I spoke in a debate in the House of Lords last week initiated by a labour peer, Clive Soley. He wanted to question if the government have given sufficient resources to the defence services for the uk to continue to play a role in global peace and prosperity.
I was slightly shocked that I was the only woman speaking in the whole debate. It seems dispiriting that an issue of such national importance, one that encompasses climate crisis to cyber didn’t attract more diversity.
however, It was a timely and interesting debate and colleagues from around the house expressed anxiety that even at a consistent level of 2% of gdp, the defence budget is stretched. I tried to show that not only the level of resourcing but also how it is spent were equally important.
Here is what I said :
“My lords, I too thank Lord Soley for the chance to debate this vital subject especially as I have just had the honour of joining the JoInt Committee on National Security Strategy. And so, I have been invited to visit hms victory in portsmouth tonight in order to have dinner and hear more about the current state of the navy.
In preparation i have been reading about nelson and this quote struck me as very significant.
“Never break the neutrality of a port or place, but never consider as neutral any place from whence an attack is allowed to be made.”
How would Nelson think about our world now when the decisions about what constitutes neutrality are so much more complex?
The internet is that most complex of places.
IT WOULD BE ABSURD TO TALK ABOUT OUR DEFENSE RESOURCES WITHOUT RECOGNISING THE ROLE OF THE INTERNET IN GLOBAL PEACE.
This is an enormous challenge. When it comes to resourcing and defending the uk and maintaining our role in global peace we must recognise the threats have changed forever and our resourcing must reflect this.
I believe WE IN THE UK DO NOT YET UNDERSTAND THE FULL POWER OF THE INTERNET.
First we must look at the issue through is through the lens of countrys that arguably DO understand it’s power. And here is where I agree with the thesis of the academic John Naughton.
These countries are the Russia,China — and to a lesser degree the North Korea. Surprising choices you might think but consider their strategies.
Russia was quick to change its military doctrine to incorporate ‘information operations which lays out a new theory of modern warfare — one “that according to Naughton looks more like hacking an enemy’s society than attacking it head-on”.
As the news site Politico has written ”guerrilla, and waged on all fronts with a range of actors and tools—for example, hackers, media, businessmen, leaks and, yes, fake news, as well as conventional and asymmetric military means. Thanks to the internet and social media, the kinds of operations Soviet psy-ops teams once could only fantasize about—upending the domestic affairs of nations with information alone—are now plausible.
I am sure I do not need to remind colleagues of the role this played in the US elections but I am equally sure this is the tip of the iceberg. We have been caught off guard.
China is clearly very different but as threatening – it is highly technically literrate but it has decided to build an Internet without its liberal tendencies. As naughton writes” China now has a very large and vibrant Internet, huge online industries and formidable technical and hacking capabilities. They have invented what the scholar Rebecca Mackinnon calls networked authoritarianism”. I call it a parallel internet.
Thirdly, North Korean proficiency in cyber operations is steadily mounting. In 2016 North Korean hackers nearly stole a billion dollars from the New York Federal Reserve and were stopped only, as Naughton writes again” by a spelling mistake: a bogus misspelled “foundation” as “fandation”. They still got away with $81m”.
Two years earlier, they led a devastating attack on Sony Pictures that resulted in the theft of thousands of documents.
As Naughton says “Kim Jong-un’s regime has understood how digital technology can overcome its industrial and economic weakness and turn it into a strength”.
So we have 3 regimes using the internet in different but terrifying ways – ways which i do not believe we are either resourced, or equally importantly, structured to fight.
But this is not my only concern. We will never make the right decisions about how to have a sufficient level of resources if politicians and policy makers fail to understand the internet and worse than that use it as some kind of scapegoat.
As I have said here before, after the hideous attacks in the uk over the last year, politicians and commentators used inflammatory language that was knee jerk and unhelpful – leading the public to believe that if the internet could only be shut down then we would all be safe.
As RUSI wrote recently
Scapegoating tech companies for online radicalisation is not only misguided – it detracts attention away from the crucial responsibility that society must bear in fighting the spread of violent extremism where it matters most: in the real world.
I declare an interest as a director of twitter so i have seen first hand how they wrestle with these issues.
But as rusi argues “how would social media companies go about designing a tool that could automatically detect and block ‘extremist content’? What constitutes ‘evil material’? And who determines what these are?
Brian Lord, former deputy director for Intelligence and Cyber Operations at GCHQ, pointed out in response to some of the PMs comments, content that is seen to be ‘free speech’ in one country might be seen as incitement to violence in another.
No current machine-learning based system, could be taught to recognise an idea as nuanced and subjective as ‘extremism’. Any such a filter would inevitably result in vast quantities of legitimate content being blocked.
So, governments and tech companies have not been able to reduce the amount of online extremist content – its just been displaced to less visible platforms such as telegram and even harder to find, the darknet.
As rusi writes “continuing to focus on the role that tech companies play in preventing violent extremism detracts attention from the responsibility that the rest of society must bear in identifying and reporting those who pose a potential risk. while the internet can play an important role in accelerating the process of radicalisation, indications of violent tendencies are more likely to be picked up by those who are physically close to the individual in question”
This obviously has huge priority and resourcing implications. Rusi’s observations must be embedded in our strategic thinking but this requires far higher levels of digital collaboration and understanding at all levels of our national security services and our political class.
There ARE welcome initiatives such as the NATIONAL CYBER SECURITY CENTRE who are building our cyber resilience but they are a drop in the ocean and relatively insignificant against the pace and scale of change.
We do not have time to waste – this is one of the gravest moments in my lifetime. I suggest we need a dramatic rethink not only about overall levels of Defence funding but also crucially, how we structure ourselves to collaborate across disciplines and deploy diverse skills.
So, What boldness in long term thinking can the minister reassure us the government is working on?
To end again with NELSON
Time is everything; five minutes make the difference between victory and defeat.
And imagine, that was in 1800. It’s hardly as though the world has slowed down.”