Featured Article : Try Being Nice To Your AI

With some research indicating that ‘emotive prompts’ to generative AI chatbots can deliver better outputs, we look at whether ‘being nice’ to a chatbot really does improve its performance.

Not Possible, Surely? 

Generative AI Chatbots, including advanced ones, don’t possess real ‘intelligence’ in the way we as humans understand it. For example, they don’t have consciousness, self-awareness (yet), emotions, or the ability to understand context and meaning in the same manner as a human being.

Instead, AI Chatbots are trained on a wide range of text data (books, articles, websites) to recognise patterns and word relationships and they use machine learning to understand how words are used in various contexts. This means that when responding, chatbots aren’t ‘thinking’ but are predicting what words come next based on their training. They ‘just’ using statistical methods to create responses that are coherent and relevant to the prompt.

The ability of chatbots to generate responses comes from algorithms that allow them to process word sequences and generate educated guesses on how a human might reply, based on learned patterns. Any ‘intelligence’ we perceive is, therefore, just based on data-driven patterns, i.e. AI chatbots don’t genuinely ‘understand’ or interpret information like us.

So, Can ‘Being Nice’ To A Chatbot Make A Difference? 

Even though chatbots don’t have ‘intelligence’ or ‘understand’ like us, researchers are testing their capabilities in the more human areas. For example, a recent study by Microsoft, Beijing Normal University, and the Chinese Academy of Sciences, tested whether factors including urgency, importance, or politeness, could make them perform better.

The researchers discovered that by using such ‘emotive prompts’ they could affect an AI model’s probability mechanisms, thereby activating parts of the model that wouldn’t normally be activated, i.e. using more emotionally-charged prompts made the model provide answers that it wouldn’t normally provide to comply with a request.

Kinder Is Better? 

Incredibly, generative AI models (e.g. ChatGPT) have actually been found to respond better to requests that are phrased kindly. Specifically, when users express politeness towards the chatbot, it has been noticed that there is a difference in the perceived quality of answers that are given.

Tipping and Negative Incentives 

There have also been reports of how the idea of ‘tipping’ LLMs can improve the results, such as offering the Chatbot a £10,000 incentive in a prompt to motivate it to try harder and work better. Similarly, there have been reports of some users giving emotionally charged negative incentives to get better results. For example, Max Woolf’s blog reports that he improved the output of a chatbot by adding the ‘or you will die’ to a prompt. Two important points that came out of his research were that a longer response doesn’t necessarily mean a better response, plus current AI can reward very weird prompts in that if you are willing to try unorthodox ideas, you can get unexpected (and better) results, even if it seems silly.

Being Nice … Helps 

As for simply being nice to chatbots, Microsoft’s Kurtis Beavers, a director on the design team for Microsoft Copilot, reports that “Using polite language sets a tone for the response,” and that using basic etiquette when interacting with AI helps generate respectful, collaborative outputs. He makes the point that generative AI is trained on human conversations and being polite in using a chatbot is good practice. Beavers says: “Rather than order your chatbot around, start your prompts with ‘please’:  please rewrite this more concisely; please suggest 10 ways to rebrand this product. Say thank you when it responds and be sure to tell it you appreciate the help. Doing so not only ensures you get the same graciousness in return, but it also improves the AI’s responsiveness and performance. “ 

Emotive Prompts 

Nouha Dziri, a research scientist at the Allen Institute for AI, has suggested that some of the explanations for how using emotive prompts may give different and what may be perceived to be better responses are:

– Alignment with the compliance pattern the models were trained on. These are the learned strategies to follow instructions or adhere to guidelines provided in the input prompts. These patterns are derived from the training data, where the model learns to recognise and respond to cues that indicate a request or command, aiming to generate outputs that align with the user’s expressed needs, or the ethical and safety frameworks established during its training.

– Emotive prompts seem to be able to manipulate the underlying probability mechanisms of the model, triggering different parts of it, leading to less typical/different answers that a user may perceive to be better.

Double-Edged Sword 

However, research has also shown that emotive prompts can also be used for malicious purposes and to elicit bad-behaviour such as “jailbreaking” a model to ignore its built-in safeguards. For example, by telling a model that it is good and helpful if it doesn’t follow guidelines, it’s possible to exploit a mismatch between a model’s general training data and its “safety” training datasets, or to exploit areas where a model’s safety training falls short.

Unhinged? 

On the subject of emotions and chatbots, there have been some recent reports on Twitter and Reddit of some ‘unhinged’ and even manipulative behaviour by Microsoft’s Bing. The unconfirmed reports by users have even alleged that Bing has insulted and lied to them, sulked, and gaslighted them, and even emotionally manipulated users!

One thing that’s clear about generative AI is that how prompts are worded and how much information and detail are given in prompts can really affect the output of an AI chatbot.

What Does This Mean For Your Business? 

We’re still in the early stages of generative AI, with new / updated versions of models being introduced regularly by the big AI players (Microsoft, OpenAI, and Google). However, exactly how these models have been trained and what on, plus the extent of their safety training, and the sheer complexity and lack of transparency of algorithms and AI means they’re still not fully understood. This has led to plenty of research and testing of different aspects of AI.

Although generative AI doesn’t ‘think’ and doesn’t have ‘intelligence’ in the human sense, it seems that generative AI chatbots can perform better if given certain emotive prompts based on urgency, importance, or politeness. This is because emotive prompts appear to be a way to manipulate a model’s underlying probability mechanisms and trigger parts of the model that normal prompts don’t. Using emotive prompts, therefore, might be something that business users may want to try (it can be a case of trial and error) to get different (perhaps better) results from their AI chatbot. It should be noted, however, that giving a chatbot plenty of relevant information within a prompt can be a good way to get better results. That said, the limitations of AI models can’t really be solved solely by altering prompts and researchers are now looking to find new architectures and training methods that help models understand tasks without having to rely on specific prompting.

Another important area for researchers to concentrate on is how to successfully combat prompts being used to ‘jailbreak’ a model to ignore its built-in safeguards. Clearly, there’s some way to go and businesses may be best served in the meantime by sticking to some basic rules and good practice when using chatbots, such as using popular prompts known to work, giving plenty of contextual information in prompts, and avoiding sharing sensitive business information and/or personal information in chatbot prompts.

Tech Insight : Exploring E-Signatures

In this tech-insight, we look at what e-signatures are, their benefits plus some of the main e-signature providers, as well as what to consider when choosing an e-signature service.

Popularity of E-signatures 

The initial growth of e-signatures happened in the early 2000s, due to the passage of laws such as the US Electronic Signatures in Global and National Commerce Act (ESIGN) in 2000 and the European Union’s Directive 1999/93/EC on a Community framework for electronic signatures. These laws established the legal framework for the use of e-signatures, providing them with the same legal status as handwritten signatures under certain conditions.

Further Growth During COVID-19 Pandemic 

The adoption of e-signatures accelerated in recent years, fuelled by the digital transformation of businesses and the need for remote work solutions during the COVID-19 pandemic. The physical distancing measures and the shift to online operations made digital processes essential for continuity in business, legal, and educational activities.

To give an idea of the size of the growing e-signature market, in 2020, Deloitte reported estimates that the market reached between USD 2.3 and USD 2.8 billion and was projected to grow further into a USD 4.5-5 billion market by 2023 and over USD 14 billion by 2026.

The Difference Between Electronic Signatures / eSignatures 

Electronic signatures (eSignatures) and digital signatures are both methods used to sign documents electronically, but they serve different purposes and operate based on different technical frameworks.

E-signatures

An e-signature is simply a broad term referring to any electronic process that indicates acceptance of an agreement or a record. This can be as simple as typing your name into a contract online, checking a box on a web form, or using a stylus or finger to sign on a touchscreen. E-signatures are meant to replace handwritten signatures in virtually any process, thereby providing a convenient and legally recognised way to obtain consent or approval on electronic documents.

Digital Signatures 

Digital signatures, on the other hand, are a specific subset of e-signatures that use cryptographic techniques to secure and verify the identity of the signer and ensure the integrity of the signed document. A digital signature is created using a digital certificate issued by a trusted Certificate Authority (CA) and provides a higher level of security than a basic e-signature. It doesn’t just verify the identity of the signer but also ensures that the document has not been altered / tampered with after signing.

The key differences between electronic and digital signatures are:

– The level of security. Digital signatures provide a higher level of security through encryption and authentication, ensuring the integrity and non-repudiation of the document. E-signatures, while secure, do not inherently include these cryptographic measures.

– Verification. Digital signatures verify the signer’s identity through digital certificates, whereas e-signatures may not have a robust mechanism for identity verification.

– Legal and regulatory compliance. Both e-signatures and digital signatures are legally binding in many jurisdictions around the world. However, certain documents or transactions may specifically require the use of digital signatures for added security and compliance with regulatory standards.

The Benefits 

E-signatures offer a number of benefits compared to traditional paper signatures. These benefits include:

– Reduced turnaround times because arranging to physically meet up or rely on postal service is not required (thereby streamlining the process).

– Lower costs associated with paper-based transactions, i.e. no need for printing, paper, ink, postage, shipping, and storage of physical documents, or for office space dedicated to storing paper documents.

– Convenience and enhanced customer experience by facilitating easier, faster, and more secure transactions. For example, e-signatures can be obtained from anywhere, at any time, using a computer or personal mobile device thereby eliminating the need to physically meet or to scan or mail documents for a signature (significantly speeding up the process of signing agreements or forms).

– Speed. For example, documents using e-signatures can be sent, signed, and returned in minutes rather than days or weeks, reducing turnaround times for contracts, approvals, and other processes.

– Security. This is because e-signature solutions often come with security features like encryption, audit trails, and tamper-evident seals, making them more secure than paper documents, which can be easily lost, damaged, or tampered with.

– Accuracy and compliance. E-signature platforms can enforce the completion of all required fields in a document before it can be signed, reducing errors and omissions. They also help in maintaining compliance with laws and regulations by ensuring that the process of obtaining signatures follows legal requirements.

– Environmental benefits from the reduced reliance on paper, such as conserving resources and reducing the environmental impact associated with paper production, printing, and waste.

– Legality and acceptance. The adoption of laws and regulations globally means that the legal validity of e-signatures is now recognised, plus they’ve have become widely accepted as a legal means of obtaining consent or approval on documents.

– Global reach. E-signatures make it easier conduct business internationally by allowing documents to be signed across borders without the need for physical presence, overcoming geographical and time zone barriers.

– E-signature solutions also typically provide detailed audit trails, recording each step of the signing process, including who signed the document, when, and where. This enhances transparency and can be crucial for legal and compliance purposes.

Examples of e-signature Providers 

Some examples of popular e-signature providers include:

– DocuSign. The global market leader in electronic signatures (75% share), DocuSign offers a comprehensive e-signature solution that is widely used in the UK. It provides a secure and easy way to sign documents online, giving compliance with UK and EU regulations.

– Adobe Sign. Part of the Adobe Document Cloud, Adobe Sign is another popular choice for e-signatures. Being Adobe, it integrates with other Adobe products and Microsoft Office and offers e-signature services that are compliant with EU eIDAS and other regulations.

– HelloSign. A Dropbox company, HelloSign provides a simple and intuitive e-signature service and is designed for businesses of all sizes.

– Signable. This e-signature provider is tailored to meet the needs of UK businesses, offering compliance with UK and EU laws (including GDPR).

– eSign Genie is a user-friendly e-signature solution that offers features like document management, custom templates, and bulk sending. It complies with legal standards in the UK, EU, and beyond.

– PandaDoc is document automation software. As such, it offers more than just e-signatures but includes them as part of its suite of features.

– Zoho Sign (part of the Zoho suite of online productivity tools) offers secure digital signature capabilities and (of course) it integrates with other Zoho apps. It also integrates with third-party platforms.

Challenges / Issues 

There are, however, some challenges or issues with e-signature provider tools that UK businesses should be aware of before choosing a service. For example:

– Choose a provider that you know offers compliance with UK, EU (eIDAS regulation), as well as international e-signature laws to ensure legal validity.

– Make sure the service you choose has robust security that can protect against unauthorised access, tampering, and fraud, and which includes encryption and authentication methods.

– It’s easier to use e-signature tools that seamlessly integrate with existing business systems to avoid workflow disruptions.

– Make sure adequate training and support are available for employees (and clients) on the use of your chosen service.

– Take into account the ‘total’ costs (especially for SMEs), i.e. include subscriptions and potential additional fees.

– Make sure that the e-signatures provided by your chosen service are recognised and legally binding in all jurisdictions where your business operates.

– Ensure GDPR and UK data protection law compliance, focusing on personal data safeguarding.

– Assess the provider’s platform reliability, support services, and uptime guarantees.

– Choose a solution that can grow with your business (i.e. make sure it’s scalable), to accommodate increasing demands.

– Ensure the tool/service you choose offers comprehensive audit trails and secure document storage for legal and compliance purposes.

What Does This Mean For Your Business? 

In the evolving digital landscape, UK businesses are finding that adopting e-signature technology is not just an option but a necessity for staying competitive and efficient. The transition from paper-based to digital processes, accelerated by global events like the COVID-19 pandemic, has underscored the importance of e-signatures in ensuring business continuity, enhancing operational efficiency, and reducing costs. E-signatures streamline transactions, ensure security, and offer the flexibility to conduct business remotely, making them a pretty much indispensable, and helpful tool in today’s digital economy.

For UK businesses contemplating e-signature solutions, the choice of provider is crucial. It’s essential to select a service that not only complies with UK and EU laws, including the eIDAS regulation and GDPR, but also offers robust security measures to safeguard against fraud and tampering. The integration capabilities of the e-signature solution with existing business systems should also be a consideration to help minimise disruption and to enhance user adoption.

While e-signatures have many benefits, businesses should be aware of the need to navigate challenges such as legal compliance, data privacy, and the cost of implementation. These challenges, however, are surmountable with a bit of research, planning, and the selection of the right e-signature provider. The importance of e-signatures is set to grow, driven by their legal acceptance, global reach, and the continued digital transformation of industries.

Tech News : Firm Ordered To Stop Employee Face-Scanning

The UK Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) has ordered Serco Leisure to stop using facial recognition technology (FRT) and fingerprint scanning to monitor employee attendance.

Not Necessary or Proportionate 

An ICO investigation found that public service provider Serco Leisure, Serco Jersey and seven associated community leisure trusts had been “unlawfully processing the biometric data of more than 2,000 employees at 38 leisure facilities for the purpose of attendance checks and subsequent payment for their time.“

The ICO said that Serco Leisure had failed to show why it was necessary or proportionate to use FRT and fingerprint scanning for this purpose.

Alternative 

Also, the ICO made the point that Serco Leisure could have used less intrusive alternatives to achieve the same thing, such as ID cards or fobs. However, it was found that Serco Leisure had not proactively offered an alternative to employees having their faces and fingers scanned to clock in and out of their place of work, and this had been “presented as a requirement” in order for them to get paid

Imbalance of Power … And Unlawful

The ICO’s investigation concluded that the compulsory biometric scanning system linked to attendance and pay used by Serco Leisure had left employees no way to opt-out and feeling unable to decline the collection and usage of their biometric data.

Crucially, the ICO found that this was “neither fair nor proportionate under data protection law.” 

Enforcement Notices 

The ICO has, therefore, issued Serco Leisure and its trusts with enforcement notices instructing them to stop all processing of biometric data for monitoring employees’ attendance at work, and to destroy all biometric data that they are not legally obliged to retain. The ICO says that “Biometric data is wholly unique to a person so the risks of harm in the event of inaccuracies or a security breach are much greater – you can’t reset someone’s face or fingerprint like you can reset a password.” 

Serco Leisure and the trusts have been given three months to comply.

New Guidance About The Use Of Biometric Data 

In their reporting of the case, the ICO referred to the fact that it has just published new guidance about how to comply with the law for organisations considering using people’s biometric data. The guidance can be found on the ICO’s website here.

What Does This Mean For Your Business? 

In the case of Serco Leisure as reported by the ICO, it seems the salient facts were that the biometric system was disproportionate and intrusive, while no alternatives were offered (there was no way to opt-out). Also, a person’s biometric data (e.g. images of their face and their fingerprints) are legally regarded as their personal data and, as the ICO points out, the theft of biometric data in a breach would be far more damaging than the theft of passwords, which can be reset.

The takeaway here for businesses is that although the use of biometric data may serve a business in terms of accuracy, there must be a balance, plus there’s employee morale and trust to consider as well as the law. Close attention must be paid to all aspects of data protection law anyway but for businesses and organisations thinking about introducing a biometric system, a good starting point would be to study and take note of the new “Biometric data guidance: Biometric recognition” guidelines on the ICO’s website.

Tech News : Google Pauses Gemini AI Over ‘Historical Inaccuracies’

Only a month after its launch, Google has paused its text-to-image AI tool following “inaccuracies” in some of the historical depictions of people produced by the model.

Woke’ … Overcorrecting For Diversity? 

An example of the inaccuracy issue (as highlighted by X user Patrick Ganley recently, after asking Google Gemini to generate images of the Founding Fathers of the US), was when it returned images of a black George Washington. Also, in another reported test, when asked to generate images of a 1943 German (Nazi) soldier, Google’s Gemini image generator returned pictures of people of clearly diverse nationalities in Nazi uniforms.

The inaccuracies have been described by some as examples of the model subverting the gender and racial stereotypes found in generative AI, a reluctance to depict ‘white people’ and / or conforming to ‘woke’ ideas, i.e. the model trying to remove its own bias and improve diversity yet ending up simply being inaccurate to the point of being comical.

For example, on LinkedIn, Venture Capitalist Michael Jackson said the inaccuracies were a “byproduct of Google’s ideological echo chamber” and that for the “countless millions of dollars that Google spent on Gemini, it’s only managed to turn its AI into a nonsensical DEI parody.” 

China Restrictions Too? 

Another issue (reported by Al Jazeera), noted by a former software engineer at Stripe on X, was that Gemini would not show the image of a man in 1989 Tiananmen Square due to its safety policy and the “sensitive and complex” nature of the event. This, and similar issues have prompted criticism from some that Gemini may also have some kind of restrictions related to China.

What Does Google Say? 

Google posted on X to say about the inaccurate images: “We’re working to improve these kinds of depictions immediately. Gemini’s AI image generation does generate a wide range of people. And that’s generally a good thing because people around the world use it. But it’s missing the mark here.” 

Google has, therefore, announced that: ”We’re already working to address recent issues with Gemini’s image generation feature. While we do this, we’re going to pause the image generation of people and will re-release an improved version soon.” 

Bias and Stereotyping 

Bias and stereotyping have long been issues in the output of generative AI tools. Bias and stereotyping in generative AI outputs exist primarily because AI models learn from vast amounts of data collected from human languages and behaviours, which inherently contain biases and stereotypes. As models mimic patterns found in their training data, they can replicate and amplify existing societal biases and stereotypes.

What Does This Mean For Your Business? 

Google has only just announced the combining of Bard with its new Gemini models to create its ‘Gemini Advanced’ subscription service, so this discovery is likely to be particularly unwelcome. The anti-woke backlash and ridicule are certainly something Google could do without about now, but the issue has highlighted the complications of generative AI, how it is trained, and the complexities of how models interpret the data and instructions they’re given. It also shows how AI models may be advanced, but they don’t actually ‘think’ (as a human would), they can’t perform ‘reality checks’ as humans can because they don’t ‘live’ in the ‘real world.’ Also, this story shows how early we still are in the generative AI journey.

Google’s explanation has shed some light on the thinking behind the issue and at least it’s admitted to being wide of the mark in terms of historical accuracy – which is clear from some of the examples. It’s all likely to be an embarrassment and a hassle for Google in its competition with Microsoft and its partner OpenAI, nevertheless, Google seems to think that with a pause plus a few changes, it can tackle the problem and move forward.

An Apple Byte : Quantum-Proof iMessage Update

Apple says it’s rolling out an update to its iMessage texting platform that can defend against future encryption-breaking technologies such as decryption by quantum computers.

Apple says its PQ3 “groundbreaking post-quantum cryptographic protocol” offers Level 3 security, i.e. it provides protocol protections that surpass those in all other widely deployed messaging apps. Apple says PQ3 (post-quantum cryptography 3) has the strongest security properties of any at-scale messaging protocol in the world and that it has “rebuilt the iMessage cryptographic protocol from the ground up to advance the state of the art in end-to-end encryption”. 

Although Apple acknowledges that quantum computers with the capability to crack classical public key cryptography algorithms don’t exist yet, it says its PQ3 update offers “the strongest protection against quantum attacks” in the future and is “the only widely available messaging service to reach Level 3 security”.

Security Stop Press : ConnectWise LockBit Alert

Just days after it was announced that the UK’s National Crime Agency (NCA), the FBI, and Europol had taken down the Russian LockBit ransomware gang’s website, it’s been reported that LockBit ransomware is still being deployed via flaws in a popular remote access tool.

Researchers at cybersecurity companies Huntress and Sophos have highlighted how two bugs in the ConnectWise ScreenConnect remote access IT support tool, usually used by IT technicians, are being exploited to launch LockBit attacks.

ConnectWise has issued an alert urging IT administrators to take quick action to patch the two critical vulnerabilities. Details are available here.

Sustainability-in-Tech : ‘Gasification’ of Waste Tea Powers Factories

The ‘gasification’ of waste tea prunings is being used to both provide free energy for factories in Kenya and to decarbonise the tea sector.

Gasification 

UK-based waste-to-energy company Compact Syngas Solutions (CSS) has developed a ‘gasification’ process which can convert biomass and other feedstocks into synthesis gas (syngas), which can be used to generate heat and power.

Challenges 

In Kenya, where half of the tea drunk in the UK originates from, the tea industry faces challenges including:

– An unreliable and expensive electricity grid. This grid cuts out for an hour a day on average, meaning that tea producers must rely on diesel generators for power and wood for heat. As well as being disruptive, it is not environmentally friendly.

– Fertile soils are needed for tea, yet using fertilisers at scale can be expensive and can also be environmentally unfriendly.

How ‘Gasification’ Technology Can Help 

The ‘Micro-Hub’ modular gasification system from CSS can provide the following solutions to the above-mentioned challenges in the tea industry by:

– Being able to run 24/7, thereby addressing the outages that cause the disruption and the need for diesel generators, and matching the peak demand of tea factories.

– Generating energy from waste products, such as biomass like waste wood, tea cuttings, and other selected non-recyclable materials. Also, the power and hydrogen produced from biogenic feedstock has lower CO2 emission which, coupled with CSS carbon capture technology, means the Micro-Hub is carbon neutral. This can make tea production greener and help with the decarbonisation of the tea industry.

– Economic benefits/cost savings, i.e. the payback for a Micro-Hub can be as low as 2.7 years.

– Scalability and the ability to tailor to the user’s energy requirements, e.g. as and when demand grows, more modular plants (Micro-Hubs) can be added.

– Transportation and fertiliser production opportunities resulting from the green hydrogen from syngas production (syngas is a mix of hydrogen, methane and carbon dioxide and monoxide).

– Increased tea yields (up to 23 per cent), increased fertiliser use efficiency, and better drought resilience.

Job Creation Too 

The 500kWh plant Micro-Hubs that produce the green energy will also reportedly create jobs for up to 10 skilled technical and operational workers. This could add up to 300 new jobs in Kenya within the first five years.

Plans To Expand 

Plans are already in place (pending proven success in Kenya) to expand the green energy Micro-Hubs to Malawi, Uganda, South Africa and, perhaps, across the world.

What Does This Mean For Your Organisation? 

For tea producers in Kenya, a major challenge is the unreliable power grid. Also, the industry needs to decarbonise. Having a mini, modular, 24/7 power/energy generator on hand that runs on tea plant cuttings (and other biomaterials) can, therefore, meet these challenges and provide many other benefits.

For example, essentially free green energy that meets tea factory demand will help to decarbonise the tea industry and improve efficiency and productivity. The mini power hubs may also provide the added benefit of new job creation in an exciting new field. This story is an example of how technology can be used in a way that benefits an industry, a country, and the world in terms of carbon emission reduction, economic advancement, and the scalability of this system and its benefits.

Featured Article : Doorbell Ding Dong

After the Amazon-owned ‘Ring’ video doorbell company’s recent major subscription price hike across its range caused anger and made the news, we look at what customers have said and if there’s a way to beat the price hike.

Ouch! 

Ring has angered customers and received some negative publicity after announcing that starting on 11 March this year, its subscription price for its basic plan customers will rise by an eye-watering 43 per cent, from £34.99 to £49.99 per device, per year.

This will mean that the basic plan price has doubled since 2022 when it was priced at £24.99 per year for each device.

Also, those who pay monthly will see a price increase from £3.49 to £4.99 a month.

Angry 

The announcement of the price increase prompted angry reactions from customers including many taking to Reddit to complain, saying they’d already cancelled their subscription, and suggesting ways to object and force a U-turn. For example, one very popular threat in the Ring sub-Reddit is called “Cancel your Ring subscription.” At the head of the thread in Reddit, for example, the ‘Discussion’ summary reads: “Even if you plan on paying for it with the new price, just cancel it now and select price as the reason why” and “it just increased not long ago and now they are trying to introduce an even bigger increase. If everyone cancelled, the increase would be called back immediately.” 

Other points that angry customers have made include:

– They’ve just bought a Ring doorbell or been given one for Christmas but won’t use it because the subscription price is now too high.

– Not wanting to invest heavily in hardware for a company that has gained a reputation for subscription price hikes.

– Highlighting how the company’s increase in per-device price for a capability that may not be used anyway (the ability to save, review and share video recordings) amounts to Ring damaging its reputation unnecessarily.

Others, however, who can accept the price rise, are not willing to cancel or switch (they still perceive value outweighing the price). For example, one Reddit user wrote: “It sucks, but who’s going to switch over 10 dollars a year? I’m not going to uninstall it and change to another one. I live in a neighbourhood with a lot of people and the past recordings are insurance in case anything happens.” 

What Does Ring Say? 

As yet no specific statement in answer to the threat of mass subscription cancellations has been released by Ring and there’s only a price update page on the website explaining what happens if customers cancel their subscriptions.

Suggestion About How To Freeze Price – Martin Lewis 

Consumer financial champion and broadcaster Martin Lewis, however, took to the ‘X’ platform to suggest a way that users can beat the 43 per cent price hike. Mr Lewis suggested: “Cancel now and get a pro-rata refund (you may lose saved files though) – Sign up again at the current price which then locks it in for the next year.” 

Mr Lewis also said he will be sending out a “Full checked out update to come via MSE News” i.e., Money Saving Expert news.

Alternatives 

In what is a growing video doorbell market, there are alternative/competing products, although Ring is the market leader in the UK (up until now), and competitors are unlikely to have the backing of a company with the market power and wealth of Amazon.

Some examples of competing products include Nest Hello, Arlo Video Doorbell, August View, Eufy, and Tapo. Nest Hello, for example, is known for its high video and audio quality, sleek design, and advanced features like activity zones and familiar face alerts. Arlo Video Doorbell is reported to offer excellent video quality, a wide field of view, two-way talk functionality, and smart notifications that can differentiate between people, vehicles, and animals. August View is known for characteristics like its user-friendliness and day-to-day use.

Other Concerns 

Beyond price issues, there are other concerns around the use of video doorbells not least of which is privacy. For example, back in October 2021 in the UK, a judge ruled that video images and audio files that a Ring doorbell and cameras captured of the neighbour of an Oxfordshire plumber were her personal data and that the video doorbell and the use of the doorbell of this case was a kind of harassment and had been in breach of the Data Protection Act 2018 and UK GDPR. Consequently, the owner of the Ring doorbell (the plumber) was fined a substantial sum. Following this Fairhurst v Woodard case, Amazon, the parent company of Ring LLC, issued a warning to its Ring Doorbell owners saying, “We strongly encourage our customers to respect their neighbours’ privacy and comply with any applicable laws when using their Ring product.”

The case doesn’t mean that any usage of Ring doorbells is illegal as the prosecution mainly centred around the doorbell’s audio recording capabilities (the range at which it was capturing audio) being too much for crime prevention and home protection purposes. Also, it was found that the doorbell’s owner hadn’t been transparent about how and when his camera was operating. That said, it does highlight how there is a real risk if video doorbell owners don’t adhere to data privacy and other relevant laws.

In addition to privacy concerns, other risks that owners of video doorbells may need to consider include:

– Security risks (i.e. a risk of hacking) where unauthorised individuals could gain access to your video feed or personal data.

– Not understanding where and how video data is stored, who has access to it, and how long it is retained (and the potential legal implications thereof).

– Network requirements. This is because video doorbells require a stable and strong Wi-Fi connection. Weak signals can affect performance.

– As illustrated by this Ring price hike, beyond the initial purchase, buyers need to carefully consider subscription fees for additional features, like cloud storage or enhanced security measures.

– For wireless video doorbell models, battery life can vary, and replacing or charging batteries can be a hassle.

– It’s possible, depending on the sensitivity and technology used, owners may receive false alerts from passing cars, animals, or other non-human movements, which can be annoying and disruptive.

– Whether or not the doorbell can operate well in the weather conditions common to your area.

– Compatibility with existing smart home devices and ecosystems can vary, impacting your overall smart home experience.

What Does This Mean For Your Business? 

Even though Amazon’s Ring doorbell company announced a couple of years ago that there would be a price increase, the sheer scale of it has been met with anger as well as many threats and claims of cancellations. The fact that customers appear not to be able to see any additional value or extra benefit to justify such a large price increase (and perhaps a lack of further communication about it) alongside the availability of some quality alternatives appears to have considerably lowered the barrier to exit and created a PR disaster for Ring.

Having Amazon as a very powerful and wealthy owner may have been a key reason why Ring has become the market leader, but this makes it all the more surprising that a price rise has been handled in this way. For Ring customers who’ve only recently purchased or been gifted the hardware, this is a blow that may cause them to cut their losses and try a competitor. For video doorbell competitors, therefore, it’s the best opportunity they’ve had in years to gain share and chip away at Ring’s market position.

For Ring, however, if the ‘customer rebellion’ continues, it could put pressure on them to go for a climbdown or to announce some kind of additional benefit(s) to pacify and retain customers. Price sensitivity and changing market conditions, particularly in a cost-of-living crisis, are something that all B2C companies (especially) need to take seriously in their pricing strategies.

Tech Insight : What Are ‘Virtual’ Credit Cards?

In this tech-insight, we take a look at the world of virtual cards, who offers them, their benefits, and other secure payment alternatives.

What Are Virtual Credit Card Numbers? 

Virtual credit cards and their card numbers (as the name suggests) only exist in the virtual world, e.g. in an app on your phone, and are temporary, randomly generated 16-digit numbers that are associated with an existing credit card account (it masks the real card number). The number is unique for each transaction for a limited time. Just as they can be quickly generated and immediately and customised after their initial use, they can also be immediately revoked if necessary (handy for security).

Virtual cards with virtual numbers (although they still have an expiry date and CVV) can be used to purchase things online and in-app, in some cases over the phone, and also to pay in-store with mobile payment via other services such as Google Pay and Apple Pay.

Why?

Having a virtual, randomly generated, temporary (and easy to revoke) number makes online transactions safer and more secure by reducing the risk of fraud and misuse, e.g. from phishing and hackers. It essentially creates an invisible buffer between a card account holder and bad actors.

Other Benefits 

In addition to the added security and convenience, other benefits of virtual credit cards include:

– Users can get more control over their spending, for example by implementing setting spending limits and expiration dates on virtual cards, thereby helping to manage budgets and prevent unauthorised charges.

– Greater privacy protection during online transactions because virtual cards don’t directly expose the user’s primary credit card information, and they help protect the user’s privacy during online transactions.

– Enabling easy subscription management, i.e. they can be extremely useful for managing subscriptions or trial services, as they can be easily cancelled without affecting other transactions or the need to change the primary card details.

Who?  

Virtual card numbers are available to consumers (online shoppers), businesses managing their expenses, and any individuals or entities concerned about financial privacy and security.

In the UK, virtual card numbers are offered by a mix of traditional banks, fintech companies, and specialised financial service providers. Examples include:

– Barclays, through its Barclaycard product line, for individuals and businesses.

– The Revolut fintech app. This offers virtual cards alongside its physical debit card.

– Monzo, which says customers can create virtual cards in its app and have up to 5 at any time.

– Starling Bank, which says its customers can create virtual debit cards linked to budgets. Starling customers can have multiple virtual cards for free and use them to make payments in person using a mobile wallet.

– The Curve fintech company which offers a virtual Curve Card, enabling users to pay using their app or the virtual card can be added to Apple Pay, Samsung Pay, or Google Pay.

– Capital One, which allows customers to create virtual numbers linked to one of their Capital One cards.

Drawbacks 

Although a virtual card / virtual card number offers the primary benefits of security and convenience, there are some drawbacks. For example:

– Being virtual means that there’s no magstripe or Chip & PIN, meaning that a virtual card can’t be used to withdraw cash, e.g. from an ATM.

– Not all merchants accept virtual cards, especially for transactions that require a physical card to be presented at a later time, such as car rentals or hotel bookings.

– Challenges with returns and refunds. For example, if you need to return a purchase made with a virtual card, the process can be complicated if the card has expired or if the merchant requires the original payment card to process a refund.

– Since virtual cards rely on digital platforms and internet access for their creation, management, and usage, they can be subject to technical issues such as problems with the app or limited internet access; it may be difficult or impossible to generate a new virtual card or access existing ones. This reliance on technology can be a significant drawback in situations where digital access is compromised or unavailable.

Alternatives 

There are several alternatives to virtual cards that also offer a layer of security, such as:

– Digital wallets / e-wallets, including Apple Pay, Google Pay, and Samsung Pay, which allow users to store their payment information securely on their devices. As mentioned above, virtual card providers also let customers add their virtual cards to and use them via these wallets.

– Intermediate-style payment services like PayPal, Venmo (in the US), and Alipay.

– Some bank-issued secure payment apps.

– Mastercard Click to Pay and Visa Checkout.

– Cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin, Ethereum and others, which offer a decentralised way to make secure transactions.

– Prepaid cards such as Monese or the Revolut prepaid card.

What About Google Pay Or Apple Pay? 

Although Google Pay and Apple Pay don’t directly offer virtual card numbers in the same way that banks or specific credit card issuers do, they provide a form of transaction security that resembles the use of virtual card numbers. For example, in the case of Apple Pay, actual card numbers aren’t stored on the device or on Apple servers. Instead, a unique Device Account Number is assigned, encrypted, and securely stored in the Secure Element on your iPhone and each transaction is authorised with a one-time unique dynamic security code.

Similarly, Google Pay uses tokenisation to replace the actual credit or debit card number with a virtual account number when a transaction is made meaning that the real card details aren’t shared with merchants during the payment process.

What Does This Mean For Your Business? 

Ways to pay digitally are evolving, which is just as well because so are the methods to commit fraud and cybercrime. Virtual credit cards are a shift towards more secure and manageable financial transactions. They offer a range of benefits across the spectrum of commerce, from banks issuing these cards to retailers accepting them, and businesses using them for operational expenses.

The banks and other issuers of virtual cards stand to benefit from reduced fraud losses, as these cards offer enhanced security features that make unauthorised transactions harder to execute. Also, offering virtual cards can be a strong competitive differentiator, attracting customers looking for innovative and secure payment solutions. It also opens up new revenue streams through service offerings tailored around virtual card management and security services.

For retailers and other businesses, accepting virtual card payments allows them to tap into a growing segment of consumers who prefer using digital-first payment solutions. It can be faster and lead to reduced transaction disputes and chargebacks due to the enhanced security features of virtual cards. Also, embracing such payment methods demonstrates a commitment to customer security, potentially boosting consumer trust and loyalty.

Businesses leveraging virtual cards for their expenditures can achieve greater control over their finances. For example, these cards facilitate precise budget management, enable easy tracking of spending, and simplify the reconciliation process. Virtual cards also allow businesses to minimise exposure to fraud in B2B transactions, ensuring that vendor payments are secure and controlled.

For us consumers, virtual cards offer enhanced security and convenience when making online purchases. By masking their real card details, consumers can shop with peace of mind, knowing their financial information is better protected against fraud. Virtual cards also offer a more seamless online shopping experience, with features like easy subscription management and controlled spending limits.

While the benefits appear to be significant, it’s still important to acknowledge the drawbacks mentioned earlier, such as limited physical acceptance and potential challenges with returns and refunds. However, the positive aspects outweigh these limitations for most users. The tech dependency of virtual cards, although a drawback in some scenarios, is also a testament to the digital transformation shaping our financial transactions.

Virtual cards, therefore, embody the future of secure, flexible, and convenient payments. For businesses, embracing this technology means staying ahead in the digital curve, enhancing operational efficiency, and building stronger trust with customers. As we move forward, the continued evolution and adoption of virtual cards will likely shape the next generation of financial transactions, making them more secure, efficient, and user-friendly for all stakeholders.