Reasons to be cheerful…1..2..3

20150319-pig_photoToday is the United Nations’ International Day of Happiness, although you might not have realised it, given recent headlines. So I thought I’d inject a ray of sunshine by sharing three things that I see in the world today that give me reason to think it may not be all doom and gloom.

The first bit of good news comes from Cuba.  The rapprochement between the United States and the communist country may not be complete, but is far removed from the mistrust and antagonism characterising much of the 54-year diplomatic spat.  Fidel Castro may dislike the warming in relations overseen by younger brother and current President Raul, but, as Al-Jazeera notes, with scheduled flights due to commence and a reopening of the US embassy in Havana on the cards, the direction of travel is clear.

Certainly, Cuba will claim as victories their removal from the US State Department’s list of state sponsors of terrorism and, simply, their survival in the teeth of prolonged American opposition. Raul Castro has to take a hard line in order to maintain the support of the Communist Party and his influential, if officially powerless, brother. But the transformation of Cuba cannot be done without a better relationship with America; hence the quiet adoption of economic reforms.

Some see this as yet another triumph for capitalism. Writer and satirist P J O’Rourke said: “You can’t get good chinese takeout in China and cuban cigars are rationed in Cuba. That’s all you need to know about communism.” (However, he also admitted to denting the embargo on Cuban goods in the US by having his cigars sent to Canada, repackaged and delivered to him in boxes marked ‘made in Canada’. His defence? “And they are. The boxes ARE made in Canada!”.) But I think the likelihood of a peaceful and respectful conclusion to the last great (original) Cold War stand-off is welcome news.

The second good news story is Israel.  Stick with me on this one.  In this New York Times article, Thomas Friedman, commenting on the Likud party’s victory in this week’s general election, lamented “a good half of Israel identifies with the paranoid, everyone-is-against-us, and religious-nationalist tropes [Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu deployed in this campaign”. And by turning his back on a two-state solution Mr Netanyahu has chosen to “tear up the basic tramlines on which a peace deal is likely to occur” according to Nick Clegg, Britain’s Deputy Prime Minister. So, an unusual source of rosy-glowness, I agree.

But by taking a position so obviously opposed to established US policy, Mr Netanyahu has provided diplomatic space for US Secretary of State, John Kerry, to negotiate a deal over Iran’s nuclear ambitions (talks are due to conclude on March 31st).  Mr Netanyahu insists that development of Iran’s nuclear capabilities (which they claim is for energy) should be thwarted at every stage. In a speech to a joint session of the US Congress on March 3rd he expressed fears that any concession would leave Iranian nuclear infrastructure intact, thereby enabling “a short break-out time to the bomb”. Others, such as in this article from 2011 in Foreign Affairs, suggest a nuclear-armed Iran would encourage wider proliferation: in such a volatile atmosphere Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan and many other Gulf states may conclude their interests are best served by developing their own weapons. It is to head off such nuclear competition and overcome the current tension-filled impasse with Iran that a deal is sought.

Doing nothing is not an option, but for too long the US has had to act with great regard for the relationship with Israel. But the prospect of a sensible and workable compromise has receded as a result of Mr Netanyahu’s insistence on a zero-sum approach to the negotiations. Counterintuitively, he has made wider regional nuclear proliferation more likely. But his prickly attitude to the US and his recent comments running up to Israel’s general election have meant the negotiating space (i.e. diplomatic options available to the US) impacting that relationship has just been widened. As Mr Kerry has less reason to worry about a disgruntled Mr Netanyahu, a more acceptable nuclear deal is increasingly likely.

And the final piece of good news is that Ben Ottewell is on tour this year, playing the South by South West festival in Texas last night, Toronto next week and the UK in April.  Don’t worry, listen to this and be happy; we can all get back to being gloomy tomorrow. That’ll please us Brits.

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High Noon for cyber complacency

20150314-High noonImagine standing next to a railway track and seeing a runaway carriage hurtling down the line towards a group of ten workers. Oblivious to the danger, they will certainly be killed unless the train is diverted onto another track. Luckily, next to you is the lever controlling a set of points that can make this happen. But on the adjacent line is a single worker, also unaware of the danger, who will die as a result of your action. Do you intervene, thereby condemning the individual but saving the greater number of workers? Or allow fate to run its course and kill the ten?

This ethical dilemma is widely used to generate debate about morals, priorities and personal responsibility. Although not an exact analogy, I was reminded of it when reading the report by the UK’s Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC) of Parliament titled ‘Privacy and Security: A modern and transparent legal framework’, released on March 12th.

The report followed an 18-month inquiry, launched following the revelations by Edward Snowden, the former contractor for America’s National Security Agency and now living in exile in Russia. It found the UK intelligence agencies act lawfully and said the bulk collection of data by the government is neither mass surveillance nor a threat to individual privacy. Civil libertarians vehemently disagreed (so too commentators – scroll down at this Guardian link), with Shami Chakrabarti, director of Liberty, describing the ISC as “a simple mouthpiece for the spooks”.

But the ethical debate around cyber security and privacy is an interesting one. The report included exchanges between the ISC and representatives of three groups: Liberty, Justice and Big Brother watch. They suggested that terror attacks were “the price you pay to live in a free society”.  It was at this point I found myself next to the train tracks with the control lever in my hand.

But the report also criticised the government’s cyber architecture. Piecemeal growth and sticking-plaster problem solving has led to a complicated and unfathomable legal and technical framework. Mistakes had been made, with consequences for individuals, and an accompanying document, the Report of the Interception of Communications Commissioner said that one employee of GCHQ (Britain’s cyber intelligence agency) had been sacked for unauthorised use of the systems.

The difficulty, as Professor John Naughton, a Cambridge University fellow, told the committee, is that the government essentially has to ask the public to “trust us”. But in the cyber security business, life is rarely that easy.

Who, exactly, should owners and operators of cyber networks trust? I can change a tyre on my car and could probably fill the screen wash after a Google-search and a bit of practice, but I rely on, and trust, the garage for an annual service. Where are the garages in cyber space? And where are the Haynes manuals?

A recent article in Forbes suggests we should not listen to those proclaiming “trust us” in cyber space and that the responsibility instead lies with us. There are no magic fixes, no silver-bullets, but there are, perhaps a few snake oil-salesmen for those unable or unwilling to take responsibility for their own systems. Rather than relying on external cyber security standards or products, it is the process by which a healthy and well-protected online presence is achieved that is important. Every business and every system is different. Sure, there are similarities and overlaps in some areas, but holistic security solutions cannot be outsourced. That process of taking ownership and thinking about cyber security starts with the CEO.

And CEO’s don’t get much bigger than President Obama. Speaking at the White House Cybersecurity Summit at Stanford University on February 13th he said: “it is one of the great paradoxes of our time that the very technologies that empower us to do great good can also be used to undermine us and inflict great harm.”

There are many challenges in cyberspace: ethical, technical and legal to name just three. But the route to credible solutions starts with ownership and leadership. “The cyber world is sort of the wild, wild West,” suggested President Obama, “and to some degree, we’re asked to be the sheriff.”

This post was commissioned by XQ Digital Resilience.

Spies like us

20150310-Spy_picThere were many interesting details in the report released by the British Parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee on March 5th. Titled Women in the UK Intelligence Community and coinciding with International Women’s Day, it explored issues of diversity in Britain’s three intelligence agencies: SIS (the Secret Intelligence Service, also known as MI6 and focussed on overseas spying), MI5 (the domestic agency) and GCHQ, or Government Communications Headquarters; the cyber snoops. But the primary focus for the report, as the name suggests, is how to attract, promote and retain women.

Much of the attention given to the report, written by Labour MP Hazel Blears, centred on the suggestion that Mumsnet, a parents’ support website, be used as a forum for advertising recruitment opportunities. The Mumsnetters had great fun with this, see here.  But as a bid for diversity the Daily Mail was unimpressed, commenting: ‘Er, is she sure about that? Is Mumsnet not even more insufferably middle-class than Oxbridge these days?’.

Unfortunately, many of the more interesting details were overlooked by the media.  For example, the report states that women made up 36% of applicants and 44% of actual recruits to SIS last year.  I read two things from these statistics: first, proportionally more women passed the SIS selection process than men. Second, given the ideal gender split would, presumably, be 50/50, a 44% recruitment rate equates to 88% of the target figure.  As a frequent user of national rail services, I’d be whooping for joy if every train I took achieved something similar.

One of the biggest criticisms of all three agencies was described as the ‘permafrost of middle management’. The report observed: ‘while the top and bottom of the organisation understand and are committed to diversity, there is a tier at middle management level…that seems to have a very traditional male mentality and outlook’. (Although even this attracted the Daily Mail’s ungracious observation: “Of course! Top jobs always go to greasers and yea-sayers who can sniff the political wind”.)

The intelligence agencies are not the only government departments experiencing permafrost; the British army suffers likewise. Gender equality issues are a regular feature reported to the Chief of the General Staff’s Briefing Team, a rolling outreach programme offering a shortcut to the head of the organisation for the most serious or widespread gripes.  Partly as a response, in 2011 the Army Women’s Network (AWN) was created, immediately attracting some boringly predictable responses questioning the need for such a group in the online discussion forum of ARRSE, the (unofficial) army rumour service website. The AWN will be re-launched this summer.

There are clear differences in culture and role between the intelligence agencies and the army. But can these account for, let alone explain comments (on ARRSE) such as “I hear the first 50 to sign up [to the AWN] will be entered into a draw to win a pony. The runners up will receive some nice flowers and knitting patterns”? Is the military less likely to see as a concern issues traditionally thought of as concerning women only, such as childcare and glass ceilings, because it calls for selfless commitment and is built for extreme violence?

Responsibility for childcare is seen in the report (and anecdotally in the army) as the primary reason for a lack of women in senior leadership positions. (Although it is interesting to note that whereas 23% of FTSE 100 Board Members are women, the figure for Britain’s intelligence agencies’ Board members is 35%.) But is the continuation of the argument that childcare concerns in the workplace are holding women back itself an outdated concept?  Is not childcare a shared endeavour (in most cases) between two people, with the predominant model being a man and a woman? So why is the argument not put forward that men are equally vulnerable to career-damage because of childcare responsibilities?

The ‘Glass-Ceiling Index‘ published this week in The Economist, combining data on higher education, labour-force participation, pay, child-care costs, maternity rights and representation in senior jobs, suggests the Nordic countries are the best places to be a working woman, although data from intelligence agencies were not included. Britain came 22nd.