Parliamentary Intelligence Committee piles pressure on Huawei decision

The Parliamentary Intelligence and Security Committee has unveiled a statement to rubbish delays put on the Supply Chain Review, demanding a decision ASAP.

In the same week as the Chair of the Science and Technology Committee suggested there are no technical reasons to ban Huawei, the Intelligence and Security Committee has demanded a sharp decision or risk losing a strong position in the digital economy.

“5G will transform our day to day lives – if it meets its full potential – and it could be key to our future prosperity,” a statement from the Committee reads. “Such an important decision therefore requires careful consideration. However, the extent of the delay is now causing serious damage to our international relationships: a decision must be made as a matter of urgency.”

While the UK fell drastically behind the norm when it came to adopting 4G, progress has been much more promising for 5G. While calling oneself a global leader usually means little coming from the mouths of groomed politicians, in this case the UK is a genuine leader in the 5G race. There are only a handful of nations who launched ahead of the UK and the opportunity to scale nationwide rapidly is certainly is present.

However, the Intelligence and Security Committee, chaired by Dominic Grieve, feel this is a position which is becoming increasingly vulnerable. The longer this review continues, the slower 5G expansion plans will be, and the greater the opportunity for fast-followers to catch-up.

That said, perhaps the biggest revelation from the Intelligence and Security Committee seems to be the implications to national security.

“However, the telecoms market has been consolidated down to just a few players: in the case of 5G there are only three potential suppliers to the UK – Nokia, Ericsson and Huawei,” the reports states. “Limiting the field to just two, on the basis of the above arguments, would increase over-dependence and reduce competition, resulting in less resilience and lower security standards.”

Despite many critics of Huawei suggesting inclusion of the firm in critical infrastructure would compromise national security, Grieve’s opinion is that reducing the number of available vendors would create more problems. Not only would the networks be more expensive to build, but resilience would be dampened as well.

As you can imagine, Huawei are relatively pleased with the report from the Committee.

“We agree that diversity improves resilience in networks,” said Victor Zhang, Vice-President of Huawei. “We’ve been a part of UK networks for 18 years. 5G is critical for the UK and is the foundation of tomorrow’s digital and mobile economy. Quite simply, it will improve people’s lives. Our priority has only ever been to deliver world-leading technology to our customers.”

This is the problem the Department of Digital, Media, Culture and Sport (DCMS), the National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC) and the wider Government, is facing. Not only does DCMS have to recruit a new Digital Minister after the resignation of Margot James, deal with Brexit and select a new Prime Minister, it has to come to decision on the role of Huawei in the 5G era.

This statement and the report from the Science and Technology Committee is piling up the pressure. The message is relatively clear, these distractions should not undermine the importance of coming to a conclusion on Huawei.

At some point, the UK Government is going to have to hurt someone’s feelings. Either the relationship between the UK and the US or China is going to be impacted. With Brexit around the corner, the UK needs to nurture relationships outside of the European Union, but unfortunately it is unavoidable here.

The pressure is mounting and soon enough the Government will have to make a decision. It has been able to procrastinate, but the more influential groups who press for a conclusion, soon enough the Government will have to show some progress.

UK ‘losing momentum’ in pursuit of digital utopia

A scathing report from the House Committee on Science and Technology has suggesting the Government has lost its way on its quest to evolve the UK into a digital society.

There are positive steps being made, though the Committee has pointed to several flaws, including a lack of leadership. The general message from the Committee of one of unstructured, inefficient progress and ineffective programmes. It doesn’t paint the prettiest of pictures for a country which so proudly (and regularly) preaches its leadership position in the global digital economy.

“The potential that digital Government can bring is huge: transforming the relationship between the citizen and the State, saving money and making public services more efficient and agile,” said Norman Lamb, Chair of the Science and Technology Committee. “However, it is clear that the current digital service offered by the Government has lost momentum and is not transforming the citizen-State relationship as it could.

“Single unique identifiers can transform the efficiency and transparency of Government services. The Government should ensure there is a national debate on single unique identifiers for citizens to use when accessing public services along with the right of the citizen to know exactly what the Government is doing with their data.

“In the UK, we have no idea when and how Government departments are accessing and using our data. We could learn from the very different relationship between citizen and the state in Estonia.”

The Government Digital Service is a unit in the Cabinet Office tasked with transforming the provision of online public services. The GDS was set-up in April 2011 with a mantra of ‘Digital by Default’ to create a new culture and baseline for the UK economy and society. Unfortunately for the GDS, the report suggests there is still too much of a reliance on legacy technologies, while a lack of leadership in the department is faltering progress.

For those who are currently in charge of the department, the emergence of this report should be viewed as even more worrying. The Committee suggests that since the departure of former Minister for the Cabinet Office Francis Maude, and the subsequent resignation of several senior civil servants, there has been ‘slowing’ momentum, pointing towards international rankings where several countries have overtaken the UK in digital preparedness.

Another point which has been raised in the report is the absence of a Chief Data Officer. The appointment of such an individual has been a commitment from the Government since 2017, though it seems other issues have taken priority.

There are various other issues raised by the report, including a lack of a centralised strategy to deal with cybersecurity, though the overall tone of the report seems to be focused on a lack of action. The Government has been preaching the benefits of the digital society, promising overhaul of departments and a new relationship with data, though little of this seems to have translated to action in public sector departments.

In proposing the introduction of ‘Digital Champions’ in each department, the Committee are seemingly hoping good intentions and proclamations lead to real-world changes. However, the risk of the ‘Digital Champion’ is one which every business will know. Appointments will have to be made, but appropriate power must be allocated to the individual to ensure changes are forced through. There are too many examples of meaningless job titles which result in zero impact to the organization.

Perhaps the biggest issue which has been highlighted is a shortage of skills in the various departments and a lack of data-sharing between the departments or with enterprise and the general public. Estonia has been used as an example of the success of an open-data model and without this open approach the foundations for a data-economy cannot be created.

Ultimately, this is a report few will be surprised to see. Public sector organizations generally have to be dragged through any transformation strategy, and without driving leadership at the top, change will not filter down through the various departments. New leadership is perhaps needed and new roles with power need to be created; left to create its own fate, the public sector will not change.

If the spooks can’t hack it, the US might ban it – report

A worrying report emerging from the US concerns the future of end-to-end encryption and the on-going security of consumers; if the intelligence community can’t break it, tech firms won’t be allowed to use it.

Hypocrisy and contradiction seem to be languages on the syllabus for every politician in today’s society. This might have been the case for decades, but it seems to be very prevalent in the legislative halls around the globe currently. Today’s example concerns cybersecurity.

According to Politico, there has recently been a secret meeting with all the no.2’s from US intelligence agencies to discuss the possibility of banning end-to-end encryption. The logic is relatively simple; removing the end-to-end encryption barrier would help these agencies catch more terrorists. But then again, the contradiction is also glaringly obvious.

In the pursuit of increased security, the intelligence agencies are suggesting less security. The removal of end-to-end encryption might help these agencies catch more terrorists, but it would also expose the consumer to considerable risks such as fraud or blackmail, while also making it easier for foreign states or criminals to spy on anyone and everyone, including governments.

Fixing one problem by making several problems should not be considered a sensible or logical approach to managing national security. It’s incredibly ill-advised and quite frankly we are surprised this debate rages on.

What is worth noting is this is not a dispute which is limited to the shores of the US; there are short-sighted and dim-witted politicians trying to kill end-to-end encryption all around the world.

Australia passed a law in December to compel technology companies into creating backdoors for security services to make use of, while in the UK, GCHQ directors suggested a similar mechanism called ‘Ghost Protocol’ which received a scathing reception. During 2017, then Home Secretary Amber Rudd attempted to rid the UK of encryption, while the infamous ‘Snoopers Charter’ was a disaster waiting to happen. In France, Article L.871-1 of the Internal Security Code requires technology companies to provide access to data within 72 hours of a request.

There are other approaches as well, which pay a much-needed nod to the importance of end-to-end encryption. In Finland for example, Section 23 of Chapter 8 of the Law on Coercive Measures Act compels persons/companies other than suspects/accused persons to hand over passwords and decryption keys if it is necessary to conduct a search of data contained in a device. This approach is not perfect, but it maintains the integrity of security protocols and the resilience of end-to-end encryption.

Although these agencies might think creating backdoors and the accountability mechanisms to use them is a sensible strategy, it clearly isn’t. If there is a vulnerability created in the security perimeter, the dark web will find out about it and will go searching for it. It will only be a matter of time before someone finds it, either through perseverance or accident, and it will be monetized by nefarious characters.

What is an important factor of the digital economy is the desire and requirements of technology providers to build security into products and services. This desire to build in backdoors undermines any work which is being done. Governments are pressing for increased security, but then insisting it must be weakened. The technology industry is caught between a rock and a hard place.

UK steps up its consumer protection crusade

The UK government has announced it wants to give some regulators the power to fine companies unilaterally without involving the courts.

The main beneficiary of these proposed new powers will be the Competition & Markets Authority, which exists to regulate markets. The plan was unveiled by Business Secretary Greg Clark as outgoing Prime Minister Theresa May rushes through a bunch of commitments in an apparent bid to have something to show for her time in charge. Specifically this refers to claimed ‘loyalty penalties’ in which existing customers are given insufficient information about available deals.

A key part of this initiative seems to be to give the CMA the power to interpret and enforce the law itself, without needing to trouble the judiciary. Why the matter of a few punters paying a bit more for their utilities is a matter of sufficient gravity to suspend the rule of law is not made clear, but Clark seems to want the CMA and possibly other regulators to be able to fine companies whenever they feel like it.

The Government has already committed to legislate in order to give consumer enforcers the power to impose fines on companies for breaches of consumer law by applying to the courts,” wrote Clark in his letter to the CMA. “We will follow this through and also want to go further to ensure that enforcers have the powers they need to incentivise firms to comply with the law. This will include empowering the CMA to decide itself whether consumer protection law has been broken and then impose fines for wrongdoing directly.”

“I strongly believe that consumer loyalty should not be exploited and nor should consumers have to work so hard to get a fair deal,” said Clark in the press release of the announcement. “We have already shown our willingness to take action through our energy price cap, which means every household is protected from unjustified price rises.”

The system as it stands not only lets consumers down but it also lets down the vast majority of businesses who play by the rules,” said May. “It is high time this came to an end and today we are confirming our intention to give much stronger powers to the CMA, to strengthen the sanctions available and to give customers the protection they deserve against firms who want to rip them off.”

All this agonising over the plight of hapless UK consumers isn’t limited to the government. The Advertising Standards Authority thinks UK companies shouldn’t be allowed to portray claimed ‘gender stereotypes’ in their ads because they might cause some unspecified harm. Even the prospect of harm is now sufficient justification for state censorship, it seems.

“Our evidence shows how harmful gender stereotypes in ads can contribute to inequality in society, with costs for all of us,” said ASA boss Guy Parker. “Put simply, we found that some portrayals in ads can, over time, play a part in limiting people’s potential.  It’s in the interests of women and men, our economy and society that advertisers steer clear of these outdated portrayals, and we’re pleased with how the industry has already begun to respond”.

So we’re not even talking about harm here, just ‘playing a part in limiting people’s potential’. Parker is so concerned about this blight on UK society that he has sat on his claimed evidence for two years before acting. Here are the ‘outdated portrayals’ advertisers are no longer allowed to depict.

  • An ad that depicts a man with his feet up and family members creating mess around a home while a woman is solely responsible for cleaning up the mess.
  • An ad that depicts a man or a woman failing to achieve a task specifically because of their gender e.g. a man’s inability to change nappies; a woman’s inability to park a car.
  • Where an ad features a person with a physique that does not match an ideal stereotypically associated with their gender, the ad should not imply that their physique is a significant reason for them not being successful, for example in their romantic or social lives.
  • An ad that seeks to emphasise the contrast between a boy’s stereotypical personality (e.g. daring) with a girl’s stereotypical personality (e.g. caring) needs to be handled with care.
  • An ad aimed at new mums which suggests that looking attractive or keeping a home pristine is a priority over other factors such as their emotional wellbeing.
  • An ad that belittles a man for carrying out stereotypically ‘female’ roles or tasks.

That’s all nice and clear isn’t it? Presumably it’s OK to have a bloke doing the washing up in an ad, or a woman chopping down a tree, so long as it’s not also considered to be taking the piss. It looks like ads now have to feature unattractive people being fancied by everyone, but it’s unclear whether beautiful people are allowed to be fancied too. Lastly the ASA advises that banned gender stereotypes are allowed as a means to challenge their negative effects, so the Gillette ad below is presumably OK.

At this rate it’s possible to imagine a time when no UK consumers will ever come to any harm whatsoever and everyone will be free to explore their full potential, unencumbered by dispiriting imagery. Anyone who has a problem with UK agencies unilaterally fining and censoring companies in the name of the public good clearly doesn’t understand the danger we’re in.

 

UK telcos ask for clarity sooner rather than later over Huawei – report

The UK’s largest mobile operators are reported getting tired of Government indecision, drafting a letter to Cabinet Secretary Mark Sedwill requesting clarification on the situation.

The BBC is claiming to have seen a draft in which a decision has been urged. As it stands, the MNOs are in the telco version of purgatory. The 5G world is fast approaching, but with the Government getting comfortable on the fence, no-one will want to make any investment decisions, a wrong-turn could prove to be very expensive.

In response to the rumours of such a letter, the UK Government has asked for patience.

“The security and resilience of the UK’s telecoms networks is of paramount importance,” said a Government spokesperson. “We have robust procedures in place to manage risks to national security and are committed to the highest possible security standards.

“The Telecoms Supply Chain Review will be announced in due course. We have been clear throughout the process that all network operators will need to comply with the Government’s decision.”

What is worth noting is the BBC coverage perhaps reflects a sense of urgency which is not felt by the telcos. Having reached out to contacts in the industry, the tone of urgency which has been reflected in the article does not seem to represent the climate for the telcos. It is a sensitive issue, and the message seems to be clear; we’re not going to force the hand of the Government into a speedy decision.

“We do not comment on draft documents,” said a Vodafone spokesperson. “We would ask for any decision regarding the future use of Huawei equipment in the UK not to be rushed but based on all the facts.”

“We are in regular contact with UK Government around this topic, and continue to discuss the impact of possible regulation on UK telecoms networks,” said a BT spokesperson.

That said, a decision needs to come sooner rather than later.

Currently the MNOs are in a bit of a bind. Money needs to be spent and networks need to be built to ensure connectivity in the UK meets the standards demanded of the digital economy. However, as there are so few vendors in this segment of the industry clarification on the Huawei situation is critically important.

Without Huawei, the threat of decreased competition might lead to less attractive commercial terms, which could lead to increased prices for the consumer as telcos drive ROI. Telcos will want Huawei to be included in these talks. Right now, no decisions can be made. If the telcos go forward without Huawei, they might be missing a trick, but if they do and the Supply Chain Review bans the firm, the cost of ‘rip and replace’ would be painful. The telcos are just sitting and waiting.

The outcome of the review has already been potentially leaked, suggesting Huawei would be given the greenlight. This leak from the National Security Council led to former-Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson being sacked, though this is not to say the leak is accurate. Last week, the UK hosted US President Donald Trump, and while there was no eureka moment, who knows what was discussed behind closed doors.

The US is sticking by its anti-Huawei position and has even suggested with-holding access to security data from countries who are exposed to the vendor.

That said, there might have been no material conversations held on this topic over the course of the visit. Theresa May is no-longer the political leader of the UK and Trump might have thought it nothing more than a waste of hot-air. This is perhaps one of the biggest issues which the country is facing at the moment; who knows who is going to be leading the Government over the next couple of months.

The Tory party members are going to be choosing the next leader of the Conservative party over the next few weeks, and the tone of 10 Downing Street might change. May seemed to have a much more internationalist approach to politics, though certain candidates are much cosier with the White House. Bookies favourite Boris Johnson is certainly chummier than most with the US President, though others will be in deeper conversations with US delegations than some. This could have an impact on the relationship with China in the long-term, and subsequently, on any decisions made surrounding Huawei.

The consequence of this decision is not only impacting the future of networks in the UK, but also the past. Yes, telcos are reluctant to spend now, but any decision banning Huawei would result in ‘rip and replace’ programmes. Vodafone has already stated it has Huawei equipment on 38% of base stations around the UK and having to replace RAN equipment would set its 5G ambitions back two years. Telcos would also have to consider 4G investments made over the last couple of years.

Although the other telcos have not been as forth-coming with their exposure to Huawei equipment, it would be a fair assumption the vendor’s kit is scattered throughout the network. This is not just a challenge for Vodafone or EE alone, this is an industry-wide worry.

This is not to say the UK would turn into a massive not-spot, but it would have severe implications on the connectivity ambitions of the country.

Some might have expected a decision from the Supply Chain Review in May, but we are still waiting. External factors have perhaps taken priority, the next Prime Minister and the Trump State Visit for example, but that will come as little consolidation for the telcos who are prepping investments.

The UK should not rush this decision, but the longer it leaves the telcos in purgatory the more the country slips behind in the 5G race. Uncertainty is the enemy of telcos and who knows which way this decision will go.

UK government thinks AI sector isn’t diverse enough

A few million quid is being thrown at artificial intelligence and data science conversion degrees, with people from underrepresented groups eligible for scholarships.

The Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport had a rummage around the back of the sofa and came up with £13.5 million that is wants to spend on encouraging people to take ‘conversion degrees’ specialising in AI and data science. This seems to mean you already need a degree to qualify, but have decided the smart money is in AI.

The social engineering doesn’t stop there, however, with a significant chunk of that cash set aside to provide 1,000 scholarships for ‘under-represented groups… including women and people from minority ethnic backgrounds, or lower socio-economic backgrounds.’ Another 5 million quid is being set aside to encourage companies to come up with better online learning tools.

“Creating a more diverse future workforce will help with the design of new technology, including the fair and accurate development of algorithms, and tackle some of the greatest social challenges of our time – from protecting our environment, to transforming the way we live and work, and saving lives through diagnosing diseases earlier,” the announcement says.

“The UK has a long standing reputation for innovation, world-leading academic institutions and a business friendly environment and everyone, regardless of their background, should have the opportunity to build a successful career in our world-leading tech sector,” said Digital Secretary Jeremy Wright. “Through these new AI and Data Conversion courses and our modern Industrial Strategy, we are committed to working with the tech sector and academia to develop and maintain the best AI workforce in the world.”

Loads of other people were quoted as saying almost exactly the same thing. Try as it might the government couldn’t find a single voice of dissent. Apparently only 19 percent of UK tech workers are women, which is bad. No data was offered regarding ethnicity or socio-economic grouping. This initiative joins a Byzantine web of other schemes the government has in place to help people acquire some useful vocational skills. The first round of funding will be made available in September.

G20 gets tough on tech tax as trade war gets agenda nod

20 bean-counters walk into a bar and ask for a tonic water. The barman asks who picking up the bill, and all fingers are pointed towards Silicon Valley.

In southern Japan, finance ministers and representatives of the central banking organizations have gathered to discuss the world of international and domestic finance. Of course, G20 is about much more than spreadsheets and calculators, but this weekend saw the accountants gather, while in the next room, ministers for trade and the digital economy were setting the world to rights.

Starting with the accountants, Silicon Valley is to remain the political punching bag of 2019.

“Specifically, in the area of international taxation, we will continue to have discussions on a review of the existing tax framework triggered by digitalization, in addition to fighting against tax avoidance and evasion,” Japanese Finance Minister Taro Aso said in a statement.

Of course, these politicians are savvy enough not to target a specific segment or highlight companies who are abusing the grey areas in the system. There are numerous different organizations outside of the tech sector who are mistreating globalisation trends for tax benefits, though the tech giants are the ones in the limelight right now.

In the G20 Finance Ministers and Central Bank Governors meeting, new ideas have been tabled suggesting governments around the world will be cracking down on the creative accounting techniques which are becoming ever-so-more common.

According to a communique seen by Reuters, the newly proposed rules would not only make it more difficult for the tech giants to make use of low-tax countries for their benefit, it would also work the other direction. Countries like Ireland, who have benefitted from offering loopholes to the tech giants, would have their freedoms curbed in the pursuit of fairness and a more level global approach.

The new rules would propose two different approaches to taxation. Firstly, companies would have to pay fair tax on the revenues which are derived in the country, and secondly, should the accountants find a way around these rules, a global minimum tax rate could also be introduced. It is the tax version of the Swiss Cheese model; the more layers which are incorporated, the more difficult it is to effectively create a tax evasion model for these organizations to follow.

For countries like the UK and France, this is a win, though the likes of Ireland, Luxembourg and the US will find the outcome frustrating. While the UK and France have been pushing for more stringent tax rules, Ireland and Luxembourg are attempting to protect the light-touch regulatory environments which benefits their own societies but screws everyone else.

The US has suggested any change to taxes was discriminatory to its own companies, effectively a raid on the US economy. Although US Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin has seemed relatively cordial in reaction to developments, it remains to see whether any further strain is placed on international relationships. The US is already struggling to maintain strong links with certain governments, and this presents another risk to stress relationships.

Mnuchin has also found himself in the news regarding the Huawei conundrum.

The US finance chief has said in Fukuoka that a trade deal between the US and China could ease the firm stance which is threatening to provide collateral damage all around the world. The statement quotes President Donald Trump, who made the suggestion over Twitter a few months back.

For those firms impacted by the ban, the reiteration of this statement might come as some relief, though critics will become increasingly frustrated. It seems the White House has little concern for collateral damage as long as its own ambitions are fulfilled. For the firms who supply products to Huawei or investors who have been left short by such a ban, the ease in which their livelihoods can be used by the White House as a disposable bargaining chip must be incredibly worrying.

This of course was a topic of conversation at the Ministerial Meeting on Trade and Digital Economy also.

“We continued our dialogue to mitigate risks and enhance confidence among exporters and investors, as we committed to do in Mar del Plata last year,” a briefing document states. “We affirmed the need to handle trade tensions and to foster mutually beneficial trade relations.”

While it might seem like a throw-away comment, perhaps we should appreciate the significance of recognising the situation. In most circumstances, governments would steer clear and allow the bickering duo to continue their chest-beating, however in recognising the circumstances perhaps we are closer to someone stepping in and de-escalating the situation.

Clearly neither the US or China can be trusted to be mature and manage the saga for a net-gain, so it might need a third-party to step in. As it stands, no-one is benefiting, and everyone is losing. The winner of this trade war will be the one which can be the least negatively impacted; that should not be considered an effective way to manage international relations.

Pompeo reiterates intelligence threat over Huawei

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is on another European road trip just to make sure those rational and pragmatic Europeans understand the threats from the US.

Speaking at a press conference with German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas, Pompeo underlined the US stance with the thickest of marker pens and reiterated the US threats with serious authority.

“We also had part of conversations about other elements of China,” said Pompeo. “We’ve been pretty clear about how we view the risk connected to Huawei and 5G infrastructure. The internet of the future must have Western values embedded in it.”

Pompeo’s first mission is to address the Chinese threat, of which Huawei is considered a major cog, but that is not taking up all of his time.

“We have a second mission which is to educate our friends about these risks as well,” said Pompeo. “We talk to them plainly and openly. They’ll make their own decisions, Germany is thinking about it, but we will speak to them openly about the risk we see and how we think they can be mitigated. In the case of Huawei, our concern it that it is not possible to mitigate those [risks] anywhere inside of a 5G network.”

Pompeo clearly feels his European counterparts do not comprehend the severity of the Huawei threat, and he has taken it upon himself to lead the crusade in educating the world on the risk.

And if the world doesn’t understand, access to US intelligence will be withdrawn.

One of the issues which might cause further friction is the inability for the US Government to distinguish between core and non-core elements of the network. This is what Europe is basing its decisions on, allowing Huawei to operate in the ‘dumb’ parts of the network but not the core. For the US, this is not good enough, and never will be.

We expect a lot more huffing and puffing from the White House propaganda machine and the fear-mongering puppets of Trump over the next couple of weeks, though it will be interesting to see whether the US follows up on threats to reduce visibility of its intelligence data.

Tech giants hit back against GCHQ’s ‘Ghost Protocol’

GCHQ’s new proposal to supposedly increase the security and police force’s ability to keep us safe has been slammed by the technology industry, suggesting the argument contradicts itself.

In an article for Lawfare, GCHQ’s Technical Director Ian Levy and Head of Cryptanalysis Crispin Robinson presented six principles to guide ethical and transparent eavesdropping, while also suggesting intelligence officers can be ‘cc’d’ into group chats without compromising security or violating the privacy rights of the individuals involved.

The ‘Exceptional Access Debate’ is one way in which GCHQ is attempting to undermine the security and privacy rights offered to consumers by some of the world’s most popular messaging services.

Responding in an open letter, the likes of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the Center for Democracy & Technology, the Government Accountability Project, Privacy International, Apple, Google, Microsoft and WhatsApp have condemned the proposal.

“We welcome Levy and Robinson’s invitation for an open discussion, and we support the six principles outlined in the piece,” the letter states. “However, we write to express our shared concerns that this particular proposal poses serious threats to cybersecurity and fundamental human rights including privacy and free expression.”

Levy and Robinson suggest that instead of breaking the encryption software which is placed on some of these messaging platforms, the likes of Signal and WhatsApp should place virtual “crocodile clips” onto the conversation, effectively adding a ‘ghost’ spook into the loop. The encryption protections would remain intact and the users would not be made aware of the slippery eavesdropper.

In justifying this proposal, Levy and Robinson claim this is effectively the same practice undertaken by the telco industry for years. During the early days, physical crocodile clips were placed on telephone wires to intercept conversations, which later evolved to simply copying call data. As this is an accepted practice, Levy and Robinson see no issue with the encrypted messaging platforms offer a similar service to the spooks.

However, the coalition of signatories argue there are numerous faults to the argument. Firstly, technical and secondly, from an ethical perspective.

On the technical side, the way in which keys are delivered to authenticate the security of a conversation would have to be altered. As it stands, public and private keys are delivered to the initiator and recipients of the conversation. Both of these keys match, are assigned to specific individuals and only change when new participants are added to the conversation. To add a government snooper into the conversation covertly, all the keys would have to be changed without notifying the participants.

Not only would this require changes to the way encryption technologies are designed and implemented, but also it would undermine the trust users place in the messaging platform. Levy and Robinson are asking the messaging platforms to suppress any notifications to the participants of the conversation, effectively breaking the trust between the user and the brand.

While GCHQ can think it is presenting a logical and transparent case, prioritising responsible and ethical use of technology, the coalition also argues it is contradicting its own principles laid out in its initial article. Those principles are as follows:

  1. Privacy and security protections are critical to public confidence, therefore authorities would only request access to data in exceptional cases
  2. Law enforcement and intelligence agencies should evolve with technologies and the technology industry should offer these agencies greater insight into product development to help aid this evolution
  3. Law enforcement and intelligence agencies should not expect to be able to gain access to sensitive data every time a request is made
  4. Targeted exceptional access capabilities should not give governments unfettered access to user data
  5. Any exceptional access solution should not fundamentally change the trust relationship between a service provider and its users
  6. Transparency is essential

Although the coalition of signatories are taking issue with all six points, for us, it’s the last two which are the most difficult to grasp.

Firstly, if ‘Ghost Protocol’ is accepted by the industry and implemented, there is no way not to undermine or fundamentally change the trust relationship between the platform and the user. The platform promises a private conversation, without exception, and the GCHQ proposal requires data interception without knowledge of the participants. These are two contradictory ideas.

“…if users were to learn that their encrypted messaging service intentionally built a functionality to allow for third-party surveillance of their communications, that loss of trust would understandably be widespread and permanent,” the letter states.

The sixth principle is another one which is difficult to stomach, as there is absolutely nothing transparent about this proposal. In fact, the open letter points out that under the Investigatory Powers Act, passed in 2016, the UK Government can force technology service providers to hold their tongue through non-disclosure agreements (NDA). These NDAs could bury any intrusion or interception for decades.

It’s all very cloak and dagger.

Another big issue for the coalition is that of creating intentional vulnerabilities in the encryption software. To meet these demands, providers would have to rewrite software to create the opportunity for snooping. This creates two problems.

Firstly, there are nefarious individuals everywhere. Not only in the deep, dark corners of the internet, but also working for law enforcement and intelligence agencies. Introducing such a vulnerability into the software opens the door for abuse. Secondly, there individuals who are capable of hacking into the platforms that developed said vulnerability.

At the moment, encryption techniques are incredibly secure because not even those who designed the encryption software them can crack them. If you create a vulnerability, the platforms themselves become a hacker target because of said vulnerability. Finding the backdoor would be the biggest prize in the criminal community, the Holy Grail of the dark web, and considerable rewards would be offered to those who find it. The encryption messaging platforms could potentially become the biggest hacking target on the planet. No-one or no organization is 100% secure, therefore this is a very real risk.

After all these considerations to security vulnerabilities and breach of user trust, another massive consideration which cannot be ignored is the human right to privacy and freedom of expression.

Will these rights be infringed if users are worried there might be someone snooping on their conversation? The idea creates the fear of a surveillance state, though we will leave it up to the readers as to whether GCHQ has satisfied the requirements to protect user security, freedom of expression and privacy.

For us, if any communications provider is to add law enforcement and intelligence agencies in such an intrusive manner, there need to be deep and comprehensive obligations that these principles will be maintained. Here, we do not think they have.

UK is the tech start-up centre of Europe – research

A new report from Tech Nation has crowned the UK as the European hotspot for technology start-ups, and fourth worldwide for scale-up investment after US, China and India.

While the US led the rankings by a considerable margin, the UK managed to attract 5% of global high-tech scaleup investment, with capital investments in UK firms topping £6.3 billion for 2018. Digging down into the details, Tech Nation estimate the fintech firms are doing even better, attracting £4.5 billion of investment between 2015 and 2018, with the UK leading the world.

“The UK continues to exceed all predictions when it comes to tech growth,” said Gerard Grech, CEO of Tech Nation. “This report shows how the UK is a critical hub when it comes to global technology developments, with scale-up tech investment being the highest in Europe, and only surpassed by the US, China and India. This is a testament to the innovation, ambition and tenacity of tech entrepreneurs across the UK.”

The claim itself is based on various datasets, including information from PitchBook. By identifying the number of scale-up companies in each of the determined countries, and the value of investments made into these companies, Tech Nation has drawn-up the ranking. Scale-up companies are identified as those which have either achieved employment or revenue growth of 20% for two consecutive years and have a minimum of 10 employees.

The US is leading the rankings, which will come as a surprise to few considering the dominance of Silicon Valley on the technology industry, with China coming in second and India coming in third. US firms attracted 49.3% of the world’s scale-up investment, while China accounted for 20.4%.

The total scale-up investments made in UK firms was also 2.5X the value of what would be expected for a nation the size of the UK. In fact, tech scaleup deals delivered £5 billion of the £6 billion investments made in tech companies in the UK across 2018. AI seems to have taken the crown, accounting for £1.3 billion of the total.

Critically, this demonstrates the work which has been done to attract and encourage innovation, investment and start-ups in UK society is working. Perhaps there is some method to the government madness. Looking forward, all the signs seem to be heading in the right direction. With 5G networks on the horizon, the catalyst for growth is about to emerge.

5G will not necessarily change the world overnight, but the power of the networks has the potential to foster the unicorns of tomorrow. This is a network which will deliver new services in the same way as 4G did, demonstrating the importance of being one of the first to scale the connectivity boom.

The US led the deployment of 4G networks did not spur the economy into any great revolution, but the tools offered allowed innovation. Companies like Uber scaled because evolution of the networks, while an entire new segment of the economy was allowed to flourish. Without the connectivity tools to play with, these companies would have not had the potential to scale; the same can be said about 5G.

5G offers an opportunity to create new products and services. Artificial intelligence, cyber security, latency, MEC and high-consumption/speed data-applications can all exist without 5G, but they are more attractive, practical and viable with the next evolution of the network. Uber could have existed without 4G, but it is a disruptive success because of it. Joe Bloggs cannot conceive what products and services will be available over the next couple of years, but the right tools have to be in place to ensure the innovators can scale them.

5G won’t change the world, but it will offer the opportunity for innovators to create value for themselves, customers and the national society which fosters them.

What might be a hurdle before too long are the deployment plans of the UK telcos. Having a test-bed to create these products and services in the first instance is all well and good, but soon enough these start-ups will need customers to scale the business. The faster networks are deployed, the quicker these start-ups can get to market, engage customers, tweak the proposition and potentially create the Uber of the 5G generation.

The UK Government has been looking for ways to shore-up defences against the future, hoping to give the economy and society the greatest opportunity to thrive. This is why fibre rollouts, or mobile coverage gains are so important now even if there is no immediate benefit; it’s all about making the country future-proof, ready for the unknown and resilient to the future challenges. And cultivating start-ups is a critical component.

Not only does this have the potential to address the questions surrounding wealth in-equality, it removes the UK dependence on the financial sector. Tech is the dominating growth sector in the global economy, and the best way to reap the rewards is to create an environment suitable for start-ups, the companies who could steal the headlines in the future.

The UK Government has been preaching about the world it is doing to encourage innovation and start-ups over the last couple of years; perhaps this report is vindication of the work which has been done.