Home Office to delay 4G emergency service network by another three years

The Home Office has announced its cumbersome project to overhaul the Emergency Services Network (ESN) with a 4G network has been set back by another few years.

After negotiating a month-by-month contract with Motorola to keep its aging digital radio network Airwave alive, the Home Office has signed a new contract to extend this partnership through to 2022. Alongside this damning signature, the Motorola Solutions ESN agreement will be extended by 30 months through the end of 2024, to allow for a new phased implementation of EE’s 4G ESN. Just to put things in perspective, the initial plan was to have the network up and running by mid-2017.

“We are proud to support the Home Office on its new delivery approach for ESN while at the same time ensuring public safety users have the Airwave communications network they need,” said Kelly Mark, EVP of services and software at Motorola Solutions. “We have been working closely with the Home Office to ensure that our services are aligned with this new phased deployment and timeline for ESN.”

The new incremental approach means police, fire and rescue services, ambulance services and other users will be able to use data services over the network from early next year, with voice capabilities at some undefined point in the future. Of course, this is the sort of efficiency and accuracy many have come to expect from the UK government.

Keeping track of what is going on with the ESN is a tricky task; the rollout plan has changed more times than a teenagers mood.

Back when the initiative was initially launched, the plan was to give the emergency services the communications capability to match and exceed what they enjoy as private individuals. When the final contracts were issued to Motorola, to provide the public safety applications and user services, and EE, to provide an enhanced radio access service with nationwide coverage, the project was timetabled for completion by mid-2017. At the time, Mike Penning, Minister for Policing, Crime, Criminal Justice & Victims, boasted the new network would save the government £1 million a day.

The ESN is to be built on EE’s commercial network, the largest 4G mobile network in the UK with the emergency services and other bodies to benefit from a dedicated core network designed to ensure priority use of the EE commercial network. The network will provide geographical coverage along major and minor roads, and special coverage locations; selected buildings, road tunnels and the London Underground for example, as well as 12 miles out to sea covering UK territorial waters and air-to-ground communications in England, Scotland and Wales. Some of the new features will include live video from body worn cameras transmitted from crime scenes or high definition images to allow hospital consultants to make remote diagnosis and treatment recommendations.

After a scathing review from the Public Accounts Committee (PAC), this deployment date was pushed back to end-2019, and then a further nine months to September 2020. The party line is now the programme will save £200 million per year, considerably less than the initial promise from Penning. Perhaps such delays should have been expected from the beginning. Aside from this being a government initiative, the National Audit Office warned in September 2016 progress was five months behind schedule, not leaving enough time for the relevant users to effective test the network and learn from other authorities.

This is of course not the first time a government project has spiralled into incompetence. The abandoned NHS patient record system of yesteryear proved nothing but a disaster, swallowing more than £10 billion in public funds and delivering about as much satisfaction as warm milk on an August afternoon. At the time, MP Richard Bacon suggested “this saga is one of the worst and most expensive contracting fiascos in the history of the public sector”, but this was just another in a long line of disasters which included the child support agency, leaving thousands of families without cash, chaos within the passport agency and a tax credit system which was left open to fraud.

With the latest push-back from the Home Office, the project is doing nothing but enforcing the stereotype of civil servants and the capabilities of the public sector.

Limies, Yanks, Kiwis, Ozzies and Mounties have another crack at killing encryption

In a carefully worded statement, the governments of the US, UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand have reiterated their desire to crack encryption and snoop on citizens.

The cryptic message to the technology industry seems to be a relatively familiar one; our spies can’t crack your encryption software, so we are going to legally force you to grant us access. What you can expect to see over the next couple of months are various statements in the press, PR campaigns and op-ed pieces building a picture as to why the technology giants are undermining the judiciary system of democratic nations, and how they are toying with the safety of your life, your partners and of your children. It’s a tactic we’ve seen before, and we suspect it is on the horizon once again.

This appears to be the important aspect of the statement:

“Privacy laws must prevent arbitrary or unlawful interference, but privacy is not absolute.  It is an established principle that appropriate government authorities should be able to seek access to otherwise private information when a court or independent authority has authorized such access based on established legal standards.  The same principles have long permitted government authorities to search homes, vehicles, and personal effects with valid legal authority.

“The increasing gap between the ability of law enforcement to lawfully access data and their ability to acquire and use the content of that data is a pressing international concern that requires urgent, sustained attention and informed discussion on the complexity of the issues and interests at stake. Otherwise, court decisions about legitimate access to data are increasingly rendered meaningless, threatening to undermine the systems of justice established in our democratic nations.”

In short, governments want to force technology companies to open up their security features because they are not able to crack though themselves. The encryption software is not only good enough to protect users from the nefarious characters on the dark web, but it is resilient enough to keep the spooks at bay as well.

Of course there are scenarios when privacy and freedom of expression should be sacrificed, in an instance of war or genuine threat to national security. And there are cases where homes or offices could be searched in years gone because of a warrant signed by a judge. These warrants were critical in the pursuit of and prosecution of criminals. The digital world does make it difficult to make these pursuits a reality, but that does not warrant the introduction of backdoors in the software.

If a police force entered your home in years gone to seize information, they would enter through your front door. This is a barrier to protect your home and personal belongings, but allowing a backdoor in security features for intelligence agencies or police forces is also a welcome mat for hackers. The man on the street cannot protect themselves from this threat, therefore these governments are compromising the safety of the vast majority to further their own ambitions.

As it stands, these governments have offered no explanations as to how intelligence agencies would be able to access the information, but securities would remain robust against nefarious individuals on the dark web.

We contacted the UK Home Office which did not respond to our questions.

The Home Office did not respond to how it could justify weakening security in the name of security, or how it would actually work. Neither how it would prevent abuses of any preferential treatment for intelligence agencies or police forces. Finally, it did not offer any explanation for the process of accountability or justification.

Whenever there is progress in the technology world, the government and its agencies are left behind. Industry is lightyears ahead of intelligence agencies and police forces, and the government is attempting to scare the population into agreeing it is necessary to weaken encryption in pursuit of national security. It is a game of PR to justify legally strong-arming the technology companies into compliance.

This statement from the government is simple; we don’t like encryption services. That much is clear. There are circumstances where the government has a right to suspend privacy, assuming there is enough justification, but we are yet to see any evidence the government can ensure the ongoing protections of users whilst also fulfilling its ambitions.

Destroying safety in the name of safety is a complete contradiction; such actions are not a service to citizens.