Tech companies lose their glamour

I have been reading with interest an article by Enrique Dans about ‘The Rise and Fall of Technology Companies’, and his analysis of the latest company rankings from Glassdoor, the site that allows employees of companies in the United States to anonymously provide information about their companies. It is the go-to place for job candidates, because they can discover a lot of good info here. From a company’s perspective, what Glassdoor has to say, can potentially attract or put off new talent.

Glassdoor’s 2020 league table is out, and while some people may complain about the way it collects data, one thing is clear this year, technology companies are losing their glamour. You might be surprised to find that both Apple and Google have dropped their positions: indeed, Google isn’t even in the Top 10 companies to work for. Facebook has dropped 16 places and Amazon isn’t even in the Top 100.

The popular perception is that these companies offer such amazing perks in-house that every young person would want to work there. Having said that, Amazon is fast becoming seen as something of a rogue employer that treats its staff, especially those who make sure we all get our orders, as slave labour.

The magic has gone

Dans says that the Glassdoor league table reflects what the media has been saying for some time. That the big tech companies are losing their mythical status. Indeed, when I use the word ‘glamour’ in this context, it is quite appropriate, as the word originally comes from the Scots in the 17th century and meant “a magic spell.” So, you can see why I say they are losing it, and with the consumer as well as the employee.

What happened?

In 2008 after the collapse of the banking sector, new graduates flocked to the tech guys instead of heading to Wall St. Dans, who teaches, states: “everybody wanted to work for the technology companies: I remember all too well the interest my students showed when I invited a senior figure from one of them to a class. Now, my students are often highly critical of the tech companies. Interestingly, it’s the younger students who are most concerned.”

And the concern is about regulating the big tech companies. Facebook has made this a concern, as we have seen over the last few years. But, who or what is replacing the tech companies as the place most people want to work?

According to the Glassdoor data, it’s a very mixed bag, ranging from software companies like Hubspot, to “consultancies, airlines or hamburger chains.” There is no real trend that is discernible as yet, and we may have to wait a couple of years for one to emerge. But right now the tech companies have lost their glamour — perhaps they should look for a fairy to cast a new spell.

2019: The year Boeing crashed

This year hasn’t been a wonderful one for the airline industry. There have been pilot strikes, drone sightings delaying passengers for numerous days, as well as the end of one of the biggest travel companies in the world –Thomas Cook. But, perhaps one of the most significant stories of 2019 is that of Boeing, the aircraft manufacturer, and one of the biggest names in the business.

Boeing has a long legacy in airline manufacturing and that means most people expect the company to be fairly flawless, especially its products. However, some cracks have been exposed in 2019, starting with the Ethiopian Airlines crash in March 2019, which involved the new Boeing 737 Max 8, the latest model in the famous 737 line.

This was not an isolated incident. In late 2018, a Lion Air flight crashed off the Indonesian coast, again shortly after take-off, and the aircraft was again the 737 Max 8. Clearly there was a problem with the Max 8 model. These were significant crashes, as all passengers and crew were lost in both cases.

As it turned out the problem lay in Boeing’s Manoeuvring Characteristics Augmentation System, or MCAS. This system is intended to prevent the aircraft from stalling and uses a single sensor at the front of the plane. It was a tool designed to avert disaster that instead caused it.

What happened at Boeing that this faulty system managed to find its way into the aircraft? The simple answer is that it was there to entice airlines to buy the Max 8. According to Colin Horgan, “Boeing set out to ensure the design of the 737 Max allowed it to share a common Federal Aviation Authority ‘type certificate’ with its predecessors.” The thinking behind this was that current 737 pilots would easily qualify to fly the Max 8, and that would enable airlines to save on pilot training in addition to the fuel savings that the Max 8 promised.

However, the engineers ran into a problem with the Max 8 engine size, because they were much bigger than in the original 737, so they had to be placed in a more forward position. However, this meant that “in a steep climb, the engines would create lift — and that it would handle differently than its predecessors.” The MCAS system was supposed to compensate for this.

The FAA didn’t review the MCAS, which it should have done, instead it handed the responsibility to Boeing based on the fact that the two had for many decades a great relationship. But then Boeing changed the MCAS late on in the plane’s development, and in such as way that the final version was missing a critical safeguard.

Boeing did this to fight off the challenge from Airbus and its A320Neo. Darryl Campbell wrote at The Verge, “Boeing focused on speed instead of rigour, cost-control instead of innovation, and efficiency instead of transparency.”

The ultimate cost of this attempt to win the market was several hundred lives. It also shows us that whilst we have witnessed the big tech companies like Amazon and Facebook come under fire for flouting, or playing with, the regulatory system, this is something that has spread into other sectors, and in this case one where people’s lives are at risk. I’d think twice before getting on a Boeing 737 Max 8 flight, and I’m sure that I am not alone.

What’s up with Whatsapp?

Image result for whats app

You may have seen the numerous press articles this week advising you to update your Whatsapp. The advice came from Whatsapp, which has 1.5 billion users and is owned by Facebook.

The reason for asking people to update the app on their smartphones was the discovery that hackers had been able to remotely install surveillance software on phones via a “major vulnerability” in the app. According to the BBC, WhatsApp said the attack targeted a “select number” of users and was orchestrated by “an advanced cyber-actor”.

Facebook discovered the flaw in the technology earlier this month. It threatened to break Whatsapp’s promise to its users of being a secure” communications app with messages that are end-to-end encrypted. This means they should only be displayed in a legible form on the sender or recipient’s device. However, the surveillance software would have let an attacker read the messages on the target’s device.

The Whatsapp team found a fix for the problem last Friday, after which people could download the new app without the ‘bug’, although some users appeared to be disgruntled that Facebook hadn’t published any notes about the fix itself.

It is likely that those whose phones may have been targeted by the hackers are “Journalists, lawyers, activists and human rights defenders,” Ahmed Zidan of the Committee to Protect Journalists told the BBC.

How did hackers use the security flaw?

One thing they did was use Whatsapp’s voice call function to ring a target’s phone. Even if the target didn’t answer the call, the surveillance software was installed on their phone. Furthermore, the call was removed from the call log, so the person who didn’t answer it, wouldn’t even see that they had missed a call from an unknown number.

Facebook and Whatsapp told the press on Monday: “The attack has all the hallmarks of a private company reportedly that works with governments to deliver spyware that takes over the functions of mobile phone operating systems.”

It also issued a briefing to security specialists stating, “”A buffer overflow vulnerability in WhatsApp VOIP [voice over internet protocol] stack allowed remote code execution via specially crafted series of SRTCP [secure real-time transport protocol] packets sent to a target phone number.”

The attack was old-fashioned

As Professor Alan Woodward pointed out, this is a “pretty old-fashioned” method of attack. He explained what happened: “A buffer overflow is where a program runs into memory it should not have access to. It overflows the memory it should have and hence has access to memory in which malicious code can potentially be run. If you are able to pass some code through the app, you can run your own code in that area. In VOIP there is an initial process that dials up and establishes the call, and the flaw was in that bit. Consequently you did not need to answer the call for the attack to work.”

We don’t know how many people were targeted in this attack, and there are some questions that remain to be answered about whether updating the app on your phone effectively removes the spyware in its entirety. Furthermore, WhatsApp has not said whether the attack could extend beyond WhatsApp and reach other personal data on the phone.

But, even if you are not a journalist, a lawyer or a human rights activist, download the new version of the app, because as always it is better to be safe than sorry.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Tech innovation needs to find a balance in 2019

2018 put the spotlight on technological innovation, much of it venturing into uncharted territory where regulations will be needed before long. Amidst all the newcomers and startups, one old friend stands out as becoming more and more integral to our way of life, and that is the Internet.

Its reach into every industry is unstoppable, and as we move on from an app-centred era, there is going to be more engagement between policymakers and the technology innovators.

Steve Case, in his excellent thought piece at Medium, sums up the scenario:

“Investors will need to understand policy as well. In the Internet’s First Wave, the focus was on technology risk — can they build it. In the Second Wave, the key risk factor became market risk — there was little doubt it could be built, but considerable concern over which of the many app competitors would break through. In the Third Wave, policy risk will be front and center — can the entrepreneurs navigate the complex regulatory waters to successfully bring their product or service to market.”

Indeed, investors, entrepreneurs and governments will all be trying to find the right balance between regulation and innovation, as Case points out. This is necessary for the protection of society whilst also being open-minded about the potential of technology to improve life.

But what happened in the tech world during 2018 that has brought the issue of regulation versus innovation into focus? First there were the revelations about Facebook’s use of user data, which brought down on it the wrath of governments, as well as users. This is likely to mean the emergence of regulations to rein Facebook in.

There were also some serious data breaches affecting consumers. Privacy and security are no longer a given, which means consumers are no longer as confident when using online service providers.

Self-driving cars were a great story until a pedestrian got killed. They are still on the agenda for development, but now “innovators and policymakers need to work together to establish practices for safety and security (including cybersecurity),” Case suggests.

Space exploration got more interesting as it suddenly broke out of being controlled by NASA and other government-related agencies. This sector went commercial with SpaceX, and it is an exciting opportunity for innovation, but again we will need regulations for commercial ventures that protect the sector without stifling innovation.

2019 will be a year of finding the balance in these and other tech sectors.