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MY INFORMATION TECHNOLOGY
ARTICLES IN 2014

Since 2003, I have written regular articles on information technology for Connect, which used to be a separate trade union and in January 2010 became a section of the larger union Prospect. Since 2013, I have contributed such articles for both the Connect section newsletter "DigitalEye" and the Prospect magazine "Profile" The text of all these articles, with relevant hyperlinks, are filed on my web site and this page brings together all those from 2014. If you would like to comment on any of them e-mail me.

March 2014 Ofcom: The First Decade
July 2014 Data, Data, Everywhere, Never Time To Think
October 2014 Why We Still Have A Serious Gap In Online Skills
October 2014 The Secret World Of Passwords


Decisions by the communications regulator Ofcom affect every member – so how is it doing, asks our columnist ROGER DARLINGTON.

OFCOM: THE FIRST DECADE

Ofcom was a new, converged regulator formed by a merger of five earlier regulators for telecommunications and broadcasting. It was created by the Communications Act 2003 and came into force in December 2003.

In July 2009, Conservative Party leader David Cameron – under the influence of Rupert Murdoch - made an infamous speech on a bonfire of the quangos in which he declared that, if he won the General Election: "Ofcom, as we know it, will cease to exist". Yet Ofcom recently passed its 10th anniversary, so what happened?

Under the skilful leadership of Chair Colette Bowe (who has just been made a Dame) and Chief Executive Ed Richards (who – a little known fact – used to work for the National Communications Union), Ofcom has survived and even, in some respects, prospered. But at a price.

Firstly, even before the General Election, Ofcom pulled back from policy debates. It always argued that it did not make policy because that is a matter for Ministers. But it certainly entered policy discussions and made some quite radical suggestions. No more.

Then, early in 2011, it cut its budget by just over a quarter and shed staff on the same scale, reducing the intellectual firepower of the organisation. Strictly speaking it did not need to do this, because almost all its funding comes from industry fees and not from public expenditure, but its leadership judged that it needed to be seen to be sharing the pain of austerity.

Initially those cuts were intended to lead to the abolition of the Communications Consumer Panel (on which I sat for eight and a half years) and the Advisory Committee for the Older and Disabled, but thankfully that idea was abandoned and the two bodies were merged instead.

So what has Ofcom achieved in its first 10 years? The biggest single change at Ofcom has been a different way of looking at markets.

Under its original Chair (David Currie) and original Chief Executive (Stephen Carter), Ofcom took a very supply-side approach. It thought that, if it increased competition, consumers could simply exercise choice and switch providers if they were unhappy.

Over time, Ofcom came to realise that it needed a stronger demand –side approach. Not all consumers had real choice and, even when they did, tariff options were complicated and switching was difficult.

Now, under the leadership of consumer head Claudio Pollack, Ofcom is a much more consumer-friendly regulator that has done a lot of work to make switching easier and issues much more information to help and guide consumers.

Where does Ofcom go from here?

Some commentators feel that Ofcom has done such a good job that it should be given responsibility for regulating the BBC or the press or the Internet. For different reasons, none of these suggestions is likely to come to pass.

However, Ofcom needs a stronger position in relation to the big players that it regulates. At present. It is too easy for companies – mobile operators have been especially guilty – to block or delay Ofcom decisions by appealing to the courts. A change will require legislation that has been promised but not so far delivered.

More generally, it is time to look again at the duties of Ofcom as set out in the Communications Act 2003. Prospect has put forward the case for the regulator to have a specific duty to promote investment in the industry.

For all the strengths of the current regulatory model, Ofcom’s own research shows that customer satisfaction with the reliability of broadband services has declined from 88 per cent in 2012 to 83 per cent in 2013. In rural areas, the position is far worse, with an average of 17 per cent of rural consumers dissatisfied with the reliability of their broadband service and 19 per cent with the reliability of their mobile service. We can and should do better.

Links:
Communications Act 2003 click here
Ofcom website click here
Valedictory evidence from Colette Bowe to Lords Select Committee on Communications click here


Our columnist ROGER DARLINGTON believes that we are on the verge of a transformative use of data.

DATA, DATA EVERYWHERE, NEVER TIME TO THINK

The digital revolution has enabled data to be captured, stored, transmitted and analysed in a volume so vast, at a speed so fast, and at a cost so low that would have been unthinkable before the advent of microelectronics. And that volume is increasing, that speed is accelerating, and that cost is falling not just remorselessly but at an ever-faster rate.

One estimate is that the current universe of digital data is 2.7 zettabytes (a zettabyte is a one followed by 21 noughts).

The popularity of the smartphone and the tablet has made such data increasingly personal and geo-specific. And, either by omission (failing to switch off location services) or more likely commission (using social media like Facebook and Twitter), we are co-operating in the generation of vast data sets about ourselves and people like us.

The arrival of wearable technologies – like the smart watch or Google glass - and the long-anticipated ‘Internet of things’ will exponentially increase the number of connected devices and the volumes of data that they generate.

The challenges then become how to curate, search, use and protect that data and our debates around these issues lag way behind technological developments.

To over-simplify somewhat, basically data comes in two forms; disaggregated and personal on the one hand and aggregated and anonymised on the other.

Personal data is used primarily for commercial purposes: to charge us for things and to persuade us to buy other things in ever-more sophisticated targeted advertising.

But personal data is being used more and more by public authorities too, whether it is our health or tax records or our interactions with local authorities. And, of course, thanks to Edward Snowden, we are all aware that GCHQ and MI5 have a sharp interest in much of this data.

Everyone who values personal privacy needs to think hard about how much data is out there, how it is used and can be abused, and how privacy settings and things like the ‘right to be forgotten’ need to be deployed.

It is at the higher-order level of data that public knowledge is especially lacking – the levels where volume and aggregation are such that conventional database management systems are lacking and heavy-duty data-crunching is necessary. This is what has been called ‘big data’ and its value is such that some have called it ‘the new oil’.

As MIT scientist and author Alex Pentland has put it: “The power of big data is that it is information about people's behaviour instead of information about their beliefs.”

Here too, the commercial and security uses will be self-evident, but it is the public policy implications that are especially fascinating.

If the data can tell urban planners where and when and how citizens travel, work and shop plus when and why they use energy and water, visit doctors and hospitals, and enjoy community centres and parks, we can plan smarter and more humane cities.

If – in real time – the data can tell public health specialists, when people are taking sick leave, obtaining prescriptions for particular drugs, or being admitted to hospitals, perhaps we would be better able to manage an epidemic or even predict the development of a pandemic.

Imagine if a Government policy to tackle poverty could be built on linking data on the early health of children, educational attainment in primary schools, and local levels of unemployment and crime, plus the effectiveness of different health interventions, literacy and numeracy programmes, training and job placement schemes, and probation and reoffender programmes.

One of the problems with big data is that it is good at identifying correlations but pretty useless at specifying causations and, as any good statistician knows, correlation does not equal causation. So we will always need clever people to interpret data and wise officials to make best use of it.

As James Naughton wrote in a piece for the “Observer” newspaper: “Big data is the Rorschach blot of our times – an incomprehensible shape on to which we project our dreams and nightmares, hopes and fears. It's already shaping our lives and looks like determining our networked future.”


Surely now everyone is doing everything on the Internet? Far from it, explains our regular columnist ROGER DARLINGTON

WHY WE STILL HAVE A SERIOUS GAP IN ONLINE SKILLS

For all the excitement around the Internet, there are still millions in this country who have never used it. And there are millions more who make very limited use of it and lack knowledge and confidence to do quite basic things online.

Go On UK [click here], the digital skills charity founded by former Government Digital Champion Martha Lane Fox, has identified what it regards as basic online skills [click here].

These are the following activities: the ability to send and receive e-mails, use a search engine and browse the Net, and fill out an online application form such as make a job application, access a government service, or make an online purchase.

Further required skills are about keeping safe online: knowing how to identify and delete spam, how to evaluate which web sites to trust, and how to choose privacy settings.

Sounds simple, doesn’t it? No problem for you at all. But there are 9.5 million people aged 15+ without such basic online skills. That is 19% or almost one in five.

They are more likely to be older, disabled and have low incomes. Some 4.5 million of them are of working age. Indeed 12 million adults do not use the Internet every day.

Various surveys have demonstrated how individuals win by being online. Net users gain work more easily and earn more, continue to learn, stay healthy, and use public services online.

A recent report commissioned by BT [click here] shows that the typical social value of the Internet for someone with low level of digital skills is £1,064 per year arising from better job seeking abilities, financial savings, increased confidence, and reduced social isolation.

Trend analysis shows that, by investing at current levels, there will still be around 6.2 million people without basic online skills by 2020. This is just unacceptable in an age when there are so many benefits to being online and so many disadvantages to not having the necessary skills.

Countries like Norway have managed to get 98% of their population online and using the Internet. Norway also has a high proportion of people interacting with government online: eight in ten people aged 16-74 interacted with the public authorities during 2013. This is a small nation, so they have fewer challenges than the UK, but it has shown that what can be done.

The Tinder Foundation [click here], a digital inclusion organisation on whose Board I sit, and Go On UK [click here] have commissioned a study [click here] that has assessed the cost of the programme of education and training that is necessary.

Independent consultant Catherine McDonald constructed a model to assess the cost of ensuring that everyone has basic online skills by 2020 and the headline figure is £875 million.

It is suggested that the cost could be borne a third each by the voluntary sector, the private sector and the public sector. That would mean each sector contributing something like £50 million a year.

The voluntary/community sector is already investing around £50 million a year in-kind and Go On UK will ask the private sector to match this in cash and in-kind. So we need to see a public investment of £50 million a year for the period of the next government to bring us as close to 100% online as possible.

It is not just individuals who benefit by being online; so do businesses. The Internet economy is predicted to account for more than 12% of UK GDP by 2016, up from 8.3% in 2010. This is the highest of any G20 country and twice that of the USA.

Yet a majority of small and medium enterprises still has no web site. And, many who have a site do not enable that site to support financial transactions.

Approximately 95% of the 4.9 million businesses in the UK are micro-businesses, employing less than nine people. Around one in three start up businesses will fail within the first three years of operation.

Imagine if we could reduce the number of failed startups through the development of digital skills. If each micro business was able to grow using digital technology and to employ one more person this would have a massive impact on reducing unemployment rates in the UK.

As well as individuals and businesses, government can improve service to citizens and save substantial costs by digitalising many public services and ensuring that citizens have the trust, confidence and skills to use such online services.

The UK government provides over 770 transactional services but over half of them currently do not have a digital option. Yet, in a recent YouGov survey, it was found that 78% of their respondents has already interacted with the government online, so the potential is enormous.

Of the 1.25 million people Tinder Foundation & UK online centres have supported to develop basic online skills, 53% shift at least one monthly government contact from offline to online which should create savings of about £50 million a year. Digitising public services is projected eventually to save the government around £1.7 billion a year.

My personal vision is that everyone uses the Net not just to consume information and services but to create content and exercise power. This might be as little as e-mailing your Member of Parliament or local councillor or signing an online petition at a site like 38 Degrees [click here]. It might mean commenting on a blog or social media site. Ideally it would involve having your own regular voice on the Net through something like a web site or Twitter feed.

Why not? I’m 66 and I have a web site and two blogs and I am on Facebook and Twitter. The information revolution has only just begun.


We loath them but, the more we are online, we more we need passwords, explains our regular columnist ROGER DARLINGTON

THE SECRET WORLD OF PASSWORDS

In the recent documentary film “Citizenfour” [for my review click here], NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden is being interviewed on camera in his Hong Kong bedroom when he needs to access files on his laptop. He covers his head and upper body with a heavy shroud that he calls his “magic mantle of power”. This is a man who takes passwords seriously.

For most of us though, passwords are at best a minor irritation and at worst a furious annoyance. And all of us who are online are finding that we need more and more passwords. This is probably why so many passwords are so weak.

In 2009, an Eastern European hacker accessed a database of 32 million passwords for a company called RockYou and then published the archive online. Canadian computer scientists have studied the archive and found some interesting facts: In 2013, Google released a list of the most common password types, all of which are considered insecure because they are too easy to guess (especially after researching an individual on social media): In an article for the “New York Times” magazine [for text click here], Ian Urbina explained how he has invited friends to share with him how they choose a password. He wrote: “Many of our passwords are suffused with pathos, mischief, sometimes even poetry.”

There was the former prisoner whose password includes what used to be his inmate identification number (“a reminder not to go back”); the fallen-away Catholic whose passwords incorporate the Virgin Mary (“it’s secretly calming”); and the childless 45-year-old whose password is the name of the baby boy she lost in utero (“my way of trying to keep him alive, I guess”). Clearly, in many cases, our choice of password tells us something personal about us. You could try a little game and ask family members, work colleagues or party guests how they have decided on their most used password. You might be surprised at what you learn – and then encourage them to strengthen the password.

Let’s be clear: essentially any password can be broken with enough computing power and enough time. These are called ‘brute force attacks’. Your task is to come up with a password that is sufficiently secure to provide you with a reasonable degree of security appropriate to your circumstances.

Ideally the password should be unique to the web site or service you are using and consist of a combination of upper and lower case letters, numbers and symbols, but not use personal information or common words. Oh, and it needs to be easily memorable, so you are not always struggling to recollect it.

One approach is to create a common structure. For instance, the same pair of capital letters (but not something obvious like your initials), three lower case letters which are the first three letters of the name of the particular web site, the same four numbers (but not something obvious like your birthday), and the same symbol (such as an exclamation mark).

Of course, such an approach requires some effort and it may be that one-day we look upon passwords as just as anachronistic as dial-up or (soon) the mouse. Instead we might be able to use biometric approaches such as a finger print, iris scan, or voice activation.

In their book “The New Digital Age” [for my review click here], Eric Schmidt & Jared Cohen write: “The technology industry is already hard at work to find creative ways to mitigate risks, such as through two-factor authentication, which requires you to provide two of the following to access your personal data: something you know (e.g. password), have (e.g. mobile device) and are (e.g. thumbprint).”

Link: Wikipedia page on passwords click here


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