Slowly, technology issues are rising to centre of the Brexit debate – as they should.
This week saw the publication of the UK government’s Data Protection Bill – our implementation of the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). Digital minister Matt Hancock hailed the bill as bringing UK data laws into the digital age and presented it as some marvellous new British concept in privacy, when in truth it’s simply our implementation of GDPR – something we have to do by May 2018 anyway because we’re still part of the EU.
More importantly, the government’s commitment to a GDPR-compliant law post-Brexit is essential to our future trade with Europe. If we can’t freely transfer data in and out of the EU, we can’t trade.
But the bill is not all we need. The EU expects a formal data adequacy agreement with any third countries, and while GDPR compliance should in theory make that straightforward, it’s not yet guaranteed.
Earlier this week, business lobby group the CBI called on the government to prioritise a data exchange deal in time for the Brexit deadline of 29 March 2019, warning that failure to do so could jeopardise £240bn in digital trade.
The CBI pointed out that the last major data deal between the EU and a third country was with New Zealand and took four years to agree.
This week the government also published a position paper on defence and security issues, in which it effectively asked / offered (delete according to your view on Brexit negotiations) to remain in all the key existing cyber security and intelligence sharing arrangements in place in the EU.
The UK has a jewel in the crown here in the doughnut shape of GCHQ, the premier electronic intelligence gathering and cyber security agency in the EU.
In Parliament too, there is a growing recognition of the challenges of redeveloping government IT systems to cater for a new relationship with the EU and new rules around borders, customs and immigration.
According to leaked documents, the government hopes to create a digital portal to check immigration status of EU citizens post-Brexit, joining up data and systems from the Home Office, HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC), and the Department for Work and Pensions. Bear in mind that the track record for developing joined-up IT systems like this is not great.
Meanwhile, MPs on the Treasury Committee questioned HMRC chief executive Jon Thompson about progress on the new customs IT system, without which import and export of goods post-Brexit could grind to a halt.
It’s very much a case of better late than never, but technology is finally being seen as a critical factor in making a success of Brexit.