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Brislen on Tech: Budget edition

Paul Brislen, Editor. 31 May 2019, 11:00 am

The warm-up act

Well if that's the warm-up act, the main course had better be pretty entertaining.

This week's Budget-gate debacle has gently slid off the front pages of our news sites and become a debate about ethics and about politics and about the finer points of law that may or may not have been broken by our ethicists and politicians.

I'm happy to leave them to it.

What could have been a job for 007 turned out to be a job for a sysadmin who figured out what was going on and switched off access to the Budget 2019 website, after being told someone had leaked material to the National Party.

None of the material was actually from a Budget document, it seems, but rather from the brief notes you get when searching for specific terms. Search results don't just come back with "the words you searched for" in isolation, they're displayed with surrounding content for context - it was this that was being "leaked" and while calls for heads to roll, police intervention and all the rest of the ballyhoo continues, it's important to look at the technology used, how easy it is to make this kind of decision and (my favourite of all) how to communicate properly during an unfolding crisis.

Content management systems (CMS or "that devil's spawn" to its friends) tend to be awful, awful bits of kit.

I have used many in my time and they range from clumsy at best to disruptive at worst. I've seen CMS that will strip a man of his human dignity as they once again reset all the fonts being used, resize graphics on a whim and treat saving a document a little bit like Russian Roulette: do you feel lucky, punk?

From Lotus Notes to Squarespace to Microsoft Dynamics, software gets shoehorned into place and stapled down and the bits that flap are glued together and the bits that are stuck get levered free and it doesn't so much slouch towards Bethlehem as gyrate wildly in a syncopated fashion.

Scarred? Me? Why do you ask?

So it's no surprise to me that parts of the Budget were leaked - my bigger surprise is that it doesn't happen all the time.

Security is key, but all too often we juggle security on the one hand with usability and a quiet and peaceful life on the other.

Do they have to be mutually exclusive? Can we not have security elements that actually make life easier?

I use a password manager these days and it's lovely to see all those stupid forms that require me to type in my basic facts over and over simple pre-populate with my details. It's more secure and more useful to me - maybe that's a model we can share more widely?

And because I've been thinking about communications during these kinds of issues I thought I'd share with the group on that front.

Much of my week has been taken up with translation work. Translating mostly from tech into human and occasionally back the other way. Coming up with a good analogy helps with this because if you don't have the time or space to teach someone about the actual factors in any situation, you can at least say "it's a bit like…" and start talking about fish and bicycles or some such. It's not 100% fool proof of course, because an analogy (by definition) isn't a 1:1 match for the thing itself, so you have to chose carefully and respect the limitations of your model.

And then there's the rolling nature of an unfolding crisis. Typically in crisis communications training you're given a scenario, something like, "A van with your company logo has crashed into a lake and the driver is missing" or, "Your head office air conditioning units have been found to contain bacteria associated with Legionnaire's Disease" and it's up to the team to build a plan around communicating the key facts.

Real crises don't work like that.

I can well imagine that at 10am on Tuesday someone inside Treasury knew what was going on and why. That wasn't communicated to the secretary in a forceful enough way, so that evening he announced he had called in the police because of repeated hacking attempts. He doubled down the next morning and used the analogy of a locked room with someone slowly breaking in.

Actually it was just someone googling stuff on your website.

Internal communications and the flow of information and being able to communicate while the situation is changing around you is key to a good crisis. You want to inform the story, not become the story.

Here's hoping the Budget is at least as interesting.

NB - We have a number of stories from the New Zealand Herald in today's newsletter - most, if not all, are behind the paywall. This is likely to be the standard from here on out for Herald stories.

NZ Herald - Budget 2019 leak: Did the Nats break the Crimes Act? Lawyer's verdict

RNZ - Only option for clarity on Budget breach is to wait

TechBlog - Deliberately and systematically hacked

TechBlog - Section 252

NZ Herald - How the Treasury got dorked

Stuff - National's Budget leaks go against security agency's advice and Treasury breach was unlawful, lawyers say

RNZ - Simon Bridges on Budget breach: Treasury secretary 'must resign'

NZ Herald - Bad Timing Dept: Treasury tries to hire a web editor

Computerworld - NZ spooks want IT expertise




Actual Budget

So what's in it for the tech sector? One of the key areas of focus is the economy (funnily enough) and with it comes a $300 million fund for start-ups through the NZVIF "to provide businesses with a sustainable path to grow and develop".

From the Budget website:

Economic Development Minister David Parker says this will help transform the economy to be more productive, sustainable and inclusive in a digital age.

"We need to have well-functioning early stage capital markets and a healthy start-up ecosystem to grow the knowledge economy. Our goals include raising the number of start-ups that develop into successful companies.

"New start-ups are well served but mid-sized ones, between about $2 million and $15 million in size, are not well supported.

"Filling that gap will help reduce pressure on companies to sell prematurely to overseas buyers, which happens when you have weak early-stage capital markets.

"The world is in the middle of a technological revolution and we need to chase down as many of these commercial opportunities as possible. We also want to increase the amount of technology that gets commercialised and to lift the level of innovation in New Zealand," David Parker says.

On top of that, changes to the R&D regime are being bedded in with $161 million in funding being allocated "to support innovative businesses to develop and commercialise products and adopt cutting-edge new technologies".

Most enjoyably of all, New Zealand's spy agencies will get a $50 million boost, with $11 million in operating funding for the New Zealand Security Intelligence Service (NZSIS), and $39 million for the Government Communications Security Bureau (GCSB).

Implementation of the Cyber Security Strategy 2019 gets $8 million of operating spend as a response to "the growing scope, scale and sophistication of cyber threats" which is lovely.

And RealMe gets a whopping $57.1 million operating spend and $9 million in capital to continue its operation.

TechBlog - Start-ups to benefit from funding boost in Budget

Government - Budget 2019

Budget - Building a productive nation

Budget - Innovation for the future

Stuff - Budget 2019

Reseller - Buried in the Budget: $82.3 million to fix government payroll mess


And finally…

It was ten years ago today (well, yesterday if we're being precise) that Telecom launched the XT network.

Two things sprang to mind: how far we've come and my god, how old we are.

XT, for those of you who don't remember back that far, was Telecom's (or Spark as it is today) first deployment of a GSM-based mobile network. Prior to that, Telecom was a CDMA house, following its US-based owners down the rabbit hole of "the wrong technology".

When it became clear that CDMA's days were limited, then CEO Paul Reynolds made the call to switch entirely to the GSM family with a 2G based network and islands of 3G (capable of delivering average speeds of 3Mbit/s down and 1Mbit/s up, according to blurb at the time) in the main centres.

Vodafone (disclaimer: I worked there at the time) came back with a cunning plan - to roll out 3G services to cover as much of its national footprint as it could, including rural and remote parts of New Zealand.

In order to return that volley, Telecom decided to do likewise and suddenly the race was on. New Zealand would get two nationwide networks that would deliver blistering speeds to all and sundry.

But first there was the debacle of XT interfering with Vodafone's network (and with 2Degrees' network for that matter) but one visit to the high court later it was agreed XT could go ahead in a limited capacity while Telecom rushed in the kit designed to stop that sort of thing.

There was much wailing and gnashing of the teeth all round and blame and counter-blame and talk of industrial scale corporate shenanigans but eventually the switch was flipped and we were in business.

But then XT fell over. And then it fell over again. And then it fell over big time, with everyone north of Taupo who was using the network unable to connect. Heads rolled and bonuses were missed and contracts were not renewed.

Ultimately it was all sorted out and today Spark's mobile network is about to get upgraded to 5G, assuming the GCSB allows it or the company finds a new network builder.

It's amazing how far we've come and how much has changed in that decade, so it's worth raising a glass to the network teams that keep us connected. And to old Father Time who never misses a beat.

NZ Herald - Vodafone goes to court alleging Telecom network interference (May, 2009)

NZ Herald - Telecom delays XT launch after Vodafone settlement (May, 2009)

NZ Herald - Telecom to compensate for XT network failure (December, 2009)

Stuff - XT network fails again (February, 2010)

 NZ Herald - Telecom executive resigns over XT failure (February, 2010)

Analysis Mason - XT network independent review (May, 2010)


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Elizabeth Eastwood 31 May 2019, 12:32 pm

Paul, I was shocked to see the "hacking' article appear on BBC World news front page for over 12 hours. This is a real embarrassment for NZ. Someone within NZ Treasury was responsible for allowing 'classified' information to be accessible by external individuals. Information Management is a discipline that requires a very clear understanding and implementation of 'who has allowed access to what'. No excuses. I will await the outcome of the investigation keenly.

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