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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


Proposal to require passports to buy mobile phones

Posted by James Hammerton @ 7:03 pm on 19 October, 2008.
Categories privacy and surveillance, British politics, the database state.
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According to both Scotland on Sunday and the Times, the British government is considering requiring people to present their passports, or other official ID, when buying mobile phones. From the Times’ article:

A compulsory national register for the owners of all 72m mobile phones in Britain would be part of a much bigger database to combat terrorism and crime. Whitehall officials have raised the idea of a register containing the names and addresses of everyone who buys a phone in recent talks with Vodafone and other telephone companies, insiders say.

The move is targeted at monitoring the owners of Britain’s estimated 40m prepaid mobile phones. They can be purchased with cash by customers who do not wish to give their names, addresses or credit card details.

The pay-as-you-go phones are popular with criminals and terrorists because their anonymity shields their activities from the authorities. But they are also used by thousands of law-abiding citizens who wish to communicate in private.

The move aims to close a loophole in plans being drawn up by GCHQ, the government’s eavesdropping centre in Cheltenham, to create a huge database to monitor and store the internet browsing habits, e-mail and telephone records of everyone in Britain.

The “Big Brother” database would have limited value to police and MI5 if it did not store details of the ownership of more than half the mobile phones in the country.

So this seems to be a knock-on effect of the plans to introduce the snooper’s database of the origin, the location, the destination and the length of phone calls, emails and website visits in the UK.

However as an anti-crime/anti-terrorism measure it seems rather ineffective to me. Surely anyone wishing to circumvent this requirement merely has to do one of the following:

  • Steal a mobile phone.
  • Obtain a mobile phone second hand in a private transaction.
  • Forge ID documents with which to buy phones.
  • Obtain a phone from abroad.
  • Learn how to alter a phone’s identity.

Making any or all of these illegal is hardly going to stop people already intent breaking the law from doing these things. Meanwhile the law abiding public get subjected to ever greater levels of surveillance. Perhaps that’s the point.

On Hoon’s defence of the Snooper’s Database

Posted by James Hammerton @ 11:50 pm on 17 October, 2008.
Categories privacy and surveillance, British politics, the database state.
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Update: The edition of Question Time concerned is up online at the BBC, the discussion of the proposal starts after 48 minutes, 20 seconds in.

On Question Time on the 16th October, Geoff Hoon defended the plans to create a centralised database to store the details of who you phone, who you email, the location of your mobile whilst switched on, what web sites you visit and everyone you send text messages to:

On BBC One’s Question Time, Mr Hoon said the plans would only extend powers that already exist for ordinary telephone calls, to cover data and information “going across the internet”.

He said the police and security services needed the powers to deal with “terrorists or criminals” using telephones connected to the internet, for “perfectly proper reasons, to protect our society”.

But the Lib Dems’ communities spokeswoman Julia Goldsworthy said it sounded like “something I would expect to read in [George Orwell’s book] 1984″ and questioned whether the government and councils could be trusted not to misuse the powers.

She asked: “How much more control can they have? How far is he prepared to go to undermine civil liberties?”

Mr Hoon interjected: “To stop terrorists killing people in our society, quite a long way actually.

“If they are going to use the internet to communicate with each other and we don’t have the power to deal with that, then you are giving a licence to terrorists to kill people.”


He added: “The biggest civil liberty of all is not to be killed by a terrorist.”

It’s worth watching the video clip at the link above, to get some extra context, but the quotations seem accurate to me.

The “argument” Hoon is making is ridiculous for several reasons:

  • Terrorists, and other organised crims, could easily circumvent the measures being proposed here by simply not using the internet or phones to communicate, or by using and frequently changing unregistered PAYG phones and anonymous internet accounts. If they realise that the government will store the communications data of every electronic communication going through British systems, they’ll naturally take this fact on board and act to circumvent it. It is only likely to capture the less technologically aware or intelligent crims. That seems a poor return for everyone surrendering much of their right to privacy in their electronic communications.
  • The government already requires phone companies to retain the data concerned regarding phone calls for at least a year and will soon be requiring ISPs to retain the data regarding internet usage as well. This means they can already obtain the data for anyone they are suspicious of by demanding it from the ISPs and phone companies. They’ve given this power to local councils and numerous quangoes, not just the police and security services. I doubt creating a central database will make much difference, in terms of fighting terrorism, other than to allow random trawls of anyone’s data regardless of any suspicion. However it will make a huge difference if you wish to track the communications of the general public, or subsections such as political activists, politicians, union organisers, journalists, etc.
  • Terrorists may communicate and plan attacks by visiting each other in the privacy of their own homes. If we apply Hoon’s logic regarding the use of electronic communications to this situation, then it means we must put surveillance into every room of every building in Britain or be accused giving them a licence to kill. This is an absurd argument whether applied to the privacy of our electronic communications or the right to privacy in our own homes.
  • It seems to me that whether one dies from a terrorist bomb, a knifing, being shot or being poisoned, one is just as dead on one case as in the others so why we should single out “not being killed in a terrorist attack” as the biggest civil liberty of all is not clear. Surely it’s just as serious a violation of an individual’s civil liberties to be shot dead by the police whilst commuting on the Tube? Or to be murdered by a mugger?

Hoon’s argument here is emotive tosh that fails to take into account the impact on freedom of living under constant surveillance by the state, regardless of whether you’re a suspect or not, an impact that will be felt by everyone living in Britain if proposals like this go ahead, not merely those suspected of crime or those unlucky enough to die in a terrorist attack.

History has shown that giving governments the power to perform mass indiscriminate surveillance of the general population (as opposed to targetted surveillance against those suspected of being up to no good) leads to those governments representing a far greater threat to liberty than the terrorists Hoon worries about.

Even without a malevolent government taking power, these proposals would give huge power to anyone who gains access to it, legitimately or otherwise.

Does Hoon not realise that this proposal will create a huge honeypot for terrorists, other spy agencies, organised criminals, etc to attack, knowing that they could get useful information about who anyone they’re interested in communicates with (e.g. people working for GCHQ, the police, MI5, MI6, the government, public bodies or other organisations they wish to subvert)?

At the moment, they’d have to go to multiple organisations, subvert them and collate the data together. The government proposes to put it all in one place, thus making the job easier!

The British government’s record on securing the data it holds on us is abysmal, and even the Ministry of Defence continually loses laptops, CDs and memory sticks holding sensitive data. Why on earth would we trust them to do any better with this database?

Round up on the Snooper’s Database

Readers wishing to understand the ins and outs of the snooper’s database, may find the following articles useful:

What Britain’s snooper’s database will entail

The British government is proposing to set up a central database of communications data in Britain that will store details of who you phone, what websites you visit, who visits your website, who you email, who you send text messages to and the location of your mobile whilst switched on (and possibly more?) for 2 years.

In a letter to the Herald, Dr Geraint Bevan, the NO2ID Scotland coordinator, has provided an eloquent and succinct description of the impact such a database would have on us:

If the Home Secretary has her way, no longer would we be free to consult online medical sites without the government retaining a permanent record of our health concerns. No longer would it be possible to participate in democracy electronically without the government knowing with whom we are engaging, and when. No longer would it be possible for citizens and whistle-blowers to converse electronically with journalists free of interference from the state. No longer would we be free to download pornography without state stalkers knowing our sexual interests. No longer could we send romantic messages to lovers free from the overbearing presence of continual state surveillance.

This snooper’s database must be stopped.

Open Rights Group/NO2ID photocall: Capturing the database state

Posted by James Hammerton @ 12:35 pm on 6 October, 2008.
Categories privacy and surveillance, British politics, the database state.
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The Open Rights Group is asking people to submit photos that embody “the database state, and the UK’s world-famous surveillance society”. Together with NO2ID, they will use the photos to create a live collage that will be shown in Parliament Square on the 11th October:

…we’ll gather underneath the statue of Winston Churchill on Parliament Square in London to build an image showing where the incremental invasions of our privacy you’ve been documenting will eventually lead British society. We need ten or so people to help, so if you’d like to offer a hand, email info [AT] and let us know.

Note that the 11th October is the day of action selected for the “Freedom not fear” campaign.

The state, encryption and data loss.

Posted by James Hammerton @ 7:09 pm on 27 September, 2008.
Categories privacy and surveillance, British politics, the database state.
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By now, most Britons will be aware of at least some of the numerous cases of data loss by the government and public bodies that seem to occurring on a regular basis, (for example see UK Liberty’s data loss page). It seems the most frequent means by which the data goes missing involve one of the following:

  • Someone loses laptops, CDs or memory sticks in the course of their activities.
  • CDs or memory sticks go missing in the post.
  • Laptops, memory sticks or CDs get stolen.

With modern technology, devices that store huge volumes of data can be carried around in our pockets. E.g. I have a 4 GB memory stick that’s only a few centimetres in length and about 1.5cm wide, and about 0.75 cm thick. Modern mobile phones, PDAs and laptops will also store large amounts of data. It is inevitable that large organisations will lose these devices, and that some of them will suffer from the theft of such devices.

The loss or theft of these devices would not matter so much though, if it weren’t for the fact that the data is not encrypted.

For example when the child benefits database, containing personal information about every family with a child in Britain (at the time) went missing in the post, had the data been properly encrypted, the risk of the data being misused by someone who finds the CDs would be minimal because without the password to decrypt the data, they simply would not have been able to read the information. Of course doing this does not make the data 100% secure, but it does greatly reduce the risks from the loss of such devices.

The advice for any organisation that needs to transfer data in a secure manner is simple. Do not download it onto a CD, laptop, memory stick or any other portable device without encrypting it. But is this advice being followed by the government? Well, with regards to the Home Office, it appears the answer is “no”. Their policy is that they do not always encrypt data before transferring it by disk.

What this means is that we cannot trust the Home Office to take adequate precautions to protect our personal data.

There is no excuse for this. There are numerous encryption packages available, including free open source products such as the GNU Privacy Guard, and for that matter the government itself has helped to develop encryption techniques, e.g. GCHQ pioneered public key encryption. And this bunch of jokers propose to create a national identity scheme, that will record who we do business with throughout our lives, whilst enabling the linking together of disparate databases of personal information and widespread sharing of such data, whilst claiming it will be secure. And that’s just one of their mass surveillance schemes.

Order allows public bodies to pass our confidential information to private organisations

Posted by James Hammerton @ 6:16 pm on 14 September, 2008.
Categories privacy and surveillance, British politics, the database state.
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[Hat tip: Spy Blog]

The government recently issued a statutory instrument specifying the following organisations for the purposes of section 68 of the Serious Crime Act 2007:

  • Experian Limited
  • Insurance Fraud Investigators Group
  • N Hunter Limited
  • The Insurance Fraud Bureau
  • The Telecommunications United Kingdom Fraud Forum Limited.

The impact of this is to enable public bodies to share any data they hold about you, including confidential data, to any of the above organisations for the purposes of the detection, prevent or prosecution of fraud. E.g. section 68 reads:

(1) A public authority may, for the purposes of preventing fraud or a particular kind of fraud, disclose information as a member of a specified anti-fraud organisation or otherwise in accordance with any arrangements made by such an organisation.

(2) The information—

(a) may be information of any kind; and

(b) may be disclosed to the specified anti-fraud organisation, any members of it or any other person to whom disclosure is permitted by the arrangements concerned.

(3) Disclosure under this section does not breach—

(a) any obligation of confidence owed by the public authority disclosing the information; or

(b) any other restriction on the disclosure of information (however imposed).

(4) But nothing in this section authorises any disclosure of information which—

(a) contravenes the Data Protection Act 1998 (c. 29); or

(b) is prohibited by Part 1 of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 (c. 23).

Note that information of any kind can be disclosed even where an obligation of confidence exists. How long will it be before CDs or memory sticks holding such information go missing in transit to/from the organisations above?

Peter Clark and “the surveillance society”

Peter Clark, writing recently in the times, argues that “the surveillance society” has enabled the conviction of several people plotting to set off bombs, created out of liquid explosives and disguised as soft drinks:

We have what is probably the most effective counter-terrorist machinery in the world. The organisations involved have been at full stretch for years, and despite the gainsayers, the legal and ethical standards of the counter-terrorist effort are incredibly high - the British public demands and deserves no less.

They also deserve a better quality debate about the relationship between individual liberties and collective security.

Take this case. To save the lives of the innocent and convict the would-be killers we used all the tools in the security armoury. Deeply intrusive surveillance, informants, CCTV, DNA, telephone call data and so on. This was not about collecting information for its own sake - it was to secure evidence to put before a court.

Some critics fail to understand that sophisticated, modern evidence gathering has allowed the most complex terrorist conspiracies to be tried in our criminal courts in front of a jury. No need for military commissions or the juryless Diplock courts of Northern Ireland.

The series of terrorist convictions in recent years has been a victory for the rule of law and sends out a strong, positive signal to all communities. But it couldn’t have happened if things that used to be buried deep in the world of intelligence were not now brought blinking into the light of the courtroom.

And what if we had failed? What if the prosecution case was right, and half a dozen American airliners were to be brought down by British terrorists, operating from Britain and in effect using the UK as a launch pad for an attack on the United States? What would have happened to the UK and indeed the global economy? What would the impact have been on UK/US relations? What about the pressure it would have placed on Muslims in the UK? A very senior politician, at the time of the arrests, told me he thought it could have led to a breakdown in the community cohesion that had survived the attacks in 2005.

So let’s remember the benefits of the “surveillance society”. We should draw satisfaction that due to terrorist convictions in our courts, thousands of people are alive today because those who wanted to kill them could be bugged and burgled - within the Rule of Law and for the common good.

The problem with this argument is simple. Peter Clark is not talking about “the surveillance society” at all. He is talking about targetted surveillance against those whom the police have reason to believe may pose a serious threat.

I have no problem with “all the tools in the security armoury” being used to investigate those whom the authorities have reason to believe are up to no good, so long as safeguards are in place to ensure such intrusive surveillance really is directed against such people and isn’t abused. Clark and I might have a real argument about precisely what those safeguards should be, but that is beside the point. The point is that Clark is conflating targeted surveillance with “the surveillance society”, the latter of which involves routine mass surveillance of the general public. Such routine mass surveillance is completely unnecessary for the sort of targetted surveillance Clark is talking about and is not supported by the successes of surveillance targeted against suspected terrorists.

UK Liberty also has some good comments on Clark’s article.

Google mapping Britain’s erosion of civil liberties

[Hat tip: UK Liberty]

This looks like an interesting project

Some resistance to the database state

Computer Weekly reports on the Trades Union Congress voting to resist the National Identity Scheme “with all means at its disposal”:

The TUC in Brighton this week has pledged to resist the national ID card scheme “with all means at its disposal”, including industrial and legal action.

The motion, tabled by pilots’ union BALPA, was carried overwhelmingly by TUC delegates.

The government plans to introduce national ID cards for airside workers from next year, but BALPA said that carrying a national ID should not be obligatory for employees.

The TUC motion puts unions on a collision course with the government over civil liberties.

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