Archive for the 'Observer' Category

Q: Who let this happen? A: We did.

[link] Sunday, December 14th, 2014

This morning’s Observer column.

The relevant extract from the [FISA] court transcript reads:

Justice Arnold: “Well, if this order is enforced, and it’s secret, how can you be hurt? The people don’t know that – that they’re being monitored in some way. How can you be harmed by it? I mean, what’s… what’s your… what’s the damage to your consumer?”

Ponder that for a moment. It’s extraordinarily revealing because it captures the essence of the mindset of the people who now rule our democracies. It’s a variant on the “if you have nothing to hide then you have nothing to fear” mantra. And it begs the question: who gave these people the right to think and act like this?

The long answer goes back a long way – to Thomas Hobbes, John Locke and maybe Rousseau. The short answer is that we did. We elected these holders of high office – the home and foreign secretaries who ostensibly control MI5, MI6 and GCHQ, the MPs who cluelessly voted through laws such as Ripa (Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act), Drip (Data Retention and Investigatory Powers) and will do likewise for whatever loose statutes will be proposed after the next terrorist/paedophilia/cyber crime panic arrives…

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Forget North Korea – the real rogue cyber operator is closer to home

[link] Sunday, December 7th, 2014

This morning’s Observer column.

The company [Symantec] goes on to speculate that developing Regin took “months, if not years” and concludes that “capabilities and the level of resources behind Regin indicate that it is one of the main cyberespionage tools used by a nation state”.

Ah, but which nation states? Step forward the UK and the US and their fraternal Sigint agencies GCHQ and NSA. A while back, Edward Snowden revealed that the agencies had mounted hacking attacks on Belgacom, a Belgian phone and internet services provider, and on EU computer systems, but he did not say what kind of software was used in the attacks. Now we know: it was Regin, malware that disguises itself as legitimate Microsoft software and steals data from infected systems, which makes it an invaluable tool for intelligence agencies that wish to penetrate foreigners’ computer networks.

Quite right too, you may say. After all, the reason we have GCHQ is to spy on nasty foreigners. The agency was, don’t forget, originally an offshoot of Bletchley Park, whose mission was to spy on the Germans. So perhaps the news that the Belgians, despite the best efforts of Monty Python, are our friends – or that the UK is a member of the EU – had not yet reached Cheltenham?

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Net Neutrality: it’s complicated even if it looks simple

[link] Sunday, November 30th, 2014

This morning’s Observer column

The composer and aesthete Lord Berners was a famous eccentric who hated sharing railway compartments with strangers and developed a sure-fire way of ensuring that he travelled alone. He would stand at the door of his chosen compartment, maniacally beckoning people in. This being England, no one ever entered.

Nowadays, the same effect may be achieved by telling people that you wish to engage them in a discussion about net neutrality. You get the glassy smile, the sideways glance checking the location of the nearest exit, the sudden remembering of things that have to be done at that very moment, and all the other evasive tactics deployed by those who find themselves in the presence of a madman.

And yet, net neutrality is important…

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Planet of the apps

[link] Sunday, November 23rd, 2014

This morning’s Observer column.

You know the problem: you’re sitting there reading an email from a friend on your smartphone or tablet and there is a link in the message to what looks like an interesting website. So you tap on it and the web page begins to load. And then suddenly up pops a dialogue box with text that looks like an escapee from the MySpace museum saying something like: “Hey! Why not download our cool new App?”, an invitation helpfully translated by the wonderful XKCD site as: “Want to visit an incomplete version of our website where you can’t zoom?”

Welcome to appworld. Personally, I blame Steve Jobs. He understood that since smartphones were really small computers then they could also run programs. So he set up the Apple’s app store to make this happen, and in the process ensured that the firm took 30% of everything sold on it.

It was significant also that on the day that Jobs revealed this insight to the world, standing next to him on the stage was John Doerr, one of Silicon Valley’s smartest investors, who was there to announce the setting up of a $100m investment fund for app developers.

Which is how we got to where we are now – awash with smartphone and tablet apps, more than 90% of which are crap…

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Digital capitalism, red in tooth and claw

[link] Sunday, November 23rd, 2014

My Observer comment piece about Uber & Co.

The real lesson of the Uber exposé, though, is that it’s time to discard the rose-tinted spectacles with which we have hitherto viewed these Silicon Valley outfits. For too long, they have been allowed to trade fraudulently on the afterglow of the hippie libertarianism that supposedly infected the early days of the personal computer industry. The billionaire geeks who currently run the giant internet companies may look and talk like a new species of entrepreneur but it would be more prudent to view them as John D Rockefellers in hoodies.

And the economic philosophy that’s embedded in this new digital capitalism is neoliberalism red in tooth and claw, which is why they minimise the number of “ordinary” (ie non-geek) workers on their payrolls, outsource everything they can, despise trade unions, view regulators as barriers to “innovation” and are outraged by the temerity of European institutions that seek to curb their freedoms of action.

There’s a geopolitical angle to this too…

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If you’re interested in the impact of digital capitalism, then the place to go is the work of Dan Schiller, particularly his new book, Digital Depression: Information Technology and Economic Crisis. If you’re pushed for time, here’s a useful short interview with him about the book, and an informative review by Richard Hill.

Bobbie Johnson has a terrific essay on Medium about why we are so steamed up about Uber. People use it because of its convenience, even though they are also aware of its disruptive impact on things we supposedly value.

The dick-swinging, the gluttony, the not-quite-lies and the full-on bullshit… All of these things, and in particular the spectacular combination of all of these things, are enough to dislike a company, and even to hate it. But it’s incredibly popular, too, because, man, if people vote with their feet — or in this case their fingers — then they keep voting, again and again, for Uber.

And that, in the end, is the real reason so many people hate Uber: Because whatever we do, we can’t stop ourselves from making it bigger and more successful and more terrifying and more necessary. Uber makes everything so easy, which means it shows us who, and what, we really are. It shows us how, whatever objections we might say we hold, we don’t actually care very much at all. We have our beliefs, our morals, our instincts. We have our dislike of douchebags, our mistrust of bad behavior. We have all that. But in the end, it turns out that if something’s 10 percent cheaper and 5 percent faster, we’ll give it all up quicker than we can order a sandwich.

Useful hypocrites

[link] Sunday, November 16th, 2014

This morning’s Observer column

Back in the heyday of the old Soviet Union, a phrase evolved to describe gullible western intellectuals who came to visit Russia and failed to notice the human and other costs of building a communist utopia. The phrase was “useful idiots” and it applied to a good many people who should have known better.

I now propose a new, analogous term more appropriate for the age in which we live: useful hypocrites. That’s you and me, folks, and it’s how the masters of the digital universe see us. And they have pretty good reasons for seeing us that way. They hear us whingeing about privacy, security, surveillance, etc, but notice that despite our complaints and suspicions, we appear to do nothing about it. In other words, we say one thing and do another, which is as good a working definition of hypocrisy as one could hope for.

This sounds harsh, I know, but the data support it…

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The future in your pocket

[link] Sunday, November 2nd, 2014

This morning’s Observer column:

If a year is a long time in politics (and it is), then it’s an eternity in communications technology. Fourteen years ago, about 400 million people were using the internet. Today, the number of net users is pushing the 3 billion mark. But that’s not the really big news. What’s truly startling is that 2 billion of these folks are getting their internet connections primarily via smartphones, ie, handheld computers that can access the internet as well as make voice calls, send text messages and do the other things that old-fashioned “feature phones” could do.

This is startling because smartphones are a relatively new development, and when they first appeared less than a decade ago, most of us thought that they would remain an elite consumer product for a long time to come, staples of affluent professionals in the industrialised world, perhaps, but of no relevance to poor people in the developing world who would continue to be delighted with crude feature phones that could just about do SMS.

How wrong can you be? We underestimated both the power of Moore’s law and human nature…

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How the network is evolving

[link] Sunday, October 26th, 2014

This morning’s Observer column:

Earlier this year engineer Dr Craig Labovitz testified before the US House of Representatives judiciary subcommittee on regulatory reform, commercial and antitrust law. Labovitz is co-founder and chief executive of Deepfield, an outfit that sells software to enable companies to compile detailed analytics on traffic within their computer networks. The hearing was on the proposed merger of Comcast and Time Warner Cable and the impact it was likely to have on competition in the video and broadband market. In the landscape of dysfunctional, viciously partisan US politics, this hearing was the equivalent of rustling in the undergrowth, and yet in the course of his testimony Labovitz said something that laid bare the new realities of our networked world…

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More…

Wired had an interesting series about this shift, the first episode of which has a useful graphic illustrating the difference between most people’s mental model of the Internet, and the emerging reality.

Celebrating Dave Winer

[link] Sunday, October 12th, 2014

This morning’s Observer column:

Twenty years ago this week, a software developer in California ushered in a new era in how we communicate. His name is Dave Winer and on 7 October 1994 he published his first blog post. He called it Davenet then, and he’s been writing it most days since then. In the process, he has become one of the internet’s elders, as eminent in his way as Vint Cerf, Dave Clark, Doc Searls, Lawrence Lessig, Dave Weinberger or even Tim Berners-Lee.

When you read his blog, Scripting News – as I have been doing for 20 years – you’ll understand why, because he’s such a rare combination of talents and virtues. He’s technically a very gifted software developer, for example. Many years ago he wrote one of the smartest programs that ever ran on the Apple II, the IBM PC and the first Apple Mac – an outliner called ThinkTank, which changed the way many of us thought about the process of writing. After that, Winer wrote the first proper blogging software, invented podcasting and was one of the developers of RSS, the automated syndication system that constitutes the hidden wiring of the blogosphere. And he’s still innovating, still pushing the envelope, still writing great software.

Technical virtuosity is not what makes Winer one of the world’s great bloggers, however. Equally important is that he is a clear thinker and writer, someone who is politically engaged, holds strong opinions and believes in engaging in discussion with those who disagree with him. And yet the strange thing is that this opinionated, smart guy is also sensitive: he gets hurt when people write disparagingly about him, but he also expresses that hurt in a philosophical way…

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Even if you’re not on Facebook, you are still the product

[link] Sunday, October 5th, 2014

This morning’s Observer column:

The old adage “if the service is free, then you are its product” needs updating. What it signified was that web services (like Facebook, Google, Yahoo et al) that do not charge users make their money by harvesting personal and behavioural data relating to those users and selling that data to advertisers. That’s still true, of course. But a more accurate version of the adage would now read something like this: if you use the web for anything (including paying for stuff) then you are also the product, because your data is being sold on to third parties without your knowledge.

In a way, you probably already knew this. A while back you searched for, say, a digital camera on the John Lewis site. And then you noticed that wherever you went on the web after that John Lewis ads for cameras kept appearing on the site you were visiting. What you were witnessing was the output of a multibillion-dollar industry that operates below the surface of the web. Think of it as the hidden wiring of our networked world. And what it does is track you wherever you go online…

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