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This page provides occasional items, linked to the original articles, as we attempt to keep up with the rapidly changing situation on civil liberties.
Archive of old news service:
2002 - 2004

1st Jan to 9th Sept 2005

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Big Brother is watching your car journeys

Big Brother Watch, via a FOI request made by HMP Britain, have found that 7.6 billion journeys have been logged by Britain’s Automated Number Plate Recognition camera network. In response to a question about how long the data is retained for the reply stated:

ANPR read data is stored only for as long as is operationally necessary and not routinely more than two years.

Britain’s coalition government promises to strengthen civil liberties

From Section 10 of the coalition agreement between the Tories and the Liberal Democrats:

The parties agree to implement a full programme of measures to reverse the substantial erosion of civil liberties under the Labour Government and roll back state intrusion.

This will include:

  • A Freedom or Great Repeal Bill.
  • The scrapping of ID card scheme, the National Identity register, the next generation of biometric passports and the Contact Point Database.
  • Outlawing the finger-printing of children at school without parental permission.
  • The extension of the scope of the Freedom of Information Act to provide greater transparency.
  • Adopting the protections of the Scottish model for the DNA database.
  • The protection of historic freedoms through the defence of trial by jury.
  • The restoration of rights to non-violent protest.
  • The review of libel laws to protect freedom of speech.
  • Safeguards against the misuse of anti-terrorism legislation.
  • Further regulation of CCTV.
  • Ending of storage of internet and email records without good reason.
  • A new mechanism to prevent the proliferation of unnecessary new criminal offences.

If they’re as good as their word, this will be a promising start to ending and reversing the onslaught on civil liberties Britain has seen over the last 15 to 20 years or so.

Equality and Human Rights Commission to develop “livestyle” database

Posted by James Hammerton @ 12:32 pm on 23 December, 2009.
Categories privacy and surveillance, British politics, the database state, freedom of information.
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[Hat tip: Big Brother Watch]

Old Holborn, who filed the relevant freedom of information requests, quoting from a Daily Mail article:

Details of the plan emerged after the EHRC, led by chairman Trevor Phillips, began the tendering process for establishing the database. Freedom of Information requests, obtained by the Old Holborn blogger, then revealed what the scheme involved. Equalities bosses have decided they must work out whether citizens are suffering inequality based upon various different factors. These include age, gender, disability, sexual orientation, religion and belief, transgender status, ethnicity and social class. Citizens’ characteristics will be checked through their answers to various government surveys and information on whether they need hospital care or have called the police.

It will allow bureaucrats to check different groups are not more likely to die young, be murdered, suffer illness, or violent crime. Checks will also be made of happiness, healthy living standards and educational attainment. Any minority groups considered to be losing out can then be targeted for Government help. It will not be possible to identify individuals from the information on the database. But what is alarming campaigners is the way the information will be compiled. Staff are planning to take data which is given to a list of 45 different sources by members of the public.

This includes their A&E records, the British Crime Survey, the British Election Study, the Census, Childcare and Early Years Parents’ Survey and the Citizenship Survey. The information is not provided in the knowledge it will be handed over to an equality quango. But the EHRC’s report on the way the database should be established says the sexual identity question should become a standard part of major surveys ‘as soon as practicable’. An EHRC spokesman said: ‘Crime rates, poor hospital treatment, lack of childcare places and inadequate housing are some of the things that British people are worried about. ‘Looking at each of these problems in isolation doesn’t tell the whole story, as these factors may combine together to have a bigger effect on our lives.

Should MPs’ and candidates’ addresses be private?

I’ve been meaning to post on this for a while. The Register reported:

Members of Parliament have voted themselves the right to withhold their names and addresses from publication. Candidates at Parliamentary elections will get the same right.

This is perhaps less surprising than it ought to have been. Last May, the High Court ruled in a Freedom of Information case that MPs’ addresses should be public information. British citizens ought to be able to check on MP expense claims, or to monitor the living arrangements of individuals such as the Home Secretary.

In July, the government used an order in the House to overturn this, arguing that some personal information – particularly that relating to addresses and travel information – should be withheld from publication on the grounds of national security, and also the possibility that MPs would be harassed.

In October, Julian Lewis, MP for New Forest East raised the matter in the Commons. He praised the Leader of the House, Harriet Harman MP, for her “decisive intervention” in respect of the High Court case.

He pointed out that the High Court’s “dangerous decision” to allow addresses to be revealed was based on the fact they were published every four or five years anyway and asked: “Can we now consider closing this loophole?”

There are a number of points one can make about this:

  • Anyone wishing to harass an MP merely has to wait for them at the House of Commons or their constituency office.
  • In order to vote this country’s elections, I have to register my details in the publicly accessible electoral roll, as does anyone (including MPs) who wishes to vote in an election. If MPs addresses are to be kept secret, why not voters? Surely this is equivalent to me hiding my address from my employer?
  • Contrast the attitude here with requirements on members of the public to register their details in numerous government databases, accessible to numerous public officials, and often run very insecurely, in legislation that these same MPs have voted for.
  • If the MP’s address is secret, how are voters to know if the MP is lying about living locally?

But there is a further issue. The MPs didn’t even debate the measure:

Second, and more worrying, was the way in which this measure was introduced into the House on Monday, as an amendment, with no debate permitted, to the Political Parties and Elections Bill.

No matter how desirable a new law, it might be thought that a debate about its desirability would be even more desirable.

In vain, backbench MP David Heath raised a point of Order as to “whether there is any precedent for taking a Division on a completely undebated new clause, which falls in a later group that we have not yet reached, which is in the hands of Back Benchers from an opposition party and which has not even been moved”.

Mindful of her responsibility to the House, and the weight of centuries of democratic tradition weighing down on her shoulder, Deputy Speaker, Silvia Neal replied: “I have made a decision, and given my ruling and the reasons why this vote has been taken. I have nothing further to add.”

If they’re not going subject legislation to scrutiny, and they wish to hide from the public, then I say sack the lot of them, for they serve no useful purpose.

Australian Government adds Wikileaks to banned website list

Posted by James Hammerton @ 3:38 pm on 21 March, 2009.
Categories freedom of speech, accountability, freedom of information, Australian politics.
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Australian Government adds Wikileaks to banned website list:

The Australian communications regulator has issued a stark warning that websites who link out to ‘banned’ hyperlinks are liable to fines of up to Aus $11,000 a day.

The news comes after web forum Whirlpool was threatened with the fine for posting a hyperlink to a blacklisted anti-abortion website.

Wikileaks blacklisted

One of the newest additions to Australia’s ‘blacklisted hyperlinks’ list is Wikileaks; the website that publishes anonymous submissions of sensitive info on everything from corporations, religion and governments.

The blacklisting of certain pages of the site has come about after Wikileaks posted a list of websites at the tail end of 2008 that comprised the ’secret internet censorship’ list for Denmark. On this list were over 3,500 sites that were censored or banned in the country.

Seems Australia has taken the Chinese approach to controlling the internet.

The Gateway Reviews for the National Identity Scheme are finally published

It seems it can take over 4 years to obtain information under the Freedom of Information Act, even when the Information Commissioner and Tribunal come out on your side. Discussion of the documents can seen on NO2ID’s forum. Philip Johnston also discusses this at the Telegraph blog site.

The Convention on Modern Liberty: a personal view, part three

This article is the last of my series of articles on the Convention on Modern Liberty. In this article, I look at what the Convention has achieved and give a personal view on the question: What happens next?

So what has the convention achieved? A cynical person might suggest that all the Convention has achieved is to gather people together for sessions of preaching to the converted. The more conspiratorially minded might even suggest that the Convention has been deliberately set up as controlled opposition to keep the public quiet.

The Convention is already failing at merely providing “controlled opposition” in that it has succeeded in raising awareness of the erosion of liberty amongst the general public. My evidence for the raising of awareness is this: look at the coverage of civil liberties and of the Convention itself that accompanied the run-up to and the aftermath of the Convention in both the mainstream media and the online media. Helpfully, both Jack Straw, David Blunkett and Tom Harris have all attacked the Convention, providing further publicity and opportunities to raise awareness, as well as suggesting that the government and the Labour party are worried. There is also some sign that the pressure being exerted, partly via the Convention, over the data sharing clauses of the Coroners and Justice Bill is bearing fruit with hints that the measure will be watered down.

This raising of awareness also partly addresses the charge of preaching to the converted. By generating debate in the media, on blogs and on websites, the Convention has already got people talking about these issues who otherwise wouldn’t, and has got those who defend the government’s record to respond. On the day the Convention was not simply about preaching to the converted. We had people from all sorts of backgrounds and perspectives, discussing and debating the issues, including the issue of how to halt and reverse the erosion of liberty. There were MPs from across the political spectrum, activists, lawyers, authors, researchers, students, teachers, software developers, bloggers and many ordinary people attending the event whether in London or elsewhere in the country. There even people there trying to defend the government’s record and trying to defend the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act. People will have come away better informed about the issues, with contacts who can help in campaigning on the issues, and with ideas for what to do next. The Convention has also set up a social networking site to enable people to keep in touch with each other, discuss, debate and plan how to take things forward.

So the Convention has succeeded in raising awareness, generating debate and putting like minded people in touch with each other. It has even contributed to raising opposition to a specific erosion of privacy, namely the data sharing clauses mentioned above. This is all to the credit of those involved and is an achievement to be proud of.

However if the Convention is truly to be the turning point I hope for, much more will need to happen. The erosion of liberties has to stop and be reversed. In other words, we need to persuade both present and future politicians that eroding liberties is a Bad Idea, one that is liable to lose elections for them. And we need to do so whilst we still have a sufficient freedoms left to be able to campaign and to be able to vote. As David Davis said, by the time Britain becomes a police state, it will be too late.

We thus need to engage in the political processes of this country in order to persuade ordinary voters to vote against candidates who promise to erode liberties and to vote for candidates who promise to protect our rights.

We need to persuade people that the erosions of liberty simply give the state, and those who’d hijack it for their own purposes, more power over the public without any real benefit, that they merely amount to greater social control being exerted and they thus undermine democracy.

We need to address the false arguments that pit liberty against security, that suggest if we have nothing to hide then we have nothing to fear.

We need to ensure people are aware of the intrusive nature of schemes such as the National Identity Scheme or the database of communications data.

In the short to medium term I think we must have the following goals (at minimum!):

  • Defeat of the data sharing proposals in the Coroners and Justice Bill. If these proposals go through, then personal data held by one organisation will not be safe from any government that decides the data should be shared with any other organisation it chooses. Any safeguards introduced for schemes such as the National Identity Scheme will be worthless as they can be cast aside via an order in Parliament.
  • Defeat of the plans to create a central database of everyone’s communications data. This is mass surveillance of the general public, pure and simple, and should be opposed by anyone who believes in the right to privacy. If it goes ahead, it will give the authorities considerable power over those who get in their way.
  • Defeat of the National Identity Scheme. If this scheme goes ahead, it will involve mass surveillance, linking of data and the government getting a de facto veto over our access to any products or services that require checking someone’s NIR entry or card.
  • Defeat of the current government at the next General Election. My reason for suggesting this is simple. If this government continues into a fourth term, it will conclude that the erosion of liberty has negligible electoral consequences and will push that agenda even harder than before. Halting, let alone reversing, this agenda will become hugely more difficult in such circumstances. I’d add that defeat of the above three schemes will probably require defeating the current government.
  • Repeal or reform of offending legislation to reverse the erosion of liberty. That the Lib Dems have produced a Freedom Bill involving such repeals and that the Tories have also suggested some related repeals is a sign that such a goal is achievable. However, I regard a change of government as a pre-requisite. I simply do not believe the present lot will consider such a thing if they win again.
  • Generally, to maximise pressure on the (future) government to restore civil liberties.

Success in the above goals will form a good start, but the longer term goal must be to effect political changes that entrench our liberties in a manner that prevents the ongoing, step by step, erosion we’ve seen in the past 15 to 20 years or so.

All of these goals require persuading voters that the erosions of civil liberties matter, raising awareness of the erosions and the consequences of those erosions and exposing any broken promisses or further erosions of liberty that future governments engage in. Each person concerned about these issues, whether their focus is on the erosion of due process in the criminal justice system, the rise of mass surveillance or the restrictions of freedom of speech and the right to peaceful protest can play a role by telling others what they know about these issues, whether it be through blogging, writing to the newspapers, telling their friends or writing to their elected representatives.

The question left is how those who want to change things can produce effective vehicles for doing all these things. Some will work effectively within the political parties persuading them to change, others will work via pressure groups such as NO2ID or Liberty lobbying politicians and campaigning to the public, others still will blog, write newspaper or magazine articles or produce TV programs or videos on You Tube. The diversity of approaches already on display in getting us this far is encouraging - it makes it more likely that some them will succeed.

If those concerned about the erosion of liberty all resolve to act to change the situation, then it seems to me there is everything to play for.

Carnival on Modern Liberty

Part of the legacy of the Convention on Modern Liberty is the Carnival on Modern Liberty, which is a weekly round-up of liberty-related articles hosted at a different blog each week. The current edition (the seventh so far) is hosted at Liberal England. Below is a list of the previous editions:

You can submit links for each week’s Carnival at the Carnival’s home page.

The Convention on Modern Liberty: a personal view, part one

Yesterday the Convention on Modern Liberty took place. I attended the Glasgow convention, organised jointly by NO2ID Scotland and the Institute for Advanced Studies (IAS).

In this article, I provide an overview of my experience attending the Glasgow convention. I shall delve into more detail about various topics later in followup articles.

The first thing I’d like to do is to congratulate both NO2ID Scotland, especially Dr Geraint Bevan, and the IAS, especially Professor Mike Nellis, for organising a highly successful event. There were over 100 people from all sorts of backgrounds attending, more than had originally been planned for. The video links from the London Convention worked very well and there was a wide range of speakers and topics covered in the Glasgow sessions. I was particularly impressed with the questions from the audience and subsequent discussions that accompanied the talks. Notably, most people stayed for the whole day, i.e. from 9.30am through to a slightly late 5.40pm finish. The atmosphere was positive and I think most people will have come away from the event knowing a lot more than they did before, knowing who to get in touch with about these issues, and also with some ideas to followup on for campaigning on these issues. I shall talk in a bit more detail about what was said at the Glasgow Convention in a followup article.

The impression I got of the London event was also positive. There were excellent speeches and talks from the likes of Shami Chakrabarti, Dominic Grieve, Chris Huhne and David Davis, and interesting, pertitinent questions from an audience numbering in the thousands, with £35 tickets having been sold out. Here, again the organisers deserve congratulations, most notably Henry Porter for kicking the whole thing off after David Davis’s resignation.

As a starting point for a general campaign on liberty, the Convention has at least succeeded in getting large numbers of people from different backgrounds who are concerned about the erosion of liberty to talk to each other and start thinking about what to do about it. The main question is whether it’ll amount to more than preaching to the converted. To an extent, on the day, the Convention was bound to involve only those who were concerned about or otherwise take an interest in the erosions of liberty because the audience is self selecting.

However the debates generated in the media in the run up to the Convention already involve a move beyond preaching to the converted. Also, some time was spent discussing ideas for what to do about the erosion of liberty, and various ideas have already been put forward. Examples of these ideas included Baroness Kennedy’s suggestion of a concerted campaign involving drawing up a list of civil liberties issues and asking where candidates at the next election stand; Chris Huhne’s Freedom Bill; one speaker’s suggestion that we should educate children about the importance of human rights; Phil Booth urging people to write to their MPs to tell them they refuse consent to data sharing under the Coroners and Justice Bill and Patrick Harvie’s suggestion of “liberty theatre” to try and make people aware of what liberty is, and how precious it is.

My overall impression is that, whilst the Convention has made a good start in getting people together/putting them in touch with each other, the question of what to do about the erosion of liberty has only begun to get a serious answer. This is not a criticism. It seems to me that it was only ever likely to make a start on this question in the first place, that it has done so with a broad range of people is a success. Also, there is clear intent to followup on the Convention, with suggestions for it becoming an annual event, plus people have exchanged contact details to start networking for followup events. My own view is that there is probably no particular magic bullet, but if everyone concerned with these issues can think of ways of getting the message out, ways of influencing both those in power and the general public to pay heed to liberty, and act upon their ideas, then the Convention stands a good chance of being the turning point that I hope it will be.

Good luck to the Convention on Modern Liberty

Tomorrow, the Convention on Modern Liberty will take place in London with satellite Conventions in Glasgow, Belfast, Manchester, Birmingham, Cambridge, Cardiff and Bristol.

I’ve been monitoring the erosion of civil liberties in Britain, with increasing concern, for a decade now, and I hope that this Convention will mark a turning point that will see these erosions of liberty halted and reversed. By getting people from different backgrounds and different political perspectives together to discuss these issues, hopefully eveyone who is concerned by this trend will be able to get together and campaign more effectively. Ideally the Convention will spawn a regular event, and/or renewed pressure on our politicians to listen.

So how successful will the Convention be? Time will tell of course, but it’s worth noting that tickets for the London Convention sold out, whilst the Glasgow Convention has had to be extended to hold a second parallel session since it was oversubscribed. This suggests that people are concerned about these issues and are willing to give up a Saturday to find out more and to help campaign against it.

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