Morning Call: pick of the papers

The ten must-read comment pieces from this morning's papers.

1. America has lost the battle over government (Financial Times)

Both parties are accomplices to the premeditated asphyxiation of the state, says Jeffrey Sachs.

2. To hell with Gradgrinds – go to university (Independent)

It matters that we live in a country that no longer believes in training minds from all backgrounds, says Laurie Penny.

3. It’s Sweden that Assange fears, not America (Times) (£)

Whether the WikiLeaks founder likes it or not, he is no political refugee, says David Aaronovitch. But he has a real case to answer in law.

4. If Romney beats Obama, Ryan will set the tone and call the shots (Guardian)

The candidate is no Sarah Palin, and should he come to office he could be a tough foil to an indecisive president, writes Martin Kettle.

5. China’s very different election show (Financial Times)

The country’s democratic process is in full swing, but the result of the election will not be left to chance, says David Pilling.

6. A-level results: a day to celebrate (Guardian)

Don't listen to the cynics and the grumblers, writes David Willetts. Opportunities are being opened up in higher education like never before.

7. We volunteered for Games, but not for Big Society (Independent)

Volunteering at the London Olympics was a glorious one-off, but a one-off nonetheless, writes Mary Dejevsky.

8. The reason I won't be buying Fifty Shades of Grey loungewear (Guardian)

What do EL James' trilogy, Cosmopolitan and cosmetic surgery have in common? They seem to be about sex, when really they are about shopping, says Zoe Williams.

9. I hate to say it, but Boris is right: The government must stop pussyfooting around (Daily Mail)

As one alarming statistic after another confirms the dire state of the British economy, we should be in no doubt that the Government is fiddling while Rome burns, writes Daniel Johnson.

10. Our South Africans are on a sticky wicket (Daily Telegraph)

Kevin Pietersen is only one of many to use the England team for his own selfish ends, says Peter Oborne.

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Can Trident be hacked?

A former defence secretary has warned that Trident is vulnerable to cyber attacks. Is it?

What if, in the event of a destructive nuclear war, the prime minister goes to press the red button and it just doesn't work? 

This was the question raised by Des Browne, a former defence secretary, in an interview witht the Guardian this week. His argument, based on a report from the defence science board of the US Department of Defense, is that the UK's Trident nuclear weapons could be vulnerable to cyberattacks, and therefore rendered useless if hacked. 

Browne called for an "end-to-end" assessment of the system's cybersecurity: 

 The government ... have an obligation to assure parliament that all of the systems of the nuclear deterrent have been assessed end-to-end against cyber attacks to understand possible weak spots and that those weak spots are protected against a high-tier cyber threat. If they are unable to do that then there is no guarantee that we will have a reliable deterrent or the prime minister will be able to use this system when he needs to reach for it.

Is he right? Should we really be worried about Trident's potential cyber weaknesses?

Tangled webs 

The first, crucial thing to note is that Trident is not connected to the "internet" we use every day. Sure, it's connected to the main Ministry of Defence network, but this operates totally independently of the network that you visit Facebook through. In cyber-security terms, this means the network is "air-gapped" - it's isolated from other systems that could be less secure. 

In our minds, Trident is old and needs replacing (the submarines began patrolling in the 1990s), but any strike would be ordered and co-ordinated from Northwood, a military bunker 100m underground which would use the same modern networks as the rest of the MoD. Trident is basically as secure as the rest of the MoD. 

What the MoD said

I asked the Ministry of Defence for a statement on Trident's security, and while it obviously can't offer much information about how it all actually works, a spokesperson confirmed that the system is air-gapped and added: 

We wouldn't comment on the detail of our security arrangements for the nuclear deterrent but we can and do safeguard it from all threats including cyber.

What security experts said

Security experts agree that an air-gapped system tends to be more secure than one connected to the internet. Sean Sullivan, a security adviser at F-secure, told Infosecurity magazine that while some hackers have been able to "jump" air-gaps using code, this would cause "interference" at most and a major attack of this kind is still "a long way off". 

Franklin Miller, a former White House defence policy offer, told the Guardian that the original report cited by Browne was actually formulated in response to suggestions that some US defence networks should be connected to the internet. In that case, it actually represents an argument in favour of the type of air-gapped system used by the MoD. 

So... can it be hacked?

The answer is really that any system could be hacked, but a specialised, independent defence network is very, very unlikely to be. If a successful hack did happen, it would likely affect all aspects of defence, not just Trident. That doesn't mean that every effort shouldn't be made to make sure the MoD is using the most secure system possible, but it also means that scaremongering in the context of other, unrelated cybersecurity scares is a little unjustified. 

Barbara Speed is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman and a staff writer at CityMetric.