Getting stuff done under Lockdown

As we enter week six of the Covid-19 lockdown here in the UK I am still ‘between contracts’. I’ve had a handful of video interviews but these haven’t led anywhere yet – but I’m not sitting around idle.

Notwithstanding the decorating, gardening and spring-cleaning (of office and summerhouse – I’m not trusted to attack the house itself) I have been hitting Pluralsight online tech training hard for the past few weeks.

Taking the time to get up to speed with the most recent changes in .NET Core, Blazor and Xamarin were an initial target for my attention but I’ve subsequently moved on to those courses that I had bookmarked thinking – “that would be interesting/useful to look into if I ever get time”. Well now I have the time.

I’ve been digging into the world of NoSQL, PostgreSQL and Django with a view to porting an existing pet project using the latter two.

On top of all the training I’ve been performing some housekeeping on my servers (actually Digital Ocean Droplets), installing updates, running SSL Lab and Security Headers scans and even deleting a couple that weren’t really needed anymore.

I’ve even been able to do some aggressive housekeeping on my Synology NAS; removing obsolete VirtualBox images and duplicated files while refining the folder structures and configuring a decent backup to Amazon S3.

This week, in addition to hitting the job boards I will be looking at updating the NuGet packages on my deployed website projects and mobile apps and hopefully getting my Secure SMS project pushed to Github – even if it is in a ‘Proof of Concept’ form (read that as functional but ugly).

Covid19 – A Privacy Warning

In these weeks of lockdown in the UK due to Covid-19 there have been a number of incidents of the police overstepping their powers;

The police chief was forced to u-turn in his threat while the forces involved with the other two incidents say that the officers were ‘well intentioned but over zealous’ – but to my mind, that’s not the point.

The point is that there will always be people in a position of authority or power who overstep their remit – and when it come to our privacy that’s not a good thing.

The UK Government, along with many others, are trying to force technology companies such as WhatsApp to provide backdoor access to encrypted, private conversations of their customers.

Now, the Government will say that this is for the safety of us all and that they are only targeting bad people – you know terrorists and pedophiles – and access to the private data will be strictly controlled.

But as I’ve previously posted, if the likes of WhatsApp were to provide such access then the bad people will just use something else, leaving us with a hobbled and insecure messaging platform.

We would not only be at the mercy of hackers but also the sort of ‘over-zealous’ agencies who would now be able to trawl over our private conversations. Bearing in mind that most (if not all) of the bad people will have moved away and that the Government will be keen to show some justification for having applied pressure for access to the data, I think it will be inevitable that innocent people will come under unwarranted scrutiny.

Towards the end of the above post I mention the development of a Command Line application which will allow the encryption and decryption of data which has now been completed and released as Open Source on Github.

I also proposed the development of a Secure Chat application, “SecureXamChat”, to prove the point that it was trivial for any competent developer to write such a thing.

The one sticking point that I kept thinking about was the transport layer – the mechanism of actually sending and receiving messages (the actual encryption/decryption etc is pretty straightforward).

I didn’t want to use the systems provided by the big tech companies as this would place a barrier in front of users with a non-technical background. I wanted something that didn’t need any advanced configuration.

One day it just came to me – why don’t I just use the transport mechanism built into just about every phone out there, that is the Short Message Service – or SMS as we all know it.

Well, the Covid-19 lockdown has given me a lot of time and I’m currently finishing off an early proof of concept (that means functional but ugly) Android application which will allow users to send and receive encrypted SMS messages.

The application, written in Xamarin, will;

  • Generate a Key Pair based on a password/passphrase
  • Allow users to share their PUBLIC keys via QRCode scanning
  • Encrypt text messages and send them via SMS
  • Decrypt received secure messages

I should reiterate, that the aim of this development is NOT to help the bad guys. It’s to prove to the UK Government that;

  • Forcing companies to weaken the encryption of their products will not achieve their goal (unless the goal is the ability to snoop on the public at large of course)
  • Encryption is out there – it’s just Maths. You cannot but the genie back in the bottle.

I should finish the development of the application in the next few days, maybe a week as I’m not solely working on this. Once I have it in a workable state I’ll Open Source it by pushing the code to Github.

I may well polish the code and the User Interface but this is not intended to be a production ready application. I’m not intending to release this to the Play Store and I’m certainly not looking to make any money from this.

I’ll post again once development of the Proof of Concept is ‘complete’. In the meantime remember;

When privacy is criminalized, only the criminals will have it

Daniel Suarez

Stay safe out there people.

Covid-19 Support Response – Update

In my previous post I stated that ‘As Directors we are not able to furlough ourselves and therefore would not be eligible for the Governments Covid-19 Job Retention Scheme‘.

I also said ‘the details of these measures are still coming out and there is a great deal of confusion so what I’m about to write may well change going forward‘ – and it has (although a bit quicker than I expected).

If you don’t know who Martin Lewis is then check out the Money Saving Expert website. Basically, when this guy says something, especially it’s all in CAPS then he’s checked and double-checked the facts. He wouldn’t make this kind of statement without being absolutely sure.

If he says that Limited Company Directors CAN furlough themselves – even if they are the sole employee of the company, then that’s good enough for me.

So, what does that change?

Well, for me it doesn’t change anything at all. I am in a position where I can operate as normal, i.e. I have a dedicated, fully equipped home office. All I am missing right now is a client but, as I don’t intent to furlough myself, I can continue to search and engage as before. I can still work for the company – it’s business (almost) as usual in that respect.

Obviously, this may not be the case for everyone and if 80% of their salary would make a difference to their ability to see this thing out then they should take it.

But that’s the sting here isn’t it – most contractors pay themselves a minimal salary, topping them up with regular dividends. So 80% of £750 is £600 a month – in most cases this is far short of their normal income and maybe not enough to keep them afloat and that’s a major concern.

But contractors who are shouting about being ‘forgotten’ and ‘left out’ really don’t understand the slippery slope they are treading – especially with IR35 set to raise it’s ugly head once more.

Huh? What’s IR35 got to do with this?

This is what Andy Chamberlain from IPSE had to say about contractor complaining about being ‘left out’ of the Self Employee Income Support Scheme:

I urge you to click the above tweet and then read the rest of his thread.

If we want to be treated as regular businesses and not caught up in ill informed Employment Status determinations and blanket contractor bans then we have to accept the fact that we have done this to ourselves.

Help is being offered to us but as we decided to pay ourselves in the way we do and now it has come back to bite us.

Not a popular opinion I’m sure – but that’s where we are.

Covid-19 Support Response

Update: 28th March 2020

As I mentioned below ‘things may change’ – and they did, pretty quickly. See my update post on what changed

With the UK in lock-down due to the CoronaVirus (Covid-19) everyone is justifiably concerned about their jobs and their income.

In an unprecedented move the Chancellor, Rishi Sunak, has announced a raft of measures from mortgage holidays, deferment of tax payments as well as packages to pay 80% of people income (or £2500/mth).

As wide reaching as the measures are the contractor community is up in arms because we appear to have been left out in the cold.

Now, the details of these measures are still coming out and there is a great deal of confusion so what I’m about to write may well change going forward.

The two main packages are:

  • Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme (link)
  • Covid-19 Self-Employment Income Support Scheme (link)

Now, the first of these aims to prevent companies from having to make their staff redundant by paying 80% of their salary up to a maximum of £2500. The employees must be ‘furloughed’ which basically means that aside from training they are not allowed to do any work for the company.

While this is pretty generous for employed staff, the self-employed were up in arms that they had been left out. While there were other avenues opened up, e.g. Statutory Sick Pay which the self-employed are not normally entitled to, these provided much less in the way of financial support.

It took a week for the Chancellor to present the second scheme aimed at the self-employed which offered the same 80% but this time over the average monthly profit as submitted in the previous three years tax returns.

The fly in the ointment is that these payments won’t be available until the beginning of June 2020 but the Chancellor insisted that other sources of funds were available from banks etc and combined with the other measures, e.g. mortgage holidays, this was the best that could be done.

All sounds ‘good’ what’s the problem?

Now, all that is unprecedented – the government stepping in to pay employee salaries and the lost income of the self-employed, but where does it leave the UK’s contracted workforce? In particular what about those who, like myself, operate through a Limited Company.

Well, many contractors consider themselves to be self-employed; after all the company is theirs and they employ themselves so they presumed that they would be covered by yesterdays announcment.

Reading the details of the Self-Employed Income Support Scheme it was quickly found that this would not apply to us;

Those who pay themselves a salary and dividends through their own company are not covered by the scheme but will be covered for their salary by the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme if they are operating PAYE schemes.

HM Treasury and The Rt Hon Rishi Sunak MP (26th March 2020)

Most contractors operate in this manner, i.e. we pay ourselves a minimal salary and then withdraw dividends from the company profits.

For the avoidance of doubt, yes we do this because it is more tax efficient than taking a ‘proper’ salary. This does not mean that we pay no tax at all – far from it. My company pays Corporation Tax and Employers National Insurance while I pay my Personal Income Tax via self assessment.

With that out of the way let’s look at the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme as directed above.

Well, it will pay 80% of the our salary up to a maximum of £2500 a month. But as contractors normally pay themselves a minimal salary, circa £700-800 a month, this won’t add up to much at all.

It should also be remembered that the payment is dependent on the employee being ‘furloughed’ and essentially forbidden from performing any duties. But as Directors of the company, how can we do that? Monitoring the bank balance, paying invoices, marketing, chasing new contracts – this is all work and would mean that we would not be eligible for this scheme anyway.

[This is at least the current advise from my accountant and from many other sources out there. It is however a point of contention so as I said at the start, it may be subject to clarification]

So why are contractors being “left out”?

Well, step back for a minute. Is it just us that can’t claim from these schemes? Have we being singled out because we’ve been kicking off about IR35?

No, we haven’t.

All company directors will be in the same boat – none are self-employed and none can be furloughed (if the current understanding is correct).

I was a director of another Limited Company some years ago – nothing to do with contracting, just a “regular” business. From what I understand if I was still there I would be as ineligible as I am now.

Think about the directors of the last clients you worked for (assuming it was a Limited Company and not another Contractor) – what’s their position?

If we want to keep the argument against IR35 alive we need to realise that we are no different from those other companies.

Yes, it sucks that everyone else seems to be getting bailed out while we aren’t – but that’s just how it is.

We’ve all had periods ‘between contracts’ and while I don’t look forward to them I do try to plan for them. I know that I can survive a few months with nothing coming in. It’s uncomfortable to watch the bank balance draining but at the end of the day but that buffer is there for a reason.

And here’s the kicker – and it won’t be popular

If we raise Mary Hell about this then we are eroding our argument about IR35.

If we demand to be treated differently to all the other Limited Company Directors out there – then we are essentially saying “we are not like those regular companies”.

When we get through Covid-19, and we will get through it, will we then start saying – “we are just regular companies so IR35 shouldn’t apply to us”?

My standpoint (for what it’s worth)

I don’t see myself as ‘self-employed’. I am a Director of and employed by a Limited Company – a legal entity in it’s own right.

That company provides services to others (end-clients) but I remain an employee of the company and not of those clients.

Even if I was able to furlough myself from my company, which current advice says I cannot, then it really would not be worth it from a financial standpoint.

I would much rather make the effort to keep my company afloat, to dig in and work through this – or at least ride it out.