WhatsApp Launches Self-Destruct Messages

From the end of November, Facebook’s WhatsApp users will have the option to automatically delete chats between the sender and recipient after 7 days.

Disappearing Messages

The new “disappearing messages” feature is not going to be the default setting and needs to be switched on by the user in the settings (or by the Admin in a group).  The 7-day time-limit will apply to read and unread messages. It will still be possible, however, for users who have the feature switched on to forward or screenshot any messages that they would like to keep. 

Why? Several Reasons…

The idea for this feature is similar to rival Snapchat’s “Stories” feature which allowed users to post videos and photos to their profile which then disappeared after 24 hours. As well as being a feature needed to help compete, disappearing messages also works in Instagram, and its addition to WhatsApp highlights Facebooks hopes to integrate and make Messenger, WhatsApp and Instagram interoperable in the near future.

Close To Real Conversations

Also, the WhatsApp blog says that “most of what we send doesn’t need to be everlasting”, and that “Our goal is to make conversations on WhatsApp feel as close to in-person as possible, which means they shouldn’t have to stick around forever”. WhatsApp has said that this feature is a way of keeping the app light.

Privacy

One other key reason why this feature is being added is to further emphasise the privacy aspects of the end-to-end encrypted WhatsApp.  WhatsApp’s desire to retain the end-to-end encryption of the app that is thought to be the reason why it has taken WhatsApp so long to add this feature.  On the privacy point, WhatsApp has also said that deletion of conversations after 7 days is a way to give users “peace of mind” i.e. improved privacy.

Relevance and Memory

The practical realities of people leaving things on platforms that are no longer relevant or likely to be needed again (and yet being able to remember what a conversation was about) are also things which WhatsApp says it has considered in arriving at a 7-day deletion point.

Users Getting More Control

The addition of the feature at this time can also be attributed to a general push by WhatsApp to add more features that give users more control and keep the app attractive to business users.  For example, a new storage management tool was added earlier this week to help users to manage the space taken up on their phones by gifs, videos and images sent via WhatsApp. 

Good News

It can’t do any harm to roll out an essentially positive feature at a time when WhatsApp is trying to recover from criticism in recent years about e2e apps providing a safe communications channel for wrong-doers (e.g. the London Bridge attack), and recent allegations that third-party apps may be able to use WhatsApp’s online signalling feature to enable monitoring of the digital habits of anyone using WhatsApp.

What Does This Mean For Your Business?

For WhatsApp users, this feature is a value-adding option that could help to compete with rival message apps, retain their loyalty, and improve some practical aspects of the app (saving space on user’s phones), feeling more in control as well as bringing a feel-good factor about privacy. These factors are all valued by business users, who WhatsApp claim to have more than 50 million more of each month. For Facebook, not only is this one way to keep its pledge on improving privacy, but this is also an important stepping-stone in the integration and the interoperability of WhatsApp, Instagram and Messenger.  Disappearing messages is also one of many augmentations of the WhatsApp service (along with WhatsApp Business and a new storage feature) that will keep this very successful free app up-to-date and relevant to current user needs going forward.

Huge Demand for Employee Monitoring Software

The move to home working has prompted more businesses to invest in more digital, online staff-monitoring tools to help with transparency and productivity.

Home Working

Working at home because of the pandemic has led to companies wanting to monitor employee online activity and employees becoming concerned about how this could impact upon their privacy.

Which Tools?

Real-time, employee tracking/monitoring tools include software such as StaffCop, Teramind, Hubstaff, Time Doctor, Flexi Spy, and CleverControl.  The primary focus of these tools is to enable managers to measure the productivity of employees and to flag-up any potential issues e.g. employees not working within company guidelines, or employee productivity levels indicating that support/training/help is needed. Also, monitoring can reveal evidence of other serious issues e.g. bullying.

Monitoring What?

The kinds of metrics and details that employee monitoring software solutions can highlight are:

– Taking sample screenshots/recording screens.

– Whether employees are active/inactive during working hours.

– How much time is spent on the Internet, plus whether games are being played or social media accessed too much.

– Whether employees are using work devices for work or private purposes.

Increased Demand

Whilst many industries monitor employee activity and productivity in a certain way, the current physical division of the workforce, particularly in service industries, away from the office and any normal office-based monitoring methods has led to an increase in demand for and the use of employee monitoring/tracking software solutions.

For example, while only 30 per cent of companies monitored their employees this way in 2015, this figure rose to 50 per cent in 2018 (Gartner) and it was predicted (Gartner) that 80 per cent of companies would be monitoring employees anyway by 2020.

Research by Accenture in 2019 found that 62 per cent of workers said that their organisations were using new technologies.  When the pandemic hit, however,  a Top 10 VPN study found that demand for employee surveillance software (based on internet searches) increased a massive 87 per cent in April and this carried on into May where searches were 71 per cent higher than pre-pandemic levels.  Internet searches for the phrase “work from home monitoring software” rose over 4,000 per cent in April and remained at over 2000 per cent.

Think They Are Being Monitored

One other interesting study by ‘Clutch’ in August revealed that 21 per cent of respondents believe that their companies use employee monitoring software to track their activities and only 10 per cent of employees would have more trust in their company if that company used monitoring software to track their work.

The Law and Advice

Concerns about employee monitoring focus on the issues of data protection (the data gathered about individual employees) and privacy.  Laws relating to the monitoring of employees include Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights whereby individuals have a non-absolute right to respect for their private and family life and correspondence and GDPR.  Under GDPR, data needs to be processed lawfully, fairly, and transparently as well as being collected for specified, explicit and legitimate purposes and not further processed in a way incompatible with those purposes.  Also, monitoring data must be adequate, relevant, and limited to what is necessary for those purposes.

Further guidance comes from the ACAS which (on its website) notes that although employers can monitor employees, it should be remembered that workers are entitled to some privacy at work and employers must tell employees about any monitoring arrangements and the reason for it. Employers should have procedures in place setting out what is and what isn’t allowed, and these procedures should be made clear and understood by all workers before monitoring begins. Generally, employers must have a genuine reason to carry out covert monitoring such as criminal activities or malpractice, and any monitoring should be limited, targeted and within certain times, and employers should also have regard for private communications.

What Does This Mean For Your Business?

Employee monitoring software has been used for many years as a tool to help manage productivity and ensure that company policies and procedures are adhered to.  The upsurge in demand this year is, however, an understandable reaction by businesses as they try to very quickly adapt to having to suddenly manage a remote workforce and yet maintain standards and styles of management that are consistent with their business. Monitoring employees in this way can bring many business benefits such as giving closer and unbiased insights, saving costs, freeing-up management time and getting early warnings.  It is important, however, to understand that there are rules and guidelines to adhere to and that keeping employee trust, maintaining morale and displaying behaviour that sends positive motivational messages to employees can also be contributors to productivity.

Are You Being Tracked By WhatsApp Apps?

A recent Business Insider Report has highlighted how third-party apps may be exposing some data and details of the activity of WhatsApp users.

WhatsApp – Known For Encryption

Facebook-owned WhatsApp is known for its end-to-end encryption.  This means that only the sender and receiver can read the message between them. 

In addition to being convenient, free, and widely used in business, the secure encryption that users also value has even been a target for concerned governments (including the UK’s) who have campaigned for a ‘back door’ to be built-in in order to allow at least some security monitoring.

Able To Exploit Online Signalling

If the Business Insider revelations are correct, however, third-party apps may already be making the usage of WhatsApp less secure than users may think.  The business news website has reported that third-party apps may be able to use WhatsApp’s online signalling feature to enable monitoring of the digital habits of anyone using WhatsApp without their knowledge or consent.  This could include tracking who users are talking to, when they are using their devices and even when they are sleeping.

Shoulder Surfing

Back in April, there were also media reports that hackers may be potentially able to use ‘shoulder surfing’ (spying in close proximity to another phone) and the knowledge of a user’s phone number to obtain an account restoration code from WhatsApp which could allow a user’s WhatsApp account to be compromised.

Numbers In Google Search Results

Also, back in June, an Indian researcher highlighted how WhatsApp’s ‘Click to Chat’ feature may not hide a user’s phone number in the link and that looking up “site:wa.me” in Google, at the time, allegedly revealed 300,000 users’ phone numbers through public Google search results.

Other Reports

Other reports questioning how secure the data of WhatsApp users really is have also focused on how, although messages may be secure between users in real-time, backups stored on a device or in the cloud may not be under WhatsApp’s end-to-end encryption protection.  Also, although WhatsApp only stores undelivered messages for 30 days, some security commentators have highlighted how the WhatsApp message log could be accessed through the chat backups that are sometimes saved to a user’s phone.

Signal?

One potential signal that WhatsApp may not be as secure as users may think could be the fact that, back in February, The European Commission asked staff to use the SIgnal app instead of WhatsApp.

What Does This Mean For Your Business?

As may reasonably be expected from a widely used and free app owned by a tech giant, yes, WhatsApp collects usage and some other data from users, but it does still have end-to-end encryption. There are undoubtedly ways in which aspects of security around the app and its use could be compromised but for most business users it has become a very useful and practical business tool that has become central to how they regularly communicate with each other.  At the current time, WhatsApp’s owner, Facebook, appears to be busy concentrating much of its effort on competing with Zoom and on promoting its own desktop Messenger app free group video calls and chats that it has just launched. Even though WhatsApp is coming in for some criticism over possible security problems, the plan is still to grow the app, add more features, and keep it current and competitive which is why it recently ceased support for old operating systems.

Most People Happy With Virtual Doctors’ Appointments

A recent survey from Visionable has shown that 73 per cent of people are happy with the idea of having video consultations with their GP.

Pandemic Strengthens View

The survey, which originally took into account the views of 1500 people back in February (i.e. before the UK lockdown), found that at that time, 69 per cent of people were in favour of video consultations with their GP. A further 1525 people were then surveyed in May, after the lockdown and the spread of the virus. Perhaps not surprisingly, it was found that there had been an increase to 73 per cent of the number of people who preferred the idea of a video consultation rather than a (potentially risky) visit to a GP’s surgery/medical centre.

Physical Visit Not Always Necessary

The survey showed that by May this year, nearly three-quarters of respondents agreed that it is not always necessary to physically see a doctor to receive appropriate care.

Most GPs Now Offer Video Consultations

Health Secretary, Matt Hancock, recently claimed that 99 per cent of GP practices now offer video consultations.  This is an 80 per cent rise since the beginning of the pandemic. Hospitals also now offer video visits and virtual outpatient appointments.

Concerns

Although COVID-19 and the need to stay apart to avoid infection has been the key driver for the big swing to video consultation availability, concerns still exist about the format itself and its limitations compared to a face-to-face visit.  For example, the Visionable survey revealed that security is seen as a risk by more than half of patients, women are more concerned about showing body parts and some patients are concerned about making mistakes with technology.

Also, some professionals who were part of the survey expressed concerns that the lack of a “laying on of hands” for comfort or for investigation, made it more difficult to build engagement and trust with patients.

Favours The More Affluent

The Visionable survey also found that those on high or mid incomes are happier to have a video consultation.  It may also be the case that these people are more used to using technology such as video conferencing platforms e.g. Zoom or Teams, as part of the work and increasingly so with the remote working necessitated by the lockdown. 

Older patients may also be finding the current situation of GP Consultations a challenge. For example, back in July, Age Cymru in Wales expressed concern that older people, particularly those over 75, were finding the idea of video consultations difficult, and that this is the age group who often need healthcare the most.

Perception Problems

Despite GPs widely offering video consultations as an option now, reports in the media that appropriate access to general practice is a widespread problem have led to complaints and staff members being verbally abused by the public. 

Better Than No Consultation

Whatever the concerns about video consultations as opposed to face-to-face consultations, many commentators agree that a video consultation is better than no consultation at all.  For example, there are widespread concerns that serious conditions like cancer are being missed as patients have simply avoided making any kind of appointment to address medical concerns due to fears of catching COVID-19, and that there is the lack of awareness of the availability of video consultations and a perception that medical professionals may be too busy at the current time to see patients normally.

What Does This Mean For Your Business?

The 70 IT companies that replaced the old GPSoC framework are benefitting from the move by NHS digital to ensure that GP surgeries, medical/healthcare centres and hospitals all have the necessary solutions in place to conduct video consultations and perform other services and communications tasks digitally.  Users of GP and NHS services now have another option for consultations that may ensure that they can get an appointment more quickly, albeit online, and that doctors can communicate with patients safely (for both) during the pandemic, and continue to operate that way going forward.  Less affluent and older patients, however, may struggle to access video consultations and may, therefore, be more at risk in a number of ways. Doctors may also miss some aspects of face-to-face meetings with their patients and there is a possibility that other important health factors may be missed without a more holistic, face-to-face meeting. COVID-19 is, however, now firmly dictating how many medical services can be accessed and may indirectly be causing many patients with potentially serious conditions to avoid making appointments at this time.  As shown by the survey, however, many people may be warming to and becoming used the idea of video appointments and online meetings for all kinds of things.

Featured Article – Facial Recognition, Facial Authentication and the Future

Facial Recognition and facial authentication sound similar but there are distinct differences and this article takes a broad a look at how both are playing more of a role in our lives going forward. So firstly, what’s the difference?

Facial Recognition

This refers to the biometric technology system that maps facial features from a photograph or video taken of a person e.g. while walking in the street or at an event and then compares that with the information stored in a database of faces to find a match. The key element here is that the cameras are separate from the database which is stored on a server.  The technology must, therefore, connect to the server and trawl through the database to find the face.  Facial recognition is often involuntary i.e. it is being used somewhere that a person happens to go – it has not been sought or requested.

Facial recognition is generally used for purposes such as (police) surveillance and monitoring, crime prevention, law enforcement and border control.

Facial Authentication

Facial Authentication, on the other hand, is a “match on device” way of a person proving that they are who they claim to be.  Unlike facial recognition, which requires details of faces to be stored on a server somewhere, a facial authentication scan compares the current face with the one that is already stored (encrypted) on the device.  Typically, facial authentication is used by a person to gain access to their own device, account, or system.  Apple’s FaceID is an example of a facial authentication system. Unlike facial recognition, it is not something that involuntarily happens to a person but is something that a person actively uses to gain entry/access.

Facial recognition and facial authentication both use advanced technologies such as AI.

Facial Recognition – Advantages

The advantages of facial recognition technology include:

– Saving on Human Resources. AI-powered facial recognition systems can scan large areas, large moving crowds and can pick out individuals of interest, therefore, saving on human resources.  They can also work 24/7, all year round.

– Flexibility. Cameras that link to facial recognition systems can be set up almost anywhere, fixed in place or as part of mobile units.

– Speed. The match with a face on the database happens very quickly (in real-time), thereby enabling those on the ground to quickly apprehend or stop an individual.

– Accuracy – Systems are very accurate on the whole, although police deployments in the UK have resulted in some mistaken arrests.

Facial Recognition Challenges

Some of the main challenges to the use of facial recognition in recent times have been a lack of public trust in how and why the systems are deployed, how accurate they are (leading to possible wrongful arrest), how they affect privacy, and the lack of clear regulations to effectively control their use.

For example, in the UK:

– In December 2018, Elizabeth Denham, the UK’s Information Commissioner launched a formal investigation into how police forces used FRT after high failure rates, misidentifications and worries about legality, bias, and privacy. This stemmed from the trial of ‘real-time’ facial recognition technology on Champions League final day June 2017 in Cardiff, by South Wales and Gwent Police forces, which was criticised for costing £177,000 and yet only resulting in one arrest of a local man whose arrest was unconnected.

– Trials of FRT at the 2016 and 2017 Notting Hill Carnivals led to the Police facing criticism that FRT was ineffective, racially discriminatory, and confused men with women.

– In September 2018 a letter, written by Big Brother Watch (a privacy campaign group) and signed by more than 18 politicians, 25 campaign groups, and numerous academics and barristers, highlighted concerns that facial recognition is being adopted in the UK before it has been properly scrutinised.

– In September 2019 it was revealed that the owners of King’s Cross Estate had been using FRT without telling the public, and with London’s Metropolitan Police Service supplying the images for a database.

– A recently published letter by London Assembly members Caroline Pidgeon MBE AM and Sian Berry AM to Metropolitan Police commissioner Cressida Dick asked whether the FRT technology could be withdrawn during the COVID-19 pandemic on the grounds that it has been shown to be generally inaccurate, and it still raises questions about civil liberties. The letter also highlighted concerns about the general inaccuracy of FRT and the example of first two deployments of LFR this year, where more than 13,000 faces were scanned,  only six individuals were stopped, and five of those six were misidentified and incorrectly stopped by the police. Also, of the eight people who created a ‘system alert’, seven were incorrectly identified. Concerns have also been raised about how the already questionable accuracy of FRT could be challenged further by people wearing face masks to curb the spread of COVID-19.

In the EU:

Back in January, the European Commission considered a ban on the use of facial recognition in public spaces for up to five years while new regulations for its use are put in place.

In the U.S.

In 2018, a report by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) found that Amazon’s Rekognition software was racially biased after a trial in which it misidentified 28 black members of Congress.

In December 2019, a US report showed that, after tests by The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) of 189 algorithms from 99 developers, their facial recognition technology was found to be less accurate at identifying African-American and Asian faces, and was particularly prone to misidentifying African-American females.

Backlash and Tech Company Worries

The killing of George Floyd and of other black people in the U.S by police led to a backlash against facial recognition technology (FRT) and strengthened fears by big tech companies that they may, in some way be linked with its negative aspects. 

Even though big tech companies supply facial recognition software such as Amazon (Rekognition), Microsoft and IBM, some have not sold it to police departments pending regulation, but most have also had their own concerns for some years.  For example, back in 2018, Microsoft said on its blog that “Facial recognition technology raises issues that go to the heart of fundamental human rights protections like privacy and freedom of expression. These issues heighten responsibility for tech companies that create these products. In our view, they also call for thoughtful government regulation and for the development of norms around acceptable uses”.

With big tech companies keen to maintain an ethical and socially responsible public profile, follow-up on their previous concerns about problems with FRT systems and a lack of regulation,  and to distance themselves from the behaviour of police as regards racism/racial profiling or any connection to it e.g. by supplying FRT software, four big tech companies recently announced the following:

– Amazon has announced that it is implementing a one-year moratorium on police use of its FRT in order to give Congress enough time to implement appropriate rules. 

– After praising progress being made in the recent passing of “landmark facial recognition legislation” by Washington Governor Jay Inslee, Microsoft has announced that it will not sell its FRT to police departments until there is a federal law (grounded in human rights) to regulate its use.

– IBM’s CEO, Arvind Krishna, has sent a letter to the U.S. Congress with policy proposals to advance racial equality, and stating that IBM will no longer offer its general-purpose facial recognition or analysis software.

– Google has also distanced itself from FRT with Timnit Gebru, leader of Google’s ethical artificial intelligence team, commenting in the media about why she thinks that facial recognition is too dangerous to be used for law enforcement purposes at the current time.

Masks

The need to wear masks during the pandemic has proven to be a real challenge to facial recognition technology.  For example, recent research results from the US National Institute of Standards and Technology showed that even the most advanced facial recognition algorithms can only identify as little as between 2 and 50 per cent of faces when masks are worn.

Call For Clear Masks

There have been some calls for the development of clear or opaque masks or masks with a kind of ‘window’, as highlighted by the National Deaf Children’s Society, to help the 12 million people in the UK who are deaf or suffer from degrees of hearing loss e.g. to help with lip-reading, visual cues and facial expressions.  Some companies are now producing these masks e.g. the FDA-approved ‘Leaf’ transparent mask by Redcliffe Medical Devices in Michigan.  It remains to be seen how good facial recognition technology is at identifying people with a clear/opaque mask as opposed to a normal mask.

Authentication Challenges

The security, accuracy, and speed challenges of more traditional methods of authentication and verification have made facial authentication look like a more effective and attractive option.  For example, passwords can be stolen/cracked and 2-factor authentication can be less convenient and can be challenging if, for example, more than one user needs access to an account.

Facial Authentication Advantages

Some of the big advantages of facial authentication include:

– Greater Accuracy Assurance. The fact that a person needs to take a photo of their government-issued ID photo e.g. from a passport to match with a selfie + embedded 3D likeness detection to set up their facial authentication on their device means that it is likely to be accurate in identifying them.

– Ease of Use. Apple’s  Face ID is easy to use and is likely to become a preferred way of authentication by users.

– Better Fraud Detection. Companies and individuals using facial authentication may have a better chance of detecting attempted fraud (as it happens) than other current systems. Companies that use facial authentication with systems may, therefore, be able to more confidently assess risk, minimise fraud losses, and provide better protection for company and customer data.

– Faster For Users. Face ID, for example, saves time compared to other methods.

– Cross-Platform Portability. 3D face maps can be created on many devices with a camera, and users can enrol using a laptop webcam and authenticate from a smartphone or tablet. Facial authentication can, therefore, be used for many different purposes.

The Future – Biometric Authentication

The small and unique physical differences that we all have (which would be very difficult to copy) make biometric authentication something that’s likely become more widely used going forward.  For example, retinas, irises, voices, facial characteristics, and fingerprints are all ways to clearly tell one person from another. Biometric authentication works by comparing a set of biometric data that is preset by the owner of the device with a second set of biometric data that belongs to a device visitor. Many of today’s smartphones already have facial or fingerprint recognition.

The challenge may be, however, if biometric data is required for entry systems access that is not “on device” i.e. a comparison will have to be made with data stored on a server, thereby adding a possible security risk step.

Human Micro-Chipping

There may be times where we do not have access to our devices, where fast identification is necessary or where we may need to carry data and information that can’t be easily learned or remembered e.g. our medical files.  For these situations,  some people have presented the argument for human micro-chipping where microchip implants, which are cylindrical ‘barcodes’, which can be scanned through a layer of skin to transmit a unique signal.

Neuralink Implant

Elon’s Musk’s Neuralink idea to create an implantable device that can act as an interface between the human brain and a computer could conceivably be used in future for advanced authentication methods.

Looking Forward

The benefits of facial recognition e.g. for crime prevention and law enforcement are obvious but for the technology to move forwards, regulatory hurdles, matters of public trust and privacy, and technical challenges e.g. bias, and accuracy need to be overcome.

Facial authentication provides a fast, accurate and easy way for people to prove that they are who they say they are.  This benefits both businesses and their customers in terms of security, speed and convenience as well as improving efficiency.

More services where sensitive data is concerned e.g. financial and medical services, and government agency interactions are likely to require facial authentication in the near future.

Voice Control Your Printer

Amazon has announced its new ‘Printing With Alexa’ service that allows owners of Echo devices to operate their printer using voice commands.

Print What?

Printing With Alexa allows the simple “Alexa, print….” followed by what the user requires to produce a printed document.  Amazon says that the kinds of things that can be printed this way include “shopping and to-do lists, games like mazes and Sudoku, graph paper, lined paper, and test pages.”

The list of different documents, many of which are related to family activities, appears to reflect the working and learning from home that has become the new norm for many people over the last 6 months, and possibly again in the future with second spikes or more lockdowns. 

Connecting

Amazon says that the service will work with compatible printers that are connected to the same wireless network as your Alexa device (provided it is a compatible Echo device too). The service is activated when the user says “Alexa, discover my printer”, or navigates to the “Devices” screen in the Alexa App, selects “+”, selects “Add Device”, and chooses “Printer” as the device type. Amazon says that the service works with most IPP-enabled network-connected printers manufactured by HP, Brother, Canon, and Epson.

Ink or Toner Re-Orders

The service also enables automatic ordering ink or toner from Amazon at a 10 per cent discount, thereby acting as a kind of hands-free replenishment process and providing extra revenue for Amazon.

Brand Voice

Back in February, before the worldwide pandemic lockdowns and working-from-home hit, Amazon was more focused on features for the business market with Alexa as it offered a new ‘Brand Voice’ capability through AWS (Brand Polly) to companies which enabled them to create their own custom voice for Alexa to replace the default voice with one that reflected their “persona”, such as the voice of Colonel Sanders for KFC.

What Does This Mean For Your Business?

The ‘Printing With Alexa’ service is another step in Amazon’s plan to tie Alexa (and Echo devices) more closely in with all aspects of the user’s life e.g. making phone calls, setting their appointments, alarms and reminders, and linking in with many other devices on their home network plus IoT devices.  This strategy may put Amazon’s digital assistant at the heart of the operation of modern home and will, as in this case with the printer cartridge re-ordering, tie in with Amazon’s retailing platforms, thereby providing increased revenue for Amazon and a monetising of Alexa.  This may even spread to the ordering of groceries.  For example, in July, Amazon announced that it was taking on the supermarkets and Ocado in the UK with free grocery deliveries from its Amazon Fresh service.

Even though the pandemic has dampened business-targeted announcements, Amazon is still planning to keep monetising Alexa in the business market too where there is huge potential for modifications and different targeted and customised versions of Alexa and digital assistants.  For example, in April last year, Amazon launched its Alexa for Business Blueprints, which is a platform that enables businesses to make their own Alexa-powered applications for their organisation and incorporate their own customised, private ‘skills’.

Amazon Review Fraud

An FT investigation appears to have uncovered an estimated 20,000 Amazon reviews where the reviewers were suspected of being paid to give a five-star rating.

Reviews

The Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) in the UK estimates that £23 billion a year of UK consumer spending is potentially influenced by online reviews.  This makes them especially important to the many businesses selling through platforms like Amazon.

The CMA also acknowledges that there are practices that can breach the Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations 2008 (CPRs) and UK Advertising Codes and that these practices may prevent consumers from choosing the product or service that best suits their needs.  These can include businesses writing or commissioning fake positive reviews about themselves, businesses or individuals writing or commissioning fake negative reviews, review sites ‘cherry-picking’ positive reviews, or suppressing negative reviews and review sites’ moderation processes possibly causing some genuine negative reviews not to be published.

One recently reported trend appears to be the use of multiple one-star feedback reviews for products on Amazon, perhaps funded by competitors, as a form of manipulation.

Deletions

The FT investigation, which has led to the deletion by Amazon of the 20,000 allegedly fraudulent reviews reportedly showed the UK’s top Amazon reviewer appeared to have left an average of one five-star rating on the platform every four hours in August.

How Can It Happen?

The process that leads to fraudulent/fake five-star reviews may begin with companies meeting reviewers on social networks (e.g. in Facebook groups) or messaging apps, reviewers receiving free product samples, a good review being left on the platform and the reviewer then being given a refund on the product that was free to them in the first place.

Not New

Fake and fraudulent reviews are not new. Back in July, The Markup claimed to have found suspicious-looking reviews on Amazon and back in December 2019 a Daily Mail report claimed that Marketing firms were selling positive reviews on Amazon. At the time, Amazon said that it had already taken legal action against some firms for this.

Amazon’s Efforts

In the UK, fake reviews fall under UK consumer protection law and last year alone, Amazon is reported to have spent 400 million (US dollars) to protect customers from reviews abuse, fraud, and other forms of misconduct.  It has also bee reported that Amazon monitors around 10 million review submissions each week before they go public in an attempt to protect buyers and the credibility of its own review system.  

How To Spot Fake Reviews

Ways to spot fake review include using services like free site ‘Fakespot’ where users can copy and paste a link to a product page, then click Analyse to show any evidence of fake reviews.

What Does This Mean For Your Business?

Amazon is a vital sales platform for many businesses and, with the power that good reviews have in increasing sales and bad or low star reviews have in deterring sales, it is clear to see how some businesses may be tempted to resort to paid-for manipulation as a competitive tactic. Consumers, Amazon itself, and businesses that are affected by unfair reviews all lose out where fake/fraudulent/manipulated reviews can slip through the vetting process. Many people feel, therefore, that Amazon and other platforms (e.g. social media) need to work together and increase the effort, investment, technology, and creative thinking that could deliver a much improved or an innovative and new review system.

Featured Article – Just What Is The IoT?

With a vast and growing number of business, industry, consumer and civic IoT devices and systems now being used, we look at their advantages, the threats to the IoT and how we move forward in a way that maximises the benefits and security.

The Internet of Things (IoT)

IoT devices are those devices that are now present in most offices and homes that have a connection to the Internet and are, therefore, ‘smart’ and inter-connected. These devices, each of which has an IP address, could be anything from white goods and smart thermostats to CCTV cameras, medical implants, industrial controllers and building entry systems.

IoT devices transmit and collect data which can be processed in data-centres or the cloud.  IoT devices use several different communications standards and protocols to communicate with other devices.  These include Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, ZigBee (for low-power, short-distance communication) or message queuing telemetry transport (MQTT).

Categories

The IoT can be categorised as the consumer IoT, industrial IoT, smart homes and offices and even smart cities.

Cloud

Cloud providers also provide IoT platforms that allow IoT devices and gateways to connect with the applications used to deal with the IoT data, coordinate IoT systems and help with their functionality.

Billions

Estimates on the growing number of IoT devices vary but there is thought to be anywhere between 30 and 50 billion IoT devices worldwide which could generate more than 4 zettabytes of data this year. 

The Advantages of the IoT

Devices and systems that are ‘smart’ i.e. have an internet connection have several key advantages including:

– Data can be gathered from IoT devices that can be used to improve design, operation, security and more. This can help to create new opportunities and launch new, improved products.

– They can be updated and even patched remotely and quickly without requiring physical parts to be replaced.

– Customer interaction and engagement with the product and the brand can be increased by having a smart function.

– Companies can use IoT technologies to reduce their operational costs e.g. by helping to track and monitor equipment and reduce downtime, predict errors, and reduce power consumption.

IoT Security Risks

The risks are that the Internet connection in IoT devices can, if adequate security measures are not in place, provide a way in for hackers to steal personal data, spy on users in their own homes, or remotely take control of devices in order to misuse them.

The main security issue of many of these devices is that they have pre-set, default unchangeable passwords, and once these passwords have been discovered by cyber-criminals, the IoT devices are wide open to being tampered with and misused.

Also, the fact that IoT devices are so prevalent and are often overlooked in security planning (and are therefore likely left unguarded) means that they are vulnerable to hacks and attacks.

Another big risk is that IoT devices are deployed in many systems that link to (and are supplied by) major utilities e.g. smart meters in homes. This means that a large-scale attack on these IoT systems could affect the economy.

“Shadow IoT” devices i.e. connected to corporate networks without the knowledge of IT teams, also now pose a threat to organisations by allowing attackers a way to get into a corporate network. These devices can include fitness trackers, smartwatches, and medical devices.

Real-Life Examples

A poll by Extreme Networks of 540 IT professionals in the U.S, Europe and the Asia Pacific regions found that 70 per cent of companies who said they employed IoT devices were aware of successful or attempted hacks.

Hacks of IoT devices do not just happen to businesses.  With so many IoT devices being present in the modern home we are all now at risk. Some real-life examples of IoT hacking include:

– Hackers talking to a young girl in her bedroom via a ‘Ring’ home security camera (Mississippi, December 2019).  In the same month, a Florida family were subjected to vocal, racial abuse in their own home and subjected to a loud alarm blast after a hacker took over their ‘Ring’ security system without permission.

– In May 2018, A US woman reported that a private home conversation had been recorded by her Amazon’s voice assistant, and then sent it to a random phone contact who happened to be her husband’s employee.

– Back in 2017, researchers discovered that a sex toy with an in-built camera could also be hacked.

– In October 2016, the ‘Mirai’ attack used thousands of household IoT devices as a botnet to launch an online distributed denial of service (DDoS) attack (on the DNS service ‘Dyn’) with global consequences.

2020 Hacks

Examples of how some bigger IoT systems and devices have been attacked this year include:

– In February, there were reports that a vulnerability in over 2,300 smart building access systems was being exploited by attackers to launch DDoS attacks.

– In May, supercomputing systems in the UK, Germany, and Switzerland were targeted and infected with cryptocurrency mining malware.

– Also in May, a new form of malware called Kaiji was found to have been used to target IoT devices and Linux servers to make them part of a botnet that could be used for several different types of DDoS attacks.

IoT Security Legislation on the Way

In January this year, the UK government’s Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS), announced that it is preparing new legislation to enforce new standards that will protect users of IoT devices from known hacking and spying risks.

IoT Household Gadgets

This commitment to legislate leads on from last year’s proposal by then Digital Minister Margot James and follows a seven-month consultation with GCHQ’s National Cyber Security Centre, and with stakeholders including manufacturers, retailers, and academics. 

The proposed new legislation will improve digital protection for users of a growing number of smart household devices (devices with an Internet connection) that are broadly grouped together as the ‘Internet of Things’ (IoT).  These gadgets include kitchen appliances and gadgets, connected TVs, smart speakers, home security cameras, baby monitors and more.

In business settings, IoT devices can include elevators, doors, or whole heating and fire safety systems in office buildings.

The proposed new legislation will be intended to put pressure on manufacturers to ensure that:

– All internet-enabled devices have a unique password and not a default one.

– There is a public point of contact for the reporting of any vulnerabilities in IoT products.

– The minimum length of time that a device will receive security updates is clearly stated.

Challenges

Even though legislation could make manufacturers try harder to make IoT devices more secure, technical experts and commentators have pointed out that there are many challenges to making internet-enabled/smart devices secure because:

  • Adding security to household internet-enabled ‘commodity’ items costs money. This would have to be passed on to the customer in higher prices, but this would mean that the price would not be competitive. Therefore, it may be that security is being sacrificed to keep costs down – sell now and worry about security later.
  • Even if there is a security problem in a device, the firmware (the device’s software) is not always easy to update. There are also costs involved in doing so which manufacturers of lower-end devices may not be willing to incur.
  • With devices which are typically infrequent and long-lasting purchases e.g. white goods, we tend to keep them until they stop working, and we are unlikely to replace them because they have a security vulnerability that is not fully understood. As such, these devices are likely to remain available to be used by cyber-criminals for a long time.

Looking Ahead

The IoT brings many advantages to businesses in terms of cost savings, the gathering of valuable data, monitoring and management. For consumers, smart devices deliver new levels of value-adding functionality and looking ahead, towns and cities will begin to rely even more on the benefits of IoT devices and systems.

The vast number of IoT devices, many which go unnoticed or fall outside of realistic risk assessments and/or still contain known weaknesses and vulnerabilities mean that there are big concerns about IoT security and privacy going forward. 

New legislation could mean that manufacturers in some parts of the world are more motivated to pay greater attention to the security and labelling of IoT devices although there is still some way to go.  That said, smart systems combined with other technologies such as AI and cloud technologies look like providing more opportunities for businesses in the future.

Tech Tip – Sync Sticky Notes Across Devices

If you are using Windows 10 and need some simple, handy reminders about work, appointments, calls and more, synced across all your devices and other apps, Microsoft’s Sticky Notes app can help. Here’s how it works:

– Open the Sticky Notes app (type Sticky Notes in the Start menu).

– When you first launch Sticky Notes sign-in to your Windows Account (as invited by the on-screen message). This will enable the syncing of your Sticky Notes between other devices on the account.

– Click on the + link to type a note which is then automatically stored in the Sticky Notes History.  Your notes can then be clicked on to re-open, edit, formatted and more.

– Notes can also be synchronised to the Cloud by going to the History window, clicking on the Settings icon and signing in with your Microsoft account.

– If you move to another device with recent Windows updates (from 10 October 2018) installed you should be able to see your stored, synched Sticky Notes.

Featured Article – Remote Working and Office 365

Remote working during the pandemic has made businesses look more closely at what IT tools are best for the job.  Here is a look at what Microsoft’s Office 365 has to offer.

Remote Working

ONS figures show that 53 per cent of those in the information and communication industries (for an example ) had the opportunity to work from home using IT and the Business Impact of Coronavirus Survey (BICS) showed that between 23 March to 5 April, 48 per cent of the workforce was working remotely from their normal place.

Platforms and Remote Working Solutions

There have been many reports in recent months about how video conferencing and collaborative working platforms such as Zoom enjoyed a boom in user numbers, particularly at the beginning of the pandemic in Europe.  For example, at the beginning of April, Zoom’s daily user numbers were reported to have jumped from 10 million to 200 million.

Microsoft Teams, which is part of Microsoft 365, also emerged as an extremely popular option and, at the end of April, reports indicated that daily user numbers had jumped 70 per cent to 75 million.

Office 365

Office 365 is a subscription SaaS from Microsoft that gives users access to the latest Office apps, can be installed on PCs, Macs, tablets, and phones, and offers 1 TB of OneDrive cloud storage as well as a variety of feature updates and upgrades.

Remote Working and Office 365

Some of the features and benefits that have made Office 365 a good option for remote working include:

– Teams.  As mentioned, Teams has been a popular aspect of Office 365 during the last few months. It offers users features like chatting within the document, video calling and instant messaging, sharing screens, and a Microsoft Whiteboard app.  Users can therefore chat, meet, call, and collaborate from anywhere, anytime. Meetings can be 1:1, or video chat chats can be with up to 250 people at once.  Teams also allows users to present live to up to 10,000 people. 

– Real-time document co-authoring (e.g. through SharePoint).  This feature allows workers to contribute to a document and always be working on the most up-to-date version. For example, when one user shares a Word document with another, they receive a link that opens the document in the recipient’s web browser.  Here, the user can see if anyone else is working on the document, and what changes they are making.

– Microsoft To Do.  This is a cloud-based task management app that is combined with Teams.  The app allows users to manage their tasks via their smartphone, tablet, and computer, thereby offering a convenient and fast way to stay organised while working remotely.

– OneNote. Microsoft’s OneNote is a cloud-based collaborative storage and sharing app where team members can share their documents and where anything written or edited offline will update when a connection is next used, thereby keeping everything current within OneNote.

– Security Features: Mobile Device Manager, Advanced Threat Protection and Multi-factor Authentication.  Remote working has meant the need for an even greater focus on security as cybercriminals have tried to take advantage of the workforce being physically divided.  The Mobile Device Manager in 365 enables the IT team to wipe data from a device if it’s been lost/stolen or infected with malware while Advanced Threat Protection provides a powerful cloud-based email filtering, and Multi-Factor Authentication provides extra layers of security to make it much more difficult for cybercriminals (e.g. fingerprint scanning and biometric data).

– Outlook + Calendar.  The Outlook Calendar allows users to click any time slot and create appointments and events, organize meetings, view group schedules, and much more. Outlook also lets users see everyone’s calendar so they can check a person’s availability before organising anything, thereby saving time and trouble.  Outlook’s widely used email management system has many great features for remote working anyway including attachments, alerts, @Mentions and more.

– Office Lens.  This is a really convenient, time-saving pdf scanner app that allows the user to scan and share documents quickly into OneNote and OneDrive.

– Planner.  This offers remote workers a way to organise teamwork and tasks and as well as being a file-sharing point, it’s also a hub for team members to create plans, organise and assign tasks to users and check updates on progress through helpful dashboards.

– Yammer. This Enterprise Social Network (ESN) that comes as part of Office 365 is a social networking tool that can connect and engage across an organisation, so users can discuss ideas, share updates, and network with others workers in the organisation globally.

Looking Forward

One key aspect of why these many tools work well is because they all integrate and are very compatible with the entire 365 environment.

The pandemic has taught many businesses that they can still work and function effectively through remote working in a way that they may not have imagined was possible before.  Microsoft’s 365 and especially Teams has proven to be very valuable to many businesses that will, no doubt, consider how they can keep using it to leverage its features to create value and a cohesive approach as we move forward into less certain future, where lockdowns could come again at any time.