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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

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 

PRISM: Obama won't calm European firms' suspicions with NSA promises

21 Jan 2014

As noted by myself and numerous big-name figures in the public and private sector, the damage the PRISM spying scandal could inflict on the global economy and key industries, such as the cloud, is catastrophic. By being caught snooping not only on foreign firms, but also a number of political figures in countries that are supposedly allied with the US, the NSA seriously damaged international trust.

This was showcased to great effect in 2013 when Deutsche Telekom said it was considering re-routing all user information through German data centres and servers, in a bid to protect its customers from NSA snooping.

For this reason, I was overjoyed last week when president Barack Obama promised he was going to explain what new measures and safeguards he planned to put in place to ensure a scandal like PRISM does not reoccur.

However, come the big day when he took the stage and began outlining the new measures, my feelings towards his proposed reforms were at best mixed.

On the one hand Obama got a lot right. The US president said he would work to change the way PRISM requests could be handed to companies and increase the amount of information that the businesses involved can disclose to the public.

Specifically Obama pledged to put in place a series of fresh measures created by the attorney general, on how requests using the US Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) and National Security Letters can be made.

FISA and National Security Letters were used by the NSA to force numerous companies, including Google, Yahoo, Apple and Microsoft, to hand over vast amounts of customer data. The nature of the requests means the companies are not allowed to disclose what information was handed over without risk of arrests. The secret nature of the requests is one of the key reasons many people and businesses are still concerned about the safety and sovereignty of their data.

Even better, Obama also promised to make sure the public sector and general public would be represented in the approval process of data-gathering campaigns. He pledged to create a new independent, non-governmental panel of advocates to appear at the secret courts, which will approve or deny operations such as PRISM. Candidates for the new panel of advocates will be approved by congress.

All this sounds great, right? Well on one level it was...until Obama went on the offensive against PRISM critics, boldly saying the US would not apologise to groups or countries affected by PRISM.

"Many countries, including those that feigned surprise following the Snowden revelations, are trying to penetrate our networks. Our agencies will continue to gather intelligence on foreign governments' intentions. We will not apologise for doing it better," he said.

Worse still, in a move all too familiar to those that lived through the Bush era, Obama resorted to constantly mentioning 9/11 as a justification for operations such as PRISM. For me, this is serious cause for concern.

After all, Obama failed to disclose key details, such as what information, or how soon after receiving FISA requests companies will be able to reveal to their customers that they handed information to the NSA. Additionally, by vetting candidates for the new independent, non-governmental panel of advocates through congress – a body full of individuals that serve the US – it's unlikely that European businesses' concerns will be high a high priority.

As a consequence, while the new reforms have the potential to help ensure scandals such as PRISM don't reoccur, they also have the potential to be completely ineffectual; the outcome will be determined by how the US government choses to implement them. As a result, for now at least I can't see Obama's reforms winning back the trust of any concerned European business or governments.

By V3's Alastair Stevenson

The Bard banned by bumbling British Library WiFi filters

14 Aug 2013

shakespeare

In fair Euston we set our scene, where news has emerged that author Mark Forsyth discovered that newly installed WiFi filters at the British Library have banned possibly the greatest work in the history of the English language: Shakespeare's Hamlet.

The filters were acting overzealously to some of the more bloody elements of Hamlet, which is about murder and revenge, after all. The British Library acknowledged the error, blaming the newly installed WiFi service, which it offers free, for being set too strictly.

"We have recently introduced a new WiFi service. It’s early days in the implementation of this service and we are aware that the new filter has been blocking certain sites erroneously. We are actively working to resolve this issue," it said in a statement.

We have recently introduced a new WiFi service. It’s early days in the implementation of this service and we are aware that the new filter has been blocking certain sites erroneously. We are actively working to resolve this issue.

There’s a nice element of irony in this, as it shows just how ridiculous filtering can become, especially as the government attempts to impose this upon internet service providers, claiming it will protect people from horrible content. The filters may protect them from a few dodgy sites, but they will also stop them reading the nation’s greatest writer.

In honour of this story, and with our deepest apologies to The Bard, we humbly offer this sonnet, telling the tale in rhyme.

 

Sonnet 802.11

In the halls of the British Library
An institute of learning and knowledge
Filled with scholars and students from college
A man uses the WiFi, offered free

He searches ‘Hamlet’, the Bard’s finest tale
Told with wit, charm and artistic license
But also filled with death and violence
So much so it is deemed beyond the pale

By the WiFi filters that have been set
So nasty and evil sites can be blocked
And rightly too, so users are not shocked –
But they have ended up banning Hamlet!

Shakespeare would laugh at our filter terrors
Calling it a comedy of errors

 

By V3's Dan Worth, who hopes his creative writing teacher would be proud

Government uses 12-year-old Britannica diagram to illustrate cutting edge mobile tech

30 Jul 2013

While flicking through today's government document concerning Britain's digital platform for growth, we spotted something that amused us.

In order to demonstrate the usage of the wireless spectrum, the report referred to an image produced by Encyclopaedia Britannica in 2001 (below). We forgot that Britannica existed, which wasn't helped by the fact that the company stopped publishing its physical editions last year.

Government wireless spectrum diagram makes brings out extreme feelings of nostalgia

It's nice to see such colourful imagery in what is otherwise a standard government report, but eagle-eyed V3 staffers spotted a few things that were missing from this formerly cutting-edge diagram.

For starters, as this diagram is intended to show the common uses of the wireless spectrum in the UK, the mention of VHF television was quite a surprise given that the UK stopped broadcasting VHF TV signals in 1985. DAB – which has been broadcasting for the best part of two decades on the VHF frequency alongside FM (this, thankfully, receives a mention) – is also notably absent. Perhaps it is a statement about the format's sluggish uptake.

Elsewhere, we see no sign of WiFi, which we would hesitantly say play a reasonably important role in the UK's wireless offering. It would be found somewhere in the SHF range, in case you were wondering. And while we do see reference to mobile phones through the use of the long-forgotten phrase "cellular phone", there is no talk of 4G in this particular visual demonstration.

Finally, it's good to see an old-fashioned cathode ray tube (CRT) TV getting its time in the spotlight; there's nothing quite like the glow of a CRT to bring out wistful thoughts of screen burn and square eyes.

By V3's Michael Passingham, who loves his cellular phone

GPS and the power of open government data

10 May 2013

tomtom-start-60-sat-nav-gps

President Obama recently signed an executive order that will require government organisations to release their data to the public in an easily digestible form. The White House says that the move will give entrepreneurs and innovators the information they need to create engaging new products.

To see what sort of potential this government data holds for the private sector, look at the past. Prior to the 1980s GPS data was mostly relegated to military and government organisations. It wasn't until 1983 and the release of GPS data to the public that consumer mapping technology really began to take shape.

At the time, then-President Ronald Reagan ordered GPS data become freely available to the public. Reagan's decree came following the crash of Korean Air flight 007, which was shot down after getting lost and flying to near Soviet airspace.

By 1989, US company Magellan released the first commercially available portable GPS system. The Magellan NAV 1000 used GPS data from government satellites to put GPS right next to a citizen's Walkman.

The release of the device, and the government data it used, is why we have GPS navigation today. From Google Maps to Apple Maps, all of the world's most basic turn-by-turn navigation wouldn't be possible without government data.

The example goes to show that the government has types of data that would be almost impossible to get without an open initiative to release it. The US government has the resources to do things that the private sector cannot.

Government agencies have the abilities and options to collect massive amounts of data on things that private firms would never spend money on. If it wasn't for the military's work with GPS, the private sector could be years behind what today's mapping apps are capable of.

A startup would never be able to map the globe or launch a satellite for the sake of a navigation app. By giving out government data, the Obama administration has opened the door for clever entrepreneurs to use data without doing the legwork.

Transparency becoming the new norm in Silicon Valley

22 Mar 2013

data-privacy

The release of an annual transparency report is quickly becoming part of the status quo in Silicon Valley.

As consumers begin sharing more and more data with technology companies its becoming increasingly important to know what is happening to your data. In a world with social media, understanding how and for what purposes consumer data is being used is now a necessity.

As consumers become more aware of the information they are sharing, so to are companies starting to open up about what they do with that data. From Google to Twitter, Silicon Valley is starting to open up about how many and what types of data requests they receive each year.

Last January, the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) called on tech firms to make transparency reports the new norm.

The EFF started by calling on Microsoft to release a detailed report on the requests they receive for Skype user data. Then, the group took it one step further and asked the whole of Silicon Valley to make reports part of the status quo.

With the recent release of Microsoft's Skype transparency report, the EFF completed phase one of its mission. However, their task is not over just yet. The EFF now wants every tech company to buy into the idea of data sharing transparency.

Microsoft's recent transparency report is a strong first step. Having one of the biggest tech companies in the world step in line with a transparency status quo is a major coup.

Redmond and Skype were one of the last major holdouts in the push for consistent transparency reports. Now, with the latest addition, there should not be any reason for present and future companies to not offer transparency reports.

The information withheld in those reports is important because they hold government and law enforcement accountable for the type of data they request. By knowing that each request for data is being compiled, government agencies should be wary of making fraudulent data requests.

By making transparency requests the new norm Silicon Valley is making the various government agencies of world accountable for the requests they are making.

Evening Standard Twitter gaffe overshadows Osborne’s profile

20 Mar 2013

budget-case

When George Osborne’s team advised the chancellor to join Twitter in an effort to, no doubt, show how in touch with the people he was, they probably thought it was also a nice way of distracting people form the harsh realities of the budget he was due to deliver.

The plan seemed to be working, with thousands of Twitter users abusing Osborne on the site, and numerous memes sprouting to mock and ridicule the chancellor.

While this was all fun and games, the serious side of Twitter has since come forth to prove what a hazardous tool it, and the web in general can be, after The Evening Standard accidentally posted details of the budget online before Osborne had even begun speaking.

An over zealous member of the team’s Twitter account put the paper’s front page splash out, and although it was hastily deleted – oh, can you imagine the scramble for the delete button? – once it was online there was no hope of saving the situation.

As we’ve seen many times before, the internet seem ephemeral but the reality is very different and once something is hosted online, especially via Twitter, it’s very hard to stop that information going viral. It’s as good as impossible, really.

For Osborne, the leak could even cost him his job as former chancellors have fallen on their sword for similar incidents, and there would be a delicious irony if Osborne’s downfall was caused by Twitter, in a roundabout way, on the very day he joined the site.

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