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Public sector bodies accused of freezing out SME IT consultancies over IR35 compliance fears

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Public sector bodies accused of freezing out SME IT consultancies over IR35 compliance fears

Tech-focused small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) are being shut out of public sector contracts as risk-averse government departments fear finding themselves on the receiving end of multimillion tax bills for IR35 compliance errors, it is claimed.

A Public Accounts Committee (PAC) report in May 2022 confirmed that mistakes made during the implementation of the IR35 reforms in the public sector, which came into force in April 2017, had so far left government departments owing £263m in unpaid tax to HM Revenue & Customs (HMRC).

As revealed by Computer Weekly in July 2021, the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) was among the first to declare, in its accounts for the 2020-2021 financial year, that a review of its IR35 compliance procedures had left it owing HMRC £87.9m in back taxes.

Since then, details of the IR35-related tax bills incurred by other departments – including the Home Office, the Ministry of Justice (MoJ), and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) – have emerged.

Fearful of befalling a similar fate, it is claimed that some government departments have tweaked their hiring policies and are enforcing bans on the use of consultancies whose directors are actively involved in the delivery of the service their companies provide so they do not have to carry out IR35 status determinations for these engagements.

As a result, it is being claimed some departments have opted to avoid carrying out a status determination by simply cutting their SME suppliers loose.

That’s according to Romy Hughes, director of private and public sector digital transformation consultancy Brightman, who told Computer Weekly that she has witnessed this first-hand, and claims HMRC’s enforcement action against government departments is to blame.

According to the government’s own Digital Marketplace sales dashboard, Brightman has previously secured contracts with the likes of the National Crime Agency and HM Land Registry. 

“It is because HMRC actively went after bits of the public sector and levied fines against them [for IR35 errors] that the fear across the public sector of getting things wrong is huge. It’s the fear of an unexpected fine or tax bill that has really driven this behaviour more than anything,” she said.

“Any SMEs like ours, where my business partner and I work in the delivery of the service, are being deemed too risky to use by some of our [public sector] customers, and therefore they do not want to include us in their procurement pipelines,” she said.

“What we’ve got is a situation where public sector is cutting out huge amounts of SME expertise, and they’re not even getting as far as doing an assessment to say that you’re inside or outside IR35. They’re simply saying, ‘If you work as a director of an SME on delivery, we simply won’t have you in our supply chain’.”

Speaking to Computer Weekly, Dave Chaplin, CEO of compliance firm IR35 Shield, said – from a legislative perspective – he can see why public sector organisations may be responding in this way.

“The public sector appears to be trying to make sure they are not the ‘client’ from an off-payroll working point of view so that all services are delivered on a ‘fully contracted out’ basis. That means service delivery by the provider, without having to do any IR35 determinations at all,” he said. 

“If the director of the provider is also a shareholder of the service provider, then the off-payroll working [rules] comes into play for that person, because they have a material interest in service provider, and a determination needs to be made. This is just one of many damaging consequences of the ill-thought through legislation.”

This “consequence” also flies in the face of the UK government’s overall commitment to ensure more procurement spend is awarded to small businesses, continued Hughes, and could set back the pace of digital transformation within the public sector considerably as time goes on.

“These public sector organisations are beginning to curtail their ability to digitally transform their organisations by acting this way, and they’re removing all of the expertise and intellectual influence from that and pushing themselves into a corner where they can only rely on the big consultancies to deliver change,” continued Hughes.

“It’s an unintended consequence of IR35, because what’s really happening is the administrative overhead of [doing determinations] puts the public sector off, and that problem is only going to get worse with the [proposed] civil service headcount cuts. So, we’re in a position now where it is increasingly difficult to do business as an SME with the public sector.”

Changing attitudes

Hughes said she first picked up on this change in attitude towards the use of SME suppliers in March 2022, citing a marked rise around this time in the number of inside IR35 contracts appearing on the government’s Digital Marketplace procurement hub.

“We have seen a significant policy change across the public sector since March where even contracts that were clearly outside IR35 are being listed as inside IR35, which is quite surprising,” she said.

“The customers will see an increase in price if they put those contracts inside IR35, which means the public sector is willing to take a hit on the public purse – and not an insignificant hit either. You’re talking in the region of 20%.

“If you did a financial assessment of the risks of the fine compared to walking into a significant price increase then that seems to be a crazy assessment that’s happening there.”

Hughes’ observation of an uptick in inside IR35 roles within the public sector is supported by data accrued by Ricky Whitfield, founder of the Outside IR35 Roles website, which advertises currently available outside-IR35 roles on behalf of recruiters and end-hirers.

“In March 2022 we saw a drop off in public sector outside IR35 contracts advertised on the website of around 39% compared to the start of the calendar year. This then dropped further in April to 66% compared to the start of 2022,” he told Computer Weekly.

That said, he has noted a “bit of a spike” in outside IR35 roles being advertised within the past few weeks, which could hint at a sign the tide is turning.

This is a view shared by Seb Maley, CEO of IR35 compliance consultancy Qdos, who told Computer Weekly that – on the whole – public and private sector organisations are taking a more measured and pragmatic approach to complying with reforms now they have had some time to bed in.

“I don’t expect things to get worse, though, for contractors, regardless of the staggering bills issued in the public sector. In recent months – and based on our experience – the number of businesses taking a measured, fair and pragmatic approach to IR35 reform seems to be on the rise. 

“It’s vital that businesses see non-compliance in government departments as a reminder to prioritise their own IR35 compliance, rather than make needless knee-jerk reactions, like forcing all contractors to work [on a] Pay-As-You-Earn [basis].”

For Hughes, though, there is a genuine concern that medium-to-large private sector organisations – which were brought into scope of the IR35 reforms in April 2021 – will follow the lead of the public sector and also start dropping SME consultancies from their supply chains too.

“Over the next couple of decades and beyond we will see continued digital transformation, but this will hit the private sector now as well because of the change in rules taking effect there [in 2021] and what we will see is a real inhibition of the UK’s [potential] to be at the forefront of digital transformation, even though this is key to the UK maintaining its position in a lot of markets.”

Computer Weekly contacted HMRC for a comment on this story and to get its response to the claims that IR35 is having an unintended and detrimental impact on the UK government’s SME agenda, and received the following statement in response:

“The off-payroll reforms introduced in 2017 ensure that individuals who work like employees, but through their own limited company, are taxed like employees. HMRC consulted extensively on the reforms and delivered comprehensive education and support programme to help public sector bodies get things right,” the spokesperson said.

“The reforms raised an additional £525m in the first two years, levelling the playing field for workers and providing money that would not otherwise have been available for vital public services.

“The government spent a record £19bn with SMEs last year, the fourth consecutive annual increase. The new Procurement Bill will make it easier for SMEs bidding for government contracts, including those for digital services.”

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Why trusted execution environments will be integral to proof-of-stake blockchains

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Why trusted execution environments will be integral to proof-of-stake blockchains

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Ever since the invention of Bitcoin, we have seen a tremendous outpouring of computer science creativity in the open community. Despite its obvious success, Bitcoin has several shortcomings. It is too slow, too expensive, the price is too volatile and the transactions are too public.

Various cryptocurrency projects in the public space have tried to solve these challenges. There is particular interest in the community to solve the scalability challenge. Bitcoin’s proof-of-work consensus algorithm supports only seven transactions per second throughput. Other blockchains such as Ethereum 1.0, which also relies on the proof-of-work consensus algorithm, also demonstrate mediocre performance. This has an adverse impact on transaction fees. Transaction fees vary with the amount of traffic on the network. Sometimes the fees may be lower than $1 and at other times higher than $50.

Proof-of-work blockchains are also very energy-intensive. As of this writing, the process of creating Bitcoin consumes around 91 terawatt-hours of electricity annually. This is more energy than used by Finland, a nation of about 5.5 million.

While there is a section of commentators that think of this as a necessary cost of protecting the entire financial system securely, rather than just the cost of running a digital payment system, there is another section that thinks that this cost could be done away with by developing proof-of-stake consensus protocols. Proof-of-stake consensus protocols also deliver much higher throughputs. Some blockchain projects are aiming at delivering upwards of 100,000 transactions per second. At this performance level, blockchains could rival centralized payment processors like Visa.  

Figure 1: Validators

The shift toward proof-of-stake consensus is quite significant. Tendermint is a popular proof-of-stake consensus framework. Several projects such as Binance DEX, Oasis Network, Secret Network, Provenance Blockchain, and many more use the Tendermint framework. Ethereum is transitioning toward becoming a proof-of-stake-based network. Ethereum 2.0 is likely to launch in 2022 but already the network has over 300,000 validators. After Ethereum makes the transition, it is likely that several Ethereum Virtual Machine (EVM) based blockchains will follow suit. In addition, there are several non-EVM blockchains such as Cardano, Solana, Algorand, Tezos and Celo which use proof-of-stake consensus.  

Proof-of-stake blockchains introduce new requirements

As proof-of-stake blockchains take hold, it is important to dig deeper into the changes that are unfolding.  

First, there is no more “mining.” Instead, there is “staking.” Staking is a process of putting at stake the native blockchain currency to obtain the right to validate transactions. The staked cryptocurrency is made unusable for transactions, i.e., it cannot be used for making payments or interacting with smart contracts. Validators that stake cryptocurrency and process transactions earn a fraction of the fees that are paid by entities that submit transactions to the blockchain. Staking yields are often in the range of 5% to 15%.  

Second, unlike proof-of-work, proof-of-stake is a voting-based consensus protocol. Once a validator stakes cryptocurrency, it is committing to staying online and voting on transactions. If for some reason, a substantial number of validators go offline, transaction processing would stop entirely. This is because a supermajority of votes are required to add new blocks to the blockchain. This is quite a departure from proof-of-work blockchains where miners could come and go as they pleased, and their long-term rewards would depend on the amount of work they did while participating in the consensus protocol. In proof-of-stake blockchains, validator nodes are penalized, and a part of their stake is taken away if they do not stay online and vote on transactions.  

Figure 2: Honest voting vs. dishonest voting.

Third, in proof-of-work blockchains, if a miner misbehaves, for example, by trying to fork the blockchain, it ends up hurting itself. Mining on top of an incorrect block is a waste of effort. This is not true in proof-of-stake blockchains. If there is a fork in the blockchain, a validator node is in fact incentivized to support both the main chain and the fork. This is because there is always some small chance that the forked chain turns out to be the main chain in the long term. 

Punishing blockchain misbehavior

Early proof-of-stake blockchains ignored this problem and relied on validator nodes participating in consensus without misbehaving. But this is not a good assumption to make in the long term and so newer designs introduce a concept called “slashing.” In case a validator node observes that another node has misbehaved, for example by voting for two separate blocks at the same height, then the observer can slash the malicious node. The slashed node loses part of its staked cryptocurrency. The magnitude of a slashed cryptocurrency depends on the specific blockchain. Each blockchain has its own rules.  

Figure 3: Misbehaving validators are slashed by other validators for reasons such as “Attestation rule offense” and “Proposer rule offense”

Fourth, in proof-of-stake blockchains, misconfigurations can lead to slashing. A typical misconfiguration is one where multiple validators, which may be owned or operated by the same entity, end up using the same key for validating transactions. It is easy to see how this can lead to slashing.  

Finally, early proof-of-stake blockchains had a hard limit on how many validators could participate in consensus. This is because each validator signs a block two times, once during the prepare phase of the protocol and once during the commit phase. These signatures add up and could take up quite a bit of space in the block. This meant that proof-of-stake blockchains were more centralized than proof-of-work blockchains. This is a grave issue for proponents of decentralization and consequently, newer proof-of-stake blockchains are shifting towards newer crypto systems that support signature aggregation. For example, the Boneh-Lynn-Shacham (BLS) cryptosystem supports signature aggregation. Using the BLS cryptosystem, thousands of signatures can be aggregated in such a way that the aggregated signature occupies the space of only a single signature.  

How trusted execution environments can be integral to proof-of-stake blockchains  

While the core philosophy of blockchains revolves around the concept of trustlessness, trusted execution environments can be integral to proof-of-stake blockchains.  

Secure management of long-lived validator keys  

For proof-of-stake blockchains, validator keys need to be managed securely. Ideally, such keys should never be available in clear text. They should be generated and used inside trusted execution environments. Also, trusted execution environments need to ensure disaster recovery, and high availability. They need to be always online to cater to the demands of validator nodes.  

Secure execution of critical code

Trusted execution environments today are capable of more than secure key management. They can also be used to deploy critical code that operates with high integrity. In the case of proof-of-stake validators, it is important that conflicting messages are not signed. Signing conflicting messages can lead to economic penalties according to several proof-of-stake blockchain protocols. The code that tracks blockchain state and ensures that validators do not sign conflicting messages needs to be executed with high integrity.  

Conclusions

The blockchain ecosystem is changing in very fundamental ways. There is a large shift toward using proof-of-stake consensus because it offers higher performance and a lower energy footprint as compared to a proof-of-work consensus algorithm. This is not an insignificant change. 

Validator nodes must remain online and are penalized for going offline. Managing keys securely and always online is a challenge. 

To make the protocol work at scale, several blockchains have introduced punishments for misbehavior. Validator nodes continue to suffer these punishments because of misconfigurations or malicious attacks on them. To retain the large-scale distributed nature of blockchains, new cryptosystems are being adopted. Trusted execution environments that offer disaster recovery, high availability, support new cryptosystems such as BLS and allow for the execution of custom code with high integrity are likely to be an integral part of this shift from proof-of-work to proof-of-stake blockchains.

Pralhad Deshpande, Ph.D., is senior solutions architect at Fortanix.

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How NFTs in the metaverse can improve the value of physical assets in the real world

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How NFTs in the metaverse can improve the value of physical assets in the real world

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The metaverse has become inseparable from Web3 culture. Companies are racing to put out their own metaverses, from small startups to Mark Cuban and, of course, Meta. Before companies race to put out a metaverse, it’s important to understand what the metaverse actually is.

Or what it should be.

The prefix “meta” generally means both ”self-referential” or “about.” In other words, a meta-level is something about a lower level. From dictionary.com: 

“-a prefix added to the name of a subject and designating another subject that analyzes the original one but at a more abstract, higher level:

metaphilosophy; metalinguistics.

a prefix added to the name of something that consciously references or comments upon its own subject or features:

a meta-painting of an artist painting a canvas.

The key aspect of both definitions is self-reference. Logically, the term “metaverse” then should be “a universe that analyzes the original one, but at an abstracted level.” In other words, the metaverse will be an abstraction layer that describes our current physical world. 

The metaverse should be an extended reality, not a whole new one. 

And that’s why the trend has been heading toward a metaverse that’s built on crypto. Crypto, just like the world, has a kind of physical nature to it. You can’t copy a Bitcoin or an NFT. Just like the coffee cup on your desk can’t occupy the same physical space as the cup next to it. The space itself is singular and immutable and can’t be copied. Even if you make a 3D-printed replica, it’s not the same cup. So crypto is very well suited to building an immutable layer that describes the real world. In crypto, we can build models of the real world that carry over many of its properties.

The natural opportunity will be in digital twins. Digital twins create a universe of information about buildings or other physical assets and are tied to the physical world. In other words, they are that meta-layer. By integrating blockchain technology, in the form of NFTs, all data and information surrounding the physical twin can be verified and saved, forever, all tracked with the asset itself. When you think about it, digital twins are the metaverse versions of the physical twins, and the technology enhances features of the real world. 

Validation is the key to metaverse truth

When evaluating crypto/blockchain’s relationship to the metaverse, it’s important to remember that crypto is about verification and validation. So when considering blockchain’s relationship to the metaverse, it makes sense to think about it as a digital space that can be validated. 

So in the metaverse, it’s time to expand on what an NFT is and what it can hold. NFTs cannot be copied because they are tied to the validation and verification process in time, which is what makes them nonfungible. As the capabilities of NFTs grow, they are becoming a new information dimension that is tied to the real world.

NFT domains are going to be core to this idea. They become a nonfungible data space, uniquely tied to us and our activity on Web3. In the metaverse, these domain NFTs can represent a house; recording and validating every visitor, repair, event, etc. And that record and that infrastructure can be sold not just with the house but as a core component of the house, increasing the value.

By clearly defining what a true metaverse is, both for developers and investors, we can start to move toward a meaningful version of it. 

Leonard Kish is cofounder of Cortex App, based on YouBase’s distributed date protocol.

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Protecting the modern workforce requires a new approach to third-party security

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Ask any HR leader: they’ll tell you that attracting and retaining employees continues to be a top challenge. While this has never been easy, there’s little doubt that the COVID-19 pandemic (and distributed workforces) have made things even more complex. As you read this article, many workers are actively considering leaving their current roles, which don’t support their long-term goals or desired work-life balance. While organizations attempt to navigate this “Great Resignation,” more than 4 million workers are still resigning every month.

As 2022 marches on, hiring teams face another massive obstacle: global talent shortages. These trends have companies rushing to find creative stop-gap solutions to ensure business continuity in difficult times. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that more companies are relying on third-party vendors, suppliers and partners to meet short-term needs, reduce costs and keep innovation humming. In addition, the rise of the gig economy has more employees entering into nontraditional or temporary working relationships. This trend is particularly prevalent in the healthcare industry, but as many as 36% of American employees have a gig work arrangement in some form, either alongside or instead of a full-time job. 

What’s more, the corporate supplier ecosystem has become exponentially more complex. Amidst the supply chain vulnerabilities revealed by the pandemic, organizations are expanding and diversifying the number of supplier relationships they’re engaging in. Meanwhile, regulators have stepped up efforts to manage these business ecosystems.

In many cases, outsourcing to temporary workers or external partners makes good business sense. Sometimes, given the constraints of the talent pool, there’s simply no other option for a company. Either way, organizations should be aware of the security risks that third parties bring — and the steps they can take to minimize the chances of a breach occurring. 

Third-party security challenges remain prevalent

Bringing a third-party workforce onboard in a rushed way – and without proper governance or security controls in place – leaves organizations open to significant cyber risk. These risks can stem from the third-party users or suppliers themselves or those third parties’ access becoming compromised and used as a conduit for lateral movement, enabling attackers to access the company’s most sensitive data. Sadly, a lack of centralized control over suppliers and partners is all too common, no matter the industry. In many organizations, unlike full-time employees, third-party users are managed on an ad hoc basis by individual departments using manual processes or custom-built solutions. This is a recipe for increased cyber risk.

Take the now-infamous Target breach, which remains among the largest-scale third-party security breaches in history. In this incident, attackers made their way onto the retail giant’s network after compromising login credentials belonging to an employee of an HVAC contractor, eventually stealing 110 million customers’ payment information. 

In today’s world, where outsourcing and remote work are now the norm, third parties require corporate network access to get their jobs done. If companies don’t reconsider third-party security controls – and take action by addressing the root of the problem – they’ll remain open to cyber vulnerabilities that can devastate their business and its reputation.

A pervasive lack of visibility and control

Although reliance on third-party workers and technology is widespread in nearly every industry (and in some, it’s common for an organization to have more third-party users than employees), most organizations still don’t know exactly how many third-party relationships they have. Even worse, most don’t even grasp precisely how many employees each vendor, supplier or partner brings into the relationship or their level of risk. According to one survey conducted by the Ponemon Institute, 66% of respondents have no idea how many third-party relationships their organization has, even though 61% of those surveyed had experienced a breach attributable to a third party. 

Grasping the full extent of third-party access can be particularly challenging when there’s collaboration with outsiders through cloud-based applications like Slack, Microsoft Teams, Google Drive or Dropbox. Of course, the adoption of these platforms skyrocketed with the large-scale shift to remote and hybrid work that has come about over the last two years.

Another challenge is that although an organization may try to maintain a supplier database, it can be near-impossible to ensure that it’s both current and accurate with current technical capabilities. Because of processes like self-registration and guest invites, external identities remain disconnected from the security controls applied to employees. 

Growing regulatory interest and contractual obligations

As incidents and breaches attributable to third parties continue to rise, regulators are taking notice. For instance, Sarbanes-Oxley (SOX) now includes several controls targeted explicitly at managing third-party risk. Even the Cybersecurity Maturity Model Certification (CMMC) explicitly targets improving the cybersecurity maturity of third parties that serve the federal government. The ultimate goal of such regulations is to bring all third-party access under the same compliance controls required for employees so that there’s consistency across the entire workforce and violations can be mitigated quickly.

Today, we expect companies to push their suppliers, vendors and partners to implement more stringent security controls. In the long run, however, such approaches are unsustainable, since it’s difficult, if not impossible, to enforce standards across a third-party organization. Hence, the focus will need to shift to ensuring that identity-based perimeters are robust enough to identify and manage threats that third parties may pose.

Currently, decentralized identity solutions are moving into the mainstream. As these technologies become more widely accepted, they’ll continue to mature. This will help many organizations streamline third-party management in the future. It will also assist companies on their journey toward zero trust-compatible identity postures. Incorporating ongoing security monitoring and implementing continuous identity verification systems will also become increasingly important. 

Five steps to mitigate third-party risk today

Today’s challenges are complex but not unsolvable. Here are five steps organizations can take to improve third-party access governance over the short term.

1) Consolidate third-party management. This process can begin with finance and procurement. Anyone with any contract to provide services to any department in the company should be identified and cataloged in an authoritative system of record that includes information on the access privileges assigned to external users. 

Security teams should test for stale accounts and deprovision any that are no longer needed or in use. In addition, they should assign sponsorship and joint accountability to third-party administrators.

2) Institute vetting and risk-aware onboarding processes. Both the organization and its supplier/vendor need to determine workflows for vetting and onboarding third-party users to ensure they are who they say they are — and that their onboarding process follows the principle of least privilege. Implementing a self-service portal where third-party users can request access and provide required documentation can smooth the path to productivity. Access decisions should be based on risk.  

3) Define and refine policies and controls. The organization — and its vendors and suppliers — should continuously optimize policies and controls to identify potential violations and reduce false positives. Policies and controls must be tested periodically, and security teams should also review employees’ access. Over time, auto-remediation can minimize administrative overhead further.

4) Institute compliance controls for your entire workforce. Look for a third-party access governance solution that will enable consistency across employees and third-party users, especially since regulators increasingly require this. Having access to out-of-the-box compliance reports for SOX, GDPR, HIPAA and other relevant regulations makes it easier to enforce the appropriate controls and provide necessary audit documentation.

5) Implement privileged access management (PAM). Another critical step that organizations can take to boost their cybersecurity maturity is implementing a PAM solution. This will enable the organization to enforce least privileged access and zero-standing privilege automatically across all relevant accounts. 

The world of work will never again look like it did in 2019. The flexibility, agility and access to first-rate talent that businesses gain from embracing modern ways of working make the changes more than worthwhile. And enterprises can realize enormous value within today’s complex and dynamic business relationship and supplier ecosystems. They need to ensure their cybersecurity strategies can keep up by strengthening identity and third-party access governance.

Paul Mezzera is VP of Strategy at Saviynt.

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