Data Security Will Be a Major Smart Home Issue

Smart homes and various associated devices and technologies are becoming more commonplace all over the world. This process was far from the ideal of the “smart house,” touted during the early 90s, where a complete home would be assembled from the ground up, based on efficiency, technology and livability. Instead, we have something of a series of puzzle pieces that can be put together in many exciting ways, but often with difficult crossovers and communication challenges. A user may choose Amazon for their control centre, but smart lights are created by another business and the assistant at work is Apple designed. Meanwhile, in the car a Microsoft solution is provided that needs to communicate with the garage door opener which is controlled by Google.

The practical offshoot of this is that there are numerous devices in the home and office, collecting data – not for nefarious purposes – but to become more efficient, and learn more about how you and your family operate. After all, if your digital assistant can gain a clearer understanding as to what time you wake up and go to bed, then power can be adjusted along with lighting and heating at the appropriate times.

But where does this data go, and who has access to it? This is a question that has been largely voluntary up till now. Businesses produced documents that showed the types of data they were collecting, and the security protocols they built around them. What hasn’t been entirely transparent is which government agencies have access to that information, and at what point they can request it. This has become a more important question since smart technologies have been successfully used to catch criminals, with video evidence being produced in court for successful convictions.

It’s not a simple answer but is similar to the one that mobile phone companies had to deal with many years ago when federal police services started asking for access to encrypted telephone calls in order to catch criminals. In that case, the answer was usually to make things as simple as possible – if there was evidence of a crime taking place, then the telecommunications company would generally adhere to law enforcement.

But with smart homes, things become much more complicated. With a rise in global terrorism, more laws have been introduced that include the intention of an individual. If law enforcement suspects that an individual intends to commit a crime, does that mean they can gain access to internal cameras and security systems in order to keep an eye on them? If they don’t have smart devices, can the neighbour’s technology be used to spy on them? Both camps have good arguments – it’s good to stop crimes, but privacy is also important.

For the time being, we will continue enjoying the fruits of the technological revolution, but it won’t be long until this issue turns into a political football and a fully fledged global privacy issue, and one without a simple answer.

The Practical Issues with 5G

5G mobile technology is apparently “just around the corner,” and will change the way we interact with our mobile devices. It’s fast – we will be able to download TV series and a matter of seconds, and various devices will be out of interact with each other in real time. This will likely mean the advent of self-driving cars.
It’s all very exciting.
But there are some fairly practical problems that need to be dealt with before 5G technology can become a reality, or at least a useful one.

5mm Waves

5G operates on a wavelength called 5mm. It’s much faster than anything we currently use – closer to the speed of light than traditional radio waves. It’s also easily diverted and can be interrupted by a piece of paper, the branch of a tree or, obviously, a building. As a result, 5G antennas need to be virtually everywhere in order to stop service being interrupted. Furthermore, businesses need to find a way to get the 5G signal into underground car parks, alleyways and other difficult areas, otherwise, self-driving cars will self-drive themselves into walls. This means…

Lots of Antennas

We have only just become comfortable, or at least more comfortable, with cellular phone towers. The good news with 2G, 3G and 4G towers was their range. Because of the wavelength they worked on, the signal could be sent over large areas, and the waves would move around buildings and other obstacles, creating a relatively stable signal. Now, we are going to have smaller towers, but they will have to be on almost every corner. This means government consent, approval from the public and protests from concerned residents. Do they have anything to be concerned about? That in itself is a complicated question.

Confused Technology

On top of this, many providers in the United States are confusing the public with a series of mixed messages. Rather than a clean line between 4G and 5G technology, businesses are attempting to sell upgraded 4G solutions as the next generation. For example, saying that 5G technology will be available, is not the same as having an entirely independent 5G network that can download a movie every few seconds. With this type of marketing, public support for 5G, and as a result government approvals for antennas, could be slowed.

5G will be transformative, but before we get there, some very non-technological solutions must be created.

Skype Goes Back to Basics

It has only been a year since Microsoft introduced a new version of Skype. This upgraded, colourful and funky communications platform was supposed to be the ideal crossover between stark, corporate minimalism and modern, social media inspired playfulness.
A couple of days ago, Microsoft announced that almost all of the “improvements” were going to be rolled back, and a far more traditional Skype would re-emerge. The reason? Skype confused itself with a social media company, when it is far more like a mobile phone.
The new version of Skype met with disdain bordering on fury from users. Perhaps the most hated of all the new features was “highlights,” Skype’s take on Instagram Stories. If you’ve never used it, you are not alone but it works like this – you connect your smartphone to the Skype app, take a picture and then decorate it with all the available stickers, emojis and text that you want. You can share it with individual members of your Skype community, or entire groups if you wish.
But people don’t use Skype in the same way they use social media. With social media, people tend to sporadically check their accounts, see what other people are doing and update their status or add a photo. With Skype, users make and receive calls when they need to, and then get on with the rest of their lives. There is no need to check back with Skype, in the same way that there is no need to look at a traditional telephone when it is not ringing.
To make matters worse, the revamped version of Skype managed to clutter up the user experience and increase the time it took from turning on the app to getting connected to another user. In other words, the core of Skype’s value proposition. Additionally, corporate customers who were originally Skype’s bread and butter abandoned the platform for Facebook messenger, where icons are available but not so prevalent. The addition of the heart symbol on the revised screen no doubt had a lot to do with a number of companies making the move.
While the return to traditional Skype may be a little embarrassing, it is good to see a business listening to its customers, and making decisions that are in the interests of user experience, not corporate ego.

Amazon to Offer Blockchain as a Service

Amazon Web Services (AWS) will have a Blockchain as a Service (BaaS) offering in the near future. The product, one of only a handful available a the moment, will enable businesses to test the water, albeit with considerable cost, without jumping into the deep end of the Blockchain pool.

How does it work? A business is considering a Blockchain product and has done enough research and backend work to move forward. However, there are 2 issues:

1. There is not enough market data to proceed with confidence (and Blockchain products are slow and expensive).
2. There aren’t enough specialist developers.

Amazon solves both of these problems in the same way a SaaS provider would. Their in-house Blockchain developers do the work in partnership with the client, building the product and enabling the client side to be focused on product-market fit. Meanwhile, the infrastructure is based on AWS, so while labour and…let’s call it consultancy, is expensive, the permanent costs are not. The company can elect to continue with the product or pull the pin whenever they see the need.

This style of development is necessary for the evolution of Blockchain. Without it, the prohibitive costs would prevent innovation and limit its usefulness to the (very) top end of town. This type of service offering will likely become more common as interest in the Blockchain increases and smaller businesses want to get involved. It wasn’t long ago that SaaS was limited to high-end products and involved multi-year contracts and complex implementation programs. That product still exists, but now there are options for everyone. This will mean more expertise being nurtured and more businesses being able to play in the sandpit.

As this evolves and more people move into blockchain development, the product itself will get better, more accessible and its application will be stretched into new industries.

President Trump to Get ZTE Back in Business

Following sanctions from the White House, Chinese technology manufacturer ZTE has been forced to lay off numerous employees. This should have come as a surprise to nobody – ZTE was and is reliant on American companies to maintain its cash flow. Recent security concerns, including a request from senior American defence officials for American government agencies to stop purchasing ZTE products, were to be the beginning of the end for relationships between the business and organisations like Qualcomm and Google.
However, in a dramatic U-turn, President Trump has announced that he will step in to rescue the flailing company, in order to save Chinese jobs. The business employs around 80,000 workers in China, and the Chinese government apparently reached out to United States government officials to aid them in their quest to reduce the economic impact.
And aid they did.
Trump has reportedly directed the Department of Commerce to take, “whatever action is necessary,” to get ZTE back in business as soon as possible. Interestingly, this will likely mean a complete reversal of sanctions and direct communication with the companies that have begun the process of finding alternate suppliers. It remains unclear exactly how Trump plans to complete this about-face, with contingency plans most likely already in place, and new agreements signed. The fact that Trump is attempting to rectify what he sees as a mistake is admirable, but it may be too late for ZTE.
Which will lead analysts to ask why the president has placed so much urgency on a single organisation. Questions will be asked as to why the demand from China was treated so seriously, which is in stark contrast to recent behaviours and the now established White House policy. For his part, the president has stated that he wants to save Chinese jobs, but that just creates more questions than it answers; since when did the overtly nationalist (at least from an economic perspective) president care about Chinese jobs? And what did he think was going to happen once the sanctions were introduced?

The Zuckerburg Hearing has Achieved Less than Expected

Mark Zuckerburg’s appearance before Congress to – apparently – allay fears in the wake of the Cambridge Analytica scandal has failed to create the sigh of relief that was hoped for.
In fact, these types of congressional hearings must be called into question following a number of inane and borderline embarrassing questions from congressmen and women who are not members of the digital generation.
Some of the more laughable moments include Sen. Hatch asking Zuckerburg how a company makes money when it doesn’t charge for its service, (“Senator, we run ads”) and Sen. Nelson oversimplifying the advertising algorithm to relate to his love of chocolate.
The most ridiculous moments are making headlines all over the world, and eventually the question must be asked as to whether this antiquated public forum is worthwhile in this type of enquiry. The purpose is to allow members of Congress, as representatives of the people, to ask questions that are most poignant and relevant, not only to the public as a whole but also as it relates to the industry. Not a single member of Congress is qualified to question Zuckerburg, nor take part in anything but a layman’s discussion on Facebook.
Surely, a more intelligent method would be to allow specialist advisors to recommend questions to Congress, or for senior academics to be allowed to question Zuckerburg or one of his senior engineers on the intricacies of how Facebook arrives at a set of predetermined interests that are relevant for advertising.
We ended up with was a group of people who not only condescended in the most uneducated fashion, but also, in the case of many – including Ted Cruz – managed to use the forum as a political football. Sen. Cruz mentioned a bias against conservatives on the platform, and cited a chicken restaurant for some reason.
This effort and time could have been better spent by bringing the senior members of the social media world to the table, and agreeing to a set of checks and measures. Simply, what is acceptable and what isn’t in the new age of mass information.

Broadcom and Qualcomm Merger Blocked by Trump

President Donald Trump has blocked the merger of Qualcomm and Broadcom, citing national security. More specifically, the order says that there is evidence that if Singaporean business Broadcom took over US-based Qualcomm, that the company may have the potential to impair the national security of the United States through its actions.
Although it’s not uncommon for a President to block a merger, the language used by Trump certainly is odd. Again, referring to the order:
“The companies should permanently abandon the proposed takeover.”
Meanwhile, Broadcom seems to be moving ahead as if nothing had happened. The business is in the process of moving its head office from Singapore to the US and says it will continue to do so.
Additionally, Broadcom has been hedging its bets by stacking the Qualcomm board with its own team members, another common, yet potentially murky move designed to streamline an already agreed merger process. It works by enabling communication fluidity between the merging businesses, but also has the obvious benefit of having insiders to alert the other company in the event of any issues. Trump has also disallowed Broadcom’s board nominees.
The fact is that through their access to the mobile industry, a combined Qualcomm/Broadcom would have a tremendous amount of influence beyond the obvious potential monopoly that the entity could create in some areas. That influence could potentially be used to position technology assets in a disproportionate amount of devices and present the United States with a potential breach.
The process may work like this. A piece of technology is downgraded for competitive reasons – perhaps reducing costs for a major client. On the outside, this is good practice, but the downgraded component means that existing security protocols are rendered potentially useless. Should news of the new component be leaked to the right people, a potential breach of civilian and government devices could be the result.
The US government may be erring on the side of caution, but it’s hardly paranoia when businesses supplying the hardware that keeps the communication of a nation going are potentially controlled by those less favourable to certain policies.