The Blue Badge Policy and Hidden Disabilities

The Blue Badge Policy and Hidden Disabilities

Articles, Current Affairs

For years there has been ambiguity surrounding eligibility for the Blue Badge Scheme, and many vulnerable people have not been given adequate recognition where their disabilities have not been immediately visible. In this article, Bilal explains the changes that have been made to this policy to make it more inclusive.

The Blue Badge Policy and Hidden Disabilities

picture from BBC

The Department of Transport has recently announced plans to extend the Blue Badge Scheme to include people with hidden disabilities, such as autism and dementia. Additionally, the proposed changes would include allowing a wider range of medical professionals other than GPs to perform eligibility assessments, which could mean that mental health professionals will have a more direct role in these assessments. These plans have been opened up to an eight-week long public consultation. This follows a move by the Scottish Government in December 2017 that extended Scotland’s Blue Badge Scheme to include people suffering from dementia, autism and Down’s syndrome, as well as their carers.

The Blue Badge Scheme was introduced in 1970 under the Chronically Sick and Disabled Persons Act, and covers over 2.4 million people, granting them free parking in pay-and-display bays, and the permission to park on yellow lines in certain circumstances, among other benefits. The purpose of this scheme is primarily to ensure that people suffering from disabilities are not restricted in terms of mobility. Although it has undergone several reforms, these were mainly focused on limiting misuse and forgery of the badges by making verification more efficient.

Currently, eligibility for a blue badge is mainly tied to the physical ability to walk – this criterion excludes thousands of people on the autistic spectrum, as well as those suffering from dementia, anxiety, and conditions such as Colitis and Crohn’s disease. Although these people can physically walk, they may suffer from disorientation, agitation, or other unpleasant symptoms when doing so in public spaces. The current blue badge policy does include a provision for ‘considerable difficulty’ when walking, but it does not specify whether this refers to physical or non-physical difficulty. As a result of this ambiguity, the interpretation of these rules varies greatly between councils. The new proposal seeks to modify the criteria to ‘focus on the journey rather than just the physical act of walking’, in order to make the scheme’s implementation ‘fair and consistent’.

Plans to extend eligibility to include invisible disabilities have been considered previously – in 2005, the Department for Transport commissioned a research project to determine whether people with certain invisible disabilities – namely dementia, Autism, Colitis, and Crohn’s disease – could have mobility issues significant enough to warrant their being included in the Blue Badge Scheme. The research project was conducted by Transport and Travel Research Ltd (TTR) and found that those conditions could in fact impose significant limitations on individuals’ mobility. However, the project also identified significant potential issues with extending eligibility, such as a greater potential for abuse and reduced available parking spaces.

One of the issues highlighted by TTR in the report was that there was ‘widespread concern’ that giving people with invisible disabilities the same parking concessions as those with physical disabilities could ‘discredit the scheme’ in the eyes of the public. The research report therefore recommended that eligibility for the Blue Badge Scheme be limited to those who required physical help from another person in order to cross a street.

The fact that such a concern was so widespread highlights a larger underlying issue – the disparity between our perceptions and attitudes towards invisible disabilities as opposed to visible, physical disabilities. Despite the fact that awareness of mental health conditions has increased in recent years, and attitudes towards them have certainly improved since 2005, an underlying belief that mental conditions are somehow less serious than physical conditions remains entrenched in society. It is not uncommon to hear comments suggesting that anyone who isn’t in a wheelchair ‘doesn’t really need’ blue badge parking, which is unfortunate as those suffering from psychological conditions are often those who require the most support. In this sense, extending eligibility of the blue badge scheme would be a step in the right direction.

It is also important to note that invisible disabilities are not limited to mental health conditions, as the research conducted by TTR included Colitis and Cohn’s disease, which are bowel-related illnesses.

Overall, this situation presents an interesting case study of how councils interpret guidelines, the importance of clarity in such guidelines, and how public perception of issues can affect policies.

By Bilal Asghar

Is Cryptocurrency the Future of a Globalised Economy?

Is Cryptocurrency the Future of a Globalised Economy?

Articles, Current Affairs

We’ve all heard of Bitcoin, but how does it work, and what economic and political implications could it have?

Is Cryptocurrency the Future of a Globalised Economy?

picture from The Sun

Modern information technology has already transformed our world in countless ways, but so far the fundamental building blocks of the economy, such as currency, the banking system, and markets, have remained mostly the same as they were before the ‘digital revolution’. Although it is estimated that 92% of all currency is currently stored in a digital format, it still represents the same traditional currencies such as Pounds, Dollars and Euros, which are issued and controlled by central banks. Invented in 2008, Bitcoin sought to change that by using cryptography technology to build a decentralised, international system, one without central banks or state authorities. Even though Bitcoin itself has been co-opted by speculators and illegal dealings, the concept of cryptocurrency has the potential to completely reshape the world economy, and the blockchain technology it is built on has wide-ranging implications, including a completely new system of voting.

The pseudonymous inventor of Bitcoin, Satoshi Nakamoto, encoded a message within the very first block of the Bitcoin blockchain– “The Times 03/Jan/2009 Chancellor on brink of second bailout for banks”. This was clearly a political statement, as well as a sort of mission statement – Bitcoin was created as a response to the financial crisis, and as an alternative to the banking system that was on the verge of collapse at the time. He confirmed this in an essay posted in February 2009, in which he blamed central banks for breaching the trust of those who rely on them and causing credit bubbles. Since then, the cryptocurrency slowly appreciated in value until it exploded in 2017, hitting a price of 19,000 USD, an increase of more than 900% over the course of the year. It has also inspired the creation of a large number of alternate coins using the same basic technology but with various improvements built on top of it, such as the faster transaction times offered by Ethereum.

In order to understand the implications of these new currencies, the underlying ‘blockchain’ technology must be understood, as it is what truly makes cryptocurrency a unique development.

The basic issue with digital currencies is that nothing tangible is being exchanged, and there is nothing stopping someone from duplicating some bits of code over and over again to spend the same money multiple times. For a digital currency to work, every transaction must be recorded and verified to prevent double-spending; traditionally, this has been done through trusted third parties, such as banks, that record every transaction and the bank balance of each party involved, in a central database. This is how the modern economy works – most transactions in developed countries are digital transfers to and from bank accounts.

There are significant drawbacks to the system of using a central third party database: they have to be trusted not to tamper with the records for their own benefit, and an attacker could potentially gain access to the records by using malware or exploiting vulnerabilities such as weak passwords. It also means that anyone wishing to conduct a transaction has to share sensitive personal information and bank details. These drawbacks are partly why early attempts at digital currency, such as DigiCash in 1989, were largely unsuccessful.

Bitcoin, on the other hand, solves the problem of double spending through a decentralised blockchain. What this means is that every transaction is broadcasted to everyone in a global network, and is added to a ‘block’ of previous transactions. Each block is protected by cryptographic functions, and is linked to the previous block, forming a chain of linked blocks – hence, blockchain. These processes are performed by thousands of ‘miners’ around the world, who are rewarded in units of cryptocurrency they are mining. In order for someone to change any of the records, they must change every block in the chain that came after it, which is practically impossible to do without controlling more than 51% of all the computers in the network. This makes transactions irreversible. Anonymity is maintained as no one reveals any personal information, only a random string of letters and numbers that represents their ‘wallet’ address. Inflation can be prevented by programming a limit into the code of the cryptocurrency – Bitcoin, for example, has a limit of 21 million coins in circulation.

The implications and potential applications of blockchain are not limited to currency; from a political perspective, perhaps the most intriguing application of blockchain technology is in voting systems – every voter can be issued with an anonymised number, similar to how a Bitcoin wallet works, so a secret ballot is maintained. They would then be able to vote from any device connected to the internet, or perhaps a secure national network, and votes would be verified through a blockchain running on computers throughout the country. This would remove the need to be physically present at a polling station, as one could vote from a mobile device. Most importantly for developing countries, it could make vote rigging almost impossible – someone attempting to tamper with the vote would either have to gain physical access to tens of thousands of computers, or crack 256-bit encryption, which would take even the worlds most advanced supercomputer nothing less than a few billion years.

Other potential applications for this technology include data storage, record keeping, decentralised notaries, and smart self-executing contracts.

However, it must be kept in mind that this technology is still in its infancy. Use of cryptocurrency by criminals remains a major issue, and it has been reported that North Korea and Russia have attempted to use it to bypass sanctions. Governments will inevitably have to develop new regulations to cope with these issues.

Despite the claims of some blockchain enthusiasts, market anarchists, and libertarians, it is highly unlikely that banks will be rendered obsolete by blockchain-based currencies – instead, they will most probably adapt to it by incorporating some aspects of the technology within their existing infrastructure. JPMorgan Chase has already developed its own blockchain known as Quorum, and American Express is considering a partnership with the developers of the Ripple cryptocurrency network.

We could be seeing the first steps towards a more decentralised and democratised global economy, but it almost certainly won’t be an overnight change.

By Bilal Asghar

Will the Conservatives’ ‘25 Year Plan to Improve the Environment’ really lead to a green future?

Will the Conservatives’ ‘25 Year Plan to Improve the Environment’ really lead to a green future?

Articles, Current Affairs, Opinion

Last week the Conservative Party announced its new plan to tackle our environmental issues over the next 25 years. In this article, Katie assesses some of the strengths and weaknesses of these Tory policies and questions whether they are doing enough.

Will the Conservatives’ ‘25 Year Plan to Improve the Environment’ really lead to a green future?

picture from CIWM Journal

Climate change and the environment are clearly incredibly important issues in the modern world, with temperatures globally breaking records, sea levels rising at their fastest rate in 2,000 years and glaciers melting at an unprecedented speed. This crisis is also contributing to other serious problems facing our world, as climate change related hazards have forcibly displaced over 21.5 million people since 2008. Due to many horrifying statistics like these coming to light people in Britain and across the globe are beginning to change their lifestyles. This is especially important in the UK as it has been proven that we, along with China, the United States, Germany and Japan, already consume twice the amount of resources than we provide. Clearly Britain is in need of drastic and transformative climate change policies. On January 11th the Conservative government introduced their plan entitled ‘A Green Future: Our 25 Year Plan to Improve the Environment’. Will this be the game changer that we so desperately need or is it just a half-hearted and futile attempt?

Arguably the most significant policy in the plan is the introduction of the 5p plastic bag charge in all shops, including small shops that had initially been exempt from the charge. This change will impact 3.4 billion plastic bags meaning that hopefully billions less will be used in the next few years. This could be a fabulous step forward given the detrimental effect on the environment that plastic has been proven to have, including the use of fossil fuels in its production and plastic pollution in the air and ocean. The economic impact of this policy is also very significant. Over the next decade the scheme is predicted to raise over £780 million for the government, partly due to a £60 million saving on litter clean-up costs and a £13 million saving on carbon. Evidently, this policy will have a positive impact on both Britain’s economy and the environment.

In keeping with the theme of reducing plastic production and waste the government has also promised to encourage plastic free supermarket aisles, aisles in which all food is sold loose. They are promising that by 2042 there will be no avoidable plastic packaging in supermarkets. If achieved, this will be an important development in combatting climate change. However, they have not set out comprehensive guidelines for shops to achieve this and no incentive for them to do so. This illustrates that although in theory the government’s plans intend to do good, in practice they are too tentative and unspecific to create any real change. The government’s cautiousness is also shown in their promise to create more habitat for wildlife, reassuring people that ‘the environment department will investigate establishing 500,000 extra hectares of wildlife habitat’. Evidently this is an empty promise, committing to nothing concrete whilst suggesting that the government intends to make great strides, only just not yet. This shows that although on the surface the plan will make some positive impacts, it lacks the substance and specifics necessary to encourage businesses and the general public to get involved and therefore in the long run will certainly not transform the environment.

This is also clear when you analyse what is missing from the 25-year plan. Surprisingly, there is no mention of how the government intends to increase rates of recycling or mention of the introduction of a levy on disposable coffee cups. Recycling could have been a key focus of the plan, especially given that in 2015 recycling rates dropped for the first time in over a decade, and with the correct messaging and incentives the government could have used this plan to encourage more and more households to recycle. This would have had a very significant impact on improving our environment as recycling is one of the single best things that any individual can do to combat climate change. Recycling saves important natural resources, energy and helps decrease the amount of waste going into landfill sites. The absence of an aim to increase recycling rates in the UK demonstrates how this government plan is too bare to have real long-term effects. It is missing out a policy that will be sure to be at the forefront of any noteworthy future environment proposals.

This future proposal will also certainly contain a levy or even a ban on disposable coffee cups, as only 1 in 400 of these are recycled. Due to this statistic disposable coffee cups are a considerable contributor to landfill waste and given that a person could so easily make their own coffee at home or ask a barista to make the coffee in their own flask, it seems ridiculous that the government hasn’t tackled what could be a relatively easily solved problem. This shortcoming demonstrates that while the government are happy taking small steps in the right direction, any game changing policies, which may initially be negatively received by paying customers or big companies, will be a long time coming as they are not yet brave enough to take those more radical leaps. For any true environmentalist who feels that climate change is the greatest threat that our generation faces this ‘25 Year Plan to Improve the Environment’ is not the answer to all their prayers. Sadly, we will just have to wait for when the inclination to protect and preserve the world for future generations outweighs our obsession with ease and consumption today.

By Katie Wharton

Another EU Referendum?

Another EU Referendum?

Articles, Current Affairs, Opinion

The nation seems to be fed up of voting, whether it be in general elections or referendums, but could we be facing yet another vote on Brexit?

Another EU Referendum?

picture from ITV

The only thing we’ve really been sure of during the Brexit process so far is that we’re not really sure about anything. Eighteen months down the line, most people still don’t know any more about how leaving the European Union is going to affect their lives – and neither does the government. Nonetheless, there are many who believe that if we held another EU referendum there would be a different outcome this time round. We might expect this attitude, perhaps wishful thinking, from Remain supporters, but the person who surprisingly called for a second vote this week was in fact Nigel Farage.

So why is former UKIP leader and biggest supporter of Brexit ready to give his opposition another chance? Is he just bored now that his days of campaigning are over? I wouldn’t rule it out. However, the reason Farage gave for this sudden change of heart is that he wants to silence the “moaning” Remainers. He says that the Brexit discussions are being hindered by the constant debate and that he believes a second vote would see a bigger majority in favour of Brexit. It seems he has not learnt from last year’s general election. That said, he makes a valid point: with a Leave:Remain ratio of 52:48, many believe it is wrong to ignore 48% of voters. In fact, a petition was made with a view to implementing a rule that if the remain or leave vote was less than 60% based a turnout less than 75% there should be another referendum, and was signed by 4,150,262 people. Surely it would make it easier for the government to justify Brexit if people once again voted in favour of it?

On the other hand, passionate Remainers such as Nick Clegg and Tony Blair see it as an opportunity to reverse the decision. They believe that people were misinformed during the Brexit campaign and that now they have a (debatably) clearer idea of what leaving the EU entails they have a democratic right to change their minds. The Liberal Democrats are the only party who officially support a second referendum, and they feel people should know what the deal is before they vote, so that this time they can make an informed choice. This view is shared with several MPs, too, as the majority of the House of Commons (73% of MPs) opposed Brexit in the referendum, and many believe that the British public made a mistake.

But is a second Brexit vote realistic? It is difficult to argue that the Brexit process has been a smooth ride so far. Theresa May’s failure to win a majority at the last election has not only weakened her party’s mandate, but has also forced her to call on the controversial Irish party DUP. What does this tell us about what our deal with the EU is going to look like? Possibly not very much, but still more than what David Davis can currently tell us about the impact of Brexit. The Brexit Secretary was widely criticised by MPs who accused him of a “total dereliction of duty” as he said that “no systematic impact assessment” had been undertaken by the Government. With all these mistakes being made by the government, you might think they would be reassessing the situation. Conversely, May has insisted a second referendum would be a betrayal of voters and would also lead to a bad deal in exit talks, and Jeremy Corbyn has also opposed the idea. Whilst it is true that May went ahead with a general election having ruled it out earlier in 2017, it seems like the decision of both major party leaders is final.

Personally, despite being a Remainer myself, I do not believe we should have a second referendum. Britain’s exit from the European Union means that one of the bloc’s biggest economies will stop making contributions to its budget. Why would EU negotiators be willing to give us a favourable deal, knowing that if it was a poor deal we would vote against it and remain in the EU? Moreover, is the slim chance of a different result really enough to justify reigniting the tensions and divisions within our society which we saw so much following 2016’s referendum? I don’t believe it is. However, should the government give the British public a second chance to decide their future, one might hope that young people, the generation who will be most affected, will turn out in greater numbers this time. The 2016 EU referendum saw a turnout of 53% of 18-24-year-olds. Does this figure really depict a group of young people who want a say in their future?

By Lucy Higginbotham

Cabinet Reshuffle: an opportunity missed?

Cabinet Reshuffle: an opportunity missed?

Articles, Current Affairs, Opinion

Dissatisfied with May’s change’s to the cabinet, Timea criticises the Prime Minister’s decision to allow the unpopular Health Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, to maintain his position, highlighting some of his failures.

picture from Daily Mail

Cabinet Reshuffle: an opportunity missed?

This Monday, Theresa May took the opportunity to reshuffle members of her cabinet, with a number of promotions, sideways moves and demotions. Although any change to the dysfunction of the current cabinet is welcome, May missed the two major opportunities to truly reform and rejuvenate her government. The first would have been ousting, or at the very least changing the role of continuing Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson. The second would have been the removal of Jeremy Hunt as Health Secretary. Hunt will retain his position for now- if he is still in it by June, he will be the longest serving Health Secretary, surpassing Norman Fowler, who spearheaded the “Don’t Die of Ignorance” HIV/AIDS campaign, now regarded as one of the most successful in the world.

According to the most recent reports, Hunt was supposed to come out as the new business secretary, but either Greg Clark, who keeps that role, refused to budge- or, according to the Sun’s Tom Newton Dunn, Hunt did. He has instead been given what at first seems like a tokenistic tweak to his job title, becoming “Secretary of State for Health and Social Care”, replacing Marcus Jones, the former minister responsible for adult social care, and presumably taking a step towards the integration of the two departments.

The change in job title isn’t negative in itself- merging health and social care into one positon has long been an ambition of policy makers, and could serve well for placing the significance of social care on par with other health services. The negative aspect is that the title goes to Hunt yet again, giving one of the most actively incompetent Health Secretaries in living memory a greater swathe of policy over which to assert his malignant and often destructive influence. This year, Hunt has presided over yet another NHS winter crisis in which 55,000 operations were postponed, a new national emergency pressure panel was set up, and huge numbers of hospitals are operating at 100% capacity, forcing them to discharge patients early to make room for the acutely ill, and forcing the acutely ill to wait in corridors and ambulances for beds.

Hunt’s response? He apologised, saying that the current crisis was “absolutely not what I want”. I, for one, am inspired that the current government is channelling the spirit of generations of Conservative leaders gone by. Who can forget those immortal words: “It seems we’re losing the war lads,” (Winston Churchill, 1940) “Sorry about that.” Or the eloquent tones of Disraeli “British Empire’s not doing great. My bad”. Or even the bold, unwavering cries of Margaret Thatcher: “Whoops.”

This isn’t to criticise the act of apologising per se; humility and recognition of fault are valuable parts of politics, and inevitable parts of our politicians being fallible and human. It’s the utter apathy behind the pretence of sympathy. It’s “absolutely not what I want”, as if this were not a completely avoidable and foreseeable consequence of his policy and practice. It’s the nodding, passive show of concern that might be an acceptable response on its own if Hunt were one of 65 million people in the UK who were not the current Health Secretary.

Unfortunately for him, he is, which means he has to take a basic level of culpability for his decisions, not just in word but in deed. Deeds like perhaps giving the NHS more than half of the minimum £4 billion it needs to survive and that Simon Stevens, head of NHS England, requested. It’s not as if this would be an impossible task. Blair and Brown managed to bring waiting times down to a maximum of 18 weeks and A&E down to four hours, virtually abolishing waiting lists. Furthermore, many of us were under the impression that the Conservatives had recognised their fault last year. Or the year before last. Or at any of the points of critical underfunding in the last seven years of Tory government, while the National Health Service was slowly being stripped of the resources it needed to keep itself alive and patients safe.

One of May’s goals for her Cabinet reshuffle was to counter some of the “pale, male and stale” image of her frontbench. Hunt, meanwhile, ticks all those boxes- besides perhaps the latter. Far from being tasteless, his continued presence in government is actively nauseating. Shadow Health Secretary Jonathan Ashworth was right to call his promotion a “kick in the teeth”. Even if he were to take that literally, it’s not as if Hunt would be able to receive treatment for the injury at this time anyway. Maybe the doctors could apologise instead.

 By Timea Iliffe

70 Years of the NHS

70 Years of the NHS

Articles, Current Affairs, Opinion

As the NHS reaches the end of its 70th year, Namitha reviews some of its past successes, explores how the government is to address its present issues, and looks optimistically towards its future.

70 Years of the NHS

picture from NHS England

Ever since its founding in 1948, the NHS has remained a vital part of our country’s welfare state. As one of the world’s most cost-effective health systems, despite the extensive bureaucracy that remains a constant drainage, it directly contributes to the success of the British economy.

Life expectancy has been rising by five hours a day and with this comes a growing and aging population, with increased expectations for the level of care to be provided to this sector of society. Yet with the budget being stretched thin to not only improve such services, but to also match modern disease with modern medicine, deal with increased staff pressure, maintain and improve quality of care and most importantly of all keep the service afloat, the future of the NHS is a foreboding question. Public satisfaction with the NHS is higher than in all but three of the past 30 years, yet this is not the image conveyed by the media of today. Headlines such as ‘A&E wards on the brink’, ‘dismal waiting times’ and ‘is the NHS going to break?’ continue to undermine the system, with care gaps exposed, increased waiting times and mistakes flaunted by the media. Yet the increase in annual cancer survival rates nor the significant reduction in heart attacks and stroke rates are given such focus. In fact the fundamental message given off is that our NHS is failing and a drain to the treasury, whilst still being underfunded and abused.

So is 2018 going to be the turning of a new leaf? Highly doubted. The 2014 ‘Five Year Forward View’ seems to be continuing on, promising positive and effective change and reallocation of resources to cement the success of the National Healthcare Service. Yet given we are already three years in, a radical improvement remains a distant dream. One way of actually reducing costs? Addressing the market failure.

The NHS does not stand alone. With nowhere near enough funding to make its own drugs and fund processing, the public service relies upon external companies to sell mass treatments at affordable prices. External companies manipulate this to their advantage, with one such example being liothyronine, a key thyroid treatment drug. Drug company Concordia overcharged the NHS by millions, with the amount the NHS paying per pack rising from £4.46 in 2007 to £258.19 by July 2017, an increase of almost 6,000%. In other European cities, patients continue to see the drug at £5. Until earlier in 2017, Concordia was the only supplier of this drug and hence it was a clear manipulation of their market power and monopoly over the given industry. Yet it is not always the externalities that are to blame. On repeated occasions, the NHS have chosen high-priced pharmaceutical companies over cheaper alternatives, and this is where the question of political sleaze and individual gain come into place.

Take the world of ophthalmology. Age-related macular degeneration is a type of eye-disease that the NHS have been trying to address. Currently, due to effective lobbying by certain high-profile pharmaceutical firms, two drugs namely lucentis (ranibizumab) and aflibercept (eylea) are being used, however a much cheaper drug called avastin (bevacizumab), could be used instead, saving the NHS around £500 million per year. This is said to be essentially held back by regulatory framework, however sceptical doctors have made clear their concern about those who could be making changes remaining disturbingly passive. More broadly this can be seen with the issue of privatisation, with external companies charging trusts extortionate amounts to do simple cases, begging the question of what the government are going to do to address this market failure, despite the high tax benefits obviously being absorbed.

Hence it is clear that the problems facing the NHS won’t be stopping any time soon. Yet as we reach 70 years of the NHS, it is evident that the simple act of improved ethics could go a long way.

By Namitha Aravind

The Evolving Threat of Cyber Warfare

The Evolving Threat of Cyber Warfare

Articles, Current Affairs, Opinion

As our infrastructure becomes more and more dependent on modern computer systems, software, and networking, it has also become vulnerable to an entirely new form of warfare. Several recent events indicate that Cyber warfare is developing rapidly, and software that is relatively easy to develop has proven to be considerably dangerous. In addition, concerns about the use of social engineering and the use of bots to spread propaganda and potentially influence elections have been raised repeatedly since the US election. Several countries have been experimenting with such technological warfare capabilities, and this has created a new global landscape that policymakers and voters need to be aware of. The reality is that conventional foreign policy and military tools simply do not work against cyber-attacks, whether they are state-sponsored or not.

The Evolving Threat of Cyber Warfare

picture from Cronkite News

Governments and intelligence agencies have been interested by the possibility of using software as a weapon of war ever since the first pieces of malware, such as the ‘Elk Cloner’ and ‘Brain.net virus’ appeared in the 1980s. However, their destructive potential was limited, as very few pieces of crucial infrastructure depended on computer systems, and even fewer on networked systems that could be accessed remotely. Today, trains, hospitals, educational institutions, air-traffic control, power plants and countless other essential services depend on networked computer systems, and so the potential for cyber-attacks causing damage has increased. Perhaps the most damaging incidence of such an attack to date was the use of Stuxnet, a malware programme believed to have been developed by US Intelligence agencies, to cripple Iranian nuclear enrichment facilities in 2010.

More recently, several hospitals in the UK were affected by the WannaDecryptor (or WannaCry) malware, which encrypted important computer files, making them inaccessible, and demanded ransom, while using the NHS network to spread itself to other computers. According to the National Audit Office, at least 81 NHS trusts across England were affected. This was clearly either a prototype or developed unprofessionally, as it was linked to an unregistered domain that acted as a kill switch, which was discovered by a researcher at Malware Tech Blog who used it to disable the attack. Although the origins of this malware are still unknown, it is unlikely that a cyber-weapon developed by a state would have such a kill switch built into it, so a more likely explanation is that this was simply an attempt by civilian hackers to make money by holding computer systems to ransom. A similar programme called ‘Petya’ later targeted Ukrainian and German banks. Losses as a result of such attacks in 2017 were estimated to be around $4 billion USD.

The 2016 Democratic National Committee (DNC) hack in the US has also been cited as an example of cyber warfare, and despite the lack of evidence, many have speculated that it was orchestrated by the Russian Government to manipulate the US elections. This example illustrates a major issue with the way in which politicians have apparently failed to understand the nature of this new threat – former US Secretary of State and Presidential nominee Hilary Clinton, in a campaign speech, stated that she would ‘treat cyber-attacks just like any other attacks’, and threatened to use ‘economic, diplomatic, and military’ measures against Russia. Such an approach is misguided – firstly, it is almost impossible to know for certain whether or not any given cyber-attack is state-sponsored or not. Secondly, cyber-attacks are not the same as any other attack; they are fundamentally different in many ways. For example, attacks can be launched from multiple different locations around the world simultaneously and location data can easily be falsified or concealed.

Aggressive policy and threatening to use physical weapons is not the answer to the challenge of cyber weapons. Neither is Theresa May’s increasingly Orwellian surveillance and data collection policy.

What is needed is a more sensible, defensive policy – investment in basic computer security measures, such as regularly updating software (which could have protected the NHS from the WannaDecryptor attack), setting up backup networks, isolating critical networks from the internet, and developing low-tech backups to be used in emergencies. Despite this being a very technical issue, most of these concepts are common sense. An employee clicking on an infected internet link should never lead to entire hospital networks being paralyzed for days – computers being used to access the internet should be kept isolated from such critical infrastructure. All this can be implemented with a fraction of the cost of the government’s current £1.9 Billion strategy, and would be significantly more effective at preventing cyber-attacks as well as reducing the impact of everyday cybercrime.

As technology improves in areas such as AI and Machine Learning, it is likely that malware and other forms of technological warfare will become more potent. The government has been spending billions on defence projects such as the new aircraft carriers, presumably in an attempt to revitalise Britain’s traditional power-projection capability.

Perhaps defending against the weapons of the future should be a higher priority than fighting the cold wars of a bygone era.

By Bilal Asghar