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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.
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2002 - 2004

1st Jan to 9th Sept 2005

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abelard.org’s independent translation of the Magna Carta

Posted by James Hammerton @ 9:02 pm on 14 June, 2015.
Categories political liberties.
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With 2015 marking the 800th anniversary, I thought I’d remind readers that abelard.org have a new, independent translation tackling ambiguities in other translations of the Magna Carta on their website.

Updated page about Magna Carta on www.abelard.org

Posted by James Hammerton @ 12:09 am on 29 January, 2015.
Categories political liberties, democracy and the rule of law.
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The page with the English translation of the Magna Carta has been updated both here on Magna Carta Plus and over at www.abelard.org.

It’s been tidied up and with expanded definitions, accessible now on the same page via hovering.

So what is the NSA’s net snooping alleged to entail?

Anyone with an interest in privacy who’s following the news will have noticed the recent furore over the US National Security Administration (NSA)’s snooping on people’s communications, especially under its PRISM programme and/or authorisations from the US Foreign Intelligence Service Court (FISC). As a prelude to more in-depth coverage of the issues involved, this article overviews the allegations that have been made about the NSA’s collection of data and the PRISM programme.

If true, the allegations suggest that the NSA has been engaged in mass surveillance of, at least, the communications between US residents and those located elsewhere in the world, including the content of communications going via major internet companies such as Facebook or Google and that this informaton has been shared with Britain’s GCHQ, possibly allowing them to circumvent the restrictions of British law (other revelations regarding GCHQ’s own activities are beyond the scope of this article). Also it is suggested the US may have been spying on its allies in Europe. The details of the allegations are below.

(more…)

MPs’ barrage of criticism of “Snooper’s Charter”

A committee set up to scrutinise the coalition’s Draft Communications Bill has finally reported and is highly critical of the bill.

Note that these proposals are the latest incarnation of the intercept modernisation program that the previous Labour government tried to introduced and would require internet service provides to record information about who you communicate with on the web including messages sent via web mail, instant messaging, online chat within video games, etc. The police and other authorities would then get access to this information on their own authority without a warrant. Currently much of this information is not recorded and what is proposed extends mass surveillance of the internet to new degree.

Nick Clegg, leader of the Liberal Democrats and Deputy Prime Minister in the coalition government has said his party would block the plans unless there was a “fundamental rethink”, whilst the Prime Minister has promised a rewrite.

It seems to me that what should happen here is that the police should be allowed to demand ISPs to record this information about specified individuals or specified accounts, once they’ve persuaded a judge that they need to perform such surveillance to investigate or prevent serious crime. I.e. they should be required to get a warrant. The technological aspect - how deep does the surveillance go - is then down to whether the level of intrusion is necessary and proportionate for investigating/preventing the suspected serious crimes concerned.

However the Home Office is intent on mass surveillance of everyone’s internet activity with the information accessible to the police and other law enforcement authorities via self authorisation.

Summary of Leveson proposals

Over at my personal blog I’ve summarised how the new press regulator proposed by the Leveson inquiry would work.

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.

British government reforms of English libel law

Posted by James Hammerton @ 7:41 pm on 9 January, 2010.
Categories political liberties, freedom of speech, British politics.
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Last year, the Guardian reported:

Signalling his desire for reforms, Straw insisted that the changes can be introduced “without the need for primary legislation”.

Straw highlighted the plans amid concern at the way huge payouts awarded to claimants are attracting “libel tourists” to Britain, and what the minister described as the “chilling effect” of existing libel laws on democracy.

The government’s decision to look again at the libel system follows threats by overseas publishers to abandon sales in the UK because of the fear of libel.

In an interview in tomorrow’s New Statesman magazine, Straw says the rise of “no-win no-fee” arrangements threatens free speech by making it prohibitively expensive for publishers to defend themselves.

Research by Oxford University has revealed that the cost of a defending a libel action in England and Wales is now 140 times greater than the average in other European countries, according to the New Statesman.

Straw added: “Our libel laws are having a chilling effect. By definition, it’s not hitting the most profitable international media groups, News International or Associated Newspapers and so on, though it’s not good news for them.

“It is hitting the press that is vital to our democracy but whose finances are much more difficult, and that includes magazines, one or two of the nationals, and regional and local newspapers, and it’s really bad for them. That’s why I will be changing the law on defamation costs.”

Whilst reducing the payouts may help, it seems to me that reforming it to place the onus the proving the libel on the prosecution, rather than the defence would be a better way to approach this issue.

Names of arrestees will stay on police database indefinitely.

Posted by James Hammerton @ 12:37 pm on 23 December, 2009.
Categories political liberties.
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The Observer reports:

The government has been forced to scale back the way it holds the details of people held on the national DNA database, following a European Court ruling that retaining the profiles of people arrested but not charged with a crime or who were acquitted, was “disproportionate”. As a result, government plans – outlined in the crime and security bill going through parliament – will limit how long the DNA profiles of such people can be kept. In most cases it will be up to six years.

But the Observer has established that the records of their arrest will be held by police for an indefinite period. The 2005 National DNA Database Annual Report says: “It has become necessary to retain a nominal record of every person arrested for a recordable offence on the Police National Computer… to help the police identify and locate an individual following a match being obtained on the [DNA database].” Prior to the expansion of the DNA database, details were deleted on acquittal or if charges were dropped after 42 days.

“Keeping permanent records of arrest is unprecedented in British history and is open to serious abuse,” said Helen Wallace, director of the campaign group GeneWatch UK. “Failing to delete police records of people who are innocent means business as usual for the surveillance state.”

The office of the information commissioner has warned: “All records held on the [police national computer] are readily accessible to any serving police officer acting in his or her official capacity and this access is frequently used to run a ‘name check’ on individuals who come into contact with the police. Given this level of access, the commissioner is concerned that the very existence of a police identity record created as a result of a DNA sample being taken on arrest could prejudice the interests of the individual to whom it relates by creating inaccurate assumptions about his or her criminal past.”

ISA vetting to be watered down

The BBC reports:

Rules requiring about 11 million people working with children to register with a new agency and have criminal records checks are to be watered down.

Schools Secretary Ed Balls has accepted recommendations of a review he ordered into the vetting and barring scheme for England, Wales and Northern Ireland.

The checks will now involve only those working with the same children once a week, not once a month, for example.

It is thought the new rules will apply to about two million fewer people.

The checks, intended to protect children, had caused concern among teachers and parents.

This will of course still leave the ISA deciding who can work with children on the basis not merely of people’s criminal records but also “soft intelligence” such as unproven accusations. Even under the revised figures, 9 million adults may find themselves being subject to such vetting.

Political activists’ details recorded on databases of “domestic extremists”.

Apparently, entirely peaceful, legal protest can lead to your details being recorded on databases of “domestic extremists”:

An investigation by the Guardian can reveal:

• The main unit, the National Public Order Intelligence Unit (NPOIU), runs a central database which lists thousands of so-called domestic extremists. It filters intelligence supplied by police forces across England and Wales, which routinely deploy surveillance teams at protests, rallies and public meetings. The NPOIU contains detailed files on individual protesters who are searchable by name.

• Vehicles associated with protesters are being tracked via a nationwide system of automatic number plate recognition (ANPR) cameras. One man, who has no criminal record, was stopped more than 25 times in less than three years after a “protest” marker was placed against his car after he attended a small protest against duck and pheasant shooting. ANPR “interceptor teams” are being deployed on roads leading to protests to monitor attendance.

• Police surveillance units, known as Forward Intelligence Teams (FIT) and Evidence Gatherers, record footage and take photographs of campaigners as they enter and leave openly advertised public meetings. These images are entered on force-wide databases so that police can chronicle the campaigners’ political activities. The information is added to the central NPOIU.

• Surveillance officers are provided with “spotter cards” used to identify the faces of target individuals who police believe are at risk of becoming involved in domestic extremism. Targets include high-profile activists regularly seen taking part in protests. One spotter card, produced by the Met to monitor campaigners against an arms fair, includes a mugshot of the comedian Mark Thomas.

• NPOIU works in tandem with two other little-known Acpo branches, the National Extremism Tactical Coordination Unit (Netcu), which advises thousands of companies on how to manage political campaigns, and the National Domestic Extremism Team, which pools intelligence gathered by investigations into protesters across the country.

And:

Anton Setchell, who is in overall command of Acpo’s domestic extremism remit, said people who find themselves on the databases “should not worry at all”. But he refused to disclose how many names were on the NPOIU’s national database, claiming it was “not easy” to count. He estimated they had files on thousands of people. As well as photographs, he said FIT surveillance officers noted down what he claimed was harmless information about people’s attendance at demonstrations and this information was fed into the national database.

He said he could understand that peaceful activists objected to being monitored at open meetings when they had done nothing wrong. “What I would say where the police are doing that there would need to be the proper justifications,” he said.

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