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Gun smuggling, airline security and an intelligence failure.

January 25, 2011 2 comments

The headline article in the London Times for 25 January 2011 (print edition), Gunrunner Security Fiasco, reports how a security consultant named Steven Greenoe had smuggled numerous weapons into the UK – subsequently sold to UK criminals and gangs. At least one gun is known to have been used in a drive-by shooting.

This story raises several issues – not least the problem of airport security and how to ensure passenger safety, both on the ground and in the air. The news appeared to break on the same day that a suicide bomber killed three dozen people at the Moscow arrivals lounge.

I’ve often felt that the current paranoia over airport security was “overkill” (pardon the word-use). When I first started flying it was an adventure, but since September 2001 it has become more and more unpleasant. The security checks – although necessary – are becoming increasingly intrusive, yet the terrorists and criminals continually find new ways to get round them. Each time they are caught, new barriers are put in front of the innocent travelling public, to the extent that the average traveller is now so nervous that it would be almost impossible to differentiate between the genuinely nervous innocent and the person exhibiting nervousness due to their plans to blow up a plane.

Just as an example of how easy it is to blow up a plane if you really wanted to, I did some quick research prior to writing this post. For a few hundred US$ it is possible to purchase a few grams of a chemical and package it in a way that would not arouse suspicion if taken on a plane. With the addition of further chemicals available to all passengers on the plane, this could be turned into a bomb that would cause substantial damage. I’m not going to identify the chemicals for obvious reasons and not having tested this, I can’t say whether this bomb would be sufficient to blow a hole in the plane’s fuselage. However videos of the two chemicals in combination are available on the Internet, and the reaction is always highly explosive, completely destroying the reaction container. (One described the reaction of just 2 grams of a similar less-reactive chemical as like letting off a hand-grenade in a bath tub, and the resulting video confirmed this as the bath was destroyed).

The point is that if you want to kill and cause mayhem, it is possible. The job of security is to spot those people who are acting suspiciously or where intelligence suggests that they may be up to no good. This is how El Al caught Nezar Hindawi when he persuaded his pregnant girlfriend to carry a bomb onto a plane for him. The girlfriend was innocent and knew nothing about the suitcase with semtex hidden inside. It was only due to excellent intelligence, prior to reaching check-in, that a massacre was stopped.

The problem today is that everybody is likely to act suspiciously due to nervousness – and so make the job of picking up the genuine criminal more difficult. I believe that this is the first problem with airline security. The second is the laxness of checks at some smaller airports. Both are examples of intelligence failures. The first adds “noise” to the security problem, and uses staff that just go through procedures rather than depend on intelligence skills. The second is potentially worse in that it fails to use intelligence at all, and just hopes that the fact that the airport is small / regional means that the risk will be much lower. Of course, any potential terrorist can spot this from a long way off.

The US has long felt relatively safe, so long as the terrorist is kept out. As a result, checks on domestic flights are minimal or ineffective. This means that it is relatively easy to pack guns in domestic luggage – that then gets transferred to an international flight. Part of the problem here is the US obsession with gun ownership as a right (with the right saying that guns don’t kill people – people kill people, and ignoring the fact that guns make it easier for people to kill people). As long as the gun is in stored luggage there is less of an incentive to stop the passenger – even if detected. In the case of Steven Greenoe, he was reportedly stopped on at least one occasion – but managed to justify himself and so was allowed to fly, rather than get arrested. (I find it strange that in America – driving at 95mph or smoking cannabis – both generally less dangerous than owning and using a loaded gun are more likely to result in a criminal record).

The Times newspaper article mentioned that the gun smuggler concerned, Steven Greenoe, described himself as a security consultant. I did a brief search and up popped Greenoe’s LinkedIn page. Greenoe describes himself as the CEO of Jolie Rouge (which to me sounds a bit like the name given to the Pirate Flag – the Jolly Roger: surely not a coincidence). One part of Jolie Rouge’s business appears to be competitive intelligence – although the company doesn’t actually seem to use this term. Nevertheless Jolie Rouge Consulting states:

JRC uses public and private sources to unearth information critical to accurately valuing business and financial transactions. JRC uses an established network of legal, political, business, and military thought leaders to rapidly compile up-to-date and difficult-to-acquire information. Our clients use JRC’s oral and written reports to validate and sharpen their investment strategies and long-term business planning.

When I first looked at Greenoe’s profile he’d included the Business Strategy & Competitive Strategy forum within his LinkedIn profile.  When I next looked this had disappeared. I don’t know whether Greenoe dropped the group, or the group dropped him – scared about adverse publicity linking a gun runner to competitive strategy. Nevertheless, it highlights how important it is for the competitive intelligence community to police their own and ensure that anybody linked to the profession behaves ethically and morally. (This wouldn’t be the first time. There is a well-known and erudite CI consultant and author who many years ago, got caught up similarly, causing a scandal that is still remembered by long-time competitive intelligence professionals). Gun-running – especially where the guns are then sold on illegally is a lucrative business. (The guns cost $500 each but were reported to be selling at 10x that amount – meaning that the consignment he was arrested over would have netted him $360,000 profit for a little over $40,000 expenditure).

However the really odd thing about this news story is the date. Although the reports reached the press today (January 2011), Greenoe was first stopped on May 3, 2010, and arrested in July 2010. I wonder why it has taken six months for this story to hit the headlines. It’s another example of how care needs to be taken when doing competitive intelligence analyses – as what may look like a new news story could actually be quite old.

The pursuit of justice and social media.

January 2, 2011 8 comments

You shall not pervert judgment; you shall not respect persons, nor take a bribe; for a bribe blinds the eyes of the wise, and perverts the words of the righteous. Justice, justice shall you pursue, that you may live, and inherit the land which the Lord your God gives you. (Deut. 16:19-20)

The world in 2011 is still split between the haves and the have-nots, the rich versus the less rich and the poor. Despite a global recession, many have profited – while millions look for work and struggle daily to survive. There has been reason for optimism in the last year – at the end of last year, Aung San Suu Kyi was released from unjust detention by the Burmese generals. However, this is the exception – and when it comes to justice it is difficult to be optimistic for many countries.

I think that it is worthwhile looking at a few news stories of the last month of 2010 and what they say about different views on justice, the rights of the individual, and also the potential impact of social media on calls for justice.

The first news story concerns the President of Iran’s bete-noire, Israel. Moshe Katsav was born in Iran, and moved to Israel in 1951, aged 5, as a refugee. He spent the next 4 years of his life, living in tents and a transit camp which eventually was built up to become the Israeli town of Kriyat Malakhi. At the age of 24, he was elected mayor of this town – the start of a life in the political limelight. He was elected to the Israeli Parliament (the Knesset) in 1977 and served as Minister of Housing & Construction; Labour & Welfare; Transportation; Tourism; and was Deputy Prime Minister between 1996-1999. In 2000 he stood for, and was elected President. In 2006 however, he was accused of sexual molestation and rape, and forced to resign in 2007. He was subsequently indicted and tried for rape. On 30 December 2010, Katsav was found guilty by a three judge panel and will shortly be sentenced, He can expect a mandatory jail term.

Although this is a highly unflattering story it is important as it shows how justice should work. It doesn’t matter how influential or senior somebody is, he or she should not be above the law. If they commit crimes then they should be tried and sentenced. The fact that a former President was accused, tried and found guilty shows that in Israel, nobody is above the law. Katsav is not alone – there are other public figures within Israel who have been or are being investigated for various crimes, and this is how it should be. As the Bible says “You shall not pervert judgement…” and have two levels of justice – one for those in positions of authority or with ability to pay, and one for everybody else.

In contrast, a recent news story from Bangkok shows how power and privilege can corrupt calls for justice as well as the potential influence of social media to ensure that justice does take place.

A few days before the Katsav judgement – 27 December 2010 – a road accident took place resulting in the deaths of 9 people (although the first news stories reported only 8). Initial media reports blamed a van driver for the deaths, but subsequently a different story emerged that was suppressed by Thai news outlets. This was rapidly circulated via a Facebook site calling for justice. Within 24 hours, the page had generated over 180,000 likes.  Currently over 270,000 people have said that they like the page, and there are numerous comments.

Driver on Blackberry after road accidentThe story that was suppressed, apparently backed up by CCTV and witness accounts, told of an impetuous 16-year old girl without a driving licence who got impatient with a slow moving van and tried to push it out of the way with her Honda Civic. The van crashed, resulting in the loss of life of a number of students at Thammasat University – one of the best in Thailand – plus an assistant to the dean at the university’s Faculty of Architecture and Planning, and researchers including a promising scientist from a very poor family who had won a national scholarship. The girl that caused the accident, in contrast, came from a well known family. Her father had been a general and her great great grandfather was King Rama V (1853 – 1910) – the king whose policies ensured that Thailand stayed independent (and not colonised like neighbouring countries) and who is viewed as having put the country on the road to modernization. Following the accident, the girl was photographed calmly using her Blackberry – apparently posting to a social networking site (although subsequently claiming to be calling her father).

Although some of the latest reports suggest that the girl will be prosecuted, the fact that she is described as a “minor” may give a get-out clause. (“ persons of that age were not entitled to a driver’s licence, nor could they be fully subject to criminal and civil liability for deaths and damage.“)

Although the comments from Thai Prime Minister, Abhisit Vejjajiva, that “nobody is above the law” suggest that Thailand, like Israel, will treat miscreants equally, that does not seem to be the belief of those who set up the Facebook page, especially taking account the initial reports blaming the van driver.

In 1991, Alvin Toffler published PowerShift (US). The book is a “study of power in the 1990s and beyond” and traced “the shifting global power structures and describes how the very definition of power has changed in modern times”. PowerShift was written before the Internet had become mainstream, and well before today’s social media tools. The book suggested that the balance of power was changing from the traditional sources to those who controlled information. Although such ideas have circulated for some years, social media – such as Facebook and Twitter – are allowing for injustices to be quickly publicised, and as such, it becomes easier to call for justice. They are an example of the democratisation of information and allow for genuine expressions of “people power”, the “power of the crowd” as well as the “power of the many over the few”. Such calls are challenges to the existing elites of the world – who are likely to do what they can to suppress them. One approach is that taken by China, who, as the year 2010 closed,  was reported to have  banned sites like Skype, Facebook and Twitter. Other ways are to attack challengers to the existing order and some rumours suggest that the Thai Facebook page supporters may even be punished.

Nevertheless, I believe that a genie has been let out of a bottle. Although most of the time, social media is used to communicate with friends and colleagues, it has a power of its own – to change the world. With over 500 million people connected to Facebook – around 10% of all people in the world – it becomes very difficult to suppress injustices and much easier to spread the concepts of freedom, justice and the truth – however much dictatorial and corrupt regimes may try and stop it. However with power comes responsibility. The responsibility is to ensure that what is spread is the truth. There is a real danger that such tools can also be used to spread false propaganda, lies and untruths – allowing for injustice to spread. There is the danger of mob-rule, where a suspect is condemned, without being given a chance to defend themselves – the 21st century equivalent of a lynch mob.

Social media can help ensure that privileged people don’t escape justice. In this, it will serve a positive purpose. It can also act to reinforce prejudice, irrational hatred and bigotry – as can be seen in groups that try to delegitimise and condemn Israel, despite ample evidence to the contrary, as in the example of Katsav’s trial.

You must not follow the crowd in doing wrong. When you are called to testify in a dispute, do not be swayed by the crowd to twist justice.(Exodus, 23:2)

Note: After I wrote this Blog post, I came across a link to a fascinating article by the Internet Guru, Clay Shirky, on the Political Power of Social Media – where he discusses issues relating to the power of social media to change governments, etc. He also considers the potential for change, and also the potential for achieving nothing positive. (Article is free but registration required. The article was summarised in the Economist – with comments. Evidently it was written prior to the Wikileaks affair – as some of the comments put the USA in the “control” corner rather than the “freedom” corner!)

Delicious humbug and monitoring News stories

December 20, 2010 Leave a comment

Effective competitive intelligence monitoring means keeping up with the news, and where news is likely to impact you, drawing up strategies to take into account changes.

The problem with instant news via twitter, blog posts and various other news feeds is that news updates sometimes happen too quickly, before the snow has even had a chance to settle. That’s fine – just so long as the source for the news is 100% reliable, and the news story itself is also totally accurate. (I’m using snow as a metaphor here – rather than the more normal dust – as outside there is around 15cm of the stuff with more promised during what looks like being the coldest winter in Europe for over 20 years).

Unfortunately, more often than not, one of these two aspects fails: the source may not be reliable, or the story may not be true, or may be only half-true. Typically however people pick up on the story and it spreads like wildfire (so not giving that snow a chance to settle before it gets melted all over the web).

An example of this has been taking place this last week – with numerous posts reporting the demise of the web-bookmarking service Delicious.

Delicious (originally located at http://del.icio.us) was founded in 2003 and acquired by Yahoo! in 2005. By 2008 (according to Wikipedia) it had over 5 million users and 180 million bookmarked URLs. This makes it an important source for web-searching as, unlike with a search engine such as Google or Bing, each URL will be human-validated and valued.

Apparently, during a strategy meeting held by Yahoo! looking at its products, Delicious was named as a “sunset” product.

Slide from Yahoo! strategy presentation - on plans for various products

An image of this slide was tweeted – and after Yahoo! failed to deny that Delicious was to be closed, posts quickly appeared denouncing the company for the decision. Nobody really cared that sites like AltaVista and AlltheWeb were going – as they were to all intents and purposes dead anyway. (Their search features have long been submerged into Yahoo!’s own – although I for one, still miss some of the advanced features these services offered. Alltheweb allowed searching of flash content, and AltaVista had a search option that nobody now offers: the ability to specify lower/upper case searches).

The problem is that many of the sources posting the story are normally extremely accurate and reliable so when they post something, it is reasonable to believe what they say. This then compounds the problem as the news then gets spread even further – and when the story is corrected, the news followers often fail to spot the corrections.

The example of Delicious is not isolated. There are many news stories that develop over time – and when making strategy decisions based on news it is important to take into account changes, but also not rush in, if a news item hasn’t been fully confirmed.

Ideally check the source – and if the source is a press item (or blog post) then look to see if there is a press release or where the original item came from, in case there is a bias, inaccuracy or mis-interpretation. Only when the news has been confirmed (or where there are no contra-indications) should strategy implementation take place (although of course, the planning stage should be considered immediately if the potential impact of the news is high).

In the case of Delicious their blog gives the real story. The slide leaked to twitter was correct – Delicious is viewed as a “Sunset” product. However that doesn’t mean it will be closed down – and Yahoo! states that they plan to sell the service rather than shut it down (although it is noticeable that they don’t promise to keep the service going if they fail to find a buyer).

There is, in fact, another lesson to be learned here, relating to company awareness on the impact of industry blogs and twitter. It is important to not only monitor what is said about your company, but also to anticipate what could be said.  In a world where governments can’t protect secrets being leaked via Wikileaks, it would be surprising if high-impact announcements from companies didn’t also leak out to industry watchers. Some companies constantly face leaks – Apple is notorious in this regard – and part of their strategies involve managing potential leaks before they do harm. In this Yahoo! failed. As a media company that depends on the web for its business this is a further example suggesting how Yahoo! seems to have lost its way. This is not negated by evidence such as the leaked slide mentioning Delicious, showing they are thinking about their future and product/service portfolio.

9% of 11-year old boys can’t read! So what?

December 17, 2010 1 comment

You can tell that news is sparse on the ground – unlike the snow. The newspapers have already done a blanket coverage on the snow and how the UK again skidded to a halt, so they can’t do that one again. Instead, the press is trumpeting on about how terrible it is that 9% of boys can’t read properly when they leave primary school.

Apparently BBC Radio 4 asked the Department of Education for the number of children who failed to reach level 2 reading age, the standard expected for seven-year olds, and found out that around 18000 boys aged 11 had a reading age of seven or less. This was in contrast to other statistics that have shown a steady rise in standards – with children achieving the expected minimum level 4 having gone up from 49% of children to 81% in the last 15 years.

Seemingly, even worse, in some areas – for example Nottingham – 15% of boys failed to get past the level 2 reading level.

The problem with all this isn’t the statistic but the lack of context. When reporting information (whether for competitive intelligence, general business or marketing research, or whatever) it is essential to include the context. A figure on its own is meaningless. In fact, those figures for Nottingham could be brilliant – if five years ago, 30% of boys had failed to get past the level 2 reading level. It would mean that the numbers of children failing had halved. Conversely if the number had gone up from 5% then this would be a massive indictment against the teaching profession who were failing to motivate and educate their pupils.

In fact, the original story from the BBC does give some context.

In 1995, the proportion of 11-year-olds getting Level 2 or below in English – the standard expected of a seven-year-old – was 7%. In 2010, it had fallen only to 5%.

The figures show the problem is worse for boys. Overall in England, 9% of them – about 18,000 – achieved a maximum of level 2 in reading.

This shows that in fact, performance has improved overall, with underachievers falling from 7% in 1995 to 5% of all children now. However without a longer-term trend it is impossible to put much value into the statistics – especially as other research reported by the BBC looking at seven year olds showed that children with special educational needs, and from deprived homes (meaning that they were entitled to free school meals), were the worst performers. A third (33.6%) of seven years olds on free school meals failed to reach the requisite level 2 in writing and 29.3% failed to reach this level for reading. In contrast, the children who did not receive free school meals did much better – only 12.1% failed to reach the required level for reading, and 15.5% for writing.

I’m actually surprised that some mathematically-challenged journalist hasn’t picked up on these figures and claimed that providing free school meals results in children under-performing at school. In reality, all the figures show is that such children have barriers to learning that schools have to try to overcome. This may be because the children are under-stimulated at home (and so start at a lower level than their peers), come from homes where English is not spoken by the parents or are of lower intelligence overall. (In fact, intelligence tends to fall on a normal curve. If 10% of children outperform – and have a reading age 3 years ahead of the norm, you can expect that a further 10% will have a reading age 3 years less than the norm).

The lesson from such statistics and reporting is simple: before publishing statistics in the press or in a business report provide a context.

This context can be temporal – looking at how figures change over time. In the case of the school statistics, they appear to have improved over the years for both the low and average achievers – a testament to the teaching profession. Context can also be seen when comparisons are made – as in the comparison between children on free school meals versus those not entitled to this benefit.

Strategic decisions based on figures should only be made when context is included. Without it, the figures mean nothing, and should be left to melt away, like snow.

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