I’m not a customer of TalkTalk, the phone company which revealed last week that a hacker had potentially compromised the personal data of four million users. But I feel I’m on the front line of the cyberwar nevertheless. In August, someone unknown to me tried to spend £1,200 at House of Fraser on my credit card account. The bank, to its credit, sniffed a fraud, rejected the transaction, cancelled the card and invited me to speak to a nice young man in India who talked me through the corrective procedure, including deleting a false email address inserted by the fraudster and setting up a new password to add extra security for future contacts.
A replacement card was dispatched but lost in the post, presumed stolen; after three weeks a second one reached me and service was restored — except that I stopped receiving monthly statements. When I eventually queried this, a nice young lady in India (who did not ask for my new password, I noticed) said, ‘But we’ve been sending them by email…’ and recited the fraudulent email address, which had somehow undeleted itself. So the bad guy, if still at large, not only has my new account details but knows more about my actual spending over the past three months than I do myself, since I have no record of it.
Meanwhile, someone else unknown to me (am I paranoid in thinking it might be the same person?) seized my Facebook account, befriended a bunch of strangers on my behalf, and started sending out adverts for a well-known brand of sunglasses in my name. Meanwhile also, a 15-year-old youth in County Antrim is reported to have been arrested in connection with the TalkTalk incident — which provoked a £360 million fall in the company’s market value, despite its chief executive’s claim that the severity of the attack was ‘materially lower’ than first feared. I’m left thinking maybe there’s a 15-year-old in Dyfed or Clywd or Novosibirsk who’s pretending to be me and has sufficient confidential data stashed away to continue doing so whenever I think it’s safe to go back in the water.
Internet businesses with many millions of customers cannot possibly stay ahead of the hackers, whether they be back-bedroom geeks or ‘boiler room’ gangs, or monitor every suspicious event in detail. E-commerce is a miracle of economic efficiency, so I was thinking on Monday as I drove through the now tollbooth-free and relatively jam-free Dartford Tunnel, having paid my ‘Dart Charge’ by credit card online. But we are in thrall to a phenomenon we cannot control or escape, and it’s only ever going to be three clicks from anarchy.
I promised a couple of weeks ago to keep an eye on the ‘writhing python of doom’ that threatens to throttle the economic upswing. The first story that catches my eye is a profit warning from AP Møller-Maersk, the family-
controlled Danish company whose container ships — displaying a seven-point white star on a blue background as their emblem — transport some 15 per cent of the world’s manufactured goods and provide a near-perfect indicator of the trajectory of global trade.
Maersk says container business declined in the third quarter and early October, with particular weakness on routes between Asia and Europe. It has notched down its expectation of growth in container demand from 3–5 per cent to 2–4 per cent. Not exactly a signal that the oceans are about to freeze over, but a drop in the barometer that accords with slower UK third-quarter growth and the CBI’s statement that UK manufacturers have been ‘struggling with weak export demand for several months’.
Maersk’s Copenhagen-listed shares, incidentally, have plunged by 40 per cent since the end of March as pessimistic investors anticipated the trend now confirmed by container trade figures — offering another near-perfect indicator, alongside the recent crash of the Shanghai bourse, of the propensity of stock markets to overdramatise underlying economic downturns.
I also feel it my duty, as ever, to highlight good-news stories. So let me salute the opening of the £320 million rail link from London Marylebone to Oxford Parkway, a new station alongside the A34 at Kidlington, just north of the Oxford bypass; the project will be completed by connecting to Oxford’s city station next year. This is smart transport development at relatively modest cost, making Oxford’s northern hinterland a one-hour commute for many who are now unlikely ever to be able to afford to live closer to
Even smarter, the line includes a reopen-ed station at Bicester Village, the 130-brand retail destination which attracts more than 6 million shoppers a year, two thirds of them tourists from China, the Middle East and elsewhere. This tide of visitors spends at a rate per square foot of retail space that’s five times the average for UK shopping centres, making a colossal contribution to UK foreign exchange earnings. The new train service will make it even easier for them to exercise their credit cards, which I hope will remain unhacked while they’re here; I also hope they leave enough seats for the long-suffering commuters.
The new line is a collaboration between Chiltern Railways and quasi-state-owned Network Rail. Chiltern (which scored 92 per cent for customer satisfaction last year) was originally M40 Trains, a management buyout by former British Rail managers with private-equity backing; now it’s part of Arriva, which also operates — pretty efficiently, in my experience — Cross-Country, Grand Central and several other UK services. Arriva is owned by Deutsche Bahn (Europe’s largest rail operator, carrying two billion passengers a year) which in turn is wholly owned by the German taxpayer.
Those facts might seem to support the Corbyn argument that the best place for our railways is under state ownership, to which the answer is: only if it’s a state like Germany that still knows how to run decent trains.