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Archive for the ‘Technology’ Category

Apr 6,2011

The Kentucky Office of Homeland Security has produced an i-Phone App, which captures real-time suspicious activity reports submitted by the general public, private sector, and non-law enforcement first responders.

The intention is that the free mobile application will allows users to report suspicious activities and items.

And helpfully the Kentucky Office of Homeland Security defines “suspicious activities and items”:

““Suspicious activity” is human action logically indicating the possibility of an immediate or a near-future unsafe event.  A “suspicious item” is any article or “thing” that reasonably could become harmful to others, therefore meriting professional inspection and disposition.”

Apparently, the Eyes and Ears on Kentucky mobile application captures information about the incident, subject(s), and vehicle(s), and takes advantage of built in functionality from the iPhone such as global positioning and the camera.   

I wonder if or when we will get a British version linked to the Counter-Terrorist Hotline?

Mar 10,2011

The long-awaited debate on the report of the House of Lords Administration and Works Committee on “Use of Electronic Devices in the House”  finally took place today.  The report was introduced by the Lord Chairman of Committees, Lord Brabazon of Tara, who explained that the aim was to:

“clarify the rules regulating the use of electronic devices in the House.”

He pointed out the

“rules are not only outdated and incomplete; in places they are also inconsistent and contradictory.”

Admirable, though the intentions of the report may have been I have already commented that there would continue to be confusion, which I expressed again today:

Lord Harris of Haringey: I think that the whole House will be grateful to the Chairman of Committees for the way in which he has introduced this item and the work that has gone into it by the Administration and Works Committee. There are many elements in the report that I am sure the whole House will welcome, in particular the reiteration of the importance of devices being held in silent mode.

I wonder whether the report quite deals with its prime focus, which, as I understand it, was to reduce the degree of confusion that Members might have as to what is or is not permitted. Although the report refers to devices such as iPads, the words in the box do not. It simply says: “Hand-held electronic devices”. How big is the hand? Does that include holding an iPad or a Kindle? What is or is not a laptop? Is it something that opens and closes? Perhaps an iPad will be permitted under the words in the box. My understanding is that the latest version of the iPad can have a little add-on, which folds over the top of the iPad and switches it off. Is a handheld device something that opens and closes? Many small, handheld devices also open and close.

If it is not the fact of opening and closing that is the issue, it is presumably a question of size. Laptops come in a variety of sizes. The marketing phrase now is “netbooks”, some of which are extremely small. Is it that they should be no larger than a certain size? I am raising all these questions because, although this has been a helpful move to try to resolve these matters, it has not removed the scope for confusion.

Secondly, perhaps it would be helpful if further consideration could be given to the question of what people can do with these devices. Of course it is sensible that, rather than lugging around large volumes of paper, people should be able to access paperwork, parliamentary material and so on electronically, but I wonder whether it makes sense to forbid the use of search. Perhaps I should apologise to the House at the outset for the fact that I have on occasion used a handheld device in this Chamber and that I once—

Noble Lords: Oh!

Lord Harris of Haringey: I apologise unreservedly, as I apologise for what I am about to say. On one occasion during Oral Questions, in order to clarify whether I was correct in the point that I wished to make, I did a quick Google search. As a consequence, I was much more confident about putting to the Minister the point that I wanted to make. However, it seems to be entirely legitimate and sensible that people are able to do that. I note that our Clerks in your Lordships’ House have in front of them a laptop. On occasion, I have noticed that it is linked to Google, so obviously our Clerks, who are not Members of the House, have been known to google things during your Lordships’ proceedings.

I hope that we can look at these matters because, while I understand that we might not like the idea of people being able to relay comments externally prior to the Minister knowing what those comments are, the material resulting from searches about factual matters is available to all Members; it is just a question of whether it is permitted. In any event, how would this be enforced, unless there are inspections or we have some sort of fancy monitoring device that lets you know exactly what people are accessing in the Chamber, which I am sure could be supplied by the relevant people? I wonder if that would be useful.

Perhaps I may make one final plea to the noble Lord. When the Administration and Works Committee looks at these matters again, would it also consider the quality of mobile reception around the Palace? I am aware of a number of areas where the reception is very poor from one provider or another. I am sure that, if this provision is to be made, we want to make sure that it is available equally to all Members of the House wherever they happen to be sitting.”

Broad support for the changes came from all sides of the House, but support was not unanimous and two Conservative peers made their views clear:

Lord Higgins: My Lords, can my noble friend tell us whether the committee considered, if it wishes to clarify the position, whether handheld devices should not be used in the Chamber? To what extent did the committee consider the effect that such use may have on those watching the proceedings of the House on television? They may well think that Members who are using handheld devices are not paying sufficient attention to what is happening.

Lord Cormack: My Lords, I strongly support what my noble friend has just said. I must confess that I do not Google, Twitter, tweet or blog, nor do I have any particular desire to do any of those things, but it seems to me that to have handheld devices in the Chamber is not conducive to good debate and intelligent participation in it. The fundamental reason for my opposing the idea is that it is the beginning of what I would call electronic mission creep—if I can use some jargon. I am very concerned about how instructions could be monitored or enforced. The answer is that they could not be. Therefore, anybody sitting in this Chamber with a handheld device could do anything from googling facts to getting in touch with his bookmaker. I suggest that the committee consider once again the point that has just been made briefly but forcefully by my noble friend.”

But another Conservative Lord Deben (the artiste formerly known as John Gummer) put them straight:

Lord Deben: My Lords, I support what has just been said. Perhaps I may suggest also that making a virtue of being out of date is really not helpful for this House. Let us transpose this debate to the time when writing came in. It was perfectly true that writing might have upset the person sitting next door—it might have taken your mind off the debate—but most of us now write to make notes in this House. Most of us use this electronic equipment—well, I hope that we do; those who do not perhaps are not really involved. It is silent; it is extremely helpful. I must say to my noble friend that the idea that it is better to be ignorant and make a speech where the fact is wrong than to look it up and make sure that you have got it right seems very peculiar. I am pleased that it will not matter, because we will all do it and nobody will be able to see. I hope that the privacy Acts and the Data Protection Act will stop people looking over our shoulder to see what we are looking up. We hear some speeches made in this noble House where perhaps playing Scrabble on our devices would be a better alternative. This House does itself no good in making a virtue out of obscurantism. We either do things properly, which means using the wonderful mechanisms that we have, or we must accept the likelihood of being thought to be out of date.”

After 35 minutes of debate, Lord Brabazon wound up:

The Chairman of Committees: My Lords, we have had an interesting debate on this subject, as I suspected we would. Given the opposing views of those in favour of this advance and those who I might say are more old-fashioned and do not want to see anything change, it looks as though we got the report about right.

The noble Lord, Lord Harris of Haringey, asked me a large number of questions, one of which was whether I could define the difference between a laptop and an iPad. I use the expression “iPad” in the same way that one uses the expressions “hoover” or “fridge”. It does not necessarily mean the Apple product—there are other varieties. The noble Baroness, Lady Harris of Richmond, who is a member of the committee, put her finger on this when she said that it should be used silently. We do not want people clicking away on a keypad—at least that was the idea. That is the fundamental difference between what I see as an iPad, such as the one that is now on the Table, and a touchscreen device. Of course, technology might move on. It has moved on enormously. Only a few years ago we changed the rules of the House on the use of mobile telephones.

Lord Higgins: My Lords, I am most grateful to my noble friend. If the object is to clarify the position, in light of what he has just said are we to understand that iPads will be all right but netbooks will not?

The Chairman of Committees: I am not sure that I completely know the definition of a netbook and how it is different.

Lord Higgins: It is a question of whether they click or not.

The Chairman of Committees: Then the answer is that we would prefer devices that do not click and that therefore do not distract noble Lords while they are in the Chamber.

I have slightly lost my thread now. I was referring to the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Harris of Haringey. He held up his hands to say that he had used his handheld to search the web for something that was relevant to the debate at that time. The committee did not consider that an appropriate use, for the reasons that we set out at some length in the report, but I remind noble Lords that we specifically say that this is for a one-year trial period in the first instance. We will, of course, take into account the observations that noble Lords have not only made today but will no doubt make during the course of the year. The matter will then be reviewed again by the Administration and Works Committee, and we will have another debate. When we produce a report, we will have to bring it to the House.

As several noble Lords said, in particular the noble Baroness, Lady Royall, the matter relies on your Lordships’ good sense and self-regulation. My noble friends Lord Higgins and Lord Cormack worried that people working away on their handheld devices would be a distraction and that it would not look good on television. At least it would prove that those noble Lords were awake and not asleep. It would look no worse than that. That is unfortunately a picture that one gets occasionally in the television coverage of your Lordships’ House. I can tell my noble friend Lord Cormack that nothing in the present rules would prevent him getting on to his bookmaker. If he has been doing that, good luck to him.

My noble friend Lord Lucas asked a number of questions. I am glad to say that he was generally in favour of these proposals. We have measures in hand to improve wi-fi access in the Chamber and we will take those forward. My noble friend asked about various things, for example statutes in force. As it says in the report, those would be closely and clearly relevant to the business of the House and would therefore be just the sort of thing that it would be permitted to look at.

Other noble Lords made various other observations. I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Kirkwood, for his support. He is, of course, also involved in this as chairman of the Information Committee. No doubt it, too, will come forward with proposals in due course. He is right to have said that this is a step towards cutting down on the use of paper and going in the direction of a paperless way forward. The noble Lord, Lord Broers, suggested that one should be able only to read from one of these devices, rather than to access new information, while one was in the Chamber. However, the report makes it clear that it will be possible to download White Papers and that kind of thing, and if one happens to want to do so while one is in the Chamber I can see no objection to that.

I hope that I have answered most of the questions raised. I am sure that your Lordships want to get on to the main business of the day—

Baroness Royall of Blaisdon: My Lords, I hope the noble Lord will forgive me, but I did suggest that he should look at various aspects of the report again. For example, the box on page 6 is untenable, as is clear from this debate. I urge him to ensure that the report is clear, because point 2 in the box is not possible; we will not be able to police matters in that way. I urge the committee to look at it again.

Lord Skelmersdale: My Lords, before the Chairman of Committees answers that point, I want to make a similar point quickly. Paragraph 16, the conclusion, says:

“If the House agrees this report”—

I have no doubt that it will—

“the Procedure Committee will be invited to amend the Companion when it is next updated”.

Can I have an assurance from someone, please, that the Procedure Committee will take account of this somewhat divergent debate in that consideration?

The Chairman of Committees: I can give that assurance. On behalf of the Procedure Committee, I may well have to produce another report on these matters and have that debated on the Floor of the House again. In answer to the noble Baroness, Lady Royall, the main cause of concern in today’s debate has been about paragraph 8 of the main report rather than the box at the back that summarises it. As we say there, this is a one-year trial period in the first instance. We will just have to see how that trial works out, and come back in one year’s time.”

The Administration and Works Committee report was then agreed, but the change will now require a further report from the Procedure Committee and at the moment searches will be banned and the arrangements will be for a trial period only.

So the Luddites were rebuffed – but only partly so and for the time being only.

Mar 8,2011

A few months I half-flippantly suggested that now that malware producers were offering their services via Twitter the next stop was an iPhone app.

Now I gather a “game” has been developed that links GPS technology in a iPhone app, so that:

“The application allows drug dealers to post prices for narcotics such as cocaine, ecstasy and marijuana.  A convenient built-in calculator automatically determines the prices in gram increments.  Prices can be set by location, so that the price offered in Bogota is cheaper than than in New York or Paris.  Moreover, the dealer’s prices are visible to their potential clients from within the app and can be adjusted in real-time in response to supply and demand.

Upon launching the app, drug-users can graphically view the location of all the nearest drug dealers on a lovely Google map and dealer and client can each navigate to each other to complete the buy.  The app even allows for price comparisons between dealers and prices can be further negotiated by exchanging private messages between pusher and purchaser.

The app even has an efficient reputation management system built-in so that clients can provide feedback on their dealers, allowing for comparison of quality and service.  “1 star only for Fast Freddy—that powder he sold me was baking powder.  There goes $100 down the drain!  Avoid Freddy at all costs—he’s a cheat.” What an efficient marketplace!”

Watch it here:

Feb 20,2011

The lead story on the front page of today’s Sunday Times (behind the paywall) proclaims “China gives £50 million aid for Olympics” and reports that:

“A Chinese company is offering Britain £50 million of ‘aid’ to put in a free mobile phone network in time for the Olympics.

Huawei, one of the worlds biggest telecoms equipment firms, is presenting the offer for the London Underground as a gift from one Olympic host nation to another.”

This proposal has the support of Mayor Boris Johnson.

However, as the Sunday Times warns:

“The offer has been made only two years after intelligence chiefs warned that China could have the capabilityto shut down Britain by bringing down its telecoms and utilities systems.

They raised fears that equipment already installed by Huawei in BT’s network could be used to cripple vital services.

A deal would see Huawei, which has close military links, install mobile transmitters along the ceilings of tunnels so that commuters can make and receive calls for the first time while travelling underground.”

I have been concerned about Huawei for some time.  We are breath-takingly complacent about the vulnerability of our critical national infrastructure and – particularly in the current economic climate – there seems to be no appetite from the Government to prevent huge chunks of it falling into foreign hands.

This is potentially another example – aided and abetted by Mayor Boris Johnson.

Not all Tories are so relaxed (and Mayor Johnson has a reputation for being very relaxed!): Patrick Mercer MP has pointed out:

“… it absolutely answers a terrorists’ prayers to be able to detonate devices on the Underground.  …  It has been proven that a proportion of the cyber attacks on this country come from China.  I wonder when the eyes of the world are upon us whether there is sense in using a Chinese firm to install a sensitive mobile network.”

These are serious matters and a serious London Mayor should not complacently give his support, presumably he hopes that if his eyes are firmly closed and his fingers are crossed that it will all be OK.


Feb 16,2011

About eighteen months ago, I attended a meeting on the possible effects of electro-magnetic pulses on electrical and technical systems.  As I commented at the time:

“And as if the threat from a rogue state or terrorists was not enough, electromagnetic pulses can occur naturally as part of solar activity. Avi Schnurr quoted the US National Academy of Sciences as warning that solar activity can produce effects of equivalent magnitude and does so approximately every hundred years or so.  The last such massive solar surge was in 1859 and shorted out telegraph wires and caused widespread fires.  The next occasion when there might be such a surge is 2012 (although it might not be the big one, but that is when the next peak of solar activity is anticipated).”

The BBC reports today that:

“The Sun has unleashed its strongest flare in four years, observers say.

The eruption is a so-called X-flare, the strongest type; such flares can affect communications on Earth.

Nasa’s Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO) spacecraft recorded an intense flash of extreme ultraviolet radiation emanating from a sunspot.

The British Geological Survey (BGS) has issued a geomagnetic storm warning, and says observers might be able to see aurorae from the northern UK.

The monster flare was recorded at 0156 GMT on 15 February and directed at the Earth.

Preliminary data from the Stereo-B and Soho spacecraft suggest that the explosion produced a fast but not particularly bright coronal mass ejection (CME) – a burst of charged particles released into space.”

The report goes on:

“Displays of the Northern Lights (aurora borealis) have already been seen further south than usual in Northern Ireland and elsewhere in the UK. And further solar activity is expected over the next few days.

Researchers say the Sun has been awakening after a period of several years of low activity.”

Is it time to get worried?

A few months I asked a Parliamentary Question about all this:

Lord Harris of Haringey

    To ask Her Majesty’s Government what were the outcomes of the workshop on severe space weather and the threat of a major electromagnetic pulse announced by Baroness Neville-Jones at the Electric Infrastructure Security summit in September. [HL3149]

The Minister of State, Home Office (Baroness Neville-Jones): The Cabinet Office workshop held on 21 September 2010 was attended by representatives from the communications, transport and energy sectors, government, regulators, and space weather experts from both the UK and the US. The purpose of the meeting was to discuss the likelihood and severity of future space weather events and the impact on infrastructure.

The meeting discussed how a reasonable worst case scenario could be formulated, based on historical data. A newly formed space environmental impact experts group (SEIEG) is now working with Cabinet Office to formulate quantitative assessments of the reasonable worst case scenario of the different solar phenomena that comprise a severe space weather event.”

So the good news (heavy irony) is that the Government may have got round to working out what “the reasonable worst case scenario” might be.

Feb 15,2011

I have tabled a Parliamentary Question to ask Her Majesty’s Government what consideration have Ministers given to mitigating the security issues surrounding the location in St Pancras of the UK Centre for Medical Research and Innovation and its laboratories that will be working with highly dangerous viruses?

This follows reports that:

“One of Britain’s leading bio-scientists .. [has] .. voiced fears over the safety of a £600 million virus “superlab” planned for St Pancras.

Professor Guy Dodson, who has worked at Oxford University, warned that the 14-storey, maximum security site containing viruses including malaria, tuberculosis, bird and swine flu, cancer cells and HIV would need to be “bulletproof”.”

UK Centre for Medical Research and Innovation is to be built in London on the redeveloped St Pancras site.  In principle, this is excellent news.  However, the laboratory could be a magnet for terrorists.

As Guy Dodson comments:

 “The issues are if you have an earthquake, some idiot lets a bomb off or there’s a fire at St Pancras International.

“These are extreme examples but you don’t want that building to suffer a serious knockabout when you’ve got this material in there.

“The unspoken concern is terrorism because it’s a natural target. We need to know the capacity they have for dealing with the unexpected.”

The plans have been approved by Mayor Boris Johnson – so that’s all right then ……

Feb 2,2011

I don’t claim to be at the cutting edge of new technology, but I am aware that I am more up-to-date on these matters than some of my House of Lords colleagues.

It was with some trepidation therefore that I picked up the recommendations of that venerable and important body the House of Lords Administration and Works Committee on “Use of Electronic Devices in the House.”  The Committee chaired by the Lord Chairman of Committees, the Lord Brabazon of Tara, has noted that:

“the rules regulating the use of mobile telephones and other electronic devices … in the House are incomplete, outdated and contradictory”

and accordingly is recommending to the full House that the rules be revised and updated.

Most of what they are recommending makes sense and is sensible.  For example, they are proposing that:

“Hand-held electronic devices (not laptops*) may be used in the Chamber and Grand Committee provided that they are silent, but repeated use of such devices is discouraged. Members making speeches may refer to electronic devices in place of paper speaking notes, subject to the existing rule against reading speeches.”

But one of their recommendations seems harder to follow and will, I would assume, be rather unenforceable.  They are suggesting that:

“Electronic devices may not be used to send or receive messages for use in proceedings. They may be used to access Parliamentary papers and other documents which are clearly and closely relevant to the business before the House or Grand Committee, but not to search the Web for information for use in debate which is not generally available to participants by other means.”

So Twittering from the Chamber is presumably permitted because the messages are “not for use in the proceedings”. 

Accessing Parliamentary papers – presumably via the Parliamentary web-site – will be allowed, but a Google search forbidden because this may yield “information … not generally available to participants by other means”.  I am not sure exactly how this is meant to work or even why it is a distinction worth making.  Perhaps I am missing something.

*And another thing: does the prohibition on laptops preclude netbooks and does the approval of hand-held devices encompass iPads and Kindles?

Nov 18,2010

We are told that there will be a revamped National Cyber Security Strategy published in the next few months.  This will explain what the £650 million of new money allocated for cyber security in the spending review will actually be used to deliver (I understand that Whitehall Departments are still bickering over who will get their hands on this money – the Ministry of Defence and the Home Office both believe it should come to them rather than the Cabinet Office).

However, I wonder whether it will also propose legislation.  In the United States a number of members of Congress are putting forward what they are calling the “Homeland Security Cyber and Physical Infrastructure Protection Act of 2010”.  This will give a statutory basis to the Office of Cybersecurity & Communications based in the Department of Homeland Security and would, in particular, create a new Cybersecurity Compliance Division to oversee the establishment of performance-based standards responsive to the particular risks to the .gov domain and critical infrastructure networks.

This is an interesting model.  In the UK, the Government bodies that are responsible for protecting the critical national infrastructure do not have a statutory basis and do not have any formal powers.  In my view, this hampered the effectiveness of the old National Infrastructure Security Coordination Centre, which is now incorporated into the Centre for the Protection of the National Infrastructure and falls under the ambit of the Security Service.

I have long advocated that underpinning the “voluntarist” and consensual framework Government needs to have a statutory frmaework that – in extremis – can be used to require Government agencies and those private companies that supply much of the national infrastructure to meet certain minimum standards and can direct action effectively in the event of some major problem arising.

Nov 18,2010

The Financial Services Authority has decided that all investment bankers and traders in the UK should have calls made on company mobile phones taped in a bid to crack down on insider trading.  According to the BBC:

“Office land lines, e-mails and communications through messaging systems are already recorded.  …  The FSA estimates extending the taping rule – to come into force in November 2011 – will cover about 16,000 mobile phones and cost about £11m to set up. Annual running costs will be a further £18m it predicts.”

Strangely, however, personal mobile phones are not being included in the move.  So the rogue banker – if readers can get their heads round such a concept – who wants to do a bit of insider trading on the side, only has to use their personal phone or, if they want to be really careful, an unregistered pay-as-you-go mobile.

So either bankers are really stupid or the FSA are ……..

Nov 16,2010

This was drawn to my attention …..