February 2012 Archives

Can you block a website? Or are there better ways of addressing undesirable content?

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Over the past year we have seen mounting calls for Internet Traffic to be filtered in order to improve cybersecurity, protect intellectual property, tackle terrorism or ensure children are not exposed to adult content.  The success of the Internet Watch Foundation is used to support calls for similar approaches to be used to blacklist websites carrying other types of content. Meanwhile we have a new generation of security products and services based on using deep packet inspection to screen out traffic carrying malware and identify those who sent it. We also have the growing deployment of trusted computing technologies to check the physical identity of the devices with which we are communicating and (hopefully) those using them.

Political debate appears to be based on spending billions on filtering technologies that do not stop the technically competent from whatever malpractice they had in mind.  Hence the reason for the Conservative Technology Forum meeting that I chaired on Monday with the title "Internet Governance: can you block a website?"

We had the expected consensus that mandating the use of blocking technologies might make politicians and regulators feel good - but would not significantly reduce malpractice. I was, however,   agreeably surprised to find apparent consensus on a constructive way forward:  clarifying what constitutes "actual knowledge" and therefore removes the "innocent carrier" defence in the e-commerce directive .

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Comment on "Who is trying to join up the policies? Who would you trust to do so?"

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I apologise to those readers who have been trying to post comments and could not do so. Hopefully the lovely people who look after technical support for Computer Weekly will find and correct the problem soon. In the mean time below is a comment from David Moss (who e-mailed when he could not post direct) on my blog entry on "Who is trying to join up the policies? Who would you trust to do so?"


Dear Philip

Don't seem to be able to submit a comment on your marvellous post.

What I was going to say is:

It's extraordinary how, when the hour cometh, so doth the man. The answer to your two questions is available now and in post. He even drives a DeLorean.

Best wishes



My response to David is that former poachers can make excellent game-keepers.

An old friend used to joke (half in pride, half in sorrow) about his children "the Androids" - because they had been brainwashed into the Anderson way. He and I came from  backgrounds where there was no "right" approach - you picked the way according to the culture of the organisation and the nature of the problem. That was not, even then, the approach of most large management consultancies with their standardised methodologies for generating impressive analyses and reports and winning follow up business.

When I ran the ICL-DTI-DoE study into the Computing needs of the new Regional Water Authorities (in the 1970s) I was accused of being inconsistant because I used a variety of approaches to look at how different Water Companies, River Boards and Local Authorities ran their existing operations. What I had done was to discuss with my most senior contact, usually the Finance Director, (who had wanted to see what a "Business Graduate" looked like before letting his staff make a fool of him), the various methodologies we had been taught at London Business School. Then I would ask which he thought was likely to work best with his organisation - and whether he was willing to let me try it out, reporting informally to him before I drafted the final report. I had great fun. After the study was over I was shortlisted to run the financial systems of one Regional Water Authority and blacklisted by another. I then made the mistake (or was it?) of staying with ICL instead of trying to join one of the Management Consultancies who had been livid with what we did and how little we had charged.   

However, back to the original story - my old friend's children are now parents, having left Anderson Consulting during its transmogrification into Accenture. They have since applied what they had learned in very different ways: one to carve a way to the top, the other to live an alternative life style.

The moral of this story is that you should not make assumptions about what Androids will do (or be like) when they escape from the hive.     

Will superfast broadband meet the needs of our "bandwidth hungry" nation?

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It is time to stop whinging in private about what DCMS and/or BDUK are doing or not doing and make your views known. You have just over three weeks in which to open the doors and windows and shed light on the murky arguments about demand, funding, state aid, procurement frameworks, quality of service, inter-operability, spectrum and infrastructure sharing that are taking place behind closed doors, between consultants,  lawyers, regulators  and lobbyists. 

The House of Lords Select Committee on Communications, chaired by Lord Inglewood, is announcing today an inquiry into the Government's superfast broadband strategy. The Committee invites interested organisations and individuals to submit written evidence as part of the inquiry.

Written evidence is sought by Tuesday 13 March 2012. Public hearings are expected to be held in March, April, May and June. The Committee aims to report to the House, with recommendations, before the summer recess. The report will receive a response from the Government and may be debated in the House.

"Please review your billing agreement" - Paypal does it better

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This morning I received one of the many impressive scams doing the rounds. I might have fallen for it save that two copies, almost but not quite identical, arrived a few minutes apart. I looked up the Action Fraud website for reporting spam and went through the routine to report one of them. I was asked me to forward the e-mail to spoof@paypal.co.uk (the spanners were impersonating Paypal on this occasion). I forwarded the other Paypal as well, but did not bother to report a second time to Action Fraud because of the effort involved.

Shortly later I was pleased to receive two nicely worked automated responses from Paypal:


-----Original Message-----
From: spoof@paypal.co.uk [mailto:spoof@paypal.co.uk]
Sent: 13 February 2012 nn:nn
To: [my name] - [ISP Name]
Subject: RE: FW: Please review your billing agreement. ([pretentious number])

Hello [my name] - [ISP name],

Thanks for forwarding that suspicious-looking email. You're right - it was a phishing attempt, and we're working on stopping the fraud. By reporting the problem, you've made a difference!

Identity thieves try to trick you into revealing your password or other personal information through phishing emails and fake websites. To learn more about online safety, click "Security Center" on any PayPal webpage.

Every email counts. When you forward suspicious-looking emails to spoof@paypal.com, you help keep yourself and others safe from identity theft.

Your account security is very important to us, so we appreciate your extra effort.




I would be more impressed by other Internet Services if they had similarly easy reporting and acknowledgment routines. I know my e-mails probably just went into counting routines but the feeling that they might go into an analytic engine for find distribution channels and/or origin made my morning.

I should perhaps add that I recently received a similar e-mails from two major security vendors asking me to click on links to join their advisory panels, alias complete marketing questionnaires. I forwarded them to contacts in the organisations concerned, because I could find no routines for checking whether they were was genuine, only to be told that they were !!! 

Will 2012 see the end of the Cold War over Intellectual Property Rights?

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From the European demonstrations against ACTA  and copyright to arguments on Open Software and patent the quiet Cold War over digital intellectual property rights (whether software or content) is hotting up. In the UK it is particularly important that those concerned over the issues respond to the latest Cabinet Office consultation on the use of Open Standards in public procurement. Mark Ballard has produced a good summary of the current state of play.

What is less clear from his article is the stakes at risk and the direct and indirect impact of the issues on the UK economy and public finances.

P.S. Andy Hopkirk has commented on the meeting referred to in Mark's blog. He was the facilitator and is in a position to give a more balanced acount of what was said

Who is trying to join up the policies - PSN, BDUK, Cybersecurity, Big Society, Financial and Economic recovery etc. ?

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I have just been browsing the Guardian Computing debate last week on "Can problems with the PSN be overcome?" and was struck by one of the comments - describing how a local authority had to separate its PSN plans from its bid for BDUK funding and now had two projects.  

I commend the debate as a good snap-shot of current discussions, including a reminder that  PSN has evolved from "Public Sector Network" to "Public Service Network" without the implications of that change being thought through. The statements on security have similarly evolved without being linked to debate on changing security architectures to enable the deperimeterised defences against zero-day attacks that are now essential for any organisation that is serious about the security of the data it holds, whether on itself, its customers or its staff.

I have been critical of BDUK and DCMS for wasting public money by using expensive consultants, with little or no background in communications or public sector procurement, to produce and attempt to enforce idiosyncratic procurement frameworks which get in the way of drawing in funding from other sources. But DCMS is by no means the only department which is paying consultants to learn, very expensively and at taxpayers expense, what is different about the public sector, let alone about the industries, technologies and application(s) on which they have been asked to advise.

So why is that problem so widespread?

and more interestingly,

Why have the consequences become so much more obvious over the past year?

The Independent put its finger on part (but only part) of the answers in its article "Goodbye Minister". It is not just those at the top of the Civil Service who have chosen to take the retirement option rather than stay to help tackle the challenge of change.

Across much of Whitehall we can see management consultants on premium day-rates, with no background knowledge of the problems they have been retained to look at, doing what would, before the last Conservative government, have been done by young civil servants - albeit with equally little knowledge. The main difference is that the latter were not expected to be expert and their superiors were usually much more cautious about trying to impose their recommendations (if any) for micro-managed solutions on local government or on the nationalised industries and public corporations of the day.

The last Labour government could not reverse the post 1979 denationalisation programme but did set about reimposing a culture of top-down centralised planning. However, it did not trust Civil Servants who had spent the previous decade outsourcing delivery and reducing central control. It therefore brought in management consultancies, some of which had actually been blacklisted by the previous government for malpractice, to do the job.

We are now living with the consequences.

When I blogged on the Big Information Society  I left out my (93 year-old) mother's definition. "The last government spend all the money and mortgaged the future so we're on our own, just like when I was young."  My father was civil servant with, at one time, responsibility for "serious" contingency planning. He timed his retirement for optimum pension rights and ensured my mother would be well supported after his death. He also had strong views on his duties as "a servant of the Crown" which he did NOT regard as synonymous with the wishes of the current minister. Just as well that he retired before the infamous "Armstrong Doctrine" allowed Civil Servants to claim the Nuremburg Defence.

After Ted Heath called his "who runs Britain?" election and was told "Not You", one of Harold Wilson's first actions was to call for the civil contingencies plans to be overhauled in case he had to take on the miners. My father was almost the only Assistant Secretary with experience of post-war, peace-time food rationing. He was given a junior Treasury Minister's office and put in charge of part of the exercise. A couple of the younger members of his team were still in post when I was working on Y2K and similar exercises had to be done. Today CPNI is making heavy weather of updating the work done for Y2K because that kind of institutional memory has been largely lost. In some cases, as with the British Rail preventive maintenance records, that "memory" was actively destroyed in processes akin to the Maoist cultural revolution, with integrated operations asunder (and their databases deleted) by consultants,lawyers and regulators implementing top down policies, with no understanding of the consequences of their actions. 

Rebuilding trust in the competance of a professional Civil Service will take time. Until then ...

Who is trying to join up the policies?

Who would you trust to do so?

My planned contribution includes seeking to recruit retired civil servants into the Conservative Technology Forum to work alongside application (not just technology) experts and ambitious young policy wonks - in the hope that the best of them will then be poached by Cabinet Office and others as policy advisors. Volunteers should contact me via either the CTF linked in group or the website. I do now have the codes to update the latter. Now I need to make the time !!

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Towards the Big Information Society or "Power to the people"

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Current government policy is that which the coalition partners can agree with the tribes of Whitehall, as well as each other. Oliver Letwin has asked the Conservative Policy Forum (CPF) to start looking at Conservative policy for the next election. Few of you will have heard of the Conservative Policy Forum. I attended their first "winter school" last weekend not knowing what to expect. 

What I experienced changed my way of thinking about policy formation in the modern world. The event evolved from an awkward discussion on the nature of conservatism through a great workshop on what is meant by "the big society" to a rollicking debate on the nature of democracy  in the modern world.  The underlying theme was how to reconnect political discussion with the priorities of the majority of voters, as opposed to the introverted obsessions of the Westminster village and the blogocracy and twitterati in their cyberghettoes.  

A great opportunity to create a merged UK Infrastructure Ministry

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The resignation of Chris Huhne offers a great opportunity to bring together the Departments of Energy and Transport and add in Communications which has been lost in the Department of Culture, Media and Sport (now almost totally pre-occupied with the run up to the Olympics)  as a Department for Infrastructure - tasked to encourage the private sector investment we need (including from overseas sovereign wealth funds) to do as our ancestors did and use recession as an opportunity to get better quality at lower cost when building for the future.

There are many other benefits to gained from using such a restructuring to remove duplication of effort, from Whitehall overheads through infrastructure sharing  (including, but not just, for fixed and mobile broadband) to digging up the roads and countryside.   

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