Monthly Archives: July 2016

Privacy International’s having a very public battle with GCHQ over secret spying

Written as editor of the New Statesman’s NS Tech and first published here.

Campaign group Privacy International is now halfway through a four-day trial for a case it filed in June last year that seeks to shine a light on the pervasive nature of government spying.

The case refers specifically to the “acquisition, use, retention, disclosure, storage and deletion of Bulk Personal Datasets”, and whether this is legal and proportionate.

Opening for Privacy International in front of the the Investigatory Powers Tribunal yesterday, Thomas de la Mare QC said that this “de facto constant surveillance” could become “the most potent instrument of repression”.

The case has evolved over the course of the last year as new admissions were made by security services, and formerly secret documents were released by GCHQ and MI5.

The bodies’ initial policy to “neither confirm nor deny” the practice was blasted out of the water when it was first acknowledged by parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee. This was confirmed by the now prime minister Theresa May last November.

Privacy International’s case was then amended when it was found that spies were operating under section 94 of the Telecommunications Act 1984, rather than the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000, as had first been indicated.

The latest document disclosure came yesterday, including a report from the Cabinet Office that reveals concerns were raised as early as 2010 about the public defensibility of such activity.

Privacy International has, of course, added all of this to the full set of correspondence it’s collected online since the case was first filed, offering huge transparency on government secrecy.

It’s also created an infographic to help people understand exactly what ‘communications data’ is.

Communications data

Although the government has suggested that collecting only ‘communications data’ and not ‘content data’ ensures anonymity of individuals, Privacy International has collected vast amounts of evidencethat calls this into question.

From the documents released, Privacy International has concluded that security services were using section 94 between 1998 and 2015 to collect traffic and service data via “regular feeds” from Internet Service Providers. On top of this, GCHQ was also “obtaining subscriber information until 2015 using section 94”.

In its witness statement, GCHQ’s Deputy Director of Mission Policy, explained that advancements in technology have now made it easier than ever before to “extract value” from large datasets. The body essentially has a “dedicated corporate tool”, or a spy search engine, to “quickly run searches”.

It was revealed earlier this year that spies were actually using this tool for “looking up addresses in order to send birthday cards, checking passport details to organise personal travel, checking details of family members for personal reasons”.

Essentially, as Google, for people.

Millie Graham Wood, Legal Officer at Privacy International, said yesterday: “Today’s disclosures provide a far more detailed and worrying picture on the vast collection of bulk personal data-sets and bulk communications data by the intelligence agencies than previously known.

“We are at last getting closer to piecing together the genesis of a regime which operated in secret for 18 years without adequate safeguards and oversight.”

Any powers being used today or in the past will be replaced by the Investigatory Powers Bill, which is still being considered by the House of Lords, but is expected to be enacted in the Autumn.

Tech industry body techUK has criticised the bill as a threat to the UK’s digital economy.

Openreach shows this isn’t just an infrastructure problem – it’s a government strategy crisis

Written as editor of the New Statesman’s NS Tech and first published here.

This morning, I appeared for (what turned out to be) a very short segment on BBC2’s Victoria Derbyshire show to talk about Openreach. Here’s what I would have said…

When you’re talking to people about internet connectivity, it’s a bit like having a chat about the plumbing in their house. They only really want to discuss it when things go wrong and even they’d be pretty happy to just leave it to the experts.

Infrastructure crisis

On Openreach specifically, the original deal was finalised a decade ago. When Facebook was still in nappies, many years before Snapchat was invented and even a year before the first iPhone came out.

Things have changed hugely in that time and it’s understandable that BT and others were not fully prepared for the explosion in digital services that many people have come to understand as the norm.

But it’s 10 years on and we do face a big question about whether our digital infrastructure is really serving our needs.

People I’ve spoken to in the industry say this was a “glorious fudge” at the time and that it is now “letting the country down”. Many wanted BT and Openreach to split entirely, although there’s some disagreement about what the new entity would look like.

But, after a year-long investigation, Ofcom outlined its plan today and is simply asking for greater separation.

That’s in spite of the fact that Openreach was roundly criticised by MPs for exploiting its position to further its own interests, which the committee says sacrificed both customer and shareholder benefit. That’s on top of them saying investment in Openreach has been flat since 2009 and that overall, the “quality of service remains poor”.

BT batted off these criticisms, but that was the analysis on the evidence given.

That’s not to suggest that Openreach doesn’t have a tough job. It looks after 30 million phone lines and says it attends 175,000 jobs each week. It now says that it only takes engineers two days to fix a problem, 84 per cent of the time, and can usually do a new installation within seven days…

It, of course, has shareholders expecting profit on their investment and has a £10 billion hole in its pension pot that no doubt keep senior staff there up at night! But, just as rival TalkTalk de-merged from Carphone Warehouse in 2010, this kind of separation isn’t exactly impossible.

BT’s chairman offered some compromises yesterday, in the shape of an independent board and greater spending power for Openreach around its investments.

Ofcom says it has gone further, calling for a new legal entity with a separate board that will be required to consult its customers (see: rivals) on new infrastructure investments without that information getting back to BT.

Ofcom has also reserved the right to revisit the issue, just as it did after a whole 10 years of living with a deal that’s seen by many as never being fit for purpose.

Watch this space, though, there will now be a consultation on the details, which you can get involved with (excited?) and closes on 4 October.

Skills crisis

On the wider picture, though, while this might all sound well and good, the government has been painting the UK as a leading digital nation.

And, not least in that it takes two days to fix a fault with a piece of plumbing that many companies and people now rely on as much as their toilet, we simply are not.

There are 12.6 million people in the UK, almost a quarter of the population, that lack the digital skills they need to use the internet properly; 5 million of those have never even been online.

And a total of 1 in 10 households still cannot get even the basic speed of internet the government says we all now need to participate in modern life.

The Digital Economy Bill is currently going through parliament and makes some provisions for getting that 10 per cent of households, some, if not good internet. That’s a (not entirely guarantee) 10Mbps, versus up to 10Gbps you can get in South Korea.

There are, of course, many great companies in the UK that aren’t quite household names doing interesting things to get fast internet to people faster than BT ever could.

Power to them.

As well as shopping, banking and entertainment all rapidly moving online, the government’s admirable ‘digital by default’ agenda means vital public services are all heading there too.

This certainly offers an opportunity to make cost savings, but the people that are most likely to need to access government services are also the ones who are digitally excluded.

And we barely even have the skills to build all those new, shiny government products here in the UK.

It’s been estimated that we’ll need as many as 2 million skilled workers for new digital jobs by 2020. Of course, coding is now compulsory at British school, but many teachers aren’t yet digitally savvy themselves and few people getting paid big bucks in tech would take the cut in order to teach.

MPs say this skills gap already costs the UK £63 billion a year in lost income. But who’d listen to them!

We may also lose many skilled workers from the workforce post-Brexit, many Europeans I know working in the tech industry somehow don’t feel welcome anymore, yet more gaps that need filling.

Since I started working in tech five years ago, we’ve been talking about a digital skills crisis. And there are organisations out there doing some good work, Doteveryone, Freeformers, but we don’t reallyhave a plan.

As much as it’s a challenge, this could be, really, a fantastic opportunity to finally skill up unemployed young people en masse, as well as those living in areas of the UK where other industries are in crisis.

Governance crisis

One other challenge to our digital future, that I’m sure Dido Harding, who I appeared on the show with, knows much more is the Investigatory Powers Bill, nicknamed the Snooper’s Charter.

Yet another change to our digital infrastructure that is being considered with worryingly little input from the public. The bill will, among other things, force Internet Service Providers like TalkTalk to keep all of our internet browsing records for a year.

Many people say “oh I’m not doing anything wrong, I don’t mind”, but we simply do not have the skills to protect those databases from hackers. As just one example, TalkTalk itself had 157,000 of its customers’ details stolen in October last year.

Harding, as a member of the House of Lords, is also working out the final details of this law that will require that sensitive data, perhaps medical, financial, is stored long term, ready to be swiped by criminals.

To be fair, she is one of the only members of the House of Lords with expertise in this area. One member, who is 83, admitted he is an “ignoramus” when it comes to digital.

It has been widely criticised by technology companies, the people that work in the industry, like the Openreach deal, but will probably quietly pass anyway.

Strategy crisis

Overall, we’ve been waiting on the Conservative’s new, fancy Digital Strategy for almost six months and now the relevant minister, Ed Vaizey, is no longer in government, so we could be waiting a long time yet.

For me, just as Brexit proved, we have a wider strategy crisis at the top of government.

Internet infrastructure was no doubt expected to be part of this new strategy, but where is the leadership on making sure that people have the right skills to access services?

Where is the leadership on making sure we have the people to build those services?

And who exactly decides what rules should exist in the digital age anyway?

Donald Trump invested in Facebook. Guess whose campaign it’s given cash to…

Written as editor of the New Statesman’s NS Tech and first published here.

It was slightly jarring to see Silicon Valley’s least favourite Libertarian Peter Thiel take to the stage at the Republican National Convention to give his unequivocal support to the Trump campaign.

Most tech folks might be hyper-capitalist, but they’re also pretty socially liberal and would probably seem out of place among the Republican Party faithful.

Thiel made much of his links to the world’s innovation capital, not least to launch an attack on how the US government has lost its way on tech.

“It’s hard to remember this, but our government was once high tech, too. When I moved to Cleveland, defense research was laying the foundations for the internet. The Apollo program was just about to put a man on the moon – and it was Neil Armstrong, from right here in Ohio. The future felt limitless.

“But today our government is broken. Our nuclear bases still use floppy disks. Our newest fighter jets can’t even fly in the rain. And it would be kind to say the government’s software works poorly, because much of the time it doesn’t even work at all.

“That is a staggering decline for the country that completed the Manhattan project. We don’t accept such incompetence in Silicon Valley, and we must not accept it from our government.”

Thiel’s ringing endorsement got me thinking about whether there are some tech smarts to Trump that I hadn’t yet seen. Tech policy has been pretty absent from the campaign, but it’s a key area of growth for the US economy.

And, indeed, after things got a bit quiet on the real estate market in the early part of this decade, Trump did start investing in technology companies.

He started out buying shares in Intel in 2011, followed a year later by an investment in Facebook.

Like many other tech companies, Facebook spends a lot of cash on lobbying the US government ($2.7 million this year alone), and a considerable amount on backing various election candidates.

So who were the top recipients of the total $469,369 spent by Facebook on campaign contributions in 2016?

Facebook 2016 election spending

Just for good measure, here’s where Apple’s $625,484 went this year too.

Apple 2016 election spending

It’s little wonder the New York Times identifies Thiel as a member of a club “so endangered it might as well be called extinct: the Silicon Valley Trump supporter”.

But, at the risk of making himself very popular with many normal people who don’t live in the Silicon Valley bubble, Thiel, finished his speech by saying:

“When Donald Trump asks us to Make America Great Again, he’s not suggesting a return to the past. He’s running to lead us back to that bright future.”

Not to worry though, Trump is actually doing pretty well without Facebook and Apple’s campaign cash. And if Thiel’s backing another winner, let’s hope our new president fulfils the entrepreneur’s demand for better tech in government.

Wait. Did I just wish that Donald Trump wins the election?

While we’re on this stuff: those in the tech-know won’t need telling that Peter Thiel was the first institutional investor in Facebook way back in 2004.

He actually cashed in most of his shares to the tune of $1 billion in the same year Trump bought in, but retains his seat on the board.

This position was cast into some doubt because of the recent revelations that Thiel was waging a secret war with Gawker. A vote last month, however, saw him keep his spot.

Rubbish technology isn’t the only reason you can’t keep great young staff

Written as editor of the New Statesman’s NS Tech and first published here.

“A lot of banks are having trouble recruiting on Wall Street,” so claimed Marcos Salazar, executive director of New York social impact community Be Social Change, speaking at social innovation competition The Venture last week.

“… because it’s only for profit.”

Sure, from looking at his job title alone, he would think that. But the latest data confirms that big banks are, at least, struggling to keep junior staff, if not quite explaining why.

“We’re focused on trying to understand what’s important to the folks we hire right out of school,” John Waldron, co-head of the investment banking division at Goldman Sachs, told the Wall Street Journal earlier this year.

Old power, meet new power

Jeremy Heimans, CEO of socially-minded branding agency Purpose, summed up this trend up at The Venture event, put on by drinks company Pernod Ricard, as “old power, versus new power”.

“Old power is like a currency, the more you have, the more powerful you are. So you hoard it.

“New power is a current, it’s electricity or water, it’s held by many and the powerful are simply good at channelling it.”

Many in the social innovation community believe we are only at the beginning of the promised wave of new power, powered by our ability to connect with anyone, anywhere.

And that’s changing the values of young people, your millennial workforce, too.

“In the financial sector of the 1980s, you didn’t get ahead by being a great sharer. You had to be a great competitor. Donald Trump, for instance, was ruthlessly good at competition.

“Today though, we see a rejection of more formal governance. Young people want transparency on everybody’s salary, on the basis of every decision. But that also means it’s hard to get people to commit, to become a card-carrying member.”

Heimans points to the ‘Ikea effect’, where people place more value on items they’ve helped to build, and compares combative Uber to collaborative Airbnb, as real evidence that companies must now help customers join in and staff feel like what they’re doing is worth it.

“Increasingly people are asking questions about your values and how you operate responsibly in the world,” he said. “They’ll be able to see if your espoused values are truly matched by your actions and behaviour.”

Pernod Ricard is so convinced of this shift that it’s created an entire competition around it, The Venture, where it invited social innovators from 27 countries to compete for a share of $1 million.

SMS farming

WeFarm, the UK’s entry, came in second and took home $200,000 to further develop its peer-to-peer information sharing platform designed for small-scale farmers, using SMS.

Its CEO Kenny Ewan outlined the challenge – there are currently 500 million of these types of farmers worldwide, many with no access to the internet.

But those largely African and Asian farmers actually produce around 70 per cent of all the food consumed on earth. “If they don’t farm it, we don’t eat it,” he said.

The platform is certainly scaleable, given there are more mobile phones than toothbrushes on the planet today, but there’s also a huge business opportunity here.

“Multinationals are typically ordering months before the produce is harvested. But we currently have almost zero visibility on what’s actually happening on the ground.”

Aggregating the data could track disease outbreaks or droughts in real-time, to help anticipate and address poor harvests before they happen.

Lego houses

The winner of The Venture this year, and $300,000, was Colombia’s Conceptos Plásticos.

This startup has created large, lego-style housing bricks made with a patented technology that transforms any kind of discarded plastic into a usable material.

Its goal is to end extreme poverty in Latin America, where 77 million people live without proper access to housing, all while tackling climate change issues associated with plastic waste. The bricks are earthquake-proof, waterproof and have a lifespan of 500 years, all without the need for glue or cement.

Using just 2 per cent of the waste plastic in the world today, founder Oscar Andrez Mendez claims that his company could solve Latin America’s housing crisis within a decade.

Doing good business

Technology is certainly a huge part of this change, with platform’s like Facebook, at least on the surface, distributing power like never before.

Tech offers speed and scale, whether you’ve launched a great marketing campaign, or a complaint about your company has gone viral.

But, pointing to the social profile of brutal Syrian president Bashar al Assad, Heimans added: “New power is not simply your Facebook page. These new digital tools aren’t inherently positive.”

Ultimately, Heimans doesn’t believe that social innovation can truly make its mark until we address “rampant income equality”.

“That’s hard because lots of people are beneficiaries of the incredible wealth that’s been created in the last 20 years.”

For Alexandre Ricard, grandson of the founder of the world-famous drinks brand, his company’s support for social innovators is as much a business imperative as a moral one.

“It is our duty. It is part of our values too. It is the best way to remain relevant to the growing community of millennnials who really pay attention to that. The next consumers. And it’s the best way to attract and retain talent.”

And Pernod Ricard really isn’t the only one.

Perhaps most notably, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has thrown its considerable technology might behind social innovation by unveiling a $6 billion fund that’ll bring together multidisciplinary experts to create ideas ‘for a better world’.

“Humanity faces urgent challenges — challenges whose solutions depend on marrying advanced technical and scientific capabilities with a deep understanding of the world’s political, cultural and economic complexities,” MIT president L. Rafael Reif said in May.

“We launch the Campaign for a Better World to rise to those challenges and accelerate positive change.”

Tesla’s connected, driverless bus will transform the image of public transport

Written as editor of the New Statesman’s NS Tech and first published here.

Grimy spaces packed full of strangers, chewing gum stuck under the hand rail, sticky stain dribbled down the aisle… Bus and train travel in Britain today can rarely be accused of being glamorous.

But for many, not least in London where surely only idiots and travelling salesmen own cars, bus and train travel is just the everyday, clammy reality that bookends a day at work.

Thankfully, the technologists are on it, and yesterday Tesla CEO Elon Musk revealed that the next stage of his ‘master plan’ will include urban transport.

The PayPal mafia member isn’t afraid to publicly outline his lofty dreams, as he did a decade ago on the first iteration of his big vision.

Then he promptly goes out and makes them happen.

As early as 2001, he’d pledged substantial cash towards space travel.

He’s now testing rockets almost every week as the CEO of his own space company, SpaceX, founded in 2002.

Slightly more low key is his new plan to build on the work already being done on Tesla’s range of (almost autonomous) electric cars by adding public transport and logistics options.

“Both are in the early stages of development at Tesla and should be ready for unveiling next year…

“With the advent of autonomy, it will probably make sense to shrink the size of buses and transition the role of bus driver to that of fleet manager.

“Traffic congestion would improve due to increased passenger areal density by eliminating the center aisle and putting seats where there are currently entryways, and matching acceleration and braking to other vehicles, thus avoiding the inertial impedance to smooth traffic flow of traditional heavy buses.

“It would also take people all the way to their destination. Fixed summon buttons at existing bus stops would serve those who don’t have a phone. Design accommodates wheelchairs, strollers and bikes.”

This idea won’t be great news to bus drivers, but earlier this year the American Association for the Advancement of Science had already given the role just 25 more years to live.

We have to expect more industrial action as global employment potentially dips below 50 per cent by 2045 – now is the time to start planning for ‘next’.

Musk also outlined plans to connect all Teslas on the road through one app so owners can make money by loaning out their car in the 90 to 95 per cent of time they aren’t driving it.

Although it’s technically possible to do this with existing cars today, the benefit, it appears, comes from the autonomy removing the need for the loan driver to be insured.

“The fundamental economic utility of a true self-driving car is likely to be several times that of a car which is not,” he said.

Tesla will also operate its own taxi fleet in cities, taking companies like Uber square on.

Musk says much of Tesla’s focus right now is on improving the factories that build its current range of cars, “designing the machine that makes the machine – turning the factory itself into a product”, he calls it,

Creating efficiencies in this area is key to ensuring Musk meets one of his outstanding goals from his first ‘master plan’ – to go from delivering low-volume, luxury electric carx, to creating a Tesla for everyone.

If he’s going down the data-driven factory path, he might be keeping an eye on how Google is deploying its DeepMind AI to better control energy-hungry data centres.

Musk is hoping to acquire and merge the solar panel company he also founded, SolarCity, sooner rather than later, so he can combine its tech with Tesla’s Powerwall home solar battery to produce a “beautiful solar-roof-with-battery product that just works”.

“One ordering experience, one installation, one service contact, one phone app” is the idea. But the company’s other investors are still lukewarm on the idea, not least because of the recent death of a Tesla driver who was using the beta autonomous function.

In a refreshingly future-focused statement from a tech billionaire, Musk said of his updated mission:

“The point of all this was, and remains, accelerating the advent of sustainable energy, so that we can imagine far into the future and life is still good. That’s what ‘sustainable’ means. It’s not some silly, hippy thing – it matters for everyone.”


While your BT broadband is down… We need to talk about Openreach

Written as editor of the New Statesman’s NS Tech and first published here.

The only time anyone ever really notices the internet is when it’s not working.

BT suffered a major outage today, which obviously has customers (who need the web, always) up in arms with the nation’s biggest broadband provider.

BT outage at 1700

But there’s much more going on in the background with our friendly Internet Service Providers that few outside of the industry ever talk about, even though we all rely on them more than ever.

It’s 10 years since Ofcom and BT agreed to formally separate the telecoms provider’s retail arm from the pipes that connect homes and businesses into a new subsidiary, Openreach.

The purpose of creating a new and separate division was to “deliver Openreach products on an open and even handed basis to any and all communications providers”.

Competition, it was hoped, would ensure better internet at lower costs.

At the end of this month, though, another decision on the future of this relationship will be taken by Ofcom, as part of its strategic review of a decade of living with these awkward bed fellows.

Today, Openreach says it has installed and now maintains around 30 million telephone and broadband lines, attending a whopping 175,000 jobs each week, from problems at the telephone exchange to those at the green, on-street cabinet.

The likes of Virgin, Sky and hundreds more resellers depend on Openreach’s pipes to deliver their respective flavour of broadband direct to companies and homeowners.

But few believe it’s doing as well as it could be. The network simply “fell down during the floods” one industry watcher points out.

Yesterday, Openreach was roundly slated by a committee of MPsfor “significantly under investing” in the network.

The DCMS report explains:

“The Committee says BT has exploited its position to make strategic decisions that ‘favour the Group’s priorities and interests’ – and is likely to have sacrificed shareholder value and customer benefit as a result. Capital investment in Openreach has been broadly flat since 2009 until this year, and quality of service remains poor.”

In response to this, BT countered:

“We’re disappointed to be criticised, having invested more than £1 billion a year in infrastructure when the UK was emerging from recession and rival companies invested little. As the report acknowledges BT’s investment has made the UK a broadband leader among the major economies in Europe.

“Openreach investment is 30 percent higher than it was two years ago and it will grow again this year. We’re already pumping in hundreds of millions of pounds of extra money and we’ve committed to invest a further £6 billion over the next three years.

“We agree that service levels have to improve and yesterday we announced that we’re making significant progress in this area.”

On the question of further spinning out the operation, though, it added:

“We are in discussions with Ofcom about increasing the autonomy of Openreach and we’re hopeful that a settlement is possible that will meet the concerns of the committee.

“Separating Openreach from BT would lead to less investment, not more, and would fatally undermine the aims of the committee.”

On speaking to those in the industry, Openreach has been called a “glorious fudge” and has even been accused of “letting the country down”.

One reason is that it hasn’t quite separated as far from big BT as many competitors or wholesale buyers would like, with accusations made that profits are used to subsidise other parts of the larger company.

Another is that its ‘superfast fibre’ currently only means fibre connections as far as the street cabinet, with the connection into each premises still being delivered on a old-style copper network.

Not only does that mean a maximum of around 24Mb download speeds that can feasibly be squeezed from copper, but also that you’re competing with up to 20 different buildings for your share of… juice.

Many want Openreach to become more or even fully independent, with the Federation of Communication Services that represents wholesale suppliers like Virgin, calling for it to be made a not-for-profit.

“Openreach is not delivering what the marketplace of today needs and that’s partly because the same demand simply wasn’t there five years ago,” explains Chris Pateman, CEO of the Federation of Communication Services.

“From a business customer’s point of view, the business is not fit for purpose, but the majority have no alternative.

“What you want from a utility is access to good quality standards at reliable prices, so we think the intelligent thing to do would be to mutualise it, something like Welsh Water.”

Although Openreach is accused of having a stranglehold, that hasn’t completely squashed competition in the market, with big players like TalkTalk and smaller ones like Gigaclear, leapfrogging BT’s copper network with nifty newer technical fixes.

“Has the current separation worked from a competitive point of view? No,” says Matthew Hare, chief exec of Gigaclear. “Has Openreach been performing and investing at the right level? No.

“Now that the UK has voted to leave the EU, this offers Ofcom a moment of change to get a better deal out of Openreach to deliver better infrastructure.”

Hare isn’t certain a not-for-profit is the answer, not least because Openreach shareholders would be looking for adequate compensation, but agreed:

“In the short term, it would be better for us if BT had Openreach taken away.

“Long term, it might be worse for us as there’d be stronger competition for building alternative network infrastructure, but for the country, we definitely need a body that is more focused on building the best infrastructure.”

Openreach made a number of commitments to improving its service earlier this week, ahead of the select committee report, and ultimately the Ofcom review.

On top of those, it stated that:

“Openreach’s engineers fix 84 per cent of faults within two working days – compared to just 67 per cent when reporting began two years ago. The business installs 93 per cent of new lines on time, and it has cut the average time to get an appointment from 11 to seven days.

“Openreach has also reduced the number of appointments its engineers miss by more than a third in just three months and is on track to halve missed appointments this year.”

Openreach is certainly transparent, publishing a quarterly report on how it’s measuring up against its relevant KPIs.

Unfortunately, transparency isn’t the same as doing a ‘good’ job, particularly as so many now rely on the internet to get most of their life and work done.

Two days to fix your internet is probably too many, to most people.

Many Internet Service Providers are now waiting with baited breath to see if this is finally the end of the Openreach’s effective decade-long monopoly.

Most normal people will never know about the battle for better internet pipes. But the struggle is real.

No, the UK is not the most digital economy in the world. Here’s why.

Written as editor of the New Statesman’s NS Tech and first published here.

It’s easy to get a rather polarised view of the UK’s digital economy if you’re looking across areas like Tech City, the Investigatory Powers Bill, or the ONS’ measures of digital access.

Are we a booming startup nation and innovation champion? Or are we a country’s that’s trying to end end-to-end encryption and one that’s made little progress on basic skills?

The latest data from Barclays’ first Digital Development Index, which benchmarked 10 leading digital nations, warns that productivity, innovation and growth are all at risk here.

The UK came in fourth place on the new index, behind Estonia, South Korea and Sweden, in terms of overall ‘digital empowerment’, but skills were highlighted as a major concern.

Although Barclays says there are some positive policies in place, this doesn’t seem to be translating into good skills on the ground.

In terms of protecting our devices, the UK lags behind countries like Brazil, South Africa, India and China, where people are more likely to use password generating software, change passwords regularly or keep confidential payments data off the web.

The UK ranked seventh in terms of technical skills, with many developing nations soaring ahead in key web development roles, according to the survey of 10,000 people.

  • Only 16 per cent of people in the UK would be very comfortable building a website, compared to 39 per cent in Brazil and 37 per cent in India
  • Only 11 per cent of people in the UK would be very comfortable creating a mobile app or game, compared to 22 per cent in the US, 27 per cent in Brazil and 33 per cent in India

The survey also found that most UK companies are failing to train staff for new digital opportunities. While 38 per cent of UK workers said their employer offers this kind of training, in China and the US that reaches 48 per cent, and soars to 67 per cent in India.

A recent Science and Technology Committee report estimated that a lack of digital skills costs the UK economy £63 billion each year.

Overall, Estonia leads on vocational and workplace skills, while South Korea was deemed to have the best broadband policy and compulsory digital education.

“At a time when the UK is considering its future outside the European Union, we have to remember that competing in the digital economy isn’t simply a European question,” explained Ashok Vaswani, CEO at Barclays UK. “It’s a global race that will define how prosperous and successful we are for decades to come.”

“With the referendum sending a clear message that too many parts of the UK do not feel they are sharing in the promise of global prosperity, now is the time to take everyone in society forward in the digital age.”

With the loss of Ed Vaizey as Minister of State for Culture and the Digital Economy following Theresa May’s rise to power, a role that straddled DCMS and BIS, the long-promised Digital Strategy could start gathering dust.

This policy area now looks like it will sit with Matt Hancock, the new Minister of State for Culture and Digital Policy, within DCMS.

We’ve got in touch with the relevant department to find out exactly if or when we can expect a fully fledged plan for digital Britain.

Barclays has a range of skills initiatives in the UK, including its Digital Eagles programme, which offers free training to people up and down the country.

This is a call to arms for anyone who thinks they might get old one day

Written as editor of the New Statesman’s NS Tech and first published here.

We all know we’ll be old one day, but it can feel incredibly far away as you skim over Twitter headlines that regularly point out the crises facing our ageing population.

Well today, Nominet Trust and the Baring Foundation have launched a search for third-sector, arts and tech folks to address part of the one of the UK’s biggest social challenges.

The two organisations have put up £500,000 of funding for projects that help reach out to the over 65s using digital creative arts.

The Office for National Statistics says that over 65s account for nearly 20 per cent of the population, an almost 50 per cent increase since the mid-1970s.

Age UK, meanwhile, has found that there are more than one million older people who say they are “always” or “very” lonely, which can have damaging effects on health.

And one day soon, that could be you.

The project could be something that brings kids into care homes to creatively help older people with digital skills, like Alive in Bristol, or something that targets the UK’s six million carers, who are getting increasingly old themselves.

Just one in five care homes has wifi access that residents are allowed to use. To address this issue, FACT in Liverpool gets isolated older people skilled up on digital, then they teach care staff how to use it too.

Speaking at the launch of the fund in London last night, Madalaine Starr, director of innovation at Carers UK, said: “I’m here on behalf of the UK’s six million people who work on behalf of a loved one who’s older or living with a debilitating condition.

“That’s just a normal part of our everyday, complex lives, but these people face huge penalties, in terms of health, finances and social inclusion.”

The £500,000 funding pot is certainly not enough to fix the problems that already exist in elderly care.

That’s cuts to local authority funding, the growing profit motive in social services that doesn’t give people the salaries or time they need to truly care, and a distinct ‘out of sight, out of mind’ feeling.

Through this initiative, the organisations also hope to raise awareness of the need for us all to engage with this issue. We’ll all be there one day.

One area that is surely ripe for innovation, although not included in the scope of the project, is easy enterprise IT solutions that free up carers from admin tasks.

Janet Morrison, chairman of the Baring Foundation, said: “Real creativity and real innovation isn’t done to someone, it’s done with them and their capacity. We should be breaking down the walls of the care home.

“There is amazing activity that will blow your mind already going on in some care settings, but, until we are all prepared to wash and care for and feed older people, we have to understand the reasons that innovation might not be happening now.”

Dr Amanda Windle, head of the DigiLab at the London College of Communication, speaking to the Brexit point, added: “This has to be about engaging the whole of the UK in issues of ageing, loneliness and isolation.”

Successful projects are expected to receive around £90,000 each over the two-year scheme. You can apply here.

Hackers are coming for Europe’s energy system – and they’re getting smarter

Written as editor of the New Statesman’s NS Tech and first published here.

Security firm SentinelOne says it’s found the smartest malware it’s ever seen targeted at energy infrastructure, so sophisticated it believes this was an expensive, state-sponsored attack.

Speaking to NS Tech, senior security researcher Joseph Landry said that one unnamed energy company in Europe has already fallen foul of the (nicknamed) SFG malware.

And SentinelOne has pointed the finger at Eastern Europe.

The attack was initiated with a ‘dropper’, which stealthily bypassed anti-virus software and then started describing the architecture of the system back to the computer that was controlling it. At this point, SentinelOne was alerted that something wasn’t quite right.

“These people had the money and resources to buy large amounts of anti-virus products so they could understand the systems they were targeting and create workarounds for each,” Landry explains.

He was then tasked with reverse engineering the malware, looking at its static code, as well as how it acted when it was running, to see what was going on

But it took him a full two days to get it to run.

After that, he found sophisticated use of binary code designed to work on devices running any version of Microsoft Windows. That’d likely count the majority of energy companies, as well as financial service firms.

“This sample knew that at some point it would be analysed and it had a lot of tricks to stop a human from being able to.”

That included a mechanism where it would encrypt itself and die if it knew it was in a secure sandbox.

“I don’t think they were looking for money, they were looking for information, access to machines,” Landry said. “This wasn’t crimeware.”

As ever, SentinelOne recommends layered security measures in order to prevent wide damage across your systems.

“Anything can be targeted, anything can be destroyed,” he warned. “You can’t just use one anti-virus package, you need segmentation across your networks.”

Although Landry didn’t see any evidence of sabotage, he believes this was just the first piece of a staged attack.

“It seemed like initial reconnaissance so they could see what’s on the network then plan the next step.”

And this, of course, is just one example of the growing number of state-sponsored attacks, which, if targeted right, could eventually take out a whole energy grid.

A senior exec at Alphabet-owned Google said earlier this week that it notifies its customers of 4,000 state-sponsored cyber incidents every single month.

Google quietly wins again with roaring success of Pokémon GO

Written as editor of the New Statesman’s NS Tech and first published here.

Pokémon Go is only officially live in three countries, but app analytics monitor App Annie reckons games studio Niantic has already bagged $1 million in revenue from in-app purchases in just six days.

According to App Annie’s figures, it has beaten the former top grossing app, Clash Royale, in the pace of its rise to the number one spot across both Google Play and the App Store.

By some measures, it’s already installed on more Android handsets in the US than Tinder and it might have already overtaken Twitter too.

In fact, it’s been so successful, the roll out to places like Europe has been paused, no doubt while the team goes back to examine things like server capacity.

But that’s obviously not stopped the rest of the world grabbing their smartphones and running outside to join in the virtual-meets-real-world Pokémon hunt.

There are plenty of places that’ll tell you exactly how to work the system, by pretending you’re living in a region that you’re not. I couldn’t possibly comment.

Security firms are warning, though, that where there’s demand but no supply, there are nefarious people creating copycat apps with malware in the code. So the advice is, as ever, don’t download from an untrusted source.

$1 billion company?

In a departure from previous Niantic games, like the hugely successful real-world-meets-digital Ingress, the idea is to sell people coins so they can unlock additional powers.

In this case, that’s things like extra Pokeballs for catching your favourite Pokémon. To give you an idea of the exchange rate, $0.99 = 100 PokeCoins = 20 PokeBalls. (You’ll only know if that’s a bargain if you know how good you are.)

Sure, you can do it the long way and just play for points, but it seems like lots of people have more cash than patience.

“I can easily envision a run-rate of over $1 billion per year with less server issues, a worldwide presence and more social and player-versus-player features,” says Nicolas Beraudo, MD for EMEA at App Annie.

And that means both Google and Apple are already set to take their respective cuts of each purchase made in-app.

Google created and backed

The former Google/Alphabet startup struck out on its own back in April 2015. But it won early backing from its former parent company, to the tune of $30 million, given in partnership with Pokémon copyright holders Nintendo and The Pokémon Company.

Niantic’s CEO is John Hanke, who helped create Google Earth and led the company’s location services team before working on the AR startup internally.

Google Maps is, perhaps unsurprisingly, the mapping service of choice for Pokémon Trainers heading out on the road. And the platform offers a handy Google login as an alternative to creating a standalone account.

The latter feature has sparked early criticism, as it at least looked likeGoogle was taking over all available security permissions on iOS handsets without asking.

Niantic has since released a statement saying this was an “error” and that: “Google has verified that no other information has been received or accessed by Pokémon GO or Niantic.

“Google will soon reduce Pokémon GO’s permission to only the basic profile data that Pokémon GO needs, and users do not need to take any actions themselves.”

Solution finds problem

Augmented reality has for a long time appeared like the pinnacle of a solution looking for a problem. Google even canned its own augmented reality headsets last year. Remember Glass?

This, however, looks like a truly transformative moment for bringing augmented reality to the mainstream. People are literally getting their homes invaded and losing their jobs over this.

Next up from the Pokémon GO team is a wearable device, the Go Plus. Not a headset, but a watch-style device that’ll vibrate on the player’s wrist to let them know there’s a creature nearby waiting to be caught.

This has been promised in late July and if the price point is reasonable (whatever that means in a world where you’re technically paying for nothing) it’ll no doubt fly off the shelves. The great thing, of course, about a watch compared to a headset is, well, you don’t look stupid.

Hanke has also hinted at offering people a way to trade the Pokémon they catch, just like in the real-life game, creating a pretty virtuous circle that might see Go become the most successful AR game in history.

More widely, the company licenses out its APIs to other games developers in order to create another long-term revenue strategy, which could too be on the cards.

Alternatively, fellow gaming hit Angry Birds went down the big branding deals in-app and plush toys route. The London-based company is struggling, but the mobile app world has never been an easy one to make big bucks on.

Nintendo’s stock, meanwhile, has taken a huge leap, adding billions to the company’s valuation almost overnight.

Nintendo stock

The same cannot quite be said of Google’s stock, but this investment is just a drop in the ocean and one that it perhaps isn’t immediately obvious is a related venture.

Depending on the ultimate terms of the Niantic funding deal, which included holding $10 million of the total investment “conditioned upon the company achieving certain milestones”, this has a to be at least a mini win for Google.

As if it needed one.