Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Technology marks 2010

The past year has been focused on technology both in terms of innovation, its effect on society and how some governments see it as a threat and a weapon. The year had barely begun when Google released a statement saying that it had been subject to hacking attacks, and while it did not point the finger directly it was clear that it was accusing China of perpetrating the attacks.

The statement resulted in a war of words which went on for weeks. Xinhua put out almost daily propaganda pieces, dismissing the accusations and insisting that all companies operating in China should do so according to the law. Meanwhile the US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton made high profile speeches addressing issues of freedom of speech. Ultimately Google moved its search engine out of China and directed mainland users to its less restricted Hong Kong server, though it has remained in China if only in a research and development role.

The spat between Google and the Chinese authorities highlighted what many security experts had been warning for years, that of a devastating cyberwar. China has a vast army of hackers, and it is believed many are employed in clandestine operations, targeting western companies and governments in the search for intellectual property and industrial secrets. But it is not only China that is engaged in cyberattacks and hacking. Security firms say many such attacks originate from Russia and Iran, but that China is the biggest threat [tvnewswatch - Jan 2010].

A report released in mid January pointed clearly at China being responsible for the attack which targeted Google's Gmail services and over 30 other companies. VeriSign's iDefense security lab published a report [arstechnica] with technical details concerning the attack which it says were initiated by the Chinese government [tvnewswatch - Jan 2010]. Their findings were reinforced later in the year after a cable leaked by the whistle-blowing site Wikileaks revealed that China's propaganda chief Li Changchun [李长春] may have ordered the attacks on Google personally [tvnewswatch - Dec 2010].

Cyberattacks were not the only thing that raised concerns. Following a failed airline attack in December 2009 airport authorities began to install full body scanners to thwart further attempts to smuggle explosives onto planes. But the move has not come without controversy. The new so-called naked body scanners were seen as an invasion of privacy by many [tvnewswatch - Jan 2010] and according to some reports would ultimately become ineffective as terrorists sought to circumvent the technology [tvnewswatch - Feb 2010].

Terrorists have not only targeted US interests. In March at least 40 people died after an attack on a Moscow subway [tvnewswatch - Mch 2010]. The attack highlighted how increased security at airports was pushing the terrorists towards softer targets. New York saw another failed attack in May, but this time it was an attempt to detonate a car bomb near Times Square [tvnewswatch - May 2010].

Technology has so far failed to stop such low tech attacks. It was instead an alert member of the public that thwarted what could have been a devastating blast in the heart of New York. Technology also failed to stop the chaos brought about by the eruption of a volcano in April. Thousands of flights were grounded after dust filled the air from the Eyjafjallajökull volcano in Iceland [tvnewswatch - Apr 2010].

While the vast array of satellites, weather stations and sensors around the globe have helped predict the weather and natural phenomena, ultimately nature has had the last word. 2010 has seen sandstorms in China [tvnewswatch - Mch 2010] and volcanic eruptions halting flights. Extreme weather has also brought problems. Beijing and other parts of China saw the harshest winter in 60 years. And even in a country used to coping with extreme weather there were still problems. In early January the capital was experiencing temperatures of -20°C at night [tvnewswatch - Jan 2010] and motorists on some highways found themselves trapped for days [tvnewswatch - Jan 2010].

Britain also saw the year begin with massive disruption due to heavy snow. And by the end of the year few lessons had been learnt as December brought further snowfall. Roads were closed, rail services disrupted and many airports shut for days [tvnewswatch - Dec 2010]. London's Heathrow airport was particularly affected with hundreds of flights cancelled after airport authorities failed to clear snow in a timely manner [tvnewswatch - Dec 2010].

Around the globe extreme weather has brought destruction and chaos. Russia saw a devastating heatwave which destroyed wheat crops while the US and parts of Africa also saw record temperatures. Meanwhile floods killed hundreds in China in what has become a yearly event [tvnewswatch - July 2010]. The bad weather has raised the stakes in the debate about global warming, but despite meetings in Copenhagen, Tianjin and more recently in Mexico there has been no formalised or legally binding agreement [tvnewswatch - Dec 2010].

Technology as well as staffing levels failed the British electorate in the May elections with many unable to cast their votes. And when the result finally came Britain found themselves with a hung parliament [tvnewswatch - May 2010]. As a coalition was formed the electoral commission said they would look into the problems that effected people's ability to vote [tvnewswatch - May 2010]. Austerity measures dominated the headlines throughout the year. There were riots in Greece, strikes across many parts of Europe and mass protests on the streets of Britain some of which descended into violence. The US has continued to harass China over its currency, widely seen as being undervalued. But despite the fallout of a worldwide recession there some sectors that seem to be doing well.

Technology manufacturers in particular have seen growing sales and 2010 could be seen as a pivotal moment for smartphones, tablet computers and social networking. Google saw sales of phones using its Android operating system rise while Apple's iPhone sales stagnated, not helped by reception problems with the iPhone 4. But Apple did seize a key market with its iPad an area which many other manufacturers are attempting to enter. Internet TV and 3DTV are still in the early stages of development, but already there are some products available. The gaming market also saw innovations with Microsoft's Kinect which enables game players to interact without a controller.

Use of social networking sites also grew particularly Twitter and Facebook. Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook's founder, also saw himself immortalised in film as the film The Social Network was released in cinemas. Facebook has survived despite being under a weight of criticism for its privacy policy. The film was also critical of Zuckerberg himself. But the entrepreneur is unperturbed and is widely believed to be trying to expand into other regions so far cut off from his social networking site. In mid-December he was spotted at the offices of Baidu [tvnewswatch - Twitpic], China's homegrown search engine, and later at another social network, that of Sina, China's version of Twitter. It is unclear what Zuckerberg's plans are for China, but many websites such as Twitter, Blogger, YouTube and Facebook are currently blocked by authorities. Homegrown initiatives are heavily self-censored and it there is growing speculation that Zuckerberg may be attempting to appease Chinese authorities in order to enter a lucrative marketplace [Independent / Forbes].

Zuckerberg also beamed out from the front cover of Time magazine as 2010's person of the year. But this was before his initially unpublicised visit to China. How far he'll compromise is an unknown factor, but many companies have burned their fingers by bending over too far to China's demands. Yahoo came under particular criticism after giving authorities information which led to the arrest and jailing of several dissidents [Wikipedia]. Microsoft have effectively given away much of its code in order to operate in China, and Google came under a barrage of criticism after it agreed to censor it Chinese based search engine when it arrived on the mainland in 2006. For Google it ended none too well and its share price fell significantly, though it has since recovered. Zuckerberg will not experience an easy ride. Even the Chinese based Global Times suggested Facebook would find the market a difficult one to enter. 

China is a land of opportunity. However there are issues that must be addressed by the government, least of all censorship, copyright and intellectual property rights. It is one of few countries that has a growing economy. But as western interests seek to do business in an exciting market, this must be tempered by a moral attitude too. As the year of the Tiger draws to an end [in February 2011] the year of the Rabbit may offer very different business opportunities. The Rabbit is seen as articulate, talented, and ambitious in Chinese astrology. Three traits that would do well for doing business in the coming year.

tvnewswatch, London, UK

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