The real significance of the US cables leak

The leaks tell us little we didn’t know already but have exposed the limits of confidentiality.

Cut through some of the hype about a "world diplomatic crisis", and the truth is that so far little of note has emerged from the US cables leak. The news that Saudi Arabia wants the US to bomb Iran (the region's rival superpower) should come as a surprise to no one.

Elsewhere, we learn that the US believes Silvio Berlusconi is "vain", that Angela Merkel is "risk-averse" and that Nicolas Sarkozy is "thin-skinned". Who doesn't? Similarly, the revelation that the US and the UK have "grave fears" over the security of Pakistan's nuclear weapons programme hardly sets the pulse racing.

As with the MPs' expenses scandal, the best may be still to come, but I'm yet to be surprised by anything I've read (the first 63 cables are available here).

Instead, what's significant about the leak is that it happened at all. As Simon Jenkins points out, it proves that "an electronic secret is a contradiction in terms". Allies and foes of the Americans alike will be alarmed that the US government allowed this to happen.

That the material was made available to no fewer than three million government employees (it was not classified "top secret"), one of whom allegedly copied a selection on to a fake Lady Gaga CD, will surely prompt a rethink in Washington. Unless governments are to revert to an era of pre-digital diplomacy, however, embarrassment is the price they'll have to pay for the foreseeable future.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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As crime moves online, the police need the investment in technology to follow

Technology offers solutions, not just threats.

It’s perhaps inevitable that as the world becomes more digital, so does crime. This week Alison Saunders, director of public prosecutions, recognised that online crime is as serious as face-to-face crime. “Hate is hate,” Saunders wrote referring to internet abuse, and the police should protect people from it wherever they are. This will add demand to under-pressure police forces. And it is only the tip of the iceberg. 

Forty-seven per cent of crime involves an online element. Police recorded 30,000 instances of online stalking and harassment last year. People are 20 times more likely to be a victim of fraud than robbery, costing businesses an estimated £144bn a year. On a conservative estimate, 2,500 UK citizens use the anonymous dark web browser, Tor, for illegal purposes such as drug dealing, revenge porn and child sexual exploitation.

The police need new technology to meet demand, a Reform report published today finds. Some progress has been made in recent years. West Midlands Police uses an online portal for people to report incidents. Durham uses evidence-gathering software to collect social media information on suspects, and then instantly compile a report that can be shared with courts. Police have benefited from smartphones to share information, and body-worn cameras, which have reduced complaints against police by 93 per cent.

Yet, Theresa May’s 2016 remarks that police use “technology that lags woefully behind what they use as consumers” still stand. Officers interviewed for Reform’s research implored: “Give us the tools to do our job”.

Online evidence portals should be upgraded to accept CCTV footage. Apps should be developed to allow officers to learn about new digital threats, following the US army’s library of knowledge-sharing apps. Augmented-reality glasses are being used in the Netherlands to help officers identify evidence at digital crime scenes. Officers would save a trip back to the station if they could collect fingerprints on smartphones and statements on body-worn cameras.

New technology requires investment, but forces are reducing the resources put into IT as reserves have dried up. Durham plans to cut spend by 60 per cent between 2015-16 and 2019-20. The government should help fund equipment which can meet demand and return future productivity savings. If the Home Office invested the same as the Department of Health, another department pushing “transformative” technology, it would invest an extra £450m a year. This funding should come from administrative savings delivered through accelerating the Government’s automation agenda, which the think tank Reform has previously calculated would save Whitehall £2.6bn a year.

As crime moves online, police must follow. Saunders is right to point to the importance of meeting it. But technology offers solutions, not just threats. Installing the next generation of equipment will give police the tools to do their jobs, addressing online hate and more. 

Alexander Hitchcock is a senior researcher at reform