Tag Archives: technology

How I (just) beat the debit card skimmers

The skimming device retrieved from a NatWest Bank ATM in Grays Inn Road, London.

The skimming device retrieved from a NatWest Bank ATM in Grays Inn Road, London. Photograph: Paul Nettleton

This is the crude, but effective, device that was designed to part me from my debit card.

Too late to avoid a week of inconvenience while a new one is despatched by my bank, I only realised something was wrong when my card was not returned and my requested £60 failed to pop out of the machine.

It was late evening in Grays Inn Road, London, and I’d hopped off the bus to use the NatWest ATM before heading home on the tube from Chancery Lane.

The machine is not well lit, shaded from the street lighting by a tree and now a hole in the wall outside a branch of Pret a Manger where once there was a bank branch.

I’d made a cursory swipe across the card slot before I used the machine, as always, but not felt anything was wrong. So I keyed in my pin and cash request. The machine whirred and appeared to be trying to serve me, but nothing appeared. It dawned on me that all was not right.

 Fault message

The machine whirred again and then a fault message came up on the screen, advising users not to re-enter their pin numbers and to consult a smartphone app to find the nearest alternative.

Not much point with my card apparently swallowed. Better phone my bank, I decided. A quick search for the number and I rang the Co-operative Bank’s 24-hour card loss service.

The phone signal was poor but I managed to identify myself as the rightful customer and explain the problem. That the £60 had been deducted from my account increased my suspicion that there was more than a faulty ATM here.

So I felt around the fascia more carefully and realised I could get my nail under a grey piece of plastic beneath the card slot. I pulled and it came away, revealing that it had been attached with double-sided sticky tape. Embedded in the tape were a piece of card that looks, in daylight, as if it had been cut from a tube ticket and then a rectangle of sprung metal, The assembly had been painted metallic grey to match the ATM. A skimming device.

Now I was asking if I should call the police, but took the impression that they’d take little interest in this fraud and my £60.

 Cancelled card

I’d already cancelled my card and pin by this time, but could see the end of the card tantalisingly within reach. No point in retrieving it, was the advice, and I didn’t have a tool with which to prise it out. So I pushed it in further, determined that however useless the card now was the thieves would not have the satisfaction of getting their mitts on it.

I imagine the skimmers weren’t far away. Possibly it was even the youngish man who queued for a bit behind me, then left, then came back, then left again. But that’s my suspicious mind.

Now I have to wait for a new card, new pin and to see if the Link company will return the £60 I never received. I’ll report back when I hear if they try to claim I must have taken it.

I’m not sure the cash dispensing slot hadn’t been tampered with too, but nothing came off in my hands. And, despite having read about these crimes, I forgot to search for the tiny camera that might have been recording my fingers as they keyed in the pin.

 Modern life

I’ll be avoiding this ATM in future. On reflection, the surroundings are just too dark for customers to see if it’s ok to use. But more generally, had I not been able to search for my bank’s contact details on my phone browser, I’d have quite likely left the scene – and given the skimmers access to my card and my account.

Surely ATMs should display at the very least contact information and instructions to follow if you suspect a crime, and perhaps even a button to press (clearly marked “Panic”) to speak to a control centre.

I take some comfort that my phone wasn’t expensive enough to attract the attention of any lurking muggers. But that’s another risk of modern life.

Mobile first: news re-imagined for smartphones – or just borrowed?


News for mobiles from the Guardian and Circa.

News for mobiles from the Guardian and Circa. Photograph: Paul Nettleton

I’ll start with a declaration of interest. I am a journalist who recently took a severance package and decided to strike out in new directions because my employer, the Guardian, was pleading poverty in the changing media marketplace. The editor wanted to cut the editorial staff and hire more developers. I still have to make a living to pay the bills and hope to continue to do so from my journalistic efforts.

So you will, I hope, understand why I’m not entirely happy when people appear to appropriate the work of professional journalists. That is, I believe, what the creators of a free mobile app called Circa risk doing while presenting their software as a new way of telling stories on portable devices. Circa denies that characterisation and their rebuttal appears later.

Circa, a Canadian start-up, claims on its website that the iPhone-only app best way to keep up with what’s going on in the world, wherever you are. “News without the fluff, filler, or commentary: Circa’s editors gather top stories and break them down to their essential points – facts, quotes, photos, and more, formatted specifically for the phone.”

And: “Rather than shoehorning existing content into a new environment, Circa is creating the first born-on-mobile news experience, delivering it in a format native to mobile devices, with an experience intuitive to mobile users.

“Through comprehensive yet concise news updates paired with a clean, simple mobile experience, Circa redefines how news is produced, delivered, and consumed.

“Circa is news, re-imagined.”

I’m wary when people reinvent the wheel [as an aside I’d include in that the carmakers who have decreed that the spare wheel must go to save weight]. I also suspect that rivals, including the Guardian which has apps for Apple, Android and Blackberry devices, might have something to say about the “shoehorning existing content” claim.

Circa says you can find its sources with one tap to reveal footnotes and click through to the originals. “Circa employs a team of editors to collect facts from a variety of sources: newswires, articles from news sites, and other sources we believe to be trustworthy. Individual pieces of information are converted into concise, easy-to-read “points” within Circa. Collections of points about one event form a “story.”

“Photos are licensed from Reuters, the Library of Congress, Flickr photos with the appropriate Creative Commons permissions, or other sources where fair use is employed.”

And: “We also have a copyright policy, including instructions for notifying us if you believe that there is copyright-infringing material or activity on, or available through, our service. You can find it at http://cir.ca/copyright.”

The latter link was to a page that did not exist when I tried it.

Circa licenses some photographs, which will cost money. It is not stated if it subscribes to the newswires or pays royalties to news sites whose copy it re-imagines for “points”. But it is wire services and news outlets who hire reporters to find stories, point by point, quote by quote. Sometimes it’s at considerable risk to their health in the world’s troublespots. And that doesn’t come cheap.

Atomic elements

David Cohn, the director of news at Circa, told journalism.co.uk: “We don’t summarise but we do try and hit just the highlights of a news story. The way we do that is we break down news articles into what we call atomic elements, facts, quotes, stats, events, images, and we strip out everything that we would consider fluff or opinion.”

And in an earlier piece when the app launched, journalism.co.uk reported: “Cohn explains that the app features original content, in that it is all written by the Circa team, but ‘it is not original reporting.

‘We don’t have people on the campaign trail, we don’t have people in Libya, so we are doing original content and there is a lot of original research.’”

Up to a point, Lord Copper. Copyright law and cases of plagiarism are difficult both to establish and enforce in the internet free-for-all. The music industry has similar issues with sampling. But re-imagining is not necessarily creating original content.

The UK government’s Intellectual Property Office puts it this way (their emphasis): “A work can only be original if it is the result of independent creative effort. It will not be original if it has been copied from something that already exists. If it is similar to something that already exists but there has been no copying from the existing work either directly or indirectly, then it may be original.

“The term ‘original’ also involves a test of substantiality – literary, dramatic, musical and artistic works will not be original if there has not been sufficient skill and labour expended in their creation. But, sometimes significant investment of resources without significant intellectual input can still count as sufficient skill and labour.”

I put three questions to Circa: I note that you are licensing photos from Reuters, Library of Congress etc. Do you similarly subscribe to the newswires or pay a royalty to news sites for re-use of their words? Do you intend to hire reporters to generate exclusive stories? How do you respond to the suggestion that you appear to be appropriating other people’s original work?

Core facts

Matt Galligan, the chief executive officer and a co-founder of Circa, replied to deny that it re-uses words. Circa did not currently subscribe to any newswires but had considered this to get their stories out faster. He continued:

The question of “re-use” is an interesting one. I would argue that what we’re doing is not “re-using” any particular content. Our editorial staff gathers information from many different places and works to identify the core facts and details, then distills them using our own language and research. The writing is accomplished much in the same way as traditional organizations, when they don’t have staff report[er]s on-site. While on a daily basis I see many publications writing stories about various topics, without citation of any of their sources, we make sure that all of the source material that helps us write our stories, gets cited. That’s not to say that we took content straight from the source, and republished it. In some instances where only a single source is available we write “SOURCE is reporting that…” much in the same way any other publication would. However, in the event that we’ve found many sources, which is far more common occurrence, we identify the facts common among them and report those.

One example where we’ve gone above and beyond just “re-use” is a story that surfaced last week about California school districts. The AP reported there to be “nearly 3,000” districts, and that information was later re-used in an LA Times article, as well as others. But through our research we discovered that number to be closer to 1,000 and reported that as such. We use many sources as the BASIS of what we write, but don’t use them as the final word – that is ours.

To answer your question: “Appropriating work” insinuates that we’re using someone else’s original reporting and publishing content that uses that same original reporting as the basis of our work. We’re no more guilty in that regard than many, many other publications that do the exact same thing. I don’t have any hard statistics on this, but I would believe that the vast majority of stories written in the world were not produced by the original source.

This is all a result of our limited staff right now. We have 13 writers, 11 of which are part-time, doing our best to identify the biggest news of the world, and cover all 24 hours of the day. As we grow, we may have the ability to have feet on the ground and do what’s commonly referred to as “original reporting” though.

But beyond all of this, the crux of the issue is really whether or not we’re giving something back into the ecosystem. We recognize that we are currently and only ever intend on being the “brief” for someone. It’s likely that people that are interested in various stories may be inclined to want to read further on a topic. As such, in a future update to our app, we intend on curating the best articles that help further develop the stories we write about, and surface them for further reading. That traffic would be sent directly back to the publisher’s website, or an arrangement would be made to include it directly within the app.

Galligan’s point that most stories are not produced by the original source is a valid one and similar to arguments by Nick Davies in Flat Earth News. It touches on Alan Rusbridger’s argument that the Guardian should do less “commodity news”.

With apps delivering push notifications, 24/7 rolling TV news and newspaper websites with breaking news, what feels like an avalanche of content often consists of very few facts padded out with the “fluff, filler, or commentary” that Circa has identified as ripe for editing. In part, it’s because there are fewer and fewer reporters trying to provide copy for more and more platforms. And web subs are not encourage to spend time cutting and honing stories as their newspaper counterparts must do. Without reporters on the ground there is no news to distill, whether for the Guardian or Circa.

My redundancy cheque was not the first in a news industry which needs new entrants such as Circa, whose business and editorial model is a work in progress. Readers have told them they want more UK material. My hope is that they will hire some reporters, as well as editors, to provide it. By their own sweat.

My man cupboard. What’s in yours?

Behold: Paul Nettleton's man cupboard. What's in yours?

Behold: Paul Nettleton’s man cupboard. What’s in yours? Photograph: Louise Nettleton

I might have chosen the garden shed, but it was my youngest daughter who took the photograph and suggested: “Why don’t you blog about your man cupboard?”

Then, she said, I should empty the three shelves and keep only the essentials – creating room for, oh, some of her sprawling adult collection of Lego.

In return, her ironing might make its way from the dining table to her wardrobe.

So, from top left, here’s what sits in one of the two cupboards above the ageing Alienware PC on which I’m tapping out this piece. It betrays my inner geek.


Top shelf


  1. A Playstation with a couple of dual shock controllers nestles behind the stylus from a Wacom graphics tablet (hers) that may be in here somewhere. Favourite games from my two daughters’ childhoods, Wacky Races and Crash Bandicoot 3 Warped. They’re stored in the other cupboard (not pictured, or we’d be here all day). There’s a Brian Lara cricket game too, that I never quite found time to learn. I saved the abandoned console so I could play at being Dick Dastardly.
  2. Rear panel of my first standalone CD deck, a Philips. It still works but was retired when I upgraded to hi-fi separates. Value on eBay? Not worth the postage. It’s sat under metres of phone extension cable removed during decorating and never missed.
  3. What’s in those brown envelopes under the deck? Ah, my degree certificate from LeicesterUniversity. BA (Hons) Combined Studies third class and I took Ripple weekly, thank you. It’s in with a note accepting me for matriculation at the University of Wales so I could attend the Cardiff postgraduate course in journalism. And there’s a black & white photo of the class of 79 pictured in Cathedral Road. I could be sued by some very senior journalists if I published the hairdos.
  4. Another envelope, I’m a  few years older and working at the News & Star in Carlisle, holds my proficiency certificate from the National Council for the Training of Journalists. Brings back memories of bombing around the Cumbrian fells in the office car (with fish’n’chip papers in the back) covering Ireby Fair and such high jinks.
  5.  Ah, there’s the graphics tablet, at the bottom. You’d never do that to an iPad …
  6. One of a pair of amplified loudspeakers, the sort you could plug a Discman into. The Discman, being second-hand, never really worked properly.
  7. Netgear wireless router. Utterly reliable but we now have BT Infinity 2.


On to the middle shelf

  1. In its box, and hardly ever used, a Regulated Multi Voltage AC Adaptor. Still, you never know.
  2. At a slant, a Sony Walkman WM-EX382 Mega-Bass with auto reverse. Didn’t you find that auto reverse stretched the tape after a while? This belonged to a daughter. I needed a record button for use in the House of Lords, where I was a gallery reporter for a year or so. The Commons expected you to rely on shorthand. Hence the huddle of hacks comparing quotes after prime minister’s questions.
  3.  A hidden gem… my wife’s Olympus OM1. Needs a service and a clean. She took some smashing photos. Developed and printed them too, but the darkroom gear is long gone.
  4. Green pot with cable and dock for the OM1’s digital replacement, a Fuji Finepix F601 Zoom. And they were fine pix, but it was so much fiddlier than a camera-shaped camera.
  5. Behind that a stack of ADSL filters to stop the net interfering with phone calls, or vice versa. Behind those, two carry bag containing a Game Boy Color each plus games – Tetris, Pokemon, Rugrats, more Pokemon, Robot Wars, and more Pokemon. Classics.
  6.  Next, on it its side, a BT answerphone. The tiny tape cassette must be somewhere. Overtaken by 1571.
  7. PC cleaning kit and compressed air canister. The tube no longer taped to the side was the wrong one for the nozzle. Who performed that swap? Sat on sheet music from my failed days as a guitar player …
  8. … including The Cream Album, More Cream Album No 2, the Sutherland Brothers (& Quiver era) Songbook. And two guitar and one blues harp tutor books. And Golden Earring’s Radar Love. Plus You’re Moving Out Today which singer Carole Bayer Sager co-wrote with Bette Midler and the prolific Bruce Roberts.
  9. Plus one defunct nVidia graphics card. Replaced that myself I did with a pre-owned upgrade. Told that if I Google the cooking instructions, and bake it in the oven, it might work again. Yes, but if it blows up how much does a Rangemaster cost?


Wow, 774 words and a shelf still to go, Never knew there was so much in it.


Bottom shelf


  1. Other daughter’s Polaroid digital camera (defunct with Vista), sits on top of the charger for my Nikon D80 (satisfying clunk when you take a shot), which sits on top of the charger for a Creative Zen MP3 player with a slightly dodgy on-off switch in use by my wife.
  2. Tamron binoculars bought for walking and sailing and watching the Greek airforce flying to and from Kalamata (from a beach 35km south). Focus is wonky since sand got in the works.
  3. Above are sat on two boxes of assorted cables and mini-discs (does anyone still make a recorder?).
  4. Foreground: various batteries, some not discharged, audio cassettes and a Scart cable (overtaken by HDMI connectors).
  5. Shoebox lid  of CD-Roms including Dorling Kindersley’s: History of the World 2.0, Children’s Dictionary, plus Dinosaurs 3D, My Secret Diary (not), and various imaging and web software never used in anger. Plus leaflets about a NatWest bank account I no longer have.
  6. Anyone want to make a Crawlybot?
  7. If I put the batteries in, the Early Learning Centre Walkie Talkies still work. Press the button to speak.
  8. A brace of Grecian Holidays brochures from the late 80s. We travelled with SunMed but it was Grecian’s snapper who happened by on Koumbaros beach, Ios. You had to walk there in our day. Or hitch a ride in a three-wheel delivery van. I see there’s a bus now.


Memo to self: you don’t need all of this stuff. Do you?

What’s in your man (or woman) cupboard? Replies welcome.