Aug 072016

I’ve spent the last week in Las Vegas attending the Black Hat and DefCon security conferences. Among much of the discussion about protecting oneself against the misuse of technology, one thing that stood out was the focus on the Internet of Things.

Listening to some of the discussions and speaking to various people, it’s increasingly clear the consensus is the IoT is effectively unsecurable – the range of devices connected to the internet is just too great to be protected.

Compounding the problem are the plethora of poorly designed devices where security is, at best, a vague afterthought along with an older generation of equipment that was never intended to be connected to the public facing internet.

Given many of these devices are going to be critical to business and individual lifestyles, their reliability and quality of the data gathered by them is going to increasingly come into question and the systems that rely upon them are going to need ways to validate the information they receive.

Perhaps this is where machine learning and artificial intelligence are going to be valuable in watching for anomalies in the information and flagging where problems are happening within networks.

As those networks become more essential to society, we’re going to have build more  redundancy and robustness into our systems, the key component though may be trust.

Jun 202016

On Monday I attended the Australian Israel Chamber of Commerce KPMG Internet of Things (IoT) & Smart Cities Briefing in Sydney’s Darling Harbour. It was an event that left me worrying about how the nation’s governments are dealing with the connected society.

The event was held under the Chatham House Rule so I’m unable to attribute quotes or identify the views of individual speakers however the conversation was mainly around the difficulties of getting Australia’s three levels of governments working together and their reluctance to share data.

Probably the most worrying comment was how Australian public servants aren’t empowered to make decision that would take advantage of smart cities technologies.

When politics eats everything

If anything this view illustrates a deeper problem in Australia where public policy and decision making is subsumed by politics. Exacerbating this is the insistence of opportunistic ministers and their chronically unqualified party advisers to micromanage decisions that should be made by qualified professionals.

A fear of delegating decision making quickly morphs into tendency to avoid accountability with decisions being made behind closed doors and contracts hidden from public view by the ‘Commercial In Confidence’ fiction that put contractors’ privileges over the public good.

That reluctance to share information also feeds into implementing smartcity technologies. With data being jealously guarded by government agencies, city councils and often corrupt ministerial offices, the currency of the smartcity – data – is locked away rather than used for the public good.

Accidental releases of data

One of the participants pointed out how in Australia government data is often released by accident and the siloing of data between government agencies and private contractors makes access difficult.

The real concern though was at during the question and answer session, in a response to a question from the writer asking if Australia’s business and government leaders are oblivious to the global changes, one of the panellists stated “boards are now convinced digital has a seat at the table.” That is hardly assuring.

Probably the biggest concern though for this writer was after the lunch. One of the other attendees, the CEO of  a major supplier to Australian councils, mentioned how the equipment he supplies was ‘pretty dumb’ and he was closing down the overseas operations of his business as they were losing money.

Inward business cultures

That inward looking attitude of catering to a domestic market that’s oblivious to global shifts seems to be almost a parody of the management books that talk about Kodak’s demise earlier this century or the fate of buggy whip manufacturers a hundred years before. Yet that is the mindset of many Australian businesses.

Exacerbating industry’s insular mindset, Australia’s planners seem to have a fantasy that the nation’s cities are like Barcelona rather than Chicago. The truth is Australia’s car dependent cities have more in common with their North American counterparts than European centres, something planners are reluctant to admit.

Being car dependent doesn’t preclude effectively applying smartcity technologies, in fact there might be more benefits to sprawling communities as vehicles becomes connected and driverless automobiles start appearing. However applying what works in Amsterdam to Sydney, a city that is more like Los Angeles, is probably doomed to failure.

“A smart city needs smart people to succeed” is a mantra I’ve heard a number of times. The question right now is whether Australia has enough smart people in positions of power to execute on the opportunities in the 21st Century. The roll out of smartcities may prove to be an early test.

Apr 272016

Tracking environmental changes across the oceans a huge undertaking. To deal with the scale of the task Australian researchers have started equipping seals marine animals with a maritime equivalent of a fitbit to monitor the effects of our changing planet.

One of the interesting case studies that came across my desk in recent weeks was the IMOS animal tracking program. The Integrated Marine Observing System is a consortium of research institutions lead by the University of Tasmania that collects data for the Australian marine and climate science community and its international collaborators.

The data is collected from ten different technology platforms including floats, ships, autonomous vehicles such as gliders and deep ocean probes, and by fitting tracking devices onto animals.

Along with sharks and fish, seals are one of the animals IMOS use to track water conditions, one of the benefits of using seals is they can transmit data to a satellite when they return to the surface to breath and they never get stuck under ice.

The tags themselves are made by a Scottish company and are designed to gather information on the depth, temperature, salinity of the seas the animals travel in. They are also useful for tracking the behaviour of the animals.

Along with research into conditions across the vast Southern Ocean, IMOS is also being used to monitor the effects of port development in the mining regions of Western Australia and other areas where environments are undergoing dramatic change.

Once the data is collected it’s open to use by the research community in their understanding the effects of a warming planet, that open data and the cloud storage it is based upon are critical to the program’s success as there’s little point in collecting the data.

We have the devices to collect a tremendous amount of data on our environment, whether it’s our personal fitbits, financial records or information on agriculture or wild animals. The challenge though is to use that data effectively.

In the case of a changing environment, understanding what is happening and the effects could be a matter of our survival. While the idea of a fitbit for seals seems cute, the data they collect could prove critical.


Apr 252016
businesses based on debt are now going bankrupt

The breach of the Bangladeshi banking network has been shocking on a number of levels, not least for the allegations the institutions were using second hand network equipment with no security precautions.

Fortunately for the Bangladesh financial system the hackers could spell and so only got away with a fraction of what they could have.

Now there are claims the SWIFT international funds transfer system may have been compromised by the breach, which shows the fragility of global networks and how they are only as strong as the weakest link.

As the growth of the internet shows, it’s almost impossible to build a totally secure global communications network. As connected devices, intelligent systems and algorithms become integral parts of our lives, trusting information is going to become even more critical.

The Bangladeshi bank hack was a lucky escape but it is an early warning about securing our networks.

Update: It appears the hackers were successful in getting malware onto the network according to Reuters but, like their main efforts, were somewhat crude and easily detected. One wonders how many sophisticated bad actors have quietly exploited these weaknesses.

Apr 192016

A week or so ago we reported why LogMeIn’s CEO, Bill Wagner, wasn’t interested in participating in the Internet of Things industry groups as they are too bureaucratic and slow in a fast moving sector.

Last week I asked John Stewart, Cisco’s Chief Information Security Officer, about how the networking giant thinks about this attitude given Cisco is a key member of a number of IoT standards groups.

Stewart’s view is nuanced, “the notion of open operability versus standards is where the world needs to be. We’ve been pushing this notion of open interoperablity knowing that standards might take longer but yet you don’t want to create these islands of operational capabilities that need to be stitched together in weird ways. That would add friction to the world.”

“There’s not much room for non-interoperable systems as they would have to connect with something else,” Stewart added.

In this, Cisco’s Stewart agrees with Ericsson’s Esmeralda Swartz who believes device diversity will beat vendor’s attempts to lock customers into their IoT platforms.

While it may be true that industrial and smartcity technologies will be interoperable in order to work within complex systems, it’s highly likely many consumers devices will be locked into proprietary systems so vendors can monetize them.

For consumers, users and citizens the questions of interoperability and standards are going to be a pressing question as connected devices become common and in some cases unavoidable.


Apr 162016
Smart parking space

Last June Google launched its Sidewalk Labs project to explore smart city technologies. At a conference this week the scheme’s director, Dan Doctoroff, hinted they may be looking at building an entire digitially connected town from scratch.

Planned cities don’t have a good track record, as Disney discovered in Florida with their community named Celebration, so the odds are against Google from the start in this.

Google adds to the challenge with some distrust towards the company following the shutting down of the Revolv device — even the slightest risk of a service or device being shutdown or discontinued is enough to dissuade even the most eager smartcity enthusiasts.

Making Google’s task of successfully rolling out smartcity products, let alone build a smartcity from scratch, is the company’s notorious attention deficit disorder where management struggle to maintain focus on products or projects.

For anyone thinking of living in a smartcity, the commitment of developers, vendors and authorities towards the technologies is an essential consideration. It’s also why open source software and standards are essential when building a community around technology.

Apr 132016

Can Japan reinvigorate its startup community? A story in the Wall Street Journal describes some of the attempts to encourage entrepreneurs in an economy that has been stagnant for a quarter century.

In many ways Japan is a prototype for the modern global economy, just as the Japanese tried to stimulate their economy following their 1989 bust by pumping money into their deeply corrupt construction industry , so too has the rest of the world tried a similar strategy with the banking system after the 2008 crisis.

The results in both cases been the same stagnation as the money is wasted on non productive schemes and speculation rather than investment in job and wealth creating businesses and innovations.

Now the Japanese are looking to a bottom up stimulus to their economy which challenges the country’s social norms where getting a ‘safe job’ with a large corporation is seen as the best prospect for young people.

While this is a change from the accepted wisdom, the entrepreneurial model really isn’t that strange for the Japanese with a range of successful technology companies started by post World War II entrepreneurs ranging from Sony to Softbank.

The Japanese model though may not be suited to the Silicon Valley venture capital model and this is where it’s dangerous to make comparisons with what works in San Jose, Tel Aviv or Shoreditch.

Japan’s strengths in industrial engineering may well make its businesses well suited for the Internet of Things the Wall Street Journal article quotes serial entrepreneur Taizo Son as suggesting. Interestingly, the 43 year old serial entrepreneur is the youngest brother of SoftBank founder Masayoshi Son.

Another area where Japan is a glimpse of the future is in the aging population and it may well be that harnessing the abilities of older entrepreneurs is another area where the country can either show the way to success or what not to do with an older, stagnant economy.

In many ways Japan is a pointer to where the world is heading. How they manage the early twenty-first century will be a lesson for the rest of us.