Security Forward Workshop & Dinner - 22 March 2016

Thursday, 31 March 2016

Security Forward Risk and Intelligence Forum’s Spring meeting was held Z/Yen on 22 March 2016. Unusually, the meeting started with a presentation from our host, Alderman Professor Michael Mainelli, Executive Chairman of Z/Yen. Michael promised at our last meeting to be our guest speaker for a change and to give an explanation of the highly technical area of Mutual Distributed Ledgers (MDLs, aka blockchains) and their importance to security issues. Michael and his team explained some of their MDL applications, such as identity systems, clinical records storage, and insurance messaging. They demonstrated one open system MetroGnomo (www.metrognomo.com), that is being used for ‘timestamping and file retrieval’. They also starred in their own feature film (4 minutes!). It was clear that many current cyber threats will be mitigated as such technology becomes more mainstream, however equally it means that moving more of life online will increase digital vulnerability. In some ways, the big long-term threats are more governments undermining ‘strong crypto’ with backdoors, or a massive electromagnetic pulse (e.g. a Carrington Event), than today’s necessary focus on cyber criminals. Despite the high technical content, there were quite a few self-satisfied expressions of “I even understood that”.

After our usual round-robin to identify ‘in tray’ issues and concerns, our second speaker was our own ‘Speaker in Residence’, Lt Colonel Crispin Black, MBE, MPhil. Crispin is an independent expert on terrorism, intelligence and security, as well as a novelist. Crispin’s presentation was entitled "Has The West Lost Its Edge In Scientific & Technical Education". Crispin’s presentation dealt with an old theme that has recently re-entered mainstream thinking, exacerbated by political turbulence in both Europe and the United States - a perceived haemorrhaging of power, energy and influence from the West to other parts of the world. He pointed out forcefully that Germany was the leading scientific and technical country in the world when Hitler came to power in January 1933. Its universities, such as Gottingen and Munich, where then more technically advanced than Cambridge, Harvard or MIT. But within months, thanks to Nazi pseudo-science and anti-Semitism , Germany's edge evaporated. Many important scientific programmes including, crucially, the German atomic bomb project foundered once Jewish scientists went into exile and the dead hand of totalitarianism began to stifle free thought. Many of the same forces seem to be in play in the Islamic World today which seems highly unlikely, for now, to become a serious competitor. China however, is a different prospect with its scientists able to exploit the achievements of the Americans and Europeans with ease in the internet age. Crispin suggested, as Europe’s borders begin to close to the outside world and various forms of group-think establish themselves on university campuses we may have to work hard to ensure that our scientists and engineers keep an open mind to developments elsewhere.

Following the meeting, we dined at The Honourable Artillery Company at Armoury House. Our cocktail of choice, in commemoration of the Empire changes of a century ago, the Irish Easter Rising, and Crispin's concluding image of Trinity College Dublin (one of Michael's alma maters) being defended by British forces and students, was the Black Velvet (Guinness and champagne). The parade in progress directly outside our window gave those of our Members with a military background an opportunity to see the HAC recruits being put through their paces. As all the NCO’s at the HAC are provided by The Brigade of Guards, the drill was of a high standard. Our dinner speaker was Professor Eugene Rogan, Director of The Middle East Centre at St Anthony’s College, University of Oxford. He is the author of "The Arabs: A History" (Penguin-2009), which has been translated in eleven languages and was named one of the best books of 2009 by The Economist, The Financial Times and Atlantic Monthly. His latest book is entitled "The Fall of The Ottomans: The Great War in The Middle East, 1914-1920". He spoke most eloquently about the book and then patiently and informedly took questions from the very knowledgeable group around the table. At the end of dinner, everybody was presented with a copy of his book and a very lively conversation followed. It was agreed that this had been one of our best meetings to date.

Future meetings for 2016 are planned for 29 June, 26 September and 7 December.