Less Twits, better education about what matters in life…

Halfway through a long walk on a hot day with a cloudless blue sky at the Devil’s Punchbowl, a break for a sandwich and a drink at The Gibbet provided some welcome respite. The view was glorious. The air was clear, and the edge of London, some 40 miles away, was visible on the horizon without the need for binoculars. The atmospheric benefits of much-reduced road traffic and air traffic for Heathrow and Gatwick were plain to see!

As the Badger munched his sandwich, a bird of prey hovered in the distance ready to swoop on its prey. The idyll, however, was broken by the arrival of a group of youngsters.  They weren’t rowdy, unpleasant, or badly behaved. They just talked incessantly about Twitter being hacked as if it were the end of the world!  It isn’t, of course, but their conversation influenced the Badger’s thoughts for the rest of his walk.  By the time the Badger reached home, these had converted into the following points:

  • Anyone familiar with ‘security’ knows that the weakest link in any security regime is people. It’s as true in today’s digital world – as the Twitter incident shows – as it has always been.
  • Twitter has become, in just 10 years, one of the prime illustrations of today’s attention-deficit world. Organisations and individuals alike use it for many reasons, including FOMO (fear of missing out), vanity, attention seeking, recreation, influencing and self-promotion. Will you really miss anything that’s important to life if you don’t look at Twitter on your smart phone every few minutes? No.
  • More detailed primary and secondary school education on how the likes of Facebook and Twitter use what you do to make money is essential. A ‘think before you write, or upload photos or videos’ attitude needs to be deeply embedded in the psyche of youngsters.
  • Hundreds of years ago, the printing press ushered in the age of reason, science, and education. Over the centuries this ‘force for good’ has become slowly diluted by commercialism, politicism, propaganda, misinformation, and falsities of all kinds. The same has happened since the advent of TV and radio about a century ago, and also since the advent of the internet and computers a few decades ago. The same has also happened with social media platforms, which have gone from a ‘force for good’ to questionable, surveillance-based, money-making machines in just 15 years!

At the end of the walk, the Badger slumped into his favourite chair at home, hot, bothered, and tired. Perhaps it was this that triggered a final thought, namely that anyone or any organisation that puts great store in Twitter should be called Twits! The world needs less Twits and better education about what really matters in life. The Badger fell asleep in his chair…

Cyber attacks on the ‘Middleman’…

Elexon announced last week that their internal IT had been impacted by a cyber-attack. Specific detail about the attack was not, understandably, released although there has been some speculation in the media. Elexon plays an important role in the UK electricity market by operating the Balancing and Settlement Code (BSC) and facilitating payments between generators, suppliers and brokers. Although the ‘critical national infrastructure (CNI)’ systems at the heart of electricity market operations were unaffected, the incident is nevertheless embarrassing for this ‘middleman’ organisation.

Coincidentally, the incident caught the Badger’s eye just after reading the UK Department of Digital, Culture, Media & Sport ‘s March 2020 Cyber Security Breaches Survey. Broadly, the report concludes that with Board attention on cyber security and the advent of GDPR, organisations are becoming more resilient to cyber-attacks and faster at recovering from breaches, but less likely to report the negative impact and cost of breaches. The report also reiterates that the nature of cyber threat is continuously evolving and that organisations are experiencing attacks more frequently than 5 years ago. Essentially, progress is being made but there is still lots to do and no organisation can be complacent.

The Elexon incident is yet another reminder that organisations and the public in today’s digital world can never be immune to cyber threat from ‘bad actors’ of any type. It is a reminder that personal and organisational cyber security awareness, diligence, discipline, and professionalism are essential if threats are to be minimised, attacks repelled, and security, data, and privacy preserved. The fact that the Elexon incident did not impact the electricity market systems per se, or the ability to keep the country’s lights on, is not surprising because CNI systems are obvious targets for ‘bad actors’ and their protection is taken very seriously by complying with good advice and guidance from national authorities.

A couple of days ago, a conversation with an acquaintance about the Elexon incident took an unexpected turn. They said if they were a ‘bad actor’ like Blofeld out to destabilise an entire country, they would unleash a simultaneous cyber-attack on all ‘middleman’ organisations similar to Elexon and DCC (for Smart Meters) in all key sectors. Why? It would be easier and simpler than going after CNI systems per se, because the ‘middleman’ is likely to have more weaknesses in their cyber defences. National turmoil would ensue without damaging the CNI itself. Just think, they said, what knocking out all ‘middleman’ organisations simultaneously would lead to in terms of pressure on the government, business frustration, social media backlash, loss of national confidence, political turmoil, international embarrassment and so on. The door would be open for a new regime!

The acquaintance sensed the Badger becoming concerned and suspicious. They quickly pointed out that they were not, of course, actually Blofeld! And, just in case you are wondering, neither is the Badger…

An inspiring day out with codebreakers and the first electronic computer…

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The Badger visited Bletchley Park and The National Museum of Computing (TNMOC) last week. It was a fascinating, atmospheric and inspiring day out, and very rewarding to hear the many visiting international tourists, young families, and elders say their expectations, like the Badger’s, were exceeded!

Bletchley Park, the home of British codebreaking, is where Alan Turing cracked the Enigma code and a birthplace of modern electronic computing. The secret activities of this truly historic site profoundly influenced the outcome of World War 2. Seeing and hearing about the work of the codebreakers, the tools they used, and the highly atmospheric huts where they worked instils marvel at the brilliance and dedication of those involved. The place is a wonderful memorial to the exceptional patriotism, commitment, discipline and ingenuity of the codebreakers who, 75 years ago, were instrumental in the birth of electronic computing. Awesome!

Bletchley Park was involved in the design of Colossus – the world’s first programmable electronic computer. Colossus helped analyse enemy ciphers in the run up to D-Day and a functioning rebuild of this beast is on display at TNMOC. It’s full of thermionic valves not silicon chips, and for those of you who’ve never seen a thermionic valve the picture above is a small subset of those on Colossus.

Seeing Colossus and all the other computer hardware and software exhibits at TNMOC really brought home how far electronic computing has come in 75 years. It also makes you aware of just how the silicon chip has revolutionised electronics and fuelled digital tech’s exponential growth in the last 40 years. It was sobering to stand in a room full of late 1970s mainframes and realize that a smartphone has more instantaneous functionality, processing power and storage than the sum of everything in the room!

On the way home, while stationary in heavy traffic, there was ample time to reflect on a great day out. Both sites provide a reminder of how important scientists, engineers and mathematicians are to finding solutions to seemingly intractable problems. They also show and that experts 75 years ago were in no way inferior to their counterparts today. The impressive ‘there’s no such word as can’t, try’ attitude of the codebreakers provides a stark contrast to some of the ‘I can’t, it’s too hard and it’s not fair’ complaining that pervades some parts of today’s social media.

As the ‘Smart Motorway’ signs decided to stop being smart, the Badger’s co-visitor asked if any philosophical nuggets of wisdom came to mind from the visit. The Badger thought for a moment. Yes! Take every opportunity to get an education – preferably as a scientist, engineer or mathematician – and don’t be fazed by whatever problems are put in front of you. And remember, ‘there’s no such word as can’t, try’…. If Bletchley Park’s people hadn’t tried, we wouldn’t have the freedoms and computing technology we have today.

The builder and his ‘critical infrastructure’…

Chatting to a self-employed builder working on a neighbour’s property last week proved interesting. The guy works very hard, but readily admits he’s a slave to his smart phone whenever it rings, buzzes, beeps or its screen flashes. He always responds to these triggers regardless of whether he’s up a ladder, laying bricks or digging a trench. The builder says his smart phone apps are as essential to him as the physical tools of his trade. He laments this but says it’s a necessity if he’s to make his living.

Conversation somehow moved onto online security and privacy. The builder said he’s read about this in his ubiquitous tabloid newspaper, but never pays attention to things like password advice. When asked why not, he simply said ‘because I’m a builder. I just want my day to day life to be as easy as possible’. The builder has used the same password for everything for years! He saw the Badger flinch and frown, and just said ‘With all this AI and driverless cars malarkey, this security gubbins must have been sorted so it’s obviously safe to run my life with one password’. Oh dear!

If the builder’s thinking typifies that of the average person then we should worry about the depth of security and privacy awareness! In 2019, ~55% of British firms reported cyber-attacks (up from 40% a year ago). There have been more cyber-attacks on ‘critical infrastructure’, and Facebook has hoovered up 15 million email address books without permission! The online revolution of recent decades has certainly unlocked Pandora’s box. The builder recognises this but just says: ‘The Genie’s out of the bottle and can’t be put back in, so I’ll just carry on as-is with what works for me’. Oh dear!

The Badger realised two things from the conversation. First, there’s lots more to do to counter security and privacy ambivalence and educate people on the subject. Second, the smart phone in your hand is your ‘critical infrastructure’ and you must treat it as such. To prove the point, try not using it for a few days, like Badger did this last week. Yes, it’s difficult and strange at first, but you adapt surprisingly easily to overcome inconveniences.

Today the Badger and the builder chatted again. The builder has a new phone, a basic one providing just voice and SMS. Why? Because he lost his old one. He thinks he dropped it in a trench and poured concrete over it. He doesn’t miss it because he’s realised all he really needs from his ‘critical infrastructure’ is voice and SMS. Unfortunately, this has made him even more ambivalent about online security, privacy and passwords. Some people will never learn…

Smart meters & devices – How much do you value your privacy at home?

The UK’s Smart Meter programme continues make the press, see here for example. Things are unsurprisingly late. Consumers, who’re paying for the £11bn programme through current energy bills, can apparently expect savings of less than £1 a week on bills by 2030. The utility companies haven’t been particularly consumer friendly in their rollouts. There’s been lots of pressure tactics applied to get consumers to accept a Smart Meter installation. Indeed, the best energy deals today mean a consumer must accept having a Smart Meter. The Badger has proudly resisted and doesn’t have one!

Why? Doesn’t the Badger want to save money or the planet? Is it because the Badger is intimidated by modern technology? Or is it just the Badger’s a dinosaur and resistant to change? Good questions. The Badger’s very pragmatic and objective, very technology, environment, and budget aware, and very conscious of how tech is transforming society, so what’s the real reason for not having a Smart Meter? Simple. The Badger values his privacy.

Smart Meters and other smart devices in your home provide granular data that can be analysed to determine what you do inside your home. That’s nectar to organisations and marketing companies who, let’s face it, employ expert lawyers to ensure they can maximise their benefit from the data they capture from you and your home. Articles from Bloomberg and the Daily Mail are worth a read. They reinforce that we must not be naïve when it comes to how such data is used.

The Badger is an advocate of ‘An Englishman’s home is his castle’. Smart Meters and smart devices encroach on that being the case. Unlike twenty years ago, today’s smart technology means you no longer really have privacy in your own home. Others will pooh-pooh that statement and assert legal protections are in place, but should you trust that’s proven to be the case with the companies involved? Hmm. The only safe way of keeping what you do within your home private is not to have Smart Meters or devices like those in the Bloomberg article in the home in the first place.

So, there you have it. The Badger values privacy within his home way above any future saving of £1 a week – a loaf of bread – in energy bills. In fact, the Badger’s significantly reduced home energy bills without a Smart Meter and still remains an advocate for technology that preserves individual rights, freedoms and brings real benefit to society. Does the case for the UK Smart Meter programme really stack up? Views differ. All the Badger knows is that ‘the Badgers home is his castle’. Smart inanimate interlopers will be resisted until privacy within the home can be guaranteed…

Privacy & data protection education doesn’t auger well for social media goliaths…

In the last 20 years ‘data’ has exploded. It’s gone from scarcity to abundance and today it’s easy to store and continues to accumulate exponentially. Businesses now use clever data analytic applications to improve their operations, knowledge of their customers, their products and services, and their positioning in the markets they focus on. Data has, of course, always been important in the business world. Indeed, businesses have closely guarded their data for decades, because if they didn’t competitors will put them out of business!

So, if businesses guard their data so closely, why haven’t many of us been so good at guarding our own on the internet and social media? Simple. Way back, we were attracted to the fact that email and social network services were free. At the time we either didn’t think about issues of privacy and protection, or we ignored them. In addition, the service providers didn’t make it very easy to understand how they would use the data gathered when we used our accounts.

Things have of course moved on. We’ve become less naïve, more circumspect and better aware of the darker and negative aspects of the internet and social media. Today we have a better understanding of the importance of online privacy, security and data protection, and politicians are more focused and adept at challenging the morals, ethics, and legal obligations of the goliath companies involved. The Badger, however, finds it quite sobering that debates raged ten years ago on whether user privacy, online security and data protection should be taught in UK schools (see here, for example), but it’s really the last three years or so in which the subject has gained momentum (see, for example, here, here and here). That’s very encouraging, but of course long overdue given that anyone born in the last twenty years has grown up with the internet and social media as core utilities in their life.

TechMarketView’s Richard Holway believes social media has reached a peak. The Badger agrees. Why? Because youngsters going through education today will be more knowledgeable about privacy and the value of their information. They are likely to be less fickle and more careful, and this surely doesn’t auger well for the social media giants. With regulation on the horizon, and ever more circumspect users, it’s hard not to conclude that the future for social media companies is less rosy than the past. Facebook’s just celebrated it’s 15th birthday. Impressive! But times they are a’changin…

Burglary, the Police, and ‘Smart Doorbells…

The Badger’s been burgled! The Police were great. They attended swiftly, established the culprit wore gloves, and went door to door to see if neighbours had seen anything suspicious. They hadn’t, so the attending Pc rightly set expectations that little could done without tangible leads. The Badger is thus one of the UK’s 2019 burglary statistics! For info, there were ~423,000 UK burglaries in 2018, much lower than 10 years ago, but the clear up rate is low.

The attending Pc was very professional and sported personal technology that included a body camera, a radio, and a rugged smartphone that was used to collect details and statements in the comfort of the Badger’s lounge. Potential security improvements were discussed, and the Badger asked if ‘smart doorbells’ – tech that alerts your smartphone – would help. Apparently, simpler, cheaper, and more traditional items probably provide better deterrence. Why? First, because most burglaries are opportunistic, not targeted. Second, because burglars are as tech savvy as the rest of us and can take measures to protect themselves. And third, alerts on your smartphone to ‘stranger-danger’ may increase your anxiety because the burglar is not actually prevented from entering if you’re not at home. Having images is useful provided they lead to improved culprit capture and prosecution, but the jury’s out on that front. The Badger jokingly said that he’d deploy some old-fashioned tech – bone-crunching animal traps. The Pc’s response was clear. Advice was expressed in a way that it was not to be argued with!

The Police were great throughout. The Badger felt well handled, a marked contrast to recent interactions with some major businesses. The Pc’s tech supported all aspects of the incident process smoothly and the Badger sees why the Police need even more tech and systems to catch ‘bad people’ and deal well with victims. Currently there’s a fuss about police trialling of Automated Facial Recognition (AFR), and the likes of Liberty and Big Brother Watch routinely challenge the establishment on surveillance, privacy, and civil liberties. In reality, however, we already live in a surveillance society. CCTV is everywhere. So is automated number plate recognition. Supermarkets track our grocery habits and social media giants know and sell everything about our lives. The surveillance and privacy genie is already out of the bottle and the Police need all the tech and systems they can get to keep us safe in the modern world. Surveillance by democratically controlled authorities is much better than the uncontrolled ‘surveillance capitalism’ regimes – a term from a radio item this morning – of the giant social media companies!

The Pc who dealt with the Badger went on to apprehend three youths who robbed a corner shop at knife point. The Pc emailed the next day apologising for the delay to a follow-up letter due to this! The Badger was gobsmacked. Support your local police officers; they deserve more respect than they get…