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Dear Theresa, love from Tech

Dear Theresa, love from Tech

Dear Ms May,

It’s us, the tech world. We know you’ve been busy recently, what with your whirlwind prime ministerial campaign and now moving in to your new home at number 10. We know against the current political backdrop, it’ll also be a while before you get a chance to read this – from the looks of things, you’re going to be quite preoccupied steadying the boat as the country contemplates its future role within Europe and beyond.

But as a sector full of budding start-ups and pioneering entrepreneurs, we’d be lying if we didn’t tell you we’re nervous. Banks and investors are already pulling funds out of the UK left, right and centre, and Berlin is waiting in the wings to snap up our talent. It may simply be a matter of waiting until the dust has settled to find out what the real impact of this upheaval has been, and we are a resilient bunch, but it’s a sad fact that some of us will not survive this.

We’re always up for a challenge, and we’ll work hard to keep our economy thriving and ensure the UK stays at the forefront of technological innovation for generations to come – but we need your help. A few promises to allay fears while you tackle some of the bigger fish will do just fine.

Image courtesy of Kristoffersonschach on Flickr

Image courtesy of Kristoffersonschach on Flickr

Please, reassure our talent

It’s no secret you’ve been vocal about your views on immigration as former Home Secretary – you were strict with foreign students applying for work visas here and have considered high entry requirements for those from outside of the EU previously. Then again, you were also instrumental in developing the Tech Nation Visa Scheme.

What we ask is that you consider the position of our current EU entrepreneurs and employees facing an uncertain future – they need to know that they remain welcome and that they can continue to develop their businesses and careers here for the long-term. Even with the best will in the world, we simply don’t have enough STEM graduates coming through the system to keep up with demand, so we must embrace foreign talent.

Reconsider the Snooper’s Charter

You put the Investigatory Powers Bill forward with good intentions to help tackle threats to national security – that in itself is, of course, no bad thing. But when that is coupled with authorising the state to bulk collect UK citizen’s personal data across every digital device they own, it’s something that few technology companies would condone or indeed want to be a part of.

Technology is a sector filled with unknowns, mysteries and jargon – the least we should be able to promise our users or customers is that their privacy is secure with us.

Allow us to abide by EU standards

In a similar vein, Europe is very particular about the way their citizens’ data can be used and stored due to privacy concerns – something that led to the collapse of the Safe Harbour arrangement last year and is bringing its replacement, the Privacy Shield, under intense scrutiny.

If the UK leaves the Union, the legislation will no longer directly apply – but unless we abide by the same standards, we will experience many of the same challenges currently being faced by the US and it could take years for us to rebuild these relationships. We’ll find ways to cross borders of course, but it’s just one extra hurdle.

Encourage diversity

Your gender shouldn’t define you – you’ve worked hard to get to your position and are extremely qualified for your new role on the global stage. Yet there’s no denying that you have navigated what is an extremely male-dominated sector, and for many, will represent a world of possibility as one of the few that ‘made it’.

Technology is an industry that faces similar challenges in diversity, all the way from the classroom, where few young women are opting for STEM subjects, right through to the boardroom. Help us reach minorities and let them know they all can and are very welcome to take leading roles within the digital economy.

We know you want to just get on with the job, so we won’t keep you any longer, but we hope you’ll take these requests into consideration to give the industry the best tools with which to face the fight ahead.

We wait with bated breath,

Yours sincerely,

Tech

You can read an abridged version of this letter in City AM’s Letters to Editor, 15/07/16

The Privacy Shield – Safer Harbour or Sinking Ship?

This week, technology firms across Europe breathed a heavy sigh of relief as Brussels and Washington reached a deal in the eleventh-hour on transatlantic data transfer and privacy rules to replace the defunct ‘Safe Harbour’ agreement, which was ruled illegal in October 2015.

The new Privacy Shield pact, also known as ‘Safer Harbour’, will see the US give an annual written commitment that it will not conduct mass or indiscriminate surveillance of EU citizens, which will then be audited by both sides once a year.

But what went wrong? And why is it so important?

To answer that, we need to go back to the case of whistleblower, Edward Snowden, who in 2013 leaked thousands of classified documents revealing details about the global surveillance programme.

Perhaps the most infamous of these was the PRISM programme, which collected data from around the world including emails, video, audio, photographs, documents and other related materials in collaboration with at least nine companies – Microsoft, Yahoo, Google, Facebook, PalTalk, AOL, Skype, Youtube and Apple.

This then brought the Safe Harbour agreement into question. EU privacy law forbids its citizens’ personal data from being sent outside of the union to locations without “adaquate” privacy protections, so the deal saw the US promise to abide by these standards. However, in order to avoid drawn-out procedures delaying transfers, the deal also allowed companies to self-certify their data practices.

Last year, a concerned Austrian law student called Max Schrems took Facebook to court in Ireland after filing a privacy complaint that effectively challenged the safeguards Safe Harbour had in place – he won. The old deal was scrapped and watchdogs were given three months to ‘put their house in order’.

 

Max Schrems

Max Schrems, Activist. Image courtesy of abdeslam ait hida on Flickr

 

This left some 4,000 companies in limbo and half a trillion dollars of trade at stake. Apart from the tech giants, who hold all user data at their US headquarters, there were many small businesses that had relied on the agreement to outsource their human resources, payroll and other tasks involving personal data about customers or staff.

So it’s no surprise that many organisations were quick to celebrate and get back to business as usual.

However, not everyone is pleased. Schrems, along with privacy agencies across the continent, have since pointed out that the that the US has not changed its surveillance techniques to be compliant with European law – something that leaves plenty of scope for Privacy Shield to being ruled invalid, just like its predecessor. Meanwhile, the European’s Data Protection Authorities have warned businesses to hold fire on signing up until April while they analyse the legality of the agreement.

My main question, however, is whether the EU would ever dare enforce the law again. Besides the turmoil and angst caused by the first ruling, there’s no denying the benefits multinationals like Amazon and Google bring to an economy, so would they ever risk the potential backlash? Think about the issues surrounding tax avoidance – where’s the real action there?

To me, it feels like we’ve reached an impasse – the US wants to snoop, the EU doesn’t like it, but neither want to lose what the other has. So instead they crack open the champagne and watch a leaky ship slowly sinking in a shark-infested harbour, because what else can they do?