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.

Magna Carta: The foundation of modern democracy

Some places you visit give you a palpable feeling of the event or events they mark or commemorate. You can literally breathe in and feel what it was like at the time it happened.

That certainly was my experience on a visit to Runnymede on October 31, from the moment we drove into the car park past The National Trust sign stating that we had arrived at “The birthplace of modern democracy.”

This place, in between Windsor and Staines in southern England, is best known for the role it played as the site by the banks of the River Thames where, on June 15, 1215, it is widely believed that King John affixed his seal to a document known as the Magna Carta, imposed upon him by a group of his subjects, the feudal barons, in an attempt to limit his powers by law and protect their rights.

Our visit to Runnymede was to enable our friends, Shel (my podcasting partner) and Michele Holtz, to see this place on their visit to the UK this past week. I’ve been here before, but the last time was well over 20 years ago.

And so we strolled across the meadow on a beautifully sunny and unseasonably mild October morning to be at the place that marks a milestone in history that has had a direct influence on the fortunes of many countries over the centuries.

Without doubt, this place is one of major significance yet has none of the glitz or shallow commercialism that afflict so many places of historic interest.

The site where King John  and the feudal barons gathered to consummate Magna Carta is tucked away among trees, with understated majesty in its location and its temple-like construction.

The site where King John affixed his seal to Magna Carta

I hadn’t realized, until this visit, that the structure marking the physical place of Magna Carta was built and is maintained by the American Bar Association.

Yet it’s not hard to see why there is such a strong connection as the principles of Magna Carta are foundational to the American constitution and the shared belief between the UK and USA in the individual freedoms and rights of its citizens under the rule of law.

"Symbol of freedom under law"Within the temple-like structure sits the symbol of Magna Carta, a rounded tall stone obelisk with the simple words “To commemorate Magna Carta, symbol of freedom under law.”

This is about symbolism, which makes it easy for me to visualize the events that took place on this site in 1215.

I can imagine King John sitting here with those who spoke for the feudal barons, surrounded probably by entourages, soldiers and horses and other men.

The royal barge would likely have been moored at the riverbank.

What kind of gathering was it, I wonder. Given that John was forced to accede to the demands of the barons and so agree to the Magna Carta – the alternative being a bloody civil war – it was likely not a happy, smiling social gathering.

With the document now bearing the seal of King John it was a done deal, as it were. Yet the sealing in 1215 proved to be a failure in terms of preventing a bloody war as King John subsequently refused to accept and abide by the Magna Carta, the document he had sealed himself.

That led to a civil war known as The First Barons’ War from 1215 to 1217.

But, what took place at Runnymede on that June day in 1215 was an important part of the subsequent protracted historical process that eventually led to the rule of constitutional law in England and beyond.

You can read more in the Wikipedia entry, which has substantial links to other reference material on Wikipedia and elsewhere.

Another significant aspect of Runnymede, that we also visited, is a memorial to an event that occurred in the 20th century, almost 750 years after Magna Carta.

That event was the assassination of US President John F. Kennedy in November 1963, marked by a memorial and the acre of land in which it was placed, given to the United States: that acre of land is American soil.

Kenney memorial stone at Runnymede

These two sites of special interest, marking significant events centuries apart, are a good reminder of the connected values we hold dear in a turbulent world, and what they symbolize to each of us.

  • If you’ve done the maths on the dates I’ve mentioned, you’ll note that next year, 2015, is the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta. I expect we’ll see more mentions of Magna Carta leading up to next June, which I hope will lead to greater discussion about and understanding of its principles.

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.)

The Apple Watch is very much in the fashion game

Apple Watch fashion

Until last week, “iWatch” was the name widely and wildly speculated about for months if not years for what Apple’s expected entry product into the wearables market would be called.

As Apple’s announcement on September 9 made clear, “iWatch” was just so much fancy by all and sundry as the firm broke with its use of the letter ‘i’ starting a brand name and announced the launch of Apple Watch.

Such name-guessing reminds me of what happened in the lead-up to the launch of the iPad in 2010.

Whether wearable tech interests you or not, I’m sure you can’t have missed seeing, reading or hearing about the Apple Watch this past week. It was the final (but, arguably, the most anticipated) of Apple’s three announcements on September 9 – the new iPhone 6, the Apple Pay contactless mobile payment system, and Apple Watch. Note that Apple Pay has no ‘i’ either.

While iPad created a new market – global sales of tablet computers including iPad grew from scratch in 2010 to over 195 million units in 2013 according to Gartner, just three years after iPad launched – the same isn’t really true with Apple Watch as there are quite a few smartwatches already on the market, with Samsung’s Galaxy Gear probably the name that you’re most familiar with.

While much of the reporting, commentary and opinion since September 9 has been on the technology of Apple Watch – especially its pros and cons versus what else is on the market – I’ve seen increasing views on the design and build quality of it.

And that’s what catches my attention most as when I first saw the Apple Watch on my computer screen during the live Apple event on September 9, my first reaction was seeing it as a desirable fashion brand more than simply the latest wearable tech.

I mean, just look at this picture of an 18-carat gold version (yes, there’s an 18-carat gold Apple Watch in two types of gold).

Apple Watch 18-carat Gold Edition

(Check the picture at the top of this page, too – it’s the watch the model is wearing, so see it in that context.)

It’s beautifully designed and looks the epitome of feminine elegance, class and minimalist style. It wouldn’t look out of place in the display cabinets of a Bond Street jeweller or among the luxury accessories you’d find in Harrods or Saks Fifth Avenue.

It would also look at home gracing the wrists of women on the cover of the likes of Vogue magazine.

If 18-carat gold isn’t your style, there are plenty of other choices: this masculine-looking stainless steel model with a Milanese Loop metal mesh bracelet, for example.

Apple Watch with Melanese Loop mesh strap

Smart-looking, to be sure. None of that clunky tech look that is the hallmark look of most other smartwatches (although there is a version like that, too).

Seeing the full array of Apple Watches reinforces the fashion aspect in my mind of what Apple is introducing when these devices go on sale in early 2015 at prices starting at $349 in the US (and perhaps $1,200 for the gold edition).

The Apple Watch portfolio embraces three collections (note that word) offering over 30 model variants in two different sizes together with different straps.

In Apple’s press release, there’s much talk of personalization, with CEO Tim Cook saying the Apple Watch is “the most personal product we’ve ever made.”

And Jony Ive, Apple’s senior vice president of design – and designer of the Apple Watch – offers this:

With Apple Watch, we’ve developed multiple technologies and an entirely new user interface specifically for a device that’s designed to be worn. It blurs the boundary between physical object and user interface. We’ve created an entire range of products that enable unparalleled personalization.

Such talk of personalization reflects a prescient post last year by Om Malik after the news broke that Apple had hired Angela Ahrendts, CEO of luxury British fashion house Burberry, to run Apple’s global retail operations, embracing the bricks-and-mortar Apples Stores together with online.

Annual revenue from Apple’s worldwide retail operations exceeded $20 billion in 2013.

In his post, Malik talks about wearable technology like smartwatches as “intimate computing,” two words that are most apt when looking at Apple’s offering nearly a year on from Malik’s post and thinking about the words of Tim Cook and Jony Ive.

Malik states:

This new intimate computing era means that Apple has to stop thinking like a computer company and more like a fashion accessory maker whose stock in trade is not just great design but aspirational experience. And it has to do that at price points that are not quite luxury, which is going to be the challenge. The fact that Cook brought in YSL’s Paul Deneve tells me that the company is already thinking about the intimate computing future.

I reckon Apple is thinking like a fashion company. Who should be paying most attention – Samsung and other traditional technology competitors? Or Swiss watch-makers and luxury brands?

Probably all of the above.

The Apple Watch could kick-start the wearables market, one that just looks like it’s waiting for a proverbial boot (as in re-boot) with products that combine the latest in high technology in a package that appeals strongly to emotional concepts like desire and status, and is, well, reassuringly expensive.

See also:

  • A Watch Guy’s Thoughts On The Apple Watch After Seeing It In The Metal (Tons Of Live Photos): “I’m not even sure we can call it a watch. Okay, it goes on the wrist, and it happens to tell the time, but that’s about where the similarities between Apple’s just announced watch and the hand-assembled, often painstakingly finished mechanical watches we write about, and obsess over, end…”
  • Advertisers, Meet Apple Watch: “Imagine you’re walking down the street and you’re served a location-based ad or coupon for Sephora on your shiny new iPhone 6. You enter the store, pick up a product and bring it over to the checkout counter. If you use Apple Watch (or your phone) to pay, then the loop is neatly closed…”
  • How Apple Is Invading Our Bodies, TIME magazine’s take: “The Silicon Valley giant has redrawn the line that separates our technology and ourselves. That may not be a good thing…”