Wednesday, January 04, 2017

Pontevedra Pensées: 4.1.17

You can tell how serious President Rajoy was in promising us the AVE high-speed train 'as soon as possible' from the fact that, in the same speech, he repeated the claim that his government will create 500,000 jobs over the next 4 years. The man lives in another world.

BUT . . . It's great to know that, if we had got the AVE at any of the times promised over the last 25 years, the fares would be frozen for 2017.

I mentioned banks yesterday. Last Friday I spoke to my UK bank about meeting their demand for notarised documents to prove I'm the client I've been for the last 25 years or more. Turns out I can do this via a Skype call, when they will snap both me and the documents. So, I asked for a day and time to do this, expecting to have to tell them I was out that afternoon. They gave me the 10-11am slot on Tuesday 10th. January. The really eerie thing about this, if you live in Spain, is that they will almost certainly call me then. Because they have some of that planning software that came out about 20 years ago. Maybe even 30.

About 70% of Spanish consumers still pay in cash, almost certainly more than in most other EU countries. Here's an article in English from El País addressing the question of whether Spain will ever 'embrace a cash-free consumption'. Could take a while.

Here in Galicia, we tend to know where our narcotráficos (drug barons) live, one reason being that their properties are invariably spectacular. Here's an El País article - in Spanish - about a court case  over a dispute over one such property near the 'drug capital' of Vilanova de Arousa. It belonged to a couple who were both convicted of drug-dealing back in the 90s. The pazo in question was confiscated and then sold to a wine company but the daughters of the couple are now claiming they're owed part of it as an inheritance from their deceased mother. I'm guessing they can afford good lawyers, though these haven't been too successful so far. Even in Brussels. By the way, the said mother died in a car accident back in 2001, which I recall finding rather odd. Convenient even. The stuff of movies?

Talking of these links to the Caribbean and to South America . . . 10 councils here in Galicia have more voters overseas than they do locally. And Buenos Aires is considered the region's 5th largest city when it comes to regional elections. Meaning a lot of canvassing over there. In contrast, foreign residents, even EU citizens, can't vote in these. Even if we do pay taxes to the Xunta. I guess it makes sense etc.

A couple of weeks ago, I was spoken to a guy in a supermarket. Reluctantly, I agreed to give him my phone number so he could call me about having a coffee. A week or so later he contacted me and we met for this. Since he was in his 40s, single and still living with his parents, I threw in as many heterosexual references as I could think of. Last week he suggested another coffee and I was too soft to refuse. This time, when talking of dementia, he recommended 2 natural products which he said were good for 'balancing the mind'. I now worry about being stalked by a nut. Probably unjustifiably. But should this blog fall silent . . .  He lives somewhere in my barrio. And shops at Carrefour. And shops at one of the city's health shops, I guess.

You have to laugh. And not just because of her nationality . . . A French tourist in Thailand began the new year in hospital after being bitten by a crocodile while taking a selfie. You'd have to have a heart of stone, as Oscar put it.

Today's cartoon . . .

Finally . . . Here's an article relevant to our modern way of life . . .

Danger at the heart of our connected lives      Clare Foges

Is the convenience of smart technology, from fridges to phones, worth the risk of cyber attack that it exposes us to?

It was your classic Silicon Valley vacuity treated as gospel. Last year Jeff Bezos, the Amazon founder, described how he stays at the top of the tech tree. “You have to always be leaning in to the future. If you’re leaning away from the future, the future is going to win every time. Never, ever lean away from the future.”

Most of us want to “lean in” to the future, don’t we? So it’s clever, the way the gods of technology have co-opted a shining-city-on-a-hill vision of “the future” and elided it with the stuff they sell. To reject their products is to reject the future itself. So pervasive is Californian tech utopianism, so fervently is it believed that new technology is an innately Good Thing, that anyone sounding the alarm at fresh developments is held to be a Luddite — and who wants to be one of them? Who wants to be the Colonel Blimp pulling pathetically at the hands of the clock?

But the future is not to be “leaned into” or “leaned away” from, it is only delivered to us in seconds, minutes and hours; and those of us with concerns about aspects of technological change should be more assertive about how that future is shaped, whether we are labelled Luddite or not. Especially when those concerns relate to security.

As we begin 2017 there are two major technology stories which are closely related but rarely mentioned in connection with each other.

The first is the increasing severity of cyber attacks, from the hacking, phishing and scamming of citizens to major international upsets: the raid on Sony, the attack in Ukraine which caused a major power outage, the infiltration of the US Democratic Party’s email servers. Obama’s decision last week to expel Russian diplomats in the wake of cyber attacks marked the hottest point yet in the Code War. How silently, how relentlessly the hostile powers, terrorists and criminals work against us in the ether. Each year the barriers to entry for hacking get lower, with online marketplaces springing up where people can buy all the elements needed for an attack. Malware to wipe thousands of computers half a world away: add to basket.

The second story is how we are blithely allowing the deeper penetration of connected technology into our physical environment: driverless cars on our roads; commercial drones in our skies; the so-called “internet of things” in our homes — networked devices like smart TVs or heating systems that are linked to the internet. Driverless cars are set to be tested on UK motorways this year. Last month Amazon made its first commercial drone delivery over the Cambridgeshire countryside. The internet of things is already here, with conservative estimates of 30billion connected devices by 2020.

So here, in case it is not screamingly obvious, is the line between these two stories. While furiously fighting on all fronts to defend ourselves from cyber attack, we are rapidly opening up new fronts through which we can be attacked. While GCHQ plays a relentless and expensive game of whack-a-mole to shut down the hacks, we are weaving more hackable technology into the warp and weft of our physical world — and the deeper the penetration, the more vulnerable we become. As Marcus Ranum, one of the early innovators of the computer firewall, puts it: “The nations that are most at risk of a destructive digital attack are the ones with the greatest connectivity.”

Of course, we will be airily assured that security precautions will be taken; that anything making it into the mainstream will be virtually unhackable. But numerous recent hacks suggest that where a device is connected, unhackable is near impossible.

In 2012 students from the University of Texas managed to hack drones operated by the Department of Homeland Security. When they informed officials of the vulnerability, they were told the drones could not be hacked — and only believed when they demonstrated they could steer one of them off course with kit costing less than $1,000. Their professor warned afterwards that “in five or ten years we’ve got 30,000 drones inhabiting the national airspace … each one of these could be a potential missile to be used against us.”

In 2015, hackers worked out how to cut the transmission of a Jeep being driven at speed miles away — sparking a recall of 1.4million cars. Autonomous vehicles will need a high level of connectivity in order to detect each other: vehicle-to-vehicle communication which — if hacked by terrorists — could cause carnage. Cyber experts routinely talk of “ransomware” attacks in which driverless cars will be hijacked, with a ransom demanded to avert disaster.

As for the internet of things, a huge attack last October revealed the potential for chaos. Hackers used connected home devices like printers and webcams as gateways to flood networks with malicious software, bringing down Twitter, PayPal and other sites for hours. It is only a matter of time before malign actors use these routes to cause real-world destruction, such as fires — indeed it happened to a German steel mill in 2014, when hackers targeted their computers and caused a devastating furnace blast.

“Ah, chill out”, those future embracers say: “the technology is new; vulnerabilities will be designed out over time.” But if governments, armed forces and major corporates can’t escape hacking, this seems a foolhardy assumption. The fact is that we are dramatically increasing what techies would call our “attack surface area” with very little debate. And for what? True, driverless cars have been promised to reduce road deaths. But do we really need drones to get our Amazon deliveries into our hot little hands within an hour of ordering? Do we need our fridges to alert us that we need more milk? Is a modicum of extra convenience worth it for the huge security risks a more connected world brings?

“The internet revolution has come upon us so swiftly” said Henry Kissinger, “that nobody has yet worked out how to control it, or even to comprehend its consequences for mankind.” No government wants to look anything but starry-eyed about new technology. They want to be seen to “lean in” to the future. But it is their urgent duty to ask more searching questions about the consequences for mankind. While blind opposition to progress is foolish, opposition to blind “progress” is eminently sensible — and right now we could do with more of it.


Alfred B. Mittington said...

Now, wouldn't you say it is somewhat contradictory for you first to scoff at Spaniards for 'leaning back into the past' by paying for stuff in cash like true Luddites, and then to post an article denouncing the folly of jumping head-over-heels into new dangerous digital technology?

Might it be that Spaniards - and us cautious, stupid, backward, moronic old folk - are doing the smart thing?

Just asking, you know. Just asking…


Maria said...

Modern society should start deciding up to what point they want to be vulnerable. I would never want a self-driving car. To begin, I like to drive. I don't want a television that connects to internet, or a drone to deliver my packages. I want to continue using paper books and do not want an e-reader. I like the convenience of using a credit or debit card, but prefer paying in cash because I can physically and visually control my expenses thus.

That said, I do like inter- and intranets. I like that a visiting doctor can pull up my entire medical history to help determine my current problem, without my having to tell my life story if I go in while my regular doctor is away. I like looking up information on the web at a moment's notice without having to make a trip to the library. And I like being able to communicate with people on the other side of the world without having to pay through the nose for a long-distance phone call.

Society must choose which connectivity is necessary and which is a simple whim that can be too expensive, in many ways, to indulge in.

Colin Davies said...

@Mr Mittington: ?What is your evidence that a simple factual report amounted to ?scoffing'?

@Maria: Many thanks for your dose of common sense on the subject of balance. A welcome offset to the nonsense of Mr Mittington. Who continues to prove the truth of that old adage that the biggest fool can ask more questions than the wisest man can answer . . . . .

Colin Davies said...

P. S. Maria: I used to abhor the idea of an e-reader but finally bought one and love it. Alongside the books I continue to buy. I'd find it hard to say what my criteria are for choosing between the e-version and the real book version. Perhaps time will make this clear. It certainly is invaluable when travelling, light or otherwise. And its 'feel' is a great deal better than I expected. But shame about the scratches in the screen I've managed to inflict, and the bright light which shines through them . . . Black tape again. Little bits only, though.

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