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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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Prophetic words from 2009’s Convention on Modern Liberty regarding the recent revelations about surveillance (and other civil liberties issues)

Posted by James Hammerton @ 7:24 pm on 27 July, 2013.
Categories privacy and surveillance, British politics, the database state, US politics.
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This article on Open Democracy summarises some comments made in 2009’s Convention on Modern Liberty (I took part in the Glasgow based sessions) that sound quite prophetic in light of recent revelations concerning the extent of surveillance of the internet and telephony systems.

David Cameron calls for “default on” internet filters

In a speech given to the NSPCC on Monday, David Cameron, the British Prime Minister, called for internet service providers to provide “familiy friendly” filters for all customers that were switched on by default:

Now, I say we need both: we need good filters that are preselected to be on, pre-ticked unless an adult turns them off, and we need parents aware and engaged in the setting of those filters. So, that is what we’ve worked hard to achieve, and I appointed Claire Perry to take charge of this, for the very simple reason that she’s passionate about this issue, determined to get things done and extremely knowledgeable about it at the same too. Now, she’s worked with the big 4 internet service providers – TalkTalk, Virgin, Sky and BT – who together supply internet connections to almost 9 out of 10 homes.

And today, after months of negotiation, we’ve agreed home network filters that are the best of both worlds. By the end of this year, when someone sets up a new broadband account, the settings to install family friendly filters will be automatically selected; if you just click next or enter, then the filters are automatically on.

And, in a really big step forward, all the ISPs have rewired their technology so that once your filters are installed they will cover any device connected to your home internet account; no more hassle of downloading filters for every device, just one click protection. One click to protect your whole home and to keep your children safe.

Now, once those filters are installed it should not be the case that technically literate children can just flick the filters off at the click of the mouse without anyone knowing, and this, if you’ve got children, is absolutely vital. So, we’ve agreed with industry that those filters can only be changed by the account holder, who has to be an adult. So an adult has to be engaged in the decisions.

But of course, all this only deals with the flow of new customers, new broadband accounts, those switching service providers or buying an internet connection for the first time. It doesn’t deal with the huge stock of the existing customers, almost 19 million households, so that is where we now need to set our sights.

Following the work we’ve already done with the service providers, they have now agreed to take a big step: by the end of next year, they will have contacted all their existing customers and presented them with an unavoidable decision about whether or not to install family friendly content filters. TalkTalk, who’ve shown great leadership on this, have already started and are asking existing customers as I speak.

We’re not prescribing how the ISPs should contact their customers; it’s up to them to find their own technological solutions. But however they do it, there’ll be no escaping this decision, no, ‘Remind me later,’ and then it never gets done. And they will ensure that it’s an adult making the choice.

Now, if adults don’t want these filters that is their decision, but for the many parents who would like to be prompted or reminded, they’ll get that reminder and they’ll be shown very clearly how to put on family friendly filters. I think this is a big improvement on what we had before and I want to thank the service providers for getting on board with this, but let me be clear: I want this to be a priority for all internet service providers not just now, but always.

That is why I am asking today for the small companies in the market to adopt this approach too, and I am also asking Ofcom, the industry regulator, to oversee this work, to judge how well the ISPs are doing and to report back regularly. If they find that we’re not protecting children effectively, I will not hesitate to take further action.

Needless to say these filters will block more than just porn.

I wonder whether people will understand just how much blocking they’re being defaulted into if this goes ahead.

And there are other consequences of this move. Consider that the BBC reported that TalkTalk’s filtering is provided by Huawei, a Chinese company with close links to the Chinese state:

On Monday the Prime Minister said TalkTalk had shown “great leadership” in setting up its system, Homesafe, which it has offered to customers since 2011.

TalkTalk told the BBC it was comfortable with its relationship with Huawei, and that the service was very popular.

Homesafe is a voluntary scheme which allows subscribers to select categories - including social media, gambling and pornography - that they want blocked.

Customers who do not want filtering still have their traffic routed through the system, but matches to Huawei’s database are dismissed rather than acted upon.

This illustrates my main concerns about this:

  • That although the ability to opt out will be available to start with, we will end up creating an infrastructure for censoring otherwise legal material on the internet that can be easily made compulsory.
  • That it results in mass monitoring of the content people view on the internet. Given the recent revelations about the extent of NSA/GCHQ surveillance, who would trust that the spy agencies won’t get to see the data gathered by the filters as they monitor your net connection?

Essentially the default position will be that your ISP is being told to decide/take responsibility for what you can access on the internet.

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.


Britain’s coalition is expanding, not curbing, the database state.

Posted by James Hammerton @ 6:39 pm on 6 April, 2013.
Categories privacy and surveillance, British politics, the database state.
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This article from Tech Week Europe suggests that despite scrapping the National Identity Scheme and Contactpoint database, the coalition are actually expanding the “database state”.

The most notable examples are the new electronic records system for the NHS where patients records are uploaded without consent and made widely available to NHS staff and the proposals in the Communications Data Bill which are very similar to Labour’s Intercept Modernisation Program, though there is more than just these examples.

To quote:

It all points to a situation where little has changed. And MPs are fretting about how the Tories are pushing for an expansion of the database state, rather than slimming it down. “It is clear that Conservative ministers have in many cases not learnt from the Labour errors, and, egged on by the Labour party, are pushing for some illiberal policies,” Julian Huppert, MP for Cambridge, tells TechWeek.

“There is still far more for liberals and Liberal Democrats to be vigilant over. There is no doubt our task would be easier if more MPs were more digitally literate.”

As indicated by Nick Clegg’s outrage over the Communications Data Bill last year, the Tories moves to expand the state’s control over people’s information is causing another rift between the two parties of the Coalition.

Whether citizens are content to let the database state grow inexorably, or are irate about their information being lumped online without being asked, it’s clear the government is lying. And at a time when trust in politicians is appallingly low in Britain.

Equally concerning is that the Coalition has rehashed many of Labour’s much-derided schemes of the 2000s, perpetuating the database state set up by its political adversary. Or as French novelist Karr would have had it, “the more things change, the more they stay the same.”

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.

MPs call for default internet censorship of “adult” content that you have to opt out of

Posted by James Hammerton @ 10:21 pm on 18 April, 2012.
Categories freedom of speech, British politics, censorship.
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The BBC reports:

The inquiry said that internet service providers (ISPs) and the government should work together to draw up guidelines to make it clearer to parents what safety settings were available on their home computers and other internet-enabled devices.


Other recommendations included:

  • A government review of an opt-in filter to access adult material on the internet
  • Accelerated implementation of content-filtering system Active Choice for new internet customers
  • ISPs to roll out within 12 months network filters that provide one-click filtering for all devices connected to the same internet account
  • Public wi-fi networks to have a default adult-content bar

The report itself can be accessed here, and clearly favours a system where you have to opt-in to see what the filters deem to be “adult” content (which means you have to opt out of the censorship) and calls for the government to run a consultation on the idea.

It seems to me that:

  • In a free, democratic society, adults should not be required to opt out of censorship of otherwise legal material.
  • Once you have “network level” filters that censor out adult content by default, then assuming the filters work, you have built an infrastructure that can be easily (ab)used for censorship per se in place.
  • It is far better to educate parents and guardians about what tools are available to help with supervising children’s access to the net than it is to implement such filtering.
  • If this goes ahead, it will inevitably be worked around by those who know how and it will inevitably block content that should not be blocked.

See also: The Open Rights Ggroup’s press release on these proposals.

Manchester police ordered drivers with previous convictions to turn around.

Posted by James Hammerton @ 6:28 pm on 14 August, 2011.
Categories democracy and the rule of law, British politics, accountability.
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The Manchester Evening News reported:

Officers stationed on key routes into the city have been instantly checking registration plates of vehicles against a string of national databases. Known criminals have been intercepted and ordered to turn around.

On Wednesday evening alone, 50 vehicles were turned away from Manchester by officers determined to keep the streets trouble-free.

Chief Constable Peter Fahy told the M.E.N: “We were instructing anyone with a previous conviction that they had to leave the city. Quite a number of them had serious previous convictions.”

The policy will be repeated if trouble flares again.

Numerous points and questions can be raised over this:

  • What legal power do police have to tell someone to leave a city when there’s no evidence they are doing anything illegal or intend to do so?
  • Did they do this for any person with any conviction? Trivial or otherwise? Violent or otherwise? Spent or otherwise?
  • Surely anyone intent on riot would simply have gone to another venue, got a friend to give them a lift or returned in a different vehicle?
  • What about drivers using their spouse’s, parent’s or relative’s car? Would they have been turned away due to the owner of the car having a decade old conviction for petty theft?
  • Having a previous conviction does not mean one is intent on riot.
  • What if someoe turned away actually lived in the city and was trying to get home? What do the police expect them to do?

Shutting down social media is the wrong approach

Posted by James Hammerton @ 5:48 pm on .
Categories freedom of speech, British politics.
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British Prime Minister David Cameron, speaking in response to the London riots, said:

Free flow of information can be used for good. But it can also be used for ill.

And when people are using social media for violence we need to stop them.

So we are working with the Police, the intelligence services and industry to look at whether it would be right to stop people communicating via these websites and services when we know they are plotting violence, disorder and criminality.

Tory MP Louise Mensch proposes having a “kill switch” to temporarily switch off social media sites during riots. The Guardian reports:

Mensch, the MP for Corby and East Northamptonshire and a novelist, used Twitter to call for a “brief temporary shutdown” of Twitter and Facebook to stop unfounded rumours being spread, as she said had occurred in Northamptonshire last week during the riots that spread from London to several cities across England.

It seems to me that such a measure would be counter productive, as well as being an attack on freedom of speech of those legitimately using social media when it gets shut off as proposed. There are several reasons for this:

  • By shutting down a communication service being used by suspected rioters, the police would be depriving themselves of valuable intelligence that could be used to preempt the rioters or subsequently to prosecute the rioters.
  • The social media also enable those trying to avoid the rioters and those concerned about each other to keep in touch, give each other advice, and reassure friends and relatives that they’re OK. Shutting down such services will hamper innocent people’s abilities to keep clear of the riots and increase pressure on more traditional services such as the phone system.
  • The likely response of those using social media to organise riots will simply be to choose other means such as email, text messages, phones, news groups, etc, thus making the approach ineffective unless you’re going to try shutting down communications in general, which would involve even more collateral damage in terms of people’s ability to avoid or counter the rioters, or otherwise carry on with their lives. Also it’s not as if it’s beyond the wit of people to organise riots via coded messages or even without using social media at all.
  • The existence of such a power would be a serious temptation for an unscrupulous government to abuse in order to distrupt attempts to organise peaceful protests or other peaceful means of political opposition to its policies.

It would be far better for the police and security services to have the capability to monitor the social media during a riot in order to keep one step ahead of the rioters and figure out who they are and where they’re going. There are civil liberties aspects to this too, but so long as the powers were kept specifically for riots, this would seem less open to abuse than the “kill switch”.

Finally, it seems to me that the use of social media by rioters is unlikely to have been crucial to the temporary loss of control of the streets in the first place. That was more down to failures of police tactics in the early stages of the riots, failures which were soon corrected.

Constituents threatened with their children being taken away if they speak to their MPs!

[Hat tip: Anna Racoon via abelard]

See House of Commons Hansard Debates for 17 Mar 2011 (pt 0001):

John Hemming: …I will now look in more detail at Andrew France’s case. I have some of the documentation with me, including a county court order-for proceedings that have now completely ended, so it is a public document, and there is no issue of privilege. The document is there in the courts. In the recitals, it states:

“upon the first and second Respondents agreeing that they will make no further disclosure in respect of this matter to any third party, including in particular the media and John Hemmings MP.”

It is somewhat surprising that I am such a threat to the system that so much effort will go into stopping one of my constituents speaking to me. He was wrongly imprisoned on a made-up allegation of rape, so he went through a serious process. He won his criminal appeal but he complained about a social worker in the process, so the authorities decided to start proceedings in the family courts. Luckily, an excellent judge junked it in the bin, because it was transparently such nonsense, and everything ran smoothly for the family. However, my constituent was under no illusion that had he not agreed to those recitals in the court order, the council would have taken action-he was told-which would have been to apply for a care order taking his four-year-old daughter into care.

Mr Bacon: For the benefit of the House, can my hon. Friend clarify, in case anyone did not notice? Is he saying that a court order was made prohibiting a constituent from talking to him as a Member of Parliament?

John Hemming: Exactly.

Note: The family courts in England and Wales operate largely in secret, though some inroads have been made in recent years allowing some reporting to occur.

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