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March 2007

Just give me your important personal information please...

Earlier this week I was reading this article (A con as big as the Ritz (part 1) part 2) from The Guardian about Elliot Castro, who managed to extract a lot of money from other people's credit cards:

I knew you needed a range of security information to back up any significant purchase on a card, not just the data on the card itself. Yet that was all I was being given when customers were buying phones through me. Every few minutes I was helplessly keying in the numbers. Hundreds of 16-digit runs, expiry dates and issue numbers. Not enough.

Then, one day, I received a call from a guy who owned a business. He needed to order 10 phones and wanted to pay with his corporate American Express card. This was it. I wasn't even aware of what I was doing at first, but something clicked and I moved into action. I asked the man to hold. I sat looking at my reflection in the screen, steadying myself and concocting my scheme. I put the headphones back on. "Are you there, sir? I've got American Express on the other line. I'm just going to ask you some security questions."

It went like a dream. I asked him every question I could think of, far more than would have been necessary, and he rattled off the answers without hesitation. I scribbled them all down in a notebook, along with the original card details, then thanked him and hung up. Soon this was a common practice, whenever someone had a friendly voice and a large order to place, and my notebook slowly filled up.

That's quite clever because if you phone a company it's reasonable to expect that they will ask you those type of questions.  Then I read in today's SCMP about a somewhat similar con which is apparently being operated here in Hong Kong (Slick card gang fleeces rugby fans - subscription required):

Rugby fans have been fleeced of hundreds of thousands of dollars - the latest victims of a gang of sophisticated bank-card fraudsters, say police. Thousands of fans in Hong Kong for this weekend's Sevens have been warned to be on alert.

The thieves take bank cards and business cards, but nothing else, from wallets and purses. Their victims may not realise anything is missing, say police.

Armed with the business card, the gang researches a cardholder's background before calling them and pretending to be from their bank's lost-card service. The caller - a "super-smooth professional" in the words of one victim - says he will cancel the cards and provide a temporary password to access accounts once the account holder has typed their PIN into their phone.

I suppose it's easy to be taken in by these people, but the banks always say that you should never give out your PIN number to anyone, including bank staff.  Given that, it would be interesting to know what attitude the bank will take about refunding the money that has been stolen.

I tend to very suspicious of people who ask me for bits of personal information, though it seems to be compulsory to tell companies in Hong Kong your Hong Kong ID number, and as a result this must be about the least secure piece of personal information in existence.  Some companies demand to see your ID card, but others just take the number over the phone and then seem to believe that this proves something.

The other problem is that when they do ask for personal information to verify your identity, it would help considerably if their records were up-to-date.  When I'm asked for my work phone number or the name of my employer, I have to guess whether they collected this information 2 years ago or 5 years ago or 10 years ago and whether it has been updated since then.  Not such a good system after all. 

I suppose it helps to reduce fraud, but, as Elliot Castro and the "super-smooth professional" have demonstrated, you can't totally prevent it.


Another way to do it

Following on from the discussion about the BB Box, and how to get video from a computer to a TV, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that it is possible to put about an hour of high-definition video on to a CD and play it on a DVD player (I think it has to be one that supports DivX).

I suppose it isn't as good as HD-DVD or Blu-Ray but it is much better than VCD, which was the previous standard for video on a CD - and both DVD players and blank CDs are very cheap these days. 

I'm sure everyone else has been doing this for several years, but I've only just discovered it.


Box of tricks

I don't quite understand the point of this BB Box (SCMP registration required):

Hong Kong Broadband Network, the city's smallest fixed-line operator, aims to increase its customers' use of broadband with the launch of its BB Box service, which brings computer multimedia files to a user's television screen, according to chairman Ricky Wong Wai-kay.

The service, to be launched late next month or early May, is similar to Apple's new product Apple TV, which started shipments last week.

Hong Kong Broadband Network, the fixed-line operation of Hong Kong-listed City Telecom (Hong Kong), said it was working on its product before Apple announced the Apple TV in September last year.

"Our ideas came in early last year and the whole system and development was conducted by a Beijing-based software house," Mr Wong said.

The BB Box service, which works with Hong Kong Broadband's pay-TV set-top box used by more than 120,000 subscribers, connects a home computer to a television for viewing of photos and films downloaded from the internet.

BB Box users need to install a software client in their computer and use a local access network cable for connecting the computer and the set-top box.

Maybe I'm stupid, but what is this actually doing?  Wouldn't a simple cable do the job, or am I missing the point?  

Each BB Box is theoretically capable of supporting unlimited connections to other computers, as all the files users want to watch from their friends' computers will be transmitted through the internet by streaming technology.

"It is a streaming service that demonstrates our high-speed broadband infrastructure. No storage is needed for the service," Mr Wong said. "We want to build up a platform for our broadband users to share their multimedia files. It will be another type of video-on-demand programme. This is also another type of user-generated content."

The company might charge users HK$60 to HK$100 per month for the BB Box service when it launches next month.

When he says "another type of video-on-demand" does he actually mean that this is an easier way of watching illegal content on your TV?  Not so much user-generated as user-uploaded...  


Superficial changes

Yesterday I rushed out to buy my copy of the new re-designed SCMP, but somehow it has take me until now to find anything to say about.

What's the point of re-designing a newspaper if you aren't going to change the contents?  Actually, they haven't really re-designed it  - all they have done is introduce a new typeface.   

So we still have Hong Kong news in the main paper and then again at the front of the "City" section (if there's any left).  This was widely criticized as illogical when one of the previous editors introduced it, but somehow it's still like that.  Wouldn't it make more sense to have all the news (and sport) in the main paper, and then have a tabloid features section?  Like, for example, The Guardian's G2 (though this has now shrunk to magazine size since the main paper switched to the compact format).

Not that it seems to matter, as the SCMP seems to be making lots of money for its owners (Ad revenue lifts SCMP profit 37pc - subscription required).  That's what happens when there's no competition.

Of course, there was a time about a dozen years ago when Hong Kong had three English-language daily newspapers - The Hong Kong Standard was a rather duller version of the SCMP, and the Eastern Express was quite lightweight (and seemingly very reliant on articles sourced from the Daily Telegraph).  EE didn't last very long, but the HK Standard has struggled on, briefly becoming the iMail (which was at least a bit livelier) and then The Standard, which is allegedly a business newspaper.  It seems to be painfully thin these days, with local news limited to 4 (tabloid) pages last time I picked it up, and I really can't see why anyone buys it.

There was talk last year that The Standard might switch to free distribution.  One other possibility that occurs to me is a tie-up with the IHT.  In many other Asian cities, the IHT comes with a local newspaper that supplements its regional and international coverage.  I don't think they have one in Hong Kong, and The Standard would probably fit the bill.


Counted out

One thing I find slightly strange about (English language) Hong Kong blogs is that you very rarely get anything even approaching controversy, let alone any feuds, between bloggers.  Perhaps this is because there aren't that many of us, and that most people steer clear of politics. 

One exception is Roland Soong's ESWN.  I've mentioned this before (Lost in translation) and he has come under attack again for his habit of offering "expert analysis" in a very partisan way.  A guest contributor at Peking Duck generated a lot of response for his attack on Roland, and Tom Legg has also joined in on his blog.

The concern here is that a casual observer might believe that Roland is offering impartial analysis of the "facts" about how many people took part in a march for democracy, and what it all means.  Roland's technique is normally to question the estimates for the number of marchers, and then conclude that this indicates lack of support for democracy (The Unanswered Question about Hong Kong numbers):

But what is your explanation as to why 5,000 people showed up for the march when public opinion polls showed that 60% of the population are for universal suffrage? If you can solve that puzzle, then you will get 60% of 7 million people = 4.2 million people to march for universal suffrage. How can that sort of people power be stopped?

Clearly Roland is being disingenuous here, as Raj pointed out in his posting at Peking Duck:

It seems like quite an easy answer to me. Hong Kong people have indicated - quite consistently through polls - that they want universal suffrage. However they probably do not believe that protesting about it will make much of a difference. It's all very well that saying getting 4+ million people on the streets "cannot be stopped", but then again when did Hong Kong ever get 4+ million people on the streets? The UK managed much less than that in protests against the war in Iraq (Police said 750,000 - organisers said 2 million), despite the fact we have a population of over 60 million and there was generally a lot of opposition to the war.

I think that's correct, though I'd probably go further and say that Hong Kong people are also quite patient.  They became very frustrated with Tung Chee-Hwa, but are willing to give Donald Tsang a chance.  He knows that he has to do something about democracy, but mass demonstrations won't help him in negotiations with Beijing.  In fact, you only have to look to Taiwan to see that this form of "people power" really doesn't solve anything, and probably makes things worse.  Would Beijing react positively to 4 million people marching?  I can't see it myself. I think there's far more chance of Tsang sorting something out quietly with Beijing, as he has promised to do (Tsang targets 60pc backing for suffrage plan - subscription required):

Hong Kong will adopt a universal suffrage model that has international recognition, Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen has pledged.

Without committing himself on when it could be implemented or what form it would take, Mr Tsang said he would try to forge a proposal that would win the support of 60 per cent of the public. He said Hong Kong people would not accept any proposal for universal suffrage at the expense of the city's prosperity, way of life or relations with the central government, and again called on different political forces to try to reach a compromise.

If he fails, it's possible to imagine another mass demonstration in a few years time, but Roland must know that 1 million would be more than enough to make an impact. 


Re-arranging the deckchairs

More strange goings-on at what is variously described as "the world's most profitable newspaper" (is it?), "Asia's leading newspaper" (it isn't) and by other epithets that are a little less kind. Yes, it's the South China Morning Post (SCMP).

A few months ago the editor (Fanny Fung) departed, and last night the SCMP announced that the editor-in-chief, Mark Clifford, would be leaving at the end of this month after just a year in charge. Rebecca MacKinnon was on to the story straight away, as was the Asia Sentinel.  The Bangkok Post also managed to provide a good summary:

The South China Morning Post, a highly profitable newspaper, has had a turbulent management history since Hong Kong reverted to Chinese sovereignty in 1997 as it struggles to redefine itself in a post-colonial era.

In less than a decade, the newspaper has had five editors in chief - two Americans, one Briton and an Indian - and at one stage between the third and fourth editors was edited by a management panel of four executives.

Circulation of the newspaper has dipped to around 100,000 copies a day as expatriates leave the city of 6.9 million and Mandarin replaces English as a second language to Cantonese and the newspaper has so far failed in its ambition to expand into mainland China.

The consensus seems to be that Mark Clifford had upset too many people in his brief time at the SCMP  (details over at Asia Sentinel: No Joking Please, We’re Journalists, Top Editor Forced to Resign at South China Morning Post & Hong Kong Newspaper Drama Continues).

More links: World's most profitable newspaper loses its editor & April's fool.

I'm just hoping that somebody will hang around long enough to actually do something about the SCMP (and its website) before it finally sinks.


Tell me it isn't true

If this (from a letter in the SCMP) is true, it's scandalous:

Hundreds die needlessly as the city's bureaucrats dither

I have just completed a two-year term as a member of the public liaison group for the Hong Kong fire and ambulance services. It was a rewarding experience, which I strongly encourage others to consider. As a non-speaker of Cantonese, I was deeply touched by the efforts of all concerned to make me feel welcome and appreciated.

I want to share some observations from my experience with the community at large. First, the fire and ambulance services are staffed and equipped to world-class standards. In addition, the men and women who comprise both the command-and-control structure and the rank and file exemplify what it means to be decent and dedicated. Having said this, unfortunately there are aspects of the services largely out of their control that result in literally hundreds of Hong Kong people dying needlessly each year. What really irks me is that this problem could be solved quite easily.

Unlike most modern cities, Hong Kong despatches its ambulances on a "first come, first served" basis. The 30-year-old tennis player with a sprained knee at the Hong Kong Country Club calling at 10.30am on a Saturday gets the ambulance first over the family calling from Ocean Park a minute later as their 65-year-old grandfather keels over unconscious with the symptoms of a heart attack. In many cases, the grandfather waits and dies, while the tennis player with the twisted knee is briskly whisked to hospital.

To deal with the reality of limited resources and rising demand, most fire and ambulance services in first-world cities have implemented very basic assessment systems over the phone to allow the despatcher to prioritise treatment for a large number of patients. These triage systems are well developed, fully tested and work well around the world.

The Hong Kong fire and ambulance services have all the software and systems necessary to implement such a system, and could do so in very short order. Indeed, they are desperately keen to do so and have been ready to launch for at least 18 months. However, for reasons totally unfathomable to me, the wheels of government that oversee the provision of emergency services bureaucratically dither. Day in, day out, the sprained knee gets priority over the heart attack, and hundreds of people die.

Most first-world cities have heart-attack survival rates approaching 30 per cent. Can you guess Hong Kong's? Less than 1 per cent, and falling. Now you know one of the biggest reasons why.

TOBIAS BROWN, Central

A close relative of mine in the UK recently survived a heart attack, and I'm sure that the prompt arrival of an ambulance was a major factor. Hong Kong has excellent hospitals, so I have no doubt that the survival rates should be similar to those in the UK - as long as ambulances are able to get patients to the hospital promptly.

Signs of the Zodiac: the pig

From a rather splendid calendar I have been given.  This is about the pig:

Character: Noble and chivalrous.  Your friends will be lifelong, yet you are prone to marital stress.  Avoid other pigs.  Marry a rabbit or a sheep

Career: You easily get into arguments with your colleagues, yet you always win.  You should keep a low profile to avoid extreme ups and downs.

Romance: Relationships are unstable and unpredictable.  Stay calm.

Excellent advice, I think.  More to follow.


In praise of...Podcasts

The BBC say that Podcasts are not as popular as the hype might make you believe.  That may well be true, and it certainly wouldn't be the first Internet phenomenon to suffer that fate, but I am a big fan - up to a point.

The BBC has embarked on a fairly ambitious Podcast trial, and so far it is free and it's available outside the UK (unlike their experiment with making TV programmes available on the web).  The trial includes programmes from all of the BBC's national stations, but with more emphasis on talk (because there are copyright issues with music).

I don't think I ever listened to Start The Week when I lived in the UK (in part, I suppose, because it is broadcast at 9 a.m. on Monday), but now I am able to download it and listen to it on my way to work, and jolly good it is too (in a Radio 4 sort of way).  Melvyn Bragg, who I think used to present Start the Week, now does In Our Time, in which he and his guests "investigate the history of ideas", and if that sounds a bit too much like a bunch of dusty academics showing off, then I'm afraid that is often what it turns into - though it can be interesting.   

I'm sure I have heard Mark Kermode on the radio before, but I'm not exactly sure where.  Anyway, his film reviews (from Simon Mayo's Radio 5 show) are available as a Podcast, and whilst I can't say I totally share his tastes in films, he is an entertaining and intelligent critic.  There is also a daily podcast of other features from Simon Mayo's show.

I have to admit to being a fan of Chris Evans (from the days before he was rich and famous), and if you can get over the fact that is on Radio 2 (previously the dullest of all the BBC's radio stations), his podcast is also quite good fun.   

Newspaper podcasts are much more variable.  The Guardian have quite a few, including Football Weekly, which is generally good, though there are definitely times when it is just a bit too laid back.  The Times also has several podcasts, but I found Danny Kelly's football one far too hyped-up and stopped listening after about 5 minutes.

I have to say that although I did try for using an ordinary MP3 player, I finally caved in and got an iPod, which makes it all a lot easier - though not quite as seamless as Apple might have you believe.