When IT Meets Politics

September 5, 2017  8:15 AM

Learning from success: the Plymouth Cybersecurity Skills Partnership

Philip Virgo Profile: Philip Virgo
BCS, CREST, cybersecurity, Fraud, IAAC, iot, NCFTA, Piracy, telecare

On September 12th the Digital Policy Alliance will review progress (including lessons learned) with its pilot local Cybersecurity Skills Partnership. The meeting will also include contributions on the current state of the UK’s national security skills programmes and discussion on how to join these up locally.

The pilot, led by Michael Dieroff of Bluescreen IT, engages with national (e.g. BCS and IAAC) and international (e.g. CISCO, Comptia and ISC2) players who want to explore practical co-operation away from the pressures of corporate and regulatory politics as well as with the City Council, both Local Universities, FE Colleges, Schools, the Chamber of Commerce and local employers (large and small, public and private). The strategy is akin to that which led to the NCFTA being established in Pittsburgh, not Washington. The distance from Plymouth to London is about the same. The train service may be better but the journey still takes long enough to deter timewasters.

Please contact the Digital Policy Alliance Cybersecurity Skills Sub Group if you want an invitation to work with your peers to identify and “grow” those who will help you meet your own security, investigation and “asset recovery” needs (and those of your customers) over the months, not just years ahead.  And I do mean months, not years.

The Security Skills Incubator at the heart of the Plymouth Partnership was operational within four months of the decision to go ahead.

By then the first batch of supervised work experience trainees had already produced practical results, using leading edge tools to address current risks and live incidents within a fortnight of starting their own “learning by doing” programmes. The incubator brings together students from a variety of programmes, from schools work experience, through FE and HE level apprentices and undergraduate and post graduate students and mature cross trainees. The employer participants are expected to share supervision and mentoring in return for having their problems and those of their clients addressed.

Given that the provision of supervised work experience is the biggest problem in organizing apprenticeships of all kinds, not just cyber, whatever the size of the organisation, this approach is inspired. It also cracks the problem of helping SMEs who have only one or two apprentices and little or no resource to manage in-house work-experience other than for non-technical tasks.

That is, of course, not the whole story.

It took over a year to find a UK location that was suitable and serious: i.e. local government and police authority serious about working with FE/HE/Schools, local employers (large and small, public and private) and locally based security consultants and training providers to address local skills, awareness and response needs.

The first attempt failed when we discovered that the lead University gave absolute priority to bidding for research funding and Government “challenges”. Co-operation with local business (large or small) to meet skills needed was well down in its priorities. We now know that is the rule, not the exception.

The second attempt failed when the lead law enforcement partner was unable to talk seriously with industry and education partners because it was seriously overcommitted with high profile investigations. We now know that is, again, the rule not the exception.

The third attempt failed when the lead training provider won sufficient business to keep its existing training operations fully occupied for the rest of the year. Its success in cutting the time from identifying talent to enabling customers to bill the newly trained “consultants” to HMG to around six months has, however, concentrated the minds of its competitors. More-over it could have could have cut the elapsed time in half, but for the time for the security clearances needed by HMG to come through.

With Plymouth we went from discussions in the margins of the launch of STEM Plymouth to live running at a rate of knots – as befits a 400 year old global centre for Maritime Security (now including including Computer Assisted Piracy and Fraud and the IOT devices that “infest” the world of shipping and international supply chains). We found that Plymouth was well accustomed to local and global co-operation. Its local networks for co-operation on skills development go back over five years – beginning with programmes to reduce dependence on imported construction skills (at all levels from bricklayers and carpenters to civil engineering project managers). Its global networks embrace every nation with a long coastline (it is home to the worlds main marine, hydography and oceanography research institutes).

In parallel with digital apprenticeships of all kinds, the Peninsula Medical School is looking to clinical assistant and medical apprenticeship programmes to reduce dependence on imported doctors and nurses.  We expect medical security (including for telecare and telemedicine devices) to be as big a work stream as Maritime Security. But neither will be as immediately important as the protection of vulnerable on-line consumers.

This is one of the top priorities of the Devon and Cornwell Police Commissioner. Over half the over 65s nationally have been targeted by on-line predators. The problem is particularly acute in the West Country where banks and retailers are seeking to herd their customers on-line.

The overall aim of STEM Plymouth is to demonstrate by world-leadership by 2020 and the celebrations around the fourth centenary of the departure of a group of idealists who set off to invent their own future on the far side of the world. By then I anticipate that the cybersecurity partnership will be well on the way to emulating an even older Plymouth tradition: providing a global support base for those who help police cyberspace in the way the forbears policed the oceans – Elizabeth 1st was Francis Drake’s largest shareholder and took half his “prize money”.

One of the more imaginative exercises is to intercept teenage “explorers” before they acquire criminal records, so that we can enlist their talents and motivations (e.g. for recognition by those they respect) in hunting down those defrauding their grandparents. This approach is expected to be more productive than that of those who would convict them as hackers first, thus making them unemployable other than by GCHQ. Either way, we will make little or no progress in bringing law and order to cyberspace until fraudsters and other predators live in fear of being identified and having their assets seized.

Other exercises being piloted are more conventional, such as how to produce attractive careers material that is both accurate and intelligible to the target audiences – and get it in front of them. Here the aims include taking existing material (e.g. that of CREST) and helping implement and test a variety front ends to different audiences.

On and after the 12th we plan to start the next phase of the pilot, including engaging large employers who need to better protect vulnerable customers before they face massive fines under GDPR. We particularly wish to those engage banks, on-line retailers, insurance companies and asset recovery operations who would like to test processes for practical co-operation in a controlled environment.

Please contact the DPA Digital Security Skills Group with a note on what you would expect to bring to a partnership and, equally importantly, what you would expect in return. Those without objectives are unlikely to help us drive for realistic results. We are already looking at working with partnerships to serve other parts of the UK – but only where a critical mass of employers are already moving down the path of creating good working relationships with local authorities, law enforcement, Universities, Colleges and commercial training providers. Otherwise life is to short.

August 28, 2017  11:41 AM

The IT Policy “Elephants in the Room” – the taboo policy issues

Philip Virgo Profile: Philip Virgo
Broadband, cartel, IPR, newspeak, PICTFOR

The PICTFOR summer reception on Wednesday 23rd August was sponsored by the British Computer Society at Newspeak House.

The event began with a discussion of  issues (see the invitation) expected to be of interest to the next generation of Tech Entrepreneurs who were the target audience. There was, however, a marked difference between the questions posed in the opening discussion and those to the tech entrepreneurs wanted answers – according to their ranking on Sli.do.

The former were, in large part,  a re-run of the questions asked 35 years ago during IT Year (1982) – about the impact of AI and Robotics, The Future of Work and Skills.

The top three concerns of the audience were:

  1. Broadband connectivity – and whether it needed regulation or market forces
  2. Whether the use of encryption should be interfered with by government
  3. “Is the market power of Google, Facebook etc. a problem? Do we need a return to the “trust busting era?”

Brexit was further down the list while“How will automation/AI disrupt the work place of the future?” was an also ran, alongside skills issues.

Shortly after this blog was launched, a decade ago, I did a series of posts (“The politics of …”) giving background to some of the big issues of the day. After listening to the youngsters, who will have to live with the mess that yet another generation has created by avoiding the need to address them, I thought I would have a go at identifying some of the current elephants in the room. Most are not new. They have just got bigger and harder to address over the years.

They ares – in no particularly order:

1)            The gulf between ordinary human beings (now the vast majority of internet users) and internet enthusiasts/dominant suppliers (who continue to patronize their customers). In the long run “the customer is King” and the time for reckoning is coming. I first blogged on theme of “herding the sheep on line to be fleeced” six years ago. How long before the sheep revolt and overwhelm the dogs? The intellectual arrogance of the digerati goes back to when separate computer departments were first created – “you can always tell a programmer, but will he listen?”

2)            The avoidance of responsibility/liability by suppliers/publishers including for the software/systems used in IoT devices. Third party risks are now uninsurable and the time for a Ralph Nader (Unsafe at any speed) to take on the giants of the on-line world is overdue. Will the corporate lawyers of Silicon Valley and Seattle be more successful in resisting change than those of Detroit and Dearborn when she takes on the misogynist on-line  technocracy

3)            The rising tide of fraud and impersonation using information that “leaks” from big data business models. The “solutions”, including third party liability for the consequences of such leaks, will probably destroy current advertised funding business models – if the collapse of belief among big advertising buyers that the sales benefits justify the cost (including reputational) does not do so first.

4)            Social/geographic divisions between those (whether consumers or businesses) with good/reliable connectivity and/or access to on-line products and services (including education) and those without. Current measures of “availability” are seriously misleading. Hence the growing anger of voters in over a parliamentary constituencies. The effects are compounded by the withdrawal of off-line services (from banks through libraries to crime reporting) before the on-line equivalents, let alone integrated and accessible support operations. are fit for purpose.

5)            Co-operation by the G7/G20 to ensure that Airbnb, Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google, Paypal, Uber et al pay sales/corporate tax somewhere. At that point we will discover whether the Internet really does provide benefits other than tax avoidance.

6)            A three way split between Californian Liberals/Corporate Lawyers, State Surveillance Authorities and the General Public over the meaning of Internet Safety. For the public it includes freedom from cyber predators (bullies, trolls, child abusers, fraudsters etc.). For the corporate lobbyists and their libertarian allies it means freedom from legal liability, taxation and regulation. For the State it means protection from the dissidents and/or terrorists of the day (from Anarchists and Fenians to Anonymous and Jihadists) and a set of assumptions and priorities that go back over three thousand years.

7)           A revolt against US patent/copyright trolls.  In the fast moving 18th Century patent protection was limited to 14 years and those who did not publish or bring product to market lost protection. I have not blogged on IPR wars for some years but Brexit (and the UK exit from the EU compromises) bring an opportunity to review what really is in the UK interest if we want to be a hub for global on-line creativity – not just a marketing sink for that developed and sourced elsewhere.

8)            Action to open up/regulate (as utilities) the interlinked national and international (Amazon, Facebook, Google, Microsoft, Twitter etc.) the “cartel masquerading as anarchy”   that controls our access to the on-line world.

9)            Action to expose/update the middle-class puberty rite of kicking the fledglings from the nest with three years getting into debt at the hands of an academic Ponzi scheme (the fiscal, intellectual and moral equivalent of FGM, crippling rather than enriching their future lives).  I have just blogged my 1982 paper on the need to reform our approach to education for a world of Artificial Intelligence, Global Information Sharing and Robotics on-line for a new generation. 35 years ago it was seen as visionary. Today the ideas are  almost mainstream – but they will still be fought tooth and nail by those who believe in the Platonic ideal of one education, for one career, for life,  see their current academic status and way of life at risk – and see only problems, not opportunities.

10) This one is for you to add. Comments as to what I have left out are most welcome. I have a bottle of House of Lords whisky for the best.

August 28, 2017  11:26 AM

Skills for the world of the future: AI, Big Data, Robotics etc.

Philip Virgo Profile: Philip Virgo
Artificial intelligence, Robotics, Training

Over the past few weeks we have had much hype of the effect of Artificial Intelligence, Big Data and Robotics on the world of work and the subjects we should be teaching our chidren. Almost exactly 35 years ago, Donald Michie, the “father” of research into machine intelligence, was given a free hand to bring together scientists, academic and politicians to speak on artificial intelligence, expert systems, robotics, and the future of work, education and medicine at the annual Sperry Seminar for the UK Technical Press. The speakers included Ed Feigenbaum, the father of “expert systems”, Walter Bodmer,  later to launch the human genome project (still by far the worlds biggest “Big Data” project) and Robert McGhee the pioneer of walking machines.  The results were published in 1983 as”Intelligent Systems – the unprecedented opportunity “.

Having been responsible for selling the “Micros in Schools” programme to government, I was given the task of looking at the impact on educational values and priorities. I concluded that throwing money at the system would delay the fundamental changes needed. I was subsequently asked to reformat the paper as a political pamphlet. This was published as Learning for Change, which sold out. But the messages were ignored (other than by a Jesuit college which still had the analysis embedded them in its teachings over a decade later).

A decade of so later Government began to baulk t the bottomless pit of University tuition fees and accommodation costs. It began transferring the burden to parents and students, persuading school-leavers to mortgage their futures.  Fast forward another 20 years and the futurology of 1982 (AI, Big Data, Robotics, globally teleconferenced research and packaged on-line education and training programmes etc.) is becoming the present. Large parts of the Ponzi Scheme at the heart of UK Higher Education Policy are now irrelevant, not just expensive.  In my previous blog, I discussed part of the way forward but we should not under-estimate the scale of change needed. It will also be fought tooth and nail by those seeking to preserve academic lifestyles at the expense of the young (as opposed to looking to the mature learning market.

The political recommendations in Learning for Change have been overtaken by events but the original analysis, as edited by Donald Michie and Jean Hayes for publication, has not:

= = =

Training for Multi-Career Lives – Philip Virgo: National Computing Centre

Learning for Change: Training, Retraining and Lifelong Education For Multi-Career Lives


Most of the basic skills needed over the next hundred years can be predicted with reasonable certainty but many of the precise trades and professions cannot. “Age-Related Careers” is an employment strategy which can handle such uncertainty. Fundamental changes to the education system are necessary. Information Technology makes these possible at economic cost. Encouragement and favourable publicity are more effective weapons of persuasion than coercion but many actions at all levels are needed if the inability of our education system to cope with change is not to deny us the benefits which the new technology is bringing to other societies.


Some time ago I heard Ian Lloyd say that our greatest requirement from the so-called Microelectronics Revolution was automated abattoirs for sacred cows. Nowhere is the slaughter of sacred cows more necessary than in our education system. Its inability to cope with change must not deny us the benefits which new technology is bringing to other societies. I shall begin with some comments on the role of our education system in the past, and how it must adapt if we are to have any worthwile future.

We can predict with reasonable certainty most of the basic skills we are going to need over the next hundred years or so. Where we cannot we need a strategy to handle uncertainty. 3I will propose the strategy of “Age-Related Careers” and will then discuss some of the fundamental institutional changes that will be necessary and how the new technologies can help.

In conclusion, I will identify some of the obstacles we must overcome on the way and how those in the information industry can help.

  1. The Role of the Educational System

200 years ago was the take-off period for Britain’s first industrial revolution: the take-off that transformed England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland from an economic condition akin to that of modern India, famines and all, to one akin to that of Hong Kong today.

There may be extremes of poverty in Hong Kong but few actually die of starvation. The last English famine in which whole villages died was in the middle of the eighteenth century. The last Scottish famine was in the 1820s.

There are many myths about the consequences of that revolution but few about its causes and course.

An ambitious and underprivileged (but also undertaxed) class of entrepreneurs in an unregulated, unplanned environment, sought to buy social respectability by making money out of providing the materials and munitions to enable Britain to fight each of its continental neighbours in turn. In doing so they managed to create a forty year long investment led boom, ending only with the post Napoleonic war slump in the 1820s. Then another long boom followed as Railway mania gripped the country, fostered by the same group.

We have read much about the evils of nineteenth century education: it is worth thinking about the education system in the eighteenth century, the education of the men who made the first industrial revolution. Since the Royal Navy was the only service fit for a gentleman of courage (the Army was discredited as a continental-style threat to civil liberties), and since the specialist Naval academies of the nineteenth century had yet to be founded, elementary engineering and scientific mathematics ranked higher than Latin and Greek in the education of a gentleman. Meanwhile, the Quakers and Non-Conformists of the Midlands and North West, excluded from grammar schools and universities ran more Trade, Commerce and Artisan schools than the rest of Europe added together. The poor condition of the English grammar schools and universities was no hindrance since only clergymen looked to them for inspiration.

In the nineteenth century, with the founding of Naval Academies, religious tolerance and the new found respectability of Army and Empire, the picture changed dramatically. The children and grandchildren of the men who made the first Industrial Revolution could enjoy the clergyman’s education of Latin, Greek, and theology in reformed grammar schools and universities. Trade, commerce and engineering were relegated to the ragged aspirants of the Workers Educational Association despite the complaints of boring foreigners, like Prince Albert.

Meanwhile, the rest of Europe, with no world-wide Empire to administer and having to innovate rather than live off past innovation, learned from the Quakers and the Non-Conformists and made no such mistakes. Thus the seeds of our century-long decline were sown in the classrooms of Dr.  Arnold’s Rugby rather than on the playing fields of Eton.

Now that we have spent our inheritance and must once more earn a living we can do a lot worse than to look again at the institutions of the eighteenth century. We must recognise that education should not be a joy for the few and a trial of youth for the many but a lifelong experience for all, as and when the opportunity arises. The young should acquire a desire and an ambition to “improve” themselves and should associate learning with reward, not with examination trauma.

The men of the late eighteenth century shared many of our problems. They knew the world was about to change but didn’t know in which direction, unemployed anarchic bloodshed alternating with tyranny as in France or hard working republican virtue as in America. Some thought the steam engine would usher in an age of leisure (or mass unemployment), others were confident that work might change (from brawn to brain, maybe), but that it would still be necessary and that the basic skills needed were likely to be much the same.

The latter were right. Two centuries later we are still looking forward to an age of leisure. I venture to predict that in two hundred years our descendants will still be looking. Meanwhile, it is our duty to do at least as well, and preferably better, than our ancestors in preparing for change.

  1. Future Skill Requirements

We will still have to work for a living but the nature of that work is likely to change and we cannot predict many of the changes with much certainty.

We can no longer afford to spend one or two decades of detailed preparation for a single life-long career progression. Instead we should aim, like our ancestors, to impart those basic skills almost certain to be in continuous demand and to build a system capable of responding rapidly to change, and disseminating new skills to any age group when necessary.

This is all the more important since our education systems appear incapable of supplying the skills currently in demand, let alone new ones. Where we can predict major industries, such as computer assisted video entertainment and learning, mass produced electronics based medical aids, biotechnology and telematics, we, unlike the Japanese, are incapable of delivering the appropriate career preparation or retraining. We even appear to have lost the ability to impart the basic commercial skills necessary to create fast growing new businesses. If we do not change our educational systems to produce generations capable of competing with the Japanese, the Germans and the Americans, we will lose out on the millions of wealth creating jobs potentially available. In consequence, we won’t have the resources to support the idle decline, like that of nineteenth century Spain, that will be our lot.

For some of the new industries we can specify the technician training requirements in fair detail: for video they are akin to film production on a very tight budget and time schedule, for biotechnology they are a cross between process engineering and brewing real ale.

But our training facilities are far too thin on the ground. We need packaged course material for mass delivery but no commercial organisation will invest money in developing such material when it will be pirated as soon as it is supplied. Copyright reform is essential.

We can also list the basic skills that everyone will need for the office, factory and home of the future.

In the office of the future with its video workstations, electronic filing systems and telecommunications links, technical literacy and dexterity will, of course, be necessary. However, the ability to think clearly and express oneself accurately and concisely, to get sensible answers from the all-embracing information databases, will be even more important. The GIGO principle, (garbage in leads to garbage out), has its counterpart in information science where a woolly question will produce a meaningless flood of irrelevant data. The problem with modern management is already too much rather than too little information and computers don’t often help. If the West Yorkshire police had had computerised information systems, they might still be looking for the Yorkshire Ripper. The uniformed policemen who finally caught him would have been too busy helping administer the database to leave the police station.

Without old fashioned linguistic skills, as tested in a “comprehension” exercise, and without the ability to frame an intelligent question and to recognise a sensible answer, the new Information Technology can all too often make things worse rather than better.

Similarly, the ability of the technology to perform instant statistical analyses will make the knowledge of what those statistical analyses mean, if anything, essential. However, to Reading, Writing and ‘Rithmetic we need to add three new skills:

  • The first is the concept of simulation, beginning with the concept of a computer model analogous to the real world in the way that a meccano crane or a model railway is to real things, but leading to the understanding of how computer models can be run backwards, from the desired ends to identify and test the logic, assumptions and premisses which lead to that end. This may well have a dramatic effect on the way we think since in many modelling exercises, the significant variables turn out to be unmeasurable, or based on hunches, value judgments or even moral principles where mere logic is of limited value: for example, the so-called “social” costs which befuddle public enquiries and motorway or airport planning exercises.
  • The second new skill is problem structuring and solving, and in particular group problem solving of the kind used by the class “cheat”, who knows which classmate’s homework to copy in which subject. By definition, this skill is selected against in our educational system and thus its most skilled practitioners frequently end up working against society as rebels, criminals or parasites rather than in the key management posts which they should occupy.
  • Thorough and imaginative approaches to group problem identification, structuring and solving are going to be essential in the factory of the future where quality control is going to be one of the main occupations. Ensuring that complex computer controlled products are functioning correctly, and that the specification of the control program is adequate under all circumstances and not dangerously inadequate under even the most unlikely circumstances, may well become the most labour intensive part of the production process.

Outside the factory the maintenance men who are to service the multiplicity of devices from automatic doors and light sensitive blinds, to mass-produced powered limbs and living aids for the elderly and rheumatic, will need similar skills since remote or automatic fault diagnosis will often be inadequate.

Even in modern Britain with the lowest proportion of self-employed and small business proprietors of any country outside the Communist block, the basic commercial skills of running a business are needed by more than one in eight of the population. If one accepts the thesis that most of the new jobs are going to be created in small businesses, private sector personal services and the informal economy, and that in the future more than one in four of the population will, at some time in their lives run their own business, a revival of “commercial” and “business” studies as subjects to be taught to all, in school, is necessary. Their current absence from the curriculum condemns the school leaver to servitude, unemployment or, at best, several wasted years learning for himself what he should have been taught at school. If education is truly a preparation for life, their absence cannot be defended outside a communist society.

The impact of technology on the personal service jobs, from street cleaning to street walking, will be negligible. Gardeners, window cleaners, plumbers, cooks and so on will be needed just as now.

At the other end of society, however, the changes may well be traumatic as expert systems render obsolete the book-learning and machine-like logical skills of most lawyers, accountants and consultants.

The robot that can sweep a factory floor or weed a garden is at least a century off. But most of the work of the Inland Revenue, most administrative accountancy, the routine conveyancing that keeps most solicitors in business, the complex diagnoses that elevate the Harley Street consultant above the local general practitioner, can already be done faster and more accurately by computer. In twenty years the local tax office will give an instant response to your query and the general practitioner will no longer refer you to the hospital for analyses and diagnoses but will do them himself with the aid of his surgery expert systems backed by links to national epidemiological and other databases.

There will be a great many skilled professionals checking the systems and equipment used but status will pass to the man doing the job that no mere machine can do. Giving an enema to an incontinent cripple will be a more valued task than diagnosing some rare cancer or tropical fever – “the simple application of memory and logic which any properly programmed computer can do”.

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.

The trauma of this reversal in our hierarchy of status cannot be under-estimated. At one fell swoop it removes the rationale behind most of our educational values, with their emphasis on memorising large quantities of verbal information, from irregular verbs to the naming of parts, the ability to follow complicated logical processes, quote obscure documents or recognise unusual sets of symptoms. It removes the main justification for 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 don’t label any of the participants as failures!

Rather than develop the learning skills of the few, we must train those of the many so that they can use the artificial intelligence and memory aids that will be available for all. Thus machines will take over the menial logic and memory tasks, leaving us humans with the interesting problems of judgment and the many interpersonal and service tasks which they may aid but cannot take over.

These changes are going to take time, certainly decades, possibly even centuries. But they are going to be fundamental and many new trades, skills and professions are going to be required on the way. However, unless we recognise and accept the transience of many of these new trades, we are going to condemn future generations to the fate of the handloom weavers. The handloom weavers were called into existence by the availability of cheap yarn, but were reluctant or unable to change trade when machine weaving became practicable. Their fate gives a stark lesson that a single career may not be enough in an age of fundamental structural evolution.

The handloom weavers’ modern counterparts could well be the commercial programmers and analysts of today. Called into existence by the availability of expensive computers which had to be used more efficiently, they may well be reluctant or unable to change trade when packaged software on cheap computers has made their particular branch of computing skills redundant.

  1. Age Related Careers?

Given the uncertainty as to the duration of requirement for specific trades, should we not prepare our school leavers for those jobs known to be in current – but possibly temporary – demand, while reserving certain careers, where demand is likely to be constant, for older generations who, because of family commitments, are no longer so mobile, who may take longer to retrain and who must therefore plan further ahead?

— Flexibility for the young

15-30 Mobility with Transient Skills

— Security for the family

30-50 Executive/Managerial

— Academe for the mature

50-80 Education/Social Service

Thus the school leavers would be prepared for the currently fashionable jobs and for those jobs requiring rapid learning or geographic mobility. As the individuals mature and seek to settle down they would retrain for a more stable executive or managerial career. Social careers, such as education or caring for others would be reserved for those with experience of all the vicissitudes of life.

Make no mistake, the very concept of a multi-career life, let alone the suggestions of age related careers, is at variance with our trades union, social security and pension structures, let alone our educational systems.  It is also incompatible with the Graeco-Roman ideal of Plato’s Republic of one education for one career for life.

It is, however, similar to the way many non-European societies, including Japan, are organised, with their veneration of the growing wisdom of age, and the tasks suitable for different age groups.

Rather than expound analogies and principles I will attempt to describe the careers of an average school leaver of 1990.

John Dent, cousin of Arthur Dent, has no academic interests. On a school project in Wales he once had to be manhandled out of a museum at closing time, but that one symptom of deviant enthusiasm was quickly cured. He is reasonably dextrous, likes making things in the engineering workshop and crashing other people’s computer systems.

In his last year at school he does a course on Numerical Control Programming which includes part-time work in a local engineering company which he joins as a trainee robogate supervisor.

In his spare time he is active in the local CAMRA (Campaign for Real Ale) branch, gets interested in the mechanics of brewing and when the demand for robogate supervisors tails off and salaries start to lag, takes a Biotechnology Production course at the local tech., in his mid twenties. He fails to get a job in a real ale brewery and settles for a metal recycling plant near Scunthorpe rather than work for a synthetic beer factory.

In his late twenties he gets married, stops drinking and starts studying Production Control and Finance on an Open Tech course. It’s heavy going, and he doesn’t qualify till his mid-thirties, when he manages to get a job as deputy production controller of a cattle feed plant in Cheshire. He has worked his way up to production manager when he realises just before his 45th birthday that the plant will have to close because it cannot be adapted to meet the latest pollution control standards.

Unwilling to move, he takes a teacher training course and secures a part-time post at the local school teaching basic numeracy and industrial skills. He is elected to the local council, and with his attendance money and his wife’s earnings as a paramedic running the body scanners in the local Group Practice combined Health Centre, operating theatre and cottage hospital, he decides not to take another full-time job. In the school holidays he takes to studying Welsh History and at 55 graduates in Celtic Studies from the Open University of North Wales. At 60, when their last child leaves home, he and his wife buy a derelict hill farm in mid-Wales and he opens a holiday centre specialising in the development of the Welsh Longbow, in use and in literature.

Note that John retrains four times, none of them at his employer’s expense because each time he is going into a very different career; each time, partly because he is getting older and has more family commitments, it takes him longer, until his final academic, cum leisure cum retirement post. Note also that after his youthful job mobility, at 45 he settles for a collection of part-time sources of income, including teaching and social cum political activity, rather than disrupt his family life and move again.

This kind of multi-career life also requires major changes to our trades union structures, pension schemes and social security schemes to permit multiple job changes without loss of pension rights and to permit part-time work as a norm.

  1. Institutional Changes Needed

Unacademic John Dent spends more time in the educational system, both for business and for pleasure, after he has left school than even today’s academic high flyers. Therefore, unlike current and past generations of school leavers, he must enjoy it. One cannot drag London’s adult East Enders over the threshold of anything that looks like a school but house the establishment in a Portakabin or a Shack, give it a different name and ethos, and disassociate it from memories of pain and boredom, and they are often as eager as any child to learn new skills.

It is essential that the initial educational experience should be such that the student learns how to learn in a way that makes him associate education with reward and relevance, while at the same time he acquires the basic skills essential to all career structures.

Given that the bulk of the new jobs are being created in small businesses with neither the time nor the money to train school leavers in changing skills, and given that the schools have ten years of the individual’s best learning years, the school leaver should already have acquired most of the vocational skills and training necessary for his first career; a first career which is likely to begin at 16 or 17 and to involve a job in close proximity to the school. Therefore, much closer links between schools and local businesses, are necessary.

Whether these are fostered by cross secondments, use of part-time industrial staff for vocational training in schools, the recruitment only of teachers with outside work experience or sandwich courses for children, the current isolation has to be broken down.

Retraining at reasonable cost, social cost as well as economic cost, needs to be available at any stage of life, independent of the desires, means or needs of the current employers.

The kind of availability needed is possibly illustrated by the fate of an American steel company which gave notice of closure in a town where there was little alternative work for steel-workers. The sellers of retraining courses descended on the town like locusts and, although the company rescinded the closure notice, two years later it had to close because of shortage of labour. The workers had taken the message, retrained at their own expense and left for better, more secure, jobs.

We should not concentrate resources on those who are easiest to train, like the teenagers, at the cost of throwing later generations on the scrap heap, nor should we squander resources on the untrainable or those who wish to acquire skills not in demand, at someone else’s expense. When the taxpayers’ money is to be spent, priority should be given to retraining taxpayers or training their children for jobs in known demand. Exotic or esoteric subjects should be studied at private expense, not public.

A major shift in resources away from the 14 to 21 examination treadmill will be required as well as a massive shift from non-vocational to vocational education and from “offering” courses to meeting demands. Non-vocational education will largely become a leisure activity paid for by mature students out of past earnings rather than a middle class puberty rite at taxpayers’ expense.

For many subjects the student age range will rise from under 21 to over 60. Perhaps we should be looking to convert redundant Universities to Recreation and Leisure Schools or Industrial Training Centres depending on their location and facilities. It may well be that in twenty years’ time we will again have in Britain a dozen or so proper research-based endowment funded Universities and, hopefully, at least a dozen first class colleges or institutes of advanced technology funded largely by industry.

Second-rate institutions where University status and academic freedom have too often been an excuse for woolly thinking, inefficiency and futility will no longer be supported with public money. Good researchers and funding will be concentrated in centres of excellence. Competent teachers will be paid more to train for specific professional skills in Polytechnics and Colleges of Further Education, possibly linked in an Open Tech-like framework. The concept of the University as a home of learning and research for young and old alike, rather than an imitation polytechnic for adolescents, without the polytechnic discipline of defined educational objectives, will reign again.

Maybe that is a pipedream; however, a revolution in teaching techniques will certainly be required since current methods rely too heavily on the in-grained awe and academic docility of examination broken youth for them to work with the cynical maturity of the adult trainee. This together with the emphasis on learning how to learn, rather than mastery of any particular subject matter, may well lead to teaching and lecturing in most subjects being reserved as a second or third career so that mature students are taught by their peers. Given the use of packaged material, mastery of the subject will be less important than understanding of the learning experience, the ability to manage the learning environment and to motivate the student by sympathy, guidance and understanding – those attributes which the expert in his own subject has all too often lost. Teacher centred methods must be replaced by learner centred methods.

  1. How can the New Technologies help to meet this Fundamental Challenge?

At the simplest level, audio visual techniques enable the best lecturer or demonstrator to address an audience of thousands rather than a few dozen. A good video is very much more effective than an average teacher in one-way communication such as a lecture.

Freed from the pressure to prepare material to deliver to a timetable, the teacher can act as a tutor rather than a lecturer, advising which sources of information the individual student would find most helpful or relevant: videos, books, computer based simulators, and so on.

The simulations which are at the heart of many Computer Aided learning packages appear to improve greatly the motivation of students of all types. Good packages speed the assimilation of knowledge and understanding, facilitate the practice of techniques and of recall. They can also make formal examinations and the associated trauma unnecessary by testing the student’s understanding at each stage before he can move onto the next. Thus at the end of a CAL packaged course, each student has reached the same level of understanding, some more quickly than others. Packages enable the teacher to concentrate on his students as individuals, especially on their interpersonal abilities: for example, in group situations where the computer has set a task which requires a number of students to work in concert. The computer can be left to manage the task while the teacher concentrates on developing those skills and qualities which the computer cannot, such as the consideration of the feelings, motives and abilities of other people.

Learning can also take place at the student’s convenience; his choice of time, place and pace. Thus the part-time student can study the theory of genetic engineering in the Village School by night, using video and simulation packages with teleconference facilities for tutorials, while the pregnant teenager does remedial mathematics and babycare at home with a visiting teacher to keep up her morale.

Our current education system is “schooled” into subject areas, while life is not. The ability of the expert system to manage complexity makes it ideal for controlling multidisciplinary study projects crossing subject boundaries in a way which few teachers have the ability or knowledge to match. An example might be the complex inter-actions between economic growth, nutrition standards, mortality, mores and birth rates in the first industrial revolution. The medical ignorance of most historians, the cavalier way in which theoretical economists regard most historical evidence, the woolly thinking of most sociologists, and the lack of interest of most medical men, make this an area abounding in myth and nonsense. Such packages could be invaluable in broadening the outlook of our narrow specialists in both teaching and research.

Packages are labour intensive to specify and prepare and require much planning and discipline to assemble and test. However, two years and a million or so pounds to assemble quality packages which can then be mass produced on discs or transmitted over the air or down phone lines, is a lot faster and cheaper than retraining several thousand teachers over a decade or two. The comprehensive indexing of packages, learning and research should enable duplicated effort to be avoided, except when teams are sufficiently confident of the market need and their own competence to compete deliberately.

Given the PhD rat race and the scramble to publish, the effects of worldwide indexing and updating and the exchange of information over teleconference links could be interesting.  Will it actually lead to the free interchange of knowledge for the benefit of all, with an end to the desperate race to publish first in a prestige journal, leaving the losers to save face with duplicated variations and glosses in a plethora of obscure publications?  Probably not, unless reinforced by the turning off the tap of taxpayers’ monies, or the fear of public ridicule which can sometimes shame the most obstinate into changing their ways.

  1. Problems You Can Help Overcome?

The Japanese, like the Americans under Kennedy or our 0Victorian ancestors, succeed because they think they can. We are failing because we think we will. We do not suffer from lack of resources, we suffer from the fragmentation of those resources we have, the refusal to consider solutions we did not invent for ourselves, bureaucratic procedures and institutions which do not believe they can cope with change, an idiosyncratic examination system which reinforces the status quo and recruiters who have, for all too human reasons, given up trying to influence the systems they have to work with.

In all these areas the fear of public ridicule can be a potent weapon. Fear of the public exposure of wasted resources can often persuade a Local Authority to bring together Further Education, Polytechnic and School Resources to solve common problems in situations where rational arguments gets bogged down in red tape. The “Not Invented Here” syndrome can equally be countered in a time of financial stringency by forcing the public cost-justification of each attempt to re-invent the wheel.

Institutional resistance is harder to overcome; of course, an Authority with a large Architects Department and a militant bunch of maintenance men and caretakers will seek to spend more on buildings than on books or teaching aids.  Or course teachers will seek to impart to others the subjects they know. Of course, examiners will seek to preserve the status quo.

Consumer revolt, whether on the part of parents, taxpayer, student or recruiter, is one weapon capable of over-coming institutional resistance in the long run. But it can be a very wasteful mechanism. Waiting for Encylopaedia Britannica or Time-Life to fill the gap with packages sold direct to parents or mature students is not the best way, unless we really believe that American methods are so superior that we cannot catch up.

Subversion is likely to be far more efficient. Demonstrating to the teachers that copying material produced elsewhere, perhaps even paying copyright fees, that prostituting academic freedom in return for gifts of equipment, books and visits, that adopting commercial rather than academic norms can greatly ease their problems, will encourage them to change the system from within. Demonstrating that interesting relevant packages can make a class of unacademic delinquents an acceptable challenge rather than a futile trial of strength will encourage the teachers to fight the waste of resources on bricks and mortar, and get the money spent on teaching aids, and material instead.

In Japan the Universities are showered with gifts of money and equipment by employers, not because they value University research – they do not – but because they want recruits trained to their standards. Our employers must adopt similar tactics, not just in dealing with Universities but with schools and colleges at all levels. Because of the difficulties on both sides, and the cultural gulf that exists, they need all the encouragement they can get through publicity and praise for successful case studies of co-operation (as in the Japanese press); case studies which emphasise the direct selfish benefits to both parties as much as the long term benefits for the students. The Marconi-sponsored MSc course at Southampton is one example. I am sure Sperry can cite examples in which they have taken a similar lead.

Finally, recruiters who buck the system and retest applicants or select for deviance, rejecting the validity of examination results or who offer inflation adjusted pension transfer rights or payments to independent pension schemes, should receive praise and publicity for their initiative in helping to change the system. The docility of the recruiters merely serves to reinforce the complacency of the examiners that they are imposing the correct quality control procedures on the rest of the system.  A revolt among the recruiters, fomented by the press, could well be the fastest way of securing rapid and far-reaching change.


Much of this thesis may be wrong (forecasters such as myself are very content if they are right more than half the time). One thing of which I am certain is that rapid and far-reaching changes in our educational systems at every level are essential. Throwing money at the system will probably serve to delay those changes, while financial crisis and constructive publicity for the alternatives may well help to promote them.

= = =

Written for presentation in 1982 to the cream of the British technical  press, bribed, like the other speakers and myself, with  nearly a week of fabulous hospitality in Sperry’s International Management Centre at St Paul-de-Vence near Nice.

August 17, 2017  10:08 AM

Removing Digital from the Pointless Ponzi Skills scheme

Philip Virgo Profile: Philip Virgo
apprenticeships, Skills

The Election Campaign revealed the unpopularity of the Student Loan scheme with students and parents. The Apprenticeship Levy scheme, at least in its current state, is equally unpopular with employers. At the time of the election I summarised the references to skills in the campaign as a competition between a manifesto for skills and jobs and one for debt and unemployment.

Today the Prime Ministers former advisor has described the loan-funded, fixed standard tuition fee, full-time degree system as a pointless Ponzi scheme . Yesterday it was announced that Learn Direct, the largest supplier of Government funded apprenticeship programmes is being wound down after a damning Ofsted review.

Meanwhile Brexit and the pressure to reduce reliance on imported skills have added urgency to the  need to bring the UK’s obsolete and introverted education and training systems into the 21st century, reforming approaches to academic funding mechanisms dating back to 1917 – when we were supposedly behind Germany in the scientific research needed for modern warfare (e.g. poison gas).

Today the availability of MOOCs and modular materials, courses and assessments, from a wide range of suppliers, for most of the skills in current demand has changed the way leading employers develop the skills of their existing employees and new recruits: cutting “time to competence” from years to months, months to weeks and weeks to days. This, in turn,  has changed the economics behind the decision to poach/import supposedly skilled staff, as opposed to redeploying existing staff or training raw talent. It is increasingly often quicker and cheaper to train your own, to known standards, that to retrain those who skills, you belatedly discover, exist only on paper.

Nearly 30 Universities are now working with employers on degree-linked digital apprenticeships via the Tech Partnership alone. But many current apprenticeship programmes are constrained by the need to fit UK-centric, semi-academic funding frameworks. Most digital skills are global and it is essential that public funds are used to improve access for the disadvantaged to the internationally recognised certifications recognised by employers and regulators.

The Institute for Apprenticeships is working on streamlining the processes for the grant and levy system and wants these to be employer driven – not set by intermedaries. At a recent meeting, Digital Policy Alliance members, including some of main suppliers of globally recognised digital qualifications, volunteered information on how they consult employers on new qualifications and, equally importantly, regular reviews and updates, as well as on how they quality control delivery and certification. Hopefully it will be possible to organise similar inputs for those deciding how to use the income from Tier 2 visas in skills shortage areas to encourage employers looking to import skills to reduce the need by improving local supply to meet their needs.

We need exploit the opportunity to identify and publicise practical ways forward before policies for the next election campaign are confirmed. We need to ensure they are much better, and better publicised, than those for the recent snap election

Subsequent to a meetings with the Minister and the IfA team, a draft Digital Policy Alliance paper was produced on the skills policies needed to create and maintain a 21st Century Digital Infrastructure.   The second iteration is currently being circulated to DPA members in advance of a formal review meeting. A prime focus is on how to ease the pain of transitioning to high quality, degree-linked, digital apprenticeships for the skills in current and future demand: “get three years ahead in your career not a debt and a 10% tax hike”.

The overall objective of the DPA 21st Century Skills  group is “to help pull forward the changes necessary to cater for a world in which demand for basic aptitudes, attitudes and disciplines changes slowly, if at all, but the rate of change in demand for specific skills is accelerating”. The strategy is not just to produce yet more papers on skills shortages – but to actively engage politicians (local and national) and major employers (who are also prestigious research partners) in partnerships to produce and publicise practical results so that consensus can be built around what is shown to not only work but give commercial benefit to those putting in the effort.

Two years ago I blogged on an exercise to brief MPs on the need to look at skills issues through the other end of the telescope and get engaged with local exercises to pull the threads together. Earlier this year the first local skills partnership was agreed, after a meeting to help launch Stem Plymouth (at the heart of the 2020 Anglo-American celebration of the Pilgrim Fathers voyage into the unknown to invent the future they wanted to see). It was then agreed that the initial focus would be on security skills – as the area with supposedly the most critical shortfall.

Four months later, at the formal launch of the Plymouth Security Skills Partnership,  the lead  project, a shared Security Operation Centre which provides supervised work experience for  pupils, students, trainees and apprentices, using leading edge tools on real problems, was live. It already provides a unique (cost and availability to local SMEs) service to help organisation identify which of their clients are at most risk (e.g. the information available to impersonate them, including passwords,  is available on the Dark Web).

It showed that the approach works – given active co-operation between City, University, Employers (both public and private sector) to work with schools, colleges and law enforcement. But Plymouth had a tradition of such co-operation going back over five years (apparently beginning with construction skills) on which we could build.

The report of the launch event, including the discussion of issues arising and lessons learned is being sent to those invited to the first review meeting (on 12th September – during Cyber Security Week) of the Digital Policy Alliance Security Skills sub-group. A key messages is that most attempts at co-operation are blighted by those put political positioning and competition for public funding ahead of delivering results – whether for students, victims or paying customers. The follow up will therefore focus on projects and cities/regions where such rivalry can be avoided.

Those who wish to receive a copy of the report and/or details on the programme to build on success should contact the Digital Policy Alliance.


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”


“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

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


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