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Archive for July, 2009

Thursday
Jul 30,2009

I attended a meeting this morning where in passing there was a reference to the new British Telecom network upgrade (21CN) that is now underway.  The presentation had just included a warning to British businessmen travelling to China (after all, even a senior No10 aide had been caught).  Then it was pointed out that a key component of 21CN was manufactured in China by a manufacturer with close links (don”t they all?) to the Chinese Government, that Government departments and most businesses allowed at least some of their key data or their voice communications to go over BT networks.  So by implication any malign intervention wouldn”t require a honey-trap on someone visiting China but could be done remotely via the components in 21CN.

Apparently, one of the suppliers of 21CN”s Multiservice Access Nodes (and let”s be honest, I am not sure precisely what these are, but they sound important) are Huawei Technologies.  Huawei promise that their success in winning the contract will create “many new jobs in the UK”.

Obviously, it is possible for people to be paranoid (and many are) that anything electronic manufactured in China (or anywhere  else that we don”t trust this week) might contain “hidden” code capable of broadcasting back the contents of communications or even allowing control of equipment to be passed to those with malign intent overseas.  But as we know being paranoid, doesn”t mean that people aren”t out to get you.

So how worried should we be about the security of British business and of the UK”s critical national infrastructure?

I cannot assess the real scale of the threat, although there does seem to be a growing consensus that the Chinese Government are building up their capacity to wage cyber war and that there is the intent to achieve cyber dominance by 2050.  The Chinese are certainly investing heavily in high technology and there is substantial US concern about the Chinese capacity for conventional and industrial espionage by electronic means.

What I am clear about is that as a nation we do not take information security as seriously as we should – and this applies both in the public sector but also in the private sector.  If there is a threat from BT”s 21CN, it may now be too late to do anything about it, and that leaves the real question what is being put in place to ensure that the threat is being mitigated.

Tuesday
Jul 28,2009

It is, of course, fashionable in many media circles to focus on the so-called plight of the Labour Party, alleged dissatisfaction with Gordon Brown, and apparently disconsolate grass-roots.  However, I wonder if this focus is not blinding commentators to some significant rumbling discontent amongst the Conservatives.  This explains the continuing nervousness about what David Davies will say next .  (I suspect David Cameron would be well-advised to give him a big job quickly to bind him into the fold.)  It is also reflected in the Tory jumpiness that I have detected expressed in the sotto voce question on many Tory lips of “If the Government and Gordon Brown are doing so badly, why aren””t we doing better?”

Now the Conservative commentator, Geoffrey Wheatcroft, has dared to spell it out.  In an article this morning, he says:

“… there””s something not quite right about Cameron and his team, something fishy, something dodgy. … Those who treat politics as a spectator sport had to applaud his handling of the expenses scandal. “Blair””s heir” was a repellent phrase for many Tories, but in this matter it must be said that Cameron displayed a quick-witted, ruthless opportunism dressed up as sincere conviction worthy of the master.

All the same, that episode left an unhappy aftertaste. While placating public rage by brutally discarding a few older MPs, Cameron shielded members of his own team who were quite as culpable: Alan Duncan, Michael Gove and Francis Maude. It was the action of a capo who whacks a few civilians but spares his made men, and it caused considerable, though so far private, resentment on the Tory benches.

It also confirmed a sense that, with all his political talent, Cameron is a smartyboots surrounded by a cabal of shady charlatans and shifty chancers; a suspicion not much dispelled by the latest revelations about skulduggery at the News of the World under the man who is now Cameron””s media chief, Andy “I have no recollection” Coulson. No hindsight is required: two years ago I wrote here about the “incredible appointment” of someone “who makes Alastair Campbell seem a cross between CP Scott and Hugo Young”, and Coulson was always a disaster waiting to happen.

We””ve since learned that he had been recommended to Cameron by the accident-prone George Osborne, and he was cheered by the Tory press, or at any rate by Matthew d””Ancona in the Sunday Telegraph. D””Ancona said at the time what a splendid choice Coulson was. He now writes about this “brilliantly successful journalist” – perhaps he has in mind the “Andy Coulson””s Bizarre” showbiz column that used to adorn the Sun – and he adds that Coulson did after all resign over the bugging scandal: “As they say in Essex: the boy done his bird.”

Ha ha. So now the party of Pitt and Salisbury uses the vocabulary of the criminal classes. This is precisely the problem with “Cameronism” and “the Cameroons” (and which of their number ever thought that was a witty coining, by the way?). Clinging to the Tory team is a whiff of clever-clever cynicism, of game-playing frivolity, of calculation rather than honour. But we had quite enough of that under Blair, and the public is repelled by politics and politicians for just those reasons.”

He concludes:

“Doesn””t “Dave” Cameron play a little too obviously to the gallery, and adapt his sentiments when they don””t give satisfaction? Isn””t he surrounded, if not by crooks, then by some preening mountebanks? And hasn””t he so far failed to inspire deep and widespread trust?  …

After Chloe Smith won Norwich North, she said that it had been “a vote for clean politics and for cleaning up politics”. She was quite right, insofar as it was a vote against a hopeless, tainted and squalid Labour government. But while in successive recent elections the Labour vote has plummeted, the Tory vote hasn””t soared, or even returned to its level of not so many years ago. Could that be because character still counts with the electorate?”

Oh dear!  And this is from the man who wrote the paeon to Margaret Thatcher, “The Strange Death of Tory England“.

And now another example of a Conservative candidate embarrassed by the Party Leader.

Monday
Jul 27,2009

I”ve just been reading David Aaronovitch”s “Voodoo Histories: The role of the conspiracy theory in shaping modern history“.  It is an enormously enjoyable review of a variety of conspiracy theories that have engaged millions over the last hundred years – sometimes with devastating consequences.  He starts with the insidious “Protocols of the Elders of Sion” whose origins were nothing to do with the Jews (nor even aimed at them) but arose from a satire on Louis Napoleon involving an imaginary dialogue in Hell between Macchiavelli and Montesquieu.  The text was then adapted to produce the anti-semitic nonsense used by Hitler, believed by people like Henry Ford, and still being cited as fact by the Iranian regime.

Subsequent chapters deal with Stalin”s terror and the Moscow show trials, McCarthyism in the United States, inevitably the assassinations of the Kennedys, the deaths of Princess Diana and Marilyn Monroe, the blood-line of Jesus Christ (as popularised by “The Da Vinci Code“), the 9/11 “truth” movement and the death of David Kelly (including a devastating hatchet job on the book by the LibDem MP, Norman Baker).

Part of the interest for me is that I have read many of the books describing the conspiracies that Aaronovitch debunks.  Maybe I am a potential believer in such nonsenses, although I can say that I have never been entirely convinced by the tomes I have read, despite the myriad of pseudo-learned footnotes and quasi-academic references.  So yes, I did read “The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail“, while on holiday near Rennes-le-Chateau (allegedly where the secret scrolls were found) – I also remember a local Anglo-French resident telling me very sniffily that it was written by former “Dr Who” script-writers.  I have read Mark Lane”s “Rush to Judgement“, books about Marilyn Monroe”s “murder”,  and Norman Baker”s “The Strange Death of David Kelly“.  I not only read “Unlawful Killing: The Murder of Hilda Murrell“, but employed its author, Judith Cook, for a while.

The widespread belief in conspiracy theories does not make those theories true, but the desire to believe in them does tell us something about people”s attitudes to authority.  The theories themselves are by no means harmless: they are corrosive to trust and can lead to violence and oppression.  Nonsense needs rebutting.  And as consiracy theories are resilient, their nonsense needs to be challenged repeatedly.

Sunday
Jul 26,2009

The lead story in today””s Sunday Times is – if true (and we are talking about The Sunday Times here) – quite extraordinary.  According to the article, the Ministry of Defence will be going to the Court of Appeal to try to cut the compensation awards made to two servicemen for the injuries they sustained serving in Iraq in one case and whilst training in the other.  The “principle” that the MoD is seeking to defend is that it should only pay compensation for the injuries received, rather than for any complications that arise during treatment.  Three judges in the High Court had previously ruled that it would be “absurd” to divorce the injury from the treatment.

There should be no quibbling about compensation in such cases.  If the suggestion is that the treatment was at fault, then that should be a matter between the MoD and those providing the treatment (presumably part of the NHS).  It is patently unreasonable to expect service personnel, who have been asked to risk their lives on behalf of the country, first to do battle with the MoD, whom most people might have expected to be defending their interests, and then to sue separately for negligence over the way in which their injuries were treated.

Not only is the decision to go to the Court of Appeal to try to get the compensation awards cut morally wrong, it is also politically crass.  The Government having had a good record previously on the Gurkhas managed to get themselves hammered on their rights to settle here a few months ago.  More recently, there has been the row about helicopter support to our troops in Afghanistan (whatever the rights and wrongs of this, it is a fact that the US provides far more helicopter support proportionally for the number of troops they deploy than we do).  Now there are escalating concerns about the rise in the number of casualties in Afghanistan.  It doesn”t take a political genius to realise that to embark on a row by seeking to cut compensation awards already agreed by the existing appeals process is a battle not worth fighting.  Time for Ministers to get a grip ….

Friday
Jul 24,2009

As we wait for the result of the Norwich North by-election, I am told that on the ground Norwich North Labour Party is united  – behind Ian Gibson.

A visit to Hendon Labour Party

Thursday
Jul 23,2009

I spoke tonight at a meeting of Hendon Labour Party.  It has been a bit dis-spiriting of late in the Westminster bubble, so it was good to recharge my political batteries with 20 or 30 Party members who were enthusiastic about discussing policy and happy to laugh at my occasional weak jokes.

We ranged widely on subjects such as policing in London, counter-terrorism policy, youth facilities, Boris Johnson, Barnet Council, Brian Coleman (who produced the most vigorous reaction of the evening), House of Lords reform and much more.  Having arrived rather tired and damp (having suffered my second drenching of the day), I left envigorated.  I hope my hosts did too.

Thursday
Jul 23,2009

The Metropolitan Police Authority – reinstated after protests from the “Progressive Alliance” – is now in session.  Mayor Boris Johnson is in the Chair and 20 of the 23 members are present.  The intention is that the meeting should last no more than an hour and the Mayor greeted those members mustering for City Hall coffee before the meeting started with “This shouldn””””t take long”.  Nevertheless, there is no sign that there are any fewer questions being asked of the Commissioner on his monthly update report and - as is now usual – this is the main item on the Authority”s agenda.

Jenny Jones AM sought an assurance that meetings would not be cancelled in future (the Mayor mumbled in response and Uber Vice Chairman Deputy Mayor Kit Malthouse AM fiddled with his two Blackberries and appeared not to hear).  She then sought to criticise the Metropolitan Police for “being too slick and efficient” in reviewing the material in respect of the News of the World phone hacking allegations so quickly   The Commissioner Sir Paul Stephenson  and Assistant Commissioner John Yates obviously thought they couldn””””t win on that one.  However, the incisiveness for which Jenny Jones is famous was then on display when she referred to what News international said on the subject with the clear implication that therefore it must be true.

This led – rather tangentially – to Clive Lawton suggesting that it should not automatically be a serious disciplinary offence for police officers to sell information to the newspapers.  No-one else seemed to agree and Uber Vice Chairman Deputy Mayor Kit Malthouse AM growled that MPA members who leaked information should expect to go to prison.

All in all, it was right that the Authority had its meeting, but there were no fireworks – so much so that the Guardian correspondent, Dave Hill (who seemed to be imposing a cruel and unusual punishment on his children by making them sit through the meeting with him) left after 45 minutes.

Wednesday
Jul 22,2009

This morning I reported my continuing concerns about computer repairers like “The Geek Squad” and “The Tech Guys”.  Now I see that my good friends at FaberBrent (whose Advisory Board I have just joined) have quite independently reported a Sky undercover exercise on a laptop repairer who caught the” repairer” trawling through files for personal data and banking details.  So I am right to be worried and some system of regulation and certification seems essential.

Wednesday
Jul 22,2009

When the Digital Britain White Paper was published on 16th June, I raised some concerns about the White Paper’s apparent endorsement of “The Geek Squad” and “The Tech Guys”.

I have now received from Lord Stephen Carter a response to the points I made in the debate.  Unfortunately, the response slightly misses the point (by about a mile, actually).  It sets out the measures being introduced to improve the enforcement of consumer law applying to on-line transactions.  This is all good stuff – a single online complaints register for people encountering an online scam; investment in new equipment, training and staff for on-line consumer law enforcers; and a review of enforcement powers in an on-line world.  However, this is not really going to provide much reassurance for people nervous about letting an unknown person into their homes to fidedle around with their computer systems.

I have now written back to Stephen Carter – although my letter may well have arrived after his last day in office (he is one of the GOAT ministers who is resigning this month).  My letter says:

“Thank you for your letter of 8th July.  I am grateful for the clarification you have provided on the points I raised following your statement to the House on 16th June.

 

However, I would like to come back on the second issue I raised.  This related to the need to ensure that consumers have adequate protection when dealing with suppliers, such as “The Geek Squad” or “The Tech Guys” – both specifically mentioned in “Digital Britain”.

 

In your response, you mention the measures being taken to improve enforcement of consumer law applying to on-line transactions.  Whilst these measures are valuable, they rather miss the point of my concerns.  Both “The Geek Squad” and “The Tech Guys” involve the consumer permitting individuals to access their computer equipment (and usually their homes).  Such individuals are being given a position of trust by the consumers concerned, who will assume that they are (1) honest and (2) know what they are doing.  As far as these points are concerned, it is extremely unlikely that the consumer will have the technical knowledge to understand (or indeed to be able to detect) what has been done to their equipment – that is after all why they have asked “The Geek Squad” or “The Tech Guys” to visit or to look at their equipment.

 

If you engage a security guard from a security firm, the individuals engaged are required to be registered with the Security Industry Authority and will have been vetted for criminality and there are requirements relating to their training.  Yet the activities of most security personnel will usually be visible and will normally be comprehensible to the person engaging them.  Should there not be some similar system of regulation and customer assurance of the quality of work in place for those individuals engaged by “The Geek Squad”, “The Tech Guys” or any other similar service?  If no such system is in place, most customers – who are likely not to be skilled technically – will be vulnerable to data being stolen from them, to malicious code being placed on their machines or to more traditional forms of criminality.

 

I would welcome your comments on what can be done to address this.  I am copying this letter to Lord West of Spithead (in view of the information security implications) and to Alun Michael MP (in view of his role chairing the Tripartite Internet Crime and Security Initiative).”

I will be interested to see if the civil servants get the point this time.

Tuesday
Jul 21,2009

This morning I took part in a breakfast discussion on the Lords Terrace (over orange juice and croissants, but fortunately under cover as it was pouring with rain) with Lord Young of Graffham and Lord Razzall about what can be done to re-energise the British technology sector.  The occasion was the launch of the Micro Focus Technology Manifesto, “Making BrITain Great Again“.  It was well-attended and the Q&A session at the end was lively and could clearly have continued for much longer.

The central theme was that Britain has the potential to generate a much larger proportion of its GDP from the technology innovation-driven sector and the manifesto is designed to kick-start a debate about what can usefully be done to create an environment in which the sector can thrive, expand and create new and sustainable jobs in the UK.  The manifesto has five strands:

  • increasing the supply of world-class technology talent in the UK
  • harnessing the expertise and goodwill of successful leaders around the world to mentor leaders of UK-based emerging technology businesses
  • changing substantially the tax incentives available to companies and individuals who want to invest in growing technology businesses in the UK
  • implementing fiscal incentives for UK-based companies seeking to take forward world-leading R&D
  • encouraging overseas technology companies to invest in a UK hub

I hope that the manifesto does kick-start a debate on these issues and that all the main Parties will commit to following the direction of travel indicated.  Indeed, I would hope that the core principle would be readily endorsed.  Future UK prosperity can only be sustained if the country is able to offer something significant to the world economy and that something in my view has to be that Britain is able to exploit innovation effectively and can deliver substantial value-added in technology and intellectual property.  The UK will never compete by trying to cut wage costs to Third World levels, we no longer have a heavy manufacturing base and there is a limit to how much national income that can be generated from tourism and heritage.  The only route to sustainability has to be through becoming a leading force in innovation and technology.

I remain concerned that too many young people do not see careers in technology as exciting, that too many further and higher education courses are irrelevant to the technology sector’s needs, and that for those who do emerge from further and higher education there are too few entry-level job/training opportunities.  Moreover, as a country we do not do enough to foster entrepreneurialism, nor to support investment in innovative start-ups and to support the growth of such enterprises as they develop.  The Micro Focus manifesto contains a number of suggestions as to how these issues may be addressed.  I am sure it is not definitive, but the future of the UK economy requires that this debate starts now and is taken seriously.