New blog design

I have been meaning to apply a new design to my blog ever since I transferred it to WordPress last year. However, my knowledge of PHP is limited to what PHP actually stands for and therefore it was difficult to allocate very much time to it, let alone apply new designs.

With the development of Taggloo and learning Manx, I felt it was time to develop some improved presence, and this is the result.

Since the revitalised Windows Media Centre user interface, and then Windows Phone 7, I have become a big fan of the Metro user experience. It is super simple, smooth and is an experience that is easily portable between the “three screens” of Windows Phone 7, Windows 8 and XBox 360. The design applied to this blog was drafted quickly on the back of a piece of paper in the office as the idea hit me. What I have ended up with is a slick and distinctive result that I feel is sincere to Metro’s philosophy of clean lines and content-first.

The blog runs on the Umbraco Content Management System, and is affording me the opportunity to re-assess the CMS for other projects I may become involved in. It feels like a very mature product, if a little difficult to grasp at first and not entirely suitable for the non-technical user. However, it feels like where Sitecore is, in terms of the importance attached to XSLT. The intricacies of Umbraco notwithstanding, once I’d figured out the XSLT structure, I was away!

The blog would not be possible without the help of Andreas Heinakroon, who very kindly adapted my back-of-fag-packet scratchings to an all singing, all dancing HTML template that could be applied to my blog, complete with winking tiles. Until I worked with Andreas, I thought I could come up with designs – at least mediocre ones! How wrong I was! Never underestimate the power of a good designer. I would definitely check out his blog, for a refreshing outlook.

Also, thanks to Owen Cutajar, who hosted my blog on his WordPress platform while I continuously prevaricated in trying to get a new design sorted and the necessary time to devote to learning PHP and WordPress specifics.

makeallthethingsmetro

Another UK venture bites the dust

The Isle of Man is just one big cartel. In fact, calling it a big cartel is inflating its importance, and therefore the importance of the jumped up bureaucrats who justify their existence by wielding their little hammers in musty chambers.

Countless times, UK companies have expressed enough confidence in the Manx pound to justify investing on the island to create new outlets or expand existing outlets (this, in spite of a challenging retail environment). Tesco have been refused permission to sell home goods and clothing several times, and now we find Next have been shown the finger for wanting to open a retail outlet selling their quality home wares.

Reasons (excuses) for these rejections add up to nothing more than protectionism. Tesco was rejected due to local traders crying foul. Next has also been stuffed due to “goods weren’t considered suitable to be sold from the site”. Town planners seem to not only be able to justify laying pink paving stones when more important road improvements are essential, but can also dictate where goods are sold on the island. They claim clothing and home wares should be sold in Douglas Town Centre. Has anyone told them about Tynwald Mills? The most expensive and pretentious building with a few shops in this side of Saudi Arabia. (Wait, isn’t that just down the road from Braddan?)

While the motives of these civil servants are to be commended they are missing two key factors which are undeniable in modern retail:

  • Customers demand value, particularly in austere times. The Manx pound gets little value due to inflated prices. I don’t mind paying more, if it is backed up with good customer service. Time and time again, Manx customer service is shoddy and insulting. UK companies on island are trained to UK standards, and this shows in their service. I always shop at Boots, Tesco, B&Q and Next for this reason.
  • If customers can’t get what they want on island, they will just get it on the internet. The UK retail sector is in dire straits due to the massive detrimental effect that sites like Amazon have had on bricks-and-mortar shops. If these planners think the Isle of Man is somehow above this trend they are even more stupid than I’m giving them credit for. And no daft Cretney-inspired Venda scheme can avoid this fact.

Currys/PC World are vying for the same retail unit. This has seen further opposition from various quarters bemoaning the effect on local traders such as Waltons and Colebourns. The “it’s not fair” moan is wearing thin, particularly when the sets in local outlets are typically £100+ more expensive than UK retailers. Where did I just by my new 32″ Panasonic television? Amazon. What about my audio-system? Super-fi. (Or maybe they can solve this by slapping a tax on any box with Amazon written on it as they come off the boat?)

I’m not for a minute condoning the practices of some of these UK companies by not paying their local dues, but one really should stop and think. How many people does Tesco hire? And B&Q (the Q stands for Quayle, by the way, a Manx name – something else I learnt while learning the Manx language)? Each of these people are given employment, which gives the island income through taxation and reinvestment through their wallets and purses. This is real value and while the island may miss out on sums of money in taxes, the personal income generates additional income for the island through further spending which secures jobs, investment, etc.

If these so-called planners had any sense, and I’m thinking the same level of sense I learnt during GCSE Business Studies, they would see this and maybe manage the situation a little better. Create an out-of-town retail park, but make their own car-park with their own pay-and-display income. Train and look after the local town centre shop staff. Put them on customer service and marketing courses. Subsidise their rates. Talk to their landlords and have them justify why their rents are so high. Businesses should survive only because they offer quality and value, not because their mates on the town council are “looking out for them”. At the end of the day, money talks, and money is going to be leaving the island faster than it stays for reinvestment.

LOVEFiLM? Then maybe LOVEFiLM isn’t what you need.

I’ve been a LOVEFiLM subscriber for a couple of years now, having started with the Amazon service model. I’ve been largely pleased with the service. The staff are helpful on the phone, the disks are usually reliable and the various packages are simple to understand and manage. The catalogue is incredibly decent, too.

But their distribution model is dated. We live in the internet age of instant gratification and preferably within 140 characters. So posting disks out, while good value and useful, doesn’t always address the question, “what shall we watch tonight?”. Which is why I was very pleased when they launched their online streaming service. Finally, I can go over and above my allocated disk and have more choice as and when I need. Having tried Zune Video, with its flawless HD streaming and fairly impressive catalogue coupled with integration with my existing media system, I was expecting great things.

However, they chose to stream over a web browser in the first instance, which is not compatible with my own viewing intentions. From reports, the quality wasn’t anything to write home about, either, often below DVD quality. Integration into consumer devices was a no-brainer, and that dutifully came in Sony and Samsung TVs and the PlayStation 3. At this point, I saw red, as I felt I was excluded based on my choice of a Microsoft eco-system.

The recent 2011 Dashboard update has changed that, however. Finally, I have LOVEFiLM where I want it and can stream films when I want them. Brilliant. Or so I thought. I tried it out last night …

Firstly, the user interface is uninspiring. The Metro UX is beautiful and while they have used the Metro UX, the feel of the application feels flat and while I appreciate the colours are reflecting the brand, they do contribute to an unexciting experience. Additionally, the combination of red text on dark grey produces a difficult to read font, particularly with the Segoe font used in the Metro UX. Transitions between screens and pages is not flowing, and certainly should reflect the experience in the core dashboard making the transition between interfaces less jarring. If you’re using the Metro UX, you need it ALL.

While navigation between film collections was simple enough, I was disappointed with the number of titles available. While the Zune catalogue is limited, I thought it was the lesser force in terms of number of titles. How wrong I was. I was very much looking forward to a sizable proportion of the offline catalogue being available.

My package gives me 2 hours of online viewing. So I had to find a film that was less than 2 hours. Unfortunately, this is not easy as you have to go into each title to see how long the film is to see if you could watch it. Hardly a thoughtful user experience. I found Supersize Me, a documentary that looked to be interesting and has received positive feedback. Unfortunately, it ran to 124 minutes, 4 minutes over my allocation. “That’s okay, the last 4 minutes will be the credits.” Maybe I’d be warned about missing the last 4 minutes? No. I was not allowed to watch the film, so removing my choice of losing those 4 minutes. Which raises the question, if I can’t make conscious decisions like that, and a lot of films run longer than 2 hours, why charge per minute? Surely viewing should be paid per film? If I only have 2 hours on my account, I am already discriminated from viewing a sizeable portion of their catalogue. And, I will ALWAYS have “change”, and therefore unused credits. That doesn’t work in my favour, as the user.

I finally found a film that ran below the 2 hours, and opted for the original Tron film. On selecting it for playing, I got a big fat error “MP1006“. So it seems I wasn’t going to be able to watch Tron. I tried again for good measure, but the same result was received. Maybe there was a problem with that particular title. I opted for another film, “The girl that played with fire”. I could not watch this either, but this time, because I had insufficient minutes left on my account. So in watching – and failing – to watch Tron, I had been debited (stolen from) my minutes allocation, rendering my online service useless for the rest of the month. This aside, what if I thought that film was no good 10 minutes in, do I still lose the entire film minutes? Again, WHY charge in minutes?

So between a flawed charging model (if they’re not allowing rollover minutes and/or portion viewing), plain not working films and stealing my credits I was left underwhelmed, frustrated and finally angry from what could have been a very positive experience. So while I was going to upgrade my account, I’m considering cancelling it (joining the users cancelling due to the switch to Silverlight) and going wholesale into the other video providers on the platform, such as Zune and – heaven forbid – $ky. And with Channels 4, 5 and the BBC introducing content soon, I – the consumer – am going to be spoilt for choice. Oh, and Netflix is coming soon …

Update

Lovefilm have tweeted me back apologising for the problem and have reimbursed me with 100 digital minutes. Which gives me 9 minutes more than my 2 hours! Maybe I’ll be able to watch Supersize Me after all. I’ve asked for feedback on resolution of the original issue before I retry.

Follow up tweets: 1 and 2

Changing the way I consume media

“Owning” media used to be about buying the CD, or the DVD and adding it to your collection. I have a large CD and DVD collection as a result. Even when people were raving about downloadable music, I always went out to buy the CD. If it wasn’t “in the collection”, it didn’t feel mine. I also appreciate the finer things, such as the sleeve design, etc. Same for DVDs, buying a box-set feels a special experience, particularly if the box-set has had some thought put into the design.

But, there is an awful lot of media out there, and I only have so much money and space. Buying every film you hear may be good is one thing, but affording it and storing it (if you even watch it again) is another.

The model was “want it, own it” or “not interested”.

So our household has been switching models. Firstly, we decided to stop buying DVDs on recommendations/whim/preference so we don’t unnecessary bloat to an already bloated collection. We get a lot of recommendations for films, we miss out on an awful lot of films that are regarded as “required viewing” for film fans, so we decided to switch to a rental model. We currently use LoveFilm for this. This was a revelation, now we only invest in DVDs as part of a series (say, Doctor Who), special box-sets (the latest Alien HD box-set is awesome) or because we truly believe we will get lasting value from watching it (Chris Morris’ Four Lions is excellent). For £7ish a month, we get 5 DVDs.

But times are changing. Now, consumer devices are fighting to give the next level of media consumption: internet-based content. Whether you choose to buy (eg. iTunes music downloads), rent (download a film from Zune Video to watch within the defined period) or stream (true video-on-demand), people are changing and companies need to change with them.

I’ve always been a firm fan of buying CDs. Having digital copies of CDs feels like it weakens my relationship with the artist and the product itself. Having the designed case feels like I have bought something and the physical CD is at least a back-up of my music. Add to that the maze presented by variousDRMmodels and downloadable music in /MP3 or .WMA form becomes a minefield. If I buy music, I want to be able to use it on all my devices (PCs, portable MP3 players, XBox 360, Blu-Ray player).

Having just bought a Windows Phone 7 and – more importantly – Zune Marketplace launching in the UK, the model has changed.

The model is now: “have (love)”, “have (interested)”, “don’t want”.

Using Zune Pass, I can download just about anything and keep it while my subscription lasts. I benefit from being able to listen to “non-essential”, possibly mediocre music without contributing to my collection or bank balance. I can listen to Take That’s new album without buying it because, frankly, I’m not a fan. But I appreciate good song-writing and love him or hate him, Gary Barlow is [mostly] very good at what he does. If I really like an album, I’ll buy the physical copy from Amazon. I’m keeping the music industry alive using both the new and old-skool models.

That just leaves films. While I really like LoveFilm rental, the waiting period often lasts months for films and a film is often not there when you need it. The only realistic modern option is to be able to download or stream it. Zune Marketplace also provides this and having previously streamed HD through my XBox 360, I can confirm it is a very sleek experience. But it’s expensive and is not covered or subsidised by the Zune Pass agreement. The catalogue is also limited.

What is needed is LoveFilm (or even NetFlix) to provide streaming services to the UK market. LoveFilm do provide streaming services, but their output is reported to be poor quality, DVD-quality at best and being computer based really spoils what should be an 11-foot, surround-sound, large screen experience. Yes, they have launched their offering on PS3 machines, but this is now a walled-garden. Why should I invest in a console worth £200+ just to watch LoveFilm films? I have no interest in gaming other than the casual gaming I already enjoy on the XBox 360.

So while I enjoy Nightwish, Take That, My Chemical Romance, Talking Heads and anything else I can get my hands on through Zune, I will be forced to wait for an equivalent offering for films. LoveFilm have said they are “Looking into other devices” but I don’t hold my breath. They seem to have got in to bed with Sony and Samsung and Microsoft consumers (with their already otherwise complete media experience) will be forced to suffer. Alternatively, Zune could increase their catalogue and decrease/subsidise their rental price through Zune Pass. Either way, in austere times, it’s not looking good for LoveFilm unless they act soon.

Doing the early shift

Much like most people, I have a certain number of hours in a day and an increasingly large number of demands on those hours. Spending time working, developing my skills is challenging enough, add friends and family time on top of that and it becomes difficult not to make compromises. It’s almost as if I need to find a few extra hours a day.

Last week and going forward I am experimenting with shifting my working hours. My wife leaves for work to start at 6am and sometimes 5am. I decided to start working similar hours for my work, taking a lift to/from work with her. Gaining me now only the time that would have been spent walking, but a couple of extra hours in the morning, too. This has proved to be easier than I thought, though not without its problems.

I end up working on a different time-zone to my colleagues (which I call “TST – Toby Standard Time”), and my body clock is out of kilter with the rest of the world. This basically means I eat lunch while everyone else is working and I leave earlier. But it also means I’m closer to the preceding American day (Pacific).

In reality, this has worked out better than I thought. It really does give me extra time in a day. Now I can both find and allocate time for social media activities and also spend time with family.

It gives me 45 minutes or so in the morning to get up to date with the latest from America and the early news for the UK. I can catch up on blogs, Facebook and Twitter for all our social media outlets and use Hootsuite to schedule tweets throughout the day. I can then switch to “real” work without having the same level of distraction. I can keep on top of latest news by adding Chrome Extensions for news services to my Chrome browser.

I then get a good stretch of 3 hours or so peace and quiet on my own, in a dark room. And there is no better environment for me to make serious inroads to projects. By the time my colleagues get in, I’m ready for a break anyway and can have a chat with them about the day’s work and plans.

Obviously, I get hungry for lunch earlier, which is not a problem. Also, while my finishing time is brought forward to 2.30pm, I wouldn’t necessarily leave at this time. I think it’s important for me to be accessible to others as much as possible if this time shift is to work. If I have had a particularly intensive day, I can choose to “work through”, or step down a gear and find some lower-intensity task to while away the time, without abandoning the office prematurely. I’ll typically add an extra 1-2 hours to every day – but at very little cost.

Overall, it’s worked out really well. I don’t have my 50 minute walks to/from work anymore (which I do miss, as it now means I have to find time to listen to podcasts) and I get tired earlier meaning I have to crack open the Diet Coke at 7am. But, I can get home, wind down on the XBox, have tea earlier (with associated cleaning up) and chill my head out so I can actually get to sleep.

Obviously, this sort of day is subject to whether your employer is keen. Luckily, I have a very understanding employer. So long as I am available for meetings as required, am accessible and the work gets done – that’s all that matters, right?

LoveFilm …. A most humble request

I’m a subscriber to LoveFilm, having originally been part of the Amazon.co.uk DVD rental by post service. Whereas I’d previously have bought the films I want to watch, I now have them sent to me. It is cheap, super convenient and I have rarely had issues … and when I have, LoveFilm has been quick to sort.

A lot of my friends are also subscribers, and it is not uncommon for us to make recommendations to each other about which films to watch, knowing that it will cost no more to add a film onto an already burgeoning list of films.

That’s where my problem occurs.

LoveFilm has an extensive catalogue of films, with detailed data and reviews behind each title. Coupled with the user-submitted rankings and reviews, this offers a very useful data source for identifying what films are worth my time. With my friends’ contributions, I have a list which averages about 30 titles at any given time. The downside of LoveFilm is that although you can have prioritisation of titles, it can often be months later when a DVD finally makes it to your door.  Often, this will be met by “WTF?”, as I express surprise as to why I should have rented that title.

The reason is probably a friend’s suggestion or a more geeky reason such as extending my exposure to a particular actor or director’s work. Either way, I have no-one to turn to and express my sincere regret as to their choice of film (and worse, their recommendation that I would like similar content) nor am I able to pat myself on my back for being a complete geek and extending my own breadth of celluloid pretentiousness.

Solving this is easy … really.

For each title I rent, let me add a comment. This comment can be added at the time of rental, after rental or while I’m waiting. It’s just a text-field. I’ve asked LoveFilm for this many times, via Twitter, email and I’ve even called them. For some reason, their priorities don’t align with mine.

I can then click on that note (which may indicate a comment already in place), and I can enter a bit of text saying something like “John recommended this because he knows I like things big and blue”. Then, when I receive the disk (likely to be months later), I won’t be inclined to send it back or will be able to understand why I considered it. You could even insert a little note to me in my little envelopes – no scratch that.

Implementing this would be a quick win and many of my fellow subscribers think this is a good idea. An hour to add to the database and business layer, maybe a couple of hours on the user-interface (maybe something AJAX-y like the rest of the interface?) and a couple of hours in testing. You have a day, tops, for an easy #win.

Yes, I could keep my own records. I could even talk to your API, maybe even serve that purpose for others. (I am already planning a Windows Phone 7 UI) But why should I need to worry about security of data, implementation, data protection legislation,  continuity of service, etc. in the first instance?

… and when you’ve done that

Perhaps you could consider equalising the playing field for the UK audience? The US has Hulu, Zune and Netflix, all coming into their computers. For me, I use Windows Media Centre and XBox 360 a lot – not for playing games – but for watching TV, playing music, etc. OK, Zune has finally made it to XBox in the UK, but 1 HD film is equivalent to a months subscription to LoveFilm which gives me 5 films! But at least I have the choice. I also sold my soul to Murdoch and have Sky Player on my Xbox 360. Both Zune and Sky work awesomely well.

Netflix gives US users the ability to order and watch films from the PC or – more importantly – the XBox 360. I applaud your efforts to bring watchable films over the internet, but I’m a snob and I can’t see me enjoying watching a film, in a web browser, with questionable bandwidth, slumped over my PC. Nah, much rather watch it 11-foot away, use my remote control, my existing HD hardware and my broadband using my XBox 360. You have the catalogue, you clearly have the programming talent, so is it not possible to “make it so”?

Do you agree with this feature? Drop us a comment and support the cause …

Is Social Media powered by Lefties?

So today is the big day of the General Election and we’re just left to sit in a bizarre radio silence while the polls remain open that seems unearthly following the past hectic 4 weeks. I’ve been watching and participating in various social media channels to add my 2 cents (so to speak) on policy, parties, debates and discuss with fellow Tweeters and Facebookers. I’ve enjoyed the last four weeks, except for the distraction element!

We know that the opinion polls are essentially meaningless, and who knows anyone who knows anyone who has ever been polled anyway? Assuming there is some validity in them, over the past four weeks we have come to see a pattern. Starting with The Conservatives in front, they lost a number of points to the Liberal Democrats following the leader’s debates. This has been particularly fascinating, as we may now need to upgrade Peter Snow’s (well, it’ll always be Peter’s, Jeremy) Swingometer to the third dimension. Points have been traded between all three parties, but particularly between The Conservatives and The Liberal Democrats.

One party’s performance has remained consistent, however. Labour has been losing points and sat at third place across most polls taken last night (5 May 2010). Yet, if you look at Twitter, you’d not see that pattern. Yesterday, I pinned my flag to the post as far as my voting inclinations, and this resulted in a number of people replying to me telling me of their disappointment and whether they would unfollow me, or not. We had a bit of a debate and I imagine threats to unfollow me were in jest. I expect that only people who disagreed with my views would take the time to reply, but watching my stream today seems to be of the same opinion – that of the left of the political spectrum.

So is Twitter and Social Media in general, just a bunch of Lefties?

Consider a Twitter search for “Tory”. Run your eyes down there and count how many are pro and how many are against a Conservative government. It seems people go out of their way to actually tweet “not Tory”, as opposed to who they voted for.

So while people are possibly tweeting in a left-of-centre manner, that’s not necessarily due to lack of effort by other parties. TweetMinster has been an excellent service in the last few weeks and has profiled the live Twitter feed according to region, issue, party and MP. Their analysis shows that both top parties are more or less equally represented – bit this is in candidates and MPs, not the “public vote”. So while David Cameron has specifically used Social Media and his various MPs have actively engaged with the electorate on Twitter, in an “Obama-style” campaign, it doesn’t seem to be doing him any good. In fact, it seems to be turning against him.

I would be a fool to think that this identifies any patterns which may be played out this evening, but it is a question worth asking. Does Social Media attract a more left-of-centre userbase? At first sight, it appears it does.

Police Accountability through Social Media

I was reminded by @sherrilynneof my interest in how the practices of the Police have come to interest as a result of recent protests and legislation and the role Social Media can play in maintaining a sense of accountability.

My interest follows a recent seminar held by Sherrilynne and PDMS about the West Midlands’ Police use of Social Media to engage with the public. The West Midlands’ Police force efforts to create this engagement is commendable, as the speaker, CI Mark Payne said, communicating with the public had previously been through posters in public places and maybe a caution or arrest. With an increasing sense of resentment rising towards the Police in their interpretation and implementation of thousands of new laws, such engagement is essential as it shows at least an intent to create a bi-directional channel of communication for the public and their Police force.

The Labour Government has introduced over 3,000 new laws since they took office in 1997. This is law making on a massive scale, not helped by significant events such as increasing terrorism. The Government has brought in at least 9 acts of Parliament that actively increases the powers of the state to intrude into or restrict our civil liberties, most of which are in the name of terrorism and our common safety. The threat of terrorism is largely the result of the US and UK’s foreign policy towards other nations such as Afghanistan and Iraq, which itself has caused protests that have been curtailed still further by legislation. This is a Government that does not advocate democratic rights such as protest, free speech or meetings to discuss matters of public policy by groups such as Greenpeace, etc. The United Kingdom is suffering due to its lack of a Constitution, such as that of the United States which protects rights such as free speech (although this is often muddied by religious interpretation).

The Police thus find themselves in a difficult position. Policing in this country has been implemented by the permission of the people, indeed, a thin blue line between consensual and compliant policing (and policed) society and a Police state. But how do the Police interpret and implement these new laws? There are many examples of the Police coming over heavy-handed either as a result of misunderstanding the legislation or becoming over zealous in their implementation. While countering the Terrorist threat caused by the UK and US foreign policy is a worthy cause, if it undermines our own liberties as British people, it risks the loss of public confidence. Aberrations in the implementation of photography laws have been known for a while. Another example that came to my attention recently is of the Transport Journalist Christian Wolmar being told to walk on the pavement to “defeat terrorism”. This is clearly insane, but I feel it is down to lack of training, rather than the malice of the police (“special” or otherwise). The Police’s increased use of force against protests (legal and otherwise) has also resulted in a difficult relationship with the Police. The G20 protests, particularly, have caused key questions to be raised over basic Police brutality which resulted in the death of an innocent bystander and the use of techniques such as “Kettling“. Having been “kettled” myself, it is of no wonder why protestors are wound up, even egged on by the Police to create a tense situation where law breaking and abuse is even more likely.

So how can the Police work against this negative reaction to laws that they have been charged with implementing, from politics they can’t control? Social Media has been an exciting conduit for businesses for marketing purposes and engagement with consumers, so the Police can – and should – use this new media to make the communication two-way. As the Government imposes limitations on democracy, so democratic society will push-back the boundaries and start to ask questions. It is for the Police to understand this movement for what it is and to engage with it professionally and appropriately.

As CI Mark Payne said, social media presents opportunities and challenges. Firstly, it can form a conversation between the Police and members of the public. Current promotions, campaigns and concerns can be published by the Police, with comments and discussion by the active “followers” of the various media feeds. West Midlands’ Police force has got their own Facebook page, but so has the Northern Neighbourhood Policing Team on the Isle of Man. As a follower of this team, and with Ramsay connections, I find that this is a fantastic way to engage with the community. Maybe the Isle of Man is an easy place to build a strong relationship between Police and public, based on an already strong community, but that takes nothing away from the effort itself. The sergeants (and higher positions, along with other agencies dealing with community cohesion) behind the Facebook page are enthusiastic about this medium and it shows in their output. Real communication is occurring, but remaining within a controlled and sensible manner that is not impinging on individuals’ privacy, identity or views in the community. They have even linked up with that master criminal, Baddy Guy.

Social Media can also present a threat, however. Bullying has moved from the playground to the internet via cyber stalking, cyber bullying and other sinister practices employed by paedophiles, scammers and subversive groups advocating racism, fascism, etc. People’s identities have become a commodity that is tradeable and accessible by anyone with a modicum of knowledge. While use of computers requires some awareness of these important issues, it is understandable that not everyone is aware of the risks of posting personal information on the internet and opening up their profile for interaction with people who may wish to cause harm to them as an individual. It is a new requirement that the Police and related agencies need to monitor internet sites such as Facebook, Twitter, etc. to help educate users to protect themselves and employ modern Information Systems to secure convictions against malicious users. As CI Mark Payne said, the Police will always be playing catch-up in this game. Technology has become increasingly important in preserving our ability to use our civil liberties by the momentum of its progress, but the police must overcome the inevitable sense of inertia that this will create and fill the vacuum by using educated teams, rather than relying on restrictive and ill-understood legislation by Government (which the Government itself does not fully understand).

Finally, and for an aspect of interaction that was not discussed in CI Mark Payne’s talk, is that of using new media to expand policing into the community using user generated content. As news agencies now find themselves using Twitter-sourced content to cover unfolding news stories, so the Police could open up channels to enable the public to submit issues which they find concerning. The CrimeStoppers scheme has long been a success and offers a way for members of the public to anonymously contact a team devoted to following up leads in order to secure a conviction. Couldn’t this be extended, to include new media channels such as allowing emailing in to a similar team of your concerns? I recently blogged about the standards of driving on The Isle of Man, which continues to get me frustrated that the Police seem to only be able to do anything when they themselves have witnessed it or corroborating evidence is available to secure a conviction. (Interestingly, other regular road users such as Driving Schools are not able to report drivers because they don’t hold the same standing as a Policeman, although they probably have a better understanding of road law) The fact is, drivers drive badly and risk injury, dog owners allow their dogs to foul the pavement and don’t clean up after them and people are made to feel vulnerable by anti-social behaviour, every day. Setting up a channel to allow this to be videoed, photographed or reported simply in an email would be a good way to build up intelligence. Bad drivers don’t necessarily need to be dragged through court, they just need to be made aware of their behaviour. Likewise, dog owners that they live in a community which is all the more pleasurable without dog feces everywhere. How the Police use this information is up to them, but opening up such channels will help community members feel empowered. Special interest groups are active in the community, but these are often time consuming and slow to act for the average person to become involved with, social media can speed these groups up by inviting individuals to participate.

Social Media is exciting in the way it is breaking down boundaries. From the college-goers of the US that started Facebook, this has spread through Facebook use by professionals, “silver surfers”, companies wishing to market and engage with their consumers and now, maybe the final boundary has been broken, that of engagement by the authorities with the public. As news agencies have had to change their game plan to embrace social media, so public bodies must also overcome the inertia of public policy and be innovative. From a personal point of view, while I resent the powers being given to the Police and their implementation of these powers, I find it a pleasing to know that channels are opening up to allow democracy to “push back” and hold the authorities to public accountability, as Parliament has had to in the Iraq War Inquiry and the Trafigura injunction.

Steal My WiFi, will you?

This weekend I noticed something odd with my Windows network. A new machine had appeared on my Network Neighbourhood/Workgroup, called “FREYA-PC”. A lot of computers go through my network, largely due to my occupation and therefore the inevitable queries for help and advice on people’s computers. I have never dealt with any computer known as “FREYA-PC”, however. So, I had to put my detective hat on.

I have a fairly complex network (for a home user), due to the large number of networkable devices I use (currently counting 13) and I am unable to install structured cabling so I have to rely on 3 switches, plug-tops (to link upstairs with downstairs) and WiFi to connect it all together. This computer was getting on the network at one of these points. I am a big fan of physical cables, they are inherently as secure as you’re likely to get. You can vouch for the cable termination and more or less the route of the cable, so you know there won’t be any “wire listeners” attached to the cable. So unless someone sneaked into my house, the physical network was not a weak point.

My Plug-Tops allow my network connection to pass over the mains wiring inside the house. This is ideal to avoid running cables between floors and doors. Bandwidth is suggested to be about 54Mbps, but I tend to average 10Mbps, which is okay for me as it will carry video more or less okay. Obviously, all cables are connected and it would be easy to follow the mains cable outside the house and see it connect to next door’s feed, so these Plug-Tops also have encryption, which is applied. So a close neighbour could have gained access to my network by guessing or cracking my encryption keys. They would need to know that I had the plug-tops and what model they were before even starting attempting to crack my keys. It could be fairly easily ruled out, more easily rules out by turning them off. “FREYA-PC” continued to appear.

This would lead me to the assumption that my leaking WiFi signal was being used to get onto my network for the purpose of stealing my broadband. I have 3 switches, all of which have wireless capabilities. My primary router/switch is a DrayTek 2800VG, which has been fantastic. It offers excellent Wireless Security and configuration support, along with VoIP, VLANs, Firewall, NAT configuration and more. This is my primary connection to the Internet and Wireless access point. The other two are Netgear switches, which are okay for home use, but are of varying years in the development of WiFi and WiFi security. This means one of these only supports 128-bit WEP encryption, for example. Maybe they were getting on here? I had isolated the WiFi from the LAN, and applied a key, so even if they had got on the WiFi, they wouldn’t be routed anywhere (assuming the Netgear router worked as it should). Turning the switch off didn’t get rid of FREYA-PC. The next Netgear router provided WPA-PSK encryption, which is of more acceptable quality. This wireless was turned on, only because I forgot to turn it off after having done some testing months earlier. Turning this router off, DID get rid of FREYA-PC.

I have my suspicions on who it was that was stealing my bandwidth. Looking up the meaning of “Freya” identifies it as a Norse God. Therefore, it is not improbable that the culprit was foreign. On turning off the switch, there was distinct movement from a house in the local vicinity. What the culprits didn’t count on were the excellent monitoring tools available on the DrayTek 2800VG which allowed me to see who was on my network and what they were looking at (FaceParty, MSN Hotmail). Add to that basic WireShark competence and basic networking knowledge. What I didn’t count on was that using tools which I won’t link to here, it is indeed possible to not only crack WEP encryption, but also WPA-PSK. The tool listens to a heavily used WiFi connection for repeated patterns to determine the encryption keys. So no matter how secure my keys, I was a sitting target. Luckily, everything on my network is secured, so no data loss would have occurred. They were only on my network for a few days, anyway, as I use my network regularly and would have spotted it.

I have reset the switch, turned off the Wireless and reset all my WPA-PSK keys and confirmed with my wife that she was never to use any of the laptops to purchase anything. This is a rule I follow myself. I would prefer to turn off WiFi completely, or upgrade to WPA-PSK2, I have an inherent distrust of Wireless. However, I have devices that only work on WiFi and don’t support the higher level of encryption such as my mobile phone and my Sony Walkman.

If I can confirm who “Freya” is, I will push for prosecution and that goes for anyone else I find on my network. It is extremely dangerous for owners of Wireless networks to have their connection stolen by other users. If your external-facing IP Address implicates you in downloading illegal content or conducting illegal activity, you are liable unless you can prove otherwise, and it is very difficult to do so. Therefore, always encrypt your network and prevent users from gaining access to it and if possible, use wired networking. I am going to create a bit.ly URL and use this as my SSID so future thieves may view my policy on this.