Check out the podcast on our YouTube channel here.
This month’s vlog and podcast are dominated by coronavirus (COVID-19). Many countries in the world have gone into lockdown; stock markets across the globe have tumbled, with the economic effects expected to be devastating even in the face of massive government relief packages; and there is uncertainty about when or if this will be brought under control. One question that pervades this month’s podcast is if we ever can return to ‘normal’ and, if that is possible, whether we would want to in some areas of society, such as the world of work. This is a wide-ranging discussion starting with the challenges faced in the grocery sector; moving onto privacy in a pandemic; via Zoom, the ethics of scams (spoiler: they’re not ethical, particularly at times like this), and the future of conferencing.
The scale fail
According to food charity, Food Foundation, between 4 million and 7 million people in the UK are affected by food insecurity and loneliness. If these people are now required to self-isolate and cannot access their local supermarket or grocers, their lives may be at risk. The government’s lack of awareness regarding some of the most marginalised in society appears to have stemmed from the fact that it only took advice on food security during this crisis from the supermarkets. Earlier in March, an ex-CEO of Waitrose assured listeners of the BBC’s World at One that there was no lack of food and supply chains were robust enough to get it to consumers. This proved patently untrue: demand far outstripped supply and people were fighting in supermarket aisles.
While this may have been a misstep by the government, there was also naivety on the part of the supermarkets. Prior to the quarantine and lockdown phases of the COVID-19 response, just 10% of shoppers in the UK bought their groceries online. The instruction that most people should now shop online, to help prevent the spread of coronavirus, seems absurd: there simply wasn’t the capacity to scale up from 10% of the country’s shoppers to 80% or even 90%.
One way to solve this is to ensure people are aware that other shops can provide almost the same variety of goods. Corner shops and smaller, independent grocers have not been stripped of all their toilet paper, dried goods and paracetamol. They still have the majority of these things at a slightly elevated price. The messaging doesn’t seem to have got through, so citizens queue for hours at Aldi.
Another way to address the problems of food insecurity and loneliness is to set up community groups to support the vulnerable, elderly, or at risk. Apps such as Nextdoor have helped in this endeavour, but how do you find these people if they don’t have a smartphone or haven’t downloaded the app? There are holes in the governmental response to COVID-19 that will leave many in a precarious position.
Privacy in a pandemic
There have been changes to everyday life that may leave society in a precarious position once the lockdowns have eased. There have been numerous discussions about the best way to tackle this crisis, with many turning to countries such as China, South Korea, and Hong Kong for inspiration. Under normal circumstances, it would be laughable for a British government to even imagine tracking its citizens; it would not be tolerated. These are not normal circumstances. There appears now to be a general acceptance that some sort of tracking is necessary to combat the spread of coronavirus. There is a need to balance a Western population’s desire for privacy against their government’s duty of care. Bio-surveillance and an almost Orwellian state intrusion into the private lives of individuals may be the only way out of this pandemic.
One thing is for sure, there will be sweeping societal changes after this pandemic. Privacy may have to be re-understood: if there are to be waves of this virus, year after year, then tracking those who are infected may be the only way to stop it. We will not tolerate governments spending billions in response to a pandemic, when millions could have been spent preparing for one. And Dolly Parton’s song will be a distant memory: it is hard to imagine a return to the office-based ‘9 to 5’. If you are a mother with two kids who has now demonstrated that she is perfectly able to carry out her role whilst also providing daycare at home, how could your boss force you back into the office? Particularly since we have the technology to facilitate working from home: VPNs, online document repositories, and conferencing software. Which leads us neatly onto Zoom.
Zoom, zoom, zoom
The explosion in the use of Zoom has been quite extraordinary. Early in March, Zoom was number one on the App Store and has now become a byword for conference calling. With this meteoric rise in both popularity and publicity, however, has come a similar increase in scrutiny.
Zoom is great. This should be noted before going any further. It is reliable and capable, and it was able to scale to meet demand in a way that others were not – mentioning no names, Cisco WebEx and Microsoft Teams. Skype which, a decade ago, dominated the chat space, may well have been the ideal tool for these times if it hadn’t been neglected by Microsoft and left distinctly harder to set-up and operate than Zoom. Security researchers, as well as users, have also found Zoom attractive: they have been looking for ways that the app might not be sufficiently protecting its users. Numerous bugs in the software have been reported; its security and data retention and control features have been criticised; and cybercriminals have taken notice.
Since January, there have been more than 1,700 domain names registered containing the word ‘zoom’. Incredibly, over 50% of these were found to be suspicious or malicious. The Zoom boom has potentially brought a raft of risks. It’s also unclear what the relationship between Zoom and the security community is. If this software is to be embedded in our lives, at least in the short term, it is incumbent upon them to ensure its users’ safety.
The creation of new domains using ‘zoom’ in their name speaks to the creativity inherent in many cybercriminal scams. In a time of pandemic, however, everything is viewed through a moral lens and with an eye on the overall effect on others in society. Scams using coronavirus directly – emails claiming to deliver up-to-date information on infected people in your area; online maps showing global infection statistics that push malware – are morally repugnant. As are those that seek to piggy-back on the popularity of a product, like Zoom, that has come about as a result of the pandemic.
Some threat actors, however, appear to possess a moral compass. Two major ransomware groups – Maze and DoppelPaymer –promised not to attack organisations that are engaged in the fight against COVID-19. These two groups spent the end of 2019 and the beginning of 2020 encrypting the data of large companies and publishing snippets online to force the payment of a significant ransom. Claiming that they have a moral compass, therefore, may seem non-sensical. And, indeed, it appears that it was misguided: less than 24 hours after the announcement from the Maze group, their ransomware was used in an attack on a medical company. Cybercriminals don’t care who they hit, as long as they get their payday.
Conference calls are a fantastic way of maintaining business (and family) connections. Conferences themselves, however, which used to provide such fertile ground for deals, are now impossible. It is all well and good if your job can be done from home, but if this is not possible – as is the case for cafes and restaurants, conference centres and concert halls – what is to be done? There are ways in which these businesses could adapt. Just doing takeaway, for example, has been a major boon for numerous cafes, bars, and restaurants across the country; conferences can be presented online. While this doesn’t provide the face-to-face, press-the-flesh environment that has greased the wheels of business the world over, maybe it’s a good thing for the world if fewer flights are taken for a single meeting…
Human beings themselves are extremely adaptable and fantastically resilient. In terms of adaptability, technology, too, is eminently mouldable. Technology will be at the forefront of the coming changes. Governments will have to be more interventionist, and state-driven capitalism may well be the coming economic model. But for the moment, society is in an uneasy stasis, waiting to see what’s coming next.