Issue #1 - Relaunch, 5G Conspiracies & Zoom Takes Over The World

The newsletter is back, does 5G cause Coronavirus, and is Zoom safe to use?

Listen to Issue 1

Firstly welcome back to those who were previously subscribed to my newsletter. I’ve taken a bit of time out to think about the best way to continue it and ensure I’m providing value to you. You’ll notice a slightly updated branding - I’m now calling this ‘The Tech Briefing’ which I hope will give it a broader appeal where previously it was very tightly associated with my own name. You’ll also notice a different newsletter design and the fact that I’m using a new platform called Substack where I was previously using MailChimp. I found MailChimp very clunky and not well suited to regular newsletters whereas Substack is built exactly for it. This should give me more time to focus on the content rather than fussing with getting MailChimp to work for me.

With the current lockdown in the UK I also figured there was no better time to get this back up and running, so here goes…

5G Conspiracy Theories

For some time now there has been the odd crazy person shouting about their 5G conspiracy theories on social media. Their claims often centred around the higher frequencies of 5G causing some biological damage to people. More recently and worryingly though with the global spread of COVID-19 they have shifted their theories to say that 5G is causing the pandemic.

While this is of course absolutely nonsense the misinformation has been spreading like wildfire on social media, exacerbated by ‘celebrity’ accounts sharing the conspiracy theories to their millions of followers. One such being Amanda Holden (is she still classed as a celebrity?) who tweeted out a petition calling on the government to ban 5G as it apparently takes the oxygen out of the air, hence why people are having respiratory issues (COVID-19).

Usually these conspiracy theories don’t cause much harm, other than annoyance at their stupidity but this time some have taken to physical action and have been vandalising cell towers, mostly by somehow setting them on fire.

There have been reports of this happening right across the UK with at least 3 confirmed by the mobile operators as well as a number of harassment incidents on network engineers. Some have also linked the huge spread of these anti-5G groups to the Russian propaganda machine.

This evening (Sunday 5 April) the four UK mobile operators all released an open letter to customers highlighting, quite rightly, how important their networks are and asking people to call out mis-information and report any harassment. DCMS, the Government department responsible for 5G in the UK, has also called out these baseless claims as being hugely damaging.

If I were a network operator I would be very worried by this fast spreading mis-information. As these operators continue plowing millions of £ in to deploying 5G technology they need customers to upgrade to 5G phones and associated data plans. 5G being seen as a health risk by potentially millions of people could very easily slow down adoption. This vandalised network equipment isn’t exactly cheap either and so replacing it is costly both in terms of physical equipment but also engineers time, and disgruntled customers who now complain of bad coverage when their local cell tower gets burned down.

A number of government departments should also be concerned. With mobile networks being classed as Critical National Infrastructure and carrying data for extremely important uses such as the emergency services there could be serious and life threatening consequences of large scale deterioration of phone networks due to vandalism.

Zoom is taking over the world

With most of the world seemingly now in isolation video conferencing has proven to be the go-to method for keeping in touch with colleagues, friends, family, and even TV shows. One service in particular - Zoom - has very quickly taken the crown as the number one video conferencing app. The service now has at least 200 million daily participants in video calls, that’s up from a peak of about 10 million in December 2019, just a few months ago. Everything from TV shows like ‘Have I Got News For You’ to Pub Quiz’s to Wine Tastings are all now being done virtually and mostly over Zoom it seems. While it’s hugely impressive that Zoom continues to stand up and maintain excellent quality (unlike some its rivals such as House Party) there has been huge scrutiny of their privacy and security, particularly as businesses increasingly turn to it for key meetings.

Some of the main complaints seems to stem from particularly weak default settings which if left unchanged allowed anyone to join a zoom call simply by guessing at the random number in the link, something now termed ‘zoombombing’, where they then disrupted the call with explicit images and videos. Zoom have now changed some of the default settings to always include a password to join a meeting. Others also took issue with Zoom’s attention tracking feature which alerts hosts when a participant clicks away from Zoom on to another app during the call.

More serious security flaws have been found such as Facebook tracking where Zoom was sending users data to Facebook. Zoom quickly removed this code following the initial backlash. They have also had to apologise for “mistakingly” routing calls through China and for falsely claiming that Zoom is end-to-end encrypted which it is not.

This has prompted a number of large organisations to ban the use of Zoom for internal meetings, including all of New York’s 1,800 schools covering over 1 million students.

In response the Zoom CEO, Eric Yuan, has said that the company will freeze any feature development for at least the next 90 days so that it can focus on fixing its privacy and security. In a blog post he detailed a good number of things that the company has done recently, and will do in the near future, to bolster its security, as well as providing a bit of useful background on the Zoom platform.

It seems to me that for the vast majority of people and use cases Zoom is very appropriate to use and perfectly safe, so long as you take some basic steps like putting a password on your meetings. However, for some others including teaching and more confidential calls such as with a doctor, or internal company confidential meetings I’d say stay clear for now unless your company has an on-premises Zoom deployment which I suspect many of the big global companies do.

It’ll be interesting to watch how Zoom does over the next few weeks and months as the scrutiny on it will no doubt intensify, and from what I’ve seen so far they’ve handled it all very well but will it maintain its numbers? can it improve security while maintaining quality? can it entice big corporates and government? Let’s watch and see.

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