Robert Oulds: We need improved privacy laws to protect employees from surveillance technology

21 Apr

Robert Oulds is the Executive Director of ImpACT International, a London based think tank for human rights and is concerned with policies at the intersection of states and businesses, and Director of the Bruges Group.

The dystopian future is emerging. Who is watching us behind the screen? Who has access to our data and facial images? How can we ensure that our private information is safely protected and hidden?

These are some of the questions that have dominated the minds of employees across the globe as we see a drastic rise in invasive surveillance technology in the education and employment sector.

One of the most concerning issues at hand is the use of facial recognition, which is the process of identifying and verifying a person’s identity using their digital facial profile.

According to Convention 108, also known as the Council of Europe’s Committee of the Convention for the Protection of Individuals, a legal framework for the use of facial recognition should be installed. This means that the use of biometric data should only be used if the processing relies on a legal basis that is listed in domestic law.

Convention 108 proposed a set of guidelines for private and public entities to adhere to to ensure that technology is not used to infringe on human dignity, human rights, democratic rights, and freedoms of any person.

Facial recognition has been taken further by companies to identify employees’ emotions, feelings, personality traits, levels of engagement, vocabulary, compatibility to work with others, and mental health status.

This form of ‘affect recognition’ has aided companies in engaging in their recruitment phase at a faster pace than usual. Examples of this have been seen recently by companies such as Intel, Unilever, Vodafone, Goldman Sachs, and JP Morgan, who have used this advanced technology in generating an automatic employee compatibility score.

However, this form of streamlined recruitment has jeopardised the ability for employees to be recruited under fair and equal circumstances, which attends other, common recruitment practices that would not use this technology.

Thus, employers who use facial recognition should give details on the purpose of its use, information on the duration that employee’s facial profiles will be held in the companies databases, what safeguarding measures are provided by the employer, and the reliability and accuracy of the surveillance technologies used.

Covid-19 and facial recognition

Since the start of the Covid-19 Pandemic in 2019, surveillance technology has been used by employers to extend their monitoring hand in keeping track of employees who work from home.

Since then, companies have increased their biometric tools in screenshotting, audio and video recording, sometimes even monitoring employees’ keystrokes, in some cases without the employee’s knowledge.

This infringement of persons surroundings is concerning common when workers are provided with work devices, leaving them with little to no voice in controlling how and when they may be monitored.

This new form of home surveillance has a significant impact on employees mental health and well-being, due to the idea that they are monitored every second of their working hours, whilst dealing with the stress of not knowing who is behind a computer screen watching them.

This form of surveillance serves as a key demotivating factor in an employee’s work ethic as, essentially, an employer is fostering a culture of mistrust and unjustifiable regulation.

Although surveillance technology on employees’ computers is consensual, it does not take away from the fact that it is intrusive in taking over a person’s home environment.

An example of this can be seen in the case of Pricewaterhouse Coopers (PWC) which used facial recognition technology to track their employees through webcams at home, and question any time spent away from their desks or computer screens.

Similar technology has been used by the Metropolitan Police, who, over recent years, have invested heavily in the purchasing of facial recognition technology. Whilst the Met have justified this action by stating it has significantly upgraded the police force’s technological capabilities, it has coincided with an increase in racial discrimination, unreliable privacy breaches, and abuse of police technology rights.

This has essentially created an environment prone to mistrust and abuse, which needs to be reviewed considering its human rights impact.

The monitoring of keystrokes and voice recording could put employees at risk, as this advanced technology can capture an individual and their family’s sensitive and private information.

Recommendations

Despite growing outrage over biometric surveillance technologies, governments have disappointingly not addressed the issue with the urgency it so needs.

In 2018, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that the UK’s mass surveillance laws have not done enough to protect individuals’ rights. Rather, they have unlawfully breached the rights to privacy and freedom of expression of its citizens for decades.

Ultimately, private businesses are not recommended to use facial recognition technologies in uncontrolled or unsecured environments. Coupled with this, there should be extensive policies that ensure the safeguarding of using such technology.

If facial recognition technology is to be used, businesses should:

  • Introduce and follow strict guidelines with transparency that ensure the protection of employees’ privacy rights and personal freedoms, including the security of their private and personal data.
  • As mentioned by The Council of Europe in 2021, introduce guidelines that prohibit any form of facial recognition that is used for the sole purpose of identifying an employee’s race, sexuality, gender, ethnic origin, health, social status or age. This will ensure that surveillance technologies are not used by employees to discriminate against their employees based on visual presentation.
  • Undergo regular Data Protection Impact Assessments (DPIA) when dealing with a human subject in high-risk environments. A data protection impact assessment is the process under which companies can strategically identify the risks that arise from processing personal data and help to mitigate risks and violations before they take place.
  • Give employees the freedom to object and demand additional information on their company’s surveillance technology. Through this, employees should be allowed to request to review their data and privacy rights before signing employment contracts.
  • Introduce employment laws that are regularly updated to keep up with the fast-evolving nature of technology and its use for surveillance in the employment sector.
  • Reduce the use of facial recognition as it is increasingly difficult for black people. This is because they have commonly struggled more than lighter-skinned employees when using face-scanning systems.

The Data Protection Act 2018 does provide protections. They are however poorly understood and all too often abused.

Employers must produce a Data Protection Impact Assessment. Furthermore, the GDPR’s Article 35 of the GDPR, such an assessment should be provided. Yet they rarely do.

What is more, the Government are seeking to undermine the protections. Indeed, the abuse of facial recognition is just the start of how the state are taking liberties with our personal information.

Peter Franklin: How Musk can remake Twitter and defend free speech online

11 Apr

Peter Franklin is an Associate Editor of UnHerd.

Elon Musk likes using Twitter so much that he bought the company. Or rather he’s taken a 9.2 per cent stake, enough to make him the biggest shareholder.

But as well as liking Twitter, he also wants to change it. And that begs an obvious question: why? It’s not that Twitter doesn’t need changing — any social network regularly referred to by its users as “this hellsite” has obviously got problems. But why would Elon Musk make it his problem?

Hasn’t the CEO of Tesla and SpaceX got better things to be getting on with? Re-inventing the car and conquering Mars is quite the to-do list. But, evidently, the world’s richest man thinks that fixing Twitter is worthy of his time and attention. Here’s how he explains it:

“Given that Twitter serves as the de facto public town square, failing to adhere to free speech principles fundamentally undermines democracy.”

He’s right, of course. Though Twitter hasn’t displaced traditional sources of news and opinion, it has, for the first time in history, joined them up into a single, never-ending, global conversation. And even if that doesn’t grab you personally, most of our politicians and journalists are hooked.

So, yes, Twitter matters. But can it be improved?

Let’s start with what is Musk’s main concern: free speech. It’s clear that Twitter — along with the other big social networks — has bought into the great misinformation scare.

Admittedly, the internet is a sewer of lies, but is it sensible for the tech companies to set themselves up as the arbiters of truth? On what basis can they decide what should and shouldn’t be said on matters like Covid policy — except by deferring to those in power?

Yes, charlatans do spread baseless falsehoods, but is that really more dangerous than allowing the judgements of a fallible expert class to go unchallenged?

It’s not misinformation that predisposes people to belief in conspiracy theories, but a lack of faith in the official line. By acting as a public censor on behalf of the state or the liberal establishment, the social media companies are contributing to an atmosphere of mistrust in which conspiratorial thinking thrives.

That’s especially true when the restrictions placed on free speech appear to be inconsistent. For instance, Donald Trump was booted-off Twitter more than a year ago, unlike the representatives of some of the world’s less pleasant regimes. One needn’t have the slightest sympathy for Trump’s bad loser act to see how this looks to the 74 million Americans who voted for him.

And, in any case, de-platforming the Orange Man hasn’t worked. According to the latest poll, Trump is on track to win back the Presidency in 2024. The danger is that social networks are over-estimating the effectiveness of their crack-downs, while under-estimating the divisive impact of censorship.

Twitter needs a new free speech policy — and, as an American company, the US constitution would be a good place to start.

Apologists for online censorship like to point out that the First Amendment applies only to government restrictions on freedom of expression. Private businesses are free to make their own rules.

However, it’s also worth pointing out that as a private business, Twitter could be sold to a wealthy right-wing businessman who could change the rules to target his political opponents. Pro-censorship ‘liberals’ really ought to think ahead on this one.

Of course, just because something can be said it doesn’t mean it ought to be. Furthermore, the right to free speech is buttressed by an equally important liberty: the right not to listen. In theory this is built into the architecture of Twitter, which allows each user to choose who to follow and who to put on mute.

However, there’s a flaw in the design.

It’s incredibly tempting to use Twitter to keep tabs on the people you love to hate — if only to see what stupid thing they tweet next. This is bad for the soul, and I’d advise against it. But even if one assiduously avoids the temptation, there’s no guarantee that the offending individual won’t be retweeted by somebody else onto your timeline.

Twitter, therefore, needs a ‘hard mute’ option — one that wouldn’t just hide the tweets of a bête noire, but any tweet that so much as mentions them. If you can’t think kindly about someone, it’s best not to think about them at all.

Another way to civilise Twitter — and social media in general — would be to ban anonymous accounts. A lot of people wouldn’t be so nasty online if everyone could see who they were.

Yet, at the same, there are valid reasons why some users might need to hide their identity. For instance, to provide cover for dissidents abroad or for whistleblowers at home.

One way through this dilemma would be to open the blue tick verification feature to all users. You wouldn’t have to be any sort of VIP, you’d just need to state who you are (and provide reasonable proof). A parallel ‘green tick’ could be used for users who have a good reason to use a pseudonym.

With this verification system in place, users could then be given the option of mass muting all non-verified accounts. Anonymous trolls could carry on trolling, but no one would have to see them doing it.

Perhaps the most radical way of reforming Twitter would be to reveal its inner workings — or, as Musk puts it, make the algorithm open source. It would be fascinating to find out exactly how the site boosts particular stories, hashtags and advertisements.

But as well as transparency, we also need empowerment: users should be able to create their own algorithms to elevate the Twitter content they might actually want to see.

Some tools already exist — not least the ‘trending’ feature, which picks up on what other users are liking and retweeting.

However, this tends to favour Twitter’s tedious army of online activists. The more mindless and unoriginal the political thought, the more likely it is to trend. This is no way to highlight quality content.

So here’s an alternative: each user would be able to select a ‘panel’ of other users who would recommend tweets. A user’s default panel would be everyone they follow on Twitter, but names could be added or removed.

Recommendations would be made using a new ‘gold star’ button, which would appear alongside the ‘retweet’ and ‘like’ buttons, but which could only be used once per day. Twitter would total up the gold stars to provide each user with a tailored list of top recommendations.

It would be a simple algorithm, but one genuinely created and controlled by the user.

In the space of a decade, Twitter has acquired a special role in facilitating the exchange of news and ideas. All too often, lies and insults are also communicated. But instead clamping down on free speech, the best way forward is to give users more control over who they interact with.

When it comes down to it, Twitter is just a website. Making it better requires nothing more material than rewriting some code — which, as Musk could tell you, isn’t rocket science.

Trudy Harrison: Why we aim to keep the UK a world leader in the self-driving vehicle revolution

28 Mar

Trudy Harrison is Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport and Member of Parliament for Copeland. 

Automated mobility, or self-driving vehicles, is the most exciting innovation for transport in decades, and Britain is leading the way. This technology could level-up every corner of the UK, improve the country’s productivity, reduce isolation and emissions, improve road safety, and bolster opportunities everywhere.

That is why the Government has jointly invested with industry over £440 million to make this country one of the best and most open places in the world to test self-driving mobility.

The funding has supported over 90 projects involving more than 200 organisations across the country. The result is a rapidly growing connected and automated mobility industry. By 2035, the Connected Places Catapult forecast 40 per cent of new UK cars sold could come with a form of self-driving technology generating a sector worth £42 billion, creating up to 38,000 new skilled jobs, and supporting our economy and the wider nation as we build back better following the Covid-19 pandemic.

This technology has the potential to be safer. Human error is a contributory factor in 88 per cent of road collisions and since road collisions are the leading cause of death among those aged 15-29, thousands of lives could be saved by this revolutionary transport innovation.

Self-driving mobility has immense potential to better connect rural communities, reduce isolation, help deliver essential goods and give people better access to education, apprenticeships, and vital services like health care.

It is important we look at the human element of self-driving mobility and the benefits they will bring to society. For example, an older person with deteriorating eyesight who can no longer drive, but who could stay connected to their family and community with the support of a new self-driving bus service. Or someone commuting home following a stressful day at work, who could rely on the new self-driving technology in their car to allow them to catch up on that marketing report they didn’t quite get to, whilst the car drives safely through congestion.

These are just some of the examples of the potential power of self-driving vehicles in transforming and changing lives for the better, and it is why it is crucial we unlock this technology for people across the UK.

In addition to investment, the implementation of a flexible legislative framework is key to encourage rather than stifle innovation and ensure self-driving vehicles can fulfil their true potential. The Law Commissions’ report is a significant step towards a robust, best-in-class regulatory framework.

The Government welcomes the findings of the Law Commissions’ report and is therefore committed to introduce primary legislation on self-driving vehicles as soon as parliamentary time allows. The UK’s regulatory framework for self-driving mobility must remain gold standard as technology develops, unlocking routes to market both at home and abroad.

In the meantime, we must focus on public acceptability and consumer education to ensure self-driving vehicles can be deployed safely and sustainably across the country, and embraced by the people who stand to benefit the most.

Public acceptability of this new and emerging technology remains a key challenge to its success. We will continue to work with the industry to ensure we have an effective regulatory framework, but this is only part of the puzzle. It is why my department worked with BritainThinks last year to conduct the Future of Transport: Deliberative Research, which sought to understand the publics’ evolving attitudes to self-driving vehicles.

Typically, people do not make active, conscious transport decisions but rather default to known options based on habit, convenience, comfort and cost.

However, there are also emotional associations that can impact the public’s willingness to use of self-driving vehicles, and it is our job to address these. One of those key concerns relates to the safety of self-driving vehicles, which is consistently reported as one of the barriers to uptake.

Our findings revealed that some of the key drivers to improving perceptions of safety were increasing exposure and normalisation of self-driving vehicles. That is why my department will be delivering a series of deliberative research events and roadshows across the country to increase exposure and grow our understanding of what the public want from this emerging technology.

Technology for technology’s sake is meaningless without bringing transport users with you, and there must be a greater effort in ensuring the public are part of how we shape on safe use and interaction with self-driving vehicles.

I was pleased to speak at the fifth meeting of the APPG for Connected and Automated Mobility alongside the Law Commission of England and Wales last week to discuss the outcomes of the report and its implications for the future of automated mobility. Supported by insurer AXA UK and law firm Burges Salmon, the meeting brought over 70 industry and parliamentary representatives together to discuss the opportunities and challenges currently facing automated mobility.

I was delighted to see the industry’s commitment to engage with Government to support the development of a comprehensive regulatory framework.

Self-driving vehicle technology has a real potential to help deliver a better Britain, and with a robust regulatory framework and public acceptability, the prize is significant – boosting Britain as a science superpower, supporting our ambitions to reach Net Zero, and levelling-up opportunities for communities across the country.

Nadine Dorries: How we will narrow the ground for barring harmful posts in the Online Safety Bill

15 Mar

Nadine Dorries is Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, and is MP for Mid Bedfordshire.

On Thursday, the Government will introduce our much awaited Online Safety Bill, fulfilling our manifesto commitment to legislate to make the UK the safest place in the world to be online – protecting children from online abuse and harms, protecting the most vulnerable from accessing harmful content, and ensuring there is no safe space for terrorists to hide online.

We published the draft bill in May last year. Since I became Culture Secretary, it has been strengthened and improved as a result of extensive Parliamentary scrutiny.

The Bill will introduce a duty of care on online companies – making them responsible for protecting children and tackling illegal content on their platforms. It will add strong safeguards and standards, and if companies fail in this duty of care, punishments include multi-billion pound fines up to 10 per cent of annual global turnover.

And yet a group of MPs and journalists have raised the horrifying spectre that the bill will give people like Mark Zuckerberg and Nick Clegg unlimited power to decide what is and isn’t acceptable to say online. They say that MPs, campaigners, the media and the public face being silenced at the flip of a digital switch on the West Coast of America.

Well, if they’re worried about that, I’ve got news for them: we’re already there.

Last year, TalkRadio was forced offline by YouTube for an “unspecified” violation, without further explanation from the company. Facebook can sweepingly remove photos of the iconic “napalm girl” from the Vietnam War because they violate its nudity policy. And last week Big Brother Watch showed how a number of past comments by MPs when posted on social media by test accounts were censored by the platforms. It was a neat trick by the campaign group which is critical of our plans, but I’m not sure they quite realised the point they were actually demonstrating.

During the last two decades, the internet has slowly seeped into every part of our lives, in many cases making things quicker, cheaper and better. But during that period, ever-growing tech giants like Facebook and Twitter have been left to regulate themselves – to set their own rules and mark their own homework.

As a result, unelected Silicon Valley execs have become some of the most powerful people in the world. They decide who gets to speak online, and who is silenced or cancelled from public life. That prospect should concern anyone who truly cares about free speech.

That’s why our manifesto pledge had a crucial second part: to defend freedom of expression, and in particular recognise and defend the invaluable role of a free press. This Bill will make that happen.

And so the day this legislation comes into effect, there will be considerably stronger protections for free speech.

Right now, there is no official right to appeal when a post is taken down. Under this Bill, there will be.

Right now, there are no extra protections for journalists online. Under this Bill, there will be.

Right now, there are no specific protections in place for important democratic content – for example, when a person wants to tweet their thoughts about an MP or a political party during a general election. Under this Bill, there will be.

Platforms will be expected to process appeals quickly, and either give good reasons why content has been removed, or reverse their decision if it’s the wrong one. Contrast that to now, when a user who complains they’ve been treated unfairly is often faced with obstruction and opacity.

Journalists will have an expedited right to appeal if their content is removed. And I have every intention of further improving the requirements for platforms not to remove content from recognised media outlets during the passage of the bill.

Likewise, the Bill’s extra protections for democratic content should reassure someone like David Davis. In October, my colleague gave a speech to a Big Brother Watch event, arguing against domestic vaccine passports. Whether you agree with David or not, he was making a legitimate democratic contribution, and it was his right to do so. But his video was taken down by YouTube, who claimed he was spreading “medical disinformation”.

David has argued this Bill is “a censor’s charter”. But as he knows only too well, censorship is happening right now- and we’ve got no real recourse against it.

The day this legislation comes into effect, he and other users will be in a much stronger position. And if social media companies fail in their new duties to protect free speech and journalism, they’ll face huge fines and the prospect of criminal sanctions.

When I point out these important legal protections, free speech advocates – of which, by the way, I consider myself one – immediately move on to the “legal but harmful” section of the Bill. They claim that the Government wants to ban legal content if it “upsets” or “offends” someone. That’s a complete misunderstanding.

Companies will only be required to remove “legal but harmful” content if it is already banned in their own terms and conditions. This only applies to the biggest platforms carrying the highest risk, and we are updating the legislation to ensure platforms focus on priority categories of harm that are set out in secondary legislation.

This reduces the risk that platforms are incentivised to over-remove legal material through taking a wider interpretation of harm than is warranted or because they are put under pressure to do so by campaign groups or individuals who claim that controversial content causes them psychological harm.

Getting this balance right is important to me. I’m a writer and, before I became a Government Minister, I spent years as an extremely vocal backbencher. The Prime Minister t is a former journalist. We would never pursue legislation that threatens freedom of expression. Similarly, nor can we maintain the current status quo, where a handful of West Coast execs are the supreme arbiters of online speech.

David Willetts: New businesses, faster connections, better data, tighter security. There are so many reasons to commit to Space.

19 Nov

Lord Willetts is President of the Advisory Council and Intergenerational Centre of the Resolution Foundation. He is a former Minister for Universities and Science.

Britain can emerge from Covid more confident of what our scientists can do, more innovative, and hence more prosperous. That means backing the key technologies of the future. In the past, we have failed to exploit them.

One reason is that public funding has stopped too soon, before a new technology is fully commercial. Other countries, notably America, continue to provide public backing to support new technologies for much longer, reinforced with smart procurement. I have met American tech entrepreneurs with a contract to sell their new product to the Federal Government long before the first one had been successfully produced. It is all part of securing America’s lead in key technologies.

As Science Minister, I identified eight great technologies where Britain had a comparative advantage and there were global business opportunities. We backed them with funding to help get them to market and several unicorns, worth over £1 billion, have emerged as a result. They would not be thriving today in Britain were it not for that early support. Now Kwasi Kwarteng has identified seven key technologies which I hope he will be backing after the boost to science and technology funding in the Budget.

Space is a key one of these commercial opportunities in high tech for the UK. There is something special and exciting about space. Look at how Tim Peake has become a national hero. Attitudes to space tell us something important about a country’s willingness to look outwards. Britain was one of the original leaders in the space race. The Americans launched our first satellite for us 60 years ago (and subsequently disabled it with an atmospheric nuclear test). We launched our own satellite for the first and last time from Woomera 50 years ago.

Sadly, we then made the mistake of thinking of space as a useless luxury which wasn’t for us. You can still see on the Isle of Wight the decaying remains of a British rocket testing facility.

But Space is actually a key part of the infrastructure of a twenty-first century nation. Satellites collect the data that determine our weather forecasts. They enable us to track climate change and monitor natural disasters like floods. They give each one of us accurate information about exactly where and when we are. They synchronise financial transactions. They help our utilities to operate. They enable us to communicate across the globe.

Even through the decades when public interest and support was low, Britain’s entrepreneurs continued to do their bit. We don’t have the capacity to launch any rockets – at least not yet. So we had to hitch a ride on someone else’s launch vehicle (no wonder a Brit was the author of the wonderful Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy). That meant we had an incentive to develop lighter cheaper satellites where we are now a world leader.

And this gives us an opportunity. The new space race is to launch constellations of small satellites – hundreds if not thousands of them in low Earth orbit (LEO). Tomorrow marks the first anniversary of the Prime Minister’s boldest move to get us ahead in that race, when the deal was concluded taking a stake in OneWeb which is developing such a constellation.

These LEO constellations have crucial advantages. Because they are much closer to Earth than traditional big satellites much further away, the signal travels so fast that the problem of the slight time delay, latency, disappears.

This matters if you are running a B and B in the Scottish Highlands or starting a business in the West Country – or indeed if you are a teenager in Cumbria trying to play a video game with a broadband link only available by satellite. OneWeb has entered a partnership with BT to deliver the manifesto pledge of broadband access in remote areas.

OneWeb was put on the market because of the financial difficulties of its main investor SoftBank. More than ten percent of its constellation was already up in orbit – putting it ahead of the competition. And its headquarters are not in the American West Coast or a corner of Shenzhen, but in that hot-bed of high tech Shepherds Bush, London W12.

The Prime Minister decided that the British Government should bid and, in partnership with the Indian mobile phone operator Bharti Airtel, together paid $1 billion. Investors from France, US, Korea and Japan followed Britain’s lead, and now OneWeb has $2.6 billion of funding so it can complete its first constellation.

It is already more than halfway there, so the UK is now second only to the US for the number of satellites we operate. OneWeb should be providing a service North of 50 degrees in the next few months and a full global service by the end of next year.

The deal is already paying off, and the Treasury has made a healthy profit. But, even so, is it a dangerous encroachment of the state into business? We are only doing the kind of things America does all the time. Elon Musk is a great entrepreneur, but look at the funding he gets from the American Government in grants, soft loans and guaranteed contracts.

Governments can’t plan the economy sector by sector and intervene in every one. But it is an important role of Government to make some big strategic decisions about key technologies to invest in. They won’t all come right, but when they do they yield fantastic long term benefits. And these technologies are inherently disruptive – they aren’t propping up old industries. Indeed, they are often a new competitive threat to big incumbents.

The first generation of the satellites are being manufactured in Florida, but the real opportunity comes with the second generation planned for service in the next five years or so. Developing these could create a British supply chain. We need big UK-based primes which can place the contracts that help our successful small start-ups to scale up and reach the big time.

Becoming a serious player in Space is the kind of strategic decision which governments have to take. The Prime Minister may have been inspired by the example of his great predecessor, Benjamin Disraeli who faced a similar choice. The Egyptian Khedive, owner of the Suez Canal, had gone bankrupt. The Canal had been constructed by the French and the expectation was that they would obtain it.

But Disraeli swooped and bought half the company from the Khedive for £4 million (borrowed from Rothschild’s). It was a crucial reinforcement of our links to India. Gladstone was outraged, of course – but Queen Victoria loved it and the bold strategic move commanded wide support and helped keep Britain as a global power. Now there is a similar chance to be a world leader in today’s most important space race – for small satellite constellations.

There are national security angles to this. American and China have long seen technology this way, but we have been wary.  Last week’s test by Russia of an anti-satellite weapon was a signal to the West that it sees our capability in this area, which it cannot match, as of real strategic significance. The Prime Minister’s new Science and Technology Council crucially brings security and economic aspects of technology together.

We have a space industry stretching from Goonhilly in Cornwall to the North of Scotland. It encompasses Guildford Harwell, Leicester and Glasgow. It is a truly national endeavour and, with this investment in a world-leading LEO, constellation it achieves global significance.

Tim Montgomerie: Lessons for ideology-free Johnson – and the Conservatives – in ideology-free Merkel’s legacy

29 Sep

Tim Montgomerie is the founder of ConservativeHome and is a contributor to Reaction.

‘He is the most remarkable politician of our age’. ‘The most formidable of election winners’. ‘His recipe of extra showbiz and a small side of policy fits our celebrity age perfectly’.

‘The economy’s iron lady’ of 40 years ago might famously have been against turning, but Boris Johnson prefers to see himself as the voters’ ‘flexible friend’. Oozing self-confidence, he does not feel restrained by the rules that Margaret Thatcher laid down, and which inhibit ‘principled, conviction politicians’ who – bless them – see ideas and policies as defining their mission.

And, electorally, he is fundamentally right that turning towards target voters is rarely a bad thing in this age of consumerist-programmed minds. Brits, increasingly used to getting precisely what they want from their shopping platforms; or in their entertainment, travel and leisure options; and even, perhaps especially, in their bedroom activities, like this servant leadership/ political pragmatism/ naked opportunism. (You can choose what to call it!).

Average voters are certainly more keen than the many newspapers and pundits who sell themselves as partly ideological, truth-telling products.

If, therefore, you are a politician who tends to be shamelessly, relentlessly obsessed about retaining power, then shuffle, shift, switch and even somersault your (dizzying) journey through elected office.

And all that s-bending is especially plausible for politicians who, happy days, via one big issue (like Brexit) already possess a loyal core of voters, and can consequently enjoy greater licence on almost everything else (as long as that litmus first big impression stays intact).

Four decades after the Iron Lady, our Flexible Friend in Number 10 isn’t relaxed about how he shifts his shape, however. This Downing Street’s u-turnery is almost scientific in its precision.

Directed by a government polling operation that is so gargantuan, pricey and relentless that it would make Blair and Clinton blush, ‘The Boris Offer’ is sold as ever-fresh and usually one step ahead or, at worst, barely one step behind opposition parties, and their ever more uphill search for issues that will give them an advantage over the Government.

So, in short, the Boris approach is an electorally effective one but – of course there is a but. The shape-shifting eventually becomes all that there is. The ruling party and government loses its principles and character. Incoherence can follow. Commitment from allies weakens. It stops attracting candidates and thinkers who aspire to be more than door-to-door salesmen. Policy innovation dries up as donors give up on think tanks who are unable to devise policies that can readily survive a run of bad focus groups or negative newspaper splashes.

The thinner set of policies that do succeed in getting to drafting stage in government don’t benefit from the Rolls Royce-style lab and road-testing that (allegedly) the civil service once lavished on them. And who can blame a seasoned Sir Humphry, government backbencher or even expert outside volunteer for judging that any time they give to the nurture of ambitious projects will very likely be wasted. Because ambitious almost always means risky, and risky – in any government that fears short-term unpopularity – equals project termination.

Angela Merkel, and last Sunday’s collapse in her party’s vote, is something of a cautionary tale for the British Conservative Party in these early years of “flexibility”.

Mutti’s innate caution might have been the main driver of the German experience – rather than the same BorisInc desire to turn politics into a branch of market research – but the basic inoffensiveness of pitch, and therefore the consequent lack of big mission, are shared features.

Political popularity appears to be broad and sustained but, when it eventually is exhausted, the falling away of support is dramatic. No one is loyal to you because you weren’t ever loyal to much that – at core – they really cared about. The popularity may be of long duration for ‘flexipols’ like Johnson and Merkel, but the list of big achievements ends up being pretty short. Big geopolitical problems like the rise of authoritarian China or dependence on energy from a gangster state like Russia only tend to grow even bigger.

During Merkel’s 16 years, Germany’s Christian Democrats ceased to be adequately distinguishable from the leftish Social Democrats. But it’s not too late for the Conservative Party to fight to stay robustly Conservative.

On tax, free markets, support for the family, basic civil liberties, the essential equality of the four Union nations, and in the fundamental character of our foreign and defence policies, the early sense of drift is real. The electoral operation and philosophy behind Johnson are formidable, but they should serve our mission and not, bit by bit, supplant it.

Those rightist scribblers in newspapers and online who have recently – and in chorus –  written obituaries for conservatism and/or Thatcherism are premature. The warning signs are real though. And the fightback must become real too.

AUKUS and the Indo-Pacific. A tilt to it, yes. A lunge, no.

20 Sep

In a chapter of their book on Britain’s defence capability, White Flag, our proprietor and Isabel Oakeshott describe “Operation Tethered Goat”.  It sets how in the event of a Russian incursion a small NATO force would attempt to defend a 65-mile stretch of the Polish-Lithuanian border “straddled ominously by Kaliningrad to the west and the Russian satrapy of Belarus on the east.”

“If Russia were to attempt to close the gap, NATO’s only option would be to punch north with the US-led brigade based here. Until then, it would be up to the Baltic states to hold their ground, supported by small detachments of NATO forces stationed inside their borders.

“One of those forces would be headed by a small but fierce battalion of UK troops stationed in Tapa, Estonia. Some 800 troops from the 1st Battalion The Royal Welsh are here, supported by smaller deployments from other member states”.  The isolation and vulnerability of our troops gives rise to the operation’s grim nickname.

This is the background against which to see the Americo-British-Australian deal over nuclear-powered submarines, the wounded reaction of France, and the new security pact between the two countries: AUKUS.

Further war in eastern Europe is relatively unlikely, for all the recent tangle between Russia and Ukraine.  But were it to happen, it would directly affect Britain and the alliance on which our security has depended for the best part of three-quarters of a century: NATO.  It would be war in our back yard.

Conflict in the South China is perhaps more likely, but would affect the UK less directly.  We wouldn’t be bound by our NATO obligations to participate.  And whatever may be said of the South China Sea, it is not in our neighbourhood.

None of which is to say that either the new deal or the pact is a bad thing.  Their core for us is the transfer of material – including in “cyber, artificial intelligence, quantum computing and undersea capabilities”, as Boris Johnson put it last week – not that of troops, for all the recent journey of the Carrier Strike Group to the South China Sea.

As he went on to say, “this project will create hundreds of highly skilled jobs across the UK, including in Scotland, the north of England and the midlands,” including perhaps the Red Wall-ish areas of Barrow and Derby.

The deal also shows how fast time moves and frail attention spans can be.  Only a month ago, Joe Biden’s sudden withdrawal from Afghanistan raised the prospect of an isolationist America withdrawing into itself.  Any prudent British government should be alert to the possibility and what it could mean for the future of Europe.

AUKUS is a sign that, whatever else might happen elsewhere, the United States is commited to the Indo-Pacific and that, as in Afghanistan, there is continuity between what Donald Trump did and what Biden is doing.

There has been a startling shift there in attitudes to America within the last five years or so – just as there has been one here since David Cameron declared a new “golden age” in Anglo-Sino relations.  That was before Brexit.  Of which there is a point to be made about the pact and the deal.

In the wake of Biden’s Afghanistan decision, Remain obsessives raised our exit from the EU, suggesting that it was responsible for Johnson failing to persuade Biden to delay the withdrawal, because Washington no longer listens to us.

Never mind that Emmanuel Macron and Angela Merkel took much the same position.  The boot is now on the other foot.  Some of our fellow Leavers argue that were it not for Brexit, Britain would never have abandoned France for America and Australia – just as, were it not for our exit from the EU, the Government wouldn’t have summoned up the nerve to get on with our own Covid vaccine programme.

Like other counter-factuals, this one is unprovable.  And the lure of new jobs, plus the tug of Anglo-American and Anglo-Australian relations, might have been enough to lure some other Prime Minister in an EU member Britain to make the same decision.

What can safely be said is that our relationship with America carries on as before, regardless of Brexit, and that Britain remains a member of the UN Security Council, the G7, NATO, the Commonwealth, and is one of Europe’s two armed powers, a top five aid donor, and in the top ten influential nations list on any reckoning.  All of which Leavers spelt out during the referendum campaign.

The Global Britain slogan has been ridiculed but, whatever one’s view of leaving the EU, it touches on a fundamental reality which AUKUS, that G7 membership, that Security Council presence and all the rest of it helps to illustrate.

Liz Truss is straight out the traps banging that drum, but it is worth pondering Global Britain, as suits that spherical image, in the round.  Europe is part of the globe.  It is a lot closer to us than Australia, if not in kinship than at least in distance.  And, as we have seen, a conflict in our continental hinterland would disturb us more immediately than one in an Asian sea.

Which takes us to France, and an entente that at present isn’t all that cordiale.  It’s scarcely unknown for Macron to withdraw its ambassadors when piqued: in recent years, they were brought home from Italy and Turkey.

But he will be very bruised, not least because the deal and the pact seem to have been firmed up in private between the three powers during the recent G7, while he was talking up France’s relationship with America (plus its interests in the Indo-Pacific), and taking potshots at Britain over the Northern Ireland Protocol.

The real-life cast of The Bureau – i.e: the French intelligence services – may have been asleep on the job, and there is certain to be an inquest.  British crowing at the Gallic cockerel’s embarrassment is inevitable.

But while your own neighbour next door may eventually move out, France won’t be going anywhere, and it isn’t in our interest for this complex relationship to cool further.  France is our only major military partner in Europe (and elsewhere: see Mali), a top five trading one, home to up to 400,000 Brits, the source of most of those channel boats, and tortously intertwined with our culture and history.

Nord 2 has brought Germany closer to Putin’s orbit.  The former’s election takes place soon.  Whatever the result, France will feel the tug from Germany, as will the whole EU.  We don’t want to see the latter plump itself up as a potential rival to NATO.  But it would help us, America, and Europe itself for our neighbours – bearing that Russian presence in mind – to spend more on defence.

Their unwillingness to do so (Mark Francois recently set out the figures on this site), Germany’s passivity and a certain strain in French thinking suggests a drift into the Russian orbit.

De Gaulle’s ambivalence about the old Soviet Union, on which he blew cool post-war and warmer later on, had its roots in a French cultural antagonism to America and periods of alliance with Russia.  The ghost of the General will believe that AUKUS proves him right: that when push comes to shove, Britain will always throw its lot in with its American cousins.

We should turn a new page with France, or at least try to  – and remember that while a tilt to the Indo-Pacific is a one thing, a lunge there would be quite another.  Putin hasn’t “gone away, you know”. And Islamist extremism hasn’t, either.

Bim Afolami: Five books to read over the summer recess

9 Aug

Bim Afolami is MP for Hitchin & Harpenden.

For this piece over summer recess, I thought that I might take you through some books and articles that I have recently read. It might tempt you away from reading newspapers over the silly season of August which is now upon us.

First up is The Aristocracy of Talent by Adrian Wooldridge, political editor of The Economist. I am rather a fan of his books, and believe this is his best. In my last column for ConservativeHome, I referenced the core arguments of the book, which attempts to revive the very principle of meritocracy – which is currently under attack from elements of both right and left.

It charts the history of meritocracy around the world well – the chapter on imperial China is fascinating – and sets out how far we have come in making government and economies and societies better, in large part because of a commitment to this principle, and abandoning it would be deeply unwise.

Second is a recent article in Foreign Affairs by one of the best-informed China analysts, called Dan Wang. It concisely demonstrates how the USA’s recent actions in seeking to attack the global interests of Chinese tech companies may be good in the short term, but over the longer term may lead to a faster development of domestic Chinese technology, rather than relying on American technology to supply its businesses.

That will have huge implications for the US, the UK, and the world. Grappling with how to approach a newly swaggering China, on issues as diverse as tech investment, human rights, and climate change is going to be one of the huge strategic challenges of the British Government for the foreseeable future. Moreover, I would urge everyone to subscribe to the newsletter on Dan Wang’s website. His memos on what is happening in China’s government and Chinese technology is far superior to anything I have read in the Western press.

Third up is a rare book. It is short. It informs you about a subject in an informal, entertaining way so that you remember what is written. And it leads you to investigate further. It is called Rare Metals War, and is written by a French journalist, Guillaume Pitron. It explores the dark side of our quest to go green to net zero, as it exposes the mining practices in various parts of the world, such as the Congo, where the rare metals (i.e: Cobalt) required in everything from solar panels to mobile phones to electric vehicles are extracted.

Spoiler alert: the conditions can be terrible, and the process not very green at all. In addition, the book clearly shows how the strategic importance to the UK of having a reliable and relatively cheap supply of these critical metals will only grow and grow. Unsurprisingly, China is already much further ahead of the game than most (if not all) Western countries, and it has secured supplies in most of the critical mining regions of the world. If our green reindustrialisation is going to be achievable (and we need it to be), we need to think hard about our supply of these metals, and not just hope for the best, as their prices continue to rise steeply in the years to come.

Fourth is English Pastoral by James Rebanks. If you like the countryside, I urge you to read this book. Rebanks is a farmer who manages his own land – the same that his family has managed for generations. He brutally illustrates how hard it is for farming to remain a profitable activity, and the damage that modern farming methods have wrought in order for agriculture to remain economically viable.

It also offers us hope for how we can better manage our green and pleasant land in the future. I really can’t do this book justice in a short time. Do read it: as a politician with a rural constituency (and I work closely with our farming community) it certainly got me thinking about how things need to change.

Finally, a list of book recommendations would not be complete without a political biography. I must recommend Barack Obama’s The Promised Land. It is a masterpiece. Obama is the first US President in a long time who can really write. He really can. If he wasn’t a politician, he could have made it as a first rate author. This book not only offers a good account of his presidency, but it is very moving (and candid) on how to manage trying to be a good father with a very demanding political career.

As a black politician myself, I couldn’t help but be fascinated by how he managed as the first black President. He did it with grace and courage. Regardless of your view of his politics (I personally think he had many failings in both domestic and foreign policy, and his style could be somewhat arrogant and condescending at times), there is little doubt that he is an extremely good analyst not just of US politics but also US culture.

The final section is the account of how the US military took out Bin Laden, and despite the fact that you know the ending, it is a very gripping read. Can’t wait for the second volume and the arrival of Donald Trump….

Politicians need to reflect and read. I find it really helps me get a perspective on what is going on, whether in my own constituency or in the country more broadly. You will notice that I haven’t mentioned even one novel – a real failing of mine that I am trying to rectify. When I attempting to navigate the crowded beaches of Daymer Bay, I shall be re-reading a book that I haven’t read since studying German at school – Buddenbrooks by Thomas Mann: a wonderful story about family, wealth, decline, and culture.

Rocio Concha: If the Government wants to build back better, it must put the consumer at the centre

9 Aug

Rocio Concha is Director of Policy and Advocacy at Which?

As we start to look ahead to beyond the pandemic, the Government will have to grapple with how to stimulate an economic recovery and form public policy agendas for a society that in many ways looks different compared to 18 months ago. While there will be a natural focus on investment, innovation and competition, it would be a fundamental mistake to overlook the vital role which consumers have to play.

Because it will be everyday people that drive our economic recovery. The more confident they feel, the more they are likely to spend and shop around, to stimulate competition and to support innovation by trying new products and services – all things which the UK, and businesses large and small, are relying on to bounce back.

The challenge for the government is a daunting one – and the increase in the time we now spend online is illustrative of the delicate balancing act they must achieve. The ability to work, bank and shop remotely offers huge convenience. Many of the changes people have made to their lives will be here to stay. Yet the increasing move to a digital world has presented problems and risks, such as the significant increase in online scams, that haven’t yet been adequately addressed.

Harnessing the positives and neutralising the risks that have arisen for consumers won’t be easy. Changes that may have taken years have happened almost overnight in some cases and that needs to be caught up with.

At Which?, we believe the government should empower consumers to lead our economic recovery, and there are many ways it can do this. Building on already existing legislation or consultations, there are three areas where Ministers can make markets work more fairly, and bring an end to rogue business practices that all too often see everyday people get ripped off.

First, competition and consumer policy requires reform to give such regulators as the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) sharper teeth, with proper powers to act as deterrents for unscrupulous companies that break consumer laws. In practice, that means swift and effective redress when customers are wronged, and proper accountability for businesses using unfair practices in dealing with consumers – as some have during the pandemic.

In the digital space, a handful of dominant tech giants, including Facebook and Google, can no longer be allowed to stymie competition and reduce innovation in the sector. The newly-formed Digital Markets Unit, operating out of the CMA, is a step in the right direction – but it won’t protect consumers unless it is equipped with the necessary enforcement powers, including the ability to hand down heavy fines.

Second, if consumers are to feel more confident engaging with new technology and new markets, then they will need to feel safe being online. It is no coincidence that fraud has surged by a third compared to last year. Yet with some of the most sophisticated technology in the world, there are measures that giant online platforms – such as those named above – which so many of us use everyday, can and must do to prevent the avalanche of fake adverts that makes it far too easy for fraudsters to target victims from appearing on their sites in the first place.

Which? research earlier this year found that four in ten investment scams begin online. The government has taken positive action to tackle aspects of online safety by introducing the draft Online Safety Bill – but, as it stands, it will fall short of swiftly dealing with all online fraud. Unless it provides online platforms with the legal responsibility to prevent, identify and remove fake and fraudulent content on their sites, including paid for ads, then fraudsters will continue to exploit their systems and services to carry out a crime that can cause a devastating amount of financial and emotional harm for its victims.

Third, as numerous new tech products furnish our homes, customers must be confident that they are safe to use. Smart gadgets and devices can bring huge benefits to consumers’ lives, but these products must be properly safeguarded with strong security protections to prevent cyberattacks.

The Government’s upcoming Product Security and Telecommunications Infrastructure Bill will scrutinise this. However, if Ministers are serious about cracking down on insecure and unsafe products in our homes, online marketplaces and retailers must be given additional legal obligations in the Bill for ensuring the safety and security of the products sold on their sites – and for customers to get appropriate redress when they buy faulty products.

Taking action in these three areas means that the Government needn’t magic legislation out of thin air to begin empowering and protecting consumers. Indeed, the government pledged to give the CMA enhanced powers to tackle rip-offs in its manifesto.

Here are the foundations from which to make people feel confident that the economy is working for them. To do so would really build back better.

Phoebe Arslanagić-Wakefield: The Government must give EU nationals the security they deserve

29 Jun

Phoebe Arslanagić-Wakefield is a Researcher at Bright Blue.

The EU Settlement Scheme’s close is rapidly approaching on 30th June, with over five million EU citizens having applied for the right to live and work in the UK. Let us consider the position of those EU citizens who can cheerfully ignore this impending deadline because they have already applied to the Scheme and received their settled status. Though not provided with any physical proof of that status, such as a biometric card, the Home Office claims that they need not worry, because they have been supplied with digital proof instead.

The Government argues that digital proof is more secure because it cannot be lost, tampered with or stolen. These are real benefits, but providing EU citizens with digital-only proof raises questions around reliability and digital exclusion, particularly in the absence of a gradual rollout and without the option of requesting physical proof.

Earlier this month, a global internet outage caused by the malfunctional server of an obscure company took down websites all over the world, including Twitter, The Guardian and crucially, Gov.uk, for around an hour. Had a potential employer been attempting to carry out Right to Work checks on an applicant with settled status in that time, the Gov.uk website would have unhelpfully said ‘Error 503 Service Unavailable’.

Though a worldwide internet crash is highly uncommon, there are also concerning reports of EU citizens being unable to access proof of settled status because of unreliable internet connections, and even due to Gov.uk website maintenance. Whether it be down to dodgy wifi or malfunctioning websites, the importance of proof of settled status necessitates it be as reliably accessible as possible. Digital-only proof currently fails that high standard.

Digital settled status also makes indefensible assumptions about the digital literacy of users. It requires: a good internet connection;  a smartphone or computer; the knowledge to be able to use those devices; and, the ability to navigate the website itself, including its two-factor authentication process. This problem cuts both ways – while it is unfair and discriminatory to assume all EU nationals have these skills, we also cannot assume that landlords and employers, who need to see proof of status, do either.

Indeed, the Government’s own 2018 assessment of the move to digital-only proof of Right to Work clearly identified that such a system would cause those with low digital literacy “a lot of issues”, concluding that there was a clear need for access to physical proof.

Furthermore, while we lack good data on the digital literacy of EU citizens in the UK, the Universal Credit system reveals the pitfalls of a purely digital set-up. Bright Blue research identified that claimants with low digital literacy were much more likely to encounter serious issues navigating the online Universal Credit system, but that even those with good digital skills could still find using the system complex and challenging.

Finally, digital-only proof is flawed in less tangible ways. Undoubtedly, there is a sense of security when a document as important as that which proves one’s immigration status is physically held. It is difficult to quantify this benefit, but helpful to imagine how few British citizens would elect to trade in their passport for a purely digital version. And if you would not give up your passport for a digital one, then why should EU citizens be content with a digital-only version of the document proving their very right to be here?

When asked in 2020 whether there were plans to review the decision not to grant physical proof of settled status, Kevin Foster, the Home Office Minister, responded that the department was developing a “digital by default” system for all migrants, pointing to Australia as a nation with a similar system. But while it has a digital-only visa system, it was rolled out gradually since 2004, with the free option of a physical backup until 2015, rather than imposed on a swathe of the population with no alternative.

In this context, the Home Office must change its position and, as a matter of urgency, offer EU citizens the option of physical proof of settled status while it continues to roll out its “digital by default” system for all migrants. That should be simple because non-EU citizens living in the UK already receive physical proof of their immigration status in the form of Biometric Residence Permits.

The option of a physical back-up would positively capture digitisation benefits while reducing the risk of EU citizens experiencing issues with digital-only proof when looking for employment or a place to live. By reducing the likelihood of such issues, we can do our best to ensure that EU nationals feel secure and confident in their future in the UK, maximising their opportunity to work and contribute.