China has better hackers than us

The failure to teach computer science in schools and universities bites back

The Register reports on new statistics released by the coding site Interview Street which illustrate the dominance of developing economies in the field of information technology.

The site offers jobseekers tricky coding challenges to solve, with the idea being that the coders who have objectively demonstrated their merit will get picked up by big tech firms (it seems to work; Business Insider claims that Facebook and Zynga recruit from the site). They also have leaderboards, with the best candidate's countries listed. And guess who dominates the boards:

It's not just China. Over half of the top fifty hackers (that's "proficient at using computers", not "cyber-terrorist") are from BRICS countries, and although the US makes a showing, the highest Briton is 79th. Well done anyway, "srowley".

The Register's Phil Muncaster argues that our poor form is a consequence of the decline in focus given to science and technology, writing:

The government’s announcement last year of an overhaul to GCSE and A-Level exams to include more focus on coding and programming is a step in the right direction but fails to address the basic fact that sci-tech courses don’t have the requisite cool to attract large numbers of students.

Of course, China's lead may mean little if they continue to cordon their citizens off from the rest of the internet. Unless, that is, their lead in computer science is viewed, not as an economic issue, but as a military one. The great international relations scholar Joseph Nye warned today:

The world is only just beginning to see glimpses of cyber war – in the denial-of-service attacks that accompanied the conventional war in Georgia in 2008, or the recent sabotage of Iranian centrifuges. . . It is time for states to sit down and discuss how to limit this threat to world peace.

A Chinese computer user visits Ali Baba. Credit: Getty

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

Photo: Getty
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Scotland's vast deficit remains an obstacle to independence

Though the country's financial position has improved, independence would still risk severe austerity. 

For the SNP, the annual Scottish public spending figures bring good and bad news. The good news, such as it is, is that Scotland's deficit fell by £1.3bn in 2016/17. The bad news is that it remains £13.3bn or 8.3 per cent of GDP – three times the UK figure of 2.4 per cent (£46.2bn) and vastly higher than the white paper's worst case scenario of £5.5bn. 

These figures, it's important to note, include Scotland's geographic share of North Sea oil and gas revenue. The "oil bonus" that the SNP once boasted of has withered since the collapse in commodity prices. Though revenue rose from £56m the previous year to £208m, this remains a fraction of the £8bn recorded in 2011/12. Total public sector revenue was £312 per person below the UK average, while expenditure was £1,437 higher. Though the SNP is playing down the figures as "a snapshot", the white paper unambiguously stated: "GERS [Government Expenditure and Revenue Scotland] is the authoritative publication on Scotland’s public finances". 

As before, Nicola Sturgeon has warned of the threat posed by Brexit to the Scottish economy. But the country's black hole means the risks of independence remain immense. As a new state, Scotland would be forced to pay a premium on its debt, resulting in an even greater fiscal gap. Were it to use the pound without permission, with no independent central bank and no lender of last resort, borrowing costs would rise still further. To offset a Greek-style crisis, Scotland would be forced to impose dramatic austerity. 

Sturgeon is undoubtedly right to warn of the risks of Brexit (particularly of the "hard" variety). But for a large number of Scots, this is merely cause to avoid the added turmoil of independence. Though eventual EU membership would benefit Scotland, its UK trade is worth four times as much as that with Europe. 

Of course, for a true nationalist, economics is irrelevant. Independence is a good in itself and sovereignty always trumps prosperity (a point on which Scottish nationalists align with English Brexiteers). But if Scotland is to ever depart the UK, the SNP will need to win over pragmatists, too. In that quest, Scotland's deficit remains a vast obstacle. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.