Hard News by Russell Brown

Sky jinks

With the rest of the TV industry abuzz - and possibly alarmed - at the news that Sky Television is gearing up to launch a free-to-air channel, recent information from Nelson reader Brian Wakely would seem extremely relevant.

Last Wednesday night, Brian received a visit from a salesman for an outfit called Integrate, which, he thought at the time, "seemed to have some agreement with Sky to provide facilities for 'public' digital TV when it eventually arrives". Brian continues:

It seemed to centre around Sky dishes and a limited Sky service until public digital would allow one to give up Sky if desired.

The costs were interesting: $49 for a full Sky installation, a month's free service, followed by 12 months at $28. This seemed to include only the present 3 public TV channels plus Radio NZ. He was a bit vague about negotiating with Sky for single additional services of theirs, eg History, Discovery etc. I'm also a bit uncertain about what would happen after 12 months apart from the fact that we could keep the dish if we gave up the service.

His main thrust was that the $49 was a cheap entry into digital … We had always rejected Sky on the grounds that their minimum package was far too large for our viewing tastes, plus the ease with which they sometimes shift the goal posts, but that the chance now for some limited specialised material was somewhat attractive.

We ended up declining the offer and deciding to cross the digital bridge when we come to it.

Thus, the revelation from TVNZ's Richard Griffin in yesterday's Dom Post story that Sky has been "informally" discussing "long-term prospects for potentially leasable satellite space" with TVNZ - without actually revealing its plans - makes sense. Rather than seek to acquire terrestrial licences for the entire country, it will encourage viewers to take up satellite installations and deliver programming that way. The monthly $28 charge is a way of paying off the installation itself rather than a fee for television service.

In this light, it would seem that, if it really is in the market to buy C4 or Prime (unlikely, given the option held over Prime by Murdoch rival Kerry Packer), Sky is interested as much in acquiring a working TV brand as any frequency licenses. It will be interesting to see how Sky plans to slice and dice its pay offerings for viewers, like Brian, who might want additional channels, rather than the full Sky bouquet, to their free service.

Thanks for the feedback on the banking security story. The consensus appears to be that Citibank's "virtual keyboard" system is not an effective way of fending off possible keylogging attacks. Greg Wood reports that he uses Citibank Online in Singapore:

Yep, it all starts off fine at login with the new "virtual keyboard" (which even goes as far as changing the position of the keys each time, probably to bung up any Van Eck Phreaking being perpetrated by one's younger sister in the next room ...). But when you actually go to make a payment online, you have to confirm it's you by re-entering your pin via keystroke - twice! I guess system-wide changes are very difficult to apprehend when you're as huge as the Citi.

Indeed. Greg also notes that Citi's "brand pillars" in Asia include "a very strong focus on mitigating identity theft; and a strangely un-bank-like focus on exhorting and helping people to manage credit cards properly.":

The first is a positioning thing that might even help reduce the costs associated with ID theft. But that second approach is starting to feel like pre-emptive Socially Aware Company activity triggered by the risk analysts at Citi. I wouldn't be surprised to see a flood of "The Bank made me do it" class action suits against reckless credit card issuing in the near future, with this new marketing approach used as a defence. It's an attitudinal change along the lines of what the fast food people are doing with menus and dietary advice. I know we all hear the stories about the Winnebago guy and his Cruise Control, but could some positive societal changes actually be coming out of the US's obsession with blame?

Sol Kahn emailed from New York City to note that Citibank there offers a once-only password system like that recently introduced here by ASB/Bank Direct - with the difference that it's free. In other respects, however - notably transferring to accounts at other banks - Citi appears "so primitive you couldn't steal a decent amount if you wanted". For external transfers the bank has to write a cheque and post it to the payee. Even internal account transfers are limited to $700 daily. Yikes.

Adam Johnson noted that the BNZ actually used to operate a system like ASB/Bank Direct Netcode, back "when they had their horrible only-works-in-IE website". He also points out that while a virtual keyboard might "raise the bar" for event loggers, there's nothing to stop mouse clicks being captured, so "it doesn't really increase the security by any measurable amount."

Ben Gracewood points out that virtual keyboards really suck for disabled users - and for users of some web broswers too, it would seem.

Jody Fanning got in touch to describe online banking practices in Finland:

I'm glad that the two-part passwords were mentioned, but why on earth a text message each time!?

All the banks here issue a list (usually credit card-sized) of one-time passwords.

Each time I connect to the bank site I give my main ID and password and it asks for the one-time password using an index to the list. When the list of passwords is nearly finished (it will last at least a year) they send me a new one in the mail.

So much simpler and safer. Even is someone gets my account and main password, they have to physically steal my list of one-time passwords.

I couldn't believe it when my parents told me that their service at BNZ was still using a single password. Someone should really beat the banks there with a clue stick.

I'll look at the present wave of possibly premature neocon triumphalism tomorrow, but for now, the Guardian has been covering a startling example of White House moral blight involving (surprise!) a studied rejection of evidence. The paper reported last week that the US State Department seemed to be gearing up to use financial leverage to force UN agencies to turn away from harm-reduction policies such as needle exchange schemes:

Disturbingly, this tactic of applying pressure to national governments and international agencies to pursue policies preferred by US conservatives does not seem to be limited to drug policy. Similar moves are apparent in reproductive health and prostitution. The common denominator is the strong advocacy of a morality-driven policy in the face of evidence of what works best in protecting public health.

The international community meets next week in Vienna to review progress in reducing global drug problems. The issue of how to tackle drug-related HIV infection is scheduled to be a major theme. The exchanges will take place with almost no media or parliamentary scrutiny, but the positions agreed will affect the lives of millions of people, and the scale and course of the HIV pandemic in years to come. If the outcome is a retrenchment from the progress made in recent years by UN agencies, this would represent a victory of moralism and financial muscle over evidence and tolerance. Given the huge financial and human cost of increased HIV infection, we all have much to lose next week.

A follow-up comment on Monday continued the theme:

The US used crude muscle as UNODC's single largest paymaster to bully it back into line, suggesting that harm reduction strategies break the three global conventions on drugs and so are unacceptable for any state to adopt, even to fight an HIV/AIDS explosion.

American pressure extracted a humiliating letter from the UNODC executive director, Antonio Maria Costa, in which he agreed to "neither endorse needle exchange as a solution for drug abuse nor support public statements advocating such practices".

Yet, last July, Costa declared: "The HIV/AIDS epidemic among injecting drug users can be stopped - and even reversed - if drug users are provided, at an early stage and on a large scale, with comprehensive services such as outreach, provision of clean injecting equipment and a variety of treatment modalities, including substitution treatment.

Idiots. Blind, blind idiots.

Finally, I went along to the opening night preview of AK05's Def Poetry Jam last night, and really enjoyed it. It's nice to hear poetry in a contemporary format. I daresay it’s not for everyone, but if you've been thinking about going, you really should. I'm also interview Stan Lathan, the show's co-director and Russell Simmons' business partner, at about 12.15 on my 95bFM Wire show today. (UPDATE: Stan won't be able to join me, on account of being in hospital with a raging fever. I hope he's alright.)

PS: Wellington readers might be interested to know that The Film Archive is screening the 1985 Oxford Union Debate tonight as part of its 'This is Television' series. The screening begins at 6.30pm and entry is by koha. Non-Wellingtonians are invited to enjoy our transcript of David Lange's debate speech.