Technology and Privacy in the Pandemic

10th June 2020

News, Alumni news

More than 200 alumni from across the world gathered on Zoom to hear Robert Hannigan (Classics 1983), former Director of GCHQ, discussing Technology and Privacy in the Pandemic with Warden Ken Macdonald QC.  

Play Technology and Privacy in the Pandemic event attendees

The discussion covers the cyber security threats that have arisen from the rapid and massive move online since lockdown, contact tracing and the issues associated with its success, as well as the changes in the political atmosphere between China and the West since the pandemic.

Click on the link above to listen to the discussion.

Describing the rapid move online at the start of the pandemic, Robert said, it was something which would normally take a company or educational institution months or probably years of planning and investment. “In the cyber world there are some big problems presented by this sudden and unplanned shift. Criminals have spotted the opportunity. These include technological vulnerabilities and we have seen a very big spike in criminal and nation state exploitation of those.”

“People in the criminal world also realise that heighted fear and anxiety is ideal for fraud so we have seen a massive rise in cyber fraud related to COVID,” he added. 

Robert also commented on US and UK governments’ warning that nation states, in particular China, but also Russia and Iran, are actively targeting academic institutions and pharma companies that are looking to develop vaccines or effective treatments for COVID. “There is no more valuable intellectual property in the world at the moment than something that relates to a vaccine for COVID or an effective treatment.” 

Deployment of contact tracing technology is also anything but straightforward he warned. “Contact tracing is a huge technical challenge, privacy aside, and has never been done at such scale in the UK before...We are taking quite a big risk by going with the centralised model.” For accuracy and speed an app looks like a good solution he said, adding that for it to work, large scale and rapid testing has to be available.

“For this to work, at least 60% of the country needs to be downloading the app – probably near 80%. The things that are likely to stop people doing it are partly, of course, privacy. The bigger problem will be if it drained your battery or if it floods you with false positives.”

Robert also discussed the changing relationship between China and the West and the probable policy changes affecting the Government’s adoption of the Huawei in its 5G rollout. 

Alumni questions concerned the possible advantages of decentralised contact tracing, legislation to control the uses of technologies, ownership and use of data that is collected during the pandemic, how much contact tracing apps would work abroad and the use of apps for future health concerns. 

Robert Hannigan (Classics 1983)

Robert Hannigan (Classics 1983), was Director of GCHQ, the UK’s largest intelligence and cyber security agency, from 2014-17. He retired from public service after 20 years in national security roles, including Prime Minister’s Security Adviser, during which he chaired the Government’s  ‘COBR’ though many crises, including the 2009 pandemic. 

He established the UK National Cyber Security Centre in 2016, and devised the UK’s first cyber strategy in 2009. He was also responsible for the UK’s Offensive Cyber Programme. He was a member of the National Security Council and the Joint Intelligence Committee. Robert worked in Belfast until 2007 and was Tony Blair’s senior civil service adviser on the Northern Ireland peace process.Robert is currently Chairman of BlueVoyant LLC, a global cyber security services company, and a Senior Adviser to McKinsey & Co. He writes on cyber issues in the Financial Times and is a Senior Fellow at the Belfer Center, Harvard, and Fellow of the Institution of Engineering and Technology and the Royal United Services Institute. He was awarded the US Intelligence Distinguished Public Service medal in 2017 and made a CMG by Queen Elizabeth for services to UK national security in 2013.