Apple and Google suspend some of their eavesdropping

Two of the world’s leading voice assistant makers pulled the plug on their respective analytics programmes of Siri and Google Assistant after private information including confidential conversations were leaked.

Apple decided to suspend its outsourced programme to “grade” Siri, by which it assesses the voice assistant’s response accuracy, following reports that private conversations are being listened to by its contractors without the users’ explicit consent. The company committed to add an opt-out option for users in a future update of Siri. It also promised that the programme would not be restarted until it had completed a thorough review.

“We are committed to delivering a great Siri experience while protecting user privacy. While we conduct a thorough review, we are suspending Siri grading globally,” the Cupertino-based iPhone maker told The Guardian. “Additionally, as part of a future software update, users will have the ability to choose to participate in grading.”

This is in response to the leak that was first reported by the British broadsheet, which received tipoff from whistle-blowers. The paper learned that contractors regularly hear private conversations ranging from dialogues between patients and doctors, to communications between drug dealers and buyers, with everything is between. These could include cases when Siri has triggered unintentionally without the users’ awareness.

The biggest problem with Apple’s analytics programme is that it does not explicitly disclose to consumers that some of Siri recordings are shared with contractors in different parts of the world who will listen to the anonymous content, as a means to improve Siri’s accuracy. By not being upfront, Apple does not provide users with the option to opt out either.

Shortly before Apple’s decision to call a halt to Siri grading, Google also pulled the plug on its own human analysis of Google Assistant in the European Union, reported Associated Press. The company promised to the office of Johannes Caspar, Hamburg’s commissioner for data protection and Germany’s lead regulator of Google on privacy issues, that the suspension will last at least three months.

The decision was made after Google admitted that one of the language reviewers it partners with, who are supposed to assess Google Assistant’s response accuracy, “has violated our data security policies by leaking confidential Dutch audio data.” Over 1,000 private conversations in Flemish, some of which included private data, were sent to the Belgian news outlet VRT. Though the messages are supposed to be anonymised, staff at VRT were able to identify the users through private information like home addresses.

At that time Google promised “we will take action. We are conducting a full review of our safeguards in this space to prevent misconduct like this from happening again.”

These are not the first cases where private conversations are leaked over voice assistants. Last year an Alexa-equipped Amazon Echo recorded a conversation between a couple in Portland, Oregan, and sent it to a friend, which was another recent case that rang the alarm bell of private data security.

It should not surprise those in the tech world that AI powered natural language processing software still has a long way to go before it can get all the intricacies right. Before that it needs human input to continuously improve the accuracy. The problems that bedevilled Google and Apple today, and Amazon in the past, and Microsoft (Cortana) which fortunately has not suffered high profile embarrassment recently, are down to the lack of stringent oversight of the role humans play, the lack of clear communication to consumers that their interactions with voice assistants may be used for data analysis purposes, and the failure to give consumers the choice to opt out.

There is also the controversy of data sovereignty, as well as the question of whether private data should be allowed to be stored in the cloud or should be kept on device. Apple’s leak case is not geographically specified, but Google’s case is a clear violation of GDPR.  According to the AP report, Germany has already started proceedings against Google.

Google cloud dives deeper into the data dreamland

Google’s cloud business unit has announced the acquisition of data analytics firm Looker for $2.6 billion, further expanding products available in the ever-growing world of cloud.

While another acquisition at Google is nothing out of the ordinary, this happens to be the first under the tenure of Thomas Kurian, the newest CEO of the cloud business. Kurian took the reigns from Diane Greene at the beginning of this year, after Greene failed to deliver on the hype which surrounded her appointment.

“A fundamental requirement for organizations wanting to transform themselves digitally is the need to store, manage, and analyse large quantities of data from a variety of sources,” said Kurian in a blog announcement. “Google Cloud offers customers a broad and integrated suite of cloud services to ingest data in real time, cleanse it, process it, aggregate it in a highly scalable data warehouse and analyse it.

“Looker extends our business analytics offering with two important capabilities—first, the ability to define business metrics once in a consistent way across data sources. This makes it easy for anyone to query data while maintaining consistent definitions in their calculations, ensuring teams get accurate results.

“Second, Looker also provides users with a powerful analytics platform that delivers applications for business intelligence and use-case specific solutions such as Sales Analytics, as well as a flexible, embedded analytics product to collaborate on business decisions.”

With Looker being integrated into the Google proposition, the cloud team will have something more interesting to talk about. Kurian has discussed a more complete analytics solution, including visualisation of results and integration into daily workflows, as well as the ability to make more customisable solutions for the verticals.

Another interesting benefit of this acquisition is building Google’s ability to work in a multi-cloud landscape. Although any cloud company will want to pigeon hole enterprises into their own products, bleeding customers is of course more profitable, it is not realistic in today’s world. If you do not have a proposition which is interoperable with other cloud providers, you are not going to be attractive to customers.

There are numerous examples of this being an important factor of the cloud world of tomorrow. The Data Transfer Project is an initiative to build a common framework with open-source code that can connect any two online service providers, while Vodafone Business and IBM came together to create a joint-venture aiming to solve the problem presented by multi-cloud interoperability.

As part this acquisition, Google is also inheriting the ability to play in this world, bumping its ability to bring together data from SaaS applications like Salesforce, Marketo, and Zendesk, as well as traditional data sources.

Google Cloud has seemingly been losing out to the likes of Microsoft Azure and AWS in recent years, a factor which reportedly contributed to Greene’s downfall. This is not to say the cloud business is not successful, but it is not tearing up trees at the same rate as the two market leaders.

Perhaps this is only one of the first announcements we should expect from Kurian over the next couple of months. This is a man who needs to make his mark on the business, but also close the gap Microsoft and Amazon have created at the top of the cloud rankings.

UK police are using AI to make precrime a reality

UK local councils and police forces are using personal data they own and algorithms they bought to pre-empt crimes against children, but there are many things that could go wrong with such a system.

A new research by Cardiff University and Sky News shows that at least 53 UK local councils and 45 of the country’s police forces are heavily relying on computer algorithms to assess the risk level of crimes against children as well as people cheating on benefits. It has raised many eyebrows on both the method’s ethical implications and its effectiveness, with references to Philip K Dick’s concept of precrime inevitable.

The algorithms the authorities sourced from IT companies use the personal data in their possession to train the AI system to predict how likely a child in a certain social environment is going to be subjected to crime, giving each child a score between 1 and 100, then classifying the risk level against each child as high, medium, or low. The results are then used to flag to social workers for intervention before crimes are committed. This does not read too dissimilar to the famous Social Credit system that China is building on national scale, though without the benefits of faster housing loans or good schools for kids as a reward for good behaviour.

The Guardian reported last year that data from more than 377,000 people were used to train the algorithms for similar purposes. This may have been a big underestimate of the scope. The research from Cardiff University disclosed that in Bristol alone, data from 54,000 families, including benefits, school attendance, crime, homelessness, teenage pregnancy, and mental health are being used in the computer tools to predict which children are more susceptible to domestic violence, sexual abuse, or going missing.

On benefit assessment side, the IT system to support the Universal Credit scheme has failed to win much praise. A few days ago, computer generated warning letters were sent out to many residents in certain boroughs, warning them their benefits would be taken away because they have been found cheating. Almost all the warnings turned out to be wrong.

There are two issues here. One is administrative, that is how much human judgement can be used to overrule the algorithms. Local councils insisted that analytics results will not necessarily lead to actions. Privacy activists disagreed. “Whilst it’s advertised as being able to help you make a decision, in reality it replaces the human decision. You have that faith in the computer that it will always be right,” one privacy advocacy group told Sky News. Researchers from Cardiff University also found that “there was hardly any oversight in this area.” Over-enthusiastic intervention, for example taking children away from their families in not absolutely necessary circumstances can be traumatic to the children’s development. Controversies of this kind have been long and hard debated in places like Norway, Sweden, and Finland.

Another is how accurate the output from the algorithms are. The police in Kent believed that among the cases pursued by their algorithm, over a third of all cases on the police’s hand, 98% have been accurate. If this is true, then either Kent Police has a rather relaxed definition of “accuracy”, or it knows something the technology world does not. IBM’s Watson, one of the world’s most advanced AI technologies, has been used by Vodafone to help provide digital customer service. It has won Vodafone prizes and was hailed as a big AI success by IBM during MWC 2019. Watson’s success rate at Vodafone was 68%

Late last year the Financial Times reported that one of China’s most ambitious financial service, Ant Financial, which is affiliated to Alibaba, has never used its credit scoring system to make lending decisions, despite that it had been four years in the making and had access to billions of data points in the Alibaba ecosystem. “There was a difference between ‘big data’ and ‘strong data’, with big data not always providing the most relevant information for predicting behaviour,” an executive from Ant Financial told the FT. A think-tank analyst put it in a more succinct way: “Someone evading taxes might always pay back loans, someone who breaks traffic rules might not break other rules. So I don’t think there is a general concept of trustworthiness that is robust. Trustworthiness is very context specific.”

It is understandable that the UK police and local councils are increasingly relying on algorithms and machine learning as they have been under severe spending cut. The output of algorithms could be used as helpful references but should not be taken at its face value. It is probably safer to admit that AI is simply not good enough yet to drive or guide important decisions as policing, criminal investigation, or social worker intervention. Getting Vodafone’s customer service more accurate is a more realistic target. Even if the bot still failed to help you set your new phone up properly, you would not end up queuing at the foodbank, or have your children taken away for “crime prevention” purposes.

HERE adds mobile operators to its monetisation map

The location and mapping service company HERE, in partnership with data analytics company Continual, launched two new data services, HERE Cellular Signals and HERE Traffic Analytics, aiming to increase its value for mobile operators in addition to the transport and autonomous car industries.

HERE Cellular Signals is generated by overlaying a radio map crowdsourced from its users on top of its in-house road map. The outcome of such a mesh will provide a snapshot of the network coverage, carrier presence, signal strength and bandwidth on a given road. HERE claims that there are 250 million connected devices out there with HERE user clients installed, and the radio data (including cellular and Wi-Fi traces as well as GPS coordinates) will be updated 800 million times a day, including 100 million times over cellular networks.

If the combined solution is proved robust enough, this can deliver benefits to mobile operators. In order to gather reliable data from live networks, mobile operators or its suppliers still need to send out engineers to do drive tests with car-mounted or hand-held measurement equipment. Such data are critical for network and RF planning and optimization, quality evaluations, and competitive assessments. HERE Cellular Signals will not completely replace such tests, but it can reduce the frequency and geographical coverage, and in turn reduce mobile operators’ operation costs.

When it comes to HERE’s home territory, i.e. transport and logistics industry of today and autonomous and self-driving cars of tomorrow, HERE Cellular Signals can help the fleets optimise their communication plans with the control centre based on the cellular network coverage and service plans on the routes. Connected vehicles need always-on connectivity to the cloud, to the road infrastructure and to other vehicles. A radio map like HERE Cellular Signals can therefore help connected car managers plan when to use online service and when to use offline service, or which roads to avoid so as to minimise the risk of dropped connection. This will be particularly critical when full auto-driving cars come to the roads which will demand end-to-end low-latency broadband connectivity, e.g. 5G.

“Bandwidth is a limited and expensive resource,” said Aaron Mayfield, Senior Product Manager at HERE Technologies. “As data traffic soars and new demands are placed on cellular networks, bandwidth optimization will increasingly become a delicate balancing act. HERE Cellular Signals is a valuable resource to add to the toolbox of cellular carriers to help manage these challenges.”

HERE Traffic Analytics, on the other hand, uses the data gathered from the roads to provide visibility into road traffic patterns.

Both of HERE’s new products are integrated in the Mobility Experience Analytics solution marketed by Continual, an Israeli user data analytics and AI company.

“As 5G networks and always-online automated vehicles edge closer to reality, we’re seeing growing convergence between the mobile telecom and automotive markets,” said Michiel Verberg, Senior Manager Strategic Partners at HERE Technologies. “We’re excited that Continual’s existing deep relationships with MNOs coupled with our established automotive partnerships will provide us with a unique opportunity to better address this important evolving market.”

HERE in its earlier life also had a legacy of working with mobile operators extensively. It was part of Nokia, which was acquired by the consortium of German car makers including Audi, BMW, and Mercedes, back in 2015.

“Continual’s Mobility Experience Analytics solution re-defines the approach that mobile operators and automotive companies can adopt towards monitoring and improving the connected experience of car drivers, passengers and subscribers who are traveling,” said Assaf Aloni, CMO of Continual. “HERE’s impressive portfolio of automotive and network technologies is very synergistic with ours, and the partnership is enabling us to create even stronger solutions for Connected Mobility.”

The two companies will demo the new services at the upcoming Mobile World Congress.

IBM continues down the road to recovery

Rome wasn’t built in a day, and IBM’s readiness for the connected era certainly took some time, but another solid quarter perhaps demonstrates the corner has finally been turned.

Perhaps the watershed moment was six months ago, the company’s first quarter of revenue growth following 23 consecutive periods of decline, but the last two results have proved it wasn’t a fluke. Big Blue is back on the right path.

The last three months appear to be solid, if not spectacular. Total revenues stood at $20 billion, up 2% year-on-year, with the Strategic Imperatives (cloud, security, analytics and mobile) revenues at $10.1 billion, a 13% increase and the first time this segment accounted for more than half of total revenues.

“We delivered strong revenue and profit growth in the quarter, underscoring IBM’s progress and momentum in the emerging, high-value segments of the IT industry,” said Ginni Rometty, IBM CEO.  “More clients are engaging IBM on their journey to the cloud, and deploying IBM Cloud, Watson AI, analytics, blockchain and security solutions.  This demonstrates IBM’s unique leadership in providing innovative technology coupled with deep industry expertise, trust and security.”

The transition to the connected, mobile orientated era was a tricky one for IBM, as while the Strategic Imperatives business was growing healthily, it wasn’t compensating for the rapid decline of IBM’s legacy business. This is a trend which seems to have been reversed, with the Strategic Imperatives accounting for $39 billion over the last twelve months, a 12% increase, representing 48% of total revenues.

Dissecting the Strategic Imperatives, analytics grew 5% to $5.4 billion, while cloud jumped 18% year-on-year to $4.7 billion. Mobile accounted for $1.3 billion, up 3% year-on-year, while security brought in $1 billion, a 79% boost from the same period in 2017. 13% year-on-year growth across the Strategic Imperatives certainly makes for positive reading.

IBM might not be anywhere near as influential a business as it was in a previous era, but the future is starting to look a lot brighter. A 3% boost in share price in afterhours trading indicates the market certainly likes the news and the trends.

Cisco wants to help IT departments win the WAN war

The growth in remote working means employees increasingly connect to the company via the WAN, which creates a special challenges for IT departments.

Cisco reckons it’s the IT crowd’s new best friend thanks to a couple of new products that it claims provide an unprecedented level of centralised visibility into the WAN. This in turn aims to give corporate techies the ability to more easily identify, resolve and ideally even pre-empt issue on the WAN.

A central pillar of Cisco’s efforts in this area is its recent push towards intent-based networking in general. The two specific product silos within this initiative announced to tackle the WAN issue are Cisco SD-WAN vAnalytics and Cisco Meraki Insight. Between them they promise all this lovely WAN insight and diagnostics as well as the ability to optimise SaaS application performance.

“We have set an ambitious goal for ourselves of transforming the entire network, from campus to branch, data center to edge,” said Scott Harrell, GM of Enterprise Networking at Cisco. “The WAN is a vital part of the network and is one of the toughest to manage. As we bring insight into the WAN with these new innovations, we get closer to delivering end-to-end intent-based networking to help our customers eliminate downtime and save money.”

“With over 600 branch offices and more than 5,000 employees, we rely on cloud applications and an always connected workplace to serve our customers,” said Peter Castle, Senior Network Engineer at Reece, an Aussie engineering firm that is presumably a Cisco customer. “Our business requires a secure, scalable, and high-performance WAN.

“With vManage, we can centrally deploy branch applications and services rapidly, and we have been able to dramatically improve branch availability and bandwidth utilization with the rich analytics this platform provides. We are looking forward to the additional functionality we will be able to achieve with the even richer application visibility that vAnalytics will provide us.”

Ultimately this is about more than just remote working, it’s about the tendency for workers to access the corporate network and applications via the cloud from an infinite number of locations and devices. It’s easy to see how this has created demand for greater WAN control, hence this announcement. You can see a Cisco diagram summarising it below and read a deeper dive into the launches at Light Reading here.

Cisco WAN diagram

Nokia goes all-in on digital cities

Nokia has announced a series of initiatives designed to position itself strongly as a supplier of digital city products and solutions.

Assuming this is a strategic bit of positioning in advance of MWC next week, Nokia’s digital cities push comes intriguingly soon after it threw in the towel on digital health buy announcing a strategic review of its efforts in that area. The contrast seems to be that cities are a macro, large scale problem while health is ultimately a micro, individual-level issue and it seems plausible to assume the former plays more to Nokia’s strengths.

Here are the digital city initiatives announced today:

IoT for Smart Cities is a modular platform designed to help operators and systems integrators to do unified smart city management and to launch new services in this area. It’s powered by Nokia’s Integrated Operations Center (IOC), which is designed to orchestrate all smart city operations. Applications include video surveillance, smart lighting, parking, waste management, and environmental sensing.

Sensing as a Service is another smart city IoT thing that aims to offer as much of the burden of installing sensors, processing their data and offering useful actions as a capex-free service. One slightly creepy USP seems to be the potential for an Orwellian level of city-wide surveillance that can detect illegal construction, rubbish burning and other unsanctioned activities. More intriguing is the use of blockchain to enable anonymised, secure micro transactions for new revenue streams.

S-MVNO (Secure Mobile Virtual Network Operator) for Public Safety seems to allow the creation of a public safety-specific MVNO within an operator’s existing network, which complies with all the various additional stipulations required of such a thing.

“Cities need to become digital in order to efficiently deliver services to their habitants,” said Asad Rizvi, head of Global Services business development at Nokia. “Smart infrastructure, which is shared, secure, and scalable, is needed to ensure urban assets and data are efficiently used. We can help cities with that. In addition, we can help operators generate new revenue utilizing their existing network by providing solutions for smart city players, such as city, transport, travel and public safety authorities.”

In a separate announcement Nokia said it has co-developed a suite of analytics services for digital cities in partnership with Singapore operator StarHub. This seems to be a refinement of Nokia’s AVA cognitive services platform with the introduction of real-world use-cases.

“We have a strong team of data analytics experts with a diversity of capabilities, and we have introduced several successful mobility analytics use cases in Singapore for strategic and operational urban planning and decision making,” said Dr Chong Yoke Sin, StarHub’s Chief, Enterprise Business Group. “By integrating the use cases into the Nokia AVA platform and using Nokia’s analytics capabilities, we will be developing the use cases further and creating new ones that we can offer even to other telcos as white label solutions. Our partnership with Nokia allows us to develop innovative solutions at the deep research level for the market.”

As we said at the start, city-wide communications and IoT initiatives seem to play to the strengths of networking operators more than digital health, which necessarily has a B2C element. The digital city/smart city (when everything is ‘smart’ will it still have meaning?) seems likely to be one of the principal new opportunities of the 5G era, along with autonomous vehicles and, yes, digital health.