Grant Shapps named UK defense supremo in latest 'tech-savvy' Tory tale

He praised Apple for its 'open source' tech – now he'll oversee AI use to defend Britain from its foes

Comment British politician Grant Shapps, who once told The Register that an incoming* Tory government would be the "most tech-savvy in history," has been appointed as the UK's new defense chief.

Shapps took to Xitter to say of his new job: "I'm honoured to be appointed as Defence Secretary by Rishi Sunak. I'd like to pay tribute to the enormous contribution Ben Wallace has made to UK defence and global security over the last four years."

Shapps leaves his current role as energy secretary, where he has been overseeing the UK's low-on-detail plan to somehow roll out a new nuclear reactor every year. Last year, he headed up the Home Office under short-lived prime minister Liz Truss, but not before earning the nickname "spreadsheet schemer" after claims he recorded party colleagues' concerns about Truss in a spreadsheet on his smartphone. Before that he was transport secretary.

grant shapps

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But out of all of his jobs, many in the British press today are remembering Shapps's family's web sales business, HowToCorp**, which claimed that clients who spent $200 on its software could "make $20,000 in 20 days guaranteed or your money back." In his former business, Shapps operated under the pseudonym "Michael Green," reportedly telling journalists this would help keep political and biz life separate. But here at The Reg, we recall a less well-known incident, after a former vulture wrote in to remind us of a simpler time, when a young MP spoke of his hopes and dreams.

Back in 2010, in an opinion column on The Reg, Shapps spoke of what he thought a tech-savvy government would look like, praising Apple for its dedication to ensuring that their product was "open source" (stay with us). Shapps went on to say that using technology to "blow open the closed world of government" was also the principle behind its 2010-era Open Source Planning Green Paper, strangely no longer available (broken link) on the party's website.

He added:

Just as Apple ensured that their iPhone product was 'open source' – meaning that software developers could come along and invent ways to use the phone going well beyond what Apple themselves had initially imagined – so too will our planning policy benefit from involved citizens achieving more than central government could ever manage on its own.

He went on to note that "rather than defaulting to the creation of enormous new databases in the style of the late and over-budget NHS system, we will look to leverage the immense power of so-called cloud-based computing where information is decentralised, shared and improved by the wisdom of many."

But there was more... Shapps added: "By introducing a powerful new 'Right to Government Data', we will enable the release of government datasets to be manipulated and presented by others, thereby empowering citizens with more useful, accurate information. We'll publish online every item of central government spending over £25,000 and local expenditure over £500. As well as publishing every contract in full."

That was 10 years before a Conservative government created a COVID-19 data store, with contracted arrangements between the NHS and Amazon, Microsoft, Google, and AI firms Faculty and Palantir (which subcontracts to AWS). It was so open about about this that it published the contracts it holds with the private tech firms for the world to see, but not before digital rights groups' lawyers fired legal shots. Campaign groups Foxglove and openDemocracy, which brought the legal action, alleged at the time that the documents showed the tech firms were set to build data models for commercial purposes from NHS training data before being challenged.

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Just a month before, ignoring the advice of both Apple and Google, the NHS opted to create a COVID app based on a centralized model, which could have presented serious privacy concerns. As we noted at the time, "in practice, the centralized app was unworkable on a technical level."

Shapps, back when he wrote his 2010 column, was a Conservative Member of Parliament for the Welwyn Hatfield constituency. Now, as former UK defense secretary Ben Wallace's resignation letter reminds us [PDF], Shapps will be in charge of overseeing the next WannaCry, should a serious malware strike on the country's computer systems recur. Wallace, incidentally, cited the department's handling of the crisis as one of his department's successes in incident response in his leaving letter.

Readers will recall that the 2017 ransomware worm infected systems across 74 countries, spreading across networks by exploiting a vulnerability in Microsoft's SMB file-sharing services, with NHS hospitals and trusts particularly badly hit. Microsoft was quick to issue patches as the ransomware began to paralyze the NHS, and luckily independent Brit infosec researcher Marcus Hutchins managed to find its killswitch and save the day, but it wasn't the country's finest hour, with a postmortem finding the UK health service could have fended off WannaCry "if only it had taken simple steps to protect its computers."

Among the MoD's upcoming challenges is investing at least £6.6 billion ($8.38 billion) in research and development, with a science and technology portfolio that will "ensure defence sustains operational advantage, can make the right decisions, and generate prosperity for the United Kingdom." Shapps will also oversee the MoD's guidance of how the military sector adopts AI, using "data-driven technologies" to "facilitate better decision-making at pace."

This hack, at least, wants to echo the sentiment of a commenter on Twitter X this morning, when they said: "Don't mess this one up, yeah?" ®

*It wasn't, ultimately the parties had to form a coalition after a hung parliament.

**Regarding HowToCorp, police dropped their inquiries in 2013.

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