Tuesday, 5 December 2017

RBS: Online Banking Partly to Blame for 62 Closures

Royal Bank of Scotland's (RBS) decision to close 62 mostly rural branches in Scotland has been met with plenty of protests amongst both customers and activist groups. RBS says that online banking is partly to blame for the closures, but at least one citizen's group doesn't believe them. They are accusing RBS of closing the branches strictly out of greed.

It is always a touchy situation when a large company with an extensive list of brick-and-mortar locations decides to close some of their local outlets. In the RBS case though, the sting of closing 62 branches is much more painful due to the bank's promise – a promise they reiterated many times in years past – that they would not close a branch even if they were the last bank in town.

That promise is at the forefront of action being taken by the Unite union to try to force RBS to maintain the status quo. Unite is hoping Scotland's government will get behind their efforts as well. The Scottish government is a part owner in RBS.

Business Minister Paul Wheelhouse initially responded to the Unite request by reminding those concerned that authority over banking remains the domain of the UK government. There's not much the Scottish government can do other than work with customers and citizen groups to try to convince RBS to change its course of action.

Dwindling Customer Use

For their part, RBS has said that closing the local branches is the result of changes to how people are using bank services. Prior to the internet age, the local bank branch was the lifeblood of both retail and commercial banking transactions. That is no longer the case.

RBS maintains that the number of customers making use of branches in Scotland has dropped by nearly half over the last five years. In announcing the closures, the bank noted that branch use had fallen by 44% over last five years while mobile banking has increased 39% in just the last two years.

Should RBS go ahead with its plans, customers will not be left without banking solutions. The bank says that customers would still have access to a community banker or mobile branch. RBS customers will be able to continue accessing bank services online as well.

So the question is this: are the closures really all about money as Unite contends, or is RBS justified in trying to cut its operating expenses by eliminating branches that are now seeing half as much traffic as they were seeing back in 2012? Unfortunately, there is no simple answer.

The internet age is a wonderful age in which to live. However, the expansion of online access is not without its drawbacks. It is not reasonable for us to expect an organisation to make themselves as efficient as possible through online means while, at the same time, continuing to do things in older, less efficient ways to satisfy those unwilling to embrace the new. We cannot move forward without leaving something behind.

Friday, 24 November 2017

Data Breach and Cover-Up Further Eroding Uber Image

Ride-hailing pioneer Uber has recently suffered a serious a blow to its reputation after officials in London failed to renew the company's operating licence following a discovery that illegal software was being used to circumvent official policy that bars government workers from using the service. In short, Uber has been accused by London of cheating the system. Their reputation will not fare any better on recent news that tens of millions of customers and drivers have been hacked – and the company has known about it for more than a year.

The BBC and other news outlets report that some 57 million Uber customers and drivers are victims of a data breach that occurred back in 2016. Not only did the company know about the breach at the time, but they also failed to report the fact to regulators as is required by law. Making matters worse is the fact that Uber paid the hackers $100,000 (£75,000) to delete the data they stole.

Both law and common sense would dictate that Uber report the breach when first discovered. They probably also should not have paid the ransom without making at least some attempt to fight the hackers. Why they paid and chose not to tell regulators is anyone's guess.

A Series of Missteps

This latest episode with Uber is just another in a long list of mishaps over the last three or four years. Former chief executive Travis Kalanick deserves much of the blame, as his management style and Lone Ranger mentality have upset customers, employees and investors alike.

Kalanick was at the helm when the data breach occurred. The BBC speculates that he may have prevented chief security officer Joe Sullivan or anyone else from reporting it because the company, at that time, was trying to secure a new round of funding. For his part, Sullivan resigned when news of the data breach broke.

Bigger Issues in Play

The BBC's Dave Lee says the biggest part of the problem is not the data breach itself, but the cover-up allegedly orchestrated by Kalanick. He says that most customers and drivers would eventually have forgiven Uber if they had been up front and forthright about what happened. Now that we know they refused to do so, forgiveness and future trust may be harder to come by.

All the Uber-specific implications aside, there are some bigger issues in play here. Most important is how the hackers managed to steal the information. They did it by hacking into Github, an online portal where software developers publish and share their work. Once inside, the hackers were able to find Uber's login credentials to Amazon Web Services. This is the cloud computing service Uber uses to host its software – and data.

Github and Amazon Web Services are equally culpable here. If either one knew about the hack when it occurred, neither reported it. Moreover, Amazon Web Services accounts for a significant portion of cloud software solutions used across the globe. They have some answering to do as well.

Wednesday, 15 November 2017

Johannesburg Cable Heist: Money or Something Else?

Officials in Johannesburg, South Africa have been left scratching their heads, following a brazen cable heist that resulted in the loss of 2 million rand (£110,000) worth of power cables during a burglary some are calling an inside job. The theft occurred at a brand-new data centre in Braamfontein.

News sources say the data centre is a combination data and recovery centre designed to increase the server space and infrastructure necessary for the city to end its reliance on outside service providers. The city essentially wants to host its own data on city-owned servers powered by city infrastructure.

Those plans took a step back after burglars broke into the data centre by entering through an emergency exit on the ground floor. However, there were no signs of forced entry. Once inside the building, the thieves broke into a room where contractors had been storing their tools. They used some of those tools to cut the cables that they eventually stole.

Apparently, the cables were attached to new generators that contractors were testing. There was no loss of power, indicating that the generators were turned off prior to the theft. There were no reports detailing whether the generators were damaged or not. Investigators are now left to speculate as to the motive behind the theft.

Several Possibilities

The first assumption is that the thieves stole the cables for money. After all, they are worth more than £100,000. But how would the thieves off-load the stolen cables without being discovered? This is a question that investigators are still trying to answer. However, there is another possible motive...

In an official statement released after the burglary was discovered, Mayor Herman Mashaba indicated that the heist was an inside job given how little damage was done. He maintained that whoever stole the cables knew exactly what they were looking for and where to find them. He believes the theft may have had nothing to do with money.

Mayor Mashaba has suggested that perhaps the heist occurred in order to dissuade the city of Johannesburg from continuing to build. If it was not to dissuade them, then at least to slow down the progress. If the mayor is right, this would indicate an action taken by one of the companies providing data centre services to the city. They do not want the city to succeed because that would mean a loss of contracts for them.

An Impressive Theft

Right now, there is no clear indication as to the motive behind the theft. Whether it was for money or competitive purposes, one thing is certain: the theft was a rather impressive event in terms of what it took to get in, find the tools, cut the cables and run.

The Mayor has made it clear that the theft will not deter his city's efforts to finish the data and operational centre. It is probably a safe bet that the city will beef up security until the centre is up and running, perhaps even beyond that.


Wednesday, 1 November 2017

WhatsApp and Facebook: Non-Compliance with EU?

Are WhatsApp and Facebook guilty of non-compliance with EU law? That is what a special task force wants to know, according to a 26 October (2017) story published by the BBC. That story says that a data protection task force has been established to consider practices related to data sharing between WhatsApp and Facebook.

Facebook purchased the WhatsApp messaging app in 2014 in order to better compete against Microsoft and other rivals. At the time of purchase, company officials pledged to keep the two platforms completely independent from one another. That changed in 2016 when officials at WhatsApp announced plans in August to begin sharing user information with Facebook.

Under EU law, any such information sharing can only be conducted with the explicit consent of users. Then UK Information Commissioner Elizabeth Denham complained that WhatsApp's plan for obtaining user consent was insufficient to comply with the law. Still, WhatsApp and Facebook went ahead with their plans to share friend suggestions and advertising information on the two platforms.

Deficient User Consent

According to the BBC report, the Information Commissioner's new task force has invited officials from both WhatsApp and Facebook to meet with them. There is no word yet about whether they will or not. However, do not rely on the Information Commissioner going easy on Facebook and its subsidiary. People in positions of power are already unhappy and that will not change unless WhatsApp and Facebook change what they are doing.

The BBC report cited a letter the Working Party to WhatsApp officials. That letter apparently pointed out a number of deficiencies with WhatsApp's current user consent practices, including the following:

  • An unclear pop-up notice that does not fully explain that user information will be shared with Facebook;
  • A misleading implication that WhatsApp's privacy policy has been updated to ‘reflect new features’;
  • Requiring users to uncheck a pre-checked box that otherwise gives consent; and
  • A lack of easier means to allow users to opt out of data sharing.

Greater Scrutiny of Digital Companies

The complaints against WhatsApp and Facebook come at a time when the EU is subjecting digital companies to greater scrutiny over privacy concerns. As to whether WhatsApp and Facebook will face any real penalties for their alleged lack of compliance remains to be seen. But the fact that a task force has been established shows that the government believes it has a fairly compelling case.

If the case goes against WhatsApp and Facebook, it could set the stage for other digital companies revamping their privacy policies. That is not necessarily a bad thing. We already know that people are rather careless about protecting their own data online, so it seems to make sense to implement privacy policies that protect users as much as possible, thereby forcing them to make a conscious decision to be less careless.

In the meantime, WhatsApp users should be aware of what the company is doing with their data. They are probably sharing it with Facebook.

Tuesday, 24 October 2017

London Embracing Square Mile Broadband Innovation

London's “Square Mile” city centre is a hotbed of economic activity and cultural development. It is not all that great when it comes to superfast broadband. London ranks 26th out of 33 European capitals for broadband speed, according to a recent report published by City A.M. But city officials intend to change that.

City A.M. reports that the City of London Corporation is on the cusp of launching a brand-new wi-fi network capable of achieving speeds as high as 180 Mbps within the Square Mile. If the plan comes to fruition, it will make London's city centre one of the fastest places in Europe for wi-fi internet access.

In addition, the government will be investing millions of pounds in the Square Mile over the next few years to upgrade fibre optic networks capable of delivering internet at 1 GB per second. City leaders have their eyes firmly focused on 5G wireless as well, with the intent of ensuring that mobile data services are the fastest in the world.

By February, City of London Corporation chair Catherine McGuinness says some 7,500 residents in 12 City Corporation housing estates will enjoy upgraded fibre optic. London eventually expects to expand the faster broadband throughout the City's seven boroughs.

Broadband the Future of Communications

So why exactly is the City of London pouring so much money into broadband and mobile communications? In a phrase, it is the future of communications. The UK has long been a technology leader in broadband and data delivery services and city officials want London to be at the forefront in both the short and long terms. City leaders believe it is worth the money to develop broadband and mobile services in the Square Mile.

You could make the case that part of the recent push by the City of London Corporation is a direct result of 2016's Brexit vote in as much as experts are warning of a business exit from the capital once the UK pulls out of the EU. Whether that exit actually occurs is of no consequence in this regard. Simply the fear of an exit is enough to spur city leaders to do whatever they can to encourage more businesses to stay in the city. If that means upgraded fibre optic broadband networks and faster wi-fi and mobile services, so be it.

Faster broadband and mobile services in the Square Mile area will certainly benefit local residents and businesses and it will benefit the rest of the UK as well. Over time, what is implemented in the City of London will gradually spread across the entire UK. The only question is whether it will happen fast enough to make us the legitimate leader in Europe.

Irrespective of if it does or not, London's city leaders believe it is imperative to keep the Square Mile at the cutting-edge of communications. They are backing up those beliefs with money; now we will see what that money buys. Hopefully it buys remarkably faster data services very soon.

Tuesday, 17 October 2017

Court Clears Way for New Apple Data Centre in Ireland

The Commercial Court with jurisdiction over County Galway in western Ireland recently dismissed two cases, clearing the way for Apple to take the next steps in developing a group of data centres planned for the county. Apple will spend upwards of €850 million (£762 million) to build the 8-facility campus.

New reports say that two law suits were brought against the project after the local Board gave its permission back in August. Commercial Court justice Paul McDermott rejected the lawsuits on different grounds. Apple may now proceed, though there is still no guarantee that the data centres will be built. Other hurdles will have to be cleared.

Local Objections

The first lawsuit to challenge Apple's plan was brought by a local couple whose home is located near the proposed site. They claimed that Apple failed to carry out a proper environmental impact assessment, making the original Board decision invalid. Justice McDermott disagreed.

The second case was brought by another local resident who believed that proper planning procedures were not being followed. The plaintiff claimed to not be opposed to Apple's plans per se, he was just convinced that there were some planning procedure issues. Apple maintained that the plaintiff had made no submissions to the Galway County Council in opposition to the project, nor had he appealed to the local Board. The Commercial Court sided with Apple.

Big Plans by Apple

Since the project was first proposed, Apple has had big plans for Galway. They have maintained all along that building the new data centres will add hundreds of jobs to the local area while also helping to meet the growing demand for data processing and storage in Ireland.

Apple has not detailed exactly what they plan to do with the data centre, but it is not beyond the realms of possibility to assume it could be a very important data processing hub for the British Isles, if not most of Western Europe. Some news reports have speculated that Apple wants to use the new facilities to power everything from the iTunes Store to iMessage throughout Europe.

Irish Minister for community development Seán Kyne greeted the Commercial Court ruling with delight, calling it "very positive news for Galway and the West of Ireland." He and some 4,000 local members of an Apple Facebook page are encouraged by the ruling, especially given that the project has been delayed numerous times over the past two years.

It is understandable that there are objections whenever a data centre of this size is proposed. However, the courts have to be very careful about ruling based on public opinion. The digital world is expanding exponentially with every passing quarter and we are going to need a lot more data centres in the very near future to keep up with demand. Unless the world is ready to go back to the pre-digital era, both consumers and courts have to be willing to allow data centres to be built.

Wednesday, 4 October 2017

New Microsoft Data Centre Powered by Natural Gas

No matter what you think of Microsoft software and licencing, it is hard to argue against the fact that the American company is among a small handful of technology leaders paving the way to a greener future. The latest iteration of Microsoft's efforts in the green arena come by way of a brand-new data centre – they are calling it a 'lab' instead – powered entirely by natural gas.

Built in Seattle in the United States, Microsoft's Advanced Energy Lab is a new kind of data centre designed around Microsoft's decades-old 'Tent City' concept. What makes the lab so unique is the fact that it was built from the ground up with the goal of being completely separate from grid infrastructure. Microsoft officials say this is a distinct difference in as much as other efforts to use renewable energy to power data centres have been pursued in parallel with grid energy. Microsoft wanted to be the first to come up with a design that required absolutely no power from the grid.

Natural Gas and Fuel Cells

The Advanced Energy Lab powers its servers with energy derived from natural gas. Servers are hooked directly to a natural gas connection that utilises highly efficient fuel cells for power. The fuel cells convert energy from the gas into electricity for both server power and cooling. The benefits to this design are numerous:

  • Keeping power separate from the grid allows the data centre to continue operating even if the surrounding grid goes down due to natural disaster or infrastructure failure
  • The system is more efficient because it reduces the waste and loss of traditional grid distribution, transmission and conversion
  • The design is a comparatively simple one as well, reducing the likelihood of failure by reducing the number of 'moving parts' in the system
  • Data centres based on this design will cost less to build, operate and maintain across-the-board
Microsoft began working on the lab in earnest after developing a partnership with the National Fuel Cell Research Centre in 2013. Their first promising breakthrough came in 2014 when a pilot project proved that fuel cells do not necessarily require clean natural gas to work. The pilot proved that biogas, a renewable fuel, would work just as effectively.

According to Microsoft, the Advanced Energy Lab encapsulates everything the company has learned thus far about natural gas and fuel cells working in tandem to generate electricity. In the coming months and years, they will be refining the technology with the goal of eventually putting it into service.

Microsoft eventually hopes to put together an energy-independent, green and efficient data centre, capable of meeting our ever-expanding data needs without having any negative impact on the environment. It would appear as though the Advanced Energy Lab is a rather large step in that direction. Where they go from here is anyone's guess, but you can bet whatever Microsoft does will probably break new ground. If nothing else, it will be fascinating to watch…