Any other business

Data breaches show we’re only three clicks away from anarchy

14 July 2018

9:00 AM

14 July 2018

9:00 AM

An IT glitch afflicting BP petrol stations for three hours last Sunday evening might not sound like headline news. A ten-hour meltdown of Visa card payment systems in June was a bigger story — as was the notorious TSB computer upgrade cock-up that started on 20 April, which was still afflicting customers a month later and was reported this week to be causing ruptures between TSB and its Spanish parent Sabadell.

Meanwhile, what do Fortnum & Mason, Dixons Carphone, Costa Coffee and its sister company Premier Inn have in common with various parts of the NHS? The answer is that they have all suffered recent large-scale ‘data breaches’ that may have put private individuals’ information at risk. IT Governance, a blog that monitors international news stories in this sphere, came up with a global figure of 145 million ‘records leaked’ last month alone. Such leaks are daily events everywhere — and a lesson of the TSB story was that cyber fraudsters are waiting to attack wherever private data becomes accessible, whether because of computer breakdown or lax data protection.

And here’s another angle. A recent report from GCHQ’s National Cyber Security Centre highlights the rapid growth of ‘business email compromise’ (BEC), in which the cyber fraudster impersonates a senior executive in order to coerce employees, customers or suppliers into transferring funds or revealing valuable information: ‘Industry experts project that global losses from BEC scams will exceed $9 billion in 2018.’ One victim last year was Dublin Zoo, where fraudsters diverted €500,000 by intercepting suppliers’ online invoices and changing their account details.

What’s my point? I wrote three years ago — in the context of a breach affecting customers of the mobile-phone operator TalkTalk, as well as fraud attempts on my own credit card and Facebook account — that we’re ‘only ever three clicks from anarchy’ in our reliance on internet links that are so vulnerable to villains. I suspect the recent GDPR exercise, supposedly re-asserting control over where and how our data is held, has made little difference. As cyber risks breed beyond control, I worry that the anarchy I imagined is creeping closer to reality.

Productivity puzzle

Bank of England economists Will Holman and Tim Pike claim to have spotted a productivity revival, on the basis of a ‘recent pivot towards business investment to overcome greater labour scarcity’ aided by ‘major advances in technology’. But the Office for National Statistics reports that productivity actually fell by 0.4 per cent in the first quarter, while most experts agree that UK productivity is so far below where it might have been if pre-2008 trends had continued that the gap may never be made up. And both Carolyn Fairbairn of the CBI and Adam Marshall of the British Chambers of Commerce have recently lamented the sluggishness of growth in business investment. ‘It’s running at 1 to 2 per cent,’ Fairbairn said. ‘It should probably be in double digits given where we are in the economic cycle.’

So where and what, I wonder, are the labour-saving gizmos spotted by Holman and Pike? Could they perhaps be my current pet hate: dehumanised self-service tills in small shops? These have suddenly appeared even in our much-loved local Co-op — but no one wants to use them, so the queue for the human checkout is longer than before and productivity, I fear, has dropped.

Investing in the weed

William Hague’s recent call for the legalisation of cannabis drew my attention to the investment potential of ‘pot stocks’ — and to Canada, where prime minister Justin Trudeau announced last month that use of cannabis for recreational purposes will become legal in October. The move was intended to wipe out illicit dealing rather than stoke a dotcom-style boom — but all manner of ventures have jumped in on the act and investors have been chasing them. Canopy Growth Corporation of Ontario, for example, has a market value of C$8 billion on revenues of less than C$80 million.

How to navigate this unfamiliar sector? Naturally I turned to our ‘veteran investor’ Robin Andrews, whose share tips in past Spectator Money sections were so fruitful for those who followed them. After a close look, he confines his recommendations to two companies involved in serious cannabis-based medical research. The first is Corbus Pharmaceuticals, which is developing ‘novel therapeutics to treat rare, chronic and serious inflammatory and fibrotic diseases’ and has several applications pending with the US Federal Drug Administration (FDA).

The second, GW Pharmaceuticals, is a UK company headquartered in Cambridge, whose stock trades on the US Nasdaq market: it’s a leader in ‘cannabinoid’ medicines for epileptic seizures and has recently obtained the all-important FDA approval. A new generation of cannabis-derived drugs is now being developed to treat all sorts of conditions and GW is in the forefront of the revolution, says Robin: recreational use may grab the headlines but the real buzz is that science has belatedly recognised the medical benefits of the weed. We’ll keep you well informed.

Bitcoin under water

Likewise, despite my extreme scepticism, I feel obliged to bring you the latest bitcoin news, which is that floods in the Sichuan province of China are rumoured to have destroyed a major bitcoin mine, possibly knocking out 10 per cent of global bitcoin generation. What does this mean? Perhaps you’re picturing a terracotta army of Chinese miners trapped deep beneath the Sichuan mountains. But no, the reality pictured on Twitter is a brick-built shack surrounded by a sea of wrecked computer junk — which somehow seems to encapsulate the bitcoin delusion. No wonder the Chinese authorities are trying to close it all down.

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