Security threats are “more numerous, more complex, and are evolving” and people accustomed to a digital world should be prepared to survive in an analogue one, including by building personal resilience stashes, the UK has said.
The British Government has established a Resilience Directorate and will shortly be establishing a “resilience website” to inform the public how they can improve their chances of surviving global events, a direct attack on the digital devices that run our world, or even the electricity network that powers them. Warning that “it could be tomorrow that one of these things hits”, the British government minister with responsibility for resilience and Deputy UK Prime Minister, Oliver Dowden warned that “because society has so massively digitised,” it may be less resilient than previous generations.
While the exact advice had not yet been published, Dowden made a series of remarks while visiting Porton Down, the government’s experimental warfare research lab, giving some indication as to the direction of his thinking. Making clear he believed a situation where digital infrastructure would cease to function leaving many without power or access to information, the minister said: “The world has changed unrecognisably and our society is highly reliant on our digital infrastructure. Government needs to ensure that we are resilient in this digital age, ensuring that our structures take this into account, including considering those analogue capabilities that it makes sense to retain.”
Dowden spoke of a battery-powered radio, candles, and a flashlight as examples of basic resilience items that weren’t dependent on an internet connection or mains power during a crisis. He said, reports The Times: “[it] used to be the case that everyone would be able to access a battery-operated FM radio. How many people actually have that kind of communication device that isn’t reliant on digital and electric? So what would most of us do?”
“If it was a public health emergency, the relevant officials would be on [the radio] and we’d need to be able to communicate with people. We need to think about whether we have those resilient communications capabilities.”
Dowden reportedly emphasised these discussions were not about taking responsibility away from government crisis management, but rather to engender a “whole of society approach”. The Times said Dowden was asking about how to make the country more resilient in a major lights-out situation:
…the population to be temporarily sent back to an analogue era where modern technology is disabled by power cuts caused by cyberattacks, terror attacks, flooding or other climate-related emergencies.
In a separate Parliamentary statement on the work establishing the Resilience Directorate on Monday, Dowden also cited foreign wars as a source of instability inside the United Kingdom, specifically noting how Russia’s invasion of Ukraine caused major knock-on effects to the UK energy market. He told Parliament that “the risks we face are more numerous, more complex and are evolving more rapidly than ever before.”
Terrorism taking out power or data isn’t a theoretical threat either. As long reported by Breitbart News, hard-left anarchist activists have been attacking power and internet cables on the continent for years, with tens of thousands of homes being impacted at a time in nations like France, Germany, Spain, and Italy in otherwise little-publicised attacks against the underpinnings of the modern world.
The moves on resilience come amid criticism the United Kingdom was underprepared for the coming of the Coronavirus pandemic, a realisation that also appeared to reveal that the country wasn’t really prepared for anything.
Indeed, Dowden’s rhetoric on resilience has come despite years — even decades — of government policy making the United Kingdom less resilient. Despite the rhetorical questions about whether families still have an FM radio to hand in case of an emergency, it is still UK government policy to turn off the FM radio broadcast network in the coming years as part of its policy to switch to digital broadcasting. The plans have proven unpopular, however, and have been pushed back several times already.
It is also the policy of the government to shut down the traditional ‘landline’ based telephone network, reckoning it to be obsolete. Nevertheless, the telephone network is useful from a resilience standpoint, given exchanges have their own independent power systems in case of a blackout and telephones still work during power cuts. Indeed, the UK’s national grid power network even has a dedicated telephone number for reporting power cuts, underlining the degree of confidence they have the copper-wire telephones work independently of the grid.
The British government has already banned the burning of coal at home for heat, and certain types of wood, both of which are highly resilient ways to heat and cook and are not reliant on digital or the national power grid. While talking about resilience in the face of potential cyber-attacks against power infrastructure, the UK government is also working towards eliminating all forms of domestic heating that aren’t electricity-based in the future, with discussions of banning even gas-burning home boilers in a shift towards electric heat pumps.
Perhaps the most glaring move against energy security by the UK government was the closure of the Rough Gas storage facility in 2017 which in a single stroke took out 70 per cent of the nation’s energy storage capacity. This went little remarked except by resilience wonks at the time, but the utility of having energy in reserve if only as a means to weather spikes in the global energy market became painfully clear in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Other decisions undermining the readiness of the United Kingdom against a wide variety of situations go far further into the past. Almost all developed nations worldwide have Civil Defence establishments, for instance: typically government-funded bodies manned mainly by volunteers providing training and a reserve pool of emergency responders in case of natural and man-made disasters. The United Kingdom Civil Defence was closed in 1968 and never replaced, something which was felt during the Coronavirus crisis, but as of yet there has been little to no serious discussion about reversing that policy.