When IT Meets Politics

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June 13, 2016  3:49 PM

Is there really a Digital Skills Crisis?

Philip Virgo Profile: Philip Virgo
Apprenticeship, apprenticeships, BIS, Digital skills, European Commission, Pitcom, Trailblazer

This morning the House of Commons Science and Technology Select Committee released its report on the “Digital Skills Crisis”  This afternoon the House of Lords debated the government response  to its “Make or Break” report last year . Last week the European Commission published a proposal for a Skills Guarantee . Meanwhile BIS is ploughing ahead with byzantine routines for a return to the type of training grant and levy scheme that was  scrapped (for good reason) in 1980s.  Unfortunately though dead, the idea of grants and levies, job creation schemes for bureaucrats, will not stay buried. In 1992 I helped kill an attempt to revive it with a Bow Group Paper on the theme of “Training for jobs not just jobs for trainers”.  The processes proposed by BIS to fund “approved “training organisations to deliver apprenticeships which meet criteria dictated by officials not employers, make the average European “initiative” look like a model of efficiency.

I therefore applaud the recommendations by the Select Committee that

  • Government needs to work with closely with employers, higher education institutions and schools to understand the apprenticeship marketplace, to ensure that education aligns with industry’s requirements, and that apprenticeships are delivered in a flexible way to adjust to future changes in the digital sector”  (Para 54)
  • Government should emphasise the need for more digital skills components in all apprenticeships … ” (Para 55)
  • should review its Trailblazer initiative, making it more streamlined and accessible … simplifying the scheme’s processes” (Para 56) and
  • … make it easier for industry to partner with universities and colleges to support student teaching … work placements … allow the cost to be written off against the Apprenticeship Levy contributions” (Para 57)

I am less happy with the recommendation that  “The Government should review the qualifying requirements for the new IT roles added to the Tier 2 visa “shortage occupation list” , making it easier and more flexible for SMEs to recruit top talent from outside the EU” (Para 30).  The European Commission proposal for a “Skills Guarantee” to help adults stuck in low paid jobs is more forward looking but the Committee’s recommendation is perhaps inevitable,  given the 50 years of policy failure summarised in my evidence to the House of Lords report (see pages 1057 – 70) and referred to in my blog entry, describing the need to break out of groundhog day, when that report was first published.

The crisis is over. The patient is dead” .

We failed to use the past “crises” as a catalyst for change. Things came to a head during the run up to Y2K and the “false start” of the transition to mass-market, Internet-based on-line systems. My 2001 IT Skills Trends report was about surviving the bursting of the dotcom bubble and preparing for the skills that would be in shortest supply when recovery came – in 2005 – 6. But that recovery did not come. By 2006 demand and salaries for those jobs which could easily be moved off-shore had stagnated. Much of the software and support industry had come to be staffed by a mix of overseas systems development and imported contract labour. We were facing the consequences of our inability to retrain our existing workforce, let alone our failure to educate and train our children.  I stopped writing the reports. They had become too depressing and the only ones taking action were those who helped write them.

An Apprentice Levy without a credible, let alone efficient, Grant process

Today we have a curate’s egg  wth unemployed computer science graduates in parallel with unprecedented shortages of competent and trustworthy recruits for Fintech and Security roles and another exercise to dig up the dodo of levies and grants – this time with the grants ring-fenced to meet the costs of “approved providers”, officials trying to dictate the requirements that employers are allowed to have and different processes for England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. Last week I attended a briefing session for employers. Those serious about training their future employees with the skills they will need were already looking at how to bypass the system, writing off the levy as a payroll tax on those jobs they could not realistically subcontract or move out of the UK. It was, as the Commons Select Committee has pointed out, not only unfit for purpose when it comes to the needs of SMEs (Para 30), it looks unlikely to meet the evolving needs of those large firms who already train their own and/or those in their supply chains.

But markets do not stand still. The Commons Select Committee call for the annual “dynamic mapping” of initiatives against demand so as to create a long term mechanism for adjusting the strategy (Para 29) is therefore particularly welcome.

The recommendation that Government should commit “to work with the Tech Partnership to develop industry-led, vocationally focused careers advice …” (Para 43) is also most welcome, but this should be extended to cover school-leavers. We can no longer afford to peddle the immoral fantasy that the majority of our children will benefit from starting their working lives saddled with student debt after spending three years to become less employable than if they had been paid to do a graduate level apprenticeship. In 1982, in “Learning for Change” I attacked both

  • “the examination treadmill to which we chain our adolescent youth in a set of puberty rites crueler than those of primitive Africa, At least in Africa they do not label any of the participants as failures” and
  • our confusion of “education” with taxpayer subsidy for the middle class ritual of kicking the fledglings from the nest.

The many recommendations of the Select Committee with regard to computing schools in schools are worthy but the most important boring is  Paragraph 83 where it recommends working with the Tech Partnership “to raise the ambition for, and coverage of, industry led digital training, and to make it easier for business of all sizes to get involved“.

The need to “break open the educational ghettos” has been a key message since  1982, when PITCOM organised for relays of school-children (from 30 schools) to man an exhibition in the Upper Waiting Room of the House of Commons (26 computer systems, up to 14 running at any one time running off three power points, at a time when Parliament had no facilities for schools visits!). That exhibition was attended by 120 MPs: one returning six times to get a group doing Economics A Level to run variations on the Treasury Economic Model – hence my long-standing support for Donald Michie’s idea that MPs should be able to simulate the effect of the legislation, including amendments, which they are expected to approve.

That was over 30 years ago. It is therefore particularly sad that the same messages have to be repeated as though they are new. The reason is linked to the prevalence, evident in paragraphs 70 – 76, that teachers (whether in School, College, University or Industrial Training Centre) have to be expert in IT in order to educate their pupils/students.  If that is correct then there is no solution – other than to rely on those (in other parts of the world) who use their limited supply of skilled educators to supervise the delivery of blended learning (mix of packaged learning materials, personal contact and supervised work experience) by mixed teams of assistants and subject experts: which is what successful digital “informal learning” groups (para 70 – 77) as well as enlightened employers, have been doing since before school computing curricula or computer science degrees were invented.  Hence some of the recommendations in my own submission to the Select Committee

 

July 14, 2017  5:38 PM

Fake News – The Movie

Philip Virgo Profile: Philip Virgo
Facebook, fake news, ISOC, Snapchat

A video of yesterdays ISOC England round table on Fake News is now available on-line. It is unedited and therefore begins, as do most webcast events, with some embarrassing technical problems but stay with it. It was a good disucssion, ably stirred by Maria Farrell with points emerging that I have not heard at all before, let alone juxtaposed.  In my own first slot I reprised the arguments in my previous blog on the subject but by the end of the round table my views regarding the points of leverage had moved on – partly in the light of what I heard from my fellow panelists, but also as a result of points made by a very well-informed audience, some of whom had serious skin in the game . I apologise for grinning at the camera and thus giving the idea that I thought the topic a big joke. Some subjects, like religion, are too serious to be taken seriously. You end up either crying or wanting to kill some-one. I also apologise for getting the numbers wrong in my off-the-cuff illustration of how modern day fake news kills.

What should you watch out for in “Fake News: the Movie”?

Karim Palant gave a very measured account of Facebook Policy which left me wondering what more we really want them to do. The idea of Facebook (or its lawyers or a panel of “the great and the good”) acting as a censor, deciding what should be carried, left me cold. I prefer the view that they improve their processes for rapid response to well-founded (???) complaints and better enforce their own terms and conditions, plus their obligations under the e-commerce directive.

Dominic Connor described the squeeze on “professional” journalists. On-line news services commonly receive less than 10 – 15% of what well-known brands pay to have their products and services advertised alongside breaking news. ISPs, Search Engines and the many and various Ad Tech “intermediaries” take the other 85 – 90%. Meanwhile the increasing pressure to be first in an on-line environment means that those who pause to check the provenance of the story do not get the clicks.

After Dominic’s comments my perception of the reasons for the rising tide of palpably fake news began to change. Most is driven by the business models of the $16 billion pay-per-click adtech fraud industry. The Macedonian teenagers who concocted the fake news stories about Hilary Clinton and Donald Trump monitored which headlines got the most clicks. They then produced more of the same. Most of us cannot tell the difference between fake and real by looking at the supposed source of the story. We are lured into fake-news sites (e.g. imitations of MSN News) via links to apparently reasonable stories and then led onto the bizarre. Meanwhile the next generation is no better than us at telling what is for real. Lacking experience of past propaganda they may be even more gullible.

But a collapse in confidence is imminent. Diageo, Jaguar or Proctor and Gamble may not be too worried about fake political news – but they are concerned when their adverts appear alongside the Jihadist videos and Porn which collect clicks from under-age teenagers.  Hence the pressures on Google, Facebook and Twitter to prevent pay-per-click ad fraud from killing the geese that lay their golden eggs.  That priority indicates the approaches we can expect them to take – beginning with trying to use technology to identify and block the 60-70% of traffic generated by botnets at the same time as making it easier for legitimate users to report abuse.

That leaves us with “traditional”, non-automated fake news, including the gulf in “perceptions of reality” between the Internet Digerati (a subset of the Western Liberal Elite) and the majority of humanity. It was during an exchange over who was telling the truth and who was censoring who with regard to Brexit, that I had a second revelation: about how that gulf had opened up in the UK. [In the UK it is between the Metropolitan elites and the rest. In the US it is more between the outward looking Coastal elites and the introverted, rust bucket, middle].

In the UK a combination of the BBC and The Internet wiped out the local newspapers which used to train English journalists to understand and reflect the prejudices of their readers, as opposed to those of the politically correct, liberal, metropolitan elite. In parallel we have seen the opening up of  gaps in the ability to share news and views (whether true or false) over social media: e.g. between students with gigabit services on campus, middle class teenagers with passable broadband to their smart phones and socially deprived NEETs, stuck with “crap (copper, rust, aluminum and other pollutants) band” and notspots in inner cities and rural areas.

Most of the older age groups never did believe what the London newspapers and BBC told them. Meanwhile backbench MPs worried more about what their constituency newspapers said than the Times or the Guardian. Now the local newsprint that helped us understand regional differences has gone. We are left with an illusion of homogeneity plus a reliance on-line social media, with its susceptibility to being overwhelmed by botnet multiplied news and views from “who knows who …”  The success of Daesh in using on-line media to recruit disaffected youth illustrates the vulnerability of Western Society to a latter day Goebbels. The appeal of Pied Piper politics to those with no memory of the socialist dictatoriat (both central and local government)  of the 1960s and 1970s is no Fake News joke.

My concluding remarks came after those of Gabrielle Guillemin, of Article 19. The last time I appeared on a platform with some-one from Article 19 was back in 2000, at an event hosted by the Freedom Forum when the topic was “What Price Freedom?” To my surprise the transcript is still available on-line . My comments show their age. I then expected CISCO and IBM to support secure walled gardens. I was, however, all too right about the inability of law enforcement to respond. I was also right about authentication and identity being the key. But I predicted e-zombie status (i.e. no credit) for those insisting on anonymity.  I did not foresee the number of operations offering anonymity for automated money laundering services, using a variety of technologies, not just bitcoin. One of the tragedies is, however, that the linked anonymity services are being used by national security agencies to track those who think they cannot be identified.

One of the most perceptive comments at the ISOC event was from a 14 year old whose main fear was that his secure anonymous persona might be linked to his home address and some-one would come round to beat him up.  It was interesting to link his concerns to those of parents or police which I reflected in my recent Snapchat blog. 

Meanwhile Joanna Kulesza, who introduced the discussion was disappointed that there was not more discussion on algorithms. I think that after two hours we deserved a drink – but this does indeed deserve a discussion of it own – including, of course, the fake news about the assumptions behind them, how they behave in consequence, who is competent to use them, let alone interpret the results and so on. As a sometime student of Andrew Ehrenberg (who described the American approach to modelling as the scientification of non-knowledge)   I used to be expert in unraveling complex algorithms to reveal the two or three unknowable assumptions on which they depended. But now my brain hurts when I try. I will leave that meeting to others – I simply ask who gets sued if the consequences of believing in the “answers” turns out to be disastrously wrong.

 

 

 

 


July 2, 2017  5:36 PM

Is Fake News Destroying Democracy?

Philip Virgo Profile: Philip Virgo
fake news

On 13th July, at an Internet Society event on Fake News, I am due to address the impact on politics. Last Saturday I attended Founders Day at my old school (the current chairman of ISOC England also happens to be an OA) and listened to Tom Standage  (another OA) give a lively resume on his excellent history of Social Media – the “Writing on the Wall“.

It set me to think what I might say, given that I will be speaking after contributions on

  • the technologies currently being used to spread known fictions,
  • how players like Facebook are trying to handle the problem,
  • how civil liberties groups like Article 19 are fighting to prevent censorship and
  • how professional journalists, who used to be employed to separate fact from from fiction, are being squeezed out by on-line business models which regard news as “free”.

Tom Standage says that man naturally networks in groups and that news and views travel when individuals pass them between the different groups to which they belong – whether or not their rulers approve. His history of “Social Media” begins with slaves of Rome carrying written messages (on papyrus and tablets) between literate masters and mistresses and merchants carrying them between trading communities. The first systemic records of the use of social media for political maneuvering are from the correspondence files of Cicero. From the same age we have the first use of “fake news” to destroy a civilisation (that of the Gauls): the stories told by Julius Caesar about their barbarian behaviour to justify an invasion to seize their gold mines to fund his political career.  The next great change came with printing. Martin Luther’s 95 Theses went “viral” after being translated into German for a limited print run (500 copies). They were then printed and reprinted across Germany in a matter of weeks and “within four weeks almost all of Christendom was familiar with them.” But printing was a small scale, labour intensive “cottage industry” with small print runs, until the 1830s.

Then the invention of the steam press ushered in the age of mass media. “News” became what journalists and their editors (whether employed by Press Barons,  Broadcasters or State – Lords Rothermere, Lord Reith, Joseph Geobbels or Joseph Stalin) said it was. Now the Internet has, “once again” enabled the users of social media to decide what they think is “News”.

Or has it?

What of the domination of Amazon (whose owner recently bought the Washington Post), Facebook, Google and Microsoft over what we see and find over the Internet? What of the Botnets (Macedonian or otherwise), pumping out “fake news“. And how different, if at all, is the UK? Great  claims are made for Full Fact which is itself claimed to be part of a self serving faux fact industry.

What is “real” news and what is “fake”.  Tom gives many examples over time. I have many from the IT industry itself, with press releases making claims for products and services that they can never deliver, even if they existed and worked, and case studies that bear little resemblance to reality. I remember checking a product with over 300 claimed users – I could find barely 30 who could recall ever having used it and barely half a dozen who did so regularly. I also remember reviewers who boasted of hands-on checking products before writing about them, waxing lyrical about innovative features which had been dropped from the product before its public launch.

In my essay for the 50 Anniversary of LEO (which I recently put on-line again)  I argued that the history of technology is also the history of the creation of ever more sophisticated illusions of reality so we cannot tell when we are being lied to. In consequence, until we have technologies we can trust, there will be a period when only the gullible believe what they read on-line. Given that Julius Caesar originally planned to invade what is now Macedonia to raise the funds for his election campaign and the biggest source of fake news on both Donald Trump and Hilary Clinton was said to be Macedonia there is a delicious irony.

But which is the bigger threat to democracy?

“Fake news”

or

“Censorship” by media magnates (whether or not in close league with the political establishments of the day) and their employers.

And what is democracy?

One of the “Devils Definitions” which you may not have heard is “Democracy is a Western system in which decisions are dictated by those who shout loudest, as opposed to allowing those with wisdom of age to decide, after they have listened to the enthusiasm of youth“.

I will quote this at the ISOC event, if only to provoke a reaction from the Article 19 Group.

There is another “Devil’s Comparison” between the US and China: “One is a nation created by real estate agents and lawyers for real estate estates and lawyers, (think real estate agent George Washington, railroad lawyer Abraham Lincoln etc.). The other is a nation created by engineers for engineers. (think the Great Canals of China and the composition of the current Politburo). Together they prove that engineers can be as corrupt as real estate agents and lawyers.”

The uniting of the States of America was a triumph of de facto Sino-American-operation (Chinese engineers built the railroads through the Rockies). So too is the spread of social media across the world – as Chinese technology makes the Internet affordable to the other 4/5ths of the population of the globe. Is the Internet bringing out the best, or the worst in those two great (and equally introverted and proud) nations?

The classic example of a democracy overthrown by “fake news”, organised by some-one who was a master of the social media of day, was the Weimar Republic. Joseph Goebbels said “A lie told once remains a lie but a lie told a thousand time becomes the truth“. Thus Mrs Thatcher hardly ever cut anything, except the free school milk that most of us did not drink. But she used the rhetoric of a housewife spending within her means. Hence the beginning of the myth of “Tory Cuts” whenever priorities are changed within an overall spending increase, by a Conservative Government.

Then there is all the “fake news” as to what is, or is not, possible over the internet.

I will end with part of my favourite poem – written at a time when many viewed religion and truth as synonymous and England was about to tear herself apart in a Civil War whose brutalities were largely triggered by fake news stories in the pamphlets of the day. Indeed, but for one fake news story, the English Civil War might have been over before it began: without the pamphlets covering the horrors of the “Sack of Brentford” (the other version is that a barmaid was indecently assaulted by a drunken cavalier and dropped a candle which set fire to drinking house!) the King would have marched almost unopposed into London. Instead the “Trained Bands” (Militia)  of London mobilised and the citizenry dragged the cannon from the Tower of London for what became known as the Battle of Turnham Green.

Most readers will know  John Donne  for his love poetry but he was also one of the greatest preachers of his day – and a connoisseur of fake news:

Seek true religion. O where? Mirreus,

Thinking her unhous’d here, and fled from us,

Seeks her at Rome; there, because he doth know

That she was there a thousand years ago,

He loves her rags so, as we here obey

The statecloth where the prince sate yesterday.

Crantz to such brave loves will not be enthrall’d,

But loves her only, who at Geneva is call’d

Religion, plain, simple, sullen, young,

Contemptuous, yet unhandsome; as among

Lecherous humours, there is one that judges

No wenches wholesome, but coarse country drudges.

Graius stays still at home here, and because

Some preachers, vile ambitious bawds, and laws,

Still new like fashions, bid him think that she

Which dwells with us is only perfect, he

Embraceth her whom his godfathers will

Tender to him, being tender, as wards still

Take such wives as their guardians offer, or

Pay values. Careless Phrygius doth abhor

All, because all cannot be good, as one

Knowing some women whores, dares marry none.

Graccus loves all as one, and thinks that so

As women do in divers countries go

In divers habits, yet are still one kind,

So doth, so is Religion; and this blind-

ness too much light breeds; but unmoved, thou

Of force must one, and forc’d, but one allow,

And the right; ask thy father which is she,

Let him ask his; though truth and falsehood be

Near twins, yet truth a little elder is;

Be busy to seek her; believe me this,

He’s not of none, nor worst, that seeks the best.

To adore, or scorn an image, or protest,

May all be bad; doubt wisely; in strange way

To stand inquiring right, is not to stray;

To sleep, or run wrong, is. On a huge hill,

Cragged and steep, Truth stands, and he that will

Reach her, about must and about must go,

And what the hill’s suddenness resists, win so.

Yet strive so that before age, death’s twilight,

Thy soul rest, for none can work in that night.

To will implies delay, therefore now do;

Hard deeds, the body’s pains; hard knowledge too

The mind’s endeavours reach, and mysteries

Are like the sun, dazzling, yet plain to all eyes.

Keep the truth which thou hast found; men do not stand

In so ill case, that God hath with his hand

Sign’d kings’ blank charters to kill whom they hate;

Nor are they vicars, but hangmen to fate.

Fool and wretch, wilt thou let thy soul be tied

To man’s laws, by which she shall not be tried

At the last day? Oh, will it then boot thee

To say a Philip, or a Gregory,

A Harry, or a Martin, taught thee this?

Is not this excuse for mere contraries

Equally strong? Cannot both sides say so?

That thou mayest rightly obey power, her bounds know;

Those past, her nature and name is chang’d; to be

Then humble to her is idolatry.

As streams are, power is; those blest flowers that dwell

At the rough stream’s calm head, thrive and do well,

But having left their roots, and themselves given

To the stream’s tyrannous rage, alas, are driven

Through mills, and rocks, and woods, and at last …

Or to summarise:

  • small scale social media where you can check the sources – good
  • large scale mass social media where you cannot – bad
  • but can you check the sources or are you left deciding which editor (Google, the Guardian or the Goebbels of the day) you choose to believe.


June 29, 2017  3:00 PM

Trolls driving women off the web (and turning girls off IT)

Philip Virgo Profile: Philip Virgo
"Theresa May", Facebook, Instagram, IPv6, Snapchat, twitter

Boys and older trolls are elbowing girls and older women off the Internet, just as they used to elbow them off computers in schools in the 1980s. During the first, and most successful, campaign to encourage girls to consider IT careers (1988 – 94) it was found that the biggest problems came at puberty when boys drove, sometimes quite brutally, girls out of school computer clubs so that they could play games. And teachers tended to reinforce stereotypes. Until a couple of  years ago I  thought equality of access would improve as the technology became ubiquitous with smart phones and social media. Now I know that I was wrong. Inequality is getting worse as the trolls bully girls and women, of all ages, off social media as a whole.

The problems that occurred during the General election, when every female MP who went on-line was trolled, were raised in the House of Commons.  I am told that all Conservative MPs who used social media were personally trolled with varying degrees of viciousness. So too were their supporters in the constituencies “stormed” by the student vote. Outside those constituencies I am told that the bile was largely reserved for the candidates themselves. Nonetheless it helped cause the Conservative Party to withdraw from social media – because they were not willing to allow their IT literate members to fight fire with fire.

Now let us look at the effect on Women in the IT industry and on girls who might have been considering entry to digital careers. They are almost invisible except in those on-line chat rooms which do robust security. Hence the concern over the unilateral changes to remove the security girls thought they had over their Snapchat groups. The quote below was sent to me on behalf of the 14 year old daughter of a male security professional. She wanted to summarise what she and her friends use and thus to help influence the priorities for political action.

Instagram: used for posting photos and videos, you can also go live where anybody can watch unless you’re private where only your followers can watch. You can also post on your “story” where anyone again can see unless you’re private and your followers can see. The pictures and videos can be liked and commented on

Snapchat:Has a new feature which is a map where you can see exactly where your friends are, you can send pictures, videos, post on your story, direct message friends and video call. However on Snapchat, only people who you have added and they have added you back can see what you post of your story. The story snapchats only last for 24 hours and then they disappear, and it tells you exactly who has seen it and if anyone has screenshotted it. Snapchat is probably the most used social media for teenagers.

Some people have Twitter and Facebook but they are not used as much or as popular.

YouTube: mainly used to watch videos but can be commented on and liked or disliked.”

She has 400 friends in her own group, about average for a normal teenager. She does not, however, know how she was added to some of the other groups which claim her as a member. You and I will be aware of the problem over LinkedIn. We find people we have never met, or approved, in our contact lists – probably because they were in the circulation lists of groups we had visited out of idle curiosity. But curiosity killed the cat.

The scale and nature of trolling also helps explain why I was unable to get any suitable female role-models in the security industry to lead the project to commemorate the anniversary of the birth of Joan Clarke (nearly as great a cryptographer as her fiance Alan Turing). The only ones interested were marketing professionals looking to trawl for recruits and they were not, themselves, planning to be named.

I can think of a number of solutions to the trolling problem but, to be effective, they require support from advertisers who want to clean up the media they use to promote their brands – and are big enough to collectively take on the big beasts of the Internet in order to do so. Until then, it is probable that Parliament and regulators will run away from the problem unless, and until, female MPs from all sides ally to force the pace – or, more likely, a tragedy leads to a crowd-funded class action akin to those overdue against those whose criminal irresponsibilities over the past decade or so led to the multiple vulnerabilities of the Grenfell Tower.

The on-line world is now awash with multiple vulnerabilities while the security industry looks forward to decades of growth, adding layers of dangerous cladding, in stead of removing vulnerabilities.  We do not have that long before tragedy strikes and business models implode.

I should add that the problem is worse in the UK than elsewhere because we are so much behind others in our transaction to IPV6. It is therefore that harder to uniquely identify predators.

 


June 26, 2017  6:15 PM

How many children are NOT being stalked on Snapchat

Philip Virgo Profile: Philip Virgo
Snapchat, Spyware

The parental paranoia caused by recent revelations as to the scale and nature of the use of Snapchat spyware  promises to overwhelm the debate to which I referred in my recent blog on the likely interplay of privacy, surveillance, internet safety and civil liability when it comes to the bills in the Queen’s speach.

Of Friday I was told that Snapchat’s decision to record time and location (unless actively disabled every time the service is updated) and actively encourage this to be shared by default, may have overtaken “funding cuts” as a topic of conversation between teachers and parents.

The first security expert I asked about the issues told me that his nieces and nephews had all been subject to advances from online predators. Luckily they were interested enough in what he was doing to tell him as soon as they saw the signs. His point was that even the most basic ‘child friendly apps’ were being exploited.

Apparently when the update was first issued by Snapchat, one of his nieces told him that any group with a location tag in her proximity was automatically suggested to her to join. This included  schools groups – which would immediately furnish online predators with the information necessary to, for example, track those on a school outing.

More worryingly, every time an update is done, it can reset all the settings to default and make your location available without your knowledge or consent.

That is not something you can imagine (m)any young people (or adults) are checking… Those who think they are following best practice in guarding their details thus become vulnerable.

At this point the concerns of the Open Rights Group about GCHQ and the NSA pale into insignificance. So too do those of Amber Rudd, Cressida Dick and Home Office, diverting police resources from child protection to tracking on-line Jihadist recruiters. But action against the latter is not incompatible with action against  other on-line predators. Indeed, given the target age-profile for Daesh recruits, the grooming techniques over social media are much the same. There is, therefore, much to be said for a joined up approach where it comes to educating the most vulnerable and removing innocent carrier status from those facilitating their operations.

Meanwhile, what is the position under civil law when a parent sues Snapchat after they find their child is being tracked by a pederast after an update has reset the security settings or a friend has lost their phone and this enabled access to the group?

Looked at in wider context – this may be the zenith of social media business models funded by untrammelled access to the “big data” of the users.


June 25, 2017  10:55 AM

Everything on-line is potentially fake and we cannot tell the difference

Philip Virgo Profile: Philip Virgo
LEO, LSE

I am currently preparing for an ISOC England meeting on Fake News on 13th July and wanted to link back to my award winning essay for the conference to mark the 50th Anniversary of LEO (the first business computer) and my prediction that we would pass through a period of collapse in belief of the veracity of anything we see, let alone read, on-line. I found that we are also wiping out history. The LSE server in which my essay was stored is no longer available.

I have therefore taken the liberty of loading it as a blog entry.  Section 5) is “How will be able to believe what we see”.  Section 7) covers “The Global Bazaar” (after US dominance of the on-line world collapses. Section 8) covers “The Privatisation of Law Enforcement” after governments and regulators have failed to protect us from on-line predators.

Please remember that this was written in 2001 and I avoided giving any time line. Some of the more pessimistic predictions have already come true although the Dotcom Bubble was followed by another Investment Bubble which has yet to burst because Governments and Regulators have yet to take on the global Big Data/Social Media cartels driving it.

Envisioning the Global Information Society

The World and Business Computing in 2051

 1) Introduction

Over the past fifty years business computers have evolved from clever, stand-alone, processing engines to “mere nodes and peripherals” in the worlds largest machine – the global communications network. That network has itself been evolving for over 150 years and we have been doing business electronically (telegraph, phone, telex, fax and electronic data interchange) for most of that period. Even if we define the Internet as packet switched data it took around forty years (not four) to get from the National Physical Laboratory to consumer markets. The technologies which will underpin business computing and the global information society in fifty years time are almost certainly already in the laboratories of today. The forecasts in this paper are based on the interplay of trends in technology platforms, the way they are packaged for use and the way business is conducted. It is, however, assumed that the long-term driving force is human nature and neither the dreams of enthusiasts nor the nightmares of politicians.

2) The Digital Kondratieff Wave will have matured, the Optical Wave will be under way.

Nicolai Kondratieff was not the first to analyse the “long” economic cycle but he was the first to  publish predictions and died in lonely exile in Siberia for not only forecasting the Great Depression but also the recovery of capitalism on the next cycle.

Analogies between Computing and the Motor Car were popular during the seemingly inexorable rise of the personal computer.  More recently we have seen comparisons between the computing and communications boom-bust of 2000 – 2002 and the automobile and radio boom-bust of 1926- 28. The timelag from the first business computer to the dotcom boom is almost exactly the same as that from when Karl Benz built his first two stroke engine (1879) to when Henry Ford built the last Model T (1926). Ford’s new model had all parts machined to a much higher specification but nonetheless capable of being fitted to his “installed base” as “fully compatible upgrades”.

During the Great Depression the car and the radio changed the world in ways that few of the enthusiasts of the 1920s had predicted but it took twenty years for the stock prices of General Motors and RCA to recover to their 1926 level and over fifty years before automobiles routinely incorporated technologies that had not been overhyped during the boom before the crash.

We might therefore take the analogy with the motor car a little further and say that the next fifty years will see a slow and painful recovery followed by the ultimate flowering of the technologies that have been overhyped over the past few years. However, the consequences will be very different to those being predicted a few years ago.

3) The Visual Information Society

Opto-electronics and quantum computing may well usher in a new age of analogue computing using technologies sufficiently reliable for digital error correction to be unnecessary, but the more profound changes will be in how the processing power and communications bandwidth are used.

One hundred and fifty years of communications and fifty years of computing development has been enabled by flowering of mathematics and engineering and has, in turn, enabled new ways of thought, presentation and communication. However, visual processing occupies far more of the human brain than speech while written, let alone mathematical, notation was very much a minority occupation until barely a century ago. A picture is worth a thousand words. It is a symphony with all parts conveyed at once, in parallel. In the brain the linear elements of story telling are wired below those for language. The ability to recall, imagine and mime time based sequences of events probably came many millenia before the naked ape could describe them in words.

Mankind built castles, cathedrals and cities for several millenia, sailed round the world in complex sailing ships for several centuries and built steam engines and railways for several decades before the widespread adoption of mathematics as a notation for complex thought. The rise of mathematics parallels the rise of electrical engineering yet much of it is based on working out the ideas of men like Faraday, who could not master mathematics at all, or Einstein, whose mental productivity tailed off as his mastery of mathematics grew.

Many of the worlds most original minds thought visually before they expressed their thoughts in words let alone mathematics. Leonardo da Vinci, James Clerk Maxwell and Nikola Tesla thought first in images, which were then converted to drawings, models and mathematical notation. The drawings of Leonardo da Vinci incorporate an understanding of stress and dynamic forces that was not expressed mathematically until late in the 19th Century. Today you only learn how to draw if you attend art class. Stephenson did not learn how to read and write until his multiplicity of railway projects grew too complex for him to negotiate and supervise personally. It was not until the 1950s that we fully understood why some of Brunel’s finer bridges carry their own weight, let alone that of the trains.

4) The Final Flowering of the Age of Mathematics

Words and mathematics are emphasised throughout our education system. Yet the final flowering of “the age of mathematics” may well be the production of complex computer-based analytical tools to enable the multi-dimensional visual modelling of problems too complex to comprehend, let alone explain, mathematically. Today the Computer Graphics group of the ACM (the main US Computer Society) is larger and more active than the rest of the ACM added together as they try to master the use of computers to generate multi- dimensional images in motion. Sophisticated graphics and multi-media can be used to convey very complex information, such as how storms build up – with multiplicities of complex mathematical models represented in both series and parallel using juxtapositions of visual presentation techniques. As visual processing and broadband communications enable us once again to agree transactions and brainstorm problems without the need for printed records and mathematical formulae we face a transformation in business methods as well as in government and education, Meanwhile research councils and the academic rat-race could face a lingering death akin to that of the introverted world of medieval scholasticism.

Logical reasoning, “what any decently programmed computer can do”, may lose status as did literacy when even the plebs could read and write. If so, not only will current educational  hierarchies be over-turned but status may pass to those personal service tasks which no computer system can master. Thus nursing an incontinent cripple may have higher status than diagnosing a cancer, “what we use expert systems for”. Many of the current problems of the digital divide and social exclusion will be overcome by a reversion to visual communication – with the added ability to convey, over distance and time, much more complex thoughts than could be represented by diagrams and models, let alone drawings in the sand or stories round the fire.

Western “civilisation” has been around for barely a couple of millenia, compared to 3 – 5 for older civilisations (eg Persia, India and China). Today it is also less deep-rooted and more vulnerable to change. More-over times of uncertainty lead to a resurgance rather than a weakening, of old ideologies and certainties.  Chinese scripts, based on stylised pictures, are considerably easier for most children to master than the western use of alphabets to represent the sound of words.

A resurgence of visual thinking favours the East, with many cultures and languages based on picture writing. It weakens Arab cultures, the inventors of mathematical notation with a deep-seated religious taboo on images, as well as the West.

The Pacific rim, from Hollywood to Hong Kong (and further west to Bollywood) is already leapfrogging the Atlantic rim as the centre of visually based infotainment but the implications for the way we do business are even more far-reaching. We can produce a “landscape” of a market, millions of transactions rippling like a field of corn so that a dealer can “see” the patterns. But the seductive impact of such display techniques can rapidly mislead users unless systems are designed around what they wish to examine, why, how, when – and how quickly. When timescales for decision may be measured in seconds rather than minutes, the psychological impact of the means used to display results is a major issue.

5) How will we be able to believe what we see?

One can see the evolution of Western Culture since the Renaissance as an attempt to achieve ever increasing exactitude of representation of all forms of experience: the camera, the mathematics of perspective, shorthand, sound recording, were all phases of this. The achievement of visual reproduction, through many technologies, is one dimension of a vast collective project. The process of reproduction, from photography onwards, stemmed from a desire to capture, (possess), experience but the irony was that progressive attempts to achieve realism in the cinema, from 3D and Omnimax to Cinemascope, have actually been a voyage of improvement in animated delusion. Analogue technologies produced a “print” of reality, albeit airbrushed to remove the unwanted face or blemish. The digitised “transcript” can now be “cleaned” and “edited” to whatever image of perfection or fantasy desired by the producer.

Virtual reality is to imagination as the hammer is to the hand. The optimistic view is that the more familiar we are with the way the image is created the more able we are to see through it. The consequence of using improved visualisation techniques in the media is that we now believe less and less of what we see. But the political and regulatory implications of the impossibility of telling electronically edited truth from fiction are profound.

Should we strive to preserve organisations like  the BBC with a reputation for impartiality? Or is that reputation itself merely a fitting tribute to the propaganda skills that the BBC demonstrated to the world in 1940, editing unwelcome reality into sustainable mythology. Hitler used his mastery of the hypnotic power of radio based oratory to reinforce the mass emotion of his rallies relayed by film and newsreel to every cinema. Meanwhile the BBC showed how the illusion of honest candour could be used to equally mislead those to whom such raw emotion and crowd psychology was supposedly anathema.  How can we prevent those with equal mastery of the inter-active multi-media of tomorrow from exercising similar power over the imaginations of their target audiences, including the sceptical and well educated who are vulnerable because they think they understand how they are being manipulated?

The development and use of trusted technologies, which provide an unalterable record of what happened for use as evidence, will be essential. Once they are in widespread use the way in which we record transactions and agreements will also change. We will be able to play back a trusted

record of what was done or agreed. The police electronic notebook, an unalterable record of what the officer or surveillance system saw and heard, will transform the legal process. Lawyers will then create a new world of obfuscation about what it meant.

Before then we may have to pass through a period when parchment, vellum and physical witnesses may be the only truly “trusted” record.  Encryption techniques will come and go as their flaws, more likely to be of management and application than of mathematics, are found and exploited. By 2051 verifiable, write once, read many technologies recording at the place of transaction will be essential to enable the evidence to be admissible.

6) Industrial and Social Convergence?

Computers are already being embedded into a growing variety of devices and editing and recording machines let alone controls. Over the next fifty years they will be as ubiquitous as the electric motor or fuse, all but vanishing into business and domestic products and services hanging off the networks. After they have recovered from the shock of recession investors will focus on providers of value-added transmission services (including of censorship and tax collection under the control of government, suppliers or users according to the local market rules), on creators and publishers of content (from research and education to news and entertainment), on the impact on the marketing and distribution of physical goods and on the effects on travel and financial services.

Meanwhile those expected to plan the way forward are crippled by information overload now that delayering has removed the information filters of middle management and the communication filters of secretaries and personal assistants. The anywhere office and martini (any time, any place, any where) communications today paralyse those who dare not use the “off” button. Over the next fifty years we will have to take back control in order to survive.

Tomorrow, the virtual reality helmet will not merely be the tool for flying the plane when the controls become too complex for the time to respond but also the display for browsing the net. We will leave the office by taking off the business helmet. Rightly or wrongly, we will no longer trust the filters embedded in even our favourite information providers. Our helmets (or rather visors, so that we can simultaneously see the unfiltered outside world) will contain our personal information filters, editing our image for the outside world (perhaps removing flab and wrinkles) as well as rationing what we see and organising end-over-end verification when we receive what is claimed to be an unedited transmission of reality.

The way we use communications technology will also have matured as products and services move from “raw commodity”, geared to improving raw efficiency (lower cost, faster speed), to “rich in selectivity and usability” and fit for the real purposes of communication. Once “rich” communication has taken place, low volume text may be all that is needed for most business communications. It may also be all that is desired by a pre-occupied recipient, filtering and rationing his or her inputs.

Video conferencing will be commonplace but what value do talking heads add? Can you have a truly productive video-conference (team bonding, shared access to high resolution data, maps and diagrams that are amended and annotated by participants as they talk etc), with more than the four or five heads round a map (whether drawn in the sand, written on paper or displayed on the electronic plot) that has characterised winning military teams for millennia. Can humans truly inter-work electronically if they have never met?

One of the characteristics of the most productive network-based research programmes seems to be that the participants commonly meet physically (whether in bar or boardroom) at least once or twice a year.  At one level the need for travel will be reduced and changed to where participants would like to meet, the City with the best climate or the night life at this time of year. At another it will be increased as business centres, vulnerable to terrorism and transport disruption, are dispersed over networks of neighbourhood offices and local and global conference centres.

Will global communications and increased understanding lead to more or to less conflict? Will images of plenty distributed over ever more powerful media increase hope among the masses? If so, will that lead to self-help and growth or help-yourself and war? Will China and India and continue to feed themselves or will they become major importers of food as their economies grow? Will the United States, with its massive investment in genetic engineering to increase crop yields be the bread-basket of the world or will we have agreed that life cannot be patented?

Technology is often said to be neutral in its political effects. Broadcasts can be used to whip up conflict (as in Bosnia or Rwanda) or to call for calm and reconciliation. But what editor ever voluntarily chose “keep calm and be reconciled” for a headline or lead story!

Those in business believe in the importance of market forces. But will the global corporate alliances of the future make more money by promoting global brands with common visual images or by segmenting their brands with culturally specific visual images? Their choice of brand strategies are, perhaps, better seen as global weathervanes than as determinants.

We can see powerful forces driving consolidation among network providers, because of the scale of infrastructure investment needed, and among mass market content providers, because of the degree of product risk. But it is most unlikely that governments will permit the resultant trend towards monopolies and cartels. Open standards should lead to more open competition among software providers while hardware is commoditised (like rice). Meanwhile content publishing will evolve around new ways of establishing and policing intellectual property rights and distributing the royalties in a world where the pace and nature of change and creativity has rendered copyright and patent obsolete but rewarding genuine creativity is one of the keys to economic progress.

7) The Global Bazaar

We have been doing business internationally in a variety of languages and under a variety of laws for several millennia. There are well established conventions for both. What is new is that small firms and individuals are also being expected to do business both electronically and internationally. More-over it is expected that they will do so cheaply and easily, using legal frameworks and routines which have yet to be agreed, developed and tested. The current routines for cross-border transactions are the result of the inability of  Governments to agree or enforce anything better, despite many attempts at harmonisation (from the Romans and the Hanseatic League to the League of Nations and the World Trade Organisation). The pressure for change is coming mainly from those who wish to see global free trade over the Internet. The changes they wish to see require the resolution of debates where agreement may be no more in realistic prospect in 2001 than it was in 1901 or 1801.

From Petty France to Old Jewry, from Lombard Street to Russia Court, London has been a multicultural community as well as an international trading centre for nearly a thousand years.    Meanwhile most of those who talk of the Global Information Society of the future appear to assume the infrastructure will be an extension of the US-Centric Internet.  They expect the language to be American, the values those of Hollywood, CNN and the Star Ship Enterprise and the legal framework that of the United States of America under its Federal Constitution. Meanwhile the majority of the world’s population does not speak English, does not know how to use Windows, does not wish its electronic commerce, education and entertainment to be policed by American lawyers and does not have a reliable power supply, let alone a phone line.

The Latin American, Indian and Chinese and Moslems worlds will jump direct to battery-powered, mobile communications with satellite-based international trunking.  They will leapfrog the world of Windows and Internet browsers into a world of mobile electronic commerce accessed by GSM  phones, with smart cards and zapper controls triggering audio-visual responses based on local language and pictograms.  If they need a bigger screen it will be provided by Digital TV not a personal computer.

A crude analysis suggests that in 2051 the main languages of the Information Society will be (in order) English, Mandarin, Arabic, Gujerati, Spanish, Russian and German.  Those wishing to sell premium-added-value to some of the world’s wealthiest communities will also need to handle many more languages – from Finnish to Hebrew.  The Global Electronic Market place is likely to have the feel of an oriental bazaar rather than a western shopping mall.  Business is as likely to be conducted under Chinese, Indian or Islamic Law as it is under common or Roman Law.  Any encryption or security routines must be as acceptable to the Chinese, Indian or Iranian Governments as to the Americans or HMG.

Trade will migrate over time, as in the past, to those markets and jurisdictions which are reliable and efficient, with trusted routines for disputes resolution. Global trade will be dominated by those city states which have been left to run themselves in return for collecting and remitting taxes on the e-commerce services they police to their regional power. London, New York, San Francisco, Singapore, Hong Kong, Dubai, the Hague and Zurich will be among the centres where you can do business under whatever law and in whatever language you wish. Frankfurt, Tokyo, Cairo and Bombay will be centres for trading under particular jurisdictions or within specific cultures. The hindi hawala (faster and cheaper than Western Union) have overtaken the anglo-saxon banking networks as the natural choice for inter-continental funds transmission, despite continued opposition from Governments and Tax authorities around the world. There will also be many cultural niche services such as MacTrust, originally for the Scots diaspora but also for those wanting to transact in English under Roman Law, adjudicated in Edinburgh or Calgary. Adjudicated in London, in whatever language, under whatever law you choose, will be a more credible trustmark than regulated by Her Majesties Government, let alone the Commission of the European Communities. But London will be a virtual centre at least as much as a physical location. Those using the Corporation of London trustmark, policed by Lloyd’s Register, Den Norsk Veritas and its other “regulators”, will based around the world, in at least as many jurisdictions as currently have Lloyds or DNV agents.

8) The Privatisation of Electronic Law Enforcement

 By 2051 governments will have tried and failed to resolve most of the issues to do with the regulation of the Internet. Law and order will, in consequence, have been brought to the web in the same way that it was brought to the Wild West – with little or no help from government. In the 1870s Alan Pinkerton and his competitors employed shotgun wielding ex-soldiers to ambush train and bank robbers and shoot to kill. The Sheriffs and Marshals could then pick up the survivors. Today a large corporation under assault might turn its firewall into a mirror,  responding to each fraudulent enquiry with a mounting series of questions, using all  information available to route them back to the originator, until transmissions cease.

Over the decades ahead Telcos and ISPs will spend billions to upgrade the Internet to provide prioritised, secure and authenticated communications (not just bandwidth) for those who want them. At the same time the banks and credit card companies will spend billions to provide on-line authentication services to their customers linked to “guaranteed” payment and delivery. Anonymity on the web will mean that you have no credit  Those who underwrite your payment may not know you real name but will know your biometric identifiers. E-impersonation will be the most feared e-crime. And e-law enforcement will be by global credit black-listing: e-death.

There is no political or industry consensus yet in sight as to who will run the cross-border disputes resolutions and the international track and trace activities necessary to restore confidence in the public Internet as a place for the innocent to learn or to shop. Fifty years on Governments will still be arguing over whether the applicable law is that of country of origin or of the destination.

The handful of players who provide the core structures of the commercial Internet, from server farms and peering centres through pipes to access software will promote secure walled gardens governed by contract law for the moral majority. The forensic accounting arm of Price-Anderson-Young and the investigations arm of Control Risks will be paid by Banks and Telcos to track, trace and e-liminate those who prey on them or on their customers. Networks of industry self-regulators working across frontiers will provide the credibility and flexibility of response and redress that governments cannot. Those government agencies which have the necessary skills and resources will make the transition to democratically accountable law enforcement on a global basis.

The Internet will have polarised between regulated walled gardens connected by secure highways and a libertarian cyberjungle, home to predators and free-thinkers alike. Democracies will have come to different conclusions depending on whether voters are more concerned over abuse by criminals, by businesses or by government agencies and their employees. Dictatorships will have come to different conclusions according to whether they are more concerned to attract business or control the choices available to their subjects. Meanwhile the inefficiencies and vulnerabilities of over complex software and systems will have led to a backlash against tightly integrated services. The interlocking systems and networks of the Information Society will be both joined and separated at every level by filters and cut-outs to prevent any form of domino effect.

The side effects will include choice of regulation and legislation for products and services which can be electronically transmitted and, to a lesser degree,  for those which can be delivered by air-mail. Regional legislation will still, however, apply to the rest, that majority of transactions which will still require local distribution and delivery, however they are ordered and paid.

9) Government as a competitive market

The power of centralised nation states will be crumbling. Federal Governments will be devolving power before they lose it. Most will be competing for jobs which could be located anywhere in the world. They will be bidding to attract multinationals who tend to base core functions in the most attractive places to live, to source transactions from those with the lowest sales taxes, to take profits in those with the most attractive corporate tax regimes, to base knowledge operations in those with the most attractive intellectual property rights and so on.  They will be bidding to provide good quality education, law and order and social services to be a location of choice where key staff and high taxpayers will be happy to bring up their families and the corporation can recruit the skills it needs.

Education and training will be based on local access, including teaching support, to networked materials and support in a world where providers, including examining bodies and universities, are competing world-wide for paying students and customers. Content production and publishing facilities will be located under jurisdictions which provide attractive regimes for creating and protecting, licensing and exploiting Intellectual Property Rights issues in a world where materials and research may be networked or pirated world-wide. Global communications hubs will be based in locations where regulation is transparent, predictable and trusted. The growing vulnerability of large, network-dependent, centralised organisations such as banks, brokers and retailers to sudden and catastrophic collapse, whether from system failure, fraud, terrorism or “mere” market panic, will mean that these will devolved and backed-up across resilient networks of dispersed and protected hubs, from Guantanamo to Gibralter.

All previous technology shifts (canals, railways, cars etc) have been accompanied by major population movements.  Increasingly these have become international and not just local.  High tax localities and governments could be left looking after the unemployed, uneducated and disabled on a declining revenue base.  Part of the solution to such catastrophic social exclusion will have been to find ways of skilling and employing the underclasses to provide partnership life-styles to attract “wealth-creators” who will employ and support ancillary and service workers. Part of the solution will have been updated versions of the local self-help partnerships that predate the modern welfare state. Solutions based solely on traditional socialist or capitalist values will have been shown to be  irrelevant or dangerously unstable.  The falling cost of transmission and improvement in access to information sources will have had an impact on the prestige and life-style of the chattering classes akin to that which the printing press had on those of medieval scholars.  The knowledge workers of Guangdong and Bollywood will undercut those of Guildford and Borehamwood.

One of the biggest obstacles to prosperity will have been the inability of Governments to respond to fundamental change and the inability of politicians to recognise that getting out of the way may be their most constructive contribution. At the end of the Eighteenth Century the French ruling classes tried to regulate and plan their way through a period of unprecedented technological and social change  They were guillotined for their pains as the economy collapsed under the weight of cheap imports from Britain. The British had gone for the opposite policy  They had decided on a bonfire of taxes and regulations using local initiative, the poor law unions, to pick up the pieces.  That decision was no accident.  Edward Gibbon had been a member of the Board of Trade under Lord North.  The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire may no longer be read as widely as Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations or Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man, it is far longer for a start, but, in its day, it was the most powerful political tract ever written.  Its influence permeated the political and economic thinking of the ruling classes and educational establishment of Britain for half a century.

The next fifty years will see a similar period of change.  A bonfire of regulation, planning and control may again be the only way of stimulating the growth in new and alternative employment that is necessary to avoid widespread social pain and disorder as traditional jobs and careers are destroyed throughout the private sector and falling tax revenues will no longer fund the national co-ordination overheads for services which can be run far cheaper locally. The survival of the nation states, let alone the prosperity of their citizens will have depended on a return to the presumption that social needs vary and are better organised and funded locally.  Welfare states will have survived by recreating a kaleidoscope of partnerships, co-operatives and municipal enterprise, akin to that which ran most of the UK infrastructure before the post-war nationalisation, centralisation and standardisation of the utilities, health and social services and education system.

Information Technology will undoubtedly be used to greatly reduce the cost and  improve the quality of government (such as the merging of income tax, national insurance and social security into a single intelligible system) but good quality welfare for an ageing population will have been be achieved only by using technology to support local services based on partnerships between professionals and volunteers (many themselves pensioners or those previously viewed as disabled) across the public-private divide.

10) The Opening of the Educational Ghettoes

 Multi-career lives will be increasingly the norm and not the exception, with most of population needing to master the basics of another discipline or profession to short notice, several times in their working lives. Lifelong Learning will not just be a sub-set of Further Education.  It will be the core which links all sectors of education. The Oxbridge Colleges will be among the first to realise the opportunities to regain financial independence and academic freedom on the back of “courses” targeted at corporately sponsored students or those with healthy pensions – a new generation of “commoners”, who will finance the life styles of scholars and fellows well beyond the current imaginations of those who currently dominate University or Research Council politics.

Local learning centres will run franchised open learning centres for business, accessing the Microsoft or IBM global learning networks, alongside the Saga Certificate in Rural Religious and Secular Architecture (with weekly coach tours for pensioners to the Churches and Pubs of Surrey and Kent) and the William Hill Certificate in Statistical Probability (in-college betting facilities and 10% discount off admission to the local Race Course or Dog Track).

Many city schools still need to be fortresses of learning, like the old LCC Board schools, with high walls and broken glass to keep the children in and the parents out. But in 2051 they will provide round-the-clock on-line study facilities for all ages (so they are never left empty for the vandals to pillage) to bring hope to the hopeless and jobs to the unemployable. They will draw in funds from those learning for work or leisure, paid for by themselves or by their employers, as well as from those paid for by the taxpayer, through whatever route the funds trickle.

11) But that future is in our hands

 The future is what we work together to achieve or leave to others to decide. Time is not on our side.  If we are not going to be a ghetto of paupers on the edge of the global village, a latter day Cannery Row, surfing the cybercrud for snippets, we must enable our citizens and their children to acquire the skills to survive and prosper.  We must provide the skilled and talented with the legal, fiscal and social climate incentives to stay, and use those skills and talents here, not across the Atlantic. We must take charge of the politics of the Information Society.

Only then will our children and grandchildren be willing and able, in a village of global mobility, to fund our pensions, yours and mine – because some of us (if not necessarily the judges who read this) will still be around, in frail, technology supported, dotage.


June 24, 2017  1:29 PM

Privacy, Surveillance and Internet Safety in the Queen’s Speech

Philip Virgo Profile: Philip Virgo
Brexit, Data protection, GDPR, Internet of Things, PPI

Those in the IT industry who regard the Queen’s Speech as anodyne have failed to notice the potential interaction of the Civil Liability and Data Protection bills. We can expect lawyers to soon seek to replace their whiplash and PPI businesses with actions for loss of privacy, failure to act against on-line abuse, aiding and abetting fraud and the behaviour of rogue IoT devices. Once the e-Commerce and Consumer Protection Directives are transposed into English Law we can also expect a sharp rise (as specialist claims firms discover the revenue potential) in the number of civil actions for the consequences of non-compliance, e.g. failure to provide the registered address for legal notification of complaints/abuse on websites. I would prefer to see Trading Standards Officers funded by the pirates and predators they detect but, if such reform is not on the table, we need to make it easier for victims to obtain redress themselves.

There are also a number of interesting snippets in the Queen’s Speech, such as

  • the extension of compulsory motor vehicle insurance to cover the use of automated vehicles (in the Automated and Electric Vehicles Bill)
  • the “operation of the national data and communication service to safeguard smart services at all times” in the Smart Meter Bill.
  • “a more robust authorisation process for new companies who wish to enter the market” in the Financial Guidance and Claims Bill [impact on Fintech]
  • “digital services that will allow businesses to pursue their cases quickly, enabling them to recover debts more easily” in the Courts Bill.

The headline comments on the Data Protection Bill  focus on the implementation of the GDPR but the quoted headlines were:

  • gives people new rights to “require major social media platforms to delete information held about them at the age of 18”
  • allows police and judicial authorities to continue to exchange information quickly and easily with the UK’s international partners in the fight against terrorism and other serious crimes
  • modernises and updates the regime for data processing by law enforcement agencies. The regime will cover both domestic processing and cross-border transfers of personal data
  • updates the powers and sanctions available to the information commissioner

Perhaps more significant is that, after Brexit, implementation will come under UK, as opposed to EU, law. Hence the importance of the  Civil Liability Bill. This supposedly:

  • “cracks down on fraudulent whiplash claims and is expected to reduce motor insurance premiums by about £35 per year
  • ensures a fair, transparent and proportionate system of compensation is in place for damages paid to genuinely injured personal injury claimants
  • ensures full and fair compensation is paid to genuinely injured claimants
  • applies to England and Wales” [not Scotland or Northern Ireland – so much for the Union!]

It will almost certainly apply to civil action for non-physical injuries.

The diversion of police resources (including their on-line expertise) into anti-terrorist activities  at a time when the evidence as to the rising cost of on-line impersonation and fraud is improving has already led to a sharp rise in the number of law firms offering “asset recovery” services, including to the clients of insurance companies who now mandate such contracts as a part of the incident management processes central to modern cyber insurance. Soon we can expect a spread to the UK of the US plague of calls to victims from “asset recovery” firms . Now let us assume that every data breach notification is a source of new leads for the call centres currently drumming up Whiplash or PPI claims …

It is a year since the report of the Culture Media and Sport Select Committee enquiry in Cybersecurity identified the need for guidance from Citizens Advice on how to sue, and from the Law Society to its members on how to help them. Its main point was, however, on the need to focus any data breach fines on those without effective processes to enable potential victims to make contact to check whether contacts purposing to come them were genuine.

At the time we thought, but had no quotable evidence, that predators already had access, via the dark web information markets, to all they needed to acquire genuine credentials in the name of those worth defrauding. A few weeks ago I was told that profiles on over half the UK’s over 65s are now known to be available, to enable predators to decide if they are worth defrauding – and if so how (accounts, passwords etc.).  Yesterday I received a press release using the fears raised by  the data available to impersonate ministers and government officials to promote biometric ID technology to serve others at similar risk.

When it comes to the sharing of legitimately acquired data, the paranoia of the digiterati over the surveillance powers of GCHQ palls beside that of parents who have just discovered how vulnerable their Snapchat obsessed children are to being not only spied on but tracked in real time on their days out . Then we have the Internet of Sh*TVint Cerf’s clip has 39,000 views, the Re Publica video on the legal implications has 1,000 but the “Internet of Sh*t Song” has nearly a million. We could have a lively time in both Lords and Commons if Government decides to allow free debate on such issues in between the Brexit Bills.

Will we see all parties unite in wanting to make the UK the safest place to go on-line and a global hub for both trusted identities and robust privacy and anonymisation? If so, that will mean debating governance rather than technology.

How do we, could we, should we, “know” that Google is or more, or less, trustworthy than GCHQ? And if we cannot … how should we proceed? Unlike the Open Rights Group,  I happen to trust the processes of GCHQ … but I do not trust those of its US or continental counterparts, let alone those of the commercial Big Data operations hoovering up everything they can while trying to avoid legal liability for the consequences of their actions.

And returning to the Queen’s Speech – while I like the idea of smart meters I will not install one until it does something useful for me … under my  control – not that of my energy supplier.

In the meantime I look forward to hearing what the members of the Digital Policy Alliance make of the Queen’s Speech. A side effect of the DPA work supporting PAS 1296 is that the membership includes those who are serious about delivering data minimised front ends to robust and secure world-wide (not just UK- or Euro-centric) identification and authorisation systems. Their collective experience of practical (as opposed to theoretical) security and governance, not just within the UK, is impressive

 


June 15, 2017  11:28 AM

A sinister view of the politics of change and creativity

Philip Virgo Profile: Philip Virgo
IT politics

It is time to take a different view of the politics of left and right. We sinisters (from Leonardo  da Vinci to Bill Gates) have always been in the forefront of change, cutting through the defences of the ruling dexters of the time using flair and imagination .

I had been planning to blog on the difference between the politics of hope, (Jeremy Corbyn even looks like the Pied Piper), beguiling the young with dreams of a debt free world after spending three years acquiring a degree that employers do not value

and the politics of Fear (Jihadis, Coalitions of Chaos etc.) – but I got bored.

I also realised that 90% of baddies a right handed.

[I gloss over the argument that so are 90% of goodies].


June 10, 2017  12:50 PM

Student social media campaign steals May’s majority from Tory tortoise

Philip Virgo Profile: Philip Virgo
Brexit, Kainos, manifesto

Kainos is the undisputed winner

There are many pages of post mortem in the press today but the list of seats that the Conservatives lost to Labour shows clearly that it was the success of Momentum in registering, capturing and getting out the student vote that enabled Labour to win most of them.  New voter registration peaked at over 450,000 aged under 34 (out of 600,000) on deadline day. Lord Ashcroft’s exit poll analysis shows that they overwhelmingly voted labour . The undisputed winner was therefore Kainos.  Not only did their on-line voter registration service cope with the peak but their constituency MPs now hold the government in their hand.

DUP Policies

I did not cover the DUP policies in my canter through the manifestos (neither did anyone else!) but perhaps the most significant today was a comment in their leaders speech at the launch. She accused Sinn Fein of being “the only party that actually wants to talk up the prospect of a hard border than no-one actually wants“.   In other words, if the EU wants to exclude the UK from a tariff free zone, the DUP will ensure that the Commission has to organise and pay for enforcement, on the other side of the border.

Among the other snippets from DUP policies that give a flavour for what else we can expect them to want from Westminster are:

  • an on-line Civil Justice system similar to those in the Netherlands and Canada
  • “A Department FOR Agriculture and Rural Development, not an EU Police Force” (this attitude helps explain why British farmers as a whole tended to support Brexit)
  • “a cross border tax force of NCA, PSNI and Tax Authorities to ensure no safe havens” (a thinly veiled comment on the many variations on the Double Irish tax loophole)

Competition between Conservatives and a rainbow coalition  

While the Conservatives rebuild their party for an election that may come at any time we should look at what they need to do in they are to stand any hope of recapturing part of the student vote. In parallel we should look at what their competitors need to do to assemble a continental style “rainbow coalition”  capable of actually taking power from the Tories. Finally, for this column, we should look at the implications for the IT community, users as well as suppliers.

So far the evidence of what really motivated the student vote, in addition to the socialist idealism of youth, gives three driving forces behind Momentum’s ability to harness the University vote – in order of priority:

  1. Student Fees, and the prospect of a lifetime of debt (see my blog on this)
  2. The fear that Brexit would mean an end to student exchange programmes like Erasmus 
  3. The fear that Brexit would mean an end to the opportunity for their University to participate in pan-EU research programmes

Leading to a publicly negotiated Brexit?

We can reasonably expect rapid action to address these areas. This may include another “U-turn” by Theresa. This time it would involve a decision to conduct negotiations in public – so that she can demonstrate issue by issue support. Reserving the UK position, “so as to be in a better negotiating position” clearly lost hundreds of thousands of votes on the part of those who were worried about what that position was, if it existed at all.

Playing the democratic card against the unelected Commission has the effect of forcing the back-door lobbyists, across Europe, not just in London and Brussels, into the open. They, like the Commission and the Civil Servants, will fight this approach tooth and nail. But it may, now, be the best way of assembling a winning hand – “in the national interest”.  It may also be the only way of avoiding a second (losable) referendum – with the UK position on changes and non-changes agreed topic by topic – in parallel with an otherwise status quo Brexit. Then would come the rapid implementation of what is agreed followed by long drawn out process of negotiating over what is not.

The Digital  Charter   

The electorate as a whole appears to have been unimpressed by the “Home Office” war against terror spin linked to the potentially popular Conservative Digital Charter. But the majority of students are now female. The debate on Internet privacy and security has so far been almost entirely male-dominated, save for a couple of lobbyists for large ISPs which have just realised they are going to have to change their business models anyway.

I suspect this is an area where the climate of debate could change if the student vote was mobilised after discovering they too were being targeted and victimised in much the same way as the over 65s (for their savings) and under 16s (for sexual exploition). An alliance between them and the care groups (from Citizens Advice and Age UK through Mumsnet to the Childrens Charities) could very easily lead to proposals for draconian legislation – to allow MPs of left and right to posture while they prepare for another General Election in a few months time.

This area needs much better informed debate led by those who want to preserve the Internet as a safe place – with the UK at its beating heart – to ensure that any legislation, assuming the government lasts long enough for it to be passed, is not counter-productive.

The Gig Economy and “Death of  Lobbying”

Significant numbers of students and youngster now work in the “gig” economy. It will be important to find out whether they do indeed value the flexibility or lament the insecurity of income which affects their ability to acquire a permanent home. Either way, as soon as there is serious evidence of support, we can expect a bidding war between government and opposition, regardless of the lobbying of tech employers.

A hung parliament and impending election could lead to a dramatic change in the nature of lobbying in Westminster. Only those MPs with large majorities and no local University will feel safe to take up topics which are not of direct interest to their voters. Meanwhile officials will be unable to progress departmental programmes which do not have widespread electoral support. Few “big” IT-related projects have such support.

Thus we can expect, for example, the smart meter programme to falter and die. Yesterday I was with an elderly friend whose combined smart meter had cost her four call-outs after it had cut her gas supply for no apparent reason. After the last call out it was removed, “on a temporary basis” because the fitters could not find out what was wrong. She does not want it replaced. No amount of lobbying will salvage the smart meter programme until such quality problems are resolved and there are clear user benefits.

Meanwhile the students of the University of Suffolk decapitated the Government Digital strategy as a whole. They voted out the Minister. Suffolk is one of the few Unis to give pride of place on its website for its new Higher and Degree Apprenticeship Programmes. This was not mentioned at all in the Conservative Manifesto as a way of giving would-be students a choice  between a debt and a career. Given that Ben Gummer (supposedly) had joint responsibility for the Conservative Manifesto there is a more than a little irony in their actions.

No new technology initiatives for the foreseeable future

Given the Government’s slender majority we can expect no major technology initiatives requiring a vote in Parliament on anything likely to seriously offend either Conservative backbenchers or the DUP unless they have serious support from Labour and/or the SNP. That will mean a long overdue focus on incremental change.

This also means that existing policies, such as a market led broadband strategy, will roll on. Verify will have to sink or swim, on its merits

Unfortunately parliament has lost a couple of its most IT literate members, Calum Kerr (SNP) and Craig Williams (Conservative).  That makes the role of survivors and elder statesmen, like Matt Hancock (Conservative), Matt Warman (Conservative), Chi Onwurah (Labour) and Stephen Timms (Labour) all the more important – while some very impressive newcomers get their feet.


June 8, 2017  10:21 AM

Adtech industry now under pressure from all sides for ripoffs, fraud and jihadi promotion

Philip Virgo Profile: Philip Virgo
Adtech, Fraud, guardian, Internet, YouTube

The legal action being brought by the Guardian against Rubicon for the “non-transparency” of fees highlights one of the murkier aspects of the on-line world. A competitor to the Guardian told me that around 90% of the fees paid by advertisers in order to feature alongside their “breaking news” stories end up with the adtech intermediaries. Hence the financial squeeze on those, like them, who expect journalists who check their stories. Hence also the sharp rise of fake news under a variety of guises.

The main political parties are the latest to pull their YouTube advertising after seeing Jihadi videos alongside their ads   and the major commercial advertisers are reviewing over $3 billion of adtech spend in the face of evidence of a massive rise in click-fraud.

Hence one of the reasons the Prime Minister’s call to clean up the Internet resulted in rapid claims from Facebook, Google and Twitter about the effort they are already putting in to do so – rather than echoing the calls of the Open Rights Group to “protect” free speech – as opposed to, for example, the “right” not to be trolled when using supposedly reputable services.

Meanwhile some those investors most anxious to stop the bubble bursting (and their protegees losing value) are still hyping the adtech  industry  But those who look ahead are looking to fund, for example, automated transaction analysis and fraud detection.  If those suppliers can indeed demonstrate success in not only halting fraud while in progress, but also enabling legal action to put the perpetrators out of business (alongside who aided and abetted them), we might also see an implosion in the Infosec sticking plaster industry?

 


June 7, 2017  11:49 AM

Manifestos for Skills and Jobs or for Debt and Unemployment

Philip Virgo Profile: Philip Virgo
apprenticeships, Skill, Stem, UKIP

The competition for the youth vote, with offers of free tuition fees to all subjects (Labour), or just for STEM subjects (as in the UKIP manifesto) are based on a world view that dates from the late 1960s, when belief in the value of three years at University had taken over from that of two years in the armed forces as a rite of passage. In 2010, when students were rioting against tuition fees, there remained a widespread assumption that “the middle class puberty rite of kicking the fledglings from the nest” had a unique value in helping adolescents  prepare for a world of change. Ian Brown, then at the Oxford Internet Institute, read my blog on confusing puberty rites with education and kindly put the text of the 1982 paper  from which I had quoted, on-line. I do not say he agreed with me. It was more likely that, with pundits once again claiming that robots and artificial intelligence would put us all out of work, he agreed the need to take a cool look at the assumptions behind our educational priorities.

The genesis of “Learning for Change” was an invitation from the late Donald Michie (one of the founders of Artificial Intelligence as a discipline) to deliver a paper to a gathering of the UK technical press of day on the implications for education of a world in which data processing, artificial intelligence and robotics had removed the status of the scholar: ” The possession of book-learning or logical reasoning ability will lose status just as literacy did when everyone could read and write. The human touches of sympathy and creativity will be the hallmark of the high status job.”   I was then asked by Chairman of the Bow Group to put the text into political context, with some recommendations for Government. The result sold out after a truly vitriolic review (whose text I cannot now find) in the Times Higher Education supplement. If you read “Learning for Change” you will see why it was so divisive – and remains so.

Today (and tomorrow) we need to look at the systemic disinformation being fed to children and parents, under the guise of careers advice, regarding the “value” of a University Degree”, as opposed to the value of a well structured apprenticeship,  particularly one linked to a modular degree and/or including the acquisition of globally recognised qualifications.

The value of degree  courses in improving earnings capacity varies as widely as the value of apprenticeships. The much quoted “average”  of #200,000 is from a BIS study , which compared with a control group of those leaving school with two or more A  levels, not with those who had chosen vocational qualifications instead of “A” levels”. There is clear evidence that the value of degrees (by subject and/or university) varies at least as widely as that of apprenticeships (by profession/trade and/or employer). The lifetime earnings of many graduates were below those of the control group average. No-one has done an exercise on the value of apprenticeships – and they would have to begin by defining what they mean – because the comparison of those who, for example, began their apprenticeship as a Chartered Accountant direct from school tend to be three years (or more if the graduate has taken a gap year) further up the management free at every stage. I recently heard of a school-leaver managing (at 21) the development of  graduate trainees older than herself, while being groomed for a senior management role (in the bank) by the time she is 30.

It would be wrong to go as far as the Harvard Business Review in saying “The Degree is Doomed” but the Economist is almost certainly correct in saying that it represents declining value . Not just in the US. Hence the reason leading UK public schools now record those obtaining graduate level apprenticeships with leading employers – for many of which competition is fiercer  than for places with Oxbridge or the Russell Group Universities.  The big difference is that those gaining such apprenticeship often collect globally recognised qualifications as well as a degree on the way and not only have no debt in their twenties but are three to four years further up the management tree with a premium that widens over time.

Waiving tuition fees, leaving graduates with only the borrowings to cover living costs, may win many tens of thousands of votes tomorrow but the expansion of graduate level apprenticeships will do far more to bridge skills gaps and get youngsters into well paid jobs. More-over the  student loan programme already has average interest rates and penalties for early repayment that mortgage borrowers are advised to avoid. If those who earn well above average are to be taxed more heavily to cover the cost of those who do not earn enough to be liable to repay …  The all-up cost of repaying student debt, even as reduced by the removal of Tuition Fees, means that the average value of a degree, even using the BIS measures, will have more than halved by the time this years “crop” of students has graduated.

It is far more important to work to open up the paths between non-graduate, graduate and post-graduate apprenticeships, with content and standards driven by employers not administrators or academics to ensure that all level of apprenticeship operate to world class standards.

 


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