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.

What’s happening in technology in 2019?

What do you think are going to be the major advances or innovations in technology during 2019? In 2018 artificial intelligence (Ai) was one of the big stories, as were self-driving cars. I notice that as we start 2019, we have already gone beyond self-driving as cars with legs and flying cars are already set to launch at the various motor shows. Robotics was also hotly debated in 2018 as was cyber security, due to the number of hacks that happened. We also witnessed online retailers killing off the shops in the high streets, with Amazon being a leader in the destruction.

But that was 2018. Is tech going to be much different this year?

One of the areas where we can expect to see quite a lot of activity and forward movement is blockchain technology and cryptocurrencies. 2018 may have been a rocky year for bitcoin and other altcoins, but we are seeing less volatility in the market, which has its benefits. I also believe we will see some major changes in the use of blockchain and crypto in banking, with more new digital-only neobanks appearing.

2018 may be remembered as the year that Facebook skidded on a banana skin and fell flat on its back. All social media use is coming under more scrutiny, largely because we have over-indulged in its use and now it is time to go on a ‘social media diet’. It is likely that apps will appear that will track the time we spend on various SM channels and will reward us for spending less time online; perhaps with some tokens.

There will be more regulations. These won’t just be aimed at the cryptocurrency sector, they will also cover privacy, due to last year’s discovery that Facebook had basically sold its members’ data to the highest bidder. Europe already has the General Data Protection Regulation in place, and America is likely to follow with something similar.

There will be more self-driving cars and the possibility of legislation to deal with what this technology brings. The Tesla 3 will probably see more competition, and possibly by the end of the year, the introduction of self-driving-only lanes on some roads.

There will be more advances in robotics and more debates around facial recognition technology, especially regarding its potential to be open to abuse. Augmented reality is also likely to make a breakout in 2019, and somewhere in the world, technology needs to emerge that deals with the amount of waste we all generate. There will be plenty of other innovations as well, but without a crystal ball it’s hard to predict them all!