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Why the era of political pride in tech ignorance has to end

Stuart Lauchlan Profile picture for user slauchlan October 3, 2017
The British Home Secretary wears her tech ignorance with pride. Sadly she's not alone, on both sides of the Atlantic. It's time for a digitally-savvy generation of policymakers.

Amber Rudd

The case was made in the UK Parliament, but the message needs to ring out around the globe, to the White House, to Brussels and beyond.

It was last month when Baroness Lane Fox of Soho delivered a splendid speech in the UK House of Lords in which, among many strong points, she warned of ministers talking about tech without having the necessary savvy to…well, know what they’re actually talking about.

This has long been an issue. In its most expensive form (financially) it results in British Prime Ministers in pursuit of modernity signing off on a £14 billion-plus National Health Service IT fiasco after only an hour long briefing. (Yes, Tony Blair, that’s you we’re looking at!). Or the Obamacare mess in the US.

At its most expensive in terms of society and civil liberties, tech ignorance has most recently manifested itself in terms of demands to regulate and censor the internet. The ‘something must be done, this is something, this must be done’ mindset has been seen on both sides of the Atlantic, from the current occupants of the White House and 10 Downing Street alike.

Lane Fox took time out to address this specifically when she warned:

In recent months we have heard frankly asinine comments such as ‘enough is enough’ or “we must scrap end-to-end encryption” the very system which keeps our personal information secure. This is alarmist and a disservice to the people we serve. Just as it would not be acceptable for a minister not to understand how her departmental budget works, it is not acceptable for her not to understand how technology affects her brief.

That was a comment aimed squarely at Amber Rudd, the UK Home Secretary and one of the most senior British politicians on the front line in the ongoing battle against domestic and international terrorism.

Yesterday Rudd set out to prove that (a) Lane Fox was completely correct in her withering assessment and that (b) Rudd doesn’t care and seems positively to wallow in her ignorance, defiantly telling a fringe meeting at the Conservative Party annual conference:

I don’t need to understand how encryption works to understand how it’s helping the criminals.

That’s her personal choice; but as she’s one of the policy-makers in charge of national security in the UK government, it also makes her a very dangerous individual. And yet, Rudd is the victim here, it seems, at least in her own mind as she bemoans:

It’s so easy to be patronised in this business. We will do our best to understand it. But I do feel that there is a sea of criticism for any of us who try and legislate in new areas, who will automatically be sneered at and laughed at for not getting it right.

The problem is that when you don’t get it right as Home Secretary and start pushing bad laws based on flawed understanding of technical issues, then a lot of long term damage is likely to be done. The type of decisions that Rudd should be taking are ones with national and international consequences. It’s not a case of saying, ‘Oops, sorry’ when they go wrong!

Ignorant, but consistently so

Still,  while she may be embarassingly ignorant on the subject, Rudd is at least consistent in that ignorance.

Back in March, she railed against WhatsApp and called for it to break its end-to-end encryption. She backed this up later with a claim that “real people” - ie not terrorists, paedophiles etc - don’t need end-to-end encryption, so what’s the problem? Meanwhile the online banking, grocery and shopping industries cringed.

There is, however, no shaking Rudd from her conviction that she’s right. Following up on the fringe meeting speech, she used her keynote address to conference to emphasise how completely out of her depth she is when it comes to technology matters, appealing directly to Facebook, Microsoft, Google and Twitter:

I call on you with urgency, to bring forward technology solutions to rid your platforms of this vile terrorist material that plays such a key role in radicalisation. Act now. Honour your moral obligations.

As a rallying cry to the right of center Conservative Party faithful, maybe that resonates as much as it would with the GOP in the US? "Moral obligations" - meat and drink stuff. Just to be certain though, Rudd moved on to some paedophile scare-mongering to seal the deal:

We also know that end-to-end encryption services like WhatsApp, are being used by paedophiles. I do not accept it is right that companies should allow them and other criminals to operate beyond the reach of law enforcement.

Now, no-one would dispute that tackling the horrors of paedophilic behavior and criminality is a challenge that needs to be addressed. But if we’re saying that WhatsApp is enabling them to go about their vile practices, then we should probably make sure mobile phone providers don’t give them handsets or telephone accounts. Some paedophiles probably read books on the subject. Hmmm, lets get stuck in there and shut down the presses. And what about those paedophiles who write letters to one another to communicate? Best ban pen and paper, just to be on the safe side.

Of course, that's a stupid exaggeration on my part and it’s easy to ridicule this sort of thinking - as a cursory glance at many of the UK media headlines today will show.

But the basic point remains - in a political era of out-and-proud ignorance, there are enormous mistakes waiting to be made.

In the US, there was a Presidential Election where a major talking point was how fed up people were of experts. It was a claim also aired by a senior UK politician during the Brexit campaign, when some people stuck another claim on the side of a bus which economists - and yes, experts - said was untrue, but…

Clearly the terrorism threat is high and countermeasures need to be taken. And nobody in their right mind is going to oppose appropriate and effective action against paedophiles and other criminal elements. Rudd's announcement yesterday of much tougher sentences for those caught repeatedly watching child porn online is to be commended.

But knee-jerk attacks on the likes of Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp serve no purpose, whether they come from the British Home Secretary or the US President. I’ve said before that there is a need for digital content platform providers to be seen to work closely with government to come up with constructive solutions. But when grandstanding politicos just shoot out headline-grabbing proclamations, all that serves to do is to create barriers and encourage lack of co-operation.

As noted above, this isn’t just something of which Home Secretary Rudd alone is guilty. Change the names as applicable - Theresa May, David Cameron, Yvette Cooper, Donald Trump, Mike Pence, they've all got form here. But it was Rudd who was wearing her badge of tech ignorance with pride yesterday, so it’s her stance that deservedly attracts the greatest opprobium today.

There’s nothing to be proud of - and everything to fear - from the current breed of technology illiterate politicians and legislators. Looking beyond the encryption nonsense, there are essential debates to be had around AI and robotics that demand more than a cliched quip about The Terminator, ho-ho-ho!

We desperately need a generation of policy-makers who are digitally-savvy.

Or at least one that has the decency to be embarassed by its ignorance.

My take

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