Confusion over use of NHS App as Covid passport

Transport secretary Grant Shapps appeared to confirm in a recent interview that England’s NHS app would be used as a vaccine passport.

Travel restrictions are due to ease on 17 May, after which foreign travel can resume.

However a government source told the BBC the app would not be ready “imminently”.

It is connected to GP services in England and linked to personal health data.

People can use the NHS app to request repeat prescriptions, message their doctor and organise online consultations. It is completely separate from the NHS Covid-19 app, which is used for contact-tracing.

The NHS app is already able to display vaccine statuses, including Covid-19 jabs – but this must be enabled by GPs, and while some seem to do this by default, other surgeries ask patients to request it.

Vaccines Minister Nadhim Zahawi told BBC Breakfast that work was under way on preparing it to act as a passport – this could involve it having access to not only vaccine status, but also to most recent test results.

“NHSx [the NHS’s digital division]…are working on making that operationally possible for the 17th of May,” he said.

But in a statement, the Department of Health and Social Care said only that the app was “being considered as part of the digital route”.

It might seem that the NHS app, used by a million or so people since 2019 to book GP appointments or order prescriptions, has fortuitously given the government an instant solution to creating a vaccine passport.

Not so fast – there are a number of hurdles to be cleared.

While the app can record your vaccinations, that isn’t automatic – I’ve searched in vain to find the record of my Covid jab, only to get a message saying I need to ask my GP for access to my detailed health record. If the NHS app does become a vaccine passport, millions of people will be bombarding GPs with similar requests.

But the government has made it clear it wants a broader process of Covid certification, including recent test results, otherwise young people who hadn’t been vaccinated wouldn’t be able to travel. Integrating tests into the app promises to be complex.

Finally, there’s the process of transforming the NHS app into something that will be easy to use and trusted by border police around the world.

“If people think they’ll just be able to flash the existing app with their vaccine record at passport control, that isn’t going to happen,” one insider told me.

Getting everything ready by 17 May looks like a major bureaucratic challenge, even if the technology can be updated quickly and efficiently.

Presentational grey line
A number of countries and organisations have proposed their own vaccine passport arrangements:

European officials have announced plans for an EU-wide “Green Digital Certificate”. This would allow anyone vaccinated against Covid, or who has tested negative, or recently recovered from the virus, to travel within the region.
New York has launched a digital-wallet style Covid-19 passport called the Excelsior Pass. The White House however has ruled out a compulsory federal passport.
The International Air Transport Association (IATA) has launched its own app, the IATA Travel Pass which it trialled with Singapore Airlines
UK-based independent healthcare app My GP launched a simple vaccine certification feature last week, in the form of a green tick for users 12 days after their second dose of the vaccine.
In the UK, government minister Michael Gove provided a written statement to parliament today, following a trip to Israel to learn about the country’s Green Pass system.

He emphasised that there were no plans to make vaccine certification compulsory in certain domestic settings, including essential public services and shops, and on public transport, but did not focus on international travel


Five things to know about Apple’s iOS update

Apple has announced its new iOS 14.5 update for the iPhone and iPad.

The most newsy feature is its new App Tracking Transparency function – which means users will have to “opt in” if they want their online activity tracked by companies. Here are the things that caught our eye.

Unlocking an iPhone wearing a mask
Apple’s new operating system will allow you to unlock your phone whilst wearing a mask – with a gigantic catch.

Apple’s facial recognition doesn’t generally work when users are wearing a mask. Apple’s work-around involves you also owning an Apple Watch.

Apple said: “With Apple Watch on the wrist, unlocked, and in close proximity to iPhone, users can simply glance at their iPhone and they will receive haptic feedback from Apple Watch, indicating their iPhone has been unlocked.”

For anyone who doesn’t own an Apple Watch, as well as an iPhone, this feature won’t work.

App Tracking Transparency
The new update will mean a prompt will flash up when you want to download an app – asking for your permission for the app to track your online activity.

That data is currently used to create highly targeted ads based on your online behaviour by companies like Facebook.

Facebook has publically lobbied against the new change. The less Facebook knows about you, the less money it can charge for adverts.

Apple’s motives for the move have been questioned. If app developers can’t make as much through advertising, they might be more inclined to charge for services – and Apple makes money from these payments.

Like millions of iPhone users I downloaded iOS 14.5 last night and waited to find out what Apple’s brave new world of freedom from tracking looked like.

But nothing happened. There were no alerts from the hundreds of apps I have installed, asking me to agree to tracking. I tried downloading some new apps, but again: nothing, nada, zilch.

Buried in the privacy section of the phone’s settings is a switch labelled “Allow Apps to Request to Track” which was toggled on. Underneath, just one app was listed – a streaming service which I think I updated last night.

It seems that even if that is switched on, tracking stays off until the apps themselves push out a request screen inviting you to accept it.

Facebook says it is in the process of pushing out its screen – preceded by another one, explaining why tracking is a good thing and has helped to keep many small businesses afloat.

But a huge system of data collection, which sees app users tracked wherever they go, has been switched off for all who download the update.

What’s not clear is how much of it will be switched on again – by users, or even by the developers themselves. Many may decide that this kind of tracking has had its day, and they need to find a new model for advertising.

2px presentational grey line
New Emojis
Apple has introduced several new emojis in its latest update.

For example, people will be able to select different skin tones for the “couple kissing” emoji and “couple with heart” emoji.

Apple said that “Additional emoji include characters for face exhaling, face with spiral eyes, face in clouds, hearts on fire, mending heart, and woman with a beard, among others.”

Apple says Siri, its voice-controlled assistant, is becoming more diverse.

“Siri no longer has a default voice, allowing users to choose the voice that speaks to them when they first set up their device,” says Apple.

“In English, users can now select more diverse voice options. These new Siri voices use Neural Text to Speech technology for an incredibly natural sound,” says Apple.

Apple says these updates represent longstanding commitments to diversity and inclusion.

However many of Apple’s devices are made in China, where Apple has received criticism for not being more vocal about the government’s treatment of Uyghurs.

Apple’s critics say that the company should be consistent in its messaging on diversity – both at home and abroad.

Apple’s new operating system will work with the newly launched “AirTags”.

The small disc can be attached to things like your keys or wallet. If you lose them, you’ll be able to track them with the Find My app.

This looks very similar to another product on the market: “Tile”.

Last week Apple was criticised during a Senate hearing for copying Tile’s idea.

Tile’s General Counsel Kirsten Daru said “We welcome competition but it has to be fair competition and Apple’s idea of competing is patently unfair.”

She also accused Apple of preventing Tile from using the technology behind Apple’s Find My function, giving AirTags an unfair advantage.

Apple said the product was different. “We didn’t copy Tile’s product… It’s extremely different to anything else on the market,” said Apple’s Chief Compliance Officer, Kyle Andeer.


Electric cars: What will happen to all the dead batteries?

“The rate at which we’re growing the industry is absolutely scary,” says Paul Anderson from Birmingham University.

He’s talking about the market for electric cars in Europe.

By 2030, the EU hopes that there will be 30 million electric cars on European roads.

“It’s something that’s never really been done before at that rate of growth for a completely new product,” says Dr Anderson, who is also the co-director of the Birmingham Centre for Strategic Elements and Critical Materials.

While electric vehicles (EVs) may be carbon neutral during their working lifetime, he’s concerned about what happens when they run out of road – in particular what happens to the batteries.

“In 10 to 15 years when there are large numbers coming to the end of their life, it’s going to be very important that we have a recycling industry,” he points out.

While most EV components are much the same as those of conventional cars, the big difference is the battery. While traditional lead-acid batteries are widely recycled, the same can’t be said for the lithium-ion versions used in electric cars.

EV batteries are larger and heavier than those in regular cars and are made up of several hundred individual lithium-ion cells, all of which need dismantling. They contain hazardous materials, and have an inconvenient tendency to explode if disassembled incorrectly.

“Currently, globally, it’s very hard to get detailed figures for what percentage of lithium-ion batteries are recycled, but the value everyone quotes is about 5%,” says Dr Anderson. “In some parts of the world it’s considerably less.”

Recent proposals from the European Union would see EV suppliers responsible for making sure that their products aren’t simply dumped at the end of their life, and manufacturers are already starting to step up to the mark.

Nissan, for example, is now reusing old batteries from its Leaf cars in the automated guided vehicles that deliver parts to workers in its factories.

Volkswagen is doing the same, but has also recently opened its first recycling plant, in Salzgitter, Germany, and plans to recycle up to 3,600 battery systems per year during the pilot phase.

“As a result of the recycling process, many different materials are recovered. As a first step we focus on cathode metals like cobalt, nickel, lithium and manganese,” says Thomas Tiedje, head of planning for recycling at Volkswagen Group Components.

“Dismantled parts of the battery systems such as aluminium and copper are given into established recycling streams.”

Renault, meanwhile, is now recycling all its electric car batteries – although as things stand, that only amounts to a couple of hundred a year. It does this through a consortium with French waste management company Veolia and Belgian chemical firm Solvay.

“We are aiming at being able to address 25% of the recycling market. We want to maintain this level of coverage, and of course this would cover by far the needs of Renault,” says Jean-Philippe Hermine, Renault’s VP for strategic environmental planning.

“It’s a very open project – it’s not to recycle only Renault batteries but all batteries, and also including production waste from the battery manufacturing plants.”

The issue is also receiving attention from scientific bodies such as the Faraday Institution, whose ReLiB project aims to optimise the recycling of EV batteries and make it as streamlined as possible.

“We imagine a more efficient, more cost-effective industry in future, instead of going through some of the processes that are available – and can be scaled up now – but are not terribly efficient,” says Dr Anderson, who is principal investigator for the project.

Currently, for example, much of the substance of a battery is reduced during the recycling process to what is called black mass – a mixture of lithium, manganese, cobalt and nickel – which needs further, energy-intensive processing to recover the materials in a usable form.

Manually dismantling fuel cells allows for more of these materials to be efficiently recovered, but brings problems of its own.

“In some markets, such as China, health and safety regulation and environmental regulation is much more lax, and working conditions wouldn’t be accepted in a Western context,” says Gavin Harper, Faraday Institution research fellow.

“Also, because labour is more expensive, the whole economics of it make it difficult to make it a good proposition in the UK.”

The answer, he says, is automation and robotics: “If you can automate that, we can pull some of the danger out of it and make it more economically efficient.”

And there are indeed powerful economic arguments for improving the recyclability of EV batteries – not least, the fact that many of the elements used are hard to come by in Europe and the UK.

“You’ve got the waste management problem on the one hand, but then on the flip side of that you’ve also got a great opportunity because obviously the UK doesn’t have indigenous supplies of many factory materials,” says Dr Harper.

“There’s a bit of lithium in Cornwall, but by and large we’ve got challenges in terms of sourcing the factory materials that we need.”

From a manufacturer’s point of view, therefore, recycling old batteries is the safest way to ensure a ready supply of new ones.

“We need to secure – as a manufacturer, as Europeans – the sourcing of these materials that are strategic for mobility and for the industry,” says Mr Hermine.

“We don’t have access to these materials outside of this recycling field – the end-of-life battery is the urban mining of Europe.”


Tech Tent: The audio revolution?

An audio start-up without revenue gets valued at $4bn (£2.8bn), Facebook is launching what it calls social audio experiences, while Twitter has a new feature called Spaces allowing users to start an instant chat room.

What’s going on?

This week’s Tech Tent explores whether good old-fashioned audio is the hot new thing.

The arrival of Clubhouse has suddenly made social media giants suffer a severe bout of Fomo – fear of missing out.

They watched the app, which allows users to start audio chatrooms on any subject they fancy, acquire lots of enthusiastic users and an enormous amount of Silicon Valley buzz.

Then came the validation any hot start-up requires – a funding round, this week led by the ritzy venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz, which is reported to have valued Clubhouse at $4bn.

But the app is still only available to invited iPhone users, so what makes it so attractive?

One early adopter, Rachel Lankester, explained why she had become addicted.

“I’ve enjoyed the inclusivity of it and how it provides access to people that I usually just simply wouldn’t have,” she said. “I’ve connected with women from all over the world on there.”

Whereas video streaming apps demand a focus on your appearance, Rachel says she enjoys “the intimacy of audio”.

She describes how it has provided her, an amateur broadcaster, with a simple way of running a radio chat show with guests and audience participation.

“I had one woman who got up at 04:00 in the morning in Australia, just so she could speak directly to my guests. I think that’s pretty cool!”

Social media consultant Matt Navarra has a theory that the pandemic, which has seen millions locked down at home searching for entertainment, has provided an opportunity for services like Clubhouse.

“We wanted something new and interesting. And so audio provides that, a new medium for people to experience content with,” he said.

On repeat?
But even though the likes of Facebook and Twitter seem to be convinced that audio is going to be important to their audiences, Matt is cautious about its mass appeal.

He points to the story of Meerkat, a video streaming app that in 2015 was “poised to take the tech world by storm”, according to one blog.

“We all thought it was going to be amazing. And then quite quickly, we all realised that most people don’t produce that much exciting live content,” Mr Navarra said.

And that’s the problem which Clubhouse and its rivals will have to confront – while they will attract small communities passionately interested in talking about their specialist subjects, many people may tune in a couple of times, get bored by what they hear, and never return.

While live audio discussion may have limited appeal, recorded audio content may be more attractive – as the popularity of podcasts has shown.

And strangely, it has always been much easier to share a video on social media than to post an audio clip, so there is a big gap waiting to be filled. Or is there?

In researching this episode of Tech Tent I came across an article of mine from 2009 with the title “Time for an Audio Revolution”.

It was written by me and describes a range of audio apps, including one called Audioboo, which allowed users to post clips – or “boos” – on social media. I went on to be an enthusiastic user, with my boos including a message from Stephen Fry about his admiration for Steve Jobs just before the Apple founder’s death – and an account of spotting a bear on the path ahead during a family holiday in Yosemite.

Audioboo never became the YouTube of audio.

It shed its founder, changed its name to Audioboom, and became a podcast platform which just this month announced its first-ever quarterly profit, benefitting from the boom in listeners over the last year.

The audio revolution, which failed to arrive a decade ago, may be staging a comeback. But don’t be surprised if it turns out to be quite a muted affair.


GCHQ chief warns of tech ‘moment of reckoning’

The West is faced with a “moment of reckoning” when it comes to technology and security, the head of intelligence agency GCHQ has told the BBC.

Jeremy Fleming said there was a risk that key technologies on which we rely will no longer be shaped by the West.

“We have to keep evolving our approach if we’re going to keep up,” he said of the growing challenge from China.

So-called smart cities, which will collect large amounts of data, are just one example, he added.

“The risk is that the technology is implemented in a way in which we can’t assure its security,” he warned.

The UK is a “big beast” when it comes to technology but “we can’t take that for granted”, the GCHQ director warned, saying this was a moment when we had to decide if we were going to continue to evolve and compete with our adversaries.

Mr Fleming was speaking ahead of giving this year’s Vincent Briscoe Annual Security Lecture at Imperial College, and in the wake of the Integrated Review, which placed science and technology at the centre of future security and defence policy.

Lessons from 5G
The challenge from China is uppermost in the minds of intelligence chiefs across Western countries, particularly when it comes to technology.

“The risk, as I see it today, is that we lose control of the standards that shape our technology environment,” he told the BBC.

“The things that make sure that our liberal Western democratic views are baked into our technology.”

Mr Fleming said there were lessons to be learnt from the debate over the role of Chinese company Huawei in building a new 5G telecoms system. It was initially given a role in the UK, before being excluded following US sanctions.

UK ‘must learn from Huawei 5G U-turn’
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Technology moves to the heart of UK security
But there were concerns that there were few other companies actually able to supply the latest technology.

“The conversation about 5G was really lost a decade ago, when Western nations decided that they weren’t going to invest in the underpinning infrastructures… and the result was we just didn’t have the choices,” he said.

The imperative was to make sure in the future the UK took the kind of long-range decisions need to ensure it has choice – so there would not be the same concerns over dependency, he said.

Smart city fears
That need to look forward prompted a focus on smart cities.

These involve a vast number of sensors and cameras built into a city’s infrastructure – controlling everything from traffic to utilities such as water and power.

But it also means vast amounts of data will be collected about people’s movement and activity.

Done in the right way, the GCHQ chief argues this presents a “fantastic opportunity” to increase efficiency and improve services.

But he warned it also carries risks around privacy and anonymity.

“If we don’t control the technology, if we don’t understand the security required to implement those effectively, then we’ll end up with an environment or technology ecosystem where the data is not only used to navigate, but it could be used to track us”.

China is a leading supplier of smart city technology, with councils in the UK already purchasing cameras from its companies.

Mr Fleming said it was vital to ensure all the technologies were not from one place and to understand how data was being processed.

There were only a relatively small number of areas where the UK would need to completely control a technology, he said, and more broadly working with allies would be essential to shape international standards and to defend itself in cyberspace.

At home, the UK has to invest in skills and innovation.

The UK should not be “fatalistic”, he said, and had a “very strong track record” of meeting technology challenges.


Google and Apple attacked on app store ‘monopoly’

Senators have grilled Apple and Google in Washington over “anti-competitive” behaviour related to their app stores.

Representatives from Tile, Spotify and Match also gave evidence, accusing the two tech firms of charging exorbitant fees and copying their ideas.

Both Apple and Google’s app stores charge fees of up to 30% for in-app purchases.

The two companies said the fees were justified to provide security for users.

The Senate Judiciary Committee’s antitrust panel focussed on claims that Apple’s App Store and Google’s Google Play are anti-competitive.

Senator Amy Klobuchar said that Apple’s App Store was a “literal monopoly”.

She said both stores “exclude or suppress apps that compete with their own products” and “charge excessive fees that affect competition in the app store economy”.

Google Play and the App Store are where the vast majority of apps worldwide are downloaded.

Developers claim that because of a lack of competition Apple and Google can charge extortionate rates.

There were also claims that Apple used its App Store to unfairly compete with rivals.

The hearing came a day after Apple launched its new product: AirTags. These can be attached to items like car keys to help users find them.

The product looks very similar to something already on the market – Tile.

Tile’s General Counsel Kirsten Daru said “We welcome competition but it has to be fair competition and Apple’s idea of competing is patently unfair.”

She also accused Apple of preventing Tile from using the technology behind Apple’s Find My function, giving AirTags an unfair advantage.

Apple said the product was different. “We didn’t copy Tile’s product… It’s extremely different to anything else on the market,” said Apple’s Chief Compliance Officer, Kyle Andeer.

Spotify also accused Apple of using its App Store to charge unfair rates – something Spotify’s Head of Global Affairs, Horacio Gutierrez, described as an “Apple Tax”.

Undercutting us
He also said that Apple directly competed with Spotify with Apple Music, and the in-app charges had made Spotify less competitive.

“They are undercutting us on price,” he said.

He also criticised Apple for having rules that meant they were unable to tell customers that the service was cheaper if it was bought away from the App Store.

Apple said that Spotify had “been incredibly aggressive when it comes to dealing with artists and creators, and driving a hard bargain”.

Mr Andeer said that “less than 1% of Spotify users pay a commission to Apple”.

Match, which owns Tinder, also criticised Apple and Google for the charges it had to pay.

Iron-fisted monopoly
“It is iron-fisted monopoly control,” said Match General Counsel Jared Sine.

“When an industry player has the power to dictate how apps operate, how much they will be forced to pay, and in many cases, if they will even survive, it is a monopoly.”

Both Apple and Google rejected the idea that their app stores were monopolies – and said the charges were fair.

On 3 May, Apple and Epic Games, maker of the popular game Fortnite, will begin a court case in their dispute over the App Store charges.


EU artificial intelligence rules will ban ‘unacceptable’ use

Some “unacceptable” uses of artificial intelligence would be banned in Europe under proposals unveiled on Wednesday.

The European Commission’s rules would ban “AI systems considered a clear threat to the safety, livelihoods and rights of people”, it said.

It is also proposing far stricter rules on the use of biometrics – such as facial recognition being used by law enforcement, which would be limited.

Breaking the rules could lead to fines of up to 6% of global turnover.

For the largest technology companies, that could amount to billions.

‘Fundamental rights’
The commission’s digital chief, Margrethe Vestager, said: “On artificial intelligence, trust is a must, not a nice-to-have.”

And the EU was developing “new global norms” for AI.

“Future-proof and innovation-friendly, our rules will intervene where strictly needed – when the safety and fundamental rights of EU citizens are at stake,” she said.

The draft rules face a lengthy approval process and are not yet final.

‘High risk’
Many of the core ideas were leaked last week, in advance of the announcement, prompting concern from the technology community that it could stifle innovation.

“The European Commission’s proposed regime will not sit well with many in the community,” said Nikolas Kairinos, chief executive of, which makes an AI for employee training in businesses.

“Loose definitions like ‘high risk’ are unhelpfully vague.

“An ambiguous, tick-box approach to regulation that is overseen by individuals who may not have an in-depth understanding of AI technology will hardly inspire confidence.”

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Herbert Swaniker, a technology expert at the law firm Clifford Chance, said the proposed hefty fines gave AI regulation much more power – and was “extremely ambitious” in scope.

“There’s a lot to do to sharpen some of these concepts,” he said.

“The fines are one thing – but how will vendors address the significant costs and human input needed to make compliance a reality?

“The proposals will force vendors to fundamentally rethink how AI is procured and designed.”

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The rules would govern what AI was used for, rather than the technology itself, Ms Vestager said.

But “AI systems or applications that manipulate human behaviour to circumvent users’ free will”, including “subliminal techniques”, would fall into the banned “unacceptable risk” category.

Those operating in high-risk areas – such as national infrastructure, education, employment, finance, and law enforcement – would face a series of hurdles before they could be used.

For example, CV-sorting software in recruitment or credit-scoring systems for bank loans would have to;

prove their accuracy and fairness
keep records of all their activity
have “appropriate human oversight”
And all “remote biometric identification” systems – such as the use of facial recognition by police but not using a fingerprint to unlock a phone or a face scan at passport control – would be “subject to strict requirements”.

“Their live use in publicly accessible spaces for law-enforcement purposes is prohibited in principle,” the commission said, with rare exceptions such as an “imminent terrorist threat”.

But the vast majority of AI technology would fall into the low-risk category, with far less strict rules.

Rule-based systems
Chatbots in customer service, for example, should simply make clear people are interacting with a machine.

And simple rule-based systems such as email spam filtering would have no restrictions.

The European Parliament and EU member states will both consider the proposals – and they are likely likely to change as part of that process.

But if passed, the regulations would apply “inside and outside the EU” if an AI system was available in the EU “or its use affects people located in the EU”.


Facebook downplays data breach in internal email

An internal Facebook email, accidentally sent to Belgium-based Data News, has revealed its strategy for dealing with the leaking of account details from 533 million users.

It suggests the social network expected more such incidents and was planning to frame it as an industry problem that was a normal occurrence.

It also said the media attention would die down.

As a result it planned to issue limited statements about the issue.

Facebook confirmed the memo was genuine and told the BBC: “We understand people’s concerns, which is why we continue to strengthen our systems to make scraping from Facebook without our permission more difficult and go after the people behind it.”

Later, a spokesperson added that LinkedIn and Clubhouse had also faced “data scraping” issues.

Data from 533 million people in 106 countries was published on a hacking forum earlier this month.

Facebook said the data was old, from a previously reported leak in 2019. It has denied any wrongdoing, saying that the data was scraped from publicly available information on the site.

But it now faces a probe from the Irish data commissioner about whether it broke GDPR rules, and a mass legal action from affected EU citizens, who had a range of personal data leaked, including phone numbers.

The email published by Data News is dated 8 April – several days after the story broke. It said press coverage on the issue from “top tier global publications” had already declined by 30%.

Reputation over users
It provided a summary of how the story had been reported to date.

“Publications have offered more critical takes of Facebook’s response framing it as evasive, a deflection of blame and absent of an apology for the users impacted,” it noted, adding that the pieces were often driven by quotes from “data experts or regulators, keen on criticising the company’s response as insufficient”.

In a section headed “Long-term strategy”, Facebook said it did not plan additional statements on the issue. “We expect more scraping incidents and think it’s important to both frame this as a broad industry issue and normalise the fact that this activity happens regularly,” it said.

It added that its plan would include a blogpost talking about its anti-scraping work, that offered transparency on how the firm was dealing with the problem.

Data News also questioned Facebook’s assertion that the problem was discovered and resolved in August 2019, pointing out that ethical hacker Inti De Ceukelaire warned the company two years earlier that it was possible to find someone’s phone number via Facebook.

Mr De Ceukelaire told the BBC that the leaked memo “revealed what we have suspected for a long time but now it is there in black and white – Facebook cares more about its reputation than informing its users”.

He said that Facebook had attempted to “spin the problem”.

“At first they were completely silent, then they gave the press one sentence about how the data was old and when that didn’t work they started talking about how it was all about scraping rather than Facebook’s own system.”

He added that the data was not old, because phone numbers usually do not change, and also that the original privacy settings for phone numbers were extremely confusing.


Bank of England to consider digital money plan

The Bank of England and the Treasury have announced they are setting up a taskforce to explore the possibility of a central bank digital currency.

The aim is to look at the risks and opportunities involved in creating a new kind of digital money.

Issued by the Bank for use by households and businesses, it would exist alongside cash and bank deposits, rather than replacing them.

No decision has been taken on whether to have such a currency in the UK.

However, the government and the Bank want to “engage widely with stakeholders” on the benefits and practicalities of doing so.

The taskforce will be jointly led by the Bank’s deputy governor for financial stability, Sir Jon Cunliffe, and the Treasury’s director general of financial services, Katharine Braddick.

The Bank has previously said it is interested in a central bank digital currency (CBDC) because “this is a period of significant change in money and payments”.

The use of cash in financial transactions has been steadily declining in recent years, while debit card payments have been on the rise. Use of credit cards and direct debits have also been increasing.

Is this the digital future for banknotes?
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The Bank also sees having its own digital currency as a way of “avoiding the risks of new forms of private money creation”, including crypto-currencies such as Bitcoin.

“If a CBDC were to be introduced, it would be denominated in pounds sterling, just like banknotes, so £10 of CBDC would always be worth the same as a £10 note,” the Bank said.

“CBDC is sometimes thought of as equivalent to a digital banknote, although in some respects it may have as much in common with a bank deposit.

“Any CBDC would be introduced alongside – rather than replacing – cash and bank deposits.”

Enter Britcoin. The Bank of England has been pontificating about digital currencies for some time. Now it and the Treasury will seriously look into establishing an alternative digital currency to be used by households and businesses. The flotation of Coinbase and the stellar performance this year of various crypto-assets such as Bitcoin and Ethereum is the backdrop.

It would basically be a digital version of sterling, backed by the Bank of England, that could change the payments system, the plumbing of the financial system. It would not be a Bitcoin-style speculative asset with wild fluctuations in value. But there will be limited appeal for the fans of crypto, who invest precisely because of their scepticism about central banks.

Instead, the revolutionary thing here could be the direct relationship that ordinary citizens might have with the central bank, which cannot go bust. It could yield simple, direct means of stimulating the economy and even applying negative rates. Central banks would in theory know when and where every e-cash transaction occurred. China is already ahead in its digital yuan experiments. Part of the rationale is to ensure that the UK remains at the forefront of financial innovation.

Most of the world’s central banks are looking into the possibility of creating such a currency, but the only one already in existence is China’s digital yuan, which is currently undergoing public testing.

Among the objectives of the UK taskforce is monitoring international developments, “to ensure the UK remains at the forefront of global innovation”.

The Bank also announced the creation of a CDBC engagement forum and a technology forum, as well as a CBDC unit within the Bank itself, overseen by Sir Jon.

No timetable was announced for the taskforce’s operations.


How cancer put me off joining Amazon union

Carla Johnson turned 45 on Tuesday, a milestone she thought she might not reach.

On 12 July, she walked up to a manager at an Amazon warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama, and said she felt unwell.

Shortly afterwards, she had a seizure on the floor. She was rushed to hospital and diagnosed with brain cancer.

She’s exactly the type of person you might expect to have supported a recent vote to create the first trade union of Amazon workers, in order to safeguard her job post-surgery.

But despite having been in a union in her previous career, she was one of a majority of employees – two-to-one, in fact – to vote the proposal down.

“Amazon has been a godsend for me,” she says.

Carla was a teacher for 14 years in Birmingham, Alabama. She taught 12 and 13-year-old children science.

In 2019 she decided to work for a contractor – preparing students for exams. Then the pandemic hit. With pupils no longer in school, the work dried up.

She looked around for other jobs and found a company that was actually hiring – Amazon. Her first shift was in May.

“I first started out packing. Depending on the item, I would pack it in the box, give it an address and put it on a conveyor belt to be shipped out to the customers. It wasn’t anything that was hard.”

Then one Sunday in July her world fell apart. After her seizure, she remembers telling the paramedics to ring her mum, but little else.

She had surgery to remove a brain tumour, and chemotherapy. Her treatment has cost around $170,000 (£123,000) so far. She says she would never have been able to pay without insurance.

To understand labour relations in the US is impossible without looking at healthcare.

A job isn’t just a pay cheque, it’s a ticket to a longer, healthier life – for workers and their families.

Crucial then to Amazon’s strategy to win a union vote was its healthcare plan for workers. “Starting pay of at least $15 per hour and comprehensive healthcare from day one” was the oft-said message.

Amazon’s tactics had a darker side though. The union wanted to talk about excessive workload, bathroom breaks and pay. Amazon pushed the narrative that the union might take away worker benefits, including healthcare.

Workers were bombarded with messages, including texts, which claimed workers’ benefits might be bargained away by the union.

“You may end up with more, the same, or less” is the message from a union info-website set up by Amazon.

In practice, it would be highly unusual for a union to negotiate away existing perks – and of course it would be Amazon taking away the benefits.

“The only way that happens is if the employer decides to take them away. The union’s not going to argue: ‘Let’s cut benefits for the workers'” says Stuart Appelbaum, head of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union that is pushing for Amazon workers to unionise.

Mr Appelbaum is angry. He believes Amazon played dirty – that the messaging given to Amazon workers at “union education meetings” for example, known by the union as “captive audience meetings”, was misinformation dressed up as fact.

The Amazon centre itself was cloaked in anti-union messaging – in the bathrooms, the break rooms and the entrance, for example.

Darryl Richardson voted for the union. But while trying to persuade others, he realised Amazon’s messaging was working: “They were scared that healthcare was going to be taken away. That’s why a lot of them voted “no” against the union. We got the outcome we have now because they threatened them, that benefits and wages were going to drop.”

Darryl himself had been laid off from his job in a car plant during the pandemic. He’s thankful for the job he has and doesn’t want to leave. But he believes Amazon’s characterisation of the union was inaccurate – particularly when it came to wages and healthcare.

Another area of controversy were union subs, or dues. Critics say that much of Amazon’s narrative was based around the idea that workers would have to pay the union money. However, Alabama is a Right To Work state. No worker has to pay subs. So did Amazon break the law in their messaging?

“It’s not clear” says Prof John Logan, a labour expert at San Francisco State University.

“They are very skilled in operating in the grey areas, that’s why they’re so effective. You know some of what they say is clearly legal. Other things are kind of pushing the boundaries of the law – and the weakness of the law.”

Amazon says: “It was important that all employees understood the facts of joining a union… If the union vote passed, it would impact everyone at the site and it’s important all associates understood what that meant for them”.

But whether the messaging was on the right side of the law or not, one thing was overlooked by many observers who thought the union could win.

The pandemic has caused unemployment which has disproportionately affected black communities.

Around 85% of the workers at Amazon’s warehouse in Bessemer are black.

And that means this was a workforce acutely sensitive to arguments around pay, benefits and the future of their jobs.

The union argues that Amazon’s tactics amount to “intimidation” of workers and are mounting a legal challenge. Amazon denies the allegations.

“Our employees heard far more anti-Amazon messages from the union, policymakers, and media outlets than they heard from us”, said a spokesperson.

Carla started working again at Amazon in November. “I felt the things the union were offering, I was already getting,” she says.

She spent her birthday having a spa day, and then watched her youngest son play baseball. She is now in remission, and firmly believes she wouldn’t be alive if she hadn’t been working for an employer with good healthcare. She may well be right.

And as for unions? Well, union membership has been falling since the 1980s. Only 6% of Americans working in the private sector are members of a union.

And unless unions can find a way of convincing people like Carla that they can make a positive impact on healthcare, benefits and wages, that’s not going to change.