We should be glad the PCC elections are so dull

Which of the nebulous promises of less crime and more policemen enthuses you to turn up to vote?

As the results of the first elections to the position of police and crime commissioner come in, the over-riding impression is that nobody gives a shit.

Turnout in Wiltshire, the first of the areas to declare, was just 15.7 per cent – lower than any national election since 1918, and lower than any individual constituency result in a general election since 1945. Meanwhile, Stuart Wilks-Heeg, of the independent research organisation Democratic Audit, reports that at least three polling stations had exactly zero voters, which sounds like it could be a first.

But perhaps we ought to be thankful that the public is showing so much apathy.

A brief glance at the election statements of candidates shows how hard it is to stand out. One explicitly promises to "reduce crime by 20%"; another vaguely claims he will "put victims at the heart of the criminal justice process". Some didn't even write forward-looking statements at all, instead focusing entirely on their past: "17 years of local authority experience… 24 years of managing a successful business… Police Neighbourhood Tasking group chair".

There is nothing stopping people running entirely on claims that "I have done a good job in the past, so I will probably do a good job in the future" – although it does raise the question of why we bothered to switch from job interviews, which are normally predicated on that sort of claim anyway – but the problem is, it leaves the position vulnerable to candidates running on more interesting platforms.

The entire reasoning behind PCC elections is basically that there are low-hanging fruit of innovative policing techniques which the "career coppers" haven't been able to spot because they're too disconnected from the real world. The problem is that if that turns out not to be true – if policing is, broadly, done as well as it can be – then the low-hanging fruit turns out to be rotten.

Sheriff Joe Arpaio is the elected sheriff of Maricopa County, Arizona. He was first elected in November 1992, and has held the post for 21 years straight. In that time, Arpaio has hit the press for:

To be clear, many of these problems are as much to do with America and its third-world jail system as they are to do with Joe Arpaio and the process of electing police chiefs. But to suggest that elections will introduce "accountability" into the process, when someone like Arpaio has been re-elected five times, is nothing more than wishful thinking.

The best we can hope for with PCC elections is a continuation of dull, technocratic manifestos leading to minuscule turnout along party lines – because the methods people might use to really stoke up the electorate don't bear thinking about.

An inmate at Maricopa County Jail. Photograph: Getty Images

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

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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.