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Archive for the ‘Economy’ Category

Monday
Jun 11,2012

A former senior analyst to the US Secretary for Defense has warned that:

“Chinese companies apparently have a covert capability to remotely access communications technology sold to the United States and other Western countries and could disable a country’s telecommunications infrastructure before a military engagement.”

 Writing on Friday, F Michael Maloof reported that:

“The Chinese also have the ability to exploit networks “to enable China to continue to steal technology and trade secrets,” according to the open source intelligence company Lignet, which is comprised of former U.S. intelligence analysts.

The issue centers on the Chinese firm Huawei Technologies Co. Ltd., which U.S. intelligence sources say has direct links to the Chinese government and the People’s Liberation Army, or PLA. These sources assert that Huawei and other Chinese telecommunications firms such as ZTE Corp. have “electronic backdoors” to telecommunications technology sold to the U.S. and other countries.”

This is the same Huawei that I have reported before as providing key components to this country BT network and is being investigated by the US Congress but not by any equivalent UK body.

Huawei tell me that they are much-maligned and say that they are not linked to the People’s Liberation Army, but are just a private company trying to expand their business outside China.

In the UK the Government seems to be unconcerned that increasingly large parts of the country’s critical national infrastructure are under foreign ownership or are dependent for key components on overseas suppliers (there are a series of stories in yesterday’s Sunday Times behind its paywall about Chinese or Russian interests buying into the UK energy supply industry).

It is not clear why it can be assumed that these interests are necessarily benign and the UK Government doesn’t even seem to be interested in asking the question let alone doing anything about it.

How complacent can they get?

 

Monday
Jun 11,2012

Michael Gove is to announce a new primary school curriculum.

Apparently, this will involve five-year-olds being required to learn poetry by heart and recite it aloud.  According to the Telegraph:

“Education Secretary Michael Gove will promise a new focus on the traditional virtues of spelling and grammar when he sets out his plans for the teaching of English in primary schools later this week.

At the same time, Mr Gove will put forward proposals to make learning a foreign language compulsory for pupils from the age of seven.

Under his plans, primary schools could offer lessons in Mandarin, Latin and Greek as well as French, German and Spanish from September 2014.

The Education Secretary is said to be determined to make the teaching of English at primary school ”far more rigorous” than it is at present.  …

It will also emphasise the importance of grammar in mastering the language, setting out exactly what children should be expected to be taught in each year of their primary schooling as well as lists of words they should be able to spell.”

Whilst I am not convinced about the value of reciting poetry, nor about learning Latin and (ancient) Greek, I do think that there is much to be said for instilling the basics of language in all primary age children.

There will also be a commitment to making sure pupils have some basic skills in maths and science:

“Pupils will be expected to memorise their tables up to 12 times 12 by age nine, and be able to multiply and divide fractions by the end of primary school under a major shake-up of the national curriculum.

Using decimals and basic arithmetic are also set to be a main focus of maths lessons in the future, a move which ministers said will help to raise standards in England’s schools.

In science, primary school children will be taught about key concepts such as static electricity, the solar system and how to name and classify objects in biology.”

That too is welcome.  But does it go far enough?

Earlier this year, John Naughton argued in the Guardian that:

“Starting in primary school, children from all backgrounds and every part of the UK should have the opportunity to: learn some of the key ideas of computer science; understand computational thinking; learn to program; and have the opportunity to progress to the next level of excellence in these activities.  …

We need to face up to a painful fact. It is that almost everything we have done over the last two decades in the area of ICT education in British schools has been misguided and largely futile. Instead of educating children about the most revolutionary technology of their young lifetimes, we have focused on training them to use obsolescent software products”

There are developments like Raspberry Pi that are intended to provide a cheap and accessible platform for young children to learn simple programming.
The hope is that Gove will recognise that revitalising the primary school curriculum is about equipping today’s under-11s not with the skills their grandparents and great-grandparents may have learned, but the skills that they will need to grow up in the 2020s and 2030s.  And that those skills can be the basis for the UK’s future economic growth.
Poetry has its place, but programming is the future.
Monday
May 28,2012

Seven and a half years ago, I warned in a debate in the House of Lords about the risk to the nation’s critical national infrastructure of a concerted cyber-attack, saying:

“As a nation, the systems that are essential for our health and well-being rely on computer and communications networks – whether we are talking about the energy utilities, the water and food distribution networks, transportation, the emergency services, telephones, the banking and financial systems, indeed government and public services in general – and all of them are vulnerable to serious disruption by cyber-attack with potentially enormous consequences.  …

The threat could come from teenage hackers with no more motivation than proving that it could be done, but even more seriously it could come from cyber-terrorists intent on bringing about the downfall of our society. “

The Ministerial reply I was given at the time bordered on the complacent – even though I was assured that it wasn’t:

“there are also terrorists who would challenge and seek to undermine democratic society using any methods within their grasp. It is not complacent to say this; but perhaps it should be made plain that at the moment they do not appear to be interested in attacking us electronically.”

Late last year, the Wall Street Journal reported that:

“British intelligence picked up “talk” from terrorists planning an Internet-based attack against the U.K.’s national infrastructure, a British official said, as the government released a long-awaited report on cyber security.

Terrorists have for some time used the Internet to recruit, spread propaganda and raise funds. Now, this official said, U.K. intelligence has seen evidence that terrorists are talking about using the Internet to actually attack a country, which could include sending viruses to disrupt the country’s infrastructure, much of which is now connected online. The official spoke on condition of anonymity and didn’t say when the infrastructure threat was detected and how it was dealt with.

Terrorists, however, are still more focused on physical attacks that lead to high casualties and grab attention. “For the moment they prefer to cover the streets in blood,” he said.”

Again, the official line was inclined to dismiss the likelihood of an attack …
Now comes news that a video captured by FBI agents last year and now released by the Senate Committee on Homeland Security purports to show an al Qaeda leader calling on ”covert mujahidin” to launch cyber attacks against The video explicitly calls for cyber attacks against the networks of both government and life-sustaining critical infrastructure, including the electric grid, and compares vulnerabilities in U.S. critical cyber networks to the vulnerabilities in our aviation system prior to 9/11.
PHOTO: In this screenshot obtained by the FBI, an Al Qaeda video calls upon the ?covert Mujahidin? to commit ?electronic jihad?.
So – boringly – I was right (again).
The question remains are our cyber-defences going to be adequate.
Saturday
May 26,2012

UNITE has produced a powerful and compelling video on police privatisation.

It should give a clear message to the Home Office as well as to Chief Constables and putative elected Police and Crime Commissioners that simply out-sourcing large chunks of the police service will attract substantial opposition and is potentially hugely unpopular with the public.

There are no doubt some functions currently performed by in-house staff or by warranted officers that could be provided more efficiently by external providers.  However, there are some functions which should never be allowed to fall outside the personal direction and control of the chief officer of police.  This means that any out-sourcing proposals need to be clearly defined and consensus should be sought on whether the areas of activity can genuinely be provided from outside the police service without harming the coherence and integration of police services.  The other key question that will have to be addressed explicitly is the accountability of those providing the service and the governance arrangements that are to be put around the activities.

So far, this has not been a convincing element of the proposals that have been floated.  However, the next few years are likely to bring unprecedented reductions in policing budgets.  These issues are not going to go away.  And that is why the debate should start now.  The UNITE video should be a catalyst for this process.

Thursday
May 24,2012

It may not always be obvious, but I do try to be fair to the Government.  However, I do find that their arguments about the BSkyB bid are becoming increasingly convoluted.

To recap, after the Telegraph sting on Vince Cable the Prime Minister ruled that Cable’s comments to two undercover reporters were “totally unacceptable and inappropriate” and prejudiced his ability to act in a quasi-judicial role in determining whether to accept any Competition Commission decision that the News International takeover of BSkyB could go ahead.

The  quasi-judicial responsibility was then transferred to the Department of Culture, Media and Sport and its Secretary of State, Jeremy Hunt.

Now it transpires that Jeremy Hunt had sent a memo to the Prime Minister saying that the UK’s media sector “would suffer for years” if the deal was blocked.

However, the Prime Minister is now arguing that these comments did not prejudice Jeremy Hunt’s ability to act in a quasi-judicial role.

Is that because the Prime Minister knew about them?

Or is it because the personal views were ones he agreed with?

And, of course, as the Prime Minister knew when he appointed Jeremy Hunt to his quasi-judicial role that he was apparently already prejudiced, the Prime Minister too was complicit in undermining the process.

Apparently, it is “totally unacceptable and inappropriate” for a Minister acting in a quasi-judicial role to have views opposing the bid, but there is nothing wrong in knowingly appointing someone to the same quasi-judicial role if he has expressed the contrary views.

Is that clear?

Of course, if Jeremy Hunt – by behaving as unacceptably and inappropriately as Vince Cable – were forced to resign, then that would call into question the judgement of the Prime Minister who had appointed him in the first place, particularly if that same Prime Minister knew about the behaviour in question.  So perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised that the Prime Minister thinks that Jeremy Hunt’s behaviour WAS acceptable (especially as his non-prejudicial views mirrored his own).

 

Wednesday
May 9,2012

The Metropolitan Police Federation have produced this video to highlight the concerns of their members about pay and conditions and about cuts in the police service.

The depth of anger that will be reflected in the number of officers joining the march through London – in their own time – should not be ignored by the Government.

The negotiations over the Winsor report have been seriously mishandled and the consequences for police morale (and ultimately public safety) are very worrying.

Monday
Apr 30,2012

If you like George Formby (which I do) but even if you don’t, you should watch this and be in no doubt about the depth of the anger within the Police Service about the proposed changes to police terms and conditions following on from the Winsor review:

Sunday
Mar 18,2012

According to Andrew Rawnsley in today’s Observer, David Cameron has vetoed the introduction of a mansion tax so as to try and avert a defeat for Boris Johnson in May’s Mayoral elections in London:

“The Lib Dems are not going to get their mansion tax and probably knew from the start that the Tories were unlikely to be persuadable. George Osborne could see the intellectual case for taxing wealth via property and some Treasury officials were attracted to the simplicity of a tax that would be hard to avoid. The chancellor might have been willing to cut a deal with the Lib Dems, but the prime minister was not. David Cameron feared the reaction of Tory MPs and the Tory core vote, among whom are rather a lot of people living in the size of property that would attract the tax.  …  He also had a rather cruder, short-term electoral consideration that has been surprisingly overlooked in all the debate about the pros and cons of a mansion tax. Many of the homes worth £2 million or more are concentrated in London. There is an election for mayor of the capital coming up very soon. David Cameron did not want to do anything that could be said to jeopardise Boris Johnson’s chances of beating Ken Livingstone. The first thing that a defeated Boris would do would be to try to get back into the Commons, which is the last place that Mr Cameron wants to see his fellow old Etonian. A beaten Boris will be bad enough for the Tories; a martyred Boris able to blame his defeat on the prime minister and the chancellor would be much worse for them. So the mansion tax was blocked.”

 Good to know that personal intra-Party considerations trump everything else.

 

 

Sunday
Mar 18,2012

Nearly three years I posted about the threat of an electro-magnetic pulse that could permanently disable the electricity grid and most electrical systems.  I followed this up with some parliamentary questions and a further post this time last year that concluded:

“So the good news (heavy irony) is that the Government may have got round to working out what “the reasonable worst case scenario” might be.”

At the risk of coming over all I-told-you-so-ish, we now learn in today’s Observer that:

“Explosions on the sun that blast solar winds towards the Earth have been identified for the first time as one of the biggest threats to the UK’s ability to carry on normal daily life, according to a new official government register of major risks to the country.

A significant event on the sun could leave large swaths of the country without electricity, lead to the immediate grounding of planes, disable communications and even destroy household appliances.

The danger has been prioritised in the Cabinet Office’s National Risk of Civil Emergencies as the sun enters the most active point in its 10-year cycle – its solar max – raising the chances of a damaging burst of radiation, plasma or energetic particles (such as neutrons).

More significantly, the UK is regarded as particularly vulnerable because scientific advances have made the country more dependent on technology than ever before. Ministers have been advised by scientists that the most advanced technology is also the most delicate and that “high levels of energetic particles produced in the atmosphere by solar radiation storms can greatly enhance error rates in ground digital components found in all modern technology”.

The newly published risk register lists severe space weather alongside terrorist attacks, coastal flooding and pandemic influenza as likely sources of “serious damage to human welfare”.

It says: “Severe space weather can cause disruption to a range of technologies and infrastructure, including communications systems, electronic circuits and power grids.”

The register adds: “While storm impacts in the early- to mid-20th century appear relatively benign, dependency on technology vulnerable to space weather has pervaded most aspects of modern life, and therefore the disruptive consequences of a severe solar storm could be significant.”

The threat was placed on the register after a panel of experts, including two scientists from the Meteorological Office, produced a “reasonable worst case scenario” for ministers.”

 Only took a year, so lucky that last week’s solar flare passed off without problems.

 

Sunday
Mar 11,2012

My excellent webmaster, Jon Worth, has written a blog post about his experiences earlier today with security on the Eurostar from Brussels.

He describes the pointless inconveniences that were introduced to plug the holes in an already leaky system.  The extra measures in place on his journey were presumably intended to plug the Lille loophole, described in the Telegraph today.  Yet the “solution” provided hardly seems cost-efficient or particularly effective.

The Sunday Telegraph explains the problem as follows:

“The loophole centres on the Schengen agreement signed between a number of European countries, including France and Belgium, which allows people to cross borders without passport checks.

The UK is not in the agreement can therefore check the passports of passengers travelling here.

As a result there are two gates for Eurostar trains in Brussels, one for those going to Lille, which does not have passport checks, and one for the UK, which does.

It means an individual could buy two tickets and then pass through the Lille gate but stay on the train to London without having their passport examined.”

Jon Worth describes the extra checks which took place on his train (no doubt as a result of this morning’s article in the Sunday Telegraph):

“Then today when the train called at Lille for more passengers to alight and board, we were told on the public address system in the train that there would be additional checks in the train between Lille and Calais. These checks were carried out by a team of 7 French rail police carrying guns and batons, but just checking tickets (and not passports). I asked the policeman who checked my ticket why he was doing so. “Parce-que c’est comme ça” (because that’s the way it is) he replied. I pushed him further, saying that of course I had to have a valid ticket, because how otherwise could I have actually got on the train? “C’est contre la fraude” (it’s against fraud) was the best I got out of him before he moved off.”

So that wouldn’t have prevented anyone with evil intent slipping into the UK.

However, today there was an additional check at St Pancras:

“Then upon arrival in St Pancras, not announced to passengers on the train, all passports and all tickets were being checked by UK Borders at the exit. Which – quite frankly – seems to render other checks superfluous. Why bother having a UK Border check in Brussels, and French police check in the train, if you’re then going to check in London too?”

Excellent –  apart from the extra costs of the unnecessary and ineffective security checks beforehand.

But what about the impact on passengers?  As Jon Worth points out:

“due to the small terminal exit and a few hundred people streaming off a train, the checks are not swift in London.”

This means at peak time there will either be terrible delays or – as happened with other border controls – the extra checks will be lifted.

The problem is potentially serious and it is amazing that the Home Office seems so relaxed about it.