#TechTop3 – Our top three tech stories of the week

By September 12, 2014EU

By the London Technology Team

Privacy failings? There’s an app for that

A report by the Global Privacy Enforcement Network has revealed that the vast majority of apps fail to respect user privacy. The report highlighted that almost one in three apps were requesting an excessive amount of personal information, whilst 85% were not clearly explaining what data was being collected, and for what reason. The Information Commissioner’s Office has supported the findings and has warned that “many app developers are still failing to provide this information in a way that is clear and understandable to the average consumer”.  The Commissioner published privacy guidance for app developers last year and has issued frequent warnings to be clear about data use and respect privacy concerns.

Consumers are becoming increasingly accustomed to receiving digital products and services in exchange for personal information rather than money, but transparency is crucial. The relative value of personal data is notoriously difficult to quantify and is likely to vary greatly as it matures but consumers, particularly in the UK, appear to be very happy with the principles of such an arrangement. However, this system of exchange rests on an assumption that personal data provided will be kept secure and not shared with third parties unless expressly indicated. Whilst this very 21st century system of exchange is becoming more and more commonplace, it would be unlikely to survive a mass realisation that companies are seeking an unwarranted amount of information and taking liberties with personal data. The findings will likely promote further detailed examination of privacy provisions and the efficacy of those tasked with enforcing them.

Privacy can be a contentious topic for many technology companies and often finds its way onto board-level agendas. As such, it has become a media favourite too – with this week the BBC, the Guardian, PC World and the Wall Street Journal’s Digits Blog covered the story.

Top websites take part in “Internet Slowdown Day”

On Wednesday some of the Internet’s most popular websites took part in a US “Internet slowdown” protest over the issue of net neutrality. Twitter, Netflix, Reddit and Vimeo, along with many others, featured a symbolic “loading” symbol throughout Wednesday. This move (which had no actual effect on the loading speed of websites) was intended to draw attention to the US Federal Communications Commission’s recent announcement of a proposal to ensure that “all users have access to an internet experience that is sufficiently robust, fast and effectively usable”. Under the proposals, broadband providers would be banned from blocking downloads of legal content, but would be allowed to charge for prioritised data delivery.

The protests were widely covered in the media in both in the UK and the US, with Lauren Walker of Newsweek slamming the level of participation in the protests. In her article, Walker compared Wednesday’s “Internet Slowdown Day” with the “Internet Blackout Day” of 2010 in which over 115,000 websites participated. But with only 10,000 sites taking part in Wednesday’s stunt, Walker’s criticism seems somewhat harsh. As Mike Masnick of Techdirt pointed out, 303,099 calls were made to Congress on Wednesday (reaching a peak level of 1,000 calls per minute), with the protests also driving over 2 million emails to Congress and over 700,000 comments to be filed with the FCC.

Wednesday’s activities clearly illustrate the increasing level of awareness amongst the US public over the issue of net neutrality and, with Europe still waiting to see what will be included in the EU Single Telecoms Package on the issue, it is clear that this issue will remain on the agenda for the foreseeable future.

“Internet Slowdown Day” received a great deal of media coverage, with particularly interesting articles featured in the BBC, the Guardian and Techdirt. Detailed information on the level of participation in the protest can be found on the official campaign website.

PayPal to accept bitcoin – but is it a threat to stability?

It’s been a busy week for bitcoin. It took one step closer to becoming mainstream as Paypal announced plans to start accepting the online crypto currency this week.  However, the Bank of England (BoE) made clear its view that it constituted a threat to financial stability. PayPal’s  move is a commercial reality as it reflects how  merchants are becoming more comfortable with alternatives to credit and debit cards, who charge merchants quite a bit for accepting their payments. Bitcoin has had a rough ride in recent times, with a lot of nervousness from the financial sector, governments and the media. Tracing bitcoin payments is difficult, making it a currency of choice for cyber-criminals and those using the ‘Silk Road’ online marketplace (widely used to buy and sell illegal materials).

Unlike traditional currencies, bitcoin is not accountable to a central bank or government, and this makes the Bank of England  nervous. The BoE published a series of reports which laid out the risks, including exchange collapses, rate volatility, cyber-theft and other problems and concluded that central banking will continue to dominate the way people store money and buy things.  It highlights how  insurers will not cover bitcoin transactions, limiting those willing to  make large or risky bitcoin transactions.

Nevertheless, the Government is keen to capitalise on the opportunities presented by new currencies. The Chancellor George Osborne announced a review to make the UK  the “global centre of financial innovation”, including how it will approach virtual currencies in the future. HMRC were forced to issue guidance earlier in the year, saying it sees business conducted in bitcoin in the same way as any other currency and applicable to tax. However,  there is often no audit trail making it virtually impossible to track bitcoin payments.

The Paypal announcement at the Tech Crunch Conference in San Fransicso wasn’t the only high profile payment announcement in California this week. Fruity electronics manufacturer Apple unveiled the iPhone 6, which will be the first Apple product to offer Near Field Communications (NFC) payment. Other phones have offered working NFC payments for years, but Apple hopes to make it as ubiquitous as other Apple products.

The Paypal announcement was widely covered in the tech press and the Financial Times, and the Bank of England report was featured in the Guardian. A great guide to how bitcoin works can be found on BBC News.