Do you ever feel that the tech giants are ganging up on you?

David and GoliathA few days ago, a client called me to say that Thunderbird (her email program) was reporting an error in sending/receiving emails. The problem appeared to be that the password was incorrect. After a short conversation, we decided that I would have a look at it using remote support. No luck. Teamviewer wasn’t showing her an ID or a password that she could give to me to effect the connection. So, we agreed that a visit would be necessary.

The next day, after “hhmming and aahing” over Thunderbird settings for a few minutes, it dawned on me to wonder if the problem might not, in fact, be with the Gmail account rather than Thunderbird. Luckily, the client stays logged into gmail via her browser. This proved that the account itself was still OK and it also allowed me to check the setting that allows “less secure apps” (as Gmail terms them) to access Gmail. And, blow me, the setting had been turned off. So we turned it back on. By this time (as is often the case) the situation regarding the actual password had become very confused, so we changed the password, entered it into Thunderbird, and all was well again.

Why had Google changed the setting to block Thunderbird? Why hadn’t they told my client? Who knows?

On/Off SwitchAnyway, buoyed up by success, we turned to Teamviewer to find out why it hadn’t worked the previous day. Clearly, my purple patch continued as I thought to ask her if her internet provider is TalkTalk. Yes, it is. Ho hum. I recently blogged about their blocking Teamviewer in their setting called “scam protection”. So, we logged onto the “dashboard” of her TalkTalk account and, yes, they had turned “scam protection” on! I can’t remember when I had last used Teamviewer with this client, but TalkTalk have clearly changed the setting back to blocking it since we had last used it. And, just like Google, they did this without any reference to the client.

And it gets worse…..

When I wrote my recent blog, it was possible to change the setting in the dashboard. Now, however, a popup window tells you you have to phone them.

… much worse…

You can't even turn off TalkTalk's "Scam Protection" yourself nowWhen you try to call them, the phone is answered by a computer. There is no list of options: you just state the problem. The computer doesn’t understand the problem and starts taking wild guesses about your “issue”. You can even quote the wording from their popup (“Scam protection setting”) and it won’t understand. Eventually, we gave up with my client saying she would try again later. This she did and ultimately managed to get through to a human being by just refusing to engage with the computer. She just kept shtum until a human being finally came onto the line. Said human being actually managed to find other humans working for TalkTalk and my client was eventually put through to someone who was able to change the setting. Lo and behold, we were able to connect remotely again using Teamviewer.

There isn’t any kind of recourse that users have when these tech firms do things like this (whether they do it intentionally or as an unwanted side effect of other changes). It is very very dispiriting, disempowering, and unfair.

They don’t talktalk together and they certainly don’t play together like a team

TalkTalk logoTalkTalk rather high-handedly protects their clients from themselves by preventing a perfectly legitimate piece of software from being installed on their computers. The software in question is Teamviewer – that allows the user of one computer to see the screen of another computer and control the keyboard and mouse of that computer.

So what have TalkTalk done?

They have decided that if you (their customer) accept their default settings regarding internet security, then you will not be able to download the Teamviewer software. Now, I don’t know if this also affects any other software that works in the same way as Teamviewer (Logmein, for example) but I wouldn’t be surprised.

Why would they do this if Teamviewer is legitimate software?

As everybody knows, there are an awful lot of criminal scumbags out there who have realised that scamming other internet users can be an easy way to earn a dishonest pound. These scams can take many forms and most of us are familiar with many of them. One example is the email that purports to come from a friend who has been mugged in Spain and needs urgent financial help.

Another is the telephone call that comes out of the blue claiming to be from Microsoft or British Telecom or any other organisation, suggesting that your computer is full of viruses, errors, gremlins, boll weevils, or whatever. One of their tactics is to tell you that they can “prove” this to be true if you’ll let them take control of your computer (using Teamviewer) so that they can point out the problem. What they typically do then is to show you a part of Windows called the “Event Viewer” and pretend that all of the entries in the logs therein are “proof” of what they’ve been saying. As well as charging you to resolve non-existent problems, they might also use the “remote control session” to steal information from your computer, or plant viruses and malware.

Teamviewer logoNow, the point is that it is NOT Teamviewer that caused the problem. It is the gullibility of the user who allows Teamviewer to be misused in this way. TalkTalk’s high-handed stance is a bit like the nice lady at the Sainsbury checkout saying that no, I can’t buy a sandwich because I might decide to have a picnic on the outside lane of the M25. To put it bluntly, it would be none of her business. Neither is it TalkTalk’s business. And, by the way, have they not heard of the principle of “net neutrality” whereby all of the data that passes between an ISP and its clients should be equal as far as the ISP is concerned? According to this principle, they are not supposed to slow the data down or block it based on where it’s come from or is going to – and that includes remote control connections.

Luckily, you can change the (default) setting that causes the problem. I’m not a TalkTalk customer (as you might have guessed), so I can’t verify that the steps outlined below are still strictly accurate, but I hope that they are at least close enough so that you can work out what to do if you are one of their customers and want to be allowed to take your own decisions:

  • Log in to your TalkTalk account
  • Click on “My Services”
  • Click on “HomeSafe Settings”
  • Scroll down to “Scam Protection” and disable it. Despite the warning that TalkTalk might give you, you are not inviting the apocalypse by doing this
  • It may be wise to clear your browser’s data cache by clicking Ctrl Shift and Delete and following the instructions to clear browser data

Nanny

Do you really need a nanny to supervise your internet activity?

I have been using Teamviewer for years as a valuable aid in providing IT Support. It’s perfectly safe as long as you only invite trusted people to connect to your computer using it.

Oh, and just a little PS for TalkTalk: you could at least inform your customers when you are blocking something that they would normally expect to work. How do you expect them to know when an apparent malfunction is caused by your nannying?

Whatever happened to increased leisure time?

When computers started to get a grip on our imaginations and our lives, it was widely predicted that they would take the drudgery out of lots of aspects of life and give us all increased leisure time. Predictions of a three day week (without the help of Ted Heath and the Unions) used to be quite common.

Quite clearly that hasn’t happened, and there is now an argument for saying that computers have actually increased our workload. This might not be immediately obvious if you think of the average working week now being nearer to 35 hours than the 40 hours common a couple of decades ago.

So what is this extra work?

BaffledQuite simply, it’s all the stuff we are now expected to do ourselves that was previously handled by a trained representative of the organisation we’re dealing with.

Think of booking a train ticket. In the past we would have gone to the station, and told the clerk behind his sheet of glass what we wanted. He or she would do any necessary checking of timetables, options, prices etc. All we then needed to do was to pay for the ticket.

A week or so ago, a very good computer support client of mine asked me to help her book a train ticket online. It must have taken us about fifteen minutes to work out exactly how the site worked. The word “Byzantine” springs to mind. When the job was finished, though, it meant that the train company had sold her her tickets without any direct sales effort.

Once you start thinking of examples, they pop up from lots of different places. Every few months, for instance, I get a frantic call from a computer support client asking if I can fix their printer as they’ve got to print off a boarding pass.

Think of the utilities – gas, water, electricity and so forth. It’s far easier (and cheaper) for them to store our accounts online than to send paper bills out. We have to take the initiative to hunt down the details if we want to see them, rather than just opening a quarterly bill. Indeed, my own electricity tariff involves me submitting my own monthly meter readings. I can’t remember even an occasional visit from a meter reader in the last few years.

Luddites JokeIn a lot of instances, recent developments do indeed “empower” us (as the marketing people would say). I wouldn’t have as close a grasp as I have on how my electricity usage compares with previous periods if I couldn’t see all the figures turned into a simple graph online. But even these developments can seem to be huge complications and a cause for anxiety and stress for people who are not comfortable with all the technology that makes the developments possible. Clearly, there’s a connection, here, between the age of the client/customer/service user and the ease with which (s)he uses this stuff.

I’m sure we can all think of examples where our “interface” with an organisation is so complicated and/or intimidating that it is genuinely stressful. I have many computer clients who call me out to contact internet providers (for example) on their behalf as they just can’t face trying to do it themselves. I recenly helped in one such instance (with TalkTalk) and didn’t get to speak to a human at all. It was all done by me screaming down the phone to a computer and then receiving text messages back (saying they couldn’t find a problem, but the connection was miraculously restored five minutes later after having been broken for days). I’m sure that the irony of the name “TalkTalk” isn’t lost on any of us.

Despite being a so-called “computer professional”, there are two places that I myself really don’t wish to go in engaging with technology rather than a fully-functioning human being. The first I’ve already alluded to: if I’m going away and need a ticket from, say, Paddington, I’d much rather make a 45 minute trip and buy the ticket in advance from a human being at a ticket window, than struggle with online booking sites.

Self Checkout

No, thank you

The other is supermarkets and so-called “self-scanning”. The grumpy old man in me says it can’t be “self-scanning” as there is no intention to scan myself. Leaving that aside, though, I really really don’t want to have to engage brain, prepare myself for stress, and scan my purchases myself. I just don’t want to go there. It’s not a skill I want to learn. I’d be quite happy to pay a small premium to have the checkout assistants continue to do their job. They are paid for it: I am not. There is a small branch of Marks & Spencer on Tottenham Court Road that doesn’t have any staff at all on the tills (on a Saturday, at least). A very helpful assistant will offer to show how “self-scanning” is done, but I won’t go there. I do realise, though, that dinosaurs like me are doomed to either giving in one day or starving to death.

…and in the case of this branch of M & S, they even rub salt into the wound. Right next to the (unmanned) checkouts there is a big poster that proclaims “Shop your way”. The chance would be a fine thing.

© 2011-2019 David Leonard
Computer Support in London
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