Voters support electoral reform but dislike hung parliaments

Is this finding as contradictory as it seems?

A new ComRes poll in this morning's Independent has the Tories on 37 per cent (-1), Labour on 33 per cent (-1) and the Liberal Democrats on 21 per cent (-1). So not much change there.

But much more interesting, as ConservativeHome's Jonathan Isaby points out, are the supplementary questions on electoral reform and hung parliaments.

An impressive 78 per cent of voters now support replacing first-past-the-post with a system that "reflects more accurately the proportion of votes cast for each party". But, in what Isaby describes as a "contradictory" finding, 72 per cent of voters agree that the "political horse-trading" which followed the election showed that an outright win is much more desirable than a hung parliament.

So, is this an example of voters' collective cognitive dissonance? Not necessarily. For a start, it's worth noting the use of the highly pejorative term "horse-trading". Had an alternative term such as negotiations been used, I'd wager that far fewer voters would have been opposed to hung parliaments.

It's also false to claim, as Isaby does, that electoral reform would "institutionalise hung parliaments". Under certain conditions, the Alternative Vote system (the question was not on proportional representation) can produce more proportional outcomes than first-past-the-post, while still handing one party an overall majority. Others, of course, may not realise that PR would produce more hung parliaments.

But either way, for now, it looks like first-past-the-past is destined for the dustbin of history.

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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.