Trying not to talk about COVID-19

Zoom follow-up, Hacks and Scams in the age of COVID-19, the death of cash and a history lesson in Data Visualisation

A mixed bag today. In this issue, I highlight a few things that have been on my mind, starting with a follow-up to Zoom’s trials and tribulations in securing its product.

I hope you enjoy this. Feel free to share, er …virally.


Zoom follow-up

Following a worldwide backlash and the possibility of being investigated by the authorities in several countries, Zoom CEO, Eric Yuan, stated on the Zoom blog on April 1st (and no, it is not an April Fool’s Joke): 

To our Zoom users around the world,

Whether you are a global corporation that needs to maintain business continuity, a local government agency working to keep your community functioning, a school teacher educating students remotely, or a friend that wants to host a happy hour to spark some joy while social distancing, you are all managing through unique challenges brought upon by this global health crisis. During this time of isolation, we at Zoom feel incredibly privileged to be in a position to help you stay connected. 

We also feel an immense responsibility. Usage of Zoom has ballooned overnight – far surpassing what we expected when we first announced our desire to help in late February. This includes over 90,000 schools across 20 countries that have taken us up on our offer to help children continue their education remotely. To put this growth in context, as of the end of December last year, the maximum number of daily meeting participants, both free and paid, conducted on Zoom was approximately 10 million. In March this year, we reached more than 200 million daily meeting participants, both free and paid. We have been working around the clock to ensure that all of our users – new and old, large and small – can stay in touch and operational. 

For the past several weeks, supporting this influx of users has been a tremendous undertaking and our sole focus. We have strived to provide you with uninterrupted service and the same user-friendly experience that has made Zoom the video-conferencing platform of choice for enterprises around the world, while also ensuring platform safety, privacy, and security. However, we recognize that we have fallen short of the community’s – and our own – privacy and security expectations. For that, I am deeply sorry, and I want to share what we are doing about it.

The letter went on to outline “What we’ve done” and “What we’re going to do”. TLDR; freeze development of new features to fix security flaws and work on more transparent policies.

It’s a good start and it reminds me a little of the Bill Gate’s mea-culpa letter on the security of the Windows OS, the Trustworthy Computing initiative in 2002. That letter ended with:

Going forward, we must develop technologies and policies that help businesses better manage ever larger networks of PCs, servers and other intelligent devices, knowing that their critical business systems are safe from harm. Systems will have to become self-managing and inherently resilient. We need to prepare now for the kind of software that will make this happen, and we must be the kind of company that people can rely on to deliver it.

This priority touches on all the software work we do. By delivering on Trustworthy Computing, customers will get dramatically more value out of our advances than they have in the past. The challenge here is one that Microsoft is uniquely suited to solve.

Bill Gates saw the opportunity in derision of the Operating System’s security, an OS that had come to dominate the computing industry, and he worked non-stop to make the initiative a reality.

Judge a company by what it does, not by what it says. That’s what we should all be doing with respects to Zoom currently. Time will tell if Eric Yuan is as capable as Bill Gates was back in 2002. If anything, Eric Yuan has it more comfortable as he has a model he can follow, unlike Bill Gates had back then.

Coronavirus is helping Hackers and Scammers

Unsurprisingly, hackers and general online crooks, are using the gift of COVID-19 as a platform from which to launch their nefarious plans. Proofpoint, suggests that 4 out of 5 scam emails reference COVID-19 in some way and that coronavirus-themed attacks are the main vectors in employ. Most of the attacks are phishing, account compromise attacks and spam email, with credential phishing significantly on the rise.

With many people now working from home, and with companies using outdated or just plain lousy security practices, criminals are targeting under-prepared people to gain access to systems and networks that would not ordinarily be available outside corporate walls.

Other scams that are becoming more and more prevalent are fake donation schemes, purporting to help those in need of assistance due to coronavirus; health workers and victims for example. Scams like these tend to request a donation in Bitcoin (surprise, surprise) and for nothing but the theft of money most dubiously and obnoxiously. Beware too, of key logger scams — a key logger tries to steal you keyboard presses with the hope of discovering your login and password credentials.

This document from ENISA should help you and your IT develop better practices when working from home.

Is COVID-19 the death of cash?


Since the introduction of credit cards, bank to bank transfers and now touch-less payment systems; people have long been predicting the death of cash. Something like 65 years in fact. With a new problem for the world to focus upon, many are now “building on the shoulders of giants” —I’m being sarcastic—, in predicting that COVID-19 will result in the death of cash.

The idea first appeared in a British newspaper near the end of March, in a conflation of research conducted by NIH and World Health Organisation-issued advice on the handling of cash. The WHO reiterated its already in-use policy of good hygiene practices, stating that germs can stay active for hours, even days in some circumstances on cash. And like most things in the Internet age, anything that is currently virus-related goes, well… viral.

While it is true that many buyers and suppliers of goods and services have developed a sudden aversion to cash due to the risks associated with the transmission of SARS-COV-2, there is still an attachment to cash in our part of the world that just unshakable. The tangibility of cash is just too anchored in our society for it to be removed easily, despite the pandemic. The exchange of goods tends to require a physical transfer of money. In the Caribbean, we are probably more attached to cash than our compatriots in the US or Europe, for all sorts of reasons that this newsletter is under-qualified to examine.

Anecdotally, I went to the local dump a couple of years ago to dispose of an old mattress that was replaced. The agent in the recycling centre asked if I had checked the mattress thoroughly. Perplexed, I asked him why. He replied, telling me that at the facility, they had found plenty of cash stuffed inside old mattresses and that my money would be uncovered if it was hidden. He was, of course, only half-joking.

I have personally been a fan and a proponent of a cashless society for some time. But even I admit, there cannot be only positives and that there are likely undesirable outcomes with privacy, abuse of power and the general policing of monetary circulation. But on balance, I believe that a cashless society would benefit overall, with substantial reductions in fraud, theft and significant increases in simplicity of sales, support and the lifecycle of goods. I’m not particularly worried about viruses.

Looking to the future. With the right checks and balances, purchases of goods could be linked to responsible destruction and recycling of said items after their useful lifespan has been met, with incentives for recycling or replacement products built into the entire customer journey. We already see some of this happening slowly but surely, with areas like the European Union implementing the ecotax schemes.

An ecotax (short for ecological taxation) is a tax levied on activities which are considered to be harmful to the environment and is intended to promote environmentally friendly activities via economic incentives

But to get back to the original question, it doesn’t seem likely that cashless societies will be abundant after COVID-19. Anecdotal stories tell of US citizens hoarding cash in the unlikely event of a virus-induced armageddon. Clearly, people still have a physical attachment to worth and value.

A look back in the history of data visualisation

In 1854 in Central London, just south of Oxford Street and east of Regent Street, an outbreak of cholera claimed around 500 lives. Cholera is an infection of the small intestine, leading to severe dehydration from severe diarrhoea and vomiting, and in some cases death. We now know that untreated water and food are the most common sources of cholera and are some of the prime targets in relief situations after natural disasters. Lack of municipal water leads to dehydration that prompts people to drink any water they can find, thus amplifying the dehydration and accelerating death.

Prevention is simple and often inexpensive —depending on the specific circumstances— and we know that water treatment and better sanitation can stop an outbreak in its tracks.

However, in London in 1854, water and sanitation were only just starting to become available in town. In fact, most people still got water from pumps located in the vicinity of their dwellings. A trip once a day or so to the local water pump, allowed families to cook and clean relatively safely.

When the outbreak occurred, there were suspicions that cases were located in a specific area, but scepticism and identification of the wrong source caused a delay in finding the ultimate solution. It was only when John Snow, an obstetrician by qualification, mapped the data in a now-famous infographic, that the insight was discovered and dealt with swiftly.


What was to become known as data visualisation many years after, was born. And in using this technique, the underlying reason that the actual source was identified and resolved. Located on Broad Street was one of the pumps that supplied water to the vicinity. And remember, when I’m talking about pumps in this context, I mean manual pumps with a handle that requires a person to operate it physically, placing their hands on the lever.

You may have guessed it already, but the handle itself was infected, and each person that subsequently used it got infected and spread the infection to their family. The solution, as implied, was simple too. Removing the handle dissuaded use of the particular pump and the outbreak ran its course swiftly.

At the time this theory was controversial as the water company insisted that transmission of cholera was only by air and not by other means. Cholera is transmitted through food and water, as I stated earlier. The handle, when used, got wet from the infected water in the pump and infected people as they went about their daily business. The visualisation helped understand precisely where it was happening, allowing for better observation and finding the ultimate solution. John Snow’s visualisation can be credited for inventing the practise of using data and mapping that data contextually. Data Scientists and Data Journalists use the same basic techniques that John Snow developed all those years ago.

Using simple techniques like these could be instrumental to you better understanding your business. This is just one aspect of Digital Transformation that you should employ. The Harvard Business Review published an article who’s title puts it better; Big Companies Are Embracing Analytics, But Most Still Don’t Have a Data-Driven Culture. I couldn’t agree more.

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Matthew Cowen @matthewcowen