BBC: Consumers’ Caped Curmudgeonly Crusader

This is a piece I wrote and recorded for the BBC World Service. It’s not Reuters content

Until my spoilsport wife told me to stop, I had a brief career battling for the little guy against big corporations and lousy service. I called myself the Consumer’s Caped Crusader.

My theory is this: that as companies and institutions become increasingly digital, so they sacrifice their relationship with the customer on the alter of efficiency. It’s not a particularly new or striking theory. But while most people shrug their shoulders and move on, I don’t. I fight back. Which means that while domestic harmony is not well-served, I do get to see a part of big organisations that others might not. 

And it’s not pretty. 

In a burst of caped canaverals I took on a public transport company, a shoe manufacturer, an e-payments company, a major tourist attraction and social network. Only one ended with me coming away impressed. 

What usually happens is this: I find the service or product less than impressive. I pen an email to the contact I can find on the website of the organisation in question — not always easy — and then wait. And, usually wait. 

If they do get back to me, it’s with some bland response that doesn’t really suggest I’m dealing with a human. In the case of the payments company, I submitted a long explanation of my problem through an online form, and in time received an email that I took to be an acknowledgement, and that someone would get back to me. 

But it wasn’t. It was a list of possible answers to my questions — all of them of help only to someone only had recently been introduced to computing. Worse: at the bottom of the email I was told that if I still wanted to pursue the matter, I should resend my request to someone else. Given that the company hadn’t sent me a copy of the essay I’d submitted in the first place I was not amused. 

Other interactions are more complex. A company whose shoes I’ve worn for 15 years sold me a dud pair, where the inside heel wore out in days. I wanted to make sure I wasn’t just fobbed off with another duff pair, and I wanted to alert the company to the fact they might have a design flaw or a bad batch. Only after I dug up the email addresses of three directors was I able to get a receptive ear — and to their credit, an apology for the time I’d spent trying to get their attention. (‘Thank my wife,’ I told them.) 

The problem is that this all becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. A caped crusader can become a caped curmudgeon in the face of all this obstruction, angry and suspicious. When I wrote to complain to a transportation company that one of their drivers had mistaken the road for a race track two days in a row, forcing passengers to hang on for dear life, I was asked to hand over the number on my stored value travel pass.

I wasn’t convinced that the company needed that data and I was concerned the driver might be able to identify me when I used that card again and turn vigilante on the caped curmudgeon. 

The transportation company was resolute. The data was needed to confirm my story. “There have been many occasions where information given by commuters (detailed as it may be) was not accurate,” the company said.   

Maybe they’re right. But I’m not taking that risk. The lesson, sadly, seems to me a simple one: only the stubborn folk of this world fight their way through the digital barbed wire which organisations hide behind. The result: organisations treat such people as breaches of security, to be at best ignored, at worst palmed off with dead end email chains and treated as nincompoops incapable of knowing what bus they’re risking their life on. 

I have no solution to this, so I’ll quote my wife: Try to go out as little as possible because you always get upset at something. It’s an idea that’s increasingly appealing.  But it’s not quite the wall-less communications we dreamed of when the Internet came along.

In democracy and disaster, emerging world embraces ‘open data’

[Updated to fix typos]

From reuters.com, a piece I wrote on the rise of open data in arguably more interesting, or at least directly impactful, circumstances. In this version I’ve added some links to the source material where available. 

Aug 28 (Reuters) – ‘Open data’ – the trove of data-sets made publicly available by governments, organisations and businesses – isn’t normally linked to high-wire politics, but just may have saved last month’s Indonesian presidential elections from chaos.

Data is considered open when it’s released for anyone to use and in a format that’s easy for computers to read. The uses are largely commercial, such as the GPS data from U.S.-owned satellites, but data can range from budget numbers and climate and health statistics to bus and rail timetables.

It’s a revolution that’s swept the developed world in recent years as governments and agencies like the World Bank have freed up hundreds of thousands of data-sets for use by anyone who sees a use for them. Data.gov, a U.S. site, lists more than 100,000 data-sets, from food calories to magnetic fields in space.

Consultants McKinsey reckon open data could add up to $3 trillion worth of economic activity a year – from performance ratings that help parents find the best schools to governments saving money by releasing budget data and asking citizens to come up with cost-cutting ideas. All the apps, services and equipment that tap the GPS satellites, for example, generate $96 billion of economic activity each year in the United States alone, according to a 2011 study. [PDF]

But so far open data has had a limited impact in the developing world, where officials are wary of giving away too much information, and where there’s the issue of just how useful it might be: for most people in emerging countries, property prices and bus schedules aren’t top priorities.

But last month’s election in Indonesia - a contentious face-off between a disgraced general and a furniture-exporter turned reformist – highlighted how powerful open data can be in tandem with a handful of tech-smart programmers, social media savvy and crowdsourcing.

“Open data may well have saved this election,” said Paul Rowland, a Jakarta-based consultant on democracy and governance.

CULTURE CLUB

Indonesia, home to 247 million people and some of the world’s largest Facebook and Twitter populations, has been a few steps ahead in embracing open data. It’s one of eight founding members of the Open Governance Partnership (OGP), a government-led initiative to free up data that now has more than 64 members.

The embrace of open data has had few tangible benefits, but created a buzz and fostered a culture that prodded Indonesia’s election commission to tweak the way it handles vote results.

“There was nothing in this OGP stuff that said you had to put up results from each village,” said Kevin Evans, a Jakarta-based governance consultant. “But it provides a culture where the commission says, ‘why don’t we try a bit of transparency?’”

While it was not allowed to speed up or ditch the manual tabulation of votes – where much of electoral fraud takes place – the commission provided equipment for tallies from nearly half a million polling stations to be scanned and uploaded to its servers, and from there to its website.

Those scans prompted some volunteers to start the laborious process of sifting through them to look for signs of fraud. As the country waited for an official vote count, the rival candidates both claimed victory, based on whichever unofficial poll suited them. Indonesians feared at best a stalemate, at worst fraud and a collapse in public confidence in the election process.

A THIRD WAY

This worried Ainun Najib, an Indonesian IT consultant based in Singapore. “I could see a situation where both sides claimed they’d won, based on their quick counts,” he said, adding he feared a quick descent into confrontation. “I saw we’d need a third alternative.”

Ainun reached out to two friends at Google, and between them they cobbled together a solution: a way to automatically download all the scanned files from the election website, and a website where volunteers could easily transcribe the key numbers from each tally into a spreadsheet.

This marrying of open data, programming savvy and crowdsourcing was the key. Within a few days – well before the official result was available – 700 volunteers were able to tabulate more than 90 percent of the vote on a website that could be viewed by anyone.

It was decisive in convincing Indonesians that the election had been fair – a verdict upheld by the country’s highest court last week.

By short-circuiting the long and fraught manual tallying process, it played a “very important” role in restoring public faith in the process and deterring fraud, said Marcus Mietzner, associate professor at the Australian National University. “It allowed the media and citizens to check whether data was manipulated as it travelled from the polling station to the centre. This had never happened before.”

At a ceremony honouring inspiring young leaders last week, Indonesia’s President-elect Joko Widodo thanked Ainun and his colleagues for helping make the election more transparent.

HASHTAGGING A TYPHOON

It’s not the first time open data and crowdsourcing have been used in elections, but it’s probably the most decisive. And it hints at the potential if officials, geeks and others play their part in leveraging open data to take on the big issues of the day.

“The idea is we can see the data of the state and do things with it, and that expertise doesn’t just live inside bureaucracies,” said Tim Davies, a researcher at the World Wide Web Foundation who is compiling a report on open data in developing countries. “These are powerful ideas and important ones for building new visions of how we do governance.”

It might not just be politics.

Neighbouring Philippines, another founder member of the OGP, combines open data with social media and crowdsourcing to minimise the impact of typhoons and storms that ravage its shoreline. Twitter users are encouraged to label their messages with specific hashtags, for example, making it easier for relief officials to quickly identify those who need help.

“That’s been a very big deal,” says Patrick Meier, who works with UN and Red Cross organisations on using crowdsourcing and open data in crises, and is now working with Manila-based start-up Rappler to better predict where help might be needed.

POLITICISATION

But Indonesia and the Philippines are outliers in Asia.

The Asian Development Bank website, for example, contains a single reference to open data, against the World Bank’s more than 85,000.

Singapore, despite describing data as a “natural resource”, has been cautious, and it has taken open data evangelist Daryl Arnold a couple of years to help persuade officials and executives to free up significant chunks of data for programmers to build apps around.

He points to dozens of apps as evidence of progress, including a recent ‘hackathon’ where programmers explored 65 million rows of data released by port-related companies and agencies to figure out how to make Singapore’s port more efficient. One problem, he said, was that despite technological advances there is often an 8-hour delay between when a ship is due to arrive and when it actually berths – disrupting the mini-industry of tugs, cleaners and caterers that serve such vessels.

While Singaporean agencies and businesses warm to the idea of freeing up data, Arnold cautions that it must be used responsibly. “It’s still critical that people use it in a respectful fashion,” he says.

Indeed, the very success of open data in Indonesia’s election may give pause for thought among more conservative countries of Asia.

Waltraut Ritter, co-founder of Opendata Hong Kong and a researcher on the knowledge-based economy, reports a tension over open data in some less developed countries, where officials worry advocates would focus solely on issues like corruption.

“In developed countries, data and information is seen more as an ingredient or commodity for everything you do whereas in Asia everything around information and data can easily be politicised,” she said.

“There’s so much more baggage in terms of about how people think about information.” (Editing by Ian Geoghegan)

BBC: The Decline of Self Expression

Here’s a BBC piece which the World Service broadcast recently. This isn’t Reuters content.

It’s taken us a long time to get to here, but I think I can safely declare us as, dextrously speaking, back before the caveman.

If we had stumbled into your average cave in about 40,000 BC, we might have chanced upon someone drawing on his bedroom wall, as it were, mixing ochre, hematite and charcoal. We might call this the dawn of manual input of user generated content.

Avail yourself of public transport these days and the best you’ll likely see would be a few people swiping upwards on their mobile screen in a now-familiar gesture meaning — I’m reading about my alleged friends on Facebook to check they’re not doing anything as exciting as I am.

You might, if you’re lucky, see someone actually trying to input some user generated content. A caveman would notice with some surprise that this is not as easy as it was in his day. One old fella I saw laboriously typing a missive on his iPad, tapping out each letter with one finger of his left hand, his right hand holding the device. Indeed, for the most part that is how people write on their mobile devices. Some have physical keyboards, but these are an endangered species.

Why is this a problem? Well, let me count the ways. Firstly, it’s kind of distressing to see people tap away at their screens like hens. Fifty years ago we’d have been lovingly writing letters, poems, diaries in longhand, dipping our quills in ink. Or at least gazing out the window composing poetry in our head.

The other reason is that we think we’re clever, and that somehow each iteration of technology is an advance. It’s an advance for people who make money out of us buying these devices, plugging them into a network and sharing pictures of frowning cats. It’s not an advance in terms of what we’ve come to call interfaces – of making it easier for us to convey our feelings, thoughts and mental creations from our head to others via a permanent or semi-permanent canvas.

In that sense it’s quite a retreat. We’re basically using a century-old technology — the QWERTY typewriter — to enter our thoughts into a device that’s more powerful than the one which put men on the moon. On a keypad the size of a matchbox. And on a piece of glass. That isn’t the sound of keys being hit, it’s the sound of cave people laughing at us.

One of my colleagues feels it necessary to add an apology to the bottom of his overly short emails from his mobile phone, I’m told: apologies if I sound terse, I’m not. I’m writing this on my phone. I can think of no greater indictment of our devices than having to apologise because entering text into them is so fiddly they don’t allow us to express ourselves adequately.

Now the thing is, it’s not all like this. Apple have recently done another splendid video ad extolling all the wonderful applications other people have come up with for their iPads and iPhones. Architects, artists, marine-debris experts, all love the devices for the things they can do with them.

Which is great. But that doesn’t really help the 99% rest of us who are stuck trying to use an anachronistic technology to express ourselves in words. Yes, there’s voice recognition. Yes, there’s software that lets us swipe letters across a keyboard. But there’s no getting away from the fact that mobile devices were not made for writing. Just one percent of changes to Wikipedia articles are done on a mobile device, according to the NYT.

It’s time we recognised a sobering reality: while we blithely talk about this being the age of user generated content, the reality is that very little of that is actual text, arguments, thoughts etc strung together via words. Instead it’s photos, videos, comments and emoticons, or just passing along other people’s content. We may not all be writing with quills, but then again, we’re not exactly writing, either.

When was the last time you did more than click, swipe or pinch on your mobile device?

LinkedIn scam comes full circle, by pretending to be LinkedIn

LinkedIn don’t seem to be taking seriously the extensive use of their network by scammers, as I went on about here. Maybe this will make them change their mind: use of their own company in a scam profile (might not be up long, see screenshot.)

The Jeffrey Westwood in question is a stock photo from Thinkstock used in a number of places, such as this website focused on building sales leaders, and this insurance website.

I’m going to reach out to see whether LinkedIn are taking this kind of thing more seriously, given that not only could a simple algorithm catch these kinds of profiles, but that by using LinkedIn as his company the scammer should have set off other alarm bells somewhere in a LinkedIn cubicle (“Does anyone know this Jeffery Westwood fella?” “Nope. Must be new.”)

[Update: LinkedIn appear to have removed the profile in response to my query, but not answered my questions. Will try again.]

BBC: Future connectivity

This is a version of my Reuters piece on connectivity (Reuters.com version: From balloons to shrimp-filled shallows, the future is wireless) which I recently recorded for the BBC World Service’s Business Daily. 

The Internet may feel like it’s everywhere, but large pockets of sky, swathes of land and most of the oceans are still beyond a signal’s reach. This of course, may be something you are actually quite pleased about, given that airplanes, boats and the occasional peak seem to be some of the few places left where you can get some peace. 

But not everyone looks at it like that. Three decades after the first cellphone went on sale half the world remains unconnected. For some it costs too much, but some 1.4 billion people, live without even basic network infrastructure. 

And then there are the places that for now don’t seem important, but will be: like the oceans. We may not spend much time below the seas that cover more than two-thirds of the planet but increasingly we realise we need to: climate recording, pollution control, predicting natural disasters like tsunami, monitoring oil and gas fields, protecting harbours. And if China gets its way quite a few of us will live down there if only to stake territorial claims to the seas above or the riches below. 

So, these all present interesting technological challenges. Not least because most of the people presently unconnected are too poor for the big telcos to worry about. Surprisingly, perhaps, it’s the Facebooks and Googles of this world who are interested, partly because of philanthropic goals but mostly because they’re the last bunch of people who don’t have Gmail and Facebook accounts. 

So Google are launch balloons. And Facebook are considering drones. These, though are experimental, leaving an opportunity for niche players like Kacific, which is aiming to build a satellite network it says will provide cheap communications to some 40 million people from eastern Indonesia to the Pacific islands. 

Others are finding cracks in the existing technologies and spectrum to forge their own mini telcos. Like Endaga, a Berkeley startup which has used part of the GSM spectrum to build a village level network in a Papuan village. 

Some say there’s no need of a network at all. Using a technique called mesh, they string together devices — handphones, or laptops or whatever — which become both nodes and transmitters, meaning they not only do what a device would normally do on a network, but they also help pass on signals to others. 

That removes the need for lots of fancy infrastructure like towers, base stations and dishes. Activists in Nigeria have used mesh for lobbying against the demolition of slums, and the technology is being tested by the New Zealand Red Cross. Mesh networks aren’t necessarily small, rural and poor: Athens, Berlin and Vienna have them, too.

Then there’s underwater. Soon our internet will be as much a network of devices as of people with devices. The so-called internet of things, or machine to machine, or whatever you want to call it. Cisco reckons there will be 2 billion such connections by 2018. Connecting these things above ground by wireless is fine but underwater is another thing.

Using the same overground wireless methods for underwater communications isn’t possible, because light travels badly in water. Although technologies have improved greatly in recent years, underwater modems still rely on acoustic technologies that limit speeds to a fraction of what we’re now used to. 

This is gradually getting solved, but slowly. Noisy things like pistol shrimps, whose oversized claw snaps a bubble of hot air at its prey, confuse underwater modems.

The oceans and the deserts and mountains and jungles will all eventually get their wireless signals. And we’ll be the better for it. But because of money, and technology, and pesky things like shrimps, it’s not about to happen any time soon. One day we’ll look back and wonder why it took us so long. 

Microsoft’s Naked PC problem

This is a piece that I wrote with Gerry Shih in Beijing about Microsoft’s challenges in emerging markets beyond the recent raids.

‘Naked PCs’ lay bare Microsoft’s emerging markets problem

BY JEREMY WAGSTAFF AND GERRY SHIH

Sun Aug 10, 2014 9:42pm EDT

(Reuters) – On a trip to Beijing a decade ago, Bill Gates was asked by a senior government official how much money Microsoft Corp made in China. The official asked the interpreter to double check Gates’ reply as he couldn’t believe the figure was so low.

It’s a problem that hasn’t gone away. Indeed, Microsoft’s current issues in China conceal a deeper problem for the U.S. software giant – despite the popularity of its Windows operating system and Office suite, few people in emerging markets are willing to pay for legitimate copies.

This not only costs Microsoft in lost revenue, but is also holding back the spread of its newest Windows 8 version – analysts say even buyers of pirate software prefer older versions. According to StatCounter, a website that tracks what software is loaded on Internet-connected computers, more than 90 percent of PCs in China – now the world’s biggest market – are running pre-8 versions of Windows.

Microsoft is trying to tackle this. This year it’s offering Windows 8 at a discount to PC manufacturers who install its Bing search engine as the default. And it’s giving away versions of Windows 8 for phones and some tablets.

But, as the industry shifts from desktop to mobile, the cloud and free or cheap software, China sums up both the old and new challenges Microsoft faces in making money in emerging markets – and, increasingly, in developed ones.

“The great danger for the company is that what has happened to them in emerging markets – basically no revenue from new PCs because of piracy – is not far off what’s happening everywhere,” said Ben Thompson, the Taiwan-based author of stratechery.com, a popular technology blog.

CORE COST

For sure, China is a major, and unique, headache for Microsoft. Many of the problems are tied to a broader push by the Chinese government to limit foreign firms’ dominance and encourage local technology firms to become viable competitors.

After years of healthy relations with Beijing, Microsoft last month was suddenly targeted by anti-monopoly regulators who raided its China offices as part of a price-fixing investigation.

But the spats mask the fact that Microsoft has never really cracked how to get people in emerging markets to pay for its software. The company rarely breaks out revenues by geography, but it has provided clues about the size of the problem.

In 2011, then CEO Steve Ballmer reportedly told employees that, because of piracy, Microsoft earned less revenue in China than in the Netherlands – with 1 percent of its population – even though China bought as many computers as the United States.

According to the BSA anti-piracy lobby group that Microsoft co-founded, emerging markets account for 56 percent of all PCs in use, and 73 percent of software piracy. Of the $77.8 billion revenue Microsoft generated in its 2013 financial year, China, Brazil and Russia each “exceeded” $1 billion, according to a Microsoft presentation. For comparison, Apple Inc generated $27 billion in Greater China, which includes Hong Kong and Taiwan, in its 2013 financial year.

For Microsoft, that’s a lot of lost revenue from the heart of its business. “Windows and Office are still very much the core of Microsoft,” says Sameer Singh, an India-based analyst.

The most recent breakdown by Microsoft of its results by product line – for the first quarter of fiscal 2014 – shows that 56 percent of its global revenue and 78 percent of operating profit came from Windows and Office.

Microsoft doesn’t just lose the revenue from pirate copies, it also loses access to customers who might buy other Microsoft products that work with or on top of Windows and Office.

Across most markets, Windows and Office account for more than half of revenues, says Andrew Pickup, Microsoft’s Asia PR chief. This, analysts say, is because many of Microsoft’s other products, such as Exchange and Windows servers, depend on customers already using Windows and Office.

“The Microsoft ecosystem is obviously pretty interconnected,” says Jan Dawson of U.S.-based Jackdaw Research. “So it makes sense that the proportion of revenue would be similar in emerging markets.”

NAKED PCS

Part of the intractability of piracy in emerging markets is that each part of the chain poses a problem.

For PC makers working on wafer-thin margins the operating system is one of the costliest parts of the machine, while mom-and-pop shops which form the bulk of retailers in such markets can’t afford to turn away price-sensitive customers who are comfortable buying pirate software.

The problem, therefore, starts with computer makers, Singh says, since “convincing them to ship every PC with Windows pre-installed is difficult.” Margins on PCs for a company like Lenovo Group Ltd are “near single digits,” says Bryan Wang, an analyst at Gartner.

The result is that up to 60 percent of PCs shipped in the emerging markets of Asia, says IDC research manager Handoko Andi, have no Windows operating system pre-installed – so-called ‘naked PCs’, which usually instead carry some free, open source operating system like Linux. That compares with about 25 percent in the region’s developed markets like Japan and Australia.

A quick scan of Taobao, the popular Chinese e-commerce site operated by Alibaba, shows a vast selection of PCs shipped with Linux rather than Windows. Once the machines hit the retailers, it’s hard to tell where legitimate software stops and piracy begins.

On a recent morning in Zhongguancun, a teeming electronics hub in north Beijing, shopkeepers offered to bundle what they said were legitimate versions of Windows with a new laptop, either for free or the equivalent of about $30.

Microsoft began lobbying Lenovo in 2004 to stop shipping naked PCs, but the Chinese firm countered that its margins were too low, a person familiar with the negotiations said. Two years later – just days before then-President Hu Jintao visited Gates’ U.S. home – China announced a new law requiring PCs to be shipped with operating systems. That merely dented piracy rates, which fell to 79 percent in 2009 from 92 percent in 2004, according to the BSA.

Lenovo said it reached an agreement with Microsoft in June of this year to ensure that Lenovo PCs sold in China would come pre-installed with a genuine Windows operating system.

“MOBILE ALSO-RAN”

Microsoft’s new approach is to push the price of Windows low enough to make it worth a PC maker’s while. The cost of a Windows license has fallen to below $50 from as high as $150, said IDC’s Andi, taking Microsoft down to “levels where they’ve never competed before.”

Microsoft’s Pickup said it was too early to gauge take-up.

In any case, making Windows cheaper for PCs is just part of a broader response to deeper shifts in the industry. The rise of mobile, tablets, cloud-based services and free operating systems has marginalized Microsoft and challenged its business model.

While Windows is on more than 90 percent of traditional computers – according to data compiled by analyst Ben Bajarin – that figure drops to below 14 percent once mobile devices such as phones and tablets are factored in, estimates Gartner.

More than half those devices run Google’s Android mobile OS, which is effectively free to handset and tablet makers. Apple, a key player in all types of devices, gives away upgrades to its operating systems for free.

Pickup says Microsoft has listened to phone makers’ complaints and relaxed what hardware they need to install the mobile version of Windows. It has also made the operating system free on any mobile device of 9 inches or less.

Taken together, the moves are “about bringing down the cost as more and more of the populations in these emerging markets are having their first computing experience,” Pickup said.

These are significant concessions, analysts say, but Microsoft will have to learn to be a bit player, where its software and services run on other people’s operating systems.

“The biggest threat to Microsoft,” Dawson said, “is the shift from a PC-based world where Microsoft dominated to a mobile world where Microsoft is an also-ran.”

(Additional reporting by Noel Randewich in SAN FRANCISCO and Bill Rigby in SEATTLE; Editing by Ian Geoghegan)

The Facebook Experiment: Some Collated Views

A few pieces in the Facebook Experiment. I’m still mulling my view. 

Paul Bernal: The Facebook Experiment: the ‘why’ questions…:

 Perhaps Facebook will look a little bad for a little while – but the potential financial benefit from the new stream of advertising revenue, the ability to squeeze more money from a market that looks increasingly saturated and competitive, outweighs that cost.

Based on the past record, they’re quite likely to be right. People will probably complain about this for a while, and then when the hoo-haa dies down, Facebook will still have over a billion users, and new ways to make money from them. Mark Zuckerberg doesn’t mind looking like the bad guy (again) for a little while. Why should he? The money will continue to flow – and whether it impacts upon the privacy and autonomy of the people on Facebook doesn’t matter to Facebook one way or another. It has ever been thus….

(Via Paul Bernal’s Blog)

A contrarian view from Rohan Samarajiva: Confused objections to Facebook emotional contagion research:

I am puzzled by the predominantly negative reaction to the manipulation of Facebook content, in the recent published research article in the mainstream media (MSM), though perhaps less in blogs and such.

It seems to me that MSM’s reaction is hypocritical. They manipulate their content all the time to evoke different emotional responses from their readers/viewers/listeners. The difference is that conducting research on resultant emotional changes on MSM is not as easy as on Facebook. For example, magazines have used different cover images, darkening or lightening faces and so. Their only indicator of success is whether version A sold more than version B. Not very nuanced.

(Via LIRNEasia)

And Ed Felten: Privacy Implications of Social Media Manipulation:

To be clear, I am not concluding that Facebook necessarily learned much of anything about the manipulability of any particular user. Based on what we know I would bet against the experiment having revealed that kind of information about any individual. My point is simpler: experiments that manipulate user experience impact users’ privacy, and that privacy impact needs to be taken into account in evaluating the ethics of such experiments and in determining when users should be informed.

(Via Freedom to Tinker)

And finally from Robin Wilton: Ethical Data Handling and Facebook’s “Emotional Contagion” Study:

Once, in a workshop, while discussing mechanisms for privacy preference expression, I said I would be happier for data subjects to have some means of expressing a preference than none. An older, wiser participant made the following wry remark: “That only brings a benefit if someone is prepared to give weight to their preference. If not… well, ten million times zero is still zero”. And that’s the weight Facebook appears to have given to the legitimate interests of its data subjects.

(Via Internet Society Blog Feed)

BBC: Old Scams Made New

This is a column for a BBC World Service piece. It’s not Reuters content. 

Of all the scams you’d have thought the old ‘I’m a general’s widow and am sitting on a whole pile of cash I want to share with you” one would have gone away by now. But it hasn’t. The scammers are now recruiting church organists. 

Take, for example, LinkedIn, the business networking service. Think Facebook but for suits. People use to flaunt their resume only in the hope of winning contracts, promotions, job offers and to share trade gossip with others. Companies use it to recruit, promote themselves etc. And so do scammers. 

They make a fake profile, add a fake photo, and then start inviting potential victims to connect to them. Once connected, they approach marks with the usual ‘I’ve got lots of money tied up in a bank and i want to share it with you if you’d only send a bit my way to help me grease some bankers’ palms.’ They can also now mine your address book and connect to your contacts and do the same to them. 

I was recently approached, for example, by a lady called Alisha, who claimed to work at a dental clinic (the giveaway there: she called it a detal clinic),by Qatari billionaire Sheikh Faisal Bin Qassim Al Thani (email address sheikfaisalbinalthani at gmail.com) and before her recent troubles by the now deposed prime minister of Thailand — Yingluck Shinawatra, not the other one — who could be reached at angeleena rosa 1967 at yahoo.com

Why do I know these folk are not for real? Well, one red flag is a limited number of connections: 67 in Alisha’s case, 127 in the Sheikh’s and 56 in Ms Yingluck’s. But each was able to reach me because despite the relatively measly number of people they’d persuade to accept their invitation to connect were contacts of mine.

I knew it was getting serious when I was approached by someone claiming to be a manager at Standard Chartered. Let’s call him Mr Christopher to save some blushes. Mr. Christopher claims to have 10 years’ experience in banking and finance management — and, most impressively, more than 500 connections. Among them a colleague, a CEO at a local energy group and the finance director of an Indonesian company. He even has a Facebook page. 

These scammers are putting in the hours. 

 But even then, these scams aren’t really that hard to spot.

Usually a glance at the profile is enough. A guy called Nigel Rozzell, for example, approached me, ostensibly from NatWest Bank. (It turns out there really is a Nigel Rozzell who works for Nat West Bank, but I’m pretty sure his email address isn’t Natwest Nigel at accountant.com, which is what this profile had.) 

And if I still wasn’t sure, I could search google for images that look like his mug shot — it’s actually easier than it sounds. And sure thing, the headshot of fake Nigel Rozzell belongs to an engineer who works on rail projects in Qatar.

And our bank manager friend Mr Christopher, with the 500+ connections and the Facebook page? After I recklessly accepted his LinkedIn invitation he offered me half of 9,649,400 pounds he said he was about to get his hands on. My confidence in him deflated when I discovered via Google that his mug shot belonged to that of the organist at a church near Bristol, who was none too pleased when I told him his visage being used as part of a scam. 

Now, LinkedIn to their credit have taken down all these profiles. And they defend their failure to stop these profiles ever appearing or gathering steam by saying that it’s basically up to users to be careful who they link to and to report anomalies. They also say they see no spike in these kinds of scams. 

But the truth is that scammers like networks and networks don’t police themselves. It took me anything between 10 seconds and two minutes to spot these scams, but I’m a nerd. That vetting process that could easily be automated. LinkedIn should, in my view, try doing that. I’ll miss rubbing shoulders with deposed prime ministers, billionaire sheiks and church organists, but I’ll suffer for the greater good of keeping scammers off my buddy list. 

[Update: Got another scam this morning, from a Douglas Mattes, who once again had 500+ connections and a quite well populated profile. And whom actually I thought might be legit as I hadn’t looked at the image which belongs to one Shaun Goeldner. I’m frankly unclear how these profiles work — are they legitimate accounts hacked or built from scratch?] 

[Update: Is this all part of some Iranian spying scam? ]

From balloons to shrimp-filled shallows, the future is wireless

From balloons to shrimp-filled shallows, the future is wireless

BY JEREMY WAGSTAFF

(Reuters) – The Internet may feel like it’s everywhere, but large pockets of sky, swathes of land and most of the oceans are still beyond a signal’s reach.

Three decades after the first cellphone went on sale – the $4,000 Motorola DynaTAC 8000X “Brick” – half the world remains unconnected. For some it costs too much, but up to a fifth of the population, or some 1.4 billion people, live where “the basic network infrastructure has yet to be built,” according to a Facebook white paper last month.

Even these figures, says Kurtis Heimerl, whose Berkeley-based start-up Endaga has helped build one of the world’s smallest telecoms networks in an eastern Indonesian village, ignore the many people who have a cellphone but have to travel hours to make a call or send a message. “Everyone in our community has a phone and a SIM card,” he says. “But they’re not covered.”

Heimerl reckons up to 2 billion people live most of their lives without easy access to cellular coverage. “It’s not getting better at the dramatic rate you think.”

The challenge is to find a way to connect those people, at an attractive cost.
And then there’s the frontier beyond that: the oceans.

Improving the range and speed of communications beneath the seas that cover more than two-thirds of the planet is a must for environmental monitoring – climate recording, pollution control, predicting natural disasters like tsunami, monitoring oil and gas fields, and protecting harbours.

There is also interest from oceanographers looking to map the sea bed, marine biologists, deep-sea archaeologists and those hunting for natural resources, or even searching for lost vessels or aircraft. Canadian miner Nautilus Minerals Inc said last week it came to an agreement with Papua New Guinea, allowing it to start work on the world’s first undersea metal mining project, digging for copper, gold and silver 1,500 metres (4,921 feet) beneath the Bismark Sea.

And there’s politics: China recently joined other major powers in deep-sea exploration, partly driven by a need to exploit oil, gas and mineral reserves. This year, Beijing plans to sink a 6-person ‘workstation’ to the sea bed, a potential precursor to a deep-sea ‘space station’ which, researchers say, could be inhabited.

“Our ability to communicate in water is limited,” says Jay Nagarajan, whose Singapore start-up Subnero builds underwater modems. “It’s a blue ocean space – if you’ll forgive the expression.”

BALLOONS, DRONES, SATELLITES
Back on land, the challenge is being taken up by a range of players – from high-minded academics wanting to help lift rural populations out of poverty to internet giants keen to add them to their social networks.

Google, for example, is buying Titan Aerospace, a maker of drones that can stay airborne for years, while Facebook has bought UK-based drone maker Ascenta.

CEO Mark Zuckerburg has said Facebook is working on drones and satellites to help bring the Internet to the nearly two thirds of the world that doesn’t yet have it. As part of its Project Loon, Google last year launched a balloon 20 km (12.4 miles) into the skies above New Zealand, providing wireless speeds of up to 3G quality to an area twice the size of New York City.

But these are experimental technologies, unlikely to be commercially viable for a decade, says Christian Patouraux, CEO of another Singapore start-up, Kacific. Its solution is a satellite network that aims to bring affordable internet to 40 million people in the so-called ‘Blue Continent’ – from eastern Indonesia to the Pacific islands.

A mix of technologies will prevail, says Patouraux – from fiber optic cables, 3G and LTE mobile technologies to satellites like his HTS Ku-band, which he hopes to launch by end-2016. “No single technology will ever solve everything,” he said.

Indeed, satellite technology – the main method of connectivity until submarine cables became faster and cheaper – is enjoying a comeback. While Kacific, O3b and others aim at hard-to-reach markets, satellite internet is having success even in some developed markets. Last year, ViaSat topped a benchmarking study of broadband speeds by the U.S. Federal Communications Commission.

And today’s airline passengers increasingly expect to be able to go online while flying, with around 40 percent of U.S. jetliners now offering some Wi-Fi. The number of commercial planes worldwide with wireless internet or cellphone service, or both, will triple in the next decade, says research firm IHS.

WHITE SPACE

Densely populated Singapore is experimenting with so-called ‘white space’, using those parts of the wireless spectrum previously set aside for television signals. This year, it has quietly started offering what it calls SuperWifi to deliver wireless signals over 5 km or more to beaches and tourist spots.

This is not just a first-world solution. Endaga”s Heimerl is working with co-founder Shaddi Hasan to use parts of the GSM spectrum to build his village-level telco in the hills of Papua.

That means an ordinary GSM cellphone can connect without any tweaks or hardware. Users can phone anyone on the same network and send SMS messages to the outside world through a deal with a Swedish operator.

Such communities, says Heimerl, will have to come up with such solutions because major telecoms firms just aren’t interested. “The problem is that these communities are small,” says Heimerl, “and even with the price of hardware falling the carriers would rather install 4G in cities than equipment in these communities.”

The notion of breaking free of telecoms companies isn’t just a pipe dream.

MESH

Part of the answer lies in mesh networks, where devices themselves serve as nodes connecting users – not unlike a trucker’s CB radio, says Paul Gardner-Stephen, Rural, Remote & Humanitarian Telecommunications Fellow at Flinders University in South Australia.

Gardner-Stephen has developed a mesh technology called Serval that has been used by activists lobbying against the demolition of slums in Nigeria, and is being tested by the New Zealand Red Cross.

Mesh networks aren’t necessarily small, rural and poor: Athens, Berlin and Vienna have them, too. And Google Chairman Eric Schmidt has called them “the most essential form of digital communication and the cheapest to deploy.”

Even without a balloon and Google’s heft, mesh networks offer a bright future, says Gardner-Stephen. If handset makers were to open up their chips to tweaks so their radios could communicate over long distances, it would be possible to relay messages more than a kilometre.

In any case, he says, the Internet is no longer about instantaneous communication. As long as we know our data will arrive at some point, the possibilities open up to thinking of our devices more as data couriers, storing messages on behalf of one community until they are carried by a villager to another node they can connect to, passing those messages on several times a day.

It’s not our present vision of a network where messages are transmitted in an instant, but more like a digital postal service, which might well be enough for some.

“Is the Internet going to be what it looks like today? The answer is no,” said Gardner-Stephen.

PISTOL SHRIMPS

As the Internet changes, so will its boundaries.

As more devices communicate with other devices – Cisco Systems Inc estimates there will be 2 billion such connections by 2018 – so is interest increasing in connecting those harder-to-reach devices, including those underwater, that are beyond the reach of satellites, balloons and base stations.

Using the same overground wireless methods for underwater communications isn’t possible, because light travels badly in water. Although technologies have improved greatly in recent years, underwater modems still rely on acoustic technologies that limit speeds to a fraction of what we’re now used to.

That’s partly because there are no agreed standards, says Subnero’s Nagarajan, who likens it to the early days of the Internet. Subnero offers underwater modems that look like small torpedoes which, he says, can incorporate competing standards and allow users to configure them.

This is a significant plus, says Mandar Chitre, an academic from the National University of Singapore, who said that off-the-shelf modems don’t work in the region’s shallow waters.

The problem: a crackling noise that sailors have variously attributed to rolling pebbles, surf, volcanoes, and, according to a U.S. submarine commander off Indonesia in 1942, the Japanese navy dropping some “newfangled gadget” into the water.

The actual culprit has since been identified – the so-called pistol shrimp, whose oversized claw snaps a bubble of hot air at its prey. Only recently has Chitre been able to filter out the shrimp’s noise from the sonic pulses an underwater modem sends. His technology is now licensed to Subnero.

There are still problems speeding up transmission and filtering out noise, he says. But the world is opening up to the idea that to understand the ocean means deploying permanent sensors and modems to communicate their data to shore.

And laying submarine cables would cost too much.

“The only way to do this is if you have communications technology. You can’t be wiring the whole ocean,” he told Reuters. “It’s got to be wireless.”

(Editing by Ian Geoghegan)

Behind the iPad’s sluggish sales

Sameer Singh offers some possible reasons for the fall in iPad sales: 

Pocketable vs. Tablet Computing | Tech-Thoughts by Sameer Singh: “With this background, the sudden decline in iPad sales may have been caused by a combination of the following factors:

  • Most high-end consumers who need iPads already own them (and as some analysts have pointed out, replacement cycles are long) 
  • Large screen smartphones have made media tablets somewhat redundant, i.e. the iPad is no longer a ‘necessary’ purchase for ‘phablet’ owners 
  • The iPad is priced out of the market segment that still finds media tablets ‘necessary’ 
  • Upmarket movement is limited because tablet use cases still haven’t evolved to cannibalize more productivity-related computing tasks (I may have overestimated the pace at which this would occur)”

To which I’d add: 

The iPad is in some ways closer to a PC than a phone in its utility vs luxury ratio. People upgrade their phones because they’re visible accessories, something that says something about the person holding it. Computers have barely hit that bar, and maybe iPads — especially since users usually cloak them in a stand/cover — don’t quite make it either. So unless there’s a really compelling performance/spec reason to upgrade, most don’t bother.

I’ve not seen data on this, but anecdotally most people I know get an iPad and then settle, rather than upgrading when the next one comes out. Of course the lack of telco subsidy for most iPad purchases adds to this. 

It’s not that iPad isn’t a great idea, but it turns out that the smarter move in a way has been to increase the size of the phone (phablet) rather than shrink the size of the computer (the iPad), at least in terms of getting people to upgrade.