Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Facebook’s negligence in ‘Analytica’

It is, so far, the biggest technology and privacy story of the year which is yet another major blow to Facebook’s image, market value and future business model.

The scandal regarding Cambridge Analytica acquiring and utilizing Facebook data on 50 million users, without their knowledge, and then utilizing it for online political campaigns during the 2016 US election, is being heavily reported and covered.

Unfortunately, the majority of Facebook users worldwide just got on with their supposedly normal addiction to using their favorite social media channel, but everyone us who cares about his/her privacy must carefully consider what this all means, and what can be done to somewhat protect yourself.

To begin with, we must understand that Facebook’s power comes from how well it knows you. Every post you like, every page you follow and every cause you support tells Facebook who you are, what you could buy and who you could vote for! This data is a treasure for advertisers to utilize. Last year, 98% of Facebook’s revenue was made through advertising. The stunning figure was $39.9 Billion US Dollars.

With the money rolling in, Facebook was negligent and did not consider what happens when all the data falls in the wrong hands, and did not have the correct measures to prevent this! This is, basically, what the whole Cambridge Analytica scandal is about. The company acquired the information on 50 Million users; from an academic who had an app that Facebook says was ‘a research tool’. It was a personality test that you take on Facebook. But, when any user took the test, the app also collected data from the profiles of their friends. What a loop-hole!

It seems that Facebook realized this in 2014 and applied stricter policies on developers accessing user data, but the damage was done. That’s why Mark Zukcerberg, founder and CEO of Facebook, has apologized, stated that the company takes these matters seriously and testified to congress about this data scandal. Lawmakers and regulators want to enact laws that ensure more transparency regarding data practices of tech companies and more accountability.

Though the idea of ‘micro-targeting’ and hiring ‘data scientists’ is a well-known practice in political campaigns, including the ‘Brexit vote’ campaign in the UK, the issue now is to draw the line between micro-targeting and manipulation.

So, back to what you can do. By visiting the ‘Settings’ page, at the bottom of the ‘general account section, you can click an option to download a copy of your data. Facebook then emails you a link, within minutes. The information you will get is fascinating! The data is segmented into groups, such as ‘Ads’, ‘Contact Info’, Events, Messages, ‘TimeLine’ and others. For example, under advertisers, you’ll see which companies have you on their list of target customers. It will be surprising which sellers think you’re a potential customer! You can ‘uncheck’ the boxes beside the names of the advertisers who you don’t want to be targeted by.

You can also see some contact info (including phone numbers gained from the mobile app) of several contacts you added over the years. Facebook even preserves conversations and chats with people who you’ve forgotten about! In some ways, this trip down memory lane could even be painful! Beware, Facebook’s memory is impeccable.

Next, check which Facebook apps you’ve got which have been granted access to your account. These could range from games, to utilities to Facebook login assistants for other services that you use. Remove whatever you can of these apps and revoke their access. After all, it was an app that gave Cambridge Analytica the data it abused.

Looking at the bigger picture, beyond the abuses by a political campaign, there is the matter of governments and others in power quietly watching each one of us, judging us and manipulating us at a previously unachievable scale of ‘mass human programmed response’ to achieve a new age of authoritarianism which we mistakenly believe to be an age of freedom!

Still, despite all these appalling facts, it is not easy to move on from a daily addictive like Facebook. So, if you don’t yet want to take the radical path of deleting your Facebook account, perhaps you can first start with being smarter about the information that you give Facebook and other social networks, and watch how Facebook is raising the levels of protection and privacy and protection it offers users. If you’re still not satisfied after that, then as the popular hashtag says, #DeleteFacebok.

The wider realization is the reality is that none of the Internet services you use ‘for free’ are actually free, as you’re giving these companies your attention and data which they will monetize or possibly abuse. If you think about it, social media services are not actually the product, you are!

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Monday, November 24, 2014

Bridging the Gender Gap in Tech

Despite the success of female tech industry CEOs like Marissa Mayer of Yahoo, Meg Whitman of Hewlett-Packard, and Oracle’s co-CEO Safra Catz, it seems such prominent women still haven’t inspired a great deal of others to pursue studies and careers in IT. What’s more frustrating is that women who do work in the tech industry are often paid less than their male counterparts, and tend to hold less senior positions.
In some countries, there have been in-depth studies of this issue which provide valuable insights. For example, in the United Kingdom, girls actually do better than boys in tech skills exams. But fewer girls take the tech-related GCSE subjects and even less do so at A-Level, which in turn means that this affects their numbers in higher education. Surveys show that they are less interested in tech careers in the UK, which has resulted in a tech workforce with only 16 percent females.
In the United States, 46 percent of the advanced placement calculus test takers are females, but three-quarters of them don’t end up taking a computer science class. This explains why only 9 percent of Chief Information Officers (CIOs) in the U.S. are women.

This is what education specialists consider to be a problem in the STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) funnel, which shows that only 35 percent of girls are interested in these fields at school, compared to 65 percent of boys.

In global companies, the employment numbers seem more encouraging but still reflect the imbalance.

In May this year, Google statistics showed that women made up 30 percent of its total workforce, but that they only held 21 percent of its senior positions. Yahoo’s workforce is 37 percent women, Microsoft’s 29 percent, LinkedIn’s 39 percent, and Facebook’s 31 percent, but only half of them have technical jobs.

Most of these companies say they intend to tackle this issue, especially Google which has announced that it will invest $50 million in programs to get more girls interested in coding. The company is also working with Girl Scouts of the USA and female celebrities to spark more female interest in computer science.

Looking at tech startups also provides some indicators, but it seems there’s an even more horrendous gender gap there. A Harvard Business School study revealed that only 7 percent of startups that attract venture capital are led by women entrepreneurs. On the funding side of the industry, the percentage of women working in VCs is also small at a mere 11 percent. Add to that the fact that around 20 percent of coders in tech startups are women, and you start to think that there must be some socio-economic reasons holding them back.

Sociologists claim that the ‘geek’ factor is to blame. The surprisingly clichéd result that appears in surveys is that women believe a career in computing would involve hours spent writing codes in a cubicle alongside a host of socially awkward characters, working in teams dominated by men in which a female would feel alienated, or worse yet, discriminated against. Recent studies show that the work-all-night and work-on-weekends culture is pushing women away too. Accordingly, a common response from women is that working conditions and culture in the tech world aren’t welcoming enough. So the sector is becoming a boys club which alienates girls.

A significant percentage of university graduates in the Middle East are women, but the workforce is still dominated by men. In Jordan, 51 percent of university graduates are women but they only constitute 16 percent of the workforce (the lowest in the region). In tech startups, however, the numbers appear a bit more encouraging with around one-in-five being led by female entrepreneurs. However, these entrepreneurs say there are many challenges to overcome still, such as proving to investors that they’re as capable as their male counterparts in managing and leading teams of males, and balancing work and family life.

Without grassroots action, the situation isn’t likely to get any better soon. Accordingly, there are various initiatives around the Arab region to address the problem, mostly as local chapters of global initiatives like “Girls In Tech,” “Women in Tech International (WITI),” “Girls Who Code,” “Women Who Tech,” and “Women 2.0.” “Girls In Tech” has been active in the region this year with Egypt and the UAE chapters organizing events. While WITI has representative offices in nine Arab countries, including Jordan, to conduct surveys and spread awareness.

Clearly, all parties involved must strive to encourage women to vigorously pursue technology careers. As economic growth becomes more dependent on technology, this gender inequity could be a detrimental factor to that growth.

Bill Gates summed it up by saying: “Any country where half the population is not allowed to reach their full potential is not going to be competitive.”

Let's Connect on Twitter: @zeidnasser. Or email me on

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Thursday, August 21, 2014

Trading social media privacy for job security?

Without a doubt, technology is the biggest factor transforming the workplace. It is driving the continued evolution of connectivity and productivity of workers.

Therefore it’s not surprising that an emerging trend, being championed by human resource (HR) departments, is the practice of utilizing personal data from an employee’s social media accounts to understand what motivates the workforce.

A comprehensive study by PwC has researched this movement and has found that online monitoring by employers will rise in the next decade. “By 2020, people currently aged 18-32 will form half of the global workforce, bringing with them different attitudes to technology and personal data.”

Apparently, younger people are more open to sharing their personal data with their employers; whereas only 36% of Generation Y workers say they would be happy to do so. They also believe it is only acceptable if it is related to more job security. 

Previously, HR and recruitment staff would ‘snoop around’ a candidate’s social media account to know more about that person’s suitability to be hired. In fact, LinkedIn partly exists for the purpose of providing recruiters with glorified online CVs.

But now, and in a move towards transparency in the age of ‘personal information protection’, it appears that companies want permission from their staff to monitor their social media interactions, and they claim it is for their own good. 

HR specialists believe that what you do on Facebook could provide signals to why you move jobs and could present HR professionals with an understanding of how to improve your wellbeing. 

If you think that sounds appalling, you’re not alone. Nearly two-thirds of the 10,000 employees surveyed by PwC in several countries don’t like this idea. However, they’re probably powerless to do anything about it. After all, social media profiles are accessible to the public, which is the case with LinkedIn and Twitter, and are exposed to friends and co-workers, in the cases of Facebook, Instagram and others.

In fact, the majority of the five hundred HR professionals surveyed by the PwC study say that social media content monitoring is ‘inevitable’. 

To justify this, it is being compared to the way advertisers and retailers use customer data and track online and social media activity to tailor their shopping experience.
So, according to this somewhat frightening logic, employers can utilize a workers' personal data to measure and anticipate performance and retention issues. 

It’s like watching the movie ‘Minority Report’! For example, disguised as a process aimed at your own good, companies will be able to reduce your days of sick leave by ‘real-time monitoring and advising you regarding your health-related activities.’ That should make you hesitate before sharing information about your latest workout, or lack of workouts.

The HR community is now buzzing with the possibilities that ‘consensual social media monitoring’ provides. They’re working on developing measures to build trust with employees regarding this process while instituting the benchmarks for the data analysis process. Obviously, there must be clear rules about how data is acquired, used and shared.

There are, of course, those who object to this trend in the psychiatric community, saying that such monitoring would inhibit employee interactions on social media channels, and could therefore defeat the whole purpose.

What’s more, agreeing to such monitoring could actually reduce one’s job security as employers misinterpret their findings regarding an employee’s personal life. Certain pre-set ideals or prejudices that are held by a company’s management regarding an employee’s personal choices may actually have no bearing on his/her performance at work. 

Imagine this ridiculous situation, quoting the misplaced enthusiasm of some HR specialists, whereby you are expected to “adhere to a standard of ensuring that your personal life does not conflict with company policies, and that your actions-even in your personal life- reinforce you engagement with business objectives”. 
It all sounds a bit too creepy, and a wide ranging discussion is required regarding what to do with the realities of technology in the work place. 

For now, it seems like this is another price we all pay for the over-exposure of our personal and professional lives in the digital age. If you put the information about yourself out there, then it’s difficult to complain that someone is using it to analyze your character and your potential as an employee. Live with it, or delete it.

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Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Your 'Right To Be Forgotten'

Five years ago, a Spanish lawyer took Google to court because he wanted to 'suppress' an old legal notice against him which kept appearing every time that anyone searched his name. 

It was information concerning foreclosure of his home in 1998- the same year that Google was launched- which he claimed was 'no longer relevant', and was an 'unfavorable link' that affected his reputation to this day. Mario Costeja González was seeking to assert the so-called “right to be forgotten".

In May this year, a European court issued a ruling that supports his right and it has started a chain reaction that will affect everyone and everything on the Internet.
Since the beginning of June, Google has been drowning under requests from Europeans who wish to exercise their newly-won “right to be forgotten.” In fact, Google said it received 41,000 requests from people in the first four days, amounting to more than 10,000 requests per day. 

That's 7 requests per minute and the numbers are expected to increase! Google are planning to hire new staff just to handle them.

Why did the European court rule against Google? Because it defined Google as a  “data controller” under a European law on data protection, which gives individuals strong rights over data that others hold on them.

To begin with, the 'right to be forgotten' is hard to implement, as Google could censor its search results in Europe, but users elsewhere in the world could see that information and just send it to anyone in Europe. 

Additionally, with basic technical know-how or by downloading an 'unblock' product, anyone can change his/her country IP address and browse the web without local limitations - just like users in Arabian Gulf countries do all the time to access blocked sites.
Every country, or region, will ask Google to censor different information and the result will be a mess of censored/uncensored information by country that will not provide global removal of information.

Even if it were possible to force search companies, or social networks, to erase the past, it could do more harm than good. It would prevent users from discovering the inconvenient truths about those who would like their past covered up.

The Internet is now the depository of human history, but it's not just about celebrities and public figures. It takes data-basing to a whole other level of personalized data, covering every member of society, due to social networks and search engines making every person searchable and identifiable. That's why the Internet has a long memory, but you're actually creating it yourself through your real-life actions and your online activity!

Sooner or later, you will feel that some information about you on the Internet appears to be unfair, one-sided or just plain wrong. What will you do? Can you actually do anything after agreeing to 'terms and conditions?'.

When you join a 'free' service, realize that nothing is actually free. The service is exchanging the right to use- and sometimes own- your information with your right to use and benefit from the service.

This whole issue of a user's rights to controlling information about himself or herself will create all sorts of legal, technological and moral discussions for years to come. As people's requests pour into Google, you can also expect some ridiculous demands to emerge like someone asking for all personal history to be erased from the Internet. The notion of deleting oneself from the web is now growing as a demand!

This is the 21st century. There are our 'actual selves' and our 'digital selves'. Surely, our existence in the digital world requires more protection but in a way that makes sense and which is based on a logic of what should and what should not be censored. This is just the beginning of a very long debate that could shape the information age.

It means that individuals have the right to 'redact results' on searches of their names if the info is inadequate, irrelevant or out of date.

However, there are many critics of this ruling and various experts who believe it's just not applicable.

Some countries may even take an opposite stance, demanding that the right to public freedom of information prevents Google from removing any information from the public record. Simply, any person should be able to know anything about anybody if it's a public record.

You should take personal responsibility for every service you subscribe to and every piece of information- text, photos, videos- that you post. The culture of just ticking 'I Accept All Terms' without reading these terms must change.

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Thursday, May 01, 2014

The business of ‘blocking’

Have you been too generous in accepting new connections on LinkedIn? Have you mixed your real friends with business acquaintances on Facebook? Do you follow many business people on Twitter who you no longer wish to be associated with in your career?

If the answer to all, or some, of the above is yes, then it’s time to clean up your ‘professional online existence’.

Why? Well, because there will be situations when you realize you’ve connected with a spammer. Some of your ‘friends’ and connections may treat their LinkedIn email accounts, or Facebook chat services, as a promotional channels to bombard you with business offers or unwanted information.  

Another major concern is the possibility of business-related disagreements or conflicts you will face in your off-line life with some people who having a direct ‘harassment’ and ‘stalking’ channel with you!

These are the main reasons why the world’s biggest social network for business professionals, LinkedIn, introduced the long-requested ‘Member Blocking Function’.

It’s a simple tool to block spammers who clutter you LinkedIn inbox with annoying requests and messages. 

In some ways, it is like erasing your previous business relationship with a person, because any ‘endorsements and recommendations’ from that member will be removed from your profile; and neither of you will ever be recommended to one another again as connections.

On the LinkedIn blog, a post says that “there are a variety of other tools for users interested in better protecting their privacy, including tools to disconnect from existing connections, tools to control your activity broadcasts, plus profile and photo visibility settings.”

Of course, the need to block someone does not stop at LinkedIn. You may also do it on Facebook, but there are a whole set of options including ‘Limited View’ of your profile and posts, blocking, reporting and unfriending. 

Apart from people you’ve hastily added as friends and wish to block, there are also various businesses which create a Facebook account. 

Why would you accept a friend request from a user called ‘Something Store’, ‘Something Restaurant’ or any other name of a company? You can’t complain afterwards about being spammed with messages, tagged posts on your timeline and more. At least in this case, ‘Unfriending’ or ‘Blocking’ is not followed by personal issues. 

Then, there’s the matter of blocking an irritating or abusive user from your business Fan Page, to maintain your ‘happy community of fans’ and basically protect your business! This person is not your friend on Facebook, but is a ‘Liker’ of your fan page and you may need to dispose of him or her.

There are clear instructions on Facebook on all these options, and they seem effective. 

On Twitter, tweets including your ‘twitter name’ or retweets of your tweets with added comments may become a source of embarrassment. That’s why Twitter provides various options including ‘block user’, ‘report user’ and ‘turn off retweets’. 

Another social network that’s not mentioned much in a business context is Google+, but it also offers the ability to block someone in your Circles and Hangouts. 

Even on Instagram, which is also now being used as a business channel, you can ‘unfollow’ or ‘block’. Again, the user won’t know when you’ve done it but will find out if he/she searches for your content in the Instagram newsfeed and can’t find it.

That’s why an argument is emerging regarding whether you should ‘Unfriend’ or ‘Block’. These two options may seem similar, but they’re not. When you block people, they will not see it happening. But if they later on search for you or your posts, then they’ll figure out they’ve been blocked. So, basically, you’re postponing the ‘angry reaction’. However, when you ‘Block’ you can discretely change your mind and ‘Unblock’ anytime. But, when you ‘Unfriend’ ‘Disconnect’, you can’t connect again with that user without a new Friend or Connection Request.

Something else you may wish to consider is the old saying, “keep your friends close, but your enemies closer”. If you need to keep an eye on your supposed enemy, it doesn’t get closer than constant monitoring on social media channels! So, that could be a reason to keep a foe as a ‘friend’ or a ‘connection’. 
Clearly, social media opens us up to the possibilities of too much communication and too wide a circle of contacts, both as professionals or businesses.

In our part of the world, the concept of separating your professional and personal lives is not common. It may even be considered rude not to accept a business acquaintance as a friend on Facebook, or not to accept a connection request on LinkedIn from someone you just met.

The result of this culture is that you’ll end up having to terminate or limit your online relationship with some people at some point. Those people will figure out what you’ve done and you will have to accept whatever ‘real world’ reaction you will get.

On social networks, mixing business with pleasure will, undoubtedly, end up in some form of ‘displeasure’. It’s really just another one of the headaches of our digital existence in the 21st century.

Twiter: @zeidnasser

Zeid Nasser is a tech and media writer and commentator since the 1990s. 
He is also the founder of various local and regional media projects.

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Wednesday, April 30, 2014

‘Touch and go’ at the office

You’ve got a tablet device on your desk at the office. Is it just for checking emails, presenting some slides for a meeting or some light ‘office entertainment’?

Well, maybe it’s time to consider the possibilities of proper office productivity with tablets. In fact, it seems the latest wave of business software for tablets could make you consider replacing your laptop with a tablet soon.

When Microsoft finally launched Office for iPad at the end of March this year, it achieved over 12 million downloads in its first week and has been going strong since. It seems we are witnessing the dawn of the office software revolution for tablets.

Microsoft's productivity apps—Excel, PowerPoint, Word and OneNote—are available as free downloads, but to do anything other than ‘viewing your files’ you will need a subscription to Office 365 which starts at $100 per year for Office Home Premium, whereby you get the right to use Office on up to 5 PCs, plus 5 tablets (Windows or iPad), the iPhone, and Android phones.

That’s quite a spread of devices! Clearly, Microsoft realizes users now work through ‘multi-screens’ and it seems it will finally get its act together to follow users wherever they decide to take their work.

The last couple of years have shown that users will not wait for software giants, like Microsoft, to catch up. Before Microsoft Office, the iPad and iPhone were served by good office suites, especially Apple's iWork Suite, which is free.

On Android, Microsoft Office is still not available, but it’s coming. Again, there are several other application suites that have filled the void. Among the most popular is Hancom Office, which includes an interface similar to PCs and enables users to open, edit, create and save a wide range of file types including most Microsoft Word, Excel and PowerPoint files.

On Windows 8 Tablets, as you would expect, Microsoft has actually had a version of Office for some time. Office 2013 RT is quite popular and has already helped make Windows tablets- with the rubber keyboards- a viable replacement for laptops.

What all of this means is that IT departments in business organizations should expect and prepare for the BYOD (Bring Your Own Device) phenomena to continue and to grow. Embracing the arrival of tablets in the workplace is the only way forward.

Worldwide annual tablet shipments are expected to top 120 million by 2015, according to ABI Research. It is expected that over 20% of companies in the US and Europe have already formally deployed tablets with the rest to soon follow.

Choosing between a laptop and a tablet is, for now, a case of data-entry versus data-access. To get any serious productivity in data entry, a keyboard is still necessary, which means a laptop is the choice. Whereas to quickly access information or emails when you’re on the move, a tablet with its light weight and long battery life is ideal.

Additionally, enterprises are beginning to see the mobile tablet as a tool to improve the way they do businesses. Studies show tablets provide better responsiveness to customers and co-workers. Apparently, tablets also improve employee satisfaction because they are 'cool looking' and 'fun to use' device. Tablets are good for employee morale.

Speaking of the devices, it is important to select tablets that provide sufficient power for business functionality. With Apple tablets, it’s easy. The latest iPad is powerful enough to serve business users for two years or so. Priced at $700 for the Wi-Fi 64GB version, and $830 for the Wi-Fi and 3G version, it seems reasonable.

As for Windows tablets, the Microsoft Surface Pro 2 provides the specifications required to run Office well for some time to come. It is a tablet with the power of a laptop, but is somewhat expensive at $900 for a 64Gb model. With a high-quality 10.6-inch screen and a powerful Intel Core i5 processor, the Surface Pro 2 could even be a n upgrade from your current laptop.

In the Android domain, the Samsung Galaxy Note Pro looks to be a winner with its 12.2 inch high quality screen and Quad-Core processor. It’s quite light, despite its size, comes with a stylus pen, and can run for almost nine hours between charges. It’s priced at around $650. If you already use an Android-based smartphone, you will feel immediately familiar with an Android tablet for business.

So, what remains for IT managers in our region is to await proper Arabic language support for office software, before jumping on the tablets bandwagon. Currently, Microsoft Office for iPad supports 29 languages, but Arabic was not one of them at the time of launch. But it’s coming, in Arabic for all platforms.

That’s why now is the ideal time to establish an ‘enterprise tablet’ strategy before your staff and competitors catch you unprepared.

Twiter: @zeidnasser

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Friday, March 14, 2014

The ‘Social’ Enterprise is here

We live in the age of ‘social’ software and ‘smart’ devices, which could make you cynical when you hear terms like ‘social-this’ or ‘social-that’. However, sometimes the use of ‘social’ as a prefix is indeed merited.
An excellent example is the maturing field of social-style interaction incorporated into enterprise software, to create what is being considered a ‘Social Business’, or ‘Enterprise 2.0’.
Basically, it is an additional layer of communication and sharing capabilities that is added to already existing online software which enables employees, customers and suppliers to collaborate and organize information, using web and mobile platforms.
Software as a Service (SaaS) has been a prevalent model in modern organizations for a few years now. Every major software vendor now enables company staff to work from anywhere by incorporating core business functions of the organization into an interface accessible from any device.
What was missing, though, was the adoption of some of the best ideas and functions available through social media from the consumer side. Chatting and messaging, posting on forums or user groups and collaborating on shared content are all clear examples of what can be taken into the organization for its benefit.
Analysts and consultants call this the ‘consumerization of business’; but to keep it simple, it’s just businesses being smart and capitalizing on the changing nature of the typical employee.
People want the same communication experience they enjoy in their personal lives, to be available in their professional life; to share data with co-workers, and seamlessly communicate through messaging instead of just using email. If this increases their productivity and happiness, companies should realize its impact on the bottom line.
With the entrance of millennials into the work place – those born between the early-eighties and the turn of the century- it has become imperative to adopt such communication and collaboration abilities to retain younger employees.
That’s why the biggest players in enterprise software are getting in on the act.
In 2012, Microsoft acquired Yammer, a private social network, which puts people, conversations, content, and business data on one platform. At the time, more than 200,000 companies worldwide were already using Yammer to collaborate with employees. It was an example of businesses seeking out a solution, even from a small vendor, if the bigger software companies weren’t providing it.
So, Microsoft jumped at this opportunity demonstrating that social media in the enterprise is much more than a fad. Yammer is now part of Microsoft’s Office division, and is major part of its Office 365 strategy, within the SharePoint Online service.
Oracle, another major player in enterprise software, has recently purchased Involver, to create what it calls ‘a cloud-based social platform across marketing, sales and service touch-points’. Oracle is now presenting an expanded social platform using Involver's SML (Social Markup Language). The result will be a more comprehensive, and consumerized, experience.
The enterprise software specialist SAP has also launched “Jam” which is a secure, social collaboration solution that extends across SAP’s entire technology landscape to give social capabilities.
IBM already has a Social Business division, and its aims in this field are well articulated.  IBM says it wants to “connect employees and customers to share their best ideas and new processes’.
It would appear that the customer is now, finally, in control! Enterprises will also reap the benefits of enhanced feedback for the purposes of product and service development.
This is an ‘open’ age of information. So, enterprises are going to have to open up too.
There are, of course, software security challenges involved. But that’s part of this evolution, whereby the benefits truly outweigh the potential concerns, which can be tackled.
Empowering employees and communicating better with consumers must be every company’s goal. Positive experiences create satisfied customers, and more revenues. That’s the optimal goal that corporate IT departments aim to achieve.
For decades, businesses have claimed to be ‘at the service of the customer’. Now, such claims are being truly tested as technology weeds-out those who cannot deliver on that promise. Beware the rise of the ‘social enterprise’, you have been warned.

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Thursday, November 28, 2013

Encrypting everything, enshrine privacy

It is possibly the biggest story of the year and it continues to evolve. Amidst the harsh reality that digital data has been completely vulnerable to governmental monitoring and analysis for many years, there is growing optimism that privacy can be regained and maintained

Data encryption is the technological answer immediately available, while the creation of international laws to respect user privacy could be the legal answer in the long term.

This explains a wave of data security announcements by companies like Google, Yahoo, Facebook, Twitter and others.
For example, Twitter recently announced its adoption of Perfect Forward Secrecy, which takes the privacy and safety provided by secure sockets layer-based connections (SSL) and raises it a notch to ensure that those who do break through the encryption have less of a means to see what you've been up to. This is precisely designed to stop the technologies utilized by the US government’s National Security Agency (NSA) for online surveillance. Facebook already started using Perfect Forward Secrecy in June and, apparently, it works.

Marissa Mayer, CEO of Yahoo!, has also promised that all data moving between Yahoo! company servers would be encrypted with 2048-bit SSL, by the end of March 2014. Users would have the option of encrypting all data sent between Yahoo! servers and their computer, while the Yahoo! mail service would be switching to default SSL encryption.

Accordingly, Eric Schmit, executive chairman of Google, has recently made the grand statement that ‘online surveillance will end soon’. This is particularly interesting, coming from him, as Google actually sits on both sides of this issue; being accused of cooperating with the spying agencies and claiming to be violated at the same time. He goes on to say that “the solution to government surveillance is to encrypt everyone. With sufficiently long keys and changing the keys all the time, it turns out that it's very, very difficult for an interloper of any kind to go in."
Even co-founder of Wikipedia, Jimmy Wales, has said that the online encyclopedia will begin encrypting communications with its users all over the world, so that people cannot be spied on as they access information. Imagine that, governments could be spying on your general knowledge habits too!
Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the world wide web, weighed in on this debate saying "the web and social media are increasingly spurring people to organize, take action and try to expose wrongdoing in every region of the world. But some governments are threatened by this, and a growing tide of surveillance and censorship now threatens the future of democracy". And therein lays the exact reason for all this surveillance.

Makers of operating system have to also got in on the push towards privacy, as Microsoft has already included automatic encryption of your hard drive contents in Windows 8.1.
It’s important to remember that in addition to governmental monitoring, there’s the danger posed by criminal organizations. That’s why users end up caught between two parties watching them for entirely different reasons, but both invading their privacy to a grossly unacceptable level.

For the perspective of governments and intelligence agencies, certain suspicious online activities or specific ‘red flags’ should probably be a trigger for surveillance, but not the all encompassing, massive, pre-emptive surveillance of everything that appears to be the common practice today.

As we make our leap into cloud computing, many are voicing concerns that matters could get worse. However, the response from the specialists is that cloud servers are actually safer as the data resides at the server center, not on the user’s PC, which protects any data beyond the limited information directly accessible at any point in time. Most importantly, data center servers are only accessible to authorized agents whose identity is verified using biometric measures like fingerprints and retina scans. These facts coupled with data encryption software and regular security audits by third-parties provide some comfort that maybe our future in the cloud could be secure.

Something good may come out of this global surveillance scandal, as Tim Berners-Lee confidently predicts that the outcome will be to enshrine users' rights in the longer-term.
We can hope that is true, but one can’t help but think the cat and mouse chase will continue. It has to. There can’t be a utopia, not even in the cyberworld and we have to pay a price for the convenience we get from technology. That’s why, for IT managers and the rest of us in business, 2014 will most likely be the ‘data encryption’ year.


Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Wearable technology: How ‘smart’ do you need to be?

You’ve got one on your desk, you’ve got one in your living room, there’s one in your bag or in your pocket. So, do you really need another ‘smart’ device on your wrist too?

That’s the big question in the recent onslaught of wearable technology with smart watches, smart bracelets, augmented reality glasses and more tech-fashion that’s coming your way.

To begin with, any of these products can be exciting and appealing to tech fans, gadget geeks and early adopters. But for smart watches in particular to go mainstream and to start to replace our so-called dumb watches, consumers need some basics to be covered.

The first is great functionality that can improve our lives; then there’s practicality that keeps things simple- like reasonable size, good battery life and reliability; and of course it has to be good value for money.

Smart watches are currently being produced by many companies, with various options and price points available to consumers. There’s the Samsung Galaxy Gear, the QUALCOMM Toq, the Sony Smartwatch, Apple’s rumored iWatch and even a car manufacturer, Nissan, is working on a smart watch! Surely one of them can get all the requirements right? So far, that’s not the case.

The biggest obstacle preventing mass adoption of wearable technologies, in general, and smart watches in particular is battery life.

The Samsung Gear can only last a day with 'regular use' and the battery empties faster than that if you’re fiddling with it! It is clear that the ‘battery life challenge that afflicts tablets and mobiles will affect wearable technology. But, really, would you be happy with a watch that needs daily charging? You would have to take it off to charge it, sometimes more than once a day. Imagine that. Being without your watch in the middle of the day because it’s charging!

Clearly, there’s a need for innovation in battery technology to obtain, at least, a much more reasonable two-full-days-per-charge.

Next up is the question of what unique value added a smart watch provides. For now, its screen is too small for any Internet browsing or productivity and the resolution quality seems poor. If you’ve got a smartphone, why would you reduce the quality of your user experience? So far, the most obvious benefit is that it gives you ‘alerts’, so you can keep your phone in your pocket or on your desk and just look at your wrist for quick information or messages. But, is that worth $300?

Having said, not every wearable device lacks value, and sometimes when a ‘category-creating’ product like Google Glass arrives it is expected that all common sense could be abandoned. For example, Google Glass allows first-person video shooting and augmented reality viewing. 

That’s a unique value and could be worth the $1,500 price tag for millions of consumers, but still battery life is said to be under ten hours.

Then consider the Nike Fuel Band, at $150, and the Fitbit Flex, at $99, which are smart bracelets that monitor your personal health information, connect to your phone apps and are both light and well designed. These products clearly offer a new and unique experience for users.

That why, for now, it seems that certain types of devices in wearable tech are worth owning, but the smart watch hasn’t yet made it into the must-have list.

Steve Wozniak, the co-founder of Apple, has his own ideas on how this product category will succeed saying, “I want the entire smartphone, the entire Internet, on my wrist. I want a larger display than they're starting with - the size of an ordinary watch of the past. I think we've got to get a little beyond this watch of the past."

Well, that may sound extreme today but who’s to say what the watch of the future should look like or how big it should be? Did any of us think that people would put a huge 5.5 inch screen mobile phone on their ear to talk or would somehow find a pocket to fit it into?

It seems convenience can be sacrificed for utility and what previously seemed silly actually becomes acceptable and trendy when everyone agrees that it’s ‘useful’.

So until smart watches can deliver that level of functionality and provide the unique features I want on my wrist instead of on my phone, I’ll be keeping my old fashioned watch thank you!

Tuesday, July 09, 2013

BYOD: Business, pleasure or both?

It’s amazing how much tech jargon and abbreviations there are nowadays. Here’s one you’ll be hearing a lot about within organizations: BYOD (Bring Your Own Device).

It’s self-explanatory and is another sign of the digital times we live in, whereby an organization’s staff already have smart phones, tablets and laptops that can efficiently perform organizational tasks.

Up till around four or five years ago, IT departments would have to ‘upgrade’ or ‘migrate’ staff phones to Blackberrys and provide them with a standard specification laptop PC for work on-the-move. But today, with the revolution in mobility coupled with open systems and standardized ‘software protocols’, any employee with a device running the latest Android, iOS, Windows or Blackberry system can just bring it into the office, gain network access, and just start working.

This means that the era of tight network security is over and, as you would expect, many companies surveyed in studies have reported some sort of data breach or loss due to BYOD. Unauthorized network access by family or friends of the staff, data or device loss and other issues are emerging. It’s also lowered network defenses against hackers and cyber-criminals.

So, clearly, this trend is somewhat of a nightmare for IT heads and a challenge for finance departments due too to the additional costs of security and compliance. So, why then are we adopting BYOD? Simply, you can't block this trend, but it requires a delicate balance between productivity and security.
BYOD helps employees be more productive. It improves their morale and job satisfaction, making the company seem a ‘more flexible and attractive’ place to work. It therefore helps attract and retain talented ‘digital age workers’, and therefore resembles another by-product of having to deal with Generation Y workers. It’s a cultural and technological shift.

Surprisingly, we in the Middle East are leading in this ‘shift’. Various studies reveal that our region has ‘the highest occurrence of BYOD worldwide at 80%’. I suppose that means we’ve also got the hardest job organizing the use of such devices!

What’s more, when formulating a BYOD policy, organizations need to think of how it could affect staff.

Apparently, there is a ‘dark side’ to BYOD from the perspective of employees.

Think about it for a minute. If it’s your personal and work phone (or tablet), there’s a chance you’ll go through the unpleasant experience of your company one seizing it one day along with your ‘personal data’!

That’s why organizations now have policies to enable quitting staff to keep their devices, if they’ve had them for a minimum duration of time (usually two to three years) or to allow staff to buy the device at a depreciated rate. Otherwise, a full erase of all data is the standard practice upon handing it back.

However, there are situations whereby the data on your device is required to solve a business or legal problem. In such a case, you must hand over your device for third party examination. If and when that happens, information exposed could include the history of the websites you’ve visited, songs and movies downloaded, some financial transactions or statements, various social media accounts and more. So, beware!

That’s why there’s an ongoing discussion regarding solutions that serve both companies and employees.

From the perspective of an IT manager, solutions can start with the simple matter of establishing clear policies regarding devices and can go all the way up to applying Virtualization, in which no corporate data resides on the employee’s device as everything is happening inside the IT data center upon logging in and stays there after logging out. It’s really a shift to human-centric IT services.

Continued growth in BYOD means many things to the technology industry as a whole. It means the PC is no longer the main business device and it means that big enterprise software is being ‘consumerized’ through web-based access and mobile applications. Therefore, such software solutions should be redeveloped to work well across all these devices and operating systems, with attention to security considerations and much more.

That’s why industry analysts believe that BYOD will change the face of IT in 2013. The only question remaining is: Will you BYOD or not?

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Monday, June 24, 2013

Big data, big brother and big issues

So everyone is now openly discussing what we already all knew, but chose to ignore: Governments utilize your personal online data for ‘security purposes’.

Getting past the outrage of the last few weeks, and looking at this matter with sobriety, one must ask a question. What did you expect?

Did you think all the convenience of being connected 24/7; reaching out to business colleagues and personal friends at any time; sharing your thoughts and ‘personal content’ was not going to have any side effects?

Despite what may be said about the importance of ‘privacy’ in the digital age, the reality is that Google reads your Gmail and web searches to serve you suitable advertising, Facebook stores personal information and interests to do the same, Twitter is still figuring out how to do it and What’s App stores your messages for reasons that will be revealed soon! It’s the price you pay for free services and an ‘always on lifestyle’, and governments can tap into all this information.

The intelligence community and Silicon Valley's top technology firms are basically in the same business of collecting information on people. Google wasn’t planning to build a surveillance system, but that’s what it has become.

As big online players claim their innocence, and that they can’t do anything about this, it appears there could even be an unholy alliance. Skype, for example, is said to have a secret programme to make it easier for US surveillance agencies to access customers' information. The National Security Agency (NSA) in the US is offering technology transfer to private companies like Google to assist in obtaining “cutting-edge machine learning technologies” - why would they do that? Well, because Google has received a court order to comply with demands of government agencies for customer data.

This ongoing discussion in the US and Europe may seem to exclude our region, but the reality is that governments all over the world are connected and will ‘tap into’ online content for surveillance.
And it’s not just governments that you should be worried about. Think of your employer, partner or business acquaintance who will check out your Facebook profile before or after you meet, and imagine how much he/she will know about you from one page!

There’s enough information on social networks for anyone to harass you, and if you’ve taken some ‘liberties’ there could also be enough information to blackmail you.

It goes even deeper. Your comments on a news item reveal your political and social ‘leanings’ which may or may not be acceptable to various people you are working with. You could stereo-type yourself with one, anger-fueled comment or tweet. Also, as part of the bigger picture, comments on news sites are considered to be a key indicator of the national mood in any country and are therefore monitored.

Clearly, online snooping is the new reality. Even worse, it’s a historic record!

Try thinking of that next time you’re about to post a comment, tweet, change your Facebook status or connect with a someone you’re not supposed to on LinkedIn.

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Sunday, February 13, 2011

Revolution 2.0 is actually Awakening 1.0

It’s being called Revolution 2.0. It was facilitated by Facebook pages that brought young Tunisians and Egyptians together, starting a national conversation and taking action. It was driven by hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of Twitter updates, which attracted the attention of the world to an evolution of a revolution.

This movement has been building up for years and you have to look at it as a step-by-step process of empowerment.

The Internet has been available in the Arab countries for nearly 15 years, but its penetration levels to almost every segment and social class only started a few years ago. With that Internet access came knowledge and communication, coinciding with the introduction of social media platforms- like Facebook, YouTube and others. It then took some time for Facebook to be Arabized, but a flood of Arabs joined immediately. The number of Facebook users in Arab countries is currently around 20 million. However, to this day, Twitter users in the Arab World are estimated to be less than 100,000, so it can’t be seriously considered a high-impact media on the populous, but what it can do is reach and mobilize the media and technology savvy Arab youth, a now highly influential segment.

For a few years, there was a lot ‘training’ and ‘testing’ involved; finding out how governments and authorities would react to opposition on the Internet. Censorship, website blocks and even turning off the Internet became expected responses, but those driving change kept raising the stakes and pushing up the levels of freedom of expression.

My friend, Wael Ghonim, played an important role in these events by starting the Facebook page ‘We are all Khalid Saeed’ – the young man brutally beaten and killed last year. Wael became a face of this revolution when he was kidnapped and jailed, and became a hero when he was released.

For all of us, who knew Wael as a regular guy, a tech and media professional like us, his disappearance caused an outrage. A massive online movement built-up online to search for him and demand his release. Tweets and Facebook updates about him were saturating social networks. Websites and blogs across the world picked them up, followed by global news organizations and then a whole wave of ‘where is Wael’ emerged that made the headline news in every country in the world. His employer, Google could no longer remain silent and had to provide comment. His release was also heavily covered.

The members of the Middle East technology and media community who ‘connected’ over the past few years through meetings at conferences or doing business together, realized that they could do so much more when ‘one of their own’ needed help.
And, every one of Wael’s Facebook and Twitter friends felt they had played their small part in the Egyptian uprising.

But, the real heroes were not the people sitting behind a keyboard tweeting! They were those who responded to the digital call for action, but reacted in the real world and put their lives in danger and got real injuries. In the end, it became clear technology, as it always has been, was nothing more than a tool in the hands of a willing people. There are no digital replacements for human sentiments and causes.

On New Year’s Eve, I was interviewed by Al Jazeera, who also spoke to other guests on a panel regarding the topic of technology and economy in the Middle East in 2011. A couple of the guests were older - and old fashioned- people who said they had lost faith in Arab youth, saying they were too busy paying attention to ‘trivial matters’.

My response was that there was already clear and encouraging movement, across the Middle East, by young entrepreneurs and activists who were driving economic and social change, creating new jobs and building a new, better future for Arab youth using tools and knowledge that previous generations did not have access to. It was probably the last thing on any of our minds that this Arab youth would be creating new political systems too!

The media can call it whatever they want: Revolution 2.0, the Digital Uprising or whatever. The reality is that millions of Arabs are thrilled, not because of the technology involved, but because it feels like ‘Awakening 1.0’.

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