Why The UK Needs Data Sovereignty

We need a national capability that treats our data as a national asset

2019 was a tough year for GovTech. There was concern about data misuse, political interference, fake news, cyber security and practices which, frankly, can at times only be described as Corporate Social Irresponsibility.

A few global technology companies are perceived as having become too big, too powerful, too rich, too greedy and accountable to no one. It is therefore no surprise that the eyes of the world are now scrutinising the technology industry like never before.

Data is at the heart of our digital industry. Here in the UK we have rich and diverse data sets, for example within our NHS, which have the potential to bring significant societal and economic benefit if we use that data safely, ethically and wisely. In doing so, better use of data can drive new national capabilities, new industries, new wealth and new jobs.

Data lakes, revenue streams

The think tank CEPS recently estimated that 92 per cent of the western world’s data is currently stored in the US. That’s a lot of data. And at the risk of stating the obvious, an increasing amount of that data is held in the cloud.

I don’t believe that any of us should ever be complacent or comfortable about these huge US data lakes, either now, or in the future.

Because of the US CLOUD Act, data held in the US, or by US companies, is subject to US law, no matter where it is in the world. Many will shrug their shoulders and think – so what? The US is an ally. Yet the UK’s Joint Committee on the National Security Strategy recently identified “growing strains on the UK’s relationship with the United States” as something that could potentially undermine our national security in the future.

Then there is the Carillion effect – even Jeff Bezos has gone on record to say that “one day Amazon will fail”. Putting all our eggs in one or possibly two, baskets is neither resilient nor sustainable in the long run.

And it goes without saying that a near data monopoly will do nothing to drive competition, innovation or value – and it will inhibit local and inward innovation and investment. This again reinforces why the US, leveraging their large data lakes, have such a huge economic advantage.

In turn the UK will ultimately be deprived of our digital resilience, the national capability that we desperately need and instead will be dependent on foreign powers for the curation of our own data.

Concentration risk

Only now is the world finally waking up to one of hyper-scale cloud’s greatest challenges – concentration risk. Historically, concentration risk has been seen as a pounds, shillings and pence exposure. It still is, but it is equally applicable to the currency of data. The financial services industry has been worrying about this dimension too and others are now following their lead.

In June 2019 the US Federal Government updated its “Cloud First” strategy to a “Cloud Smart” strategy. What “Cloud Smart” means in practice is that even US agencies are re-considering their dependency on individual hyper-scale clouds by planning to invest in multi-cloud environments, because the multi-cloud approach offers choice and flexibility, and potentially reduces millions of dollars of federal technical debt.

In October, Angela Merkel launched Gaia-X, following warnings from German law makers and industry leaders that their country is too dependent on foreign-owned digital infrastructure.

Gaia-X is a plan to restore European sovereignty to European data. It will be a cloud service that will address growing alarm over the reliance of industry, governments and security services on US cloud providers. Gaia-X has growing support across Europe.

A German MP described it thus: “It’s like with access to gas — if we make our entire energy supply reliant on a few nations in the world who get to control access, we’re becoming politically dependent”.

The analogy is clear. As a nation we would be insane to put any valuable resource exclusively into foreign control. So why on earth would we do this with our data?

Taking back control

Some are now seeing the scramble for data sovereignty as the next arms race. Yet here in the UK we have been mostly preoccupied with Brexit and the General Election. In both, digital and data have kept a remarkably low profile, despite their huge and ever-growing importance to our economy, our national security and the future provision of effective healthcare.

There is a very real danger that the UK will fall behind Europe and indeed the rest of the world unless we too take back control of our data. Of course, Gaia-X already has its detractors – most of which are US companies and US Trade Associations, all claiming that it can’t be done. But they would take that position wouldn’t they? The world’s largest cloud companies are all from the US and they already host 92 per cent of our data! They already have a national capability and national assets that drive their economic and political independence.

I disagree with the detractors and firmly believe that we could develop our own Gaia-X. Here in the UK we have some of the most technologically innovative, agile and capable organisations in the world. And there are many companies and individuals would love to have the opportunity to work with government, academia and other industry specialists to develop a Gaia-X for the UK.

My vision is for an inclusive multi-vendor, multi-cloud service that creates a digital platform for innovation and collaboration within the UK. A digital platform based on technical, ethical, jurisdictional and regulatory standards that would be available for government and industry alike. A digital platform which would create a huge national capability by facilitating the sharing and analytics of data and intelligence.

A national capability for national data

It would underpin new industries in the UK based on the power of data, enhance our national security, grow our economy and bolster the Exchequer – and we will need this more than ever, as we face the twin challenges of Brexit and the forthcoming trade negotiations.

The world’s increasing dependence on a few US hyper-scale cloud providers creates national dependencies and diminishes our national capability. This does not mean that they do not have a place as a valuable supplier to our government and UK industry. But they have grown too big, too quickly and the UK needs a core capability to remain digitally independent.

If Europe can do this then so must we. We must be bold in our ambition and have belief in our capability – or we shall be stuck between the rock and the hard place that will be Europe and the US.

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