The IT reform agenda of the past five years has successfully demonstrated that government technology itself is rarely "special". Public services can often be designed using commodity goods and services - much as in any other organisation. Yet one area where governments do face a unique challenge is in their duty to protect some of the most vulnerable and at risk individuals in our society.
The need to use technology to secure sensitive personal data spans complex areas: witness protection programmes, at risk children, undercover law enforcement officers, and battered spouses to name but a few. Ensuring the security of those involved in these potentially life-threatening circumstances is a challenge that few other organisations face, a challenge that requires an expert and relentless commitment to in-depth security engineering.
However, our trust in government's ability to fulfil its duty of care is in danger of being undermined as a result of the siren voices currently attacking the need for strong digital security. These attacks on cyber security become doubly toxic when combined with flawed approaches to "data sharing". The idea that the technology industry should move away from good security engineering practice – by allowing vulnerabilities ("backdoors") to break strong end-to-end encryption for example – will compromise the ability to secure and protect those most at risk.
Try parroting the glib sound bite "Nothing to hide, nothing to fear" to a battered spouse, abused child, witness to a serious crime, or undercover law enforcement official. It's hard to understand why anyone would willingly call for a weakening of cyber security. Undermining technology threatens not only online finance and commerce but the most vulnerable individuals in our society, compromising their personal safety and undermining their security.
Governments must ensure individuals, organisations and indeed governments themselves all have access to the best possible security technology and engineering practices available to protect their data and online activities. Doing so will not only help protect those most at risk in our society, but also help foster the wider economic and social wellbeing of the population at large.
The technically-challenged tyre kickers who call for the intentional weakening of online security risk opening a digital Pandora's box that will multiply today's online cyber crime and terrorist footprint. If their calls are heeded, they will have provided those who seek to threaten and exploit us with the very tools they desire. To chisel away at the digital foundations of our economic and social wellbeing runs contrary to government's worthy efforts elsewhere to strengthen cyber security and help us get safe online.
The London poet Alexander Pope observed in 1709 that "A little learning is a dangerous thing" – something ill-informed commentators well illustrate with their perverse desire to undermine online security by demanding the creation of weakened technologies. These siren voices that call so beguilingly in the mainstream media for intentional vulnerabilities in our technology risk crashing us all onto the rocks instead: as individuals, organisations and governments, we all need to ensure we can trust our technology. Cyber security needs to be strengthened, not compromised.