All posts by Sabina Weston

Microsoft offers free software to UK schools battling the coronavirus lockdown

Sabina Weston

9 Apr, 2020

Microsoft has announced that it will assist all UK schools in getting set up for remote learning, in order to help students continue to learn while at home.

The company has pledged to work with the 27,000 schools in the UK, helping them run lessons remotely using Microsoft Teams, Office 365, as well as software such as Minecraft: Education Edition, Flipgrid, Skype in the Classroom and InTune.

The tools are available to use on mobile devices, tablets, PCs and browsers, and focus on encouraging teamwork by allowing collaborations, communication and file sharing in real-time. Microsoft emphasised that the tools “offer a safe and secure learning environment, using intelligent security features enhanced by machine learning to protect data and identities”.

Microsoft UK’s director of education, Chris Rothwell, praised teachers for “showing incredible resilience, imagination, and passion to ensure that they can help keep children safe and can keep learning while they at home”.

“Technology is helping teachers keep in touch with students and to maintain a connection to the school and each other,” he said. “This offer to support any school get fully set up for remote learning is so that every school and pupil can benefit, and that learning can continue while schools are closed.”

In order to support teaching staff, Microsoft has also launched webinars aiming to promote the benefits of Teams. The topics covered include creating an online classroom, keeping students engaged with online meetings, as well as assisting IT Administrators in setting up Teams for online collaboration.

Schools across the UK have been closed since 20 March, allowing only vulnerable pupils and the children of key workers, such as NHS staff, to attend. Latest reports indicate that schools are not planning to reopen after Easter break.

Elon Musk’s SpaceX bans Zoom over security fears

Sabina Weston

2 Apr, 2020

Elon Musk’s SpaceX has banned its employees from using video conferencing app Zoom, citing concerns over the app’s ability to keep users secure.

A similar ban has been issued by one of SpaceX’s biggest customers, NASA, coming into force after the FBI issued a warning about “Zoom-bombing” – hackers disrupting video conferences with threatening language, hate speech and pornographic images.

Zoom has previously admitted that it is “currently not possible” to enable end-to-end encryption for its video meetings.

In an email seen by Reuters, SpaceX informed its staff that all access to Zoom had been disabled with immediate effect.

“We understand that many of us were using this tool for conferences and meeting support,” the message read. “Please use email, text or phone as alternate means of communication.”

It’s not known whether the ban also extends to Tesla, which is also owned by SpaceX CEO Elon Musk. The company was unable to respond to requests for comment at the time of publication.

Zoom has surged to more than 200 million daily meeting participants after employees around the world were asked to work from home to slow the pace of the fast-spreading coronavirus pandemic. On 5 March, Slack, Facebook, and Microsoft had all advised their employees to work remotely following the spread of the virus to the west coast of the United States. Over the course of the month, most tech giants had closed their offices, shifting all employee communications online.

Despite numerous security warnings, prime minister Boris Johnson is known to be using Zoom to hold cabinet video conferences. He was recently criticised for sharing a picture on Twitter in which a Zoom meeting ID was clearly visible.

A government spokesperson defended the PM, telling BBC News on Wednesday that “in the current unprecedented circumstances, the need for effective channels of communication is vital”.

The news comes days after a class-action lawsuit was filed against Zoom, the compliant alleging the service illegally shared user data with Facebook. Zoom’s founder and CEO, Eric S. Yuan, announced over a blog post that over the next three months, the company will work to “better identify, address, and fix issues proactively”.

UK government to launch coronavirus ‘contact tracking’ app

Sabina Weston

1 Apr, 2020

The UK government is reportedly preparing to launch an app that will warn users if they are in close proximity to someone who has tested positive for coronavirus.

The contact-tracking app will be released just before the lockdown is lifted or in its immediate aftermath, Sky News has reported and will use short-range Bluetooth signals to detect other phones in close vicinity and then store a record of those contacts on the device.

If somebody tests positive for COVID-19, they will be able to upload those contacts, who can then be alerted – via the app.

This means that the data will not be regularly shared with a central authority, potentially easing concerns around privacy violations.

If people with the app later test positive for coronavirus, they could allow all the folks they’ve been near to be informed, so those people could self-isolate.

Jim Killock, executive director of the Open Rights Group, told IT Pro that the new app, and similar developments, might “prove to be important tools in the fight against COVID-19”. However, he also raised concerns about the privacy of users.

“Nevertheless, we are concerned that [the] government needs to put more effort into helping people understand their approach to privacy more generally, and improve their communications vastly. Building a project like this at speed carries privacy, security and delivery risks, so the more information that is given out the better,” he said.

NHSX, the innovation arm of the UK’s National Health Service, will reportedly appoint an ethics board to oversee the development of the app, with its board members set to be announced over the coming weeks.

“It is good that they are thinking about the privacy of users – this is essential to build trust and confidence so people use it,” said Killock.

Questions might arise over the effectiveness of the app, as large numbers of people will be required to use it in order for it to work efficiently. The NHS is reportedly counting on the app being downloaded by more than 50% of the population.

“NHSX is looking at whether app-based solutions might be helpful in tracking and managing coronavirus, and we have assembled expertise from inside and outside the organization to do this as rapidly as possible,” an NHSX spokesperson said.

Only last week, the NHSX and Matt Hancock MP were urged to follow steps that would guarantee that new technologies used to tackle the coronavirus outbreak abide by data protection ethics.

In an open letter signed by numerous “responsible technologists”, they were asked to take urgent steps to ensure that the public’s trust in the NHS is not undermined by possible data breaches. 

ThousandEyes launches live Global Internet Outages Map

Sabina Weston

24 Mar, 2020

Network intelligence company ThousandEyes has launched Internet Outages Map, a tool that provides real-time visualisation of the current state of the global internet health, based on ThousandEyes’ internet Insights.

ThousandEyes’ map provides consumers, businesses, industry analysts and other parties with an insight into ongoing and recent internet outages that may be affecting the experiences of their customers or employees.

The tool uses data from the company’s “vantage points” situated around the world, which perform billions of measurements each day to detect when traffic flows are disrupted within ISPs, public cloud networks and other service providers.

“Over the past couple of weeks, we’ve been inundated with requests from businesses, industry analysts and other various parties wanting to get a better understanding of global internet health during these trying times,” said Mohit Lad, co-founder and CEO of ThousandEyes.

“Today, we’re thrilled to release the Global Internet Outages Map to give businesses and consumers alike a reliable source based on actual internet telemetry instead of public rumor to help them understand what’s happening on the Internet at any point in time.”

The service was launched following a mass migration of employees from the office into working from home, due to the recommendations of governments and employers aiming to reduce to the deadly impact of the coronavirus outbreak.

This has caused an unprecedented level of internet usage, with Vodafone sustaining a 50% surge in demand for data services in some markets, while popular streaming sites such as YouTube or Netflix announcing that they will lower the standard of its streaming quality in order to prevent a much-feared internet-speed bottleneck. 

“Despite massive traffic increases — particularly across consumer last-mile networks — we have not seen a significant corresponding spike in Internet outages, which can occur when traffic levels strain network capacity,” wrote product marketing director Angelique Medina in ThousandEyes’ blog post. “However, there has been an upward trend line in outages over the last three weeks compared with the previous three-week baseline.”

The company says that the Global Internet Outages Map is available at to anyone at any time, and also provides information in the form of a historical timeline depicting outage volume over the last 24 hours.

YouTube fails to clarify whether reduced streaming quality will impact live events

Sabina Weston

20 Mar, 2020

YouTube is yet to say whether the imposed low streaming quality across Europe will also carry over to its Live service, something which many businesses may come to rely on during increased demand for virtual conferencing.

The company announced today that it will lower the standard of its streaming quality in the UK and EU in order to prevent a much-feared internet-speed bottleneck, as thousands are confined to their homes due to the coronavirus outbreak.

However, when we asked whether the decision also applies to YouTube Live, parent company Google failed to provide an answer. 

“While we have seen only a few usage peaks, we have measures in place to automatically adjust our system to use less network capacity,” said a spokesperson for the Google. “Following the meeting between Google’s CEO, Sundar Pichai, YouTube’s CEO, Susan Wojcicki, and Commissioner Breton we are making a commitment to temporarily default all traffic in the EU to Standard Definition. We will continue working with member state governments and network operators to minimize stress on the system, while also delivering a good user experience.”

YouTube Live seemed like a viable option for many companies looking to stream conferences and events that otherwise face cancellation or postponement, given that governments across the globe continue to advise against mass public gatherings.

The company added that the reduced quality of streaming in the EU and UK would last for around a month and was an action taken in cooperation with governments.

Europen commissioner for internal market and services Thierry Breton praised Pichai and Wojcicki for the move:

“Millions of Europeans are adapting to social distancing measures thanks to digital platforms, helping them to telework, e-learn and entertain themselves,” he said. “I warmly welcome the initiative that Google has taken to preserve the smooth functioning of the Internet during the COVID19 crisis by having YouTube switch all EU traffic to Standard Definition by default.

“I appreciate the strong responsibility that Mr Pichai and Mrs Wojcicki have demonstrated. We will closely follow the evolution of the situation together.”

YouTube is the second streaming service to announce that they are reducing their streaming quality due to the coronavirus outbreak, following Netflix’s decision on Thursday.

Slack and Google staff told to work from home due to coronavirus

Sabina Weston

6 Mar, 2020

Slack, Facebook, and Microsoft have all advised their employees to work remotely following the spread of the coronavirus to the west coast of the United States.

The request comes after Google sent home most of its 8,000 staff in Dublin after an employee showed flu-like symptoms on Monday. Meanwhile, Amazon has reportedly asked its employees to test their VPNs to ensure that they would manage the possibility of working remotely on a massive scale.

In a statement to their staff, Slack’s senior vice president of people Robby Kwok announced that the company would be shutting down their San Francisco offices until Monday.

“On March 5, we learned that a San Francisco-based Slack employee was notified by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that they were in an area with potential COVID-19 exposure while traveling overseas,” he said.

Although the staff member was not confirmed to be suffering from the coronavirus, the company announced that they would be closing the premises for deep cleaning and urged employees to work from home on Friday.

Facebook and Microsoft have also instructed their San Francisco Bay and Seattle area staff to work from home. Microsoft announced in a statement that two of its employees in Puget Sound were diagnosed with COVID-19.

Earlier this week, the UK government revealed in its report that, due to the coronavirus, it expects up to a fifth of the UK workforce to be off on sick leave at the same time.

The shutdown means that the tech industry’s labour force is working from home on an unprecedented scale. While last year’s CIPD Job Quality Index reported that 54% of the UK’s workforce works flexibly, in the face of recent developments, that number is now expected to increase significantly.

Organisations across the world are now having to face the very real prospect of office closures, forcing the entirety of their staff to work remotely. As such, many companies will need to ensure that their staff are able to access systems from home, including ensuring that all relevant employees have virtual private networks installed and that they can access company intranets.

UK among countries most likely to encounter cloud attacks

Sabina Weston

21 Feb, 2020

The UK is among the most cloud insecure countries in Europe, according to a new survey conducted by Specops Software.

Nonetheless, it is still among the European countries least likely to encounter ransomware attacks and cryptocurrency mining, at 3.82%, making it the 16th most cyber-secure country in Europe – out of the 32 which took part in the study.

Specops’ survey measured European citizens’ cyber security by analysing the percentage of cloud provider attacks on Azure and the monthly percentage of machines that encountered cryptocurrency mining, malware and ransomware attacks to determine who is the most cyber-insecure.

The study found that machines in the Netherlands were most likely to encounter cyber-crimes via the cloud, with 16.28% of Azure accounts in the Netherlands having faced attacks.

Despite being one of the countries least likely to encounter ransomware attacks and cryptocurrency mining, it was still named the most cyber insecure country (17.64%) in Europe, alongside Bulgaria, Belarus, and Ukraine. Specops also revealed that one in ten (10.17%) machines in Belarus encounter malware every month.

On the other side of the spectrum, Ireland, which is famously home to one of  Facebook’s major HQs, was the least likely to experience cyber-crimes – at 1.08%.

Other cyber-secure countries include Norway, Denmark, Switzerland, and Iceland.

Microsoft has also recently conducted separate research into cyber threats in Ireland, revealing that 70% of large Irish firms have experienced problems with phishing, hacking, cyber-fraud, or other cyber-attacks.

Three in four (76%) of senior leaders in large Irish firms worried about digital threats, while only one in four are confident they can respond to any security incident effectively. This proves that, despite Ireland being supposedly the most cyber-secure country in Europe, senior leaders do not feel confident about their level of security.

US judge pauses JEDI contract work following Amazon lawsuit

Sabina Weston

14 Feb, 2020

A federal judge has granted Amazon’s request to temporarily halt work on the Joint Enterprise Defence Infrastructure (JEDI), the controversial project which involves almost 80% of the Department of Defence’s IT systems being migrated to the cloud – a process that could last a decade.

According to court documents filed by AWS in December 2019, it is alleged that President Trump engaged in a series of “public and behind-the-scenes attacks” against “his perceived political enemy” Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, reportedly telling Pentagon Secretary James Mattis to “screw Amazon”.

Now it seems that Trump’s alleged comments might potentially come back to haunt him, as Amazon wants the President to explain his involvement in court.

Judge Patricia Campbell-Smith granted Amazon’s request to pause the JEDI contract work, but also ordered Amazon to pay $42 million (£33 million) if the injunction was proven to be wrongfully issued.

Campbell-Smith did not release a written opinion nor clarify whether the President would be forced to testify in the case, an unprecedented practice so far.

The US Pentagon had awarded the controversial $10 billion, 10-year contract to Microsoft last October, despite AWS being seen as a clear frontrunner by some.

Amazon filed an appeal two months later, suggesting at the time that “political influence” had led to the ‘biased’ contract ruling. Trump had locked horns with Bezos, whom he refers to as “Jeff Bozo”, as he is the current owner of The Washington Post – a publication which has been exceptionally critical of the President ever since his 2016 election.

JEDI had been repeatedly embroiled in lawsuits and controversies. In late 2018, Oracle filed a lawsuit against the Department of Defence in the US Court of Federal Claims, arguing that it is illegal to award the cloud contract to only a single winning bidder.

Coronavirus starts to take its toll on the tech industry

Sabina Weston

7 Feb, 2020

The spread of coronavirus is affecting technology companies including Tesla, Qualcomm, and Hon Hai – whicn makes iPhones for Apple, as well as products for HP Inc. and Sony.

Tesla’s stock fell by 17% on Wednesday, following VP Tao Lin’s announcement, via Weibo, that the coronavirus outbreak in China would delay deliveries of its Model 3 cars.

The Model 3 vehicles are produced in Tesla’s Shanghai Gigafactory, which last month was ordered by the Chinese government to shut down due to fears of the virus spreading within it. At the time, Tesla finance chief Zach Kirkhorn said that the closure would “slightly” impact the company’s profitability in the first quarter of the year.

Factories are scheduled to reopen on 9 February, yet with the death toll reaching 563, it is uncertain whether the Chinese government will or will not extend the shutdown.

The phone industry may also be negatively affected by the virus outbreak in China.

Qualcomm’s chief financial officer Akash Palkhiwala stated on Wednesday that the government-imposed shutdown caused by the coronavirus might threaten manufacturing and sales.

During a conference call with investors, Palkhiwala said that Qualcomm expects “significant uncertainty around the impact from the coronavirus on handset demand and supply chain”.

Hon Hai had more precise estimates about the coronavirus’ impact on its business. The outbreak forced the company to revise its expected sales growth to 1-3%, rather than a previously projected 3-5%.

So far, the effects of the virus outbreak on tech companies were largely due to China being brought to a standstill by mandatory ‘self-quarantines’. Companies have not reported any cases of coronavirus among their workers.

However, LG has decided to prioritise its employees’ wellbeing by withdrawing from this month’s upcoming Mobile World Congress (MWC), in order to protect its staff from the virus outbreak.

MWC is scheduled to go ahead, yet organisers are likely to introduce a ‘no handshake’ policy to contain the possibility of the virus spreading among attendees.

As such, the coronavirus is having a direct impact on the technology industry form the manufacturing side through to technology showcases nations apart from China. 

Oracle broadens geographic reach with five new cloud data centres

Sabina Weston

4 Feb, 2020

Oracle is expanding its cloud data centre footprint in a bid to draw in customers by providing them with data sovereignty.

The corporation announced on Monday that it has successfully added cloud data centres in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia and has expanded on existing centres in Japan, Australia, Canada, and the Netherlands.

This falls into Oracle’s plan to open 36 locations by the end of 2020, which it hopes will broaden its target audience. In the UK, it is scheduled to open a cloud data centre in Newport, Wales, as well as a public sector facility in London.

In comparison, AWS plans to add five more regions and 16 availability zones. It currently holds 22 regions and 69 zones.

Oracle aims to have data centres in at least two physically separate locations (or “availability zones”) in each country where it operates – one primary location and one as a backup. This means that the newly added cloud data centre in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, will be joined by a second location this year, while new regions in Osaka, Melbourne, Montreal, and Amsterdam, are all functioning as a second sites.

“Customers have told us that to run critical systems of record in the cloud, they need to run workloads across fully independent cloud regions for disaster recovery purposes,” Oracle’s director of product management Andrew Reichman explained in a blog post.

“They also told us that those multiple sites must be in the same country to meet data residency requirements,” he wrote, referring to the data privacy regulations, such as those recently introduced by the European Union, which obligate many businesses to retain data in the country where it was generated.

The data centres are part of the second generation of Oracle’s cloud systems, allowing customers to rent their capacity. The company’s focus to expand its range of cloud data centre locations comes after its CEO pledged that Oracle’s cloud system is uniquely positioned to help businesses overcome challenges.