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 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:

The long vision of SpecSavers versus the short-sightedness of Boots

If Satisfied...

I’ve always believed that it’s the little things that really matter when it comes to excellent customer service.

I’m talking about the types of thing that don’t require a huge effort by an employee of a company, or a conscious thought that an action is required because of customer engagement training or a policy about customer service. It’s more about the willingness and ability of the employee to know instinctively that what he or she does to address a customer need, request or concern will have an effect in some way on the relationship with that customer.

In sum, it’s all about an employee with confidence – in his or her abilities, knowledge of the company and its whole ethos – to make a positive difference in how the customer feels about that employee and the company he or she represents, and vice versa. It can have a positive impact that lasts for years.

I have a perfect example to share with you, two contrasting experiences of my own.

Boots

A week ago, I visited a Boots store, one of the large out-of-town stores, looking for a case for my sunglasses. I wanted a soft case not one of those hard shell-type cases. They seem to be very hard to find but I figured surely Boots must have such things. They do glasses, after all, although this particular store didn’t have an opticians department.

But sure enough, I found precisely what I was looking for in a pretty logical place – the section in the store with a big sign above it saying ‘Sunglasses.’ The items had no price tags I could see but I thought they’d tell me at the checkout how much they cost.

So imagine my surprise when I arrived at the checkout and the cashier said he couldn’t let me have a case unless I bought a pair of sunglasses. It turned out that the cases were promo items, giveaways with the sunglasses. I asked him if I could just buy a case. That wasn’t possible, he said, as there would be no price reference to the case when he scanned the barcode.

As I was buying a handful of other products on this visit, I asked the cashier if I could have the case anyway. I said it with a big smile, even if it was a bit cheeky. But he said no, he wasn’t allowed to do that.

I noticed he hesitated before he said that – and I’ll swear he really wanted to say yes.

But it was ‘No’ that I heard so I paid for the items I had and left the store. On my drive along the motorway, I mused on that experience, one that will remain with me when I think of Boots and the service offered by its employees. The store cashier was polite and friendly enough but unempowered and without confidence, it seemed clear to me. Maybe such behaviour might be a major improvement focus after Walgreens completes its £6 billion acquisition of Boots.

Maybe they’ll import some good old-fashioned American style of customer service! Mind you, that doesn’t look like perfection at Walgreens either.

SpecSavers

Wind forward to Friday and a visit to London with my wife. Walking along Cardinal Walk, Victoria, my wife spotted a SpecSavers store and said “I bet they have a case!” It wasn’t entirely a random suggestion as SpecSavers is where we both had eye tests and bought new glasses (including sunglasses) in July, although not at this specific store.

So we went in and I asked the young man who approached us if he had a soft case. And he did. He asked me if I was a SpecSavers’ customer; my reply, of course, was yes although not this particular store, to which his response was, “Here you are, with our compliments” referring to the case. And he included a soft lens cleaning cloth for good measure.

Now that’s what I call service! Especially that final gesture, adding the lens cloth. Nothing earth-moving in terms of galvanising resources, a cost implied or otherwise, or making a huge fuss. Just one empowered employee with lots of confidence, a natural ability to engage and a winning smile.

These are two different experiences in two different stores from these two different firms. Each firm suggests excellent customer service is what each offers in all its stores, as you’d expect them to do, even if the corporate structure of each firm is different: SpecSavers is more of a franchise model than Boots. So I’m not suggesting my experiences reflect what you might expect in every store at each company, all the time. This is people we’re talking about, after all.

What I am saying is that these were my experiences with Boots and SpecSavers last week and on Friday respectively, experiences that, believe me, will influence not only my own behaviour when it comes to visiting a pharmacy or an opticians in future, but also in what I may answer to anyone who asks me what I think of each firm.

Like I said earlier, it is the little things that really matter.

(Photo at top via Frank Gruber under Creative Commons License)

Fake LinkedIn profiles are not okay, Okay

Okay App

Would you imagine that a new company has profiles on the business social network LinkedIn that build up a solid picture of smart and influential staff members working for a legitimate business – yet the profiles are fakes?

That’s what Okay App has done according to Hans Kullin, who writes about his suspicions being proven after he received a couple of requests to connect:

[…] It didn’t take much investigation to find out that these LinkedIn profiles were completely fake, as were several others from the same app company. First of all, their resumés were very short and looked a lot like each other. Then there was the obvious fact that their profile pictures were stolen, unless one of them was the identical twin of a Miss Ecuador 2012 contestant. The photo of “Chloe Anderson” is in fact the Norwegian model Polina Barbasova.

linkedin-chloe-500x176

[…] Why would anyone do this on purpose, one might ask. I suspect the answer is to get in touch with online influencers who in turn would spread the word about the app in social media.

Wearing my devil’s advocate hat for a moment, it could just be overly-earnest employees, maybe simply sharing a copy-and-paste boilerplate CV text with each other and taking “the Facebook approach” to using a photo of a favourite celebrity or glamorous star instead of one that’s the real you.

Definitely not a good idea on a place like LinkedIn where the intertwining of what you say, how you present yourself and the networking, recommendation and verification effects are largely built on trust.

If they don’t know better, a good place to look is LinkedIn itself which has some handy tips on how to create an effective LinkedIn profile.

So, assuming Okay App is a legit business – the CEO’s LinkedIn profile looks real enough – I’d say they have a trust mountain to climb. How big a mountain depends on what they do to address accusations of fakery, especially if Hans’ story gains traction. If LinkedIn profiles are fakes, what else might not be real?

PR spam on an industrial scale

Spamalot

When done well, PR pitching can be almost an art form.

If your pitch meets the criteria of the recipient of your outreach, its likely your message will be well received and may even produce the action you are aiming for.

The opposite is also true when a pitch is as thoughtless in its creation as it is mindless in its execution. You know the kind of thing I mean, email pitches in particular.

What if such pitching were to be automated, where the targets of your pitch weren’t individually assessed to see if each were the “right” target for your message (and for your client or employer)?

Instead, what if you created a hit list of thousands of email addresses and hit them up with automated email pitches on the basis that if you hit a large enough quantity, a small but sufficient enough number will respond to make your effort worthwhile.

Sound familiar?

That’s what PR Hacker is doing in the US, according to a report in The Holmes Report quoting PR Hacker founder Ben Kaplan describing the business approach from his previous experiences in book promotion that he’s bringing to his PR firm:

[…] His model relies on A/B testing and 1% conversions from massive media blasts to generate lots [of] media coverage quickly for clients – without the status reports, weekly update calls and other administrative overhead of traditional agencies.

Here’s how that works. The PR Hacker team blasts pitches to a database of 7,000 tech media and expects a 1% conversion to land its client, at least, 70 hits. Kaplan also keeps databases on money/business media and relationship/romance media that each have upwards of 5,000 contacts – so a multi-vertical pitch, by his estimates, should yield close to 200 hits assuming the minimum 1% conversion. To keep the pitches from seeming too much like spam, he personalizes various fields within each pitch.

“We A/B test our pitches on the lower tier guys first,” he explains. “Then we go to the top-tier with what’s been tested…And a great story will trump all. So rather than focusing too much on personalizing, we focus on getting the story right.”

Looks to me like an approach to spam on an industrial scale. At least, a “by the numbers” game.

Is this what this element of public relations practice will become? A percentage return on a massive database-blast investment? It doesn’t look like it will fit well with professional standards of behaviour defined by the PR establishment, not in the UK at least.

Yet Kaplan’s approach is clearly outside such standards – perhaps the clue is in the name of his firm – and goodness knows some poor PR behaviour may benefit from a shake-up that Kaplan could well be responsible for.

In any case, get your email spam filters up-to-date.

[Picture at top by Coast to Coast Tickets who have lots of tickets for Monty Python Spamalot performances across the US this year. I thought the Spamalot metaphor works well for this post.]