014

treasure-chest-with-gold-coins


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

Toyota software glitch recall poses questions about self-driving car future

12 Feb 2014

toyota-prius-hybrid

Today, Toyota recalled 30,790 of its Prius hybrid cars in the UK because of a software glitch. While no accidents or injuries have been caused by the fault, we couldn't help but wonder what the implications for the I, Robot-style future of self-driving cars might be.

Toyota's issue is in the software that controls the car's hybrid system, specifically the boost converter, which is used when the car is accelerating hard from a standstill. In order to prevent overheating caused by the software pushing the car components too hard, drivers would see their cars operating at reduced power or may even find themselves grinding to a halt.

In order to fix the problem, owners will have to take their vehicle to a local Toyota dealership for a 40-minute software upgrade.

This is fairly upsetting for us at V3. While we don't own any Priuses ourselves, it does put our fantasy future of self-driving cars in jeopardy. Let's face it, Toyota's boost converter is probably a darn sight simpler than software that chooses whether you crash into your neighbour's garden fence or not.

A minor prang – or one serious accident – caused by software problems will surely spell the end of self-driving cars before they've properly begun. No doubt lawmakers and car manufacturers will insist the actual driver should be paying attention at all times, but humans are – for the most part – lazy. And yes, while passenger aircraft fly on autopilot for most of their journeys, their human pilots are (hopefully) awake, alert and ready to respond to any technical failures. The bleary-eyed car driver sipping their coffee on the way to work might not be quite so attentive.

A software update can't undo you writing off your car, or worse. It'll be fascinating to see how this is handled by car makers in the future.

By V3's Michael Passingham, who doesn't even trust auto-correct

Government coding scheme boss doesn't know how to code

07 Feb 2014

The director of the government's Year of Code Lottie Dexter, who will be taking charge of the latest computing education scheme, does not know how to code.

In a performance best described as uncomfortable, longtime Newsnight interrogator Jeremy Paxman set about attempting to understand exactly why children should be taught to code.

"I'm going to put my cards on the table, Jeremy, I can't code," she said with a smile. Perhaps this is fair; maybe the Year of Code scheme's ambassador should go through the experience of learning to code along with the rest of the nation.

"Perhaps I could be the next Zuckerberg," she quipped.

Sadly, however, there is also a worrying lack of awareness about the new curriculum. "How long does it take to learn to teach to code?" Paxman asked, sitting back in his chair.

"I think you can pick it up in a day," she responded. Now, even for experienced secondary school teachers, we can safely say this isn't true. Simply understanding the broad wording of the new curriculum will be challenging enough, let alone understanding how to best turn a fairly dry topic into something exciting.

For primary school teachers, who likely have little to no experience in the field of computing whatsoever, the challenge will be even steeper.

It continues a long-running trend of the government overlooking the huge effort teachers are going to have to make this year. A little bit of humility is all that's required to show us that the government truly understands the difficult months ahead.

"I started a campaign last year," said Dexter. "And if I had learned code at school I could have done a website, I could have done an app and I would have saved a hell of a lot of time and a hell of a lot of money and could have done it a lot better." To be fair, though, if she had, she probably wouldn't have had time to actually run the campaign.

By V3's Michael Passingham, who believes neither Rome nor Facebook was built in a day

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