Glitch in the system: Amber Rudd has struggled to grasp the language of tech. Photo: LEON NEAL/GETTY IMAGES, OZAN KOSE/AFP/GETTY IMAGES

Ministers’ cluelessness on tech leaves us all vulnerable to attack

Amber Rudd insists that she knows best, ignoring all advice from those in the field. In a climate of indefatigable North Korea hacking and Russian election-meddling, we all deserve better
August 11, 2017

Glitch in the system: Amber Rudd has struggled to grasp the language of tech. Photo: LEON NEAL/GETTY IMAGES, OZAN KOSE/AFP/GETTY IMAGES

To err is human, but to really screw up requires a computer—ideally with a politician behind it.

Take Amber Rudd, Home Secretary and one of the few adults in the cabinet. Rudd is competent enough, but get her on tech and word-origami happens. I really worry about her. I worry that she is going to embarrass herself in a high-level meeting with GCHQ by asking whether we can physically break encryption by “like, hitting phones with a hammer?”

Encryption is important because it keeps us all safe. There are many arguments against weakening it—the ethical argument of our right to privacy, for instance—but there are also plenty of security angles: if we allow backdoors into encryption, it will make us vulnerable to criminals, thieves, spies, voyeurs. Sabotaging cryptography would be absurd, it’s our best line of defence, and once it’s broken it can’t simply be unbroken. To improve our targeting of the bad guys we should be becoming more efficient with the tools we do have; deciphering, for instance, call records and email time stamps.

It is telling that even GCHQ aren’t pushing for a weakening of encryption. It is telling that every tech expert is against it, as is Edward Snowden, whose 2013 NSA revelations opened all of our eyes. But Rudd, who is prone to tech neologisms such as “necessary hashtags,” a phrase that makes absolutely no sense at all, is still keen. Rudd’s insistence that she knows best, ignoring all advice from those in the field, follows on from many past instances of ministers of all stripes going from IT hubris to IT nemesis. The patient records database and the child support agency overhaul were only two of the higher profile instances under the last Labour government. Much more recently, of course, the NHS became a casualty of a lax attitude towards tech when hospitals were forced to revert to pen and paper after a ransomware hack left thousands of computers locked; the government hadn’t grasped the importance of keeping operating systems up to date.

The NHS snafu is typical of what happens when the people making the decisions don’t understand how tech is all-encompassing. It is the root of how the world now works. The future of terrorism is surely the Internet of Things, the hip term for our digitally connected universe, how all of our appliances will communicate. I don’t want the government only to realise the possibility of a terrorist hacking into driverless cars five years after the vehicles are on our roads. Recently, someone far less dangerous than a terrorist realised it was possible to hack into people’s home Agas. Things need to change, then.

The government needs to recruit more and more digitally savvy civil servants, which may (though not necessarily) mean more younger people. It needs to recruit these individuals and not silo them as IT nerds. Here, the government could follow the lead of David Cameron and George Osborne, who employed Rohan Silva as a senior advisor, a man who genuinely under- stood technology and its potential and who also had the ear of his bosses. Now we have Michael Fallon brazenly suggesting a game of whack-a-mole, when he says the UK will “drop bombs on hackers.” Rudd’s latest argument is that “real people” don’t care about encryption, which is a funny turn of phrase, desperate to tap into the en vogue anti-elitist narrative, but which actually just ascribes aloofness to concerns about, say, being robbed online. In fairness, it isn’t just the UK which struggles with this issue. Three years ago, the European Union’s then digital commissioner, Günther Oettinger, displayed astounding tech ignorance while talking about celebrities’ photos ending up online. In Brussels, as in London, an inability to understand tech is no hindrance when appointed control over it. Trump, while a prolific (and many other words) tweeter, regularly suggests things such as “shutting off their internet” to solve the crisis in the Middle East. (What?)

But the UK is bad at making progress in a way that, say, Germany, which is taking on Big Tech with multimillion euro fines, is not. For a long time now we allowed tech corporations to elude their fair share of tax, and it has taken far, far too long for the government to wake up to the problem of online abuse. It’s mostly thanks to a group of women Labour MPs, including home affairs select committee chair Yvette Cooper, that legislation might happen.

We do have something called the Government Digital Service (GDS), which has a £455m budget but doesn’t seem to know what to do with it. The National Audit Office has said the GDS and government has a “mixed track record” which is being much kinder than I would be. To wit: earlier in the summer, the GDS’s own staff weren’t paid because of IT system errors.

Perhaps most worryingly, however, is that in Theresa May we have a prime minister who was notorious in the Home Office for championing the so-called “snooper’s charter,” a piece of legislation Snowden has called “the most intrusive and least accountable surveillance regime in the west,” and which passed into law late last year.

None of this makes me comfortable. Especially not in a climate of indefatigable North Korea hacking, Russian election-meddling, Chinese censorship and the spread of further ransomwares such as NotPetya. It’s time the government got a grip on tech, it’s what people—real people, included—deserve.