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Sunak warned government’s ageing IT systems are ‘accident waiting to happen’

Exclusive: Government doesn’t know how much it spends patching up old computer systems

Adam Forrest
Thursday 02 November 2023 12:13 GMT
What's in store at Rishi Sunak's AI safety summit?

Rishi Sunak has been warned the government’s ageing computer systems are an “accident waiting to happen” – as ministers admitted they do not know the cost of patching up old IT.

Labour urged the Tory government to “come clean” on work going on to fix up systems from the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s – warning they could be increasingly vulnerable to cyber-attack.

The Cabinet Office could not say exactly how many of the “legacy” systems in the NHS and other departments are risky, outdated or defunct.

And the government also conceded it did not know how much was being spent on keeping them running across Whitehall and elsewhere.

Labour pointed to recent government data showing that almost 12,000 NHS computers are still using outdated Windows 7 systems, leaving them potentially vulnerable to hackers.

Shadow science secretary Peter Kyle told The Independent: “Rishi Sunak’s failure to keep the government’s tech up to date is an accident waiting to happen.”

“After 13 years of Tory government, Britain is still using 20th century computer systems for essential public services,” the frontbencher added.

“During the AI summit, it’s crucial we know how vulnerable these systems are to cyber-attacks and if they will prevent us using AI to improve public services.”

The 2017 WannaCry ransomware attack, which targeted PCs running Windows, hit the NHS at an estimated cost of £92m.

Rishi Sunak is hosting AI summit at Bletchley Park (POOL/AFP via Getty Images)

The government’s “legacy” IT systems includes those critical for national security, like the Police National Computer – which helps polices solve crimes and keep the public safe – introduced back in 1974.

Other legacy systems include the Pension Services Computer System, brought in back in 1988, which left 134,000 pensioners short of their pension payments totalling over £1bn.

Answers from Cabinet Office minister Alex Burghart to parliamentary questions fromn Labour confirmed the Sunak government did not hold figures for how much maintaining legacy IT systems is costing the taxpayer.

“The cost to the public purse of external contractors used to maintain legacy IT estate cross-government is not centrally held,” Mr Burghart said.

The Tory minister said the Cabinet Office’s central digital and data office (CDDO) was “seeking to develop an overview of the magnitude of the legacy estate initially across ministerial departments”.

It came as Labour called on Mr Sunak to create binding regulation on the big-tech companies developing the most powerful “frontier” artificial intelligence, as the Tory leader hosts global leaders at his AI summit in Bletchley Park.

Mr Kyle warned that the PM “must not hesitate to regulate” the most powerful AI models being developed by a handful of companies such as Google DeepMind, OpenAI and Anthropic.

Mr Sunak warned companies could not be left to “mark their own homework” in an interview with the BBC, against a backdrop of concerns about the technology’s potential capabilities.

Labour has promised the bring in regulation forcing AI firms to report before they train models over a certain capability threshold, with independent oversight on testing.

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