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Digital questions emerge from Brexit paper

16/07/18

Analysis: The Government’s proposals for the future relationship with the EU include a desire to maintain plenty of the data sharing, and leave a lot of uncertainty about how technology will support the customs arrangements, writes Mark Say

 

They have only nibbled at the mainstream news agenda, but the digital and data implications of Brexit are going to become more visible as the date of the UK’s departure from the EU gets closer.

A read through the Government’s newly published white paper on the future relationship between the two sides reveals several areas in which it has had to begin thinking about technology, data sharing and access to digital systems.

Whitehall street signIn short, the emphasises on building a partnership with the EU requires plenty of information sharing in areas of regulation, trade, law enforcement and security; and in most cases that means the UK wants to stay as close to existing arrangements as possible, without them actually being the same.

Most of the proposals – all subject to agreement with Brussels – look feasible; but there is one area in which the dependence on new technology raises a big question mark around the foreseeable prospects.

Continuity

The paper identifies several areas in which the Government believes it is as much in the EU’s interest to keep up the existing data sharing and information access arrangements.

Market surveillance – ensuring that products entering the UK meet its regulations and standards – would need cooperation arrangements with EU regulators, supported by continued access to EU systems such as the Rapid Alert System for Food and Feed and the Information and Communication System for Market Surveillance.

A similar proposal is for the UK to retain access to the alert systems and databases related to the European Centre for Disease Prevention to coordinate responses to any disease outbreaks or other threats to public health.

While the Government has made clear it wants digital and other services to be free of EU rules, it acknowledges the need to maintain cross-border data flows and seems ready to follow the European lead on the framework. It committed to abiding by the General Data Protection Regulation months after the Brexit vote, and the paper says the EU’s adequacy framework is a good starting point for a future arrangement and that the UK is ready to begin discussions for a new agreement to be in place by the end of the implementation period.

It also points to cyber security, saying the National Cyber Security Centre should continue to work with the EU’s Computer Emergency Response Team to share information on incidents.

Law and crime

There is plenty to take into account for law enforcement and criminal investigations. The paper highlights existing cooperation and proposes an arrangement in which both sides continue to exchange information, with access to systems on airline passengers, alerts to police and border forces, criminal records and DNA, fingerprint and vehicle registration records.

As part of this the UK would continue to participate in the Schengen Information System II, the European Criminal Records Information System, and follow through its pilots with the Prüm database of DNA profiles.

In all of these cases there is a credible argument that it will be in the EU’s interest to maintain something close to the current arrangements, and it does not need a big leap of faith to believe in the prospects for new deals.

There is another case, however, in which there have been signs of disagreement. The paper says the UK wants to stay in the Galileo satellite data programme as part of a future security partnership. There have already been noises from Brussels that this could be unwelcome for letting a non-EU member stay involved in a jealously guarded programme.

The big difficulty arises in the detail of the Prime Minister Theresa May’s much heralded Facilitated Customs Arrangement, with its requirement that the UK collects then passes on tariffs on behalf of the EU on goods heading to its member states.

Tech advances

In would bring on some immense practical challenges, for which the paper sees a solution in “future advancements in technology”. It talks about “exploring” how machine learning and artificial intelligence could be used in collecting data for customs declarations, and again “exploring” the possibility of storing the data on a chain of transactions then making it available across borders.

It says there would have to be a phased approach to implementation, with no reference to a timeframe or specifics on the technology that would make it possible.

It is not impossible: there is a lot of faith in the capabilities of AI inside the tech industry and the reference to a chain of transactions makes one think of blockchain technologies. But the technologies are still in their early days, not tested for the large scale, complex processes that would be involved. No-one yet knows how they could work in this context or when.

Price and risk

This raises a couple of negative possibilities. One is the launch of a major Whitehall digital programme, developed and implemented in a rush, with big price tag and a high degree of risk. One can almost begin to anticipate future criticisms from the National Audit Office and damning headlines in the press.

The other is that it proceeds at a more cautious pace, gives in to delays, extending the programme by a matter of years. What this would mean for the Facilitated Customs Arrangement is a big unknown, but it would likely cause a lot of hair pulling on both sides of the English Channel.

It leaves a big question mark over that reliance on technology, and another layer of uncertainty around how that future relationship between the UK and EU will look.

Image from iStock, Linda Steward

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