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Oscar Williams

News editor

IP Expo: AI and GDPR dominate debate, but Brexit fears simmer

Thousands of execs descended on the Excel Centre in East London this week to hustle and network, and debate the big issues in enterprise tech. We’ve rounded up the major talking points, from the growing skills gap and the AI revolution to GDPR and the Brexit effect.

GDPR – most firms will “carry a quantum of illegality into 2018”

Just hours before delegates started pouring into the Excel on Wednesday, news of the true scale of Yahoo’s 2013 breach – already the biggest data leak in history – was breaking in the US. Contrary to previous reports, the firm admitted hackers had accessed not one billion accounts, but all three billion. To Webroot’s director of threat research, David Kennerley, the story was eye-catching, but unsurprising.

“It’s incredible news that three billion Yahoo user accounts were affected by the data breach in 2013, but at the same time probably not a real surprise,” he told NS Tech. “The hackers had pretty much free reign over Yahoo systems for a good while – with the breach only being initially disclosed by the company in late 2016.”

Given that barely a month has passed in the last year without a major breach hitting the headlines, it was perhaps inevitable that discussion quickly turned to the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation, which comes into force in just over six months.

Firms are almost guaranteed to “carry a quantum of illegality into May 2018 and beyond”, Stuart Room, global head of cyber security and data protection legal services at PwC, told delegates. The “maturity levels are such that the GDPR is impossible for most organisations”, he added, citing PwC’s readiness assessments.

“The lawmakers assumed the GDPR would be deliverable, but the evidence of the economy is something totally different,” he said. “Because of those false assumptions, we will end up in inevitable failure. Regardless of the amount of time and resources you may have, you will never deliver on the GDPR as designed.”

PwC’s own research, Room said, shows that regulators care most about data protection. As such, organisations must put risk at the heart of their compliance efforts. Reviewing who or what represents the biggest threats to their data is the best place to start, he concluded.

The rise of intelligent machines and the looming skills crisis

It wouldn’t be a tech conference in 2017 if there wasn’t a good deal of soul searching about the existential threat the industry poses to the future of humanity.

AI visionary Stuart Russell kicked off the second day’s proceedings with a barnstorming keynote about the technology’s power to transform the global economy. The computer scientist said the prize of solving general intelligence was worth more than the combined GDP of the global economy, but warned that governments, firms, schools and universities need to start preparing for the widespread economic disruption it would trigger.

Speaking to NS Tech afterwards, he said: “In the short-term, it’s clear that we face a shortage of scientists and robot engineers and people with all the necessary technical training, but that’s not a long-term position, because we don’t need a billion data scientists and robot engineers, not even maybe one per cent of that.”

Instead, Russell says we must focus on the areas in which people can add value. “Humans have a particular capability to improve each other’s lives in a whole host of ways.” There are some jobs, he says, that already work this way, but argues that we lack scientific understanding of how to do them well.

Cyber security experts on the regulation of the sector and Amber Rudd’s encryption plans

As NS Tech reported, the home secretary Amber Rudd drew the ire of many tech execs earlier this week when she said that technologists were sneering and patronising whenever she tried to legislate in a new area. She then said that she didn’t understand encryption, but that she didn’t need to anyway.

Rudd’s comments didn’t go down especially well with IP Expo’s “future of cyber security” panelists. Rig Ferguson, head of security research at Trend Micro, accused the home secretary of failing to understand why breaking encryption was a bad idea. “It’s the same as saying car manufacturers are helping terrorists by making cars,” he argued.

Commenting on the role of government in creating regulation for the cyber security sector, Anthony O’Mara, Malwarebytes’ EMEA VP told NS Tech: “Governments often have the right aspirations, but they’re behind the curve. It’s probably a function of government – it will always be very difficult for them to get ahead of the curve.”

He added that the global nature of the industry poses challenges for policymakers: “You’re not regulating within country. You can see with GDPR that this is a European initiative, but it also affects the world if you want to sell in Europe. So what kind of regulation do you put on to the security industry? If you look at the major players, many of them are US-based, but many of them are not. Is there any regulation around the world that works for anything today? The UN doesn’t work, so how can you expect them to manage cyber?”

The B word

While GDPR, security and the rise of intelligent machines dominated panel discussions, the impact Brexit might have on tech firms operating in the UK was front of mind for many executives.

“Some of our customers will likely move workloads out of the UK post-Brexit and we’ll have to move with them,” Sean McAvan, managing director of Navisite Europe told NS Tech. “That means we’ll have to consider opening facilities on mainland Europe to house data there. I think most of our competitors are also either looking at acquiring sites on mainland Europe or acquiring businesses that also have sites on mainland Europe, so there’s lots of M&A within our vertical.”

The ability to attract skilled workers after Brexit is also a key concern for McAvan. “Salaries are driven higher because there aren’t enough good people out there. So any kind of legislation, or even the threat of legislation that might impact on our ability to attract these people is a problem for us.”

He added: “We have lots of Europeans on our workforce that are worried about what happens to them in the long term.”