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How cybersecurity can fix UK’s flagging productivity

Digital minister Ed Vaizey talks security, SMBs and skills.

By Jimmy Nicholls

As the home of the men who cracked the Enigma machine and invented the World Wide Web, one might have thought the UK was better placed than most to pioneer the use of IT.

Yet not all is well in the home of Alan Turing and Tim Berners-Lee. At a event in London organised by the think tank Reform last Thursday, the digital economy minister Ed Vaizey laid out his thoughts on how the country’s industry was dealing with cybersecurity, and IT at large.

"I think too many people think about digital living in a silo," he said. "Every time you walk into a supermarket you’re walking into a digital world."

This thinking, Vaizey said, has led to some problems in adopting cybersecurity, and also with how IT is used at all. Corporations, government and the consumer all have much to work on.

But what will the government be doing to help them?

A long term infosecurity plan

As Vaizey put it, IT will be at the heart of solving the UK’s ongoing problem with productivity, a long-term issue that the Conservatives pledged to tackle in their recent budget. "Clearly," the minister said. "Digital will be at the heart of that."

Like many within the IT industry, Vaizey believes that "cyber" has to get out of the IT department and into the boardroom. He also has criticisms of how Whitehall uses technology, a view that aligns with a recent report from the Chartered Institute for IT, which said that MPs must become more technologically literate.

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Chi Onwurah, one of Vaizey’s opposite numbers as shadow cabinet office minister, also worries about the monopolisation of technology policy within central government. "Technology needs to be shared," she said at the event. "It needs to be moved away from the elite and control in Whitehall."

Like the Chartered Institute for IT, Onwurah is concerned that public services will have to adopt IT to keep up with the changing needs of the UK. As she put it: "I don’t see that the NHS can meet the challenges of us living longer without a digital transformation."

Vaizey went on to argue that "if we are going to be a world leader in technology we should also be a leader in cybersecurity." He emphasised that the government had invested in the latter "despite the challenges we’ve faced in the public finances."

Treats for SMBs and recruiters

The main programme for promoting cybersecurity under the Conservative government has been the Cyber Essentials scheme, a checklist of basic things that businesses can do to protect themselves.

Vaizey was keen to continue promoting this, saying: "If you are a business with a digital presence you should adopt the Cyber Essentials."

Alongside this the minister announced several more programmes on Thursday, including advisory grants worth up to £5,000 for small and medium businesses, with a total of £1m available for the scheme.

This prompted some scepticism from analysts. "Government initiatives to help small businesses get to grip with online security are of course welcome," said Bob Tarzey, a director at the research firm Quocirca.

"[But] an overall pot of £1m seems puny. If each applicant was to get the maximum £5,000, which would not but much, then that would only help out 200 of the hundreds of thousands of SMBs in the UK."

Aside from helping SMBs the government also wants to tackle the skills shortage in IT, a running sore for the industry. To this effect Vaizey announced a jobs hub with Inspired Careers, described as a "one-stop-shop for information about cyber security careers, skills, courses and qualifications."

Daniel Jones, a senior security analyst at Kable Market Intelligence, was unsatisfied with this. "It’s disappointing to not see more emphasis on bridging the skills-gap from a mid-career level, rather than the constant refrains we get about developing skills at lower levels," he said.

"That’s what industry really needs."

If skilled workers cannot be found it will no doubt limit what the British cybersecurity sector – currently worth £17bn according to government figures – can achieve.

Yet Vaizey had a final note of optimism to end his remarks. Whoever ends up liable for the insecurity in cyberspace, the insurance industry is likely to clean up sooner or later. In that respect, he said, "I think the UK will be a winner."

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