Tuesday, July 28, 2009

No Place to Hide.

Nigerians are, I think, a secretive people. We have an entrenched paranoia over sharing and revealing personal information to anyone whether friend, family or stranger. This isn’t as a result of some highly developed sense of individualism or privacy as we see with the Americans. It is more of a superstitious dread of that personal information being used to harm us. So you do not leave bits of your hair where someone can get hold of them. When an unseen voice calls your name you do not answer until you have investigated the source and you do not share good news with certain people lest they find someway to turn it to bad news.

Some of that fear is justified – though the reasons are more concrete than the same traditions that resulted in twins being murdered and so-called outcasts being abandoned to die. My last blog about my near-miss from eBay fraudsters is a case in point. Just because you are paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t out to get you. Yet as we race to catch up and play in a globally connected world and try to enjoy all of its benefits, we have to surrender our secretiveness in order to be full citizens in today’s internet society. Actually whether you consciously choose to or not, just by being on the internet you are already providing a lot of information about yourself.

The backend systems that track your every search on Google or send information on every web page you visit to an advertising company or the other are out there, but I am not talking about those. The more interesting ones however are the systems that require you to be open in some way in order for you to participate. Facebook for instance requires you to participate with your real identity and you really cannot be a part of any sort of Facebook community without sharing some fragments of personal information. LinkedIn goes even further to being a site that is dependent on your providing verifiable professional and personal information. On LinkedIn, you are either flat-out lying or you are telling people about the schools you attended and when, the jobs you held and by implication your professional success thus far (or lack thereof).  These are just two examples of the information that can be easily used to identify you. We’ve all performed the narcissistic act of googling our names. For me that brings up this blog, my LinkedIn and Facebook profiles, my poems on Poetry.com, WhoIs information about the domains I own and so on. With this information, you have enough information about me to form a pretty good idea of my interests, capabilities and quirks without ever meeting me. You even have access to pictures to manipulate (I cannot believe I am saying all this).

The uses, both positive and negative, for this kind of information are pretty vast. Employees now go online to suss out current and prospective employees. Criminals can use the information to set up a scam. The past acts and utterances of political office seekers can be downloaded from YouTube. As computers become nothing other than wide spaces on the information superhighway everything that is typed on a keyboard or recorded with a camera phone becomes a permanent record that could exalt us or be our downfall.

This is the world we live in today. We Nigerians have to deal with it.

The awareness of this could drive many away from these tools and media. Many don’t use Facebook because they can’t stand the constant scrutiny. I honestly cannot blame them. I wouldn’t want to live in the Big Brother House either. And yet, as it is in London, the constant CCTV-like observations are just something you have to contend with because the use of the tools can result in tremendous personal and professional dividends. Now you either take the risk of participating – or stay offline and risk being left behind in everyone else’s exhaust fumes. Clearly you need to be circumspect as to what information you share and the contexts in which you share the information. However, like the mobile phones that we did not have 10 years ago, we simply cannot exist without those interactions and the exposure that accompanies them.

The London government would probably tell you that the constant monitoring is pretty easy to cope with – don’t break the law. Someone also once said “always tell the truth, that way you never need to remember what you said”. In the context of the internet, this means, do your best to live a life that will translate favourably online and you won’t have to worry about what end’s up on the world’s screens.


Photo courtesy of Soso at Flickr.com

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

A Bad Name


Someone here Tried to Take Me for a Ride.

I have to admit it. The scam was smooth, simple and elegant. It probably relies on well iterated social engineering factors. A novice eBay seller. A hot item. The desire for quick turn around. Maybe even a location or origin flag. Many people have probably been caught out by it. I nearly was.

I had a couple of items to sell. I was in a country, the UK, where it was easy to ship items for minimal costs.  So I post the item for sale. I put the minimum bid at 200 GBP and a buy it now price of 400 GBP. Maximum shipping cost that eBay allows is 7 GBP  so I reasonably expect to sell it in the range of 407 GBP. I have had an eBay account for years, but I have never bought or sold anything on eBay so I am a novice on this thing.

The very same day I post the item, I get a hit. An interested buyer sends me a message in the the system asking about the item. I have reproduced the series of conversations below:


I respond that it is still available and “gerald9698” replies:


Thinking quite innocently that this complicates things a bit, I send a return message suggesting that we follow the approved eBay process . I point out that he would save himself money on following that process, but he answers:


He then sends another message saying


So I send it to him. I want to make a quick sale, I owe eBay no loyalty since they have charged me upfront anyway for posting. The same day I get the message below.


Truly I get the message below from “service@paypal.co.uk


Now I don’t notice that the email address isn’t actually service@paypal.co.uk. It is actually “pay.paypa_uk@consultant.comservice@paypal.co.uk is just the name associated with the address, not the address itself. However certain other things set my warning bells ringing. First, my original offer was 407 GBP, the person had said he would pay 430, yet here he “pays” 480.

Secondly and more tellingly, both eBay and PayPal have internal messaging systems on their sites that inform me of any transactions and neither system has any record of a payment whatsoever. The scam artist, for that is exactly what this person is, tries to run-around this with the official sounding text below. However it is complete rubbish. Every true transaction, pending or otherwise would be recorded in the PayPal messaging system. Secondly, even though he wanted this to be a non-eBay transaction the email message contained text that could only be have been part of the message if it had been an eBay transaction.


With this and a little bit more research, it was quite obvious that this was a simple yet well planned internet scam. I certainly intend to try and get eBay to discontinue this user’s account, though it is trivial to open one.

The lessons in summary are as follows. First use a system that has a good reputation, is known and has in-built protections such a comprehensive internal system for messaging, payment, verification and so on. Secondly, Don’t let impatience, a quest for simplicity or for extra money make you circumvent the system. Third be careful what information you give out online to strangers. Lastly, check and double check everything you can check before making any form of exchange.

I’m glad I was able to escape this pretty much unscathed. Nevertheless, it a pretty run of the mill, rather mundane story. What makes it worth blogging about (other than it being my first experience of this type) and both infuriates and saddens me. is the origin of this scam. Observe the name of the supposed buyer and his delivery address:


That’s right boys and girls, a Nigerian scam. The very first time I try to use eBay, a fellow Nigerian tries to take me for a ride. It shocks me. It embarrasses me. It saddens me.Is it any surprise that we Nigerians have a bad name on the world wide web?


Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Infrastructure: the second look

A few months ago, I read or heard somewhere about the Lagos State government planning to install CCTV to manage traffic and crime much in the same way it is done in London and the UK. I don't know whether this is true or not, but if it is then it is a most ambitious undertaking.

In order to get this done, networks very similar to the ATM systems that have spread a rich web across the city need to be in place. This not just networking technology, but also robust electrical systems, strong security, capable professionals and quality equipment. In short, it needs robust infrastructure.

In a recent post I had talked about infrastructure and the government's need to provide it for the sake of the population to be fruitful and prosperous. However, even though I touched on it, I somewhat glossed over the fact that one of the greatest areas robust infrastructure is needed is for the running of government itself.

The Internet is effectively a government invention. The US Defense Advanced Research Project Agency (DARPA) created the underpinnings of modern techno-society as part of research to improve US military superiority. The point is technology investments by the government for itself actually has far reaching benefits that may not be so obvious at the beginning.

Governments do not have unlimited funds, but they are more capable than private concerns to invest in things that do not necessarily have immediate benefits. If Lagos or any other state chooses to invest in these technologies and does it right, the long term benefits to the society would be far-reaching.

Of course, government investment in technology can be misguided, misplaced or misspent - and not just in Nigeria. The UK's national ID card project went way over budget and schedule. The Australian customs underwent a technology project that was arguably a big failure.

Our peculiar challenges with governmental expenditure go without saying though the Lagos state government does have more credibility than others. We need our governments to do the backend things that make the government's own front end work the way it should. We will all be richer for it.


Thursday, July 9, 2009

Small Screens Nearly Rule

For a while, I had toyed with the idea of living with the Internet on my phone exclusively for a while to see if it was a good enough replacement for Internet on a full computer. I didn't have the fortitude or discipline for that before. However, circumstances have forced me to do that since Sunday morning.

The verdict is it mostly does replace full PC Internet usage. Email, maps, news, blogs and so on are equally well served from a phone. In addition, being the iPhone there are a bunch of applications that provide optimised access to Internet based services and computing. On top of it all is the most obvious benefit of stopping on the street and not having to haul a laptop out of a bag, boot it up and start to awkwardly launch my applications. I just pull out my phone fire up any number of applications while only pausing to make sure I am not about to run into anyone or anything.

However, the small screen fails in some respects. It really is the small screen so all that zooming and spanning gets irritating after a while. Secondly, because it is the iPhone, it doesn't have some add-on technologies like flash, zip and others that we are dependent on.

In all, for most uses, mobile phone Internet based services are more than adequate. Perhaps I'll need to do this Naija to get a better day to day take on this.


Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Infrastructure (the lack of it)

We don't need much from our government. Really we don't. In fact, it would nice to have them fade into the background like the soft rumble of a distant generator that you don't notice until it falls silent. Working efficiently. Providing the goods. Only needing to be prodded once in a while by citizens voicing a concern.

On the other hand, the generator analogy may be an unfortunate one. After all, the reason a generator comes so readily to mind is because the government doesn't give us the little things they are duty-bound to. Hence the not-so quiet roar of the generator in everyone's backyard.

As I write from Liverpool, in a society where the basic infrastructure is in place, I can't help but rail against our government who do not give us the fundamental things we need and even block avenues for organisations that would do so. If they cannot give us electricity and cheap available communications infrastructure they need to get out of the way and let those who want to invest in such go ahead and get the job done.

Take the NITEL fiasco for instance. It is celebratory that most of Nigeria couldn't care less about that failed entity because phone services are available by an abundance of other means. Still NITEL still controls access to a resource that could potentially open up high speed access to the Internet - the SAT3 subsea fiber-optic cable that connects Africa to the rest of the world. That access isn't therefor most Nigerians because it is in the hands NITEL. Even in the early days NIPOST was quicker off the starting blocks providing cybercafe services while NITEL people were driving white trucks around Lagos with "Internet project" or some such painted on the side.

I spent most of this afternoon on the phone with a London-based friend who was lamenting only having 3.2 mb/s internet access while his neighbour on another service could get 8! I'm pretty impressed when my downloads are sustained at 40kb/s for more than 5 minutes.

Modern society runs on two things: electricity and data communications. If the Nigerian government can solve those two problems they will significantly reduce many societal woes. They will reduce unemployment. Inflation will be lower. Healthcare will be cheaper. Food production and storage will be simpler. It will easier to get safe drinking water. Education will accelarate. Pollution and its associated problems will be less. The haemorrhage of the brightest to foreign lands will cease. Dare I say it - even the population will probably go down as with more things to do with their time couples will not spend all their time making babies...

All a government is required to do is make the needed laws and guidelines to ensure that society works as it should. They should also provide some basic infrastructure or provide everything possible to the people willing to invest in such things.

The Chinese have a curse: "may you live in interesting times." Interesting times are times of war, famine and epidemic disease. Times of prosperity are dull periods of quietness when things just chug along as they are supposed to. Right now, we have very interesting infrastructure in Nigeria where every man and woman has to think about providing their own electricity, water, security, run several cars and carry 2 phones. We need those things to fade into the background and become the white noise that soothes our nerves as we focus on true value adding activity.