Featured Article : Art, Cars, Carbon & Crazy Numbers

With news of a booming NFT market and the acceptance of Bitcoin as payment for Tesla cars, we look at the environmental impact of these and how the technology needs to be improved to be made more sustainable.

Robot Painting Collaboration

This week there was news that an artwork co-created by a robot called Sophia fetched $7,000,000 dollars. The artwork, which consisted of a 12-second MP4 file showing how the work evolved and a ‘self-portrait’ painted with a robot arm, was not just an example of the advancements of robotics and AI, or the incredible collaboration between a human and a robot to create an artwork but is also an example of how the market for ‘NFT’ art is growing.

NFT

Blockchain is at the incorruptible ledger, a bit like a secure spreadsheet that no-one can alter, that is the technology that powers cryptocurrencies like Ethereum or Bitcoin.  A non-fungible token (NFT) is the term for any unit of data on that blockchain / digital ledger. A unit could be any digital file such as digital artwork files, audio, videos, and more.  Each NFT represents a unique, non-interchangeable, exclusive digital item/asset, and is recorded in the blockchain ‘ledger’ as a cryptographic “hash”.

NFT Artwork

The market for NFT artworks is growing and more examples of digital NFT artworks fetching high prices are making the news more often as they break new boundaries. For example, this month, an artist known as Beeple sold a photo collage artwork (of 5000 images) at Christies called ‘Everydays — The First 5000 Days’, for a staggering $70 million. This makes it the third most expensive sale ever of a living artist, only beaten by the price fetched for works by David Hockney and Jeff Koons.

Another Price – Carbon

Many environmental and tech commentators are, however, concerned about the environmental impact of transactions involving the use of Blockchain and the cryptocurrencies that it powers. 

Mining

Much of the concern focuses on how energy-hungry the process of adding data to the blockchain, known as ‘mining ’, is. Crypto mining, uses software to explore millions of cryptographic checksums to find one that has the right number combination to “mint” a transaction and to try computations on the next block to be added to the blockchain.  Unfortunately, solving this complex puzzle involves using a large amount of electricity, the production of which produces carbon dioxide. The obvious conclusion for some tech and art commentators is, therefore, that NFTs may be making a negative contribution to climate change.

Debate

Turkish artist Memo Akten recently posted details online of “The Unreasonable Ecological Cost of #CryptoArt”.  Akten highlighted how “a single Ethereum (ETH) transaction is estimated to have a footprint on average of around 35 kWh. This in itself, is ludicrously high. To put that into perspective, this is roughly equivalent to an EU resident’s electric power consumption for 4 days.”  

The artist also compared how a single ETH transaction mouse click can set off a chain reaction to mining farms that ultimately delivers a footprint of 35 kWh for an ‘average’ transaction, and emissions of close to 20 KgCO2.  For perspective, the artist compares the impact of this one single mouse click to an average email being estimated to have a footprint of a few grams of CO2 or watching one whole hour of Netflix being estimated at resulting in the production of around 36 grams CO2.

Akten argues that just one NFT can involve many transactions including minting, bidding, cancelling, sales, and transfer of ownership which creates a footprint of a single NFT of hundreds of kWh, and hundreds of KgCO2 emissions.  Akten says that a single NFT footprint works out to be the “equivalent to an EU resident’s total electric power consumption for more than a month, with emissions equivalent to driving for 1000Km, or flying for 2 hours.”

Other commentators, such as Kelsie Nabben, a researcher at the RMIT University Blockchain Innovation Hub, believe that NFTs may be no more environmentally damaging than other ways of trading art e.g., transporting them around the world and storing them in temperature-controlled environments, all of which uses a lot or energy.

More Efficient In Time

Many agree, however that NFT technology is still relatively new and that it could be made more energy efficient as it advances, thereby reducing its environmental cost.

Buying Tesla In Bitcoins Cancels Environmental Benefits

The recent announcement that Tesla Inc customers can now buy its electric vehicles with Bitcoin, and how this could be a big step forward for the cryptocurrency’s use in commerce has been met by counter-argument that focuses on the potential environmental cost.  A medium.com article pointed to how, ironically, the cost of buying an energy-saving, environmentally friendly electric-powered Tesla car in Bitcoins could equate to cancelling one third of the CO2 savings for its whole lifetime.

Cambridge Bitcoin Energy Research

NFTs and buying Tesla vehicles with Bitcoins essentially highlight how the whole interaction between blockchain and cryptocurrencies has some way to go to reduce its energy-consumption.  Recent figures from Cambridge Researchers recently highlighted how power-hungry “mining” for Bitcoin consumes 21.36 terawatt-hours (TWh) a year meaning that if Bitcoin were a country, its energy (electricity) consumption it would be ranked above Argentina and the energy could power all the kettles in the UK for 27 years. Although this sounds shocking when framed this way, it should be remembered that the amount of electricity consumed each year by home devices in the US alone that are always-on but not active could power the entire Bitcoin network for a year, thereby highlighting other important areas for improvement in terms of widespread environmental impact.

Looking Ahead

There has been an explosive rise in NFTs and in only three months, the combined market cap of major NFT projects has increased by a massive 1,785 per cent. Although this has created booming NFT, high valuations of NFT-related tokens and the accompanying new market and investment opportunities, the environmental cost appears to be growing at the same time.

Calls for a carbon tax on cryptocurrencies to help balance out some of the negative consumption, carbon offsetting, and offering prizes (Elon Musk) for new Carbon Capture Systems are all very well but may not be tackling the problem itself. Developing a more energy-efficient and environmentally sustainable way of managing how crypto-currencies work and how they interact with Blockchain may be the way forward in solving some of the environmental problems created by the increased use of cryptocurrencies and the growth of the NFT market. This could involve several steps such as using different, low-energy consensus algorithms, building more energy-efficient blockchains and creating more sustainable mining solutions, and is something that must be addressed soon in order to ensure that Blockchain technology and cryptocurrencies, which have many benefits, can grow in a way whereby those benefits aren’t outweighed by the environmental cost.

Tech Insight – What Are Zero-Click SERPs?

In this article, we look at what a zero-click searches (SERPs) are, how this has impacted SEO, and what measures can be taken to increase the likelihood of your pages achieving featured snippets.

Zero-Click SERPs

A zero-click search describes when the search engine query is answered by a snippet of text at the top of the search engine results page (SERP).  This means that the searcher has no need to scroll down or click on any of the other search engine results for the query because it has been answered at the top without any clicks. Google introduced the feature to enable users to get instant answers to queries.

Position One Degraded

In terms of natural, organic search engine results, the introduction of a zero-click search (featured snippets) has been another step in the degradation of what would have been position one, following the introduction of pay-per-click ads, Google local listings, maps, and more.

Types of Snippets

Google doesn’t just provide short paragraph snippets for zero-click searches.  It can also answer a question by providing (for example) a bullet point list, an answer involving a conversion (dollars to pounds / kilometres to miles) where the conversion engine calculation has already been done, and more.  Zero-click search snippets can, therefore, be displayed in several formats including a paragraph, a list, a table, or even a video. The “people also ask” (PAA) boxes i.e., the section of questions with dropdown boxes just below the featured snippet also provides ranking opportunities for snippets.

Google Decides

Google’s algorithms/automated system decides which (featured) snippet, taken from its web search listings, and is displayed as a zero-click result at the top of the SERPs.

Fewer Clicks

Displaying an instant, definitive, featured snippet answer at the top of the search results page may be very good news for the page that the snippet comes from but is likely to result in significantly fewer clicks for the other pages returned as results for that key phrase. For example, Wikipedia was reported to have lost more than 20 percent of its traffic after the launch of zero-click searches and SparkToro research from 2019 showed that half of all searches are zero-click searches.

Takes Clicks From #One

Research by Ahrefs shows that the zero-click featured snippet also appears to take clicks from the #1 ranking result. 

What Are The Implications For SEO

Having a definitive answer appear at the top of the search engine results means that searchers are less likely to scroll down and click on any other links.  This makes SEO more difficult, potentially less effective for most pages, and even more competitive.  This could also mean that businesses are more likely to opt for pay-per-click to at least feature prominently on the search page and perhaps be more inclined to make more use of Google’s other suite of tools (e.g. Google My Business).

Hrefs research (based on 112 million keywords) shows that 12.29 percent of search queries have featured snippets in their search results.

What To Do

Google’s featured snippets/zero-click search results come from pages that already rank in the top10 and are mostly triggered by long-tail keywords (i.e. more specific keywords and phrases). Google’s featured snippets are also governed by a set of policies which do not necessarily apply to normal web search listings.  These policies govern things like dangerous, harmful, or hateful content or content that contradicts consensus on public interest topics. With these points in mind, increasing the chances of getting a web page featured as a possible zero-click search result means:

– Use keyword research to target question-type searches, long-tail keywords and higher CTR opportunity keywords.

– Use high-quality information-rich content that is written to be informative for people and not just written for search engine appeal.

– Make sure that pages include relevant facts and stats as these may be given greater relevance by Google.

– Use heading tags and structure the content into concise paragraphs of the kind that could be returned as a featured snippet.

– Include an FAQ section to pick up on question keywords in snippets.

– Include plenty of relevant, high-quality images with relevant text in the alt tags.

What Does This Mean For Your Business?

The degradation of what used to be the number one position in the search engines has posed challenges to businesses and has created the need to employ multiple means to get noticed and get clicks. This means having to use SEO alongside PPC, social media, Google Tools and more which all adds up to time, effort, and costs.  For a business to get a zero-click search placing (a featured snippet), involves creating high-ranking pages anyway, and paying particular attention to publishing high-quality content that is based on research into real queries and questions, and incorporate stats and information that are of real value and interest.

Tech News: Notable Notes About … The New £50 Note

Bletchley Park code-breaking hero and wronged computer pioneer Alan Turing is to feature on the UK £50 note from 23rd June.

Alan Turing

Despite breaking WWII Nazi Germany’s Enigma machine code, allowing enemy messages to be read and thereby shortening World War II and saving countless lives, Alan Turing’s genius and heroism was overshadowed by a conviction in 1952 for gross indecency relating to Turing’s homosexuality.  The conviction, for having an affair with a 19-year-old Manchester man, led very sadly to Turing being forced to opt for a ‘chemical castration’ (being given female hormones) as the only alternative to imprisonment, which led to Turing committing suicide aged only 41. The UK mathematician, developmental biologist and computer science pioneer was finally granted a posthumous royal pardon in 2013.

Father of Computer Science

After studying at King’s College Cambridge, in 1936 Turing published his paper “On Computable Numbers, with an Application to the Entscheidungsproblem”, with which Turing proved that his “universal computing machine” could perform any mathematical computation if it were representable as an algorithm. This, plus his work developed at Bletchley Park is why Turing is widely thought of as the father of modern computer science. Turing was also the co-creator of the first computer chess programme.

Biologist

Alan Turing was also a pioneer of morphogenesis, and used mathematics to understand how natural patterns, such as the spiral formation of the seeds in a sunflower head and the arrangement of spots on a leopard can form.

Features of the £50 Note

The new £50 with Alan Turing’s face on it (the last of the Bank of England’s collection to switch from paper to polymer) will feature :

– A photo of Turing taken in 1951, and a table and mathematical formulae from Turing’s seminal 1936 paper “On Computable Numbers, with an application to the Entscheidungsproblem”.

-The Automatic Computing Engine (ACE) Pilot Machine, which was one of the first electronic stored-program digital computers.

– Technical drawings for the British Bombe, the machine specified by Turing and one of the primary tools used to break Enigma-enciphered messages during WWII.

– A quote from Alan Turing, given in an interview to The Times newspaper on 11 June 1949: “This is only a foretaste of what is to come, and only the shadow of what is going to be.

– A copy of Turing’s signature.

– Ticker tape depicting Alan Turing’s birth date (23 June 1912) in binary code.

– Two key security features: a metallic hologram which changes between the words ‘Fifty’ and ‘Pounds’ when the note is tilted and a large see-through window with a gold and green foil on the front depicting a finely-detailed metallic microchip image.

– A silver foil patch with a 3D image of the coronation crown.

– The Queen’s portrait in the see-through window with ‘£50 Bank of England’ printed twice around the edge. (The small clover shapes on the outside of the window are based on architectural features at Bletchley Park.)

– A smaller see-through window in the bottom corner of the note, the shape of which is based on architectural features at Bletchley Park.

– A red foil patch containing the letters ‘AT’ is based on the image of a sunflower head linked to Turing’s morphogenetic work in later life.

Landmark Moment In Our History

Director of GCHQ Jeremy Fleming said: “Alan Turing’s appearance on the £50 note is a landmark moment in our history. Not only is it a celebration of his scientific genius which helped to shorten the war and influence the technology we still use today, it also confirms his status as one of the most iconic LGBT+ figures in the world. Turing was embraced for his brilliance and persecuted for being gay. His legacy is a reminder of the value of embracing all aspects of diversity, but also the work we still need to do to become truly inclusive.”

Questions

Questions have, however, been asked about why £50 notes don’t appear to have diverse ethnic minorities represented on them and, apart from the Queen and Jane Austin (who are both white), there are no other women featured on banknotes currently.

The Turing Pattern Project

To mark the launch of the new £50 note, the Bank of England and Sheffield University are running ‘The Turing Pattern Project’ with UK primary schools.  This project shows children how to use Alan Turing’s biological mathematical algorithm, acting as computers would, to create the pattern of a giant puffer-fish.

Twelve Puzzles

To celebrate Alan Turing’s image being featured on the new £50, GCHQ has created its “hardest puzzle ever”, the #TuringChallenge. The online puzzle, which anyone can attempt, requires a string of puzzles which get increasingly difficult to be solved.  If the first 11 puzzles are answered correctly, the answers should take the form of 11 single words or names which the Enigma simulator will be needed to decode. See details here: https://www.gchq.gov.uk/information/turing-challenge.

What Does This Mean For Your Business?

Alan Turing’s incredible mind, aptitude for maths and science, and his work in cracking the Enigma code at Bletchley Park resulted in millions of lives being saved through the shortening of the war in Europe, and in the rapid evolution of computer science that has fed directly into the digital world and workplace that we know today. Despite being a national hero, how Turing was treated is widely regarded as shameful, and the posthumous pardon and apology, along with being honoured on a banknote have been ways in which the UK has been able, in some small but public ways, to right some the wrongs of the past, honour a truly great scientist, and contribute to a greater understanding and acceptance of sexual differences and diversity.

Tech News: Live: Teams Transcriptions

Microsoft has announced the launch of an AI-powered live transcription tool for Teams which provides a written record of the spoken text that occurs during a meeting.

How It Works

The live transcription tool identifies each speaker and automatically captures in real-time what is said by each speaker and makes the transcript available during and after the meeting. It uses AI-based Automatic Speech Recognition (ASR) technology to identify and transcribe what is being said by meeting participants. The technology is able to use a meeting’s invitation, participant names, attachments, and more to improve its accuracy and recognise meeting-specific jargon for each transcript automatically, without any human involvement.

Using Live Transcription

To use the tool, the tenant admin must turn on the ‘Allow Transcription’ policy to enable the meeting organizer/presenter to start a meeting transcription. Participants are notified that live transcription is on and can choose to hide it from their meeting view with a click. If attendees choose not to be identified, they can also turn off speaker attribution in their profile settings. The transcripts are shown to meeting participants in a column down one side of the screen.

Accuracy

Whilst Microsoft is clearly proud of the development of the live transcription tool, the company does point out that it is not guaranteed to be 100 percent accurate and “should not be relied upon in life-altering situation”.

Storage

After each meeting, the saved transcript is made available for reference and download in Teams for desktop and web, in the meeting event in Teams calendar, and through the transcript tile in the chat. The live transcription files are stored in the meeting organizer’s Exchange Online account and only the organiser and tenant admin have permissions to delete it.

Privacy and Security

Microsoft says that no-one at Microsoft can see a meeting’s content, the models are automatically deleted immediately after each meeting, and Microsoft doesn’t use or store this data for improving its own AI.

Availability

The live transcription with speaker attribution tool is available for scheduled Microsoft Teams meetings (in U.S. English) to public cloud customers with licenses for Microsoft 365 E3, Microsoft 365 E5, Microsoft 365 Business Standard, and Microsoft 365 Business Premium SKUs.

Zoom

Microsoft’s announcement follows Zoom’s announcement in February that it is “working towards making automatic closed captioning —what we refer to as “Live Transcription”— available to all of our users in the fall of 2021”.

What Does This Mean For Your Business?

The introduction of this tool is another move in the market battle between the big remote, collaborative working platform competitors Zoom, Slack, and Microsoft Teams.  In this case, although Zoom beat Microsoft with the announcement of a live transcript feature, Microsoft has beat Zoom in actually delivering the feature to users.  The live transcript tool is likely to deliver value to business users in terms of helping users to either follow meetings more easily, catch up on meeting content (e.g. if late for the meeting or double-booked), helping multi-tasking (and enabling ‘zoning out’), as well as being an extra accessibility feature.

Tech Tip – Adjust The Sound For Specific Apps

If you would like to have better control of the volume levels of individual apps that you have open on Windows 10 this can easily be done via the settings (Sound) section and the hidden ‘Volume Mixer’. Here’s how:

Using (Sound) Settings

– Click on the Start button and select ‘Settings’ or type settings into the search field next to the Start button.

– Select ‘Settings’ > ‘System’ > ‘Sound’.

– Scroll down (right-hand pane) to ‘Advanced sound options’ and select ‘App Volume and device preferences. Here you can adjust the master volume and the volume of the apps that you have open and systems sounds as a percentage of the master volume.

Using The volume Mixer

– Right-mouse click over the sound symbol (speaker) on the taskbar.

– Select ‘Open Volume Mixer’. Any apps that are open and are making a sound will be visible in the volume mixer.

– Slide the volume sliders to adjust the volume output, or you can choose to mute apps completely.

Practice PowerPoint Presentations … Anywhere!

Microsoft has announced that its PowerPoint Presenter Coach is now available on all platforms.

Presenter Coach

Presenter Coach, first introduced in PowerPoint for the web, helps the user to practice their presentation skills. The app utilises AI to give users useful feedback on their pace, use of monotone pitch, use of filler words, poor grammar, lack of originality, use of sensitive phrases, and more while they rehearse their presentations. Also, at the end of each rehearsal, Presenter Coach gives the user a Summary Report which highlights the important pieces of feedback to give valuable, practical guidance, thereby showing the user exactly how to improve their presentation skills and become a confident presenter.

Available On All Platforms

Whereas PowerPoint Presenter Coach was only previously available on the web, Microsoft has now announced that it is now available on all platforms – the web, Windows, Mac, iOS, and Android.  This gives users total flexibility about when and where they use it (e.g. it can now be used on the go).

3 New Critiques

Microsoft says that in addition to making its PowerPoint Presenter Coach available on all platforms it has also been given three new ‘critiques’. These are:

– A new capability that leverages the video camera to give a user feedback on their body language.

– A feature that identifies and lists repetitive language i.e., the words and phrases that a person may use too frequently. Presenter Coach then offers a list of synonyms that could be switched with them in the next presentation to keep the audience more engaged with the subject matter.

– Advice about correct pronunciation of words used during the rehearsal of a presentation.

Privacy

For those concerned about privacy on the app, Microsoft says that Presenter Coach does not save any video or audio data from rehearsal presentations.

Recently

Recently Microsoft has been announcing new features to help its ‘Teams’ remote/collaborative working platform compete with other platforms like slack and Zoom which became particularly popular during the lockdown restrictions.  One other service that’s recently been introduced by the tech giant and uses AI (like Presenter Coach) is a Custom Neural Voice, Text-to-Speech (TTS) feature in Azure Cognitive Services which allows companies to develop their own custom ‘brand voice’.

What Does This Mean For Your Business?

Presenter Coach has already proven itself to be a fresh, useful feature on desktop and as part of several improvements Microsoft made to 365 it’s provided a whole new dimension to PowerPoint which is a popular business program that many thought needed a lift.  Making Presenter Coach available on all platforms gives it extra value, relevance, and flexibility as it enables it to be used on the go which is likely to appeal to many business users.
Lockdown restrictions and social distancing have also made it difficult for users to test their presentation in front of audiences and other contributors (colleagues and friends), so having an expert ‘coach’ on hand at all times could prove particularly helpful to users at this current time. 

This story also illustrates how AI is being introduced more into standard programs in ways that adds real value to users and prolongs the commercial life of those programs as well as creating new opportunities for even more innovation.

Live Captions Expanded To Chrome Web Browser

Google’s real-time Live Captions feature is now available to anyone using a Chrome web browser instead of just for Pixel phone users.

Live Captions

Live Captions is an accessibility feature that uses machine learning to generate (on-device) real-time captions for videos or audio. The feature enables those in a noisy environment, trying to keep the volume down, or those who are deaf or hard of hearing, to follow along with whatever content they are watching.

Live captions had previously been a feature on (Android) Pixel 4 phones (2019), and in August 2020 Google extended Live Caption for Calls on the Pixel 2, 3, 3a, 4 and 4a.

Now on Chrome Everywhere

Now Chrome users on any device can enable Live Caption and generate real-time captions for media with audio on the browser. The feature works across social and video sites, podcasts and radio content, personal video libraries (e.g. Google Photos), embedded video players, and most web-based video or audio chat services.

Google says that Live Captions currently supports English and is available globally on the newest release of Chrome on Windows, Mac, and Linux devices.  The feature will also be coming soon to ChromeOS.

Enabling Live Captions

To turn on Live Captions in desktop, Chrome users need to go to Settings, click on the Advanced section, and go to the Accessibility section and switch the ‘Live Caption’ toggle to ‘on’.

Other Accessibility Features

Back in October (National Disability Employment Awareness Month), Google highlighted many other new and existing accessibility features in Chrome Browser and Chrome OS. These included the ability to change the cursor to improve its visibility on Chrome OS, change the background text in select-to-speak to make it easier to focus on the spoken text, as well as Voice Switching to change the screen reader’s voice based on the language of the text being read in the ChromeVox screen reader.  Google also highlighted the feature that enables users to change the size of everything on the website they visit (content and font sizes), zoom, and magnify feature for the entire screen/specific parts of the screen, and a number of useful extensions.

What Does This Mean For Your Business?

One billion people, or 15 per cent of the world’s population, have some form of a disability (The World Bank, Disability Inclusion Overview), and 466 million people in the world are deaf or hard of hearing.  It makes financial sense, therefore, for businesses, like Google, to reach an additional 15 per cent of people and improve ROI. Also, inclusivity and meeting the needs of diverse populations is a good business strategy today, especially for a global business that deals in large numbers.  Given that this feature had already proved itself on the phone version of the browser it was only a short step to introduce it to desktop and obtain a big boost in value and good publicity for Google. Incorporating accessibility features of this kind in services is not only good for revenue, reputation, and user convenience, but it also helps fulfil legal obligations and can be another source of competitive advantage.

This feature also has applications beyond serving those with hearing challenges as it recognises that many modern human and situational environments can be noisy or require people to be quiet while working and/or browsing the Internet, and that people may even be doing two things ate once (e.g. listening to music and browsing the Internet). This gives the feature even greater value to a wide range of users.

Ransomware Payouts Tripled Last Year

The Ransomware Threat Report 2021 from Unit 42 shows that the average amount paid by ransomware victims tripled from 2019 to 2020.

Ransomware

Ransomware is a form of malware that encrypts the important files on a computer and the user (often a business/organisation) is given a ransom demand, the payment of which should mean that the encrypted files can be released. In reality, some types of ransomware delete many important files anyway and paying the ransom does not guarantee that access to files will be returned to normal.

The Palo Alto Networks, Unit 42 Ransomware Threat Report shows that the average ransom paid by a victim organisation in Europe, the US and Canada trebled from $115,123 (£83,211) in 2019 to $312,493 (£225,871) in 2020.  The report showed that, over the same period, the highest value ransom paid doubled from $5m (£3.6m) to $10m (£7.2m), and the highest extortion demand grew from $15m (£10.8m) to $30m (£22m).

Why?

Some of the main reasons for the increase in ransomware attacks and the increase in the amounts paid to attackers are thought to include:

– Attempts to exploit vulnerabilities/opportunities created by remote working.

– Businesses not having effective data backup procedures in place (no recoverable, workable backup).

– Costs of downtime perceived as being greater than the cost of paying the ransom. Paying the ransom, however, very often does not lead to release of the files.

– The growth of ransomware-as-a-service (RaaS), where criminals can buy or act as affiliates and rent subscription-based ransomwares (on the Dark Web) from which they earn a percentage of each ransom payment. For criminals, this method offers a low technical barrier to entry and a high affiliate earning potential.

– A growth in a more focused and thorough kind of ransomware attack where victims are researched, and their networks are compromised in advance.

Key Targets

Some of the main targets of ransomware attacks last year noted by the report include healthcare organisations, leading pharmaceutical companies, and COVID-19 vaccine research and development organisations. For example, last October, Philadelphia company eResearchTechnology (which makes software used to try and develop COVID-19 vaccines and treatments) was hit by a ransomware attack.  Employees were locked out of systems and the attack had a knock-on effect that was felt by IQVIA, the research organisation helping with AstraZeneca’s Covid vaccine trial, and Bristol Myers Squibb, a drug-maker involved in the development of a quick test for COVID-19.

Double Extortion

As if these types of targeted attacks haven’t been dangerous enough, the report highlights how so-called ‘double extortion’ attacks have been on the rise.  This is where, in addition to demanding a ransom to release data files, the criminal also threatens to leak some of the files/data unless the ransom is paid.

What Does This Mean For Your Business?

Ransomware attacks tend to arrive in phishing emails, so it is important that staff are aware of the dangers of clicking on suspicious links. Also, staff should be wary of Microsoft Office email attachments that advise the enabling of macros to view the content, a this can be a sign of a ransomware email.

This story also highlights the importance of making sure that data is regularly and securely backed up (to a cloud-based service) and that disaster recovery and business continuity plans have procedures for ransomware attacks built-in to them. Businesses should also note that paying the ransom is a high-risk option and certainly offers no guarantee that any files will be unlocked/returned.

Other precautions that businesses can take to guard against these kinds of attacks include keeping antivirus software and Operating Systems up to date and patched (and re-starting the computer at least once per week), using a modern and secure browser, using detection and recovery software e.g., Microsoft 365 protection and Windows Security, and storing files on cloud services e.g. OneDrive/Google Drive, IDrive, or whatever work-based cloud file storage systems employees are required to use.

Featured Article: How Search Engines Are Dealing With Fake News

Fake news has become pernicious and widespread so in this article, we look at how the search engines are facing up to the enormous challenge of separating the real from the fake.

Challenges

Those trying to combat the spread of fake news face a common set of challenges, such as those identified by CEO of OurNews, Richard Zack, which include:

– There are people (and state-sponsored actors) world-wide who are making it harder for people to know what to believe (e.g. through spreading fake news and misinformation, and distorting stories).

– Many people don’t trust the media or don’t trust fact-checkers.

– Simply presenting facts doesn’t change peoples’ minds.

Other challenges include:

-‘Confirmation bias’ in humans means that we like to read stories that confirm our existing beliefs. This means that there will always be belief in many fake news stories.

– Young people (large users of social media) may be more susceptible to seeing and believing fake news according to research (Stanford’s Graduate School of Education). Most 18-to-24 year-olds consume news via social media.  For example, half of teens (54 per cent) get news from social media, and 50 per cent get news from YouTube (CommonSense 2019) and research in 2020 found that over a quarter of 18-to 24 year-olds get their new from Instagram, 19 per cent from Snapchat, and 6 per cent from TikTok. With social media platforms also battling against a tide of fake news, this is a real challenge that extends beyond search engines.

– Fake news is attractive and often seems more interesting than truth.

– People find it difficult to spot fake news.

Search Engine Algorithms Promoting Fake News?

Another less obvious challenge that some search analysts have highlighted how search engine algorithms may promote sensational fake news above real stories and may also, therefore, be profiting from showing them.  The thinking behind it is that people are simply drawn to click on links to stories / information that look sensational or controversial. When the links are clicked-on, this tells the search engine algorithm that the link was relevant to the search query (i.e. the search engine algorithm awards it ‘link relevance’).  If this link is clicked on enough times by others and receives more link relevance, it will move up the search engine rankings and be given greater prominence, even though the page content may contain fake news. This positive feedback loop can, therefore, ensure that even a fake story can keep getting served, clicked upon, and ultimately become circulated and believed as truth.

Making Money

In addition to getting revenue from adverts, search engines also track user behaviour and sell the data through real-time bidding and ad-driven search engines are able to show better metrics if they reward clicks on enticing links. This mean that links to sensational fake news stories and videos can drive (and be good for) search engine revenue rather than for the user who ends up reading fake stories. In short, it can be in a search engine company’s interest to simply show users what they want to read or watch, some of which may be fake.

What Are Search Engines Doing About The Problem?

Taking Google as the main example, search engines are keen to tell users what they are doing to combat the problem of fake news.

How Google Fights Disinformation – 3 Principles

Back in 2019, when the impact of fake news had been felt both in US elections and in wider society in what had been dubbed a ‘post-truth era’, Google (in its ‘How Google Fights Disinformation’ White Paper) laid out three foundational principles for how it would be tackling the spread of fake news / misinformation in Google Search, Google News, YouTube, and the company’s advertising systems going forward. These are:

1. Make Quality Count.  Google says that its “ranking algorithms” treat websites and content creators fairly and evenly, but they also ensure the usefulness of Google’s services, as measured by user testing, and don’t foster the ideological viewpoints of the individuals that build or audit them.

2. Counteract Malicious Actors. For this, Google admits that “Algorithms cannot determine whether a piece of content on current events is true or false, nor can they assess the intent of its creator just by reading what’s on a page”.  However, Google policies across Google Search, Google News, YouTube, and its advertising products clearly show what is prohibited and company says that it has “invested significant resources” in combatting deliberate ‘spam’ practices designed to deceive and get greater visibility for content.

3. Give Users More Context.  This involves Google users being shown “Knowledge” or “Information” Panels in Google Search and YouTube, providing high-level facts about a person or issue, using labels to show that content has been fact-checked, as well as offering users the chance to see “Breaking News”, “Top News” shelves, and “Developing News” information panels.

Google also says that it has teamed up with outside news experts and dedicated “significant resources” to supporting quality journalism. For example, this includes launching the Google News Initiative (GNI) in 2018, participating in and providing financial support to the Trust Project (http://thetrustproject.org/), partnering with Poynter’s International Fact-Checking Network (IFCN), and supporting the work of researchers who explore the issues of disinformation and trust in journalism.

Bing

Back in 2019, a Stanford Cyber Policy Center report found that Bing’s SERPs contained dubious information more often than Google’s, and that “Bing returns disinformation and misinformation at a significantly higher rate than Google does”.

Nevertheless, Bing appears to have been tackling fake news / disinformation / misinformation in similar ways to Google.  For example, Bing introduced fact-checking labels as far back as 2017.

In April 2020, as part of an announcement about how it was promoting trusted information in response to COVID-19, Microsoft outlined many of the ways that it tackles misinformation generally.  For example, Microsoft highlighted how curated resources were being used across Bing, LinkedIn, Microsoft News and Microsoft Advertising, and how Bing could prioritise trusted news sources and could use algorithmic defences against certain types of misinformation.

COVID-19 Medical Misinformation Challenge

The COVID-19 pandemic brought the dangers of fake news into even sharper focus as medical misinformation became a very serious threat. To help counter this, Google announced (2020) that it was investing $6.5 million in funding global fact checkers to focus on coronavirus misinformation.  Google’s YouTube also introduces a policy to tackle any content that contradicts WHO advice.

Also, in response to health misinformation (COVID-19), Microsoft created COVID-19 information hubs in 53 markets globally, with an experienced team editing content from more than 4,500 of its “trusted” news brands.

Automation and AI

Many people now consider automation and AI to be an approach and a technology that is ‘intelligent’, fast, and scalable enough to start to tackle the vast amount of fake news that is being produced and circulated.  For example, Google and Microsoft have been using AI to automatically assess the truth of articles.  Also, initiatives like the Fake News Challenge (http://www.fakenewschallenge.org/) seeks to explore how AI technologies, particularly machine learning and natural language processing, can be employed to combat fake news and supports the idea that AI technologies hold promise for significantly automating parts of the procedure human fact-checkers use to determine if a story is real or a hoax.

However, the human-written rules underpinning AI, and how AI is ‘trained’ can also lead to bias. Whilst AI can do many amazing things, it is also not yet at the stage where it is able to exercise anything like human judgement as this is based on past experience and gathered knowledge.  This means that AI is not yet the single main way to tackle fake news at scale, although it is certainly helping.

Looking Ahead

Whether search engines benefit from fake news content or not, the problem of the spread of fake news goes way beyond search engines.  Social media companies are also involved in an ongoing battle to tackle the problem, as are other national and global new media outlets of all kinds. Much of the focus of the fake news problem has actually been on social media companies (e.g. Facebook), who have also introduced their own measures to tackle it (e.g. fact checking and introducing their own curated news).  The fact is that to tackle fake news involves wide co-operation, collaboration, and initiatives between multiple entities such as fact-checkers, civil society organisations, researchers, media and tech companies, government agencies and more to bring about a bigger societal change in the right direction.

Tech Tip – How To Wipe Your Phone Or Laptop Before Selling It

If you would like to sell a phone, laptop, tablet, or other device, but would like to know how to completely wipe it first, here’s how:

Firstly, make sure you’ve backed up things like your photos, other important files, and WhatsApp chats. Next:

Windows Laptops

– Type “Reset” into the Start search box and select “Reset this PC”. If this option doesn’t show, look in “Settings” under the “Recovery” tab.

– To wipe all storage drives, on the next page, click “Change Settings” and change the Data Erasure slider to “On”.

MacBooks and Macs

– Reset the system and press the Command + R keys together to load the recovery menu.

– Select “Disk Utility” (the system drives will be displayed).

– Right-click and select Delete on each applicable drive apart from the MacOS install partition.

– Return to the Recovery menu or reset and use the Command+R shortcut from a fresh start-up, and select Install MacOS.

Google Chromebooks

– Press Ctrl, Alt, Shift, and “R” together from the login screen to bring up the “Powerwash” box, or, from “Settings”, select “Advanced” and scroll down to “Powerwash”.

iPhones and iPads

– Go to the “Settings” menu, then the General sub-menu.

– Use the Reset option, and the “Erase All Content and Settings” control. To do this, you will need to use your Apple ID password.
Android Phones and Tablets

– Go to the “System” part of “Settings” and find ‘Reset Options’.

– Choose “Erase All Data” (Factory Reset), or similar and follow the prompts. You will need your unlock PIN.