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Hackney blames a cyber-attack for not issuing council tax refund | Money

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Can you please ask Hackney council to pay the £1,071 in council tax it owes me? It claims it can’t because it faced a big cyber-attack more than seven months ago.

I moved out of the borough in August 2020 and filled in the required form to let it know that I would no longer be paying council tax. I received an email receipt and assumed my direct debits would be cancelled. However, in early May, I discovered it was still taking £119 from my account each month.

I was told that, due to the cyber-attack in October 2020, the refund could not be processed. It advised me to cancel my direct debit but still couldn’t say when it would be able to issue the refund.

A friend in the same boat has been given the same excuse. I know councils are underfunded but how long do I have to wait?

HB, London

This cyber-attack has caused mayhem for the council and led to a number of house sales falling through after staff were unable to process land search requests. Many other council departments suffered problems.

The council says staff have been working tirelessly to resolve the problems and keep services going, and that a “small number of bills” – yours included – were generated incorrectly because of a “system error” caused by the attack. It warned it will be a further six months before all the services are fully restored.

“We have worked with our suppliers to restore our council tax system, and teams are carrying out the work needed to process the updates from residents that have been received while the system was unavailable. We are prioritising the most urgent cases, which includes refunding HB,” it says.

I would advise others in your situation to use the direct debit guarantee. This allows users to ask their bank to refund payments taken in error, on a no-quibble basis.

Anyone who has moved from the borough should check their recent bank statements, and stop direct debits on departure.

We welcome letters but cannot answer individually. Email us at consumer.champions@theguardian.com or write to Consumer Champions, Money, the Guardian, 90 York Way, London N1 9GU. Please include a daytime phone number. Submission and publication of all letters is subject to our terms and conditions

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Intercom funds UL tech scholarship

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Karen Church of Intercom discusses why the company is funding an EDI scholarship for students of UL’s immersive software engineering course.

Starting in September 2022, software company Intercom is providing an equity, diversity and inclusion (EDI) scholarship valued at €10,000 for students of University Limerick’s (UL) immersive software engineering (ISE) course.

Any student doing the course who is also registered with UL’s access, sanctuary or disability support services is eligible to apply for the grant.

Future Human

There will also be a €10,000 scholarship for women students in the ISE programme, announced by Arizona-headquartered Transact Campus. The payments software company has its international HQ in Limerick, where it added 110 new jobs in 2020.

Last July, Transact Campus joined other Limerick tech employers such as Dell to develop a cybersecurity apprenticeship scheme in UL to fill the skills gap in that sector.

Applications for both Intercom’s EDI scholarship and Transact Campus’ scholarship will open in September. Applicants will be required to complete a written submission and participate in an interview to be considered.

Students who are successful in their applications will receive €5,000 to be awarded in the first semester of their first year with a further €5,000 awarded at the beginning of their second year.

The ISE course aims to change how computer scientists are educated by helping them learn through hands-on experience, building and collaborating with people in the industry through residencies.

To get an insight into why it is important to fund EDI initiatives in tech, SiliconRepublic.com spoke to Intercom’s VP of data science and research, Karen Church.

‘Your company, your culture and your products are only as good as the people who make them’
– KAREN CHURCH

“Software engineering as a field is so vital for our collective future, so the opportunity to train and work in this space and drive change in the world should be open to everybody, irrespective of their background.

“Diverse teams encourage better problem-solving and innovation, stemming from new viewpoints and insights, which opens up a whole world of possibilities when it comes to new ideas.

“It’s important to all of ISE’s industry partners to create an inclusive learning environment,” Church said. “This enables us all to benefit from more diverse graduates joining the workforce and contributing to the wider tech ecosystem.”

Church pointed to the fact that Intercom serves a diverse range of clients across the world, and that “building products that serve diverse businesses starts with building a diverse team”.

Intercom is headquartered in San Francisco and has offices all over the world. Among its 25,000 customers are Atlassian, Amazon and Lyft Business.

Prior to her current role at Intercom, Church served as the company’s director of product analytics and data science. In 2017, she spoke at Inspirefest about what user data tells us about people’s behaviours.

Intercom was co-founded by four Irishmen in 2011, one of whom, Des Traynor, recently spoke at Future Human 2022 about the future of entrepreneurship. Like Church, Traynor has also previously spoken at Inspirefest.

As a data analyst, Church has a unique insight into what happens if underrepresented groups in tech are ignored.

“Your company, your culture and your products are only as good as the people who make them. The benefits of encouraging diversity in your workforce and leadership teams are limitless. Diverse teams are repeatedly proven to be more innovative, productive and happier.

“This has a knock-on effect for business results, increasing retention and helping improve the overall company culture. Not investing in or advocating for more diversity and inclusion in your company and the wider tech community means that potential talent is wasted, innovation is hindered, diversity and inclusion gaps widen, and prosperity is stunted.”

The way to avoid wasting talent is to invest in education, she said, adding that she would love to see more companies also investing in EDI education initiatives.

‘Students have the opportunity to rotate around multiple companies as interns’
– KAREN CHURCH

As part of the scholarship, Intercom is also providing other more holistic supports to programme participants. Church described it as a “partnership between industry and UL, bringing the best of both together to prepare students for the real workforce.”

“This partnership means that students will get both a combination of deep academic theory along with tangible industry experience, giving them the opportunity to solve real-world problems, and gain invaluable experience collaborating on teams with professionals driving impact.”

“What’s exciting about this programme is that students have the opportunity to rotate around multiple companies as interns. They’ll be exposed to different industries, different problems and different people, giving them a rounded experience and a greater ability to learn and adapt quickly when they graduate.

“Our aim is that they leave the programme as confident engineers who have new skills in their toolkit and new insights about themselves, their passions, and their strengths.”

So, what kind of student is the programme hoping to attract? “I’d encourage any curious, talented, ambitious student with an interest in computer science and technology who wants to make a real impact in the world to apply,” Church responded.

And for those thinking of applying who are concerned they do not have the requisite skills, Tiziana Margaria, co-director of the ISE degree at UL, said that there was “no precondition” to have the ability to program.

“We’d also like to see applications from students who did not think so far of software or technology as a possible pathway for themselves,” Margaria said, adding that Intercom and UL looked forward to matching students’ aspirations with inspiration.

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Brace for a shock: cost-of-living crisis drives up price of electric car charging | Electric, hybrid and low-emission cars

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While petrol price rises may have made the headlines, the energy crisis has also been hitting owners of electric cars in the pocket. The cost of charging at home has risen by 43% for some drivers, while the already higher cost of on-the-road recharges has gone up 25%.

As energy prices are forced up due to rising costs for suppliers, specialist charging deals for drivers have become more scarce. And now there are suggestions that people may put off the purchase of an electric car as the cost-of-living crisis takes hold.

Although demand for vehicles is high, a new report to be released this week from Volkswagen Financial Services suggests that fewer people might commit to buying electric vehicles (EVs) as belts tighten and the cost of energy increases.

“The cost-of-living squeeze will probably mean some potential EV purchasers may not commit to a switch this year, particularly as such vehicles are perceived to be more expensive in relative terms when compared to combustion engine alternatives,” says the report.

Home charging

Electric car owners who are charging their vehicle at home will usually find the most cost-efficient option is one of the specialist tariffs on offer. “Two-rate” tariffs offer one price for electricity used during the day and another for night-time use. When prices are much lower you can top up your battery cheaply.

For example, comparison site Love My EV lists the rates for EDF’s GoElectric 35 as 44.69p per kilowatt hour (p/kWh) during the day and 4.5p/kWh at night. The Octopus Go tariff costs 35.04p/kWh during the day and 7.5p/kWh at night. Both figures are based on supplying a home in south Wales.

Three electric cars charging at a roadside station with an attractive yellow zig-zag canopy sheltering the chargers
A public charging station in Sunderland: many electric vehicle owners cannot charge at home and must pay on-the-road rates. Photograph: Christopher Thomond/The Guardian

Since energy prices have increased, the number of specialist deals on the market has dropped, says Laura Thomson, co-founder of Love My EV. While they are usually the best deals for drivers who charge overnight, the day rate and standing charge can be expensive, which consumers need to take into account when working out what is best for their situation.

“For most people who have an EV to charge at home, it does make sense, but there is a high standing charge and a high day rate to factor in,” says Thomson. If you use a lot of electricity during the day, this may not be your best option.

The site has a comparison tool for tariffs. Beware of promises of “free miles” within tariffs as these savings may be outweighed by higher charges, it says.

The rising price of EV tariffs means drivers now face paying 43% more than a year ago. This amounts to a rise of about £75 a year for an average vehicle such as a Nissan Leaf or a Renault Zoe, says Ben Nelmes of transport research company New AutoMotive.

In 2021, the cost of recharging an EV that covered 7,400 miles a year – the average mileage – and was recharged mostly at night was £174. This was based on an overnight rate of 4p/kWh and a day rate of 18p/kWh. By last month, this same charging practice cost £249 a year, based on the best prices then available – 5p/kWh at night and 28p/kWh during the day.

“Someone driving a bigger EV, such as a Kia e-Niro or Tesla, will find that this underestimates what they’ll be paying. Similarly, someone in a Smart car will find they spend a bit less than this,” says Nelmes.

On the road

Rising costs have also become apparent at public chargers. Instavolt, which operates a charging network across Britain, has increased its prices twice so far this year, first from 45p/kWh to 50p/kWh and then to 57p/kWh. Ubitricity, one of London’s largest charging networks, increased prices from 24p/kWh to 32p/kWh last month.

Data company Zap Map, which maps public charge points, found that, on average, charging costs increased from 24p/kWh in December to 30p/kWh in February for slow and fast chargers, and from 35p/kWh to 44p/kWh for rapid and ultra-rapid chargers.

“The price of charging your EV on the public network, or at home, has risen substantially over the past few months with the general increase in electricity prices,” says Melanie Shufflebotham from Zap Map.

There are 460,000 EVs currently in the UK, according to the Volkswagen Financial Service report, and just 300,000 home charger points installed. Those who don’t have a home charger end up paying more, according to Keith Brown of Paythru, a payments technology company. “One of the big inequities of the emerging EV charging market is the price ‘premium’ electric vehicle drivers pay if they don’t or can’t have a home charge point,” he says. “Domestic supply is taxed at a VAT rate of 5% whereas public charge-point supply is taxed at a VAT rate of 20%.”

Shufflebotham has called for the rates to be made equal. “Equalising the VAT rate for both public and home charging would be a great example of levelling up, and encourage more people to make the transition to electric vehicles,” she says.

The advantages

Despite increasing prices, EV drivers still face much lower bills than those with petrol or diesel cars, using figures based on the same annual mileage for all types of vehicle.

Nelmes says that while the rises in the costs of EV charging at home are high, they are dwarfed by the costs of filling a car with fuel.

“We estimate the average UK motorist would spend £1,028 per year on petrol and £987 per year on diesel. That’s up from £796 a year on petrol and £747 a year on diesel a year ago,” he says. “That means that the fuel cost savings available to petrol and diesel drivers who switch to EVs this year are £779 for petrol drivers and £738 for diesel drivers.”

Case study: positives and negatives

Having bought a Nissan Leaf in the last few weeks, Philip Ingram looks back at the deals that were available last year with some annoyance.

He currently pays a flat rate throughout the day of 28.45p/kWh with British Gas, the best tariff available to him at home in Bordon, Hampshire. Last year, he could have taken advantage of deals of 5p/kWh overnight, he says. While there are deals with good night-time rates, now their high day rates mean they do not suit the family budget.

The annoyance is tempered by the savings from moving from a diesel VW Golf to an EV.

Ingram, who runs a cotton company called LittleLeaf Organic, used to pay nearly £90 to fill up with diesel but gets the same mileage for £20 of charging. This has to be balanced against the cost of the car: £24,000. “I wish we had done it a long time ago,” he says, “but the reason that we have been slower is … capital costs. Several times I have said to [my wife] Lisa the running costs are unbelievable, but then you look at the cost of buying this car, [which] is enormous.”

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Web ad firms scrape email addresses before you know it • The Register

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Tracking, marketing, and analytics firms have been exfiltrating the email addresses of internet users from web forms prior to submission and without user consent, according to security researchers.

Some of these firms are said to have also inadvertently grabbed passwords from these forms.

In a research paper scheduled to appear at the Usenix ’22 security conference later this year, authors Asuman Senol (imec-COSIC, KU Leuven), Gunes Acar (Radboud University), Mathias Humbert (University of Lausanne) and Frederik Zuiderveen Borgesius, (Radboud University) describe how they measured data handling in web forms on the top 100,000 websites, as ranked by research site Tranco.

The boffins created their own software to measure email and password data gathering from web forms – structured web input boxes through which site visitors can enter data and submit it to a local or remote application.

Providing information through a web form by pressing the submit button generally indicates the user has consented to provide that information for a specific purpose. But web pages, because they run JavaScript code, can be programmed to respond to events prior to a user pressing a form’s submit button.

And many companies involved in data gathering and advertising appear to believe that they’re entitled to grab the information website visitors enter into forms with scripts before the submit button has been pressed.

“Our analyses show that users’ email addresses are exfiltrated to tracking, marketing and analytics domains before form submission and without giving consent on 1,844 websites in the EU crawl and 2,950 websites in the US crawl,” the researchers state in their paper, noting that the addresses may be unencoded, encoded, compressed, or hashed depending on the vendor involved.

Most of the email addresses grabbed were sent to known tracking domains, though the boffins say they identified 41 tracking domains that are not found on any of the popular blocklists.

“Furthermore, we find incidental password collection on 52 websites by third-party session replay scripts,” the researchers say.

Replay scripts are designed to record keystrokes, mouse movements, scrolling behavior, other forms of interaction, and webpage contents in order to send that data to marketing firms for analysis. In an adversarial context, they’d be called keyloggers or malware; but in the context of advertising, somehow it’s just session-replay scripts.

Gunes Acar, one of the report co-authors, was also the co-author of a similar research project in 2017 that looked at data gathering by session-replay companies Yandex, FullStory, Hotjar, UserReplay, Smartlook, Clicktale, and SessionCam.

Evidently, not much has changed since then, except perhaps that email addresses have become more desirable as unique identifiers now that privacy-oriented browsers like Brave, Firefox, and Safari are taking more steps to block cookies and tracking scripts.

Email addresses, the researchers observe, represent a cookie replacement because they’re unique, persistent, and can be used to track people across applications, platforms, and even offline interactions that may be tied to an email address like loyalty card transactions.

The website categories with the most leaking forms include: Fashion/Beauty (11.1 per cent, EU; 19 per cent US); Online Shopping (9.4 per cent EU; 15.1 per cent US); and General News (6.6 per cent EU; 10.2 per cent US).

Websites categorized as Pornography had the best privacy when it comes to surreptitious form data harvesting.

“A somehow surprising result was the following: despite filling email fields on hundreds of websites categorized as Pornography, we have not a single email leak,” the researchers say, noting that previous studies of adult-oriented websites have relatively fewer third-party trackers than similarly popular general interest websites.

Those pesky regulations

The report authors say that EU websites practicing email exfiltration may be in violation of at least three GDPR requirements: transparency, purpose limitation, and prior consent. Firms found to be violating these rules can be fined up to $20m euros or 4 per cent of annual revenue, per Article 83(5).

The US doesn’t have a federal data privacy law, though it’s conceivable one of the handful of US states with applicable privacy rules could take action against pre-submission form harvesting. But given the toothlessness of US privacy regulation over the past decade, don’t expect much.

The authors say they attempted to contact 58 first-parties and 28 third-parties with GDPR requests. They report receiving 30 responses from the first-parties, which varied from surprise and remediation to justifications of one sort or another.

“fivethirtyeight.com (via Walt Disney’s DPO), trello.com (Atlassian), lever.co, branch.io and cision.com were among the websites that said they had not been aware of the email collection prior to form submission on their websites and removed the behavior,” the report says.

Marriott, meanwhile, said the information collected by digital analytics firm Glassbox helps with customer care, technical support, and fraud prevention.

Third-parties Taboola, Zoominfo, and ActiveProspect defended their data collection practices.

Facebook, aka Meta, is among the third-parties involved in this. The researchers say that email addresses or their hashes were spotted being sent to facebook.com from 21 different websites in the EU.

“On 17 of these, Facebook Pixel’s Automatic Advanced Matching feature was responsible for sending the SHA-256 of the email address in a SubscribedButtonClick event, despite not clicking any submit button,” the report says.

Advanced Matching – called out recently for harvesting student loan data – is designed to collect hashed customer data, such as email addresses, phone numbers, and names from checkout, sign-in, and registration forms. The researchers speculate that on these sites, Facebook’s script treats clicks on non-submit buttons as a click event for the submit button.

Facebook did not respond to a request for comment.

The report concludes that browser vendors, regulators, and privacy tool makers need to deal with this issue because it isn’t going away. “Based on our findings, users should assume that the personal information they enter into web forms may be collected by trackers – even if the form is never submitted,” the report concludes. ®

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