Cyber Attack – The No 1 Emerging Threat?

Every modern company or individual is on some level at risk of cyber-attack. And every company and individual, bar none, is critically dependent upon their computer systems. It has become in vogue for commentators to portray cyber-attacks as representing real threats to the “internet of things”, with bad actors taking control of nuclear power stations or similar core infrastructure. However, while the reality is generally less dramatic, it has huge potential to destabilize society.

2012 Iranians attack Aramco

In August 2012 the Iranians launched a devastating attack against Saudi Arabia’s giant state oil company – Aramco. The attack was Iran’s first serious cyber-attack. Sometime in in 2012 an Aramco employee opened an email on an Internet connected computer and clicked on a malicious link which unknown to the employee gave Iranian actors access to the company network. From this single entry the attackers code was distributed throughout the company network, spreading malicious code to many other computers and network nodes. From this silent, unnoticed entry the attackers deployed malicious code throughout the network to carry out two operations, 1) to wipe files from the company’s system and 2) to report back progress to the attackers. Once the wiping component was activated it deleted the relevant disk drivers (which manage reading and writing on the system) and replaced them with their own copy. The copy looked and operated entirely legitimately and raised no flags. However, the wiping code then overwrote the contents of important files. This is actually much more difficult to recover from than simple deletion. The malicious code then wiped the master boot record (basically the master directory) rendering the attacked computers unable to operate at all.

The attack was initiated on August 15th and swiftly spread throughout the company’s environment rendering some thirty-five thousand computers inoperable – the majority of Aramco’s administrative and operational computing capability. Some computer screens displayed a burning US flag. There was no doubt a major attack was in progress.

The attack happened during Ramadan when about half of the IT staff were on vacation. While the attack did not (attempt) to target physical operations, it caused major disruption to company operations that cost many millions of dollars and caused huge disruption on all levels of the company’s operations. We might assume that the motive of this attack was simply to disrupt the commercial heart of a nation state.

2021 Colonial Pipeline

On May 8th this year Colonial Pipeline, an American fuel distribution company said that it was the victim of a cybersecurity attack forcing the company to shut down its 5500 mile pipeline which transports gas, diesel and aviation fuel from the Gulf Coast to the USA East Coast. Following the initial company announcement it was widely assumed, not surprisingly, that the physical pipeline infrastructure systems may have been compromised. Over the weekend the US government declared a state of emergency and the Department of Transportation temporarily relaxed regulations across much of the country governing how long truckers could drive, to provide flexibility in the supply chain. Gas prices jumped 6 cents over the past week and is expected to keep rising until supply returns to normal. Supply shortages, minimal at present are expected to increase across the country.

Colonial said it’s likely to restore service on the majority of its pipeline by Friday (14th May).

Richard Joswick, head of global oil analytics at S&P Global Platts said, “There’s no imminent shortfall, and thus no need to panic buy gasoline. If the pipeline is restored by Friday, there won’t be much of an issue.” He went on, “If it does drag on for two weeks, it’s a problem, you’d wind up with price spikes and probably some service stations getting low on supply. And panic buying just makes it worse.”

Apparently Colonial admitted that the threat was a ransomware attack by gang of criminal hackers that calls itself DarkSide, and had halted all pipeline operations over the weekend, forcing what the company called a precautionary shutdown. However, U.S. officials said Monday that the “ransomware” malware used in the attack didn’t spread to the critical systems that control the pipeline’s operation. But the fact that it could have done so alarmed outside security experts.

The hackers are reported to be of Russian origin from an organization called the DarkSide, one of many ransomware gangs that specialize in extortion. The criminals typically steal an organization’s data and  encrypt it, making ongoing business impossible or extremely difficult. They then frequently threaten to publish the data if the targeted organization doesn’t pay up, creating a second disincentive to trying to recover without paying. Ransomware gangs are usually only motivated by profit. Colonial has not disclosed any details of the form of threat, or indeed the impact, other that it has been forced to halt pipeline operations.

It’s useful to think of corporate computer systems in three categories – administrative, operational and control. Administrative systems cover functions such as contract management, billing, debtors, asset management, accounting and marketing. Operational systems manage business dynamics including resource planning, scheduling and management, production and logistics. Control systems manage the physical operations including instrumenting, monitoring and controlling the actual operations. The link between operational and control systems are Remote Terminal Units (RTUs). The RTU provides data consolidation and translation between the two technology worlds.

The RTU clearly represents a big focus of cyber-attacks. And hackers often find older RTUs poorly defended with unsecured communication, so they become the path of least resistance into the network.

In this case it appears from Colonial’s comments that the control systems were not compromised. Unlike the Aramco case the target was almost certainly for the attackers to make money by threatening a) to publish commercially confidential data, or b) to massively disrupt commercial operations. We may never know the outcome. Specialists in this field always advise on the highest level of secrecy over how cyber-attacks were resolved.

For Colonial, there are a number of really big questions. First the extent to which their systems may have been compromised? Like the Iranian attack on Aramco, it could be that the attackers have left sleepers in the Colonial network. Second, whether the interface between the operational and the control systems have been breached? Most control systems these days will be protected by virtual private networks, but if the attackers have gained access to the operational systems layer, they may well be able to gain access to the private network.

So what do Colonial do? Should they, like Aramco, effectively reinstall their entire system software layer? But how do they know what systems software is legitimate? And what might be hiding malicious code? This might be a powerful argument for paying the ransom. But can cyber attackers be trusted to reset the systems if the ransom is paid? Or will they reset sufficient to allow operations to restart. But thereafter will they come back for more? For Colonial, and any company faced with the same threat, this is a real nightmare.

What’s happening is that the entire world is critically dependent upon computer systems. This creates a compelling opportunity for any number of bad actors who have various motivations including making money, destabilizing nation states, economies or organizations. The key lesson we need to learn is that prevention is easier than cure. But we need to be aware that this trend is only just getting started. There’s too much money to be made.

Recommended reading:

The Hacker and the State, Cyber Attacks and the New Normal of Geopolitics,

Harvard University Press 2020


Just as I publish this I noted from the Guardian:

Russian-speaking cyber gang threatens release of Washington police data

A Russian-speaking ransomware syndicate that stole data from police department in Washington DC says negotiations over payment have broken down and it will release sensitive information that could put lives at risk if more money is not offered. The extortion threat comes amid a separate ransomware attack on a major pipeline that’s affected part of the US’s fuel supply, highlighting the power of internet-savvy criminal gangs to sow mayhem from a half a world away with impunity. The Babuk group said on its website late on Monday that it would release “all the data” it stole from the Washington police department if it did not “raise the price”.

“The negotiations reached a dead end, the amount we were offered does not suit us,” the group said. The department did not immediately return a request for comment, and has not said whether it has negotiated any possible payment. If true, it is an example how complex the ransomware problem is when even police find themselves forced to consider making payments to criminal gangs.

Posted in Cyber Attack | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

National Concert Hall Crashes and Byrnes

Thursday 29th April 2021

Hi David , just a reminder that you’ll get access to the stream at least 30 minutes before the event starts – both on your ticket in-app and via email.
7:31 pmNCH: David , your event is about to begin
7:33 pmCommence setting up download.

Entry page asks for telephone number and presets +44 indicating I’m supposed to be in the United Kingdom! Change to +353 and enter telephone number and event code.

Blank Tab with message: Video Unavailable

Try again, same result

Fetch more modern device and repeat. Same result.

Move onto iPhone, download app. I really don’t want to watch the event on a telephone, but it’s another datapoint.
Same result: Video Unavailable
7:45 pmJoined by my wife who is undoubtedly spooked by me in problem resolution mode, fingers flashing over the keys and (probably) cursing under my breath.

Move to iPad and repeat, Same result.
7:55 pmThere is a Help Centre link; I follow that and find it’s email. There’s no way email support is going to be of help to get this fixed by 8pm.
8.00 pmDecide we’re not getting in.
8:07 pmMe: I am unable to access the event either in the app or on another device.
The link to another device takes me to Youtube and I am told video unavailable.

The alternative device (windows 10) is my preference. But the app on my iPhone isn’t giving me access either – same error message.

Please 1. Refund me my ticket 2. Tell me if I will be able to view Christy Moore on Saturday evening. Already paid for.

8:08 pmNCH: Hello, Thanks for getting in touch with DICE. Please note, that we aim to reply to you within 24 hours. If you’re messaging about an event that’s taking place today, we’ll endeavour to reply a little quicker.

We also ask that you have a read of our Help Centre in case you find a quicker solution to your question.
Thanks, Team DICE
8:09 pmNCH: Hey there, There is currently an issue with this stream but we’ve reached out to the organizers and are actively working on a fix. Please sit tight and thank you for your patience.

8:32 pmNCH: Hi there, Thanks so much for your patience here. The stream is now working, please enter your phone number and 5 character code at to enjoy it.

If you require any further assistance please do not hesitate to let us know!
8:55 pmMe: Thanks for alerting me. I will wait to hear from you on how you will recompense me for this extraordinary error.
8:57 pmNCH: The stream was up and working 15 minutes after it was set to air, and you can rewind anything you missed.


When we eventually gained access we watched the latter part of the performance in real time and then rewound to the beginning.

Celine Byrne was singing opera and Irish airs accompanied by piano, cello and violin. We hadn’t seen Celine Byrne previously. She has a very powerful voice and outstanding quality of tone. Yet the performance was sadly lacking. Inevitably we would compare Celine with our sadly missed local heroine Cara O’Sullivan, who’s voice was probably even more powerful, but whose personality and presence was immeasurably greater.

The format of the performance was really very dull. Everything was (musically) technically excellent but it was without any spark. The organisers and Celine had simply replicated what they would do for a concert format. They might have added a compere such as Liz Nolan, or incorporated other singers to duet, or acted the opera parts, or . . .. well I could go on. It brings to mind that online meetings and events cannot just replicate what we used to do face to face. We have to rethink events and figure out how to enliven the experience in ways that engage the participants.

My review would be:

Music Technical Excellence: 4.8

Live Stream Technical Excellence: 1.5

Overall  Experience: 2.5

CODA: I have no idea how many viewers were impacted like myself. I would assume many. I don’t think this was a bandwidth issue because I hit the problem immediately well before the start.

Posted in Personal Technology, Technology and Society, Technology Platforms | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

The True Story of How the UK Post Office became a Failed Organization.

A modern fable.

In 1999 the UK Post Office introduced a new computer system named Horizon into its network of post offices throughout the UK. The system managed the important tasks of transactions, accounting and stocktaking. Soon after it was introduced postmasters complained about bugs in the system which was reporting shortfalls, many amounting to thousands of pounds. Postmasters were discovering losses they could not explain. The Post Office took large numbers of postmasters to court where they were found guilty of theft, fraud and false accounting.

In court representatives of the Post Office testified that each case was unique; there was no evidence of widespread problems and on that basis the postmaster was always found guilty. Many former postmasters and postmistresses have described how the saga ruined their lives. They had to cope with the long-term impact of a criminal conviction and imprisonment, some at a time when they had been pregnant or had young children. Marriages broke down, and courts have heard how some families believe the stress led to health conditions, addiction and premature deaths.

In December 2019, the Post Office paid out £58 million to sub-postmasters who were awarded compensation for past false prosecutions of monetary theft that had been based on faulty evidence from the Horizon IT system. The judge presiding on the case, Mr Justice Fraser, described the Post Office’s approach to the case as “institutional obstinacy” that, “…amounted, in reality, to bare assertions and denials that ignore what has actually occurred, at least so far as the witnesses called before me in the Horizon Issues trial are concerned. It amounts to the 21st century equivalent of maintaining that the earth is flat.”

The CEO of the Post Office during this period was Paula Anne Vennells, CBE who just happens to be an ordained Anglican minister. Under her leadership, from 2012 to 2019 the Post Office prosecuted hundreds of subpostmasters for fraud, despite knowing that the financial discrepancies were actually arising from computer errors for which her own company was responsible. In 2019 she became chair of the Imperial College Healthcare NHS Trust in London. She also became a non-executive board member of the Cabinet Office.

On 19 March 2020, Vennells was harshly criticised in the House of Commons, particularly by Kevan Jones, MP for North Durham, who said, “Obviously, as a board member she knew what was going on, including the strategy in the court case and the bugs in the system. What happened? She got a CBE in the new year’s honours list for services to the Post Office. That is just rubbing salt into the wounds of these innocent people. There is a case for her having that honour removed, and I would like to know how she got it in the first place when the court case is ongoing. Added to that, she is now chair of Imperial College Healthcare NHS Trust. Again, I would like to know why and what due diligence was done on her as an individual… In December 2020 it was announced that she would be leaving these roles early, for personal reasons.”

Vennells subsequently apologised to workers affected by the scandal, saying, “ I am truly sorry we were unable to find both a solution and a resolution outside of litigation and for the distress this caused.”

There were more than 700 prosecutions based on Horizon evidence. The commission and the Post Office are asking anyone else who believes their conviction to be unsafe to come forward. Those whose convictions have been quashed are Josephine Hamilton, Hughie Noel Thomas, Allison Henderson, Alison Hall, Gail Ward, Julian Wilson, Jacqueline McDonald, Tracy Felstead, Janet Skinner, Scott Darlington, Seema Misra, Della Robinson, Khayyam Ishaq, David Thomas Hedges, Peter Anthony Holmes, Rubina Shaheen, Damien Owen, Mohammed Rasul, Wendy Buffrey, Kashmir Gill, Barry Capon, Vijay Parekh, Lynette Hutchings, Dawn O’Connell, Carl Page, Lisa Brennan, William Graham, Siobhan Sayer, Pauline Thomson, Tim Burgess, Nicholas Clark, Margery Williams, Tahir Mahmood, Ian Warren, David Yates, Harjinder Butoy, Gillian Howard, David Blakey and Pamela Lock.

Following the convictions some of these former postmasters went to prison, were shunned by their communities and struggled to secure work. Some lost their homes and even failed to get insurance owing to their convictions. Three have since died. They always said the fault was in the computer system, which had been used to manage post offices’ finances since 1999.

The Post Office settled the civil claim brought by more than 550 claimants for £57.75m, without admitting liability, in December 2019. Opening the appellants’ case on Monday, Tim Moloney QC said: “Essentially the Post Office in the face of all the evidence was prepared to accept that subpostmasters of previous good character, who had hitherto run decent responsible profitable businesses, became criminals overnight. Alarm bells should have rung.” He added, “The Post Office “chose to disbelieve the subpostmasters … It chose to ignore the distress that was being suffered by those subpostmasters.”

“Trust is the lubrication that makes it possible for organizations
to work.”  WARREN BENNIS

Posted in Digital Transformation, Governance, Technology and Society, Trust | Tagged , , | 5 Comments

Out of Africa – Malawi

Disclosure: I love Africa and have a long history of involvement there. I first travelled to South Africa, Nigeria and Kenya on business as early as 1979, lived in Johannesburg for five years in the 1980s and continued to travel occasionally for business and family purposes until a few years ago. So I watch African matters with interest, and am not at all surprised that Africa continues to lag the rest of the world in all matters, particularly Covid19.

I recently started to take a close interest in Malawi because I made a tiny project investment there. I read the newspapers, research on socio economic matters and look forward to the day I can visit. So I plan to report periodically on the country as a snapshot of life in Africa. As the project moves forward, I will report on it.

Malawi is totally landlocked, bordered by Zambia to the west, Tanzania to the north and northeast, and Mozambique to the east, south and southwest. The country was “discovered” by David Livingstone in 1859. As a result of his visit it was claimed by the British and in 1889 proclaimed a British protectorate. In 1907 the protectorate was named Nyasaland and remained under British control until 1964 when it became independent from British rule and renamed itself as Malawi. For 29 years the country remained a one party state under the control of its first president (Banda). In 1993 the country voted for a multi-party democracy.
Topographically, Malawi lies within the Great Rift Valley system. Lake Malawi, a body of water some 580 km long (!) and about 460 m above sea level, is the country’s most prominent physical feature. About 75% of the land surface is plateau between 750 m and 1,350 m above sea level. Highland elevations rise to over 3000 m and the lowest point is on the southern border where the Zambezi is at 37 m above sea level.

Today Malawi is one of the world’s least developed countries. The economy is dominated by agriculture and has a largely rural and rapidly growing population. Malawi is one of the poorest countries in the world. About half of the population are below the poverty line, with 20% described as “extremely poor”. The country is heavily dependent upon outside aid. In 1993 the population was approximately 9 million. Today it is 19.5 million. There is a diverse population with numerous ethnic groups. There are two official languages including English. In the past there was periodic regional conflict perhaps triggered by ethnic divisions, but by 2008 this internal conflict had considerably diminished, and the idea of identifying with one’s Malawian nationality had emerged.

Against this background, Malawi has just the same challenges as the rest of the world. In this post I’ll talk a little about Covid19.
Covid19 first arrived in Malawi in April 2020 with cases imported from India, the UK and South Africa. In that month the president announced a 21 day lockdown, but the High Court barred the government from implementing. Among the arguments were that thousands of agriculture workers sold their produce in markets and had a highly precarious existence. A lockdown would cause extreme hardship. In the end no lockdown was used and the pandemic spread slowly during 2020. This was probably less to do with previous experience gained during the earlier SARS epidemic than the rural population spread.

But after being largely spared by the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, Malawi is now being swept by a new, fast-spreading wave of the disease that is quickly overwhelming the healthcare system. Medicine Sans Frontiers reported, “In the first few weeks of January 2021, the number of people confirmed with the disease has doubled every four to five days, and while the local capacity is already saturated, access to vaccines is likely a few months away. Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) responded to a call by the health authorities in Blantyre, and launched emergency activities to tackle the exponential increase in the number of severe patients in the area.”

In October the Guardian reported a drastic rise in Malawi’s suicide rate linked to Covid economic downturn. Malawi is seeing a sharp rise in suicide rates this year, with some attributing it to the economic stresses of the Covid pandemic, noting that Malawi is one of the poorest countries in the world, with about half of the population below the poverty line, with 20% described as “extremely poor”. Malawi police service reports an increase of as much as 57% on the same period last year. Suicide mortality rate (per 100,000 population) in Malawi was reported at 3.7% in 2016 by the World Bank.

The country went into lockdown on 18 January, the first time since the pandemic began. By then Malawi had recorded 12,470 coronavirus cases and 314 deaths, with a 40% increase in infections in a month. There were 17380 new cases in January, raising the total number of confirmed cases to 23963. The death toll rose to 702. The number of recovered patients increased to 8615, leaving 14646 active cases at the end of the month. Among the fatalities were two Cabinet ministers. By March the deaths had risen to 1117.

In March, Malawi received the first shipment of Covid19 vaccine from Covax the international partnership between CEPI, Gavi, UNICEF and WHO. The COVAX Facility shipped 360,000 doses of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine from Serum Institute of India from Mumbai, India, as well as supporting equipment. However, in the second week of April, the Guardian reported that, more than 16,000 expired AstraZeneca Covid-19 doses are to be destroyed in Malawi as concerns over vaccine hesitancy increase. The vaccines are among 102,000 doses donated by the African Union (AU) to the Malawian government last month. Currently, about 230,000 doses have been administered, enough to vaccinate nearly 1% of the population. As well as doses from the AU, the country received more than 400,000 AstraZeneca shots from Covax and the Indian government.

Initially, Malawians responded to the vaccine enthusiastically, with long queues at vaccination points and hospitals since the rollout began last month. But numbers have dropped off. It was reported that people were also spreading messages that they will receive the expired vaccine, causing damage to the effort of the government. George Jobe, executive director of Malawi Health Equity Network, expressed concern. “In the country, especially in rural areas, people are still clinging to the negative information about the vaccine. We should remember that there has been misinformation on the vaccine, and now we’ve experienced the danger of such messages.”

And I read in the Nyasa Times today that the Parliament’s PAC (presumably public accounts committee) is grilling officials over possible misappropriation of Covid19 funds! Senior officials from DODMA Department of Disaster Management Affairs were grilled on how about 50% of K6.2 billion (that’s about €6.8m) went towards “allowances” including conferences, allowances, stationery etc. I must admit this type of report doesn’t reduce possible prejudice about corruption in African countries.

In my next post on this topic I will continue tracking Covid19 matters but focus on Climate Change, which you might imagine may have a dramatic impact on this poor country.

Malawi has administered at least 229,220 doses of COVID vaccines so far. Assuming every person needs 2 doses, that’s enough to have vaccinated about 0.6% of the country’s population. (Reuters)


Admiration nation Which is The Economist’s country of the year?

. . . this year’s prize goes to a country in southern Africa. Democracy and respect for human rights regressed in 80 countries between the start of the pandemic and September, reckons Freedom House, a think-tank. The only place where they improved was Malawi.
To appreciate its progress, consider what came before. In 2012 a president died, his death was covered up and his corpse flown to South Africa for “medical treatment”, to buy time so that his brother could take over. That brother, Peter Mutharika, failed to grab power then but was elected two years later and ran for re-election. The vote-count was rigged with correction fluid on the tally sheets. Foreign observers cynically approved it anyway. Malawians launched mass protests against the “Tipp-Ex election”. Malawian judges turned down suitcases of bribes and annulled it. A fair re-run in June booted out Mr Mutharika and installed the people’s choice, Lazarus Chakwera. Malawi is still poor, but its people are citizens, not subjects. For reviving democracy in an authoritarian region, it is our country of the year.

Posted in Africa, Covid19, Malawi, Technology and Society, Travel | Tagged , | 1 Comment

Let the Majority Speak!

I sent the following letter to numerous Irish national newspapers this morning. Needless to say, I don’t expect any to publish!

My wife and I, both in our 70s, were delighted to receive a call from the HSE last night and immediately attend the CIT mass vaccination centre just a few Kms away. It was the end of a long day in which many hundreds of people had already been processed by the selfless doctors, medics, administrators and guides, yet the atmosphere was efficient, calm, professional, supportive and friendly. It struck us that this is the real Ireland which is calmly and resolutely working to end this crisis.

If we listened uncritically to the media we might be tempted to believe there is another parallel Ireland where chaos and anger rule. That the Irish have given up and must be given more freedom if we are to succeed in beating this virus. I suggest we need to give voice to the majority. Instead of constantly undermining the national effort, looking for mistakes, equating small errors to overall process failure and giving equal voice to minorities and naysayers, we should be better reflecting the majority view. It’s clear from the data that the overwhelming majority are ready and willing to stay the course. We understand the strategy and are not constantly calling for clarity. This is particularly relevant to the national broadcaster, but equally all media channels that would do well to critically examine their role in the national effort.
Yours etc,

It’s not just in Ireland that minorities seem to hold sway. It happens worldwide in democracies.

The BBC famously strive for balance and many will remember during the Brexit debate in 2016 the BBC strove so hard for impartiality that no discussion, debate or talk couldn’t include some Brexit supporting lunatic and truth was an obvious casualty. Obvious to everyone except the BBC perhaps! The level of the debate was well illustrated by Boris Johnson’s contribution, “We export French knickers to France… Are the French really going to put tariffs on our French knickers when we buy so much of their cheese and their champagne? Of course they’re not!” Similarly whether the imaginary £350m (Brexit cost saving) claimed by Johnson and Gove would ever be spent on the NHS was not treated as a lie for the BBC to repeatedly expose, but “a reasonable opinion”. In essence the BBC’s policy was that all opinions merit equal coverage, and the public might as well give up on fact or evidence-based argument.

Today it’s evident that this policy is the new normal everywhere. It applies increasingly to Covid19 but equally climate change where it’s also a major challenge because there are many lobbyists that continue to peddle climate nonsense as unchallengeable fact.

For example, here in Ireland (from the Irish Times) we have a university professor, Dolores Cahill who until recently was regarded as one of the world’s leading scientists in the area of proteomics (the large-scale study of proteins). Her work has been cited almost 6,000 times in academic studies and she has been involved in a bewildering array of scientific boards, councils and taskforces. Her return from Germany to Dublin in 2003 was regarded as a coup for the Irish scientific community. Eighteen years later, the immunology professor has become one of the leading purveyors of Covid-19 misinformation and conspiracy theories, not just in Ireland but around the world. The impressive resume of the UCD professor, along with her many appearances on conspiracy theory podcasts and YouTube channels, means her views are now frequently cited as proof that Covid-19 is simply an overblown version of the flu and that preventative measures such as face masks and vaccines are just not ineffective but dangerous. Not surprisingly there is “widespread frustration” over her comments and that public statements from senior professors challenging her misinformation had been “sorely lacking”. And incredibly she is still employed by Dublin City University because evidently they cannot fire her for non academic activity.

However, again here in Ireland, (from the polling carried out by Amárach Research on behalf of the Department of Health shows that despite being more angry frustrated in recent weeks than at any stage over the past 12 months, the largest proportion of the population believes that the current (very tough) level of restrictions is about right. Out of 2,200 people who were asked on Monday of this week the extent to which they are obeying restrictions on a scale of 1 (indicating ‘not at all) to 7 (indicating ‘very much so’) , the average score was 6.3 – consistent with levels seen last summer.

It seems that in spite of all manner of efforts to undermine the national effort, the silent majority are sticking with the programme. And that’s what my wife and I observed yesterday.

Posted in Coronavirus, Covid19, Democracy, lockdown, Pandemic, Truth | 3 Comments

UCC Climate Conference 2021

I virtually attended most of the UCC climate conference yesterday. It’s was a useful experience, not really because of the content which was highly variable, rather because it allowed me to think about where we are at. Here are my thoughts:

Dr Clare Watson is a climate change giant, a genuine pioneer and ground breaker. She explained how she is leading a research team supporting the Dingle Peninsula 2030 project – a community based effort to create a sustainable future for a defined area. Many readers of my blog will be familiar with the Dingle Peninsula – the most northerly part of County Kerry, home to some 12,500 people and many holiday homes with the famous Blasket Islands just off the far western point. It’s a well-defined area, perhaps ideal for an experimental or pilot project which involves not just numerous agencies and support organizations, but crucially the people themselves. Their goal, nothing less than “to transition our beautiful peninsula into a low-carbon society.” I loved the idea of climate mentors, local people who have trained in specific aspects of climate change relevant to their occupations, who work with and guide local residents, farms and businesses in making change in the most practical, on the ground manner. I asked Clare whether the project can be seen as a template for other areas, and what she thought might be guidelines for other projects. She replied that, yes of course there are loads of lessons to learn, but each project would be unique. She did however comment that their project has benefitted greatly from the support from a retired civil servant who has been invaluable in creating links, opening doors and cutting red tape! Also the key to their project is collaboration on many different dimensions without competition between groups. See links below, this is a genuinely inspirational project worth watching.

There was a panel discussion session labelled as “Youth Climate Activists”. To be honest I wasn’t very impressed because the discussion was very academic. I wondered whether the activists would be better off finding, engaging with and or starting local projects such as the Dingle Project, in which they could get involved in delivering real world benefits.

I wondered why there wasn’t anything on the agenda about agriculture. This was an Irish Climate Conference and given that the agriculture sector is the sector with the highest emissions at over 30%, it would have been an obvious topic to include. Instead I noted there were a couple of side comments and references to this. One speaker with reference to the energy sector made a comment that that sector might have to over achieve in order to compensate for under achievement in the ag sector! Wow!

The other speaker that I found thought provoking was Dr Stephen Onekuse. He spoke passionately about big business – the biggest inhibitor to making progress on climate change. These big businesses are totally focused on GDP growth at the expense of the environment, and making mega profits without bearing any of the environmental cost. In the process we are destroying our environment. He discussed the current pandemic as an environmental cost, which we all now understand is going to be huge. I asked the question, “whether we can put an environment tax on big businesses, separate to tax on profitability?” Stephen responded that firstly, many large enterprises, particularly in Ireland pay little or no tax, and have all the resources to engage the necessary specialists to ensure this would continue, regardless of the structure of the taxation. Secondly, that these same companies act as powerful lobbyists of government(s) and have such power than any measures would probably never happen. Thirdly, he commented that the biggest issue is that even if there was a tax related to environmental costs, that the money raised would only be spent by governments that are short term driven and of course also strongly influenced by lobbyists!

I didn’t get the opportunity to dialog with Stephen, but I would have liked to get his opinion on a) possible strategies for the Irish agriculture industry, which has exports of $14.5 billion, yet still don’t allow farmers to earn a living wage. And b) options for monetary systems, such as that advocated by Kim Stanley Robinson (see reference below).

In summary for me the conference was useful for alerting me to the Dingle project plus the questions it raised for me.

Dingle Peninsula 2030

Ministry for the Future, Kim Stanley Robinson ISBN 978-0-356-50885—6
To Slow Down Climate Change, We Need To Take On Capitalism

Dr Clare Watson, Chasing Hubcaps

Posted in Climate Change, Economic Model, Organic Farming | Tagged , | 1 Comment

There’s More Bad News – Plastic is Even More Deadly than We Realised

Just when we are starting to hope that we can see an end to the Covid19 pandemic along comes more bad news. I read today that research now shows that tiny plastic particles in the lungs of pregnant rats pass rapidly into other organs including the heart and the brain. Evidently this is the first such study in a live mammal that shows the placenta does not block such particles. Of course we are now well aware that microplastic has reached every part of the planet and people are consuming the tiny particles via food and water and also by breathing them in. The impact on health is as yet unknown.

Separately, but potentially connected, I read that thanks to hormone-disrupting chemicals human fertility is declining at an alarming rate all around the globe. In an article by Erin Brockovich (yes you do know the name, she’s now writing for the Guardian) we learn of a book by an environmental and reproductive epidemiologist, Shanna Swan, that reports human sperm counts have dropped almost 60% since 1973. On that trajectory sperm counts could reach zero by 2045. No natural reproduction, no babies. No new humans. The chemicals to blame for this reproductive crisis are, surprise, surprise, found in everything from plastic containers and food wrapping, to waterproof clothes and fragrances in cleaning products, to soaps and shampoos, to electronics and carpeting. I’ll quote from the Guardian article:

Swan’s book is staggering in its findings. “In some parts of the world, the average twentysomething woman today is less fertile than her grandmother was at 35,” Swan writes. In addition to that, Swan finds that, on average, a man today will have half of the sperm his grandfather had. “The current state of reproductive affairs can’t continue much longer without threatening human survival,” writes Swan, adding: “It’s a global existential crisis.” That’s not hyperbole. That’s just science.

However, on the same day I read in the MIT briefing that researchers have grown mice in an artificial womb for as long as 11 or 12 days, about half the animal’s natural gestation period. It’s a record for development of a mammal outside the womb and, according to the research team, human embryos could be next. The researchers say scientists will want to develop human embryos this way too, in order to better study early development. The human equivalent of 12-day-old mice would be a first-trimester embryo. But the scientific community agrees that they would never try to establish a pregnancy with artificial embryos—an act that would be forbidden today in most countries. Maybe the ethical issues would go away very rapidly if the very existence of the human race is up for grabs!

The whole topic of sustainability has become very topical. Primarily in context with climate change questions. But it is becoming very clear that humans in their race for growth, are in the process of destroying everything! Just when you thought we didn’t need any more “once in a lifetime” problems, it seems that we are facing into even more global crises. Tighten your seat-belt!


Plummeting sperm counts, shrinking penises: toxic chemicals threaten humanity
Erin Brockovich

Plastic particles pass from mothers into foetuses, rat study shows

A mouse embryo has been grown in an artificial womb—humans could be next

Posted in Plastic Pollution, Survival of the Human Race, Sustainability, Technology and Society | Tagged , | 3 Comments

Tell me No Lies,

“Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts.” Daniel Patrick Moynihan

This post is also available as a podcast:

Over the past few years I have commented frequently on what many of us believe is the primary threat to society – the rise of alternative facts. The concept of “untruths” are now so many and varied that ordinary, well educated people frequently find it hard to know where the truth lies. This isn’t necessarily new, it has always been the case that powerful, influential people, politicians, business people and others have lied to further their own ambitions. But the advent of social media has provided the purveyors of untruths and their potential listeners with huge opportunity and bandwidth to pervert the truth. Tech platforms have facilitated this, and efforts to apply governance have been inadequate, controversial and simply too late.

I first came across the concept of open source investigation in the New York Review of Books in 2019. The article described the case of a summary execution carried out by the Cameroon government soldiers of two women villagers, suspected of links to Boko Haram, and their children in July 2018, to illustrate the concepts of OSINT – open source intelligence. In 2018 a video of the killings started circulating on social media making it very clear “what” had happened, but the facts were unclear – where and when did it happen, who were the perpetrators and why did they kill? The BBC’s Africa Eye investigated the case and won an award for their ground breaking work. They geolocated the site by matching topographical features from the video to satellite maps, established the time by using shadows as sundials and confirmed the killers’ identities by cross-referencing social media profiles with government records. This work led to strong parliamentary condemnations in the US and EU and withdrawal of funds from the Cameroonian Army.

This wasn’t the first use of OSINT but clearly it attracted a lot of attention. Back in 2010 an open newsroom tool Storyful established a platform and collective for collaborative investigation, enabling the new form of investigative journalism. One of the active participants was a Leicester based blogger, Elliott Higgins whose success with open source investigations brought him media attention which led to the foundation of Bellingcat – an international collective of researchers, investigators, and citizen journalists that conducts investigations using techniques he pioneered.

In 2021 Higgins published a book, We Are Bellingcat: An Intelligence Agency for the People. The book provides a fascinating account of real events that in many cases read like a thriller, but provide detailed insight into how the Bellingcat collective gets beyond the noise and propaganda and has established the truth in some very high profile cases. These include the 2018 Novichock poisonings in Salisbury, the 2014 downing of MH17 in the eastern Ukraine, the 2018 chemical attacks by the Assad regime against innocent civilians in Homs, the violent unrest by Klu Klux Klan and others in Nazi uniform in Charlottesville in 2017, the 2013 Boston Bombings, the horrific attacks on two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand in 2019 and many more.

Higgins describes how traditional investigative journalism has been turned inside out. It used to be journalists would guard their sources and insights as competitive material. But since the rise of social media Higgins tells us that there are huge information resources that are simply hiding in plain sight. All that’s required is to trawl existing sources and often to use tools such as Googlemaps, Geolocators etc to validate and verify. Of course there are often conflicting stories, and social media being what it is, everything needs cross checking and validation. A quick search brings up “101 OSINT resources for investigators which includes tool categories of searching people, searching social media profiles, searching video and images, online communities and blogs, classified listings, background checking, business search sites, bitcoin and blockchain searching for illegal transactions, specialized deep web searching, geolocation searches, and more. You get the idea.

The OSINT market today is huge. In addition to pioneers such as Bellingcat there are today numerous organizations undertaking OSINT. Private firms like Snopes provide support to tech companies including Facebook. I note specialist firms such as Reuters are very active. And of course government agencies are very, very active. In addition there is a huge tools market. You might say it is a significant new marketplace, driven by the huge and complex social media environment. Global Newswire estimate the current market at $3.8bn growing to $12Bn by 2026. Allied Market Research have even bigger numbers!

The fact this market has grown indicates the huge demand for trust. Organizations need to know who and what they are dealing with before entering into contracts, be it employment, business collaboration etc. Of course we can all observe the huge gulf in the USA particularly where politics drives belief systems. Many of us will recall Catch 22 and I quote:

“It was miraculous. It was almost no trick at all, he saw, to turn vice into virtue and slander into truth, impotence into abstinence, arrogance into humility, plunder into philanthropy, thievery into honor, blasphemy into wisdom, brutality into patriotism, and sadism into justice. Anybody could do it; it required no brains at all. It merely required no character.” Joseph Heller, Catch-22

Or Terry Pratchett:
“All right,” said Susan. “I’m not stupid. You’re saying humans need… fantasies to make life bearable.”

It suggests that millions of individuals are now prepared to put aside logic and fact, and adopt fantasies as normal! No one needs reminding of Kellyanne Conway’s “Alternative facts” during a Meet the Press interview on January 22, 2017. Apart from being a huge driver of the OSINT market, it suggests there is a need for some form of verifiable truth in everyday life.

As a researcher and publisher between 1997 and 2017 I was accustomed to providing accreditation to whatever I published. As a blogger I do provide references at the foot of posts where appropriate. But I am minded to reinforce this practice as a matter of course. This is entirely normal in many professional communities. I have in mind that we should encourage everyone, and I mean everyone to provide accreditation, be it on tweets, posts, images as small but meaningful way to reinforce the veracity of what’s being communicated. Perhaps what we need is an evangelist to pick up this idea and promote! Meantime bloggers, if you’ve read this blog, please provide accreditation to your own work. Thanks!

George Orwell invented the word doublethink in his 1949 dystopian novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. In the novel, its origins within the citizenry is unclear; while it could be partly a product of Big Brother’s formal brainwashing programs, the novel explicitly shows people learning doublethink . . . due to peer pressure and a desire to “fit in,” or gain status within the Party—to be seen as a loyal Party Member. In the novel, for someone to even recognize—let alone mention—any contradiction within the context of the Party line is akin to blasphemy, and could subject that person to disciplinary action and the instant social disapproval of fellow Party Members. Wikipedia – Doublethink

Daniel Patrick Moynihan: A Portrait in Letters of an American Visionary, © 2010 by the Moynihan Estate.

Bellingcat and How Open Source Reinvented Investigative Journalism, Muhammad Idrees Ahmadre, New York Review of Books, June 2019

We Are Bellingcat: An Intelligence Agency for the People, By Elliott Higgins,
Bloomsbury Publishing (4 Feb. 2021) ISBN-13 : 978-1526615756

Posted in Democracy, Facebook, Twitter, Google, Governance, Open Source Intelligence OSINT, Technology and Society, Technology Platforms, Trust | 2 Comments

Technology’s Crucible – Cause or Solution to Our World in Crisis?

Back in the 1970’s I, like many in the tech industry, followed the work of James Martin – a genuine guru and polymath who between 1965 and 2006 wrote over 100 books, many of which were huge best sellers. The book he is most remembered for is The Wired Society which presciently predicted the impact of what we now call the internet, at a time when even personal computers were still in the realms of science fiction.

I first saw James in London in 1972 at one of his seminars on Real Time Systems Design. His book and ideas on that topic were widely followed as the industry made the giant leap from batch processing to online and his seminars were sell out events. In the mid 1980’s I had the great fortune to join his consulting company James Martin Associates or JMA, the company formed to implement James’ ideas. And over the following decade or so I and colleagues worked with the world’s leading corporations and large governments to guide them in adopting the ideas, methods and technologies for automating the automation process.

But for me the book that James Martin should really be remembered for is Technology’s Crucible. Published in 1987 it was his thoughtful analysis of, in his own words, “how the high technology of today, and man’s own nature, impact the quality of life tomorrow?”

In this book Martin discussed how with devastating speed, an ocean of technology is rolling in. No business, no industry, no institution will be left untouched. He advised that what seems improbable to one generation seems commonplace to the next: genetics engineering, super-robots, artificial intelligence chips, appalling weapons systems, psychrotropic drugs, workerless production factories etc. And he asked, “Are we at the mercy of technology? Or can we channel it to our own ends? If not at the mercy of technology, are we at the mercy of human nature?

The book Technology’s Crucible is actually set as a film script set in the year 2019, and the Narrator asks the question, “Would the course of history have been different if the public in the 1980s had understood the journey on which they had embarked?”

Each chapter of the book then examines various aspects of technology and society as seen from 2019. And in general the book reflects James Martin’s optimistic viewpoint and suggests that by 2019 there is a highly sophisticated society that concentrates on the ultimate purpose of our labours and minimises drudgery needed to achieve the purpose. It refines and reflects the pleasures that civilization can achieve. It removes drudgery, creates wealth, gives us superb systems, access to knowledge, mobility and supports the very essence of the word civilized. He reflects that a striking aspect of history is that new technologies destined to change society dramatically have always taken us by surprise. There has always been a reluctance to anticipate or believe the implications of powerful technology. The industrial revolution was one such fundamental change in human history that it could not have been anticipated. But by the second half of the twentieth century the early warnings of new technology should have been heeded.

The problem is that technology, just as in the crucible of the sorcerer’s apprentice, is like magic. It’s literally impossible to predict. And here Martin is as fallible as everyone else. In the book he covers the topics of work in the future, education, government, transport and war (or rather the end of war). And in each instalment he paints a vision of how technology will dramatically change life and civilization for the better. From the perspective of 1987 it’s an inspiring picture. Sadly from today’s perspective it’s rather demoralizing. Our reality is, as we all know, that technology has facilitated a dystopian, highly unequal society in which many of the 1980s problems have been exacerbated. The rise of authoritarian governments, the loss of integrity and truth in communications generally, the complete failure to protect the world from the threat of climate change and loss of biosphere all have their roots in the interaction between technology and society.

As I said, James Martin was always an optimist. One thought in his book that remains with me is his thinking that we should take a more proactive, planned approach to technology. Of course we can’t control innovation. But we might consider treating technology like pharmaceuticals. We don’t release drugs into the market until we know they are safe. Why do we do that with technology?

But I don’t under-estimate the difficulties in doing this.

So let’s ask James’ question again: “Can the course of history be altered if the public in 2021 understand the journey on which they are embarked?”

References and Links:
Technology’s Crucible, By James Martin
1987 Prentice Hall Inc.
An exploration of the Explosive Impact of Technology on Society During the Next Four Decades

Democracy is not a fragile flower still it needs cultivating. January 2021
Truth will ultimately prevail . . . ! November 2020
Education in the Covid19 World – Problem or Opportunity July 2020
It’s time to exert governance over the the Global Tech Leaders! August 2017

Posted in Digital Transformation, Governance, Personal Technology, Politics, Technology and Society, Technology Platforms | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Why listen to Bill Gates on How to Avoid a Climate Disaster!

Bill Gates is not a climate scientist. He’s not a politician. He has a “lot” of money and investments that could be seen as conflicts of interest. Why on earth should we listen to him?

This post is also available as a podcast.

We have been talking about climate change for as long as any of us can remember. Yet how much progress has been made to address the issue? We have placed a lot of responsibility on the UNFCCC Conference of the Parties (COP), and they have met every year since 1994, but they are still talking. But how much consensus is there? We must thank Greta Thunberg for her activism and evangelizing; and she and millions of schoolchildren have been brilliant at bringing the climate issue to everyone’s attention. But have we managed to even start reducing CO2 emissions or restoring biodiversity? The straight answer is that “we” have expended a vast amount of hot air.

Some disclosure here. I have met Bill Gates twice in the noughties as part of my tech research work. Notwithstanding all the scurrilous social media conspiracies about him, Gates is simply a very, very intelligent guy with huge experience and expertise in communicating, organizing and managing solutions. I found him willing to listen closely, able to operate at broad strategic level at the same time as dealing with fine grained detail. He’s highly opinionated, decisive and an effective communicator, without being confrontational. The book very much reflects these character traits.

He starts the book with a really good way of characterizing the problem that we need to fix. He starts out by saying there are two numbers we all need to know about climate change. The first is 51 billion and the second is zero. Fifty-one billion is the tons of greenhouse gases the world adds to the atmosphere every year. Zero is where that needs to get to, to avoid some very bad outcomes. But he doesn’t dwell on the bad outcomes at all. He says it will be very difficult to achieve zero; the biggest thing our world has ever had to do, but it’s eminently possible.

Gates breaks the problem into 5 categories:
Getting around – (planes, trucks, cargo ships) – 16%
Growing things (plants and animals) – 19%
Plugging in (electricity) – 27%
Making things (cement, steel, plastic) – 31%
Keeping warm and cool (heating, cooling, refrigeration) – 7%

He introduces a very simple idea of the Green Premium, which I don’t believe is his idea, but he has certainly promoted heavily. The Green Premium is the differential the consumer or customer or user has to pay to adopt a green solution over a carbon emitting product or solution. So is it cheaper for the car owner to buy and run an EV compared to a conventional ICE vehicle? Or is it cheaper to generate electricity using solar than oil or gas? And what’s the end consumer impact? Gates admits that the answer is not always clear cut, for example the (low) price of gas in the USA makes EVs a difficult sale with a high green premium, whereas the reverse is true in Europe. But it’s an excellent model to start with.

Gates then spends time on each topic covering the solutions that either exist or those that it’s reasonable to assume we can innovate in the time we have. Note here, this total focus on solutions. Let’s look briefly at each of the five categories.

How We Plug In
Gates gives a good example where in the USA producing all electricity from non-emitting sources including wind, solar, nuclear, carbon capture etc is possible with a modest green premium of 1.3 to 1.7 cents per kilowatt hour. Roughly a 15% premium. The premium varies around the world and Gates discusses big issues such as China and Africa that are special cases, batteries, intermittency issues etc. He does make a fairly strong pitch for nuclear, referencing France that produces 70% of its power that way (yes really), but the key to his discourse is understanding different models for different countries with the green premium providing a good basis for developing strategy and solutions.

How we make things
For the sake of brevity Gates focuses on steel, cement, concrete and plastic. And how we use huge amounts of all of these which makes it the most polluting of all his five categories. Making steel you melt iron ore at very high temperatures in the presence of oxygen and coke (carbon). Making 1 ton of steel produces 1.8 tons of CO2. And this way we make a lot of steel very cheaply. There are other methods (generally referred to as green steel) but they are more expensive. So there’s considerable innovation needed here.
Concrete is even more difficult. In all these areas Gates covers opportunities for innovation and shows how these may have a green premium (fig below). So there’s huge research and innovation required.

How We Grow Things
In this area Gates details the problem but this is the weakest of his sections. I detect a strongly US centric approach to genetic modification, synthetic, non-fossil fuel based fertilisers and laboratory grown meat. He makes a good case for the need for innovation, but his direction would not go down well in Europe. Strikes me we Europeans should rewrite this chapter.

How We Get Around
Very interesting analysis here because the USA has very low cost of gas (diesel or petrol).
He includes several green premium analyses and uses these to suggest areas for R&D. See example below.

How We keep Cool and Stay Warm
Gates makes a strong push for heat pumps; no surprise. Also makes the very good point that while advanced countries like the USA and Japan are big users of air conditioning, as the world becomes warmer this will become a necessity in many countries particularly those nearer the equator. And this just increases the priority to decarbonize the power grids. And this makes it easy to calculate the green premium. And maybe using US based examples this looks not so easy. (below)

So Gates looks at what the premiums mean for typical US families, and again makes the case for R&D to leverage new or improved technology to make green options practical commercial options.
Gates spends a lot of time focusing on the issues in developing countries. He has great experience through his philanthropic work in health. It’s worth reading his case studies and understanding the conflicts between development aid and support and climate change. As people rise up the income ladder they do things that cause more emissions. Gates makes the point that we need innovations so the poor can improve their lot without adversely impacting the climate. And he’s very strong on arguing that the world’s poor didn’t create climate change, the first world did, but the developing nations are the ones that will suffer most.

I was struck particularly by the work of CGIAR (Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research). Experts at CGIAR have developed large numbers of varieties of (so called) climate-smart crops and livestock. For example, maize that will survive drought conditions; other maize varieties that are resistant to pests, diseases and weeds; also new varieties of rice that are able to survive during periods of flood; and many more. I wonder the extent to which these are GM products?

The final chapter covers some interesting guidance on policy. Having reviewed some of the EU, UK and Irish legal and policy statements recently, I can see how the authors of those documents might benefit by spending some quality time reading Gates work. For example, there’s a really good section that speaks to the need to coordinate market development together with policy and technology so they work in complementary ways. Simply adopting a zero-emissions policy won’t work if you don’t have the technology or the companies willing to manufacture and able to make a profit.

We should by now be well past the talking and evangelizing stage. That we are not is deeply worrying. In this book Gates has provided a template here for all stakeholders to use. This work is far from perfect. It is strongly US centric, albeit with good coverage of the needs of developing countries. The agriculture coverage is very weak. There are some excellent techniques which should be used by everyone, such as the Green Premium, and the five areas. The focus on the 5 billion etc.
A very good read and very thought provoking.

How to Avoid a Climate Disaster: The Solutions We Have and the Breakthroughs We Need

Bill Gates, Publisher : Allen Lane; 1st edition (16 Feb. 2021)

Posted in Carbon Footprint, Climate Change, COP26, Electric Vehicles, EV | Tagged , | 6 Comments