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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

Yahoo chief Marissa Mayer incurs wrath of white hats for iPhone 5S passcode dismissal

12 Sep 2013

Yahoo chief executive and generally smart person Marissa Mayer has made a rare slip-up, publicly admitting she doesn't have a passcode on her smartphone due to being too busy.

Mayer made the revelation during an interview at the TechCrunch Dispute conference, gleefully admitting her security no-no when asked for her thoughts on the new Apple iPhone 5S fingerprint scanner.

"It's funny because you mocked me once at TechCrunch, maybe it was at LeWeb, because Mike was making fun of me because I don't have a passcode on my phone," she said.

"And Mike was like ‘Are you crazy?', and I was like 'Look, I just can't do this passcode thing, like 15 times a day,' and then when I saw the fingerprint thing I thought now I don't have to. I was excited about that and think building some of these smart sensors into the phone is really exciting."

Following the admission the security community is up in arms, with many bemoaning the ex-Google vice president's apparent ignorance about even the most basic smartphone security. Independent security expert Graham Cluley went so far as to call the Yahoo chief a "twerp".

"Colour me unimpressed. There's really not any excuse for having even the weakest four-digit passcode on your iPhone (longer, more complex passwords are better and surprisingly easy to remember), and yet lots of people have none in place," he wrote.

"What's alarming is that Mayer is the CEO of a major internet company, who have a responsibility for protecting the privacy of hundreds of millions of net users. What kind of example is she setting by not having any form of login security on her smartphone? What a twerp."

However, the accusation may be slightly over the top. As Tim Cook noted during the iPhone launch event on Tuesday, many iPhone users follow Mayer's example in not bothering to turn on the passcode, hence Apple adding the fingerprint scanner.

F-Secure's security advisor Sean Sullivan also took a more lenient approach to Mayer's admission. "It seems to me that the 'blame the user' tech crowd is a bit too eager to pile on the abuse for her habits. Perhaps they just don’t want to admit their advice is a failure, which doesn’t really meet everybody’s real-world needs," he said.

"Context matters. Regular people are careless with their phones, so regular people should really consider using a password. Internet company CEOs who live in the penthouse of the Four Seasons aren’t regular folks, so the same advice just doesn’t apply."

We think if polled, most chief executives around the world would give the exact same – albeit slightly less gleeful – answer. As such, while it's fair to bemoan Mayer's security mishap, we should avoid reverting to finger pointing and instead take it as a sign we need to do more to educate people about the importance of robust cyber security, as the UK government is doing with its ongoing Cyber Strategy.

You can watch the whole interview with Mayer in the YouTube video below.

By V3's Alastair Stevenson

Marissa Mayer's Yahoo puts focus on product instead of content

03 Apr 2013

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Yahoo Mail now has cloud storage integration thanks to a recently announced partnership with Dropbox. The integration means that Yahoo has email storage offerings similar in scope to Microsoft's Outlook.com and Google's Gmail.

It's surprising that it took this long for Yahoo to bring a cloud storage offering to its web email client. Gmail has been offering integration with Google Drive for years and Microsoft brought Skydrive support to Outlook last year.

The late arrival speaks to Yahoo's current predicament. The former internet superpower has been forced to play catch up on a variety of its products over the last year. This is mainly due to the fact that Yahoo didn't really know what it wanted to be until last July.

Yahoo finally started to map out what it wanted to become when it anointed ex-Googler Marissa Mayer chief executive officer in July.

The company dabbled in half-baked plans during its carousel of leaders over the past few years. But it was only when Mayer took the reins that the company actually started to create a plan of action.

Former Yahoo executive Carol Bartz tried to put the firm's focus on ads and content. However, that plan was quickly dashed when she was let go after only two years of service. Never one to mince words, Bartz would later call the board of directors who fired her a bunch of "doofuses".

At least Bartz had a chance to implement a strategy. Her successor, Scott Thompson, was out the door before his candidacy even really began.

The former PayPal executive was dropped from the Yahoo stable in less than six month of joining the company. Thompson was fired following the discovery that he lied about his education on his CV.

His dismissal quickly led to Mayer taking over the empire of dirt known as Yahoo. She, unlike her predecessors, has a definitive plan of action and the support of her board of directors.

Mayer wants to bring the focus back to Yahoo products. That is why Yahoo has been updating things like its email client and homepage. She's also put a focus on small acquisitions that can offer Yahoo a solid staff of workers.

Her approach differs from that of Bartz and looks more like what Google does. It is perhaps fitting that Mayer is a former Google employee, then. By putting a focus on products Mayer hopes to turn around Yahoo's fortunes through well made user offerings.

So far it looks like it could be working. Revenue has been solid and Yahoo has been making headlines on purpose since she took over. Take for example her recent purchase of Summly. Yahoo paid $20m for the app made by a UK teenager.

Whether it was a PR stunt or because she actually likes the product is anyone's guess. But one thing is for sure, if it was a PR move it was a good one. Yahoo made headlines with the purchase and got people talking about the company for something other than a chief executive firing.

Moving passed news of Yahoo executives fighting with the board of directors is always a good thing. Mayer seems to be well liked by her board. She has even been able to bring people onto the board with her hire.

Former PayPal chief technology officer Max Levchin joined Yahoo's board late last year. Levchin said one of the reasons he joined Yahoo was because of Mayer. Having that sort of support could be huge for Mayer moving forward.

Whether the bet on Yahoo products works is currently unknown. However, at least it is a plan. It is a plan that gives the firm focus and positive attention. Mayer may end up like Bartz by year's end, but at least for now the firm is doing something productive.

It will take a lot for Yahoo to create products that can keep up with Google and Microsoft offerings. Over time, however, that could change. Yahoo is currently on a path and if it stays the course (like sticking with one chief executive for a while) then there's no telling what might happen to the thing once known as "David and Jerry's Guide to the World Wide Web".

 

UK's $30m Summly wunderkind could inspire a generation of programmers

26 Mar 2013

iphone-icon-big

There are many in the IT industry deeply concerned about the rotten state of education in this country, especially when it comes to producing people with the IT skills that will be essential in tomorrow's economy.

But even while the government labours to produce an IT curriculum capable of inspiring – rather than boring – our schoolchildren, it's reassuring to see that we're still capable of creating role models.

For schoolchildren across the UK, the news that teenager Nick D'Aloisio sold his fledgling start-up Summly to Silicon Valley luminary Yahoo for something in the region of $30m, could be the kind of shot in the arm the industry needs. 

We urgently need more talented Brits to embrace IT, and other than D'Alosisio, role models have been pretty thin on the ground.

D'Alosisio is obviously a precocious talent: he taught himself to programme at the age of 12, had launched his first app by the age of 15, and looks to be a multi-millionaire even before he can legally buy a pint.

But while he is a shining example for would-be programmers, D'Alosisio's own experiences should sound a warning that we cannot be complacent: his success does not guarantee others will follow in his footsteps. 

Lest we forget, D'Alosisio had not learned programming skills at school. According to the Summly blog, D'Alosisio got the idea of creating Summly when studying for exams – but he had to undertake the necessary research into natural language processing and machine translation that underpin the app off his own back. 

Without better support for people interested in technology, we risk seeing the ambitions of other would tech entrepreneurs withering on the stalk of our out-dated education system. We need to open schoolchildren eyes to what they can create themselves through programming, not get them intimately acquainted with Word or Excel.

It may be that D'Alosiso provides a beacon of hope for other would-be UK tech stars. But it's chastening to note that should he opt to attend university at some point in the future, his preference is to read humanities not computer science, according to the Wall St Journal.

Marissa Mayer and Tim Cook up for Time's Person of the Year

18 Dec 2012

marissa-mayer-hope-posterTwo Silicon Valley executives are in competition with president Obama and Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi for Time Magazine's Person of 2012 award.

Yahoo chief executive Marissa Mayer and Apple chief executive Tim Cook will look to beat out the political leaders for the award. Mayer candidacy comes as she tries to bring Yahoo back to its glory days. While Cook attempts to move out of the shadow of Apple's founder Steve Jobs.

If the two executives win the award they will join the ranks of past winners like Mark Zuckerberg, who won the award in 2010. Other notable winners include Vladimir Putin, Jeff Bezos, and You.

If Mayer wins it will add to her rather eventful year. She was appointed chief executive of Yahoo last July.

For Cook, the win would be big news for the man who stepped into Steve Jobs shoes late last year. During his tenure as chief executive of Apple, Cook has overseen the release of the iPhone 5, iPad Mini, and the much maligned Apple Maps.

If V3 had a vote, and we don't, we'd give serious consideration to Mayer. Not only has she had one of the most eventful years in Silicon Valley but she's also put her fingerprints all over Yahoo during her brief tenure.

Fixing Yahoo is no easy task. However, Mayer has so far shown she has the vision and support to get it done. Plus, she'd be the first women to win the award since former president of the Philippines Corazon Aquino won it in 1986.

More reports emerge that Microsoft may buy part of Yahoo

29 Nov 2011

Microsoft may again be bidding for Yahoo, but this time for a minority stake in the company and in partnership with private investment firm Silver Lake Partners, according to reports.

AOL chief executive Tim Armstrong has said, meanwhile, that his firm does not plan to buy any Yahoo assets.

Yahoo has asked for bids to be submitted this week, according to Bloomberg. Other bids are expected to come from private investment firms Thomas H Lee Partners and TPG Capital, reports say.

Another report by DealBook has said that Microsoft will join forces with Silver Lake Partners and TPG Capital to secure 20 per cent of Yahoo.

All the firms involved in the bid have refused to give official statements, but the fact that Microsoft is making another offer for Yahoo would hardly come as a surprise.

Relationships between Microsoft and Yahoo have been far from stable in recent years but, even though Yahoo has fallen a long way from its status as an internet giant, Microsoft remains interested. Microsoft still basically wants Yahoo to compete better with Google.

Redmond attempted to buy Yahoo in 2008 for $44.6bn (£30bn) but was rebuffed. At that point Mcirosoft chief executive Steve Ballmer denied any chance of new acquisition talks and said that his firm had "moved on".

But Microsoft and Yahoo announced a 10-year search partnership in 2009 to allow them to compete with Google.

The deal was signed by Yahoo's new chief executive at the time, Carol Bartz, who was hired to turn Yahoo around after the firm's search market share had fallen sharply against Google's. Bartz was recently fired by Yahoo's board for failing to succeed with this strategy.

Bartz's priority was clearly to improve Yahoo's display advertising business, launching Rich Ads In Search, which let advertisers include images, video and location in adverts. However, problems with Bartz's strategy arose this year, as Yahoo's advertising business was not keeping pace with its rivals'.

Meanwhile, problems also arose with Bartz's 10-year search deal with Microsoft, and in April Yahoo attributed a 28 per cent profit slump to technical problems arising from the partnership.

Yahoo hits back at Which? email snooping complaints

11 Jul 2011

Yahoo has hit back at claims from consumer group Which? that updated T&Cs on its new Mail service violate internet users' privacy and could lead to behavioural advertising by the back door.

The terms in question are Section c. of Yahoo Mail's Additional Terms Of Service which read: "By using the Services, you consent to allow Yahoo's automated systems to scan and analyse all incoming and outgoing communications content sent and received from your account (such as Mail and Messenger content including instant messages and SMS messages)."

Which? argued that "most consumers would be horrified to learn that their email can be read in order to open the door to targeted advertisers".

However, Yahoo contacted V3.co.uk on Monday to put its side of the story.

This seems to boil down to the fact that users are informed before they sign up via a pop-up notice that most of its competitors already have similar automated scanning in operation, and that the service will not lead to covert behavioural advertising but is primarily aimed at improving the user experience.

Such enhancements include recognising links to Flickr accounts in messages which will then automatically display photos in the body of the email, or directing automatically distributed mail such as newsletters into specific folders.

Undoubtedly customer information will be increasingly used by messaging providers to enhance their services and target relevant ads. The question is whether the benefits to the customer outweigh any lingering privacy concerns.

In most cases, as has already been proved most successfully by Google, they do. If you don't like the new Yahoo Mail, don't upgrade.

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