An open letter to the new Lib Dem peers

Well done! Now abolish yourselves.

Dear Olly, Brian, Zahida et al

Firstly, many congratulations to your elevation to the House of Lords as Lib Dem Peers. I have no doubt that this honour is a reflection of the days, months and years of public service you have given and you have been chosen because it is believed you will strengthen our legislature and make our country a better place to live. 

And now, on behalf of a grateful party, can I ask you to work tirelessly to remove yourself from the House.

I know this is hard. You’re probably still flushed with delight at the news, wondering when you’re having the robe fitting and ordering new stationary. And I don’t blame you in any way for accepting the honour – I would certainly have done the same. But you are  Lib Dem peers, tasked with delivering party policy, and party policy very clearly states that  ‘We will reform the House of Lords and replace it with an elected second chamber ’. And that is what you must now fight to do. You are the enemy within.

If you need some inspiration, you could do worse that spend 15 minutes listening to Lord Ashdown doing exactly that in the House – but in case you haven’t got time (those robes won’t fit themselves you know), here’s a handy extract.

“I just ask my noble colleagues in this place, whether they find it acceptable, at a time when people are dying for democracy, that we should have in This Place, somewhere that fundamentally infringes the fundamental principles of a democratic state. Which is that the peoples laws are made by the peoples representatives”.

We know the peers in the House of Lords do good work. But the best work they could do would be to abolish themselves and replace the structure with representatives chosen, not by patronage, but by votes.

For what its worth – I’d vote for someone who delivered that.

Photograph: Getty Images

Richard Morris blogs at A View From Ham Common, which was named Best New Blog at the 2011 Lib Dem Conference

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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.