When severely flagging, for a much needed injection of energy, there’s nothing like listening to someone proclaiming that the challenges of digital engagement are easily solved, as demonstrated in a leafy west London borough. And so it was at a recent Local Digital Supplier’s Workshop at the DCLG, that I was aroused from my reverie. Having been around the block a few times, the one thing I’ve realised is that, if there were easy answers, we’d all have become joined-up digital natives long ago.
The discussion then turned-on technological solutions to the problem, and an assertion that one of our meeting presenters, involved in running a digital engagement project, failed even to mention technology. Heinous!
Citizen portals and self-help tools certainly have an important role to play and, as someone who has spent a good part of his career in technological development, I naturally think that technology is a good thing, but it’s the easy bit. Cultural issues – including “not invented here”, local priorities, greater efficiency = fewer jobs, and who gets the savings have to be addressed, but… I’d argue that where Government intervention will now be most effective is in dealing with the nuisance of the massive unwelcome “digital attention” from spam, identity theft and other forms of e-crime.
I reckon that I get, on average, around 200 spam messages to my main personal email account every week. I’ve always worked in the IT industry and, although am becoming a bit long in the tooth, like to think I’m reasonably savvy. I have different email addresses for different purposes, often lie, or provide misleading information when registering for services in attempts to avoid the inevitable unwanted subscriptions, and never reply to messages from people or organisations I don’t know and trust. If I struggle to manage my presence, I can well understand why people who are less used to technology are reluctant to go online. Phishing messages are increasingly sophisticated, and, these days, I often find I’m spending long moments trying to see what’s wrong with what I instinctively know is fake email before spotting the subtle change of address or hyperlink. Increasingly, legitimate software that you install defaults the acceptance of additional browsers and tools to clog-up your computer and I have, when rushing to get something done, myself inadvertently installed such programs before realising my mistake and having to go back and uninstall.
Like most people associated with the IT industry, I suspect, I’m regularly called-upon to fix friends’ and relatives’ PCs that have become malware affected and ground to a halt. Quite often, contributory factors seem to be that they are scared to click-on links or accept prompts to install new software, so fail to upgrade their anti-virus programs! These days, of course, fixed and mobile telephony is part of the digital infrastructure, extending the scope for unscrupulous sales people, and the opportunities for criminals to defraud. The Telephone Preference Service is now almost completely powerless. I usually screen calls before answering (and don’t expect me to answer your calls if you withhold your number). When I do occasionally answer an unwanted call my response varies, depending on mood, between time-wasting, an abrupt “no thanks, goodbye”, and screaming expletives!
So, where Government can really help in digital inclusion, I believe, is in mounting a robust campaign to exclude cyber crime and harassment. Easier said than done, of course, but, I’d argue that, pound for pound, money invested in tackling this massive blight on society will be far more effective in facilitating digital uptake than investment in individual applications and portals. For the most part, if there are good business cases for the latter, they’ll happen anyway. That may seem unduly pessimistic, and I’d have to admit to growing more cynical with age. I’m aware there’s a lot of great work going on but, for the most part, the initiatives I’m seeing now have changed little over the last 8-10 years, but are the same or similar ideas recycled. That also goes for an infrastructural development (and a technological one at that) that seemed to offer the most hope about that long ago, and concerning which I used to blog in 2007-8. There are good reasons, explained here, why the promise of IPv6 has yet to be delivered, and it’s still uncertain when implementation will be complete, but timely government intervention would surely have helped. (Or perhaps not; I blogged in June 2008 that the US Government had mandated the use of IPv6 for all its communications within two years.)
When IPv4, on which most of the Internet still depends, was developed security hadn’t really crossed the developers’ minds. IPv6, however, has been built from the ground up with security in mind. Many of the security features that have been added after the fact onto IPv4 as optional features are integrated into IPv6 as default requirements. IPv6 encrypts traffic and checks packet integrity to provide VPN-like protection for standard Internet traffic. Above all, IPv6 enables traceability. So, we need telephone and email preference services with the “teeth” that IPv6 can give them. Let’s also beef-up the Police Central e-Crime Unit, and help promote its work. I checked-out a few public sector websites, and they mostly don’t have links for reporting e-Crime on their front pages – surely something that‘s easy to implement, and would cost very little? The same goes for voluntary organisations; I checked-out some of their sites and, surprisingly safety online, and combating cyber crime, is often notable by its absence.
Above all, let’s start focussing more of our Local Digital campaign initiatives on dealing with e-Crime; not necessarily technological solutions, but promoting best practice, supporting and promoting existing initiatives, and ensuring that these threads run through everything we do.