Computer Weekly Editor's Blog


February 2, 2018  1:14 PM

UK IT budgets are increasing fast as cloud adoption accelerates – Computer Weekly reader survey

Bryan Glick Bryan Glick Profile: Bryan Glick

Every year, Computer Weekly conducts a large-scale survey of our readers to find out their IT spending priorities for the year ahead – it’s always an interesting take on what’s happening in IT departments around the country because it’s coming from the leaders making those technology purchasing decisions.

The latest results are in, and the headline news is clear – IT organisations in the UK are accelerating the move to cloud. When asked about IT managers’ priorities in datacentre, storage and software plans for 2018, cloud came out top every time.

Our research also looks to Europe, and the picture is the same – in France, Germany and across the continent, cloud is the number one spending priority.

As public cloud grows in popularity, it’s also putting pressure on IT teams to justify their on-premises systems. Twice as many organisations listed server virtualisation as a priority than in 2017 – and investment in basic infrastructure such as power, cooling and racks also came in as the top datacentre priority.

This suggests IT managers are having to overhaul their internal operations to prove they can deliver the same levels of efficiency, flexibility and cost-effectiveness as they’re seeing from their public cloud usage.

In business applications spending, the vast majority of IT managers buying or upgrading core software are implementing cloud-based versions. For example, 53% of readers surveyed are spending on customer relationship management (CRM) systems this year, while 45% of respondents are looking at software-as-a-service CRM – only small numbers are staying on-premise.

It’s no surprise, perhaps, that mobile device management is another top technology investment – along with mobile and cloud security. It’s further evidence that the future of corporate IT is mobile users connecting to cloud-based systems.

It’s also no surprise that compliance with the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) is driving a lot of IT spending this year, with the deadline fast approaching on 25 May. Data loss prevention has become the top security technology priority as a result – with end-user security training the main security initiative, as awareness grows that users are often a weak link in data protection.

Looking ahead, emerging technologies such as internet of things, artificial intelligence and blockchain were the fastest-growing technologies compared to 2017 – they’re still fairly low priority overall, but interest and investment is rising quickly as more IT teams explore what benefits such systems can bring.

2018 is set to be a big year for UK IT managers – only 10% of organisations are reducing their IT budget; 56% are increasing spending, with a quarter seeing at least a 10% hike. Our survey shows the UK technology scene is in rude health.

Read more from the Computer Weekly IT Priorities Survey 2018:

January 26, 2018  11:12 AM

Theresa May’s welcome tech enthusiasm comes with a huge Brexit caveat

Bryan Glick Bryan Glick Profile: Bryan Glick

It’s nice that we have a prime minister that chooses to use one of her most high-profile speeches of the year to talk about technology.

It’s equally good that her chancellor similarly discussed the opportunities of IT at the World Economic Forum on Davos, warning of “a generation of 21st century Luddites” and asking, “Do we look inward or outward, look to the future or cleave to the past?”

We also saw Matt Hancock, previously digital minister and now secretary of state for digital, culture media and sport, talking at a Davos debate on “reimagining policy-making for the fourth industrial revolution”. Marvellous.

These are all things that the tech community has wanted to see for years – at Computer Weekly we’ve called repeatedly for our most senior politicians to understand, address and plan for just these developments.

And yet…

During her speech, Theresa May clearly suffered from a bad case of what we must call Hancockism – the ability to ignore an elephant so large that it’s not so much in the room, as it is the room.

In his time as digital minister, Hancock was renowned for his prodigious speech-giving, talking up the tech sector without ever mentioning the one thing everybody listening wanted him to talk about – what Brexit means (other than “Brexit”).

May’s outbreak of Hancockism was particularly acute, given that world leaders and business chiefs from around the world were hoping she would take the opportunity of such an influential forum to explain more about her vision for a post-Brexit Britain, or to offer some detail on what the words “deep” and “special” will mean in practice when it comes to our future relationship with the EU.

There are few people in the UK tech sector who would express disappointment at the welcome priority that May and her government are giving to technology. It feels almost churlish to have to add a Brexit caveat, but it’s such a huge caveat.

As Computer Weekly has reported, tech leaders are holding their breath waiting for guidance on what the future might look like, given the intimacy of the business and tech relationships we have across Europe.

It’s great that May sees technology as key to building the new, global Britain we are promised. Undoubtedly a connected, digital Britain offers a way to open up new opportunities. But it’s not going to magically happen.

The prime minister touted investments in artificial intelligence, including £45m for 200 new PhD places, yet in the same week Google announced its new AI research centre in France even though its DeepMind AI subsidiary is in London. Earlier this month China announced a $2.1bn investment in an AI tech park in Beijing. Let’s keep our investments in context.

If the UK wants to lead the world in AI, we need to maintain the “deep and special” research and development partnerships that we have across the EU – we simply won’t have the resources to compete otherwise.

So it’s a big step forward to see technology taking its place at the political and business top table. Thank you, prime minister. But if tech is the future, we need to know what that future looks like.

Here’s what Dennis Snower, president of the Global Economic Symposium, thought of Theresa May’s Davos speech:


January 18, 2018  12:47 PM

There’s nothing for government IT outsourcing to learn from Carillion that we don’t already know

Bryan Glick Bryan Glick Profile: Bryan Glick

The demise of construction and services giant Carillion has brought fresh scrutiny of outsourcing in government. Frankly, you could find some event almost every year that brings fresh scrutiny of outsourcing in government – from the IT disasters documented by Computer Weekly over the years, to failures in prisons and even security for the 2012 Olympics.

Because of those historic IT failures, IT outsourcing has been examined, prodded and analysed many times, by MPs, the National Audit Office (NAO), and independent experts. This week, there have been plenty of tech commentators looking for “lessons from Carillion”, but the reality is that Carillion only demonstrates the issues that we’ve seen in government IT for a long time, and the solutions that have been proposed yet consistently ignored.

After 2010, when then Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude took aim at the oligopoly of big IT outsourcers, there was a lot of progress made in trying to apply some of those solutions. We’re nearly eight years into a process of disaggregating IT contracts to make them more manageable, and to reduce the sort of exposure to a single point of failure that’s affecting Carillion’s projects.

However, even after eight years, progress has still been patchy. Many of those mega-deals are still lumbering along, and because of the distraction of Brexit, many are being extended because it’s easier than trying to break them up.

We’ve seen a rise in the use of SME tech companies, through initiatives like G-Cloud, but according to the NAO, by 2016 94% of government IT spending still went to big suppliers – down just 1% since 2012-13.

Not much has really changed. We may not have so many huge deals with a single prime contractor, but the sub-contractors involved are still delivering the same services, and they are mostly the same old large system integrators. They still have as much of the pie, it’s just sliced a little differently.

In some parts of government, they are getting IT outsourcing right – using it to supplement and complement the skills and resources available in-house, rather than to replace them. But those examples are mostly sporadic.

Where IT outsourcing has the greatest parallel to Carillion is around transparency and accountability. There have been numerous calls for open-book accounting on contracts, for those contracts to be publicly available for independent scrutiny, and for suppliers of public services to be covered by Freedom of Information laws for their outsourcing deals. Despite government commitments to open contracting, none of this has happened.

When an IT contract goes wrong, it’s rare that the supplier gets punished. The same old faces always turn up the next time a deal is awarded. Blame gets apportioned, but nobody is held accountable.

Eight years after Maude started the process, the Cabinet Office is still telling us it will take four years to exit the remaining IT outsourcing deals, and warning of the complexity of doing so – advice that should have been given in 2010.

Let’s not forget that there are times when IT outsourcing works for government – but if there is one thing to be learned from Carillion, it’s that the knee-jerk response to outsource should come to an end. It’s one of the tools in the digital kitbag, but it should never again be the default option.


January 15, 2018  10:31 AM

Spectre of IT vulnerability looms large

Cliff Saran Profile: Cliff Saran
Security

It has not been the happiest start to 2018 for the IT industry.

Security researchers from Google’s Project Zero published a detailed paper identifying a flaw in the design of every modern microprocessor that could be exploited to gain privileged access to a computer’s memory.

Not since StuxNet in 2010 has the IT world been so disrupted. At that time, researchers showed how everything from lifts and building systems to electricity grids, banking networks and nuclear power stations could be directly compromised.

Although the threat from cyber terrorism attacks on critical national infrastructure is very real, in some ways the Meltdown and Spectre flaws represent a risk that goes to the very heart of computing. This microprocessor flaw has resulted in major network, server, PC and mobile hardware firms releasing firmware updates; operating system providers issuing hot fixes; and browser companies tightening security around JavaScript. Some anti-virus companies had to update their software to prevent Windows Update from locking up PCs.

It has been known for two decades that electronic devices such as microprocessors have tell-tale signatures that can be exploited. Security researcher Paul Kocher published a paper in 1996 describing such a risk, known as a side-channel attack. He said the time it takes for a microprocessor instruction to run can be used to reverse engineer cryptographic keys, such as RSA tokens.

The security team that discovered Meltdown said they were able to leak secure information at a rate of 503Kbps with an error rate of 0.02%. In other words, their proof-of-concept exploit of the flaw could get at information almost 100% of the time. Because it is a hardware exploit, it works on Windows , Linux and containers such as Docker.

Luckily, Meltdown can be patched – but Spectre requires a generation of secure processors.

The patches issued across the industry are just that. They are patches; they do not fix the fundamental problem that the microprocessor is broken. The ingenious techniques applied by microprocessor designers to extract maximum performance from every processor invented since 1995 can be used to leak secure information. Everyone will need to upgrade, but this will take years. In the meantime, the patches and hot fixes may have some detrimental effect on the performance of all our IT systems.


January 4, 2018  3:49 PM

Five things in tech to watch out for in 2018

Bryan Glick Bryan Glick Profile: Bryan Glick

Complete this sentence to win a prize for your technology insight: “2018 will be the year of…”

Rather like the missing word round in Have I Got News For You, the answers will range from the obvious to the hilarious – AI! Blockchain! Internet of things! Voice recognition! Driverless cars! Virtual reality! Go on, add another few dozen well-used industry buzzwords. Do a Google search, you’ll find someone has written every article already.

We can pretty much guarantee that 2018 will not be the year of anything in particular, other than the usual onward march of technology adoption and the further infiltration of the digital revolution into every aspect of our life and work – and the backlash against both.

Not wishing to be left out, here are five things that are likely to be much discussed this year – not an exhaustive list, but we reckon these will come across the desktop of most IT leaders in 2018.

GDPR

Let’s get the easy one out of the way. You have until 25 May 2018 to become compliant with the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), which will be implemented in the UK through the new Data Protection Bill. At Computer Weekly, we’ve already written each week’s story from now to May about how many organisations have yet to comply. Data protection isn’t going away – even if we’re still trying to understand where to draw the boundaries. The real fun starts when the first household-name company gets sued for a GDPR breach.

IT ethics

Whether it’s about social media, online age verification, artificial intelligence, data privacy or the working practices and lack of diversity of the tech sector, ethics is going to underpin much of the existential debate around the future of our digital society. Take it seriously – choose to be an ethical digital organisation. One day, people will look back and despair at how long it took for tech to make ethics a priority.

IT investment

There’s a growing acknowledgement that the core of the UK’s productivity gap with our international counterparts comes down to a lack of IT investment by corporations since the 2008 crash. CBI research gave us a wonderful soundbite last year – that UK take-up of enterprise resource planning (ERP) and customer relationship management (CRM) is lower than it was in Denmark in 2009. If we want the UK to compete internationally post-Brexit; if we want to get wages growing again; if we want to create more high-value jobs – then the government needs to find a way to persuade companies to increase how much they spend on new technology.

Identity

Identity is perhaps the biggest challenge of the digital economy. How can we prove we are who we say we are to organisations we may never meet or physically transact with outside the virtual world? Getting digital identity right is the key to unlocking so many online opportunities, from public service delivery to open banking. The government has tried to crack this with Gov.uk Verify, but has gone down a dead-end and needs to find a way out. Better public/private co-operation is likely to be the answer – and it needs to happen this year.

Serverless

OK, we had to use a proper tech buzzword somewhere. Serverless computing is the natural evolution of virtualisation, cloud and agile development – the next step to a true pay-as-you-go utility model for computer power. This year, expect to see early adopters getting seriously into serverless, most likely by testing out the capabilities of Amazon Web Services. Serverless is the future of the datacentre – or for most organisations, the future without a datacentre.

Tell us your thoughts for 2018 in the comments below…


December 19, 2017  12:36 PM

Fear not for the future of digital government – the GIFs are taken care of

Bryan Glick Bryan Glick Profile: Bryan Glick

I was tempted to write this blog post on Computer Weekly’s Downtime blog, where we try to look at the lighter side of the world of IT. But I’m not entirely sure this is a joke.

While budgetary constraints affect the progress of digital government services across the public sector, Whitehall struggles to fill digital vacancies, and skilled IT contractors leave because of IR35 reforms, money is clearly an issue.

But don’t worry this Christmas about priorities, because the Cabinet Office has the critical role covered.

That’s because, if you’re an animator who happens to have national security clearance, this is the job for you:

“We need an animator to create social media animations and GIFs to use on government social media channels and for paid digital advertising,” says the latest Cabinet Office job vacancy. Interested candidates have until 1st January 2018 to apply.

The animator will be needed to “create a series of animations for government social media accounts”.

The ideal applicant should have security clearance, but if you’re an experienced GIF animator who fancies the job but hasn’t spent a lot of time working for GCHQ, MI5 or MI6, don’t worry, the advert says that as an alternative: “We will need the appointee to sign an additional non-disclosure agreement as well as the standard contract, as some of the material is potentially sensitive”.

Potentially sensitive animations? Just think, you could be the person to produce the ultimate GIF on Britain’s secret Brexit negotiation strategy, to stuff it – through the medium of Twitter – to those EU bureaucrats stopping us having our cake and eating it (actually, there’s your first GIF image idea, feel free to use, no credit needed).

There must be animated gags-a-plenty about our new £3.1bn aircraft carrier springing a leak.

Or you could be preparing an entertaining GIF of Pyongyang, the capital of North Korea, going up in a mushroom cloud with a laughing Donald Trump in the background to express the British government’s response to World War 3.

Bear in mind that the job requires an animator able to “work at pace” – so we can all look forward to a veritable flood of guffaw-inducing GIFs in 2018 to explain the government’s policies to us (someone needs to, let’s face it).

Sadly, the excitement won’t last – this is only a six-month contract. But at up to £250 per day – or £32,500 for the contract duration – our government GIF strategy should be in good hands. What taxpayer would begrudge the cost?

Happy Christmas everyone, if you can afford it.


December 15, 2017  12:54 PM

On digital identity in the UK – and the likely future for Gov.uk Verify

Bryan Glick Bryan Glick Profile: Bryan Glick

Did you know the UK government has a minister for identity? It’s Baroness Susan Williams, whose full responsibilities go under the grander title of minister of state for countering extremism. Perhaps her biggest issue around looking after identity is that so few people have identified her job exists.

But the UK government is increasingly focused on identity – and to be more specific, digital identity. There’s widespread awareness that for a functioning digital economy, this is a nut that has to be cracked, and soon.

We now have a need to register EU citizens, for a start. The forthcoming General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) also heightens the need for being able to assure that someone is who they say they are when transacting online.

In the banking world, digital identity sits at the heart of two important regulatory developments – the second Payment Services Directive (PSD2) and Open Banking, which aims to increase competition in retail banks by opening up data to allow fintech challengers to emerge. That is before you consider the ongoing challenges of tackling online fraud.

The British Standards Institute is working on a national standard for digital identity which has been under consultation, known as “PAS 499, Digital identification and authentication – Code of practice

And work is underway in the Government Digital Service (GDS) to make the Whitehall ID system Gov.uk Verify compatible with eIDAS, the EU-wide electronic ID scheme that will be required for enabling cross-border trading and portability of national ID systems within the EU – and more importantly, if the UK wants to continue to be part of that EU digital economy after Brexit.

How lucky we are, dedicated followers of digital government will cry, that we in the UK have Verify to do all this, don’t we? Well, not quite.

What’s going on with Gov.uk Verify?

At the time of writing, it’s been over seven months since the Gov.uk Verify blog was updated. A month before the most recent post, Verify was placed at the heart of the government’s ambitious transformation strategy, with a goal of 25 million users in 2020. About six weeks after that post, Verify was included as part of the Conservative Party manifesto in the snap general election.

But the team responsible for the government’s critical digital identity system has been silent on its own blog ever since, and the performance of Verify continues to disappoint. What’s going on?

The man in charge of Verify, Nic Harrison, director of service design and assurance at GDS, spoke last month at a low-key event organised by Open Identity Exchange (OIX), an industry body co-ordinating collaboration on digital identity across the public and private sectors.

Harrison stressed that the government remains committed to Verify, but its much-discussed problems were hinted at too, in the opening to his speech when he said, “I know first-hand how difficult it is to establish a federated digital identity scheme. How do I know this? Because I took over Verify just over a year ago” – to which the audience of digital identity experts responded with knowing laughter.

“Establishing a common mechanism [for digital identity assurance] is far from a smooth process. In terms of comparative pain, this morning I was having root canal surgery, which gives you an idea of how much work this really is,” he added.

Public-private collaboration

Harrison went on to discuss the importance of collaboration between public and private sectors, saying that Verify is not intended only to be a tool for accessing public services online, but aims to establish a common standard for digital identity across private and public sectors. That’s an objective worth achieving, with enormous benefits to companies, government and citizens.

However, there is frustration among many organisations in the private sector over what they see as delays caused by GDS.

In particular, identity firms are waiting on GDS to release a long-promised commercial framework that outlines how participants in a digital identity market based on Verify will operate. Companies need to understand, for example, where legal liability lies if they accept a user identity assured and created by government that is used fraudulently.

“There have been numerous ministerial statements due but then postponed. Things do not seem to have moved forwards in any significant way since [the general election]. Market participants are becoming very impatient,” said one source.

When asked by Computer Weekly about the delays and private sector concerns, a Cabinet Office spokesman said: “The government is actively planning to roll out Gov.uk Verify to the private sector in line with the commitments made in the government’s transformation strategy. This will enable people to use the same account, which meets high government standards, to prove their identity online for private sector services, such as opening a bank account without having to go into a branch.”

When asked for more details on the delayed commercial framework, the spokesman added: “Government plans to roll out Verify to the private sector are ongoing and more detail will follow in due course.”

Changing rhetoric

So, not much new there. But it is notable that government rhetoric around Verify is changing.

The minister responsible for GDS, Caroline Nokes, talked for the first time about Verify at an Institute for Government event last month, where she was the first Cabinet Office representative to publicly acknowledge the problems around Verify that have been widely discussed elsewhere.

“We have to look at digital identity as an absolute imperative in the 21st century,” she said.

“I am completely candid – there are challenges with Verify, but actually we have done good work so far. What we do know is that there isn’t an off-the-shelf product that you can simply buy and we’ve done a phenomenal amount on the path to digital identity with Verify, but it’s not an end in itself, it’s about the access to services that a digital identity will give people.”

She added: “I acknowledge that [Verify] is not for everyone, but we need to go down the path of digital identity for citizens.”

What’s more, NHS England is now going its own way on digital identity, building its own platform for ID verification, according to its chief digital officer Juliet Bauer.

“As part of this project we are also looking at other identity systems, including Verify, and working with colleagues across government to create the appropriate solution for health. We’ve been talking to government ID services so that if people wanted to use their government ID they could use that to log in to certain low-level services if that’s what they chose to do,” she said at an event last month.

The Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) has taken a growing interest in online identity, in respect of its importance to the UK digital economy. Secretary of state Karen Bradley recently visited India to study the country’s biometric identification system, dubbed Aadhaar – the biggest digital government identity scheme in the world, already rolled out to more than a billion citizens.

Computer Weekly has talked to a lot of people around government about Verify in recent months, and it’s clear the mood is changing. The issues of digital identity in the UK economy, and the future of Gov.uk Verify, are increasingly seen as two separate things.

A recent review of digital identity by McKinsey, commissioned by the Cabinet Office, focused on alternative schemes around the world, and what the UK’s future options may be. The delays in progress updates for Gov.uk Verify are likely to be associated with the outcome of that review – and with a fundamental rethink of the government’s approach. This is how it seems likely things will play out:

“Verify compliant”

Verify could become a brand name, rather than a product produced by GDS. That brand name will encapsulate a set of digital identity standards, for use across the public and private sectors. If you want to be part of the UK’s digital identity infrastructure, you need a product that is “Verify compliant”.

What we currently know as Gov.uk Verify will become the government’s implementation of that standard, offered to departments as an optional platform for their own online public services.

HM Revenue & Customs (HMRC), which has rejected Verify in favour of redeveloping its existing Government Gateway ID system, will conform to the new standards and be “Verify compatible”. The new NHS England system will too.

Therefore, anyone who registers with HMRC for self-assessment, for example, gets a re-usable digital identity that can be used to access any other “Verify-compliant” system, whether in government or not.

Similarly, anyone who created a Verify-compliant digital identity to set up an online bank account can use that same identity to register for self-assessment, and vice versa.

Gov.uk Verify continues on as one element of a wider ecosystem – but probably slowly winding down as departments opt for other solutions from the emerging “Verify-compliant” market.

Any questions asked about why £60m or so has been spent on Gov.uk Verify to produce a system that has a meagre 44% success rate will be told that digital identity systems are complex and take time to get right. The story will be that the money has been an important investment in understanding the requirements and getting the UK to a point where we can create a viable digital identity ecosystem.

That’s not wrong, of course, but it’s not what we were told all the times when Gov.uk Verify was presented as the panacea. Ironically, this is where Verify started – and should have stayed. Back in 2012, then-GDS chief Mike Bracken was clear in an interview with Computer Weekly that government’s role in online identity assurance was about “protocols not products”.

“What we have to do, and what we’ve been reasonably successful in doing, is moving away from a [project where we ask] how do we build an IT model, to how do we get a market protocol in place that everyone can sign up to,” he said at the time.

“It isn’t about building a product, it’s about supporting a protocol and a set of discrete services that people can play a part in, and create value from.”

Somehow along the way, GDS seemed to forget that – but it increasingly seems to be the destination we’re heading for. We will not see 25 million users of Gov.uk Verify – ever. But we might just see 25 million citizens using a Verify-compliant digital identity to operate freely in the UK’s post-Brexit digital economy.


December 8, 2017  11:11 AM

UKtech50 – the leaders putting IT on the top table

Bryan Glick Bryan Glick Profile: Bryan Glick

Congratulations to everyone on Computer Weekly’s 2017 list of the most influential people in UK IT – our task of choosing 50 people becomes harder every year.

It’s clear from analysing this year’s UKtech50 that technology is rapidly taking an ever more influential position in the public and private sectors – and the leaders responsible are becoming ever more central to those organisations’ objectives.

This year saw the highest proportion of public sector entrants in the top 50 – about 40%. For all the cynicism around politics and government at the moment, there can be little doubt technology is at the heart of both public service delivery and government policy.

Over the next 12 months, a tech-savvy society will be demanding to see more fruits from the digital investment in Whitehall and local councils. It’s going to be a testing time – new customs systems will start to be introduced, and new borders technology too; Universal Credit will start its accelerated roll-out under the auspices of UKtech50 winner, Department for Work and Pensions IT chief Mayank Prakash.

Pretty much every Whitehall department will need to adapt or update its IT in preparation for Brexit in early 2018. Public sector technology will rarely have faced such expectation and scrutiny – and that’s saying something.

Meanwhile, tech is squarely at the centre of building an economy fit for a post-Brexit future. Taxpayer investments in emerging technologies like 5G, internet of things and artificial intelligence will need to show a return.

Some of our readers questioned the appearance of Brexit secretary David Davis in the UKtech50 list – well, we never said that being influential always necessarily implied a positive influence. Everyone in UK IT will be watching the results of impending negotiations on the new relationship with the European Union. The resulting deal could propel us into a vibrant digital economy – or condemn the UK to second-class status in the so-called fourth industrial revolution.

But the top 50 list also shows progress in transforming the private sector – banks, retailers, media and transport operators feature prominently. Leaders in the tech startup scene represented in the UKtech50 will play a critical role in developing the future of our industry. And the first-time entry for the UK chief of Amazon Web Services demonstrates the changing landscape of the IT supplier environment.

There’s a widespread feeling across the UK tech sector that 2017 has been something of a landmark year – the time that technology took its rightful seat at the top table. Good luck to all our 50 influential leaders – and to those who didn’t make the top 50 – for the challenges and opportunities ahead.


December 1, 2017  11:00 AM

We’re living in a global beta test to determine the legal and ethical boundaries of data collection

Bryan Glick Bryan Glick Profile: Bryan Glick

In the fast-expanding world of ubiquitous personal data, sometimes it feels like we’re living in an enormous global beta test to work out what’s acceptable and what’s not.

This week, Google was hit with a £2.7bn legal claim over allegations that it illegally harvested data from 5.4 million UK iPhone users. Google denies the accusations, which are the latest in the long-running “Safari workaround” saga whereby the search giant bypassed privacy controls in Apple’s browser.

The UK government has been forced to reconsider its controversial Investigatory Powers Act after the European Court of Justice upheld a claim by Labour deputy leader Tom Watson that indiscriminately collecting our personal data online was illegal. A new consultation on the proposed changes kicked off this week.

And we’ve also heard warnings from campaigners at Privacy International about the scale of data collection by financial institutions as a result of the growth of fintech – new, typically mobile app-based services to help us manage our money.

It’s clear that even with laws in place, the legality of what companies can and cannot do with our data is a minefield, with every new controversy lacking established case law to determine what’s right or wrong. A further example has recently come to light, as the High Court found Morrisons supermarket chain liable for a data breach in which a former employee posted the personal data of thousands of workers online in 2014.

Internet giants like Google and Facebook are constantly testing the boundaries of what society will consider acceptable – and so far, they are extending those boundaries faster than society can keep up.

While data sits at the heart of the digital revolution we’re going through, our personal information is at the core of the revolutionary aspects of this epochal period of change.

Many major times of social change in history have been characterised by greater availability of information – the democratisation of data. The Reformation was powered by the printing press, churning out Bibles in the thousands that weakened the hold of the Catholic Church. There was the growth of libraries during the Renaissance– and the explosion in newspapers in the UK during the Industrial Revolution.

Big data” is the modern equivalent – the significant difference being that the information becoming ubiquitous is all about us. As that data increasingly feeds into artificial intelligence systems, the question of who controls and moderates its use becomes ever more critical.

The government recognised this in the recent Budget, offering £9m to fund a new centre for data ethics. New EU data protection laws next year also hope to give individuals more power over how their data is collected and processed.

If you’re a digital optimist, history suggests that eventually we will establish boundaries of acceptability – both legally and ethically. But until we get there – and it seems a long way off – we’re at the mercy of corporations and governments testing how far they can push us all.


November 23, 2017  4:19 PM

The chancellor just placed tech at the heart of solving Britain’s productivity crisis

Bryan Glick Bryan Glick Profile: Bryan Glick

Chancellor Philip Hammond has announced the most tech-friendly Budget ever. It wasn’t only the headline figures that mattered though, welcome as they were, including more than £500m of funding, with a range of initiatives to boost artificial intelligence (AI), driverless cars, computer science education, broadband, 5G, tech startups, open data, digital skills and R&D.

More than that, the chancellor put technology at the heart of solving the UK’s productivity crisis – and as such, right at the centre of attempts to make Brexit an economic success.

Hammond identified Britain’s woeful productivity gap as its biggest economic challenge – it will be after Brexit, and it would be if we weren’t leaving the EU. The Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) even revised downwards its forecast for productivity growth after UK productivity fell by 0.6% in the first six months of 2017.

As a result, the government is investing in what it sees as the next-generation technologies with the most promise to unlock greater productivity. More productivity means more competitive businesses; it means companies will (in theory) put up wages, helping to address the decline in real earnings since the 2008 crash.

That in turn alleviates pressure on welfare spending, which eases social inequality, which helps consumer spending, which boosts GDP in the sort of positive growth cycle every government tells us it’s capable of delivering.

Nobody is pretending technology is a panacea – it’s not going to deliver all those benefits on its own – but it’s clear the government sees tech as central to its hopes and plans to ensure Brexit is not the disaster many in the IT sector (and beyond) fear it will be.

The OBR agrees – committee member Sir Charles Bean told the Guardian the forecaster does not agree with doom-laden predictions that AI will destroy jobs. The government has taken that on board and sees such technologies as an investment that delivers growth in productivity in the way that investing in plant and machinery would have done 50 years ago for a manufacturer. It would be good to see similar tax incentives for corporate investment in technology, but that’s for another day.

As the CBI has pointed out, we need more than funding for next-generation technologies – firms need to improve their game on implementing established IT too. But for the first time, tech is not simply an economic nice-to-have – the government has placed it at the heart of its political strategy too. All they have to do now, is deliver.


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