Meet Our New Cyber Security Minister: Chloe Smith

Tom Brewster is TechWeek Europe’s Security Correspondent. He has also been named BT Information Security Journalist of the Year in 2012 and 2013.

We quiz the government’s new cyber security minister Chloe Smith on education, funding and use of dodgy data

Chloe Smith is still best known, rather unfortunately, as the MP who was pilloried in that interview with Jeremy Paxman earlier this year. Having pummelled the young Conservative politician with repeated questions on when a decision to delay a rise in fuel duty was made, amidst claims George Osborne hid the announcement from ministers, Paxman concluded by asking: “Do you ever feel incompetent?”

Smith is now dealing with different kinds of attacks than the verbal ones levelled at her by the curmudgeonly Newsnight presenter. She is now minister for cyber security in the Cabinet Office, where she will help coordinate the UK’s efforts in defending itself in the virtual sphere. Not that many would know that, considering she has made few public speeches on the topic since the government quietly moved her into the new role during September’s reshuffle

Quizzing Chloe Smith

But last night, at an event celebrating the Cyber Security Challenge and its mission to find fresh talent for the UK, the MP for Norwich North delivered a speech talking up the UK’s plans to grow the UK’s security industry and improve its defences.

TechWeekEurope managed to grab some one-on-one time with Smith, to quiz her on the Coalition’s plans for the sector. And, while we didn’t get much in the way of concrete answers, it was clear from the way she deflected things, she has had some additional media training in recent months.

g-cloud government westminster big ben © Shutterstock QQ7It was no surprise she was keen for plenty of private sector involvement – she is a Tory after all. Talking about the need to “find sufficient innovation to tackle the most minute aspects in the most technically advanced way whilst engaging young people”, she declared “government ain’t going to achieve that on its own”.

Smith was also keen to note how the government would not be addressing cyber security in an insular way – there will be plenty of international cooperation on developing cyber capabilities. “From a government point of view, what we are doing is working very closely with other governments in order to learn from their skills records and their technological innovations,” she told TechWeekEurope.

“Because we recognise the interchangeability of people and of threats and of solutions, we are always doing all we can.

“We had the Indian delegation here two weeks ago and the government was recently at the Budapest Conference on Cyberspace to continue to make those international links.”

On the issue of embedding security in the minds of school pupils, Smith said there were “promising things” coming in the updated ICT curriculum, due to appear in draft form before the end of the year. But despite the government talking openly about the security skills crisis, there are no clear targets in government on closing the skills gap. “It is not the kind of thing where I can say we will have x people by z year,” Smith noted.

Unsurprisingly then, the new cyber security minister was typically unspecific on many of the issues. But when asked to defend the alleged inflation of cyber crime cost figures to justify spending, Smith was a little feistier.

Last night’s presentations repeated an oft-quoted figure – £27 billion – the claimed cost of cyber crime each year to the British economy. But that figure, which came from Detica, the cyber side of defence contractor BAE, has been subsequently decried as nonsense by many in the industry, who believe the real cost is considerably lower. Other studies hint at £2 billion or less.

When TechWeekEurope asked if  this was an overestimate, Smith offered a curt response: “Do you really think this government is in the business of unnecessary or wasted spending? I think what you see in the economic climate we are in is the need to make sure absolutely every pound is spent wisely.

“We have gone about our business very seriously with the clear intention to get value for money.”

What about the question of where government’s £650 million cyber crime budget will go? Little has been revealed on where this chunk of taxpayers’ money is going, but we understand the majority is going to the government comunications headquarters (GCHQ), with £30 million handed to the Met’s Police Central e-crime Unit (PCeU), another £63 million to other police forces, £180,000 a year on the Challenge and £300,000 on the Get Safe Online initiative, designed to increase public awareness of security issues.

Where is the other £550 million going? “A lot of the answers will come in a month, when Francis Maude makes his ‘one-year on’ statement,” Smith said. “Yes, some of it is going to the intelligence sector. You would not expect to be able to conduct a programme without using the experience of GCHQ and the armed services.

“Unashamedly they are involved in the programme. Can I give you a number? No I can’t.”

Technical understanding

Many people complain of the lack of technical understanding in central government. Indeed, last night TechWeekEurope caught up with another minister involved in security, who said there remained a need to bring in technocrats with a solid understanding of protecting virtual assets..

Smith is no cyber security expert, however. Having graduated from York University, she moved on to Deloitte, where she helped advise private businesses, government departments and other public bodies. From there she moved into political circles, was elected as MP for Norwich North in a by-election in 2009 and is now one of Cameron’s favourite bright sparks. It’s hard to see where her cyber expertise, if she has any, come from, but she looks set to be a more prominent face in UK government in the future.

But at least Smith is young and clearly now has enough experience to bat away difficult questions. She is an archetypal politician in the making. Let’s hope that’s good enough for the security of our country.

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