Sunday, 28 September 2014

I don’t like Luddites

The Luddites were a 19th Century group of English textile workers who objected to the introduction of labour-saving machinery. They objected not by writing letters to the newspapers or complaining to their MP but instead by invading factories and destroying the machines that were making textile production so much more efficient and textile prices much cheaper. Their resistance to the new technologies they saw was so profound that they gave their name to anyone who objects to progress.

I’m sure we all know some Luddites. They aren’t just people who are a little behind the times, they’re the type that object in principle to anything new. Modern Luddites are the people who object to Facebook and Twitter, despite not even understanding what they really are.

However, despite what modern Luddites will tell you, new technology has improved the quality of life of everyone on Earth. Even if you don’t use the internet yourself, your doctor, your kid’s teachers and the scientists fighting disease are using it to educate themselves and thus to make life better for everyone. Despite things the Luddites will object to, such as pornography, the way the internet destroys borders and its effect on language it’s nevertheless a comprehensively good thing.

Although not being a programmer myself I’ve been lucky enough to work in and around the IT industry for many years so I think I’m equipped with enough knowledge to comment on a few things. One is that despite all the powerful benefits technology brings, the vast majority of people and companies are barely scratching the surface of what they can now do.

Some of it fairly mundane. Let’s take banks as an example.

Why, for instance, don’t banks get their computer systems to automatically write a letter to every customer who has just finished paying off a loan, but who never defaulted on a payment, saying that they were a fantastic customer, the sort that makes their business easier, thanking them profusely and offering a discount on any future loans? Their systems have all the data needed to do such a thing. They can tell who the good customers are and who the bad ones are, so why aren’t they telling the good ones how much they appreciate them. If they did so, don’t you think it would create some customer loyalty? Don’t you think the knowledge that they weren’t in this privileged group would make the bad customers go elsewhere? Don’t you think this would make the bank more profitable?

What about using the data banks collect to prevent crime?

Three Link Connection victims meeting the organisers in
secret in their plush offices. Sorry, a branch of Wimpy.
For a couple of years Botswana was plagued by a scam calling itself “Three Link Connection”, apparently run by two characters called Hennie Visser and Daisy Mojale who had both been prosecuted in South Africa for a previous scam they operated. The details don’t matter particularly but what intrigued me was that thousands of victims had all, within months of each other, deposited exactly the same amount of money into one of the organizer’s personal bank accounts. Surely their bank would have noticed this as something suspicious?

Perhaps I was wrong in thinking that if a bank had a suspicion that a customer was behaving improperly they had a moral, if not legal obligation to call the cops?

Perhaps I was also wrong in assuming that the anti-money laundering rules that all banks in the civilized world are required to abide by required banks to notice suspicious behavior like this and to notify the authorities when they see it? Maybe it’s one of those rules “more honored in the breach than the observance”.

Of course most scammers avoid banks because banks are required to keep records and track the flow of money. However is it possible the banks are no more of a protection to us than Western Union, the money transfer mechanism of choice for scammers?

In the last couple of months there’s been another issue where banks have perhaps failed to exploit the technology at their disposal.

In the middle of August one of our major banks had a problem. A number of the payments made using their Point Of Sale swipe machines throughout the country weren’t actually deducted from customer’s accounts. You didn’t have to be one of their customers but if your card was swiped through this bank’s device in a store you could walk out with your shopping but your account was never actually debited with the amount you spent. It was days or sometimes weeks later that the money was taken from your account. Of course customers should have known that the money hadn’t been taken because we’re meant to check our accounts 24/7 but who, realistically, does that?

What happened was that the customers assumed that the money had been deducted and carried on spending. When the money was finally deducted it came as a shock to all of them. Some even ended up overdrawn and paying penalties as a result.

My question is this. Didn’t the bank with the problem realize that this was happening? Didn’t they see that there was a sudden, unexpected drop in money moving from one place to another? Didn’t their systems alert them to a change in consumer behavior?

Of course this sort of thing is possible, I know this for a fact. I worked with IT systems that had these “intelligence” systems 25 years ago.

Or is it possible that banks, who we often see as high-tech, advanced and progressive, the trailblazers of technology are actually a bit behind the times?

Frankly it’s not good enough. I know that in this last case customers should have noticed what had gone wrong but we pay our banks to hold our accounts for us. They have the technology to help us but you have to ask yourself if they actually care.

No comments: