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Essential Services: Large-scale Technology

Volume 809: debated on Tuesday 12 January 2021


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what risk assessment they have undertaken of the reliance of (1) the economy, and (2) society, on the use of large- scale technology for the provision of essential services.

My Lords, the critical national infrastructure includes elements of infrastructure that are critical to the availability, delivery and integrity of essential services necessary for the United Kingdom to function and on which daily life depends. The CNI comprises 13 sectors, each with a lead government department responsible for identifying elements of its sector’s infrastructure.

My Lords, that was interesting. Modern technology has created amazing and beneficial things but has also resulted in a huge increase in the size and scale of operations, not least in such areas as power generation and supply, transportation networks and, of course, digital systems through the internet. It has also increased centralisation in top-down networks, where major technology or human failures may have catastrophic consequences. Do the Government agree that there must be a radical redesign of our economy and society in order to build in qualities of resilience, recovery and survival, re-engineering systems on the basis of bottom-up and modular operation at as local a level as possible?

My Lords, the noble Lord makes some important points of which the Government are aware. I refer to lead government departments and their responsibilities. They are tasked to undertake a review of all the critical national infrastructure sectors to ensure that understanding of what is critical and of risk is up to date and relevant. The review is ongoing, with each lead government department identifying the assets and systems which are essential.

My Lords, does my noble friend the Minister agree that there are huge advantages to be gained for system and state, and for local and national government, through the considered, ethical, purposeful deployment of digital and emerging technologies for the provision and transformation of essential and non-essential services?

I agree with my noble friend. In a sense, his question balances with opportunity the question of risk, to which attention was rightly drawn in the previous question. Technology brings advantages for the delivery of critical services, as my noble friend said. The rapid development of the job retention scheme, with its online portal by HMRC, is a good example of how technology can bring advantages to all levels in a time of need. However, we are also aware that there are risks associated with reliance on technology.

My Lords, in its first report last May, the National Infrastructure Commission acknowledged that security was a question not just of preventing attacks but of how well we could respond to them. It therefore recommended an architecture that would enable us to anticipate challenges and to resist, absorb and recover from attacks and adapt accordingly. Can the Minister tell the House what progress is being made on implementing that recommendation?

My Lords, the NIC made some very important recommendations, as the noble and gallant Lord quite rightly says. It is an independent executive agency of the Treasury. A responsive approach is already in place following the May 2020 report. The Government have up to a year to formally respond to the NIC’s recommendations, but I assure the noble and gallant Lord that they will be given the most careful attention.

Is the Minister aware that certain forms of technology are useful in care settings? For example, Alexa does not mind how many times someone with dementia asks the same question. Does the Minister think that the development of assisted technology—social robots alongside human care givers, perhaps—should be factored into the Government’s planning for the reform of social care?

My Lords, the noble Baroness makes a profoundly important point, which I agree with. I assure her that all the lead departments involved will consider her points. We must use the future to the benefit of all ages.

My Lords, police use of facial recognition technology can lead to a lack of transparency and accountability, as well as issues of racial and gender bias, as outlined in a recent court case. Does the Minister agree with the Surveillance Camera Commissioner that the Government need to bring forward new rules specifying exactly how, when and where facial recognition technology should be used?

My Lords, the specific question is outwith my area of responsibility, but I will pass the noble Lord’s comments on to colleagues in the Government, and I certainly note the important point that he has made.

My Lords, this is a crucial question. Cyberattacks globally on critical infrastructure appear to be increasing with impunity. What plans have the Government got to deter such attacks, particularly by foreign state actors, and have they assessed at what point such an attack could amount to an act of war?

My Lords, at my level in Government I will not comment on the final part of the noble Lord’s question. He is right that malign cyber activity, including by states, is an ongoing concern. In the Cabinet Office and across Government we are maintaining our capability to respond to major cyber incidents, and the National Cyber Security Centre and law enforcement cyber specialists are active in supporting critical organisations in the UK, including outside government.

My Lords, the Ipsos MORI research on understanding the full cost of cyber breaches, published by DCMS last year, points out that the current lack of accurate data makes it very difficult for SMEs in particular to get insurance for such events. Will the Government consider backing a cyber breach reinsurance scheme, based on the successful Pool Re and Flood Re reinsurance schemes, over this interim period?

My Lords, once again this is slightly outside my area of responsibility, but the interests of SMEs are always of great concern to the Government and I will pass the noble Lord’s suggestion on to appropriate colleagues.

My Lords, one of the biggest risks of reliance on large-scale technology is the eradication of so many traditional jobs. Would the Minister consider offering retraining to many of the people currently paid to do nothing on the excellent furlough scheme whose jobs are unlikely to have a long-term future?

My Lords, the training challenge and broader apprenticeship challenge is ongoing, immense and growing, and I agree with the importance which the noble Baroness attaches to it. The Government are helping to promote cyber skills among young people to fill the shortages in that capacity.

My Lords, controversial algorithms are increasingly being used by central and local government to make decisions. Does the Minister agree that to build and retain public trust we need strong oversight and governance of public sector use of algorithms? What response are the Government giving to the recommendations in the Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation’s recent review of bias in algorithmic decision-making, and what plans for regulation do they have?

My Lords, again, that is a very broad question, but the issues that the noble Lord addresses are extremely important and I take the sense in which he has offered it. Human judgment is, in the end, irreplaceable—your Lordships’ House could never be replaced by an algorithm.

My Lords, but does the Minister accept that some older people are denied access to vital services because of digital exclusion? Will the Government support means to help increase their access and provide an alternative way of accessing services for those who are unable to access the internet?

My Lords, the noble Lord makes a very important point. Looking at the colour of our hair, he and I should declare an interest in this matter. We need to extend understanding and use of technology, and access to it, but equally I urge all organisations, including banks, to remember that for many people a personal service is not only a matter of choice but a matter of necessity.