Using insecure software for confidential Parliamentary meetings is unforgivable

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Dear Parliament, let me tell you about some great meeting software called Teams. It’s made by Microsoft, the same people with whom government has a big contract for software. It’s part of the package and you can run a whole company on it. Microsoft itself has been doing this internally for years – known in the tech industry as “eating your own dog food” – while innumerable large companies have discovered how to in the last two months since the Covid-19 pandemic.

Why Teams and not the easier-to-use Zoom?

Well, after last week’s Zoombombing of the programming committee of the National Assembly’s virtual meeting, that question answers itself doesn’t. Nothing like MPs being shown porn and having racist slurs yelled at you to prove that the free software has its hazards….

Zoom has exploded from nowhere to become one of the heroes – and very quickly – zeros of the lockdown months. Designed to be easy to use, it has rocketed in popularity and grown from 30m to 300m users.

But Zoom has had security issues for a long time, and which it has failed to address. One of those is a default setting that lets anyone share their screen with the other participant – and how the Zoombomers show their porn. Better security settings are available in paid-for versions.

And, as it happens, this is the second time parliamentarians have been Zoombombed. Sadly, it isn’t the first time this has happened to members of parliament. Last month it was a meeting chaired by Minister of Women, Youth and Persons Disabilities Maite Nkoana-Mashabane.

But Zoom was already banned in April by Google, NASA, Taiwan and Canada. But our Parliament’s IT department, for whatever bizarre reason, continued to use communications software with known security flaws.

I’d say this is a fireable offence, but this is the politically impermeable era of ANC non-accountability where Faith Muthambi can give Cabinet minutes to the Guptas and Bathabile Dlamini can defy the Constitutional Court over social grant payments. The slow-death of SAA was directly caused by the economically clueless and politically devious Dudu Myeni. Nobody is rushing to arrest any of them. Nor any of the other felons still in government.

So, nobody in Parliament need worry about their job security, on top of the security of the virtual meetings of our lawmakers it seems.

Microsoft makes its money from selling you the actual software. Who knew we’d come to love a company that sold us something, instead of mining our personal data to sell us advertising?

It bears repeating: if the product is free, you are the product.

By now, surely the world has learnt this from the Facebook data privacy debacle where Cambridge Analytica harvested tens of millions of personal profiles that they used to wreck democratic elections in the US and UK.

If the software is for free, what is the hidden cost?

How is Facebook going to monetise WhatsApp? The messaging giant has over 1bn users, to go with Facebook’s 2.3bn and the billion-plus users of Messenger and Instagram. Increasingly WhatsApp is being used for voice and video calling, as is Messenger. Could Facebook end up having a massive share of internet telephony?

Similarly, Google has billions of users ­– through its search engine, Android software for smartphones, Gmail, YouTube, Maps and more – and huge datasets on them too. It’s Hangouts software also handle lots of conferencing.

They know an inordinate amount about us and are increasingly becoming our communications service providers, first in social media and now in voice and video calling. If something is for free, it’s not worth the price you’ll pay for it.

But that is a conversation for another day. On Microsoft Teams. Or Skype. Or FaceTime.

This article first appeared in Financial Mail

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About Author

Toby Shapshak is editor-in-chief and publisher of Stuff, a Forbes contributor and a Financial Mail columnist. He has been writing about technology and the internet for 20 years and his TED Global talk on innovation in Africa has over 1,5-million views. He has written about Africa's tech and start-up ecosystem for Forbes, CNN and The Guardian in London. He was named in GQ's top 30 men in media and the Mail & Guardian newspaper's influential young South Africans. He has been featured in the New York Times. GQ said he "has become the most high-profile technology journalist in the country" while the M&G wrote: "Toby Shapshak is all things tech... he reigns supreme as the major talking head for everything and anything tech."

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