Passw0rds To Parliament

The recent cyber attack on the UK parliament is said by various media reports to have resulted in no more than 90 email accounts being hacked. This has been reported with some relief. True the attack could have been much worse, but to imply that 90 accessed accounts is in any way ok is completely wrong-headed.

It would be safe to assume that some of these compromised email accounts, in turn, have access to other important direct contact details and email addresses. It is this third-party data that can be saved and used at a later date, (when this latest attack has been forgotten) to further burrow into government, civil service and other important accounts.

Hardly An Attack
The attack has been described as a brute force attack – in that the email system was somehow overcome – this sounds good in the media. The truth is that the attack was a straightforward dictionary attack – looking for weak and in some cases embarrassingly feeble passwords – passwords like “password”, “password1” and “passw0rd”. This is way beyond embarrassing and much closer to feckless & reckless.

More Money & Bodies
Politicians (from all parties) need to be educated about the risks to their personal data and in the wider sense to the administration of democracy – both are under threat. Once their eyes have been opened to all the risks, the government need to increase funding and resources to protect (as much as possible) both the democratic and physical infrastructure of this country – as both are at real risk.

GCHQ needs to go on a massive recruitment drive and be given funds to offer competitive salaries for the best candidates. Once that has increased capacity and capability, GCHQ trained staff need to be embedded into all branches of the civil service and democratic institutions, including parliament.

This Is Everything
Defensive cyber security and the ability to respond offensively are as important as aircraft carriers and the nuclear deterrent. The ability to respond aggressively is the effective deterrent that needs to be bolstered. The UK recognises the need – now the action must start.

Human Weakness
The chief weakness is human – everyone has email and Internet access – and the ability to use pathetic passwords. Where possible this weakness needs to be designed out. Two-factor authentication would be a start for all government and related email addresses; this is not difficult to do.

Threats Everywhere
This is not just an issue for government, business data and secrets are also targets. Much more needs to be done to protect against even low-level threats and disruption. Company IT directors need more money and places on the company board. According to the Financial Times, the recent Petya malware attack cost Reckitt Benckiser an estimated £110 million in lost sales, and some of its factories are still not fully operational again. The Financial Times also reports that AP Moller-Maersk the shipping giant has cargo stuck at 15 different ports around the world.

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Grenfell Tower Response

It is probably far too early to learn all the lessons from the Grenfell Tower Disaster. The borough of Kensington & Chelsea has been widely criticised for their response to the tragedy, though some of this is the legitimate anger that the fire should not have spread in the way that it did. The cladding – cause of the fire spreading so quickly is now said to have been used in breach of building regulations.

Again the borough of Kensington & Chelsea appears not to have overseen the work properly – not ensuring that flame retardant panels were used – the cost difference being only £5,000. Furthermore, the council appears to have used rents in the last financial year (and previous years) to subsidise other services, including non-essential events, such as opera concerts. None of this looks good and smacks of a council that wished that North Kensington did not exist or could be just redeveloped out of its current existence.

The borough has been lambasted for its slow response to the disaster; it is hard to know if this is completely accurate or driven by the media pursuing a line of reporting. Whatever is the case the borough probably responded in the way any other council would respond – initially slowly as money and resources were put in place.

What is actually required is a coordinated central government response to such disasters. In these situations, central government should immediately step in with a dedicated team to guide all aspects, from the first rescue efforts all the way to providing food, clothing, shelter and subsequent re-housing. Some may think this excessive, but given the seemingly uncertain times in which we live this should be considered an effective use of money and resources. True, a lot of this already takes place, but the difference would be the immediate handover to central government; and also the use of local resources by central government. Such a response should be used in all significant events, from fire to flood. Also, the decision to deploy a central government should be taken by central government, not local authorities.

Some disasters cannot be prevented, (though sadly the Grenfell Tower Disaster was wholly preventable), but how we respond and the speed of the response can and should be strengthened.

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The Bro Bubble

It looks like some (most) parts of the tech industry have a culture problem. Tech companies go out of their way to show a happy & shiny face to the world. However, underneath this is undermined by some of their employees and bosses. We say some, rather than all – but the some can have a disproportionate effect on any business. Negative headlines can undo many months and years of carefully cultivating culture, whether it is the Uber CEO getting into an argument with one of his drivers, or Tesla failing to address sex discrimination.

There are other deep-rooted issues in tech firms, such as a lack of diversity. This can have long-term commercial implications for many companies. If your workforce is predominately white & male and drawn from the same narrow field of universities, there is every chance you will miss nuances in products, product development, and services simply because your frame of reference is so limited.

You Only Sell To Bros
If you employ a very distinct cohort, they, in turn, will employ more people in their image. There is a very real risk that this circle of events will tighten further. Your employees may well have the same views and refer to each other in both everyday and key decisions. Even when people are employed in key foreign markets there is a tendency towards centralised decision-making, so commercial decisions are referred back.

How To Benefit
So how as a business do you benefit from your competitor’s myopia? The simple answer is to employ, mentor, foster and promote the workers they do not employ or under-employ.

This should never be seen as a chance to hire on the cheap, quite the contrary – pay industry levels of pay and always do so, do not be tempted to go cut-price because people need work – all this leads to is a disgruntled workforce.

By offering a more diversified workforce the same benefits and opportunities your business will flourish. Not only will you have a better chance of making better products & services, but your products & services will also likely appeal to a broader customer base or have greater appeal in more territories.

Furthermore, gaining a reputation as a better employer will allow you to attract and retain more employees – dramatically reducing recruitment costs and reducing staff turnover. The greatest commercial weapon for any business is a secure and motivated workforce – particularly when your competitors are regularly going through embarrassing and distracting convulsions.

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The “right-to-own”?

The government’s recent white paper on the English housing market has been criticised for being too timid. This is partly due to the lack of movement on allowing more green belt development – a fair point, but it still looks like tinkering at the edges.

Also, the move to improve renting will come to nothing without imposing proper rent controls on the market, something very few seem prepared to do. The fact remains if (and it is a big if) you can save up enough for a deposit it is usually cheaper to pay a monthly mortgage than monthly rent. Not to mention the obvious fact that owning a property gives you a huge financial leg up and can be the basis of long-term financial stability.

So making the rental market slightly easier is, in fact, a huge admission of defeat by the government. From a political point of view, it is also a huge miscalculation and an abandonment of the middle ground of politics. The government has an open goal to shoot at – by doing more to provide affordable homes to younger people they could lock-in the next generation of solid Tory votes. The fact remains, those you own their property are more likely to vote Conservative. Simply because there is currently no real opposition should not mean the Tory party free-wheeling up to the next general election.

There does need to be a radical change in government policy, and we do mean radical.

1. A tax system that actively discourages residential property investment for the purpose of renting, whether carried out by individuals or companies. It should become financial suicide to own more than one home, (this includes second homes).

2. Homes that are purchased and not lived in should be similarly taxed. This is a particular problem in London but is growing elsewhere in the country. Overseas buyers who buy a property to rent out or just to use as a safe deposit box are not investing in this country. If they were to move here and live here full-time, they would be investing their personal futures in the UK – and that would be very welcome.

We have to stop looking at residential property as an investment it is bad for our economy. The money would be better used investing in companies and even the stock market. Money should be put to work not tied up in housing.

Also concentrating house ownership into fewer hands creates a greater economic imbalance in society, and that has a long-term detrimental effect. More people need to own their homes and think like homeowners. These same people will spend money renovating and furnishing their homes putting money back into the economy. This has to be a good thing.

We just have to get on with being bold and brave; sadly there seems to be a lack of political will to do the unthinkable. Fine words on the steps of number 10 need to be put into radical action. This must be the radical “right-to-buy” of our age.

The “right-to-own”?

It has political masterstroke written all over it.

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Brexit Lessons

It looks like we are going for a hard Brexit, was there likely to be any other kind?

Regardless of how you voted, knowing how we are going to leave is good news for all of us.

However, we also have to recognise that the warnings from the failed “project fear” as now starting to appear. A falling pound and higher inflation and increased uncertainty in the jobs market – all when we have only started the real recovery from the recession.

There are also dire warnings that GDP will be lower in 10 years time than if we had stayed in the EU.

Brassed off
With all the economic news and forecasting it is easy to forget the real reasons people voted for Brexit. Immigration got the blame because it was an easy target for the right & alt-right and a convenient way to blame others and stoke some hate. People did vote due to immigration, but immigration was caused by a steady recovery in the UK economy, unlike some other European countries – basically caused by good news.

The main reason people voted Brexit was that they were tired of bearing the brunt. Tired of years of recession with less job security, lower pay and few pay increases, where the minimum wage is the maximum wage and for the unlucky – redundancies. It was a cynical lie to state we are in this together. Some have recovered fully from the recession because it hardly touched them, but the majority have suffered. The only factor that prevented things from being worse was ultra-low interest rates for those with any form of debt. Short and long-term borrowing mitigated the drop in living standards. But, this is clearly not sustainable, and people are rightly still brassed off.

But, they are not brassed off by a so-called loss of sovereignty or fretting over the European Court of Justice – that is the burden that must be borne by Old Etonians who have the time and privilege to worry about such things.

For people who have to work, they worry about things such as short-term contracts, zero hours contracts, agency work contracts – the increasing commoditization of work – and them, that neatly coupled with ever-rising housing and living costs – a perfect storm of instability and unhappiness.

Time to deliver
Those that benefitted from and stoked Brexit now have to deliver in the real world. They have to rethink (abandon) their attachment to a flexible and competitive workforce – as these are coded words for exploitation. People want their just rewards for working – all they are asking for is to be able to live properly on what they earn.

The politicians must deliver for ordinary people – Brexiteers promised the Earth, now they must deliver it.

Oh, and slinking off to be a media pundit does not count, that is abandoning the field when the real work is just starting.

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Time to protect the protectors

Two Microsoft employees are suing the company claiming Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) caused by having to view and moderate (remove) extreme content.

The two employees, (Henry Soto and Greg Blauert) worked in the blandly titled “online safety team” at Microsoft. This vanilla team title hides the appalling nature of the work they had to undertake, on a daily basis. As part of their jobs, the two plaintiffs had to view and remove content such as extreme sexual violence, (against adults and children), bestiality, torture and murder.

The plaintiffs allege that Microsoft failed to provide sufficient psychological support, with insufficient counselling and a failure to rotate the employees out to less traumatising work. One of the employees was “involuntarily transferred” to the unit in 2008.

The injuries suffered are recognisable as PTSD – insomnia, panic attacks, visual hallucinations, disassociation and depression. They are also said to fear for the safety of their children as a result of viewing this material.

This case poses far-reaching questions for Microsoft and other tech companies who have to remove similar content. There are also allegations of poor and dangerous working conditions at other well-known companies, such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. These are all companies with sufficient resources to have in place proper controls and effective support programs.

The work carried out by these teams is incredibly important and also involves liaising with law enforcement helping to track and convict the perpetrators, and ultimately protecting others from a similar and horrible fate.

The lack of support for these workers also highlights the deep-seated cultural problems at these companies where the myth of the god-like, (white, middle-class, male) “brogrammer” holds sway. Resources, money and support are all directed at the “gods”. As important as these programmers and developers are they could not be paid/overpaid and cosseted without the everyday work of tech support, customer service and online safety teams – these are the people who run the Internet and ensure everything stays on the rails 24/7. They do the difficult day-to-day work, the gritty and grim end of the Internet – without the recognition and (more importantly) the support they deserve.

From the other end of the problem, the law and law enforcement need to step-up to meet the online threat. Law enforcement needs much greater resources to investigate and coordinate across borders and continents; prosecutors need more resources to pursue cases, regardless of location.

This is a growing problem and needs to be fought.

In the meantime, those at the grim end of this work deserve much more.

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The Gig Economy Must Go

As the government announces economic measures to help “just managing families”, we have to ask – what took the government so long?

We also have to ask how far will the government go in passing measures to help ordinary families. The whole notion of the “working poor” is obscene. If you work full-time, you should be able to afford to live, and by live, we mean what many others take for granted.

– Own your home
– Able to buy good food and pay your bills every month
– Have money left at the end of the month to save
– Have a pension
– Ability to own a car or afford public transport
– A decent summer holiday
– To have assets to pass on to your children

Some may read this list and be surprised that some do not already have this ability, but many do not, and can only dream of this lifestyle.

Gig To Go
The government must take steps to end the so-called “gig economy”. The increasing casualisation of work only serves to help employers and exploit employees. Companies such as Uber and Deliveroo shamelessly claim some special alchemy to expand and generate their profits. However, their business model relies on avoiding national insurance contributions, sick pay, holiday pay and basic employment rights. Their workers are falsely labelled “self-employed”, even though they fail every test of self-employment, and can only ever be employees. The gig economy is also a neat and devious way to undercut competitors and expand quickly, without effective controls.

Furthermore, the gig economy is growing and heading up the employment food chain from delivery people and drivers to those working in education and other professions. If the government fails to act decisively, this problem will grow, and income from national insurance contributions will continue to fall. Relying upon court cases is no longer enough; the government must act, and not allow itself to be fooled by these companies who promote the falsehood of a “flexible workforce”.

After all, if voters do not have a future or assets they do not vote Conservative – they are however easy pickings for more extreme parties and causes. Simply there is too much to lose for the government to continue to sit on its hands.

Just managing families are not looking for a free ride, far from it, they just want to be paid enough to live on.

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Cut & Paste Convictions

So as we wake up to another day the nightmare (for most) has become our new reality – there will be President Trump.

Not only that, but President Trump will have far more power than any US President in recent memory.

The President of the United States of America, the leader of the free world, will be a man who makes disparaging remarks about the disabled and women, (and in the case of women acts out his contempt). He is also a man who openly and gleefully discriminates against people based on their race and religion.

Well, America is now getting paid back for ignoring those who have borne the brunt of the global recession, those that have seen their incomes and living standards eroded over decades, those that have seen their jobs moved abroad.

There has been much dismay and hand wringing by corporate America, particularly the tech community. Some in the tech community are now busy papering over the cracks by quoting Dr King.
Enough with the banal quotes, when Dr Martin Luther King Jr stated, “move forward” – he meant it. He meant action, not words; he meant change, not, hey-ho it might work out ok in the end.

Enough with the cut & paste convictions.

If corporate America, led by the tech industry had paid their taxes instead of hiding their income in sunny places, the federal government would not have been starved of funds. Money could have gone into road building, bridge building and other infrastructure projects and schools. The American state would have had more to invest in improving states and regions in dire need of reinvestment and renewal.

There can be no large US corporation that does not owe its founding and initial growth to the 350 million strong home market. However, these companies appear to have no problem denying the debt they owe to their fellow citizens. They seem to believe the cult and lie of individualism – that they grew solely due to their hard work and that they owe little or nothing back.

I wonder what will happen if the actions of President Trump cause widespread civil unrest and protests. Do you think the protesters will march down the streets of America, but pause to buy the latest iPhone before carrying on their protest? Or will they stride straight by the Apple store?

So enough of the lofty (but empty) quotes, stop riding on the stolen coattails of those who gave and sacrificed much more than any of us.

Negotiate a lower rate of corporate tax – 15% has been proposed by the Trump administration. Agree to the 15% and bring your entire profits home so that America can be renewed again.

Ok, so President Trump will reap all the political benefits from it – but again that is your fault for not doing it sooner. Where would we be now if corporate America had done this 4 or 8 years ago?

Probably with the first Madam President.

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So How Is Brexit Going For You?

Now that the long and painful process of unwinding 40 years of economic co-operation and deeply integrated trade has begun – how is it going for you?

Plummeting Pound
We ask as prices for food products increase due to the plummeting value of sterling against all the other major currencies. Sterling has at the time of writing dropped 16% against the Euro, with no immediate recovery on the horizon.

We also ask against a backdrop of the British Parliament being denied a vote on the terms of Brexit – this seems deeply ironic given Brexit was dressed up as giving more power back to Parliament.

According to experts supermarket price inflation could reach 5% this year. (Those are probably the same experts derided by the foam-mouthed Brexit backers before the vote.) Price increases for some products are forecast to increase even more, with prices rises for meat of up to 25%.

Supermarket Prices
So are the Brexit voting public ready for supermarkets to raise their prices and pass on the increased costs from suppliers? Also, some supermarkets may actually stop stocking some products altogether as they are unable to agree the level of price increases with suppliers.

There are some positive (if unintended consequences of these price increases) – the “sugar tax” will not be needed, as price increases will choke demand high sugar products.

Doom Mongers
If you criticise Brexit people who saw fit to play cricket the day after the vote, rather than deal with the mess they had caused will dismiss you as a doom-monger. It may be significant to note that some politicians view Brexit as their main chance to gain power and promotion. To them politics is a game, and if you lose your job post-Brexit that is due to “economics”.

In This Together
The financial and political elite survived the recent recession largely intact; some even came out ahead. You, the ordinary voter may well pay with a fall in your living standards due to higher food prices, a lower pension as shares and investments tank and possibly less work. But remember “we are in this together” – its just there will be precious upside for you. Also, when you are told we are “leaving the EU, but not Europe”, tell that to Europe. Europe is baffled by these linguistic semantics.

Here Comes Divorce
So a costly political, economic, social and security divorce is coming – could someone please show me someone who felt better off after divorce? True, we may feel as though we have recovered after say 10 or more years, but at what cost to you and your family in those years?

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Drive Like Death

Recent media reports have highlighted the extent of use of mobile phones while driving – as if we needed news items to tell us this. If you are driving (and actually driving) you can easily spot the vehicles in front whose drivers are busy doing something else. The tell-tale signs of a vehicle crossing out of its lane, not moving forward promptly in traffic queues, mounting the pavement, hitting other vehicles, cyclists or pedestrians etc. Basically risking death or serious injury to others.

When this happens and on the increasingly rare occasions someone is caught doing it re-handed the usual punishment (if any) is points or a fine. However, in most cases the driver is punished after they have already inflicted a serious injury or caused a death by their actions.

Now we have all done it at some point, glanced at our phone when we should not, even hands-free calls are distracting enough to cause an accident. Basically driving a modern vehicle on our congested roads is a job that requires our full attention, all of the time.

You’re The Product
Enter into this mix; tech companies who want more and more of our attention and data, because both are pure money to them. Apple has built software for cars to entertain and inform us, as has Google, Facebook and others. They all pay lip service to driving safety, but that is all. The simple fact is that if you are not driving with all your attention you are still driving – it is just that your mind is elsewhere.

There was a time when a cigarette, a drink or a snack distracted people, but now we must add incessant calls, texts, alerts and updates. Phones and the apps and services on them are purposefully designed to get our attention and to retain it for as long as possible – to monetise your waking hours and attention, repeatedly – this does not mix well with driving.

Pokémon Go Go
Reports of people playing Pokémon Go whilst driving tell you all you need to know. A recent study estimated tens of thousands driving and playing over a 10-day period of study. Even if the study is not statistically accurate this must mean a lot of weaving vehicles out there on the roads.

Not Addictive?
Also some argue these apps and services are not addictive – ask that to the politicians caught playing them at work, most recently the Prime Minister of Norway.

Class Action Go
So as we proceed down the road to further distractions there will come a time when enough people will be seriously injured or killed by others for the victims or their families to seek redress from the tech companies (and possibly vehicle manufacturers). This seems almost inevitable. Governments can run as many safety campaigns and tighten laws all they want, with little or no enforcement the chances of being caught are slim. In the end those that have suffered will go after the biggest pockets to seek compensation.

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