Tech Insight : What Is An API?

In this article, we take a brief look at what APIs are, why they are important, and how they are they are used.

What Is An API?

An Application Programming Interface (API) is intermediary software that allows different applications to talk to each other. In essence, it delivers your request to a provider and then delivers the provider’s response back to you. APIs provide operations and queries that developers can use to design and build apps and web applications, for example, using APIs to connect the user-facing front ends with the back-end functionality and data.

Examples of API Use

APIs are widely used, and some popular examples of their use include:

Real-time travel bookings in websites. These websites use third-party APIs to collect and display real-time aggregated flight and hotel availability from providers and use APIs to confirm the bookings with the providers. In other words, the APIs are the intermediaries that enable the website to communicate with the hotel and flight booking systems.  An example of a real-time flight data display API is the ‘Aviationstack’ API which provides flight stats for 200+ countries and more than 13,000 airlines.

Paying with PayPal

The option to pay with and to deposit and withdraw funds from PayPal in e-commerce (e.g shopping, better, booking) websites uses an API. This allows the end application to work without getting access to sensitive data or other unintended permissions.

Logins With Different Options

Websites that enable you login using different platforms (e.g. displaying login with Facebook, Twitter, or LinkedIn) use an API to authenticate the logins rather than having the security risk of actually logging in the social media account.

Types of APIs

There is a number of different types of APIs which include:

– Open APIs/Public APIs. Anyone can use these as they are publicly available/there are no restrictions.

– Partner APIs. These are not publicly available and are only exposed to strategic business partners through the granting/purchasing of rights or licenses.

– Internal APIs/Private APIs. These are used on a company’s internal systems, e.g. to improve products and services.

– Composite APIs. These enable batch requests, i.e. a client can make one API request with a batch/chain of calls and receive one response.

– Web APIs. As the name suggests, these are specifically for the web, e.g. using a web API to extend the functionality of a web browser or a server API to extend web server functionality.

Endpoints and Request Methods

One of the key ways in which an app interacts with an API is the ‘endpoint’.  This could be the specific web address that links to the functions required.

The ‘request methods’ refers to what action will be taken by referring to the API.  For example, these could be ‘GET’ to request data from a server, ‘POST’ to add new data to a server, ‘PUT’ to change existing information, or ‘DELETE’ to delete existing information.

To use an API generally requires getting an API Key, testing the API endpoints, and creating an App.

The Benefits of APIs

The many benefits of using APIs include:

– Time and money savings in development due to being able to take advantage of the functionality of different applications without having to type code yourself or pay for complicated development work to enable different programmes to communicate with each other.

– Security while tapping into data and external functionality.

– Efficiency as content generated through an API can be published automatically and made available for every channel.

– Improved services and user experience, e.g. on a website, due the ability to automatically display real-time, accurate information (such as flights and bookings).

– Convenience for users of websites with APIs links.

– Better integration leading to better results (whilst reducing development costs).

– Faster innovation by recharging applications with the latest technology, and easier monetisation.

What Does This Mean For Your Business?

APIs tie disparate applications together, allowing them to complement and talk to each other, become greater than the sum of their parts, and in doing so they represent ways for businesses to gain efficiencies, improve and enrich services and gain competitive advantages, automate, and innovate.  Companies can develop APIs and apps or use existing APIs to integrate and add value and as such APIs offer many new advantages and opportunities.

Featured Article – What Is Greenwashing (in Technology)?

In this article, we look at what ‘greenwashing’ is, how and why it is being used, and what is being done to stop it.

What Is Greenwashing?

Greenwashing, a term coined by Jay Westerveld in 1986, refers to how some companies mislead stakeholders about their environmental and ethical credentials by spending more on marketing themselves as being environmentally friendly and ethical when, in fact, it is not the case.  This practice is most likely to be something found in industries where the environmental impact of production and waste are known to be great, e.g. oil and gas, consumer electronics, fashion, and fast-moving consumer goods (FMCG) packaging.

Why?

A widely publicised climate emergency, knowledge of ethical issues in production, publicity and pressure from campaigners and political movements, the availability of choice, and the rise of social media are all factors that have led to more consumers being better informed and more engaged with how their consumption is linked to environmental and ethical issues.  Many of these consumers are now more likely to reject products with known poor environmental/ethical credentials and favour those (i.e. choose to purchase and feel more loyal towards) entities whose credentials are believed to be good and whose values they share. For example, a Nielsen report showed that 66 percent of consumers said they would pay more for sustainable brands. Unfortunately, another survey (TerraChoice) has shown that 98 percent of green-labelled products may actually be greenwashed.

Until there is a more unified, global approach to climate change from institutions and governments, economic factors and mass consumption are, to a large extent, in conflict with tackling climate change. Making products from raw materials to feed demand at a competitive price and in a way that is profitable can lead some companies to make short-term, environmentally damaging, and perhaps unethical decisions. Some companies know, therefore that by disguising their operations they can reap the positive benefits of being perceived as green whilst not investing in green solutions and practices.

Greenwashing Methods

Some popular methods of greenwashing include:

– Making changes to logos, brands, names, labelling and packaging (using environmental images and claims about the nature of ingredients), and differentiating product lines.

– Irrelevant claims, ‘lesser of two evil’ claims, and hidden trade-offs.

– Associating themselves with charities, environmental and ethical organisations (e.g. using logos, and donation information).

– Presenting data and figures and making claims that would be difficult to substantiate.

– Publicising environmental programs that companies are/have been involved with and using distraction tactics.

– The use of language/environmental buzzwords and soundbites that could be misleading (e.g. eco-friendly, bio, mineral, happy, green, healthy, herbal, non-hazardous, pure, re-usable, recyclable, free-range).

Examples of Greenwashing

There are many, widely publicised examples of what could be called greenwashing, often by well known brands (as these are newsworthy and attract more publicity). Please note that it could also be argued (or dismissed) by these companies that rather than greenwashing, it was simply a mistake/not thought through/not intended to deceive etc, which in some cases, could be legitimate arguments. With this in mind, a few examples of greenwashing might include:

– The McDonalds fast-food company publicising a switch (in some UK branches) to ‘fully-recyclable’, paper straws from plastic straws in 2018. The move backfired when the thickness of the straws meant that they couldn’t be recycled in the normal way, and a packaging supplier pointed out the issue was not with the straws but the need for investment in the UK’s recycling infrastructure.

– The H&M clothes recycling scheme for World Recycle Week (2016), where customers could return their old H&M jumpers to the stores, from where they would be sent for recycling.  It was found that only a small amount of the fibre could be recycled and that, based on the company’s publicised figures, it could take 12 years for H&M to use up 1,000 tons of fashion waste (the same amount of clothes that the company produced in 48 hours).

– A recent move by Tesla to allow customers to buy their electric vehicles with Bitcoin led to criticism when 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.

– Ryanair was recently criticised by the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) for using old information to claim it was the UK’s lowest emission airline after the statistics it used in the advert didn’t include many rival airlines and were based on 2011 data.

– Back in 2008, oil and gas company Shell had an advert banned which claimed that a project involving strip-mining of 140,000 sq km of Alberta and the building of the world’s largest oil refinery equated to a ‘sustainable’ project. The advert about the project was banned due to a lack of supporting data about how operations would help manage climate change.

Related Issues

There are some practices that could be considered more in terms of hidden aspects and trade-offs that feed into greenwashing.  These include:

– Planned/built-in obsolescence. One example could be Apple products.  Although the company publicises its stores, offices, and data centres as being fully by renewable electricity, and all its operations (including commuting and business travel) as carbon neutral, older models of products (e.g. older iPhones and iPods) aren’t updatable with the latest operating systems and apps, thereby severely limiting the usefulness of the hardware.

– The right to repair.  The fact that many tech products/consumer devices, for example, are manufactured in a way, and/or contain labels (voiding warranties if opened) that appear to prevent third-party repairs or force the owner to use only the services of the maker, is a practice related to greenwashing in many cases. It has led to legislation, primarily in the US and the EU, to give consumers the right to repair their own consumer electronic devices, which they may have bought with green claims in mind, and thereby prevent the environmental impact of disposal.

– Carbon-offsetting. Companies may use carbon-offsetting, often in good faith, but as environmental campaigners such as Greenpeace point out, it may not really work because companies need to stop carbon emissions from getting into the atmosphere in the first place. There is also an argument that carbon offsetting doesn’t deliver the level of carbon savings that it claims, and that it may simply allow companies to continue with unsustainably carbon-intensive behaviours and lifestyles while feeling good about themselves and promoting a positive image.

What Does This Man For Your Business?

The economic and commercial reasons for greenwashing, on whatever scale, are obvious, and although it may enable companies to benefit in the short-term, it is a high-risk strategy for consumer trust and business continuity as well as for the environment. Being found-out for deceiving consumers in this way can be damaging for brands and profits, but the real damage comes from activities globally that are contributing to the climate emergency. A global effort, right from the individual level up to companies, institutions, governments is needed on all fronts to help tackle this monumental challenge. Greenwashing is a threat to the success of this because, by deception, it prevents good environmental choices being made whilst enabling companies to carry on with environmentally damaging practices, the losers being all of us, including those who are using greenwashing. As a greater focus and effort comes to bear upon tackling environmental issues, greenwashing attempts are now being spotted, scrutinised, and publicly called-out by pressure and environmental groups, consumer, and adverting standards associations, and punished through legislation.  For example, The UK Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) has proposed to introduce legislation within this year to tackle greenwashing and false claims surrounding ‘eco-friendly’ products. Keeping-up the effort to discourage and ‘out’ greenwashing practices is one important front in the fight to protect the planet.

Tech News : Russia Sanctioned Over Cyber Attacks

President Biden’s administration in the U.S. has placed new sanctions on Russia over alleged cyberattacks affecting the U.S. and its allies.

What Is Russia Accused Of?

The U.S. government sanctions relate to:

– The ‘SolarWinds attack’ where cyber-criminals accessed 18,000 government and private computer networks. The U.S. appears to blame the Cosy Bear hackers for carrying out the attacks which then (allegedly) enabled Russia’s foreign intelligence service, the SVR, to spy on and disrupt the systems of many different organisations around the world.

– Alleged Interference in the 2020 U.S. presidential election.

Executive Order

The Executive order, issued by President Biden, accuses the Russian Federation of engaging in “harmful foreign activities” such as, “efforts to undermine the conduct of free and fair democratic elections and democratic institutions in the United States and its allies and partners; to engage in and facilitate malicious cyber-enabled activities against the United States and its allies and partners; to foster and use transnational corruption to influence foreign governments; to pursue extraterritorial activities targeting dissidents or journalists; to undermine security in countries and regions important to United States national security; and to violate well-established principles of international law, including respect for the territorial integrity of states”.

The Sanctions

The Executive Order from President Biden contains a long and detailed list of sanctions, and targets 32 entities and officials who the U.S. believe were involved in influencing the 2020 U.S. presidential election and engaged in other acts of disinformation. It is understood that the Order will initially lead to the expulsion of ten diplomats and will prohibit the purchase of rouble-denominated bonds by U.S. financial institutions, thereby causing Russia some financial pain.  The Executive Order can be viewed here: https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/presidential-actions/2021/04/15/executive-order-on-blocking-property-with-respect-to-specified-harmful-foreign-activities-of-the-government-of-the-russian-federation/.

Other Sanctions

The new, tougher stance towards Russia under the Biden administration led to other sanctions being imposed last month and targeted seven senior Russian officials and fourteen organisations.  The sanctions, which were mainly the freezing of assets held in the U.S. were made in response to the poisoning of opposition leader Alexei Navalny and more broadly to curb what the U.S. sees as a developing pattern of the use of chemical weapons by Russia (poisonings).  One U.K. example of this pattern was the use of Novichok in Salisbury to poison Sergei and Yulia Skripal.

It has also been reported that the same two Russian suspects wanted for the Salisbury poisonings are now wanted by the Czech Republic in relation to an ammunition depot explosion there in 2014. The Czech Republic is also expelling 18 Russian diplomats who it believes have been involved in spying.

What Does This Mean For Your Business?

With the Biden administration and cooperating EU countries now signalling that they will be taking a harder line with Russia with what are designed to be proportionate responses to curb some of its most worrying and damaging activities, the idea is to try and restore some balance and order and return to more dialogue and diplomatic process rather than an escalation and conflict. The Solar Winds cyberattack, for example, is believed to have compromised 100 companies and a dozen government agencies in the U.S., including the Infrastructure Security Agency/ CISA whose job it was to protect federal computer networks from cyberattacks! The malicious code was implanted in a simple software update from the Texas-based company that was downloaded 18,000 times.  As such, the damage to agencies and big businesses and their stakeholders (including the many businesses down the line who may have been compromised) is still not fully known, and the expertise and effectiveness of the attack has worried western governments. Interference in state processes such as elections and cyberattacks with the sophistication of the SolarWinds one are a serious threat to businesses, organisations and even whole economies, so if sanctions are an effective way to help stop these, then this latest round of sanctions may be one step towards protecting western business, organisations, state agencies, and economies.

Tech News : MEPs Seek Ban On Public Biometric Surveillance

Following the recent leak of an EU draft of rules for applying to AI, 40 MEPs have called for a ban on the use of facial recognition and other types of biometric surveillance in public places.

Draft Rules

The leaked draft rules by EU lawmakers to regulate the use of AI prompted the MEPs to publish a letter outlining how the draft rules could be strengthened to offer greater privacy protection and guard against discrimination, threats to privacy, and more.

Biometric Mass Surveillance

The MEPs noted that the draft rules do not include a ban on the use of facial recognition or similar biometric remote identification technologies in public places (e.g. facial recognition systems).  The letter from the MEPs highlighted how this type of surveillance has been shown to lead to mistaken identification/wrongful reporting of subjects, discrimination of “under-represented groups” and having a “chilling effect” in a society that is diverse and used to certain freedoms. The MEPs have, therefore called for a total ban on this type of surveillance.

Automated Inference Warning

The letter also warned of how automated inference, such as predictive policing and indiscriminate monitoring using biometrics, could violate rights to privacy and data protection, suppress free speech, be counter-productive in the fight against corruption, and pose a particular risk to “LGBTQI+ communities, people of colour, and other discriminated-against groups”. The MEPs, therefore, request in the letter that the new rules should prohibit “automatic recognition of gender, sexuality, race/ethnicity, disability and any other sensitive and protected characteristics”.

Other Areas of Concern

The letter also says that the MEPs would like the wording of the proposed new rules to be tightened up to cover all untargeted and indiscriminate mass-surveillance, and that the proposed exemption on the prohibition on mass-surveillance for public authorities (or commercial entities working for them) would threaten public security.

In the UK

The use of biometric public surveillance in the UK has also caused concern.  For example:

– In December 2018, Elizabeth Denham, the UK’s Information Commissioner launched a formal investigation into how police forces used FRT after high failure rates, misidentifications and worries about legality, bias, and privacy. This stemmed from the trial of ‘real-time’ facial recognition technology on Champions League final day June 2017 in Cardiff, by South Wales and Gwent Police forces, which was criticised for costing £177,000 and yet only resulting in one arrest of a local man (whose arrest was unconnected).

– Trials of FRT at the 2016 and 2017 Notting Hill Carnivals led to the Police facing criticism that FRT was ineffective, racially discriminatory, and confused men with women.

– In September 2018 a letter, written by Big Brother Watch (a privacy campaign group) and signed by more than 18 politicians, 25 campaign groups, and numerous academics and barristers, highlighted concerns that facial recognition is being adopted in the UK before it has been properly scrutinised.

– In May 2019 in the UK, following controversial incidents where facial recognition had been tested in some public places, Luciana Berger (MP) put forward a written parliamentary question about bringing forward ‘biometrics legislation’ related to how facial recognition was being used for immigration purposes at airports. Also, questions were asked in Parliament about possible safeguards to protect the security and privacy of citizens’ data that is held as part of the Home Office’s biometrics programme.

– In September 2019, it was revealed that the owners of King’s Cross Estate had been using FRT without telling the public, together with London’s Metropolitan Police Service supplying the images for a database.

– A letter published by London Assembly members Caroline Pidgeon MBE AM and Sian Berry AM to Metropolitan Police commissioner Cressida Dick asked whether the FRT technology could be withdrawn during the COVID-19 pandemic on the grounds that it has been shown to be generally inaccurate, and it still raises questions about civil liberties. The letter also highlighted concerns about the general inaccuracy of FRT and the example of the first two deployments of LFR this year, where more than 13,000 faces were scanned, only six individuals were stopped, and five of those six were misidentified and incorrectly stopped by the police. Also, of the eight people who created a ‘system alert’, seven were incorrectly identified. Concerns have also been raised about how the already questionable accuracy of FRT could be challenged further by people wearing face masks to curb the spread of COVID-19.

What Does This Mean For Your Business?

Biometric surveillance clearly has benefits in terms of being a tool to help with the work of government agencies and law enforcement, but many now feel that its use is advancing too far ahead of the legislation. In a diverse society where data protection rights have been tightened up and respect for privacy with it (due to GDPR), mass surveillance of this kind feels to many people like it goes against those rights, and in a ‘chilling’ way that feels as though it may affect freedom and could be used (if not properly regulated) to discriminate. The UK trials and usage of facial recognition to date has also revealed areas where the technology has been unreliable, and there may also be issues of bias.  It is not surprising, therefore, that a group of MEPs have chosen to apply pressure to tighten up the rules, although it remains to be seen if the concerns of the MEP group affect the final legislation.

Tech Tip – Creating An Email List In Outlook

If you’d like a quick and easy way to regularly email group of contacts (e.g. work colleagues or suppliers), Outlook gives you the ability to create a Distribution List (or Contact Group in 365). Here’s how it works:

For Outlook Online

– Log into outlook.com or select Outlook from the app launcher.

– On the Left-hand side, select Groups > New group.

– In the pop-up, name the group, give it a brief description, and select ‘Create’.

– Add group members by searching by name/email address, and they will appear under “This person will be added.”

– When all email addresses have been added, select the ‘Add’ button, and select ‘Close’.

– To send an email to the group, select ‘New message’ and in the ‘To’ field, type the name of the group you created.

For Outlook On Desktop

This is called a ‘Contact Group’ rather than a Distribution List. To build one:

– Launch Outlook and select ‘People’ (lower left).

– From the toolbar, select ‘New Contact Group’ (a ‘New Group’ button in 365).

– When the windows loads, name your contact group.

– To add members, select ‘Add Members’ and choose where to get members from – Outlook Contacts, Address Book, or New Email Contact.

– Search for the people/email addresses to add. When their entry is highlighted, select the ‘Members’ button (or double-click their entry) to add them.

– When this is one, select ‘OK’, save changes, and close the window.

– The name of the Contact Group will appear as an entry in the Outlook address book so can be selected in the ‘To’ field when creating a new email.