Tuesday 21 July 2020

Secrecy isn't always in our best interests

Later today we will finally get to see the much-delayed report on Russian interference in UK elections. That there was such interference and that it was designed to promote Russian interests, including weakening the EU by promoting Brexit, is beyond doubt. That the Conservative Party received significant sums of money from people with strong Russian connections and interests is also not open to question. I’m less convinced that there will be any sort of ‘smoking gun’ proving incontrovertibly that the Tory Party acted on Russian bidding as a result of such funding or that hacking was enough to swing an election – or a referendum. I don’t doubt for a moment that the Russian state uses all means at its disposal to influence events in its favour, including cyber warfare and hacking. But neither do I doubt that the UK state does exactly the same thing; they’re just not keen on telling us about that, preferring to provoke outrage at the actions of others rather than admit that it’s simply the way in which competing states behave. I could be wrong, of course, but the fact that the committee contained four Johnson loyalists and voted unanimously to release the report suggests that it might not be quite as damning as it could be. Perhaps the juiciest bits will be in the unpublished annex.
In any event, the UK government has been busy over recent days, in what looks like a diversionary tactic, expressing its outrage at the way Russia has been trying to hack into and steal the data on potential vaccines for the coronavirus. But instead of meekly reporting the outrage at this attempt to steal data, perhaps the media should be asking why the data is secret in the first place. It isn’t government data, of course, it’s data belonging to researchers and private companies, but it’s data which would be useful to anyone trying to deal with the worst pandemic to hit the world for a century. We should be asking ourselves why that data would be so secret and why, in fighting a common disease affecting every country in the world, countries and companies are keeping data to themselves rather than sharing it openly in a common and united effort.
The standard answer would be that the pharma companies want to protect their investment in research so that they can recover it in subsequent sales, but that just provokes a further question – why is this research and development work so heavily in the private domain rather than the public domain? Why is the effort to find a vaccine to respond to a global problem causing hundreds of thousands of deaths a competitive one rather than a co-operative one? There is no obvious or necessary reason why research into fighting disease should be conducted primarily by private companies in secret for profit rather than by public bodies in the open for the good of all. The Government’s attacks on Russia for hacking in this case owe more to the protection of capitalist enterprises than to promotion of public health.

No comments: