Project Prism


The news story that has dominated the last week of technology has been the release of details of the US Government’s top secret project called Prism.  It is a program of in-depth surveillance of live communications and stored information including email, video, voice and VoIP chat, photos, file transfers and social networking. 

Information held on American citizens is kept to a minimum to ensure compliance with US legislation, but as most internet communications pass through the US, this offers a huge opportunity for the American intelligence services to monitor communications that involve foreign targets. 

In some PowerPoint slides released as part of the leak, some organisations were actually named – including Microsoft, Google, Yahoo!, Facebook and Apple.  This led to these organisations releasing statements emphasising that they do provide information for legally transparent requests, but deny that they give the intelligence services direct access to their servers. 

With UK citizens being possibly monitored via Prism, this has led to consumers demanding clarity on not only the role of Prism, but also the role of GCHQ in electronic communications surveillance.

I think that the surveillance of the internet is completely unsurprising.  The volume of electronic communications, and their increasing role in criminal enterprises such as people trafficking and organised crime, makes it a very attractive to the security services.  Indeed, I think that if it is done ethically, it should be welcomed.  But the outstanding question is whether this wide-scale surveillance (up to 3 billion pieces of information being collected in just 30 days) has been done with government (and indirectly citizen) approval.

Initially, the controversy has been mainly from the US – if a foreign target has been conversing with a US citizen, then how can Prism collect information about the target and not the US citizen?  And in the UK, what surveillance are we being subjected to, and how is data collected via Prism being used?  More details are likely to be shared in the next couple of weeks, but we are still very much at the stage of more questions than answers.

This mix of internet communications, the dark world of surveillance and the role of trusted brands is a heady mix for journalists, and this story looks set to continue for some time to come. 

Internet and the High Street

high street empty shops

The Centre for Retail Research released an alarming statistic in the UK earlier this week – one in five high street shops could close by 2018 due to online shopping.  In the UK, we are a nation of shop-keepers, so I thought I should pose the question of whether the high street and the internet can flourish together.

I hate to say it, but I feel like I am part of the problem – if I am able to get something online, then I will do so because unfortunately I don’t have the time to go to my local high street when the shops are open.

The issues facing retail (particularly independent retail) are well documented – excessive council parking charges, restrictive planning regulations and the rise of e-commerce.  But the high street needs to sweat the benefits that the internet cannot bring.  Personalised service is something that the internet lacks, and retail has a leisure experience should be a focus – tying in events and entertainment will drive footfall, and increase business.

And of course, high street outlets of any size should have an integrated approach.  John Lewis offers a service where you can order the night before and pick up your order at noon the following day (even on a Sunday), a turn around that the internet alone would struggle to beat.  KFC offered an online coupon that could be used in store and trended on Twitter all day.

But what about small businesses?  Email and social media do cost time, but not money (for small audiences anyway), and bigger stores should develop highly polished ecommerce channels – failure to do so will put them in the same category as HMV and Jessops.

The high street has thrived for years because it focused on the needs of their consumers, and the internet has done exactly that by saving people time and money – all high street needs to do is focus on what the internet cannot deliver and its future will be rosy.