Comment: Beware a Quiet Queen’s Speech

Photo credit: dutourdumonde/
Photo credit: dutourdumonde/

On the surface, amid the centuries’ old fanfare of the Queen’s Speech, there was little to immediately capture the data security and technology community. The 20 bills announced on May 8, to be brought forward in the forthcoming parliamentary session, were a combination of populist measures that will be seen as a reaction to recent local election results, initiatives to drive the Holy Grail of short-term economic growth, and a number that speak to the growing narrative around political fairness. But delve beneath the surface and there is much in the detail behind the Queen’s Speech, and in the political context in which it took place, that signals an interesting year ahead.

Allow me to outline three themes that will dominate the coming year, and as an industry will touch us all.

Communications Data Bill

The rarely read Downing Street background briefing notes to the Queen’s Speech reveal that the Communications Data Bill which seeks to create a process for the recording and storage of all online communications is not as dead as we might have been lead to believe. The note states that negotiations will continue across Government and with the private sector over the coming months to ensure that the security services have access to data they see as crucial to the on-going fight against online crime.

Although the bill, due to myriad political reasons, will not be reconstituted in its previous form, the issues around IP address identification and matching are likely to be settled on, potentially through the Anti-Social, Crime and Behaviour Bill. There may yet be a bill bringing back wider surveillance powers, but what is clear is that industry will have to be involved at a much earlier stage this time. With the Government keen not to ratchet up tension once again around the privacy agenda so close to a general election but eager to be seen as taking a tough stance on terrorism and serious crime, the role of accessing data (which the previous administration could not solve) remains one of the enduring tensions of modern security policy.

Implementation is Queen

The shorter Queen’s Speech also signaled this was an implementation stage of the government rather than a legislating one. The UK government has a huge array of contentious policy that it will need technology to help bring into reality.

The transformational power of data has long been realized by the government, but 2013 is shaping up to be crunch time for whether this can change public service delivery. From the implementation of Midata to the Universal Credit, from the roll-out of smart metering to the Health Secretary’s call for a “paperless NHS”, from the launch of the Identify Assurance regime that underpins the Digital by Default agenda to the spinning out of the ‘nudge unit’ into the private sector, the government would like to drive forward on using data. However, these policies are only as good as the data security regimes that protect them (many of which are still in an embryonic state), with memories of the data losses of the last Government still fresh. My conversations suggest Ministers and parliamentarians are seeing some of the risks around large-scale technology projects as mission critical. Assurance from industry, in both senses of the word, will be fundamental to keeping a number of these projects on track.

And that’s not to mention external pressures on the Government. A rejuvenated Parliament is about to launch a series of inquiries that will assess these schemes’ merits, as well as the hardest-hitting of the lot, The Public Accounts Committee, getting in on the act with a report on cybersecurity in the public sector this year. It won’t pull its punches.

The Justice Committee is undertaking a post-legislative assessment on the workings of the Data Protection Act. Over in Europe, the first votes in the European Parliament will be taking place on the controversial European Commission’s Data Protection Regulation, with a view to the regulations being finalized by the autumn. Ministers will be stepping up efforts over the summer to ensure that some of what they perceive as anti-growth and burdensome measures are aren’t fully implemented. Much to keep the government busy and that’s not to mention the axe of the Treasury not being far away…

It’s All about the Money

June 26 probably doesn’t yet roll off the tongue as a key political date. However, the Comprehensive Spending Review set for that day will determine where the Government will put its money up to 2015/16 and, accordingly, where many of its political priorities lie.

Departments have already been tasked with reducing budgets by 1% in the next two years on top of existing cuts, and a further £10bn of cuts are earmarked for 2015/16. For Ministers keen to not row back on public service provision, technology remains the panacea. Indeed, The Efficiency and Reform Group from within the Cabinet Office were given extra powers in this year’s budget to oversee the process and instill new ways of thinking within departments and across government. Yet, it is seeing the implementation of an IT Strategy that is overseeing a one-third reduction in spending on technology across the public sector.

Over at the Ministry of Defence, a battle is raging to ensure that funding for implementing the Cyber Security Strategy remains a pan-Government priority. And what of the £450m that has been spent on the Communications Capabilities Development Project? I’ve only touched on a few areas here, but technology once again remains the “thing to cut” while also being the “invest to save” model for others. It’s going to be a fascinating few months to see who can beat the Treasury mandarins on this one.

William Wallace is a consultant at Fishburn Hedges, a leading communications consultancy with operations in London and New York. Since 1991, Fishburn Hedges has been building and protecting reputations; shifting attitudes and changing behaviors for some of the world’s leading businesses and brands.

He is a former IT security advisor to the Conservative Party and was an author of the data security green paper, 'Reversing the Rise of the Surveillance State'.

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