The surveillance structure that underpins us all

GCHQ listeningHere’s another paragraph to add to the debate about privacy, surveillance, spying and the whole gamut of who does what, how and why with digital information that you think is yours and private but in reality is in the spies’ domain.

Last night, Channel 4 News broadcast a 10-minute report in its evening news show that revealed how Cable & Wireless, one of the UK’s largest communications firms, had a leading role in creating the surveillance system exposed by Edward Snowden in which the GCHQ plays a leading role.

I didn’t hear the words “alleged” or “allegedly” mentioned in the report.

The essence of Channel 4’s story is this:

[Cable & Wireless], which was bought by Vodafone in July 2012, was part of a programme called Mastering the Internet, under which British spies used private companies to help them gather and store swathes of internet traffic; a quarter of which passes through the UK. Top secret documents leaked by the whistleblower Edward Snowden and seen by Channel 4 News show that GCHQ developed what it called “partnerships” with private companies under codenames. Cable and Wireless was called Gerontic.

Watch the full story:

This is just another revelation in a litany of exposure of government surveillance – due largely to the actions of Edward Snowden – that suggests there is nothing any of us can really consider as private.

If what Channel 4’s report portrays is true, then fiction really is fact.

It’s not only governments, though – private companies are equally as bad, according to two reports in recent months.

Wired-Telegraph-data

Take a look at a sobering report in the November edition of Wired magazine in the UK that recounts the experiences and findings of reporter Madhumita Venkataramanan in her investigative piece entitled My identity for sale:

Earlier this year, I became curious about the personal-data economy. It has grown relentlessly into a multibillion-pound business of tracking, packaging and selling data picked up from our public records and our private lives. As I dug deeper into the world of trackers, it reinforced my anxieties about a profit-led system designed to log behaviour every time we interact with the connected world. I was aware that the data generated by apps and services I use daily – from geolocation and cookies to social-media tracking and credit-card transactions – was building a record of my past. Combine this with public information such as Land Registry, council tax and voter-registration data, daily location routes and social-media posts, and these benign data sets reveal a lot – such as whether you’re political, outgoing, ambitious, pessimistic, uptight or a risk taker. […]

And there’s more – check this report in the Telegraph on October 10 in which Sir Iain Lobban, Director of the GCHQ until the end of October 2014, says that big companies snoop on the public more than GCHQ does:

[…] In his first print interview, Sir Iain told the Daily Telegraph that the public should be more concerned with what private companies were during with their personal information.

“Look, who has the info on you? It’s the commercial companies, not us, who know everything – a massive sharing of data,” he said.

“The other day I bought a watch for my wife. Soon there were lots of pop-up watches advertising themselves on our computer, and she complained. ‘It’s that b***** Internet’ I tell her.”

Reality: anything you say or do online is up for grabs by the spies, whether from the government or from private companies. Reminds me of MAD magazine’s Spy vs Spy comic strip back in the day.

Spy vs. Spy

Yet this is no laughing matter.

(Photo at top by George Rex, used under Creative Commons license.)

The local newspaper is dead, long live the local newspaper

The decline in print and the rise in digitalThe closure of printed newspapers around the UK counts new casualties in the battle to stem the tide of declining circulations and the ever-diminishing number of titles in print with news this past week that Trinity Mirror is shutting down seven regional newspapers in southern England.

The news has particular interest to me as my local paper, The Wokingham Times, is one of those casualties.

Founded in 1903, the Times has gone through many evolutions especially during the past decade or so as it changed ownership a few times; and as alternative sources for local news emerged as the internet and the world wide web evolved, more online choices appeared and the ability for anyone and everyone to get online becomes almost ubiquitous and continues to be ever easier, cheaper and faster.

The closure is a picture you could paint in communities up and down the country.

Trinity Mirror, current owner of the title and its siblings in Berkshire (and Surrey), said in its announcement that it intends to develop and grow its digital business around the getreading.co.uk website which offers digital versions of its Berkshire titles – Reading Post, The Bracknell Times and The Wokingham Times – and also delivers content to mobile devices via an app.

It’s not hard to see why Trinity Mirror is making this move. As its statement says:

[…the getreading.co.uk website] has achieved unrivalled market leading penetration in the area – in the last year monthly unique users have grown by 68% (Jan-Oct 213 to Jan-Oct 2014) and the site continues to show phenomenal audience growth.

In its report, Press Gazette quotes Simon Edgley, managing director of Trinity Mirror Southern, from the company’s announcement:

This is a bold digital-only publishing transformation that will re-establish us as a growing media business that delivers the best quality journalism to our digital-savvy audience. We wholeheartedly believe that the future of our business here in Berkshire is online and this is an important and pioneering step that might, in time, be applicable to other existing markets or indeed new ones.

Bold indeed, with the inevitable human cost – 26 job losses in Berkshire (50 in total if you include the other closures, according to reports). The flip side of that is “the creation of around 10 new digital editorial roles and two digital commercial roles,” says Trinity Mirror in its announcement.

The type of hard commercial decisions made that will lead to the closure of seven print newspapers are confronting media companies across the UK and elsewhere – at all levels, nationally, regionally and locally – as trends continue to show the inexorable decline in print and the increasing growth in digital content that meets the preferences and needs of contemporary consumers who want to consume content wherever and whenever they want, with whatever device they wish, comment on and share that content with their networks, repurpose it, create additional insights from it, and more.

The move to digital is indeed inevitable as is the consequent human cost in lost jobs where current skills clearly aren’t what the media companies need as they evolve in the new digital-only environment to survive and grow.

Does it mean there is no place for print any more? Not necessarily – looking at it purely in commercial terms, if your market analysis, business plan and the numbers add up, you may have a workable proposition.

And The Guardian’s report on the Berkshire closures includes this:

The Reading Chronicle, which has been published since 1825, will become the town’s only print title. Editor Lesley Potter said it was a sad day for those losing their jobs and for the people of Reading.

“We have been fierce rivals over the years, but we have always had a healthy respect for one another. We at the Reading Chronicle have absolutely no intention of abandoning print.”

You have to feel a touch of sadness at developments like this even as they mark another milestone in the transition of news and information, how it’s produced and presented to readers, and what they do with it.

So print newspapers gradually vanish but they continue online in name and purpose, mirroring the look, feel and presentation of their analogue forbears.

It’s called progress.

How to get a result with Twitter when email would fail

Against the flow

It started with one tweet.

I bet you get requests like this from PR folk, too. To be frank, I rarely reply any longer as 1) a quick look at my website (the address of which is in my Twitter profile) will easily reveal an email address; and 2) the outcome in my experience from an email pitch that starts like this on Twitter is not usually a worthwhile one.

But there was something about Becky’s request that made me reply, even if a little differently to what she might have expected.

I liked Becky’s engaging, repartee response.

That got a response for Becky.

And a result.

I guarantee you that result would have been unlikely if this conversation had been conducted via email. And it was a conversation, conducted within a space of about an hour, not simply an exchange of email messages that may well have spread over some days.

My advice to PRs when you’re thinking of pitching on Twitter: think outside the box, like Becky.

Related post:

The Apple iOS debacle and PR consequences

iOS 8.0.1 downloading

Whether you’re an iPhone user or not, you can’t have missed the headlines in recent days reporting on the fiasco resulting from Apple’s botched operating system update 8.0.1 for iPhones and iPads, released on September 24.

For the first time in some years, I have an iPhone courtesy of Arena Media, mobile operator Three UK‘s media agency, who sent me an iPhone 6 for review (that review is coming soon) which arrived on the 24th – the day of the 8.0.1 software update.

And so I did: allowed the iPhone to install the update. And, as you do, I tweeted that.

In pretty short order, I started getting tweets from Twitter friends about the problems with the update.

Sure enough, the iPhone 6 had lost its ability to make or receive phone calls and text messages, the problem at the heart of the matter, one that seemed to  affect only the two newest iPhones, the 6 and 6 Plus.

So for the past 36 hours or so, along with thousands of other iPhone 6 users, I’ve had a smartphone with no ability to use it as a phone. Luckily, in my case, it isn’t my primary phone and it otherwise functioned just fine including connectivity via wifi. And so I was able to kick its tyres, as it were, during the Simply SMiLE conference in London yesterday, using many of its features.

And what about fixing the botched update? How hard was Apple on the case?

I imagine this was being treated with the utmost importance by Apple. I visualized their engineers working round the clock to get a fix done in the shortest time possible.  And I guess the shortest time possible was the 36 hours or so from 8.0.1 to the 8.0.2 fix that I saw appear in my iPhone 6 early this morning UK time.

ios802update

iOS 8.0.2 Learn More

And once the installation reached a successful completion, the iPhone 6 had its cellular capability restored and the fixes mentioned in the ‘Learn More’ text applied.

iOS 8.0.2 up to date

And all’s well that ends well, right? Everyone will breathe a sigh of relief. No doubt by this time next week, all this will be just a bad memory, a little one at that (although #BendGate is still ‘an issue’).

And what of Apple the company, one that is the maker of probably the most desirable tech gadgets on the mass market today? Has something gone a bit wrong there where we’ve seen a succession of missteps in recent months: the current issues with the iOS fiasco, for example, and celebrity nude pics in the iCloud a month or so ago?

I expect Apple will continue to feature high up in lists of the world’s best brands. I imagine the rosy glow of success will continue to embrace the company once more news and information emerge about Apple Watch and its launch next year.

So events such as I’ve mentioned may be just a blip on the PR radar to Apple, ones relatively easy to consider and address purely as issues to manage.

Yet I think such events have tarnished Apple’s reputation somewhat. The share price has fallen. The gloss has dimmed a bit on a company which has often in the past said that they make technology that just works.

Not this time, Mr Cook!

Apple share price

I believe there is a cumulative effect over time where things like this add up to a negative sum when it comes to trust and reputation. And, eventually, that will impact you, your products and services and your market position. Not to mention shareholder value.

Not a good place to be, Apple.

Time to create engaged voters

85% voter turnout

The referendum on independence that the voters of Scotland participated in on September 18 was a close result. But the nays had it in the end by a ten percent margin.

What struck me most about this referendum was the voter turnout – almost 85 percent of the 4.2 million Scots registered to vote actually did vote. I’ve seen it reported that this was the highest voter turnout in any election of any type in the United Kingdom since 1918, the year that women won the right to vote.

Clearly there are significant differences in a rare event that can radically change the very nature of a country compared to an election in which you vote your political representatives into a parliament every five years. But surely there are lessons to be learned (the favourite phrase of politicians!) in not only the outcome of this referendum but also the campaigning beforehand and how the passionate minority – politicians and citizens alike – influenced the views of many in the voting majority to actually get out and vote never mind vote in a particular way.

Of all the politicians I saw and heard in the run up to last Thursday’s voting, none had an impact on my thoughts as much as Gordon Brown, the former Prime Minister, in a passionate speech supporting the Union between England and Scotland that he gave the day before voting.

You can listen to it here, see what you think:

(Audio extracted from the BBC News video report available on YouTube.)

I was never impressed with Brown as Prime Minister. But what an orator! In this speech, there was no script in his hands, no prepared statement he read. Just the power of his words and how he spoke them.

Would such passion – believable passion at that, genuine not scripted – make much difference in what voters think and do as politicians make their cases to those voters? Some might say that’s what they already do. I don’t support that view at all, certainly not from watching and listening to almost any politician today.

I think politicians of every stripe should be examining what happened in Scotland last week and considering what they need to do to aim for such high voter turnout when the general election arrives in May 2015.

Do we really want to repeat the dismal showing that saw UK voter turnout of just 36 percent in the European elections earlier this year, and even worse elsewhere in Europe? Surely not. But you have to make it interesting enough for voters to believe they want to become engaged, want to have their say.

You have to persuade voters to believe.

That’s a great deal to do with communication, specifically:

  1. Having a compelling story.
  2. Understanding which media are the most effective means to connect with voters in every single instance of reaching out with your story.
  3. Being honest, open, authentic, credible.
  4. Telling your story really well, in such a way that it will stimulate an action – in this case, engaged voters having their say, too.

Is it possible that politics might get really interesting between now and May 2015?

Related post:

Scotland referendum results via WhatsApp and more

Yes / No

Tomorrow, the United Kingdom will not be the same no matter what happens in Scotland today as citizens there cast their votes in a referendum to decide whether Scotland will separate from the UK and become an independent country, or not.

The campaigning is done; now it’s up to the voters of Scotland to decide what they want for their country and the union with England that’s been in place since 1707.

Obviously media of all types – mainstream, social – and from all over the world are devoting huge time and resources to coverage of an event that has got the world’s attention especially in countries where the flames of separatism may be further fanned on the outcome in Scotland.

I’ll be following events as time permits during the day on TV and online. It’s once the polls close at 10pm tonight that interest will be most strong as the votes are counted with the first results to be declared expected sometime around 3am on Friday morning.

What appeals to me is the idea of key news as it breaks coming to me in a way that lets me focus just on that and gives me just the facts. I can choose whether to look for more detail, if I want, whether that’s online or via more traditional news channels.

So an idea from Channel 4 News in the UK is most interesting – broadcast breaking news on the results as it happens, directly to your smartphone via WhatsApp and Snapchat:

[…] We’re going to publish all of our best content, as well as live updates, via Snapchat and Whatsapp, from the moment the polls close on Thursday night right up to when the results are announced on Friday morning – ahead of publishing it anywhere else.

That last sentence is most interesting: “ahead of publishing it anywhere else.” Before TV?

My interest is WhatsApp; here’s how to set it up:

WhatsApp the message INDYREF to 07768555671 and add us to your contacts list to sign up for all of our best overnight news and analysis, pictures and video, delivered to you ahead of all the other social networks.
If you change your mind, WhatsApp STOP to the same number.

I’d added C4News to my WhatsApp and can’t wait to see how this plays out.

C4News

It’s great to see such innovation from mainstream broadcasters, especially communication methods that clearly show the broadcaster not only gets audience preferences by demographic according to social medium but also is able to execute an idea well.

Channel 4 is not alone in this. BBC News, for instance, announced this week that its content will be available on smartphone instant messaging platform LINE. Earlier this year, the BBC experimented with WhatsApp and WeChat in English and Hindi.

And Sky News launched its Stand Up Be Counted initiative, described as “a place for 16 – 25 year olds to safely upload and share the videos, pictures or blogs they make on the issues that matter most to them.” It’s been a very active place in relation to the Scottish referendum.

Innovation really is thriving.

(Via Journalism.co.uk; picture at top via The Guardian.)