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The year of surveillance

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The spectre of George Orwell’s 1984 loomed large this year as governments around the world made moves to increase their abilities to spy on citizens, according to NordVPN, which offers some advice.

It seems that in 2016 Internet privacy has experienced a string of shocks around the world. A Polish law was instated that loosened spying restrictions for police, the UK received Investigatory Powers Bill, Rule 41 in the U.S. gave the FBI hacking powers and Belarus was able to block the TOR network.

Restricting Internet privacy and interfering with people’s lives by mass surveillance brings fear to the society and dramatically increases the likelihood of criminal activity – not only by governments, but to whoever is able to hack, intercept or otherwise manipulate the system.

Below is the NordVPN review of the Year in Online Privacy, and some suggestions on how people can protect themselves online.

In Germany, new data retention act requires public telecommunication and Internet providers to retain various call detail records (CDRs). These include phone numbers, the date and time of phone calls and texts, the content of text messages, and, for mobile calls, the locations of call participants. In addition, Internet providers are required to store user metadata such as IP addresses, port numbers, and the date and time of Internet access.

Poland’s law expands government access to digital data and loosens restrictions on police spying. Collected metadata will be kept for up to 2 years. One doesn’t have to be an official suspect to be placed under surveillance for up to 18 months. In addition, the person being monitored will not be informed about it, compromising the protection of journalists’ sources and deterring potential whistleblowers.

On July 7, President Vladimir Putin of Russia signed into law several bills designed to help the government take measures against dissent online and demand unprecedented levels of data retention from the country’s telecom companies. For instance, the legislation warrants tougher sentencing for online commentary deemed as an incitement to hatred or a violation of human dignity. Such convictions now carry a minimum prison sentence of two years. The law requires service providers to monitor and store all calls, texts, chats and web browsing activity. The retained data can be accessed by several government agencies without a warrant.

The UK’s Investigatory Powers Act received the royal assent on November 29, opening up the gate for a disturbingly intrusive surveillance system. Among other things, the so-called Snoopers Charter gives the state the ability to indiscriminately hack, intercept, record, and monitor the communications and Internet use of all of the UK population. The entire browsing history of every resident of the UK will be stored for one year. Almost 50 police forces and government departments, ranging from the Metropolitan Police Service and GCHQ to the Food Standards Agency are authorized to access the data.

In the U.S., a new amendment to the Rule 41 of the US Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure quietly went into effect on December 1. It allows the FBI to secretly use malware to hack into thousands of computers with one warrant. There is no need to identify specific computers to be searched. That means FBI can hack into as many computers as they wish, whether their owners are suspected of some criminal activity or not.

New surveillance laws have also been passed and/or enacted in Belarus, China, Turkey, Ethiopia and elsewhere this year. For detailed information, visit our extensive coverage on those laws in our recent Privacy Review blog post.

Dangers of Surveillance States

Citizen control and surveillance, especially suspicions surveillance, whether physical or digital, has not proved to be an effective way to control criminal activity ­history tells us it has always turned out to be counter-productive, endangering lives and causing fear and insecurity.

For example, when the government opens a backdoor to citizen’s data, it means that this backdoor could potentially be used by anyone else, and can fall into the hands of hackers. Once the information is in the wrong hands, it can be used to steal people¹s identities and rob them of their bank accounts, for example. Data can also get misplaced, systems can crash and everyone can get endangered.

Solution

There are solutions to bypass some of these restrictive laws, the most reliable being a VPN service. A VPN sends your data through a securely encrypted tunnel before accessing the Internet ­ this protects any sensitive information about your location by hiding your IP address.

Connecting through a VPN tunnel hides your online activity from your Internet service provider (ISP). The only information visible to the ISP is that you are connected to a VPN server, while all other information is encrypted by the VPN¹s protocol. This prevents ISPs from collecting potentially sensitive data and passing it onto any third parties.

It¹s also important to use a VPN service that does not store activity records to ensure your data is not logged and forwarded to any agencies. NordVPN has a strict no-log policy and could not supply any information on your online activities even if requested.

Besides a VPNs, it’s also crucial to use anti-spyware software, to make sure to use a Firewall, not to install unapproved programs on the computer that might contain bugs, and to be generally vigilant about the kind of information one shares and opens online.

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Online retail gets real

After decades of experience in selling online, retailers still seek out the secret of reaching the digital consumer, writes ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK.

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It’s been 23 years since the first pizza and the first bunch of flowers was sold online. One would think, after all this time, that retailers would know exactly what works, and exactly how the digital consumer thinks.

Yet, in shopping-mad South Africa, only 4% of adults regularly shop online. One could blame high data costs, low levels of tech-savviness, or lack of trust. However, that doesn’t explain why a population where more than a quarter of people have a debit or credit card and almost 40% of people use the Internet is staying away.

The new Online Retail in South Africa 2019 study, conducted by World Wide Worx with the support of Visa and Platinum Seed, reveals that growth is in fact healthy, but is still coming off a low base. This year, the total sale of retail products online is expected to pass the R14-billion mark, making up 1.4% of total retail.

This figure represents 25% growth over 2017, and comes after the same rate of growth was seen in 2017. At this rate, it is clear that online retail is going mainstream, driven by aggressive marketing, and new shopping channels like mobile shopping. 

But it is equally clear that not all retailers are getting it right. According to the study, the unwillingness of business to reinvest revenue in developing their online presence is one of the main barriers to long-term success. Only one in five companies surveyed invested more than 20% of their online turnover back into their online store. Over half invested less than 10% back.

On the surface, the industry looks healthy, as a surprisingly high 71% of online retailers surveyed say they are profitable. But this brings to mind the early days of Amazon.com, in 1996, when founder Jeff Bezos was asked when it would become profitable.

He declared that it would not be profitable for at least another five years. And if it did, he said, it would be in big trouble. He meant that it was so important for long-term sustainability that Amazon reinvest all its revenues in customer systems, that it could not afford to look for short-term profits.

According to the South African study, the single most critical factor in the success of online retail activities is customer service. A vast majority, 98% of respondents, regarded it as important. This positions customer service as the very heart of online retail. For Amazon, investment back into systems that would streamline customer service became the key to the world’s digital wallets.

In South Africa online still make up a small proportion of overall retail, but for the first time we see the promise of a broader range of businesses in terms of category, size, turnover and employee numbers. This is a sign that our local market is beginning to mature. 

Clothing and apparel is the fastest growing sector, but is also the sector with the highest turnover of businesses. It illustrates the dangers of a low barrier to entry: the survival rate of online stores in this sector is probably directly opposite to the ease of setting up an online apparel store.

A fast-growing category that was fairly low on the agenda in the past, alcohol, tobacco and vaping, has benefited from the increased online supply of vapes, juices and accessories. It also suggests that smoking bans, and the change in the legal status of marijuana during the survey, may have boosted demand. 

In the coming weeks, we can expect online retail to fall under the spotlight as never before. Black Friday, a shopping tradition imported “wholesale” from the United States, is expected to become the biggest online shopping day of the year in South Africa, as it is in the USA.

Initially, it was just a gimmick in South Africa, attempting to cash in on what was a purely American tradition of insane sales on the Friday after Thanksgiving Day, which occurs on the third Thursday of November every year. It is followed by Cyber Monday, making the entire weekend one of major promotions and great bargains.

It has grown every year in South Africa since its first introduction about six years ago, and last year it broke into the mainstream, with numerous high profile retailers embracing it, and many consumers experiencing it for the first time. 

It is now positioned as the prime bargain day of the year for consumers, and many wait in anticipation for it, as they do in the USA. Along with Cyber Monday, it provides an excuse for retailers to go all out in their marketing, and for consumers to storm the display shelves or web pages. South African shoppers, clearly, are easily enticed by bargains.

Word of mouth around Black Friday has also grown massively in the past two years, driven by both media and shoppers who have found ridiculous bargains. As news spreads that the most ridiculous of the bargains are to be had online, even those who were reticent of digital shopping will be tempted to convert.

The Online Retail in SA 2019 report has shown over the years that, as people become more experienced in using the Internet, their propensity to shop online increases. This is part of the World Wide Worx model known as the Digital Participation Curve. The key missing factor in the Curve is that most retailers do not know how to convert that propensity into actual online shopping behaviour. Black Friday will be one of the keys to conversion.

Carry on reading to find out about the online retailers of the year.

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Reliable satellite Internet?

MzansiSat, a satellite-Internet business, aims to beam Internet connections to places in South Africa which don’t have access to cabled and mobile network infrastructure, writes BRYAN TURNER.

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Stellenbosch-based MzansiSat promises to provide cheap wholesale Internet to Internet Service Providers for as little as R25 per Gigabyte. Providers who offer more expensive Internet services could benefit greatly from partnering with MzansiSat, says the company. 

“Using MzansiSat, we hope that we can carry over cost-savings benefits to the consumer,” says Victor Stephanopoli, MzansiSat chief operating officer.

The company, which has been spun off from StellSat, has been looking to increase its investor portfolio while it waits for spectrum approval. The additional investment will allow MzansiSat’s satellite to operate in more regions across Africa.

The MzansiSat satellite is being built by Thales Alenia Space, a French company which is also acting as technical partner to MzansiSat. In addition to building the satellite, Thales Alenia Space will also be assisting MzansiSat in coordinating the launch. The company intends to launch the satellite into the 56°E orbital slot in a geostationary orbit, which enables communication almost anywhere in Africa. The launch is expected to happen in 2022. 

The satellite will have 76 transponders, 48 of which will be Ku-band and 28 C-band. Ku-band is all about high-speed performance, while C-band deals with weather-resistance. The design intention is for customers of MzansiSat to choose between very cheap, reliable data and very fast, power-efficient data. 

C-band is an older technology, which makes bandwidth cheaper and almost never affected by rain but requires bigger dishes and slower bandwidth compared to Ku-band connections. On the other hand, Ku-band is faster, experiences less microwave interference, and requires less power to run – but is less reliable with bad weather conditions.

MzansiSat’s potential military applications are significant, due to the nature of the military being mobile and possibly in remote areas without connectivity.  Connectivity everywhere would be potentially be life-saving.

Consumers in remote areas will benefit, even though satellite is higher in latency than fibre and LTE connections. While this level of latency is high (a fifth of a second in theory), satellite connections are still adequate for browsing the Internet and watching online content. 

The Internet of Things (IoT) may see the benefits of satellite Internet before consumers do. The applications of IoT in agriculture are vast, from hydration sensors to soil nutrient testers, and can be realised with an Internet connection which is available in a remote area.

Stephanopoli says that e-learning in remote areas can also benefit from MzansiSat’s presence, as many school resources are becoming readily available online. 

“Through our network, the learning experience can be beamed into classrooms across the country to substitute or complement local resources within the South African schooling system.”

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