Warning: I am writing this while slightly grumpy, and it may well show.
I was invited to attend the “Safety Tech Challenge Fund: Supplier Showcase”.
I have written before about the government’s Challenge Fund, and some of the valuable spin-off work/engagement. (I have a blogpost I should have written by now, but have not, on another of those meetings. I should fix that…)
So I was grateful for this opportunity, given the relative paucity of information available about the funded solutions.
There’s plenty I’d like to say but cannot
I was looking forward to writing a factually accurate, fair, and honest reaction, in line with my previous (and future) writings on this topic.
This was important to me, since seats around the (virtual) table are limited, and I know that lots of people in the UK have an interest in what is happening here.
I hear that there is to be an official write-up, but I am mindful of Sir Humphrey’s comments about minutes (warning: YouTube link). These are good accompaniments to third party commentary, not a replacement for it.
So I was rather put out that the event took the form of a Zoom webinar, but the opening remark was “please do not share the content of this session”.
To me, that was a significant misstep, and a major disappointment.
This is a public funded activity, developing tech ostensibly for the public good.
Frankly, the organisations involved should be committing their code and other artefacts to public repositories, under permissive open source licences, as they go along. (Even though this would assist despotic regimes in adopting the solutions more rapidly…)
But anyway. My current view is that I can add more value, and do more to bring a constructive and critical viewpoint, by being at the table, than I can from getting myself ejected.
For that reason, even though it does not sit well with me, and undid some of the good work the governmental team had done on this to date, I’m going to abide by the request not to share the content of the session.
(I have notes so, if you’re someone with the authority to change the official position here, and let me write them up under the Chatham House rule, please do say!)
What I feel I can say
What I feel I can say is:
Some solutions appear to pay greater heed to “privacy by design” than others.
Some of the solutions, in their current form at least, gave me grave concerns.
Some are legal concerns, of the “I wonder how you’ll square that with the law” ilk.
Others were more of the “I can’t believe you haven’t thought ‘what on earth am I doing here’” type of concerns. Absolute clangers, which would rightly have been pounced upon if the content of the session was public. Proper “bang your head on your desk” stuff.
There will be some repressive/oppressive regimes rubbing their hands together, pleased that the UK government has funded the early stages of development of some of this tooling. There was virtually no discussion of safeguards or controls.
There is an inconsistent approach within government about anti-circumvention. There is realism in some quarters, and a lack of realism in others. Nothing developed under this challenge fund will be incapable of circumvention, and it would be a waste of money and effort to try.
The Q&A session was a major disappointment, and has burned up a fair amount of the goodwill I felt towards the project.
Questions went via a moderator, and, in a full 30 minute Q&A session, there was not one single question about concerns, or challenges. Questions of that nature were asked, because one of the panellists referenced their existence.
Every question was positioned to solicit a cheap PR soundbite of an answer. This approach was perhaps unsurprising, given the initial request not to share the content of the session, but, since the organisers said they were open to questions, it was disingenuous to avoid challenging ones.
If you’re a participant in this exercise, and you are worried about “loaded” or challenging questions, perhaps taking money from the public purse to develop surveillance and censorship tech with worrying implications was a bad call.
Frankly, it would have been better to have avoided Q&A entirely, than to do it so poorly.