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Brislen on Tech

Paul Brislen, Editor. 21 July 2017, 4:05 pm

Your taxpayer dollar at work

I'm getting bored with this story. It's the age old and seemingly endless clash of cultures that happens when politicians get told about the Internet.

We've had copyright issues, we've had "just ban them" filters, we've had defamation and libel suits and we've had the series of tubes. Lately it's been a battle about encryption and security and the complete lack of understanding about how the internet works that seems to be fostered among our political class.

And I do mean "our" in the broadest sense because while the current shenanigans are going on in the US, UK and Australian governments (net neutrality, security and backdoor access that isn't backdoor access respectively), all governments seem prone to it and we've had our fair share in New Zealand. I need not remind you all about the various iterations we've seen here in recent times.

Australia's prime minister has declared that Australia has but one rule and that is the rule of law and that mathematics need not apply. I am reminded of some dictator or other who suggested that pi was an ugly number and he would reset it to 3.1 because that was much tidier.

Aussie PM Malcolm Turnbull says all messaging apps must be weakened to allow his spies to have access to the content predominantly for policing purposes. What Turnbull refuses to accept is that a lot of these apps are built without any capability for the app creator to decrypt and store said content and that no amount of wailing will change that. Turnbull maintains that if software developers want to sell their products in Australia they'll jolly well comply or face The Full Fury of The Law or some such.

What Mr Turnbull fails to grasp is the international nature of mobile devices (which are, by their very nature, mobile) or the very nature of app development or indeed the basic financial arrangements that occur with these apps - that is, users tend not to be the ones paying for the service.

We can smile and laugh and point but the sad truth is this ship has already sailed from New Zealand waters. Our laws are held up by Turnbull and his counterparts in the UK as shining examples of a good starting point. We gave up our freedoms in this area without so much as a whimper in 2013 and today's telcos store your metadata for up to seven years.

For anyone who deals with sensitive information (and I don't mean state secrets here, I'm talking about anything from user data to client information and even your own bank details and social media passwords) this should be ringing major alarm bells. As a journalist, knowing the very device I was using to communicate with sources could be reporting back on our conversation was a major worry - and that was on a landline. Now we're all fitted with tracking devices in the form of our mobile phones, we don't even need to call someone to expose their identity - our phones will place us in close proximity and that's enough to give the game away for some.

Sadly, all too often our political masters forget that they're supposed to represent the voters and to work on behalf of all of us. That they don't understand how the internet works is ridiculous in this day and age but that they don't know how politics is supposed to work is unforgiveable.

Fortunately their performance review is due in soon. Make sure you have your say. 

NZHerald - Juha Saarinen: Letting spooks into our devices a big call

ITWire - Encryption laws: what does Malcolm Turnbull want?

Telegraph - Malcolm Turnbull says laws of Australia trump laws of mathematics as tech giants told to hand over encrypted messages

ZDNet - Australia believes it is 'technically possible' to crack end-to-end encryption

ZDNet - Encryption: In the battle between maths and politics there is only one winner

NZ Council for Civil Liberties - Do the telephone companies store SMS texts?

NZ Council for Civil Liberties - Why we support effective encryption


I for one welcome our robotic overlords

On the one hand, the robots are going to take all our jobs. Truck drivers, pilots, taxi drivers - you're all going the way of the video store owner. But so too are lawyers, lab technicians, journalists and goodness knows how many other middle-men who do laborious jobs translating one thing (samples in a petrie dish, tedious local body council meeting minutes, documents captured under disclosure rules and all the rest) into something else, and therein lies the problem really.

Because AI, or "artificial intelligence" (a phrase which I believe I've already told you is loathsome) isn't all that smart at this point and yes, I'm sure it will get better as technology is wont to do, but for now it's all a bit pants.

Take Facebook and Google, for example. They've utterly trashed the media landscape, taking all of the advertising spend and crushing it like a bug by telling advertisers they will be able to better target advertising spend and better reach the kinds of customers they want. And advertisers believed them, lured in with a heady cocktail of analytics and real-time responsiveness. But as a user of both Google and Facebook I find the ads I'm presented with tend to demonstrate zero applicability to me and worse, are actively pointless.

I bought a car, and ever since I am bombarded with advertising for … the car that I already bought.

I went on holiday, and since then I am bombarded with advertising for … the hotel I stayed at.

I bought a book. Now I get adverts for it.

I bought underwear. Now I get ads for that underwear.

Glasses, contact lenses, shoes, vouchers, some random jacket I clicked on by mistake - I now get all of this fed back to me ad infinitum and it's worthless.

If I've just bought a car, why not advertise car insurance, or air freshener or car cleaning services or something useful. I'm not about to go out and buy the exact same car again just because I see a Facebook ad. It's worse than useless, it's actively annoying.

If we can't even get our advertising bots to produce the right results, what are the odds the robots will be able to take over? Slim, I would suggest.

And so I'm not filled with fear about the AI revolution. Not yet at any rate. But Elon Musk is concerned and if not quite at the "filled with fear" moment, he's certainly warning American politicians about it and calling for the sector to be regulated.

As if they haven't got bigger fish to fry, Elon. Seriously, dude, timing is everything.

And so the story of the day is probably not the impending AI domination of the planet, or the need to regulate technology but rather the somewhat sad tale of the robot security guard who fell/was pushed/threw himself into an ornamental pool.

It's symbolic of something but quite what I'm not sure.

NPR - Musk's Warning Sparks Call For Regulating Artificial Intelligence

The Guardian - Elon Musk: regulate AI to combat 'existential threat' before it's too late

The Register - Apple's 'KGB level of secrecy' harms its AI projects - but don't worry, it's started a blog

Global News - Google gives $1M grant to Press Association to develop robot journalists

Ars Technica - Security guard robot ends it all by throwing itself into a watery grave

Security Robot


Shop till you drop

So while I'm ranting about stuff I have no control over, let's talk about the strangest business model in the world.

First, a strawman. How does business generally operate? I like to think it follows a straightforward pattern:

1: Company produces Product.

2: Customer gives Company money for said Product.

3: Company gives Customer said Product.

4: Lather, rinse, repeat as required.

However, I am caught in the realisation that this is naïve of me and that in fact the process goes like this:

1: Company produces Product.

2: Company advertises Product as being for sale.

3: Company refuses to allow Customer to buy said Product.

4: Customer complains about it on social media and spends money on some other Product.

5: Company demands law change to protect its business model. 

I'm currently battling with two different companies to allow me to give them money for their products and frankly I'm beginning to think they don't actually want me to pay them.

The first company makes cups. Yes, cups. I broke the cup my wife likes and I need to replace it so I went to the cup company's website and saw it was out of stock. Sad! But joy! They have a space for customers to put their email address so when the product comes back in stock you will be automatically notified so you can buy the product. Huzzah!

And so it was that I did receive the email and I at once did click on the link contained therein and lo! I was presented with an opportunity to buy the cup but also no, for I was mistaken. The cup was in stock but only in Australia.

That's fine, I thought. I am happy to pay for the cup to be shipped to me in New Zealand. How much? Sorry sir, came the quick reply after I emailed three times, called the local branch and tweeted to them, but yes that cup is in stock but no it's not for you in New Zealand.

The answer to "why not" all boiled down to "we don't want to sell it to you because we don't have a process for selling our goods to customers".

This irks me.

The second company I'm battling has slightly more of a case for not selling me its product. The company is the BBC and I would dearly love to buy the company's content for my own use in New Zealand. In the old days I could get a tape mailed to me and it was a slow, arduous and tedious process that involved much cost for all concerned. Today, thanks to the internet, I'm able to watch BBC TV content in the comfort of my own home but only if I happen to live in the UK. Those outside may not watch.

The reason is that the BBC sells its content through a channel model and the Beeb has sold its content to a distributor in our region. That distributor has, in turn, sold the rights to that content on to various TV stations in the region and they, in turn, sell service to end customers like you and me.

That means in effect the BBC's hands are tied as it's no longer responsible for that content in this region.

Fine, so who do I talk to about watching some obscure documentary about a Saxon hoard, a mildly amusing comedy about old men in a village, or a Welsh-language drama series about a detective solving crimes?

Well, nobody, because the audience for these shows is so small that the company that bought the rights won't bother screening them.

Lather, rinse, repeat.

I know, I know, I should just pay a VPN provider to help me pretend to be in the UK so I can watch for free. But this peeves me on two fronts:

1: I would like to pay the BBC for its content, not some dodgy Uzbecki who will provide me a UK-based IP address and;


At a time when the BBC faces insane pressure to reduce its costs and cannot put up its price because it's funded through taxation, surely opening up its product set to a planet-wide customer base would be a smart thing to do?

Apparently not, and so I will just have to wait until my Auntie (ahem) sends me the VHS tapes (cough cough) of the shows I want to see.

Because that's so much better.

The Mirror - The BBC pay row stars who are worth every penny - and those who aren't (this will be the only time ever we link to a Daily Mirror story so enjoy it while you can) 


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Noel Reid 21 July 2017, 5:09 pm

Well done Paul

Even excels your normally excellent standard!!

Regs Noel R

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