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Roundup on Britain’s national identity scheme

Apologies for the lack of posts recently. I hope to post more regularly in future. For the moment I’ll be in catch-up mode, rounding up stories in particular areas. Today’s round up is on Britain’s National Identity Scheme:

  • Under a recent statutory instrument, invoking section 38 of the Identity Cards Act 2006, the Identity and Passport Service(IPS) can now employ credit reference agencies, such as Experian, to verify identity information given during passport applications. The IPS will also be in charge of issuing identity cards (eventually all passport applications will involve registering on the NIR). So it looks like credit reference agencies are likely to be employed to verify data for ID card applications as well.
  • The Register reports that from 2008, the General Register Office, currently part of the Office for National Statistics, will be transferred to become part of the Identity and Passport Service. This means that the IPS will beceome responsible for the register of births, deaths and marriages. The Register comments:

    The government has followed up the effective merger of the ONS’ population register with the NIR by subsuming the GRO in the IPS Borg, and the uncontentious register that previously existed will, as of next April, be run by an organisation which proposes to make money out of compiling and continually updating the “biographical footprint” of every live individual in the UK (see here for more detail on the identity verification service and its roots in IPS’ Personal Identification Project, PIP).

  • At their annual conference, the Tory party re-affirmed their commitment to scrap the identity cards. Both David Davis and David Cameron, the Tory leader, included this pledge in their speeches. However they haven’t yet gone as far as the Liberal Democrats in pledging to repeal the Identity Cards Act 2006 and rolling back other surveillance state measures.
  • As of 2nd October, Spy.org.uk had been waiting for over 1,000 days for a disclosure under the Freedom of Information Act relating to government reports on the ID card scheme, despite both the Information Commissioner and the Information Tribunal ruling that the reports should be disclosed. The government is appealing the decision to the High Court. The High Court has set March 4th & 5th 2008 for the hearing.

2 new sections added to the identity cards briefing document

Posted by James Hammerton @ 7:42 pm on 29 July, 2007.
Categories privacy and surveillance, British politics, the database state.
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I’ve added two new sections to my briefing document on the government’s identity scheme, a section describing the obligations individuals will have under the scheme and a section describing the legal powers the government has over individuals under the Identity Cards Act 2006.

I welcome any constructive feedback on the content of these sections, or indeed on the content of the rest of the document.

Glasgow No2ID fundraising gig

Posted by James Hammerton @ 11:30 pm on 16 July, 2007.
Categories privacy and surveillance, British politics, the database state.
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Glasgow’s No2ID group, campaigning against the government’s national identity scheme, have organised a fundraising music gig for the 26th July at Barfly, 260 Clyde Street, Glasgow, doors open at 8pm. Tickets are £5 in advance, £6 on the door. You can buy them here.

The gig takes place on both floors at Barfly, downstairs featuring rock/metal and upstairs for acoustic/experimental music.

Bands appearing include: Mama Mayhem, Serpico, Marshan, Stonesthrow, Warped Memories and Traquair.

See also the No2ID music site on myspace.

Gordon Brown and civil liberties — Parliament’s exclusion zone to be lifted?

Posted by James Hammerton @ 11:08 pm on 25 June, 2007.
Categories political liberties, freedom of speech, British politics.
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That’s why I want a new constitutional settlement for Britain. And the principles of my reforms are these: Government giving more power to Parliament; both government and Parliament giving more power to the people; Parliament voting on all the major issues of our time including peace and war; civil liberties safeguarded and enhanced; devolution within a Union of nations: England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland – a Union that I believe in and will defend; local government strengthened with new powers – local communities empowered to hold those who make the decisions to account; and with community ownership of assets – greater power for more people to control their lives. (emphasis added)

The passage above is from Gordon Brown’s speech on his taking over as the leader of the Labour Party. The question about his statement about safeguarding civil liberties is whether he means it or not. After all, this government has engaged in the most systematic and sustained assault on civil liberties in modern times (e.g. see here for an albeit incomplete record of the attacks), and Gordon Brown has been in a position where he could have blocked much of it if he really wanted to.

However, if media reports are to be believed, he does seem willing to throw a bone to those concerned about civil liberties. The Sunday Times reports that he may be planning to lift the ban on spontaneous demonstrations within 1km of Parliament Square:

GORDON BROWN is to make a symbolic gesture to critics of the Iraq war by allowing antiwar protesters to demonstrate and march outside parliament.

This will reverse legislation introduced by Tony Blair two years ago to restrict the rights of people to camp on Parliament Square and install banners criticising the government.

This will be a welcome development if Brown is indeed planning this, and I will give Gordon credit for it if so. However when evaluating his claim to wish to safeguard civil liberties, this development would simply be one small step to restoring civil liberties to be balanced against the determined onslaught we’ve seen over the last decade, and various proposals that would continue that onslaught.

It is also worth remembering that this is the same Gordon Brown who said “at no point will our British traditions of supporting and defending civil liberties be put at risk” when describing plans to increase the amount of time terror suspects can be held without charge beyond the current 28 days. The very policy he’s considering would erode civil liberties (as did the increase from 7 to 28 days that we’ve already seen under this government), and the safeguards he talks about would at best simply blunt that erosion a bit.

“Nothing to hide, nothing to fear”, database security and Britain’s national identity scheme

Posted by James Hammerton @ 7:22 pm on 2 June, 2007.
Categories privacy and surveillance, British politics, the database state, US politics.
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A common slogan used by many of those who support measures that put the general population under surveillance, such as CCTV and the British national identity scheme, is “if you’ve got nothing to hide, there’s nothing to fear”. I’ve criticised this slogan before, as have Samizdata (e.g. here, at their sister blog White Rose and here), UKLiberty and the No2ID weblog.

However a particularly compelling illustration of why the slogan “nothing to hide, nothing to fear” is so wrong-headed, and how law abiding people can be put at risk by those who gather information about them is provided by the spate of recent stories involving large (often governmental) organisations losing, or otherwise publicly exposing, personal details of the people who deal with them:

The above are just a handful of recent stories, and I’m aware of other examples going back years. For example numerous cases of organisations losing, public exposing or abusing the personal information they store are also documented in UK Liberty’s article on data abuse.

In each of these cases, the personal details of law abiding citizens, often numbered in thousands or tens of thousands, have been compromised and may have fallen into the hands of those who might try and impersonate them or otherwise use the information against them. So much for “nothing to hide, nothing to fear”.

The British government claims its national identity scheme will help combat identity theft, but it seems to me that it is more likely to enable identity theft because not only will it store all all the information needed for someone to pretend to be you in one place, but its National Identity Registration Number will end up indexing both your national identity register entry and your entries in other databases both private and public. The NIRN and much of your personal information on the NIR will be shared with many public and private sector organisations and be accessible by thousand and thousands of officials.

It beggars belief that lapses in security similar to those reported above would be minimised by such a system or that the opportunities for stealing the information would be minimised either. And, unlike the systems above, your participation (if you’re a permanent resident of Britain) in the scheme will not be voluntary if the government gets its way.

David Davis to Gordon Brown: “Will you restore the freedoms we lost under Blair?”

Writing in the Independent, David Davis, the Tories’ Shadow Home Secretary states:

As Tony Blair reflects on his legacy, Taking Liberties, a film released on 8 June, documents how New Labour has undermined our ancient British freedoms over the past decade.

The Government says the rules of the game have changed: the terrorist threat has escalated and we must trade some freedom for our security. That assessment is superficial. New Labour has undermined our freedoms, but the most damning indictment is the liberty taken with our security in the process. Each shortcut the Government takes with our freedoms masks a shortcoming in its counter-terrorism strategy.

And:

In the present control order crisis, the Home Secretary blames the opposition, the courts and human rights for three terror suspects escaping. He complains he has one arm tied behind his back. The truth is he has been sitting on both hands.

More than a third of control order suspects are on the run. Reid’s latest buck-passing masks three mistakes, all his responsibility. Why did he not use all the existing powers available, including tagging, if these individuals were as “dangerous” as he says? Why, when they disappeared, did the Government wait two days to release their names, allowing them to flee the country through Labour’s lax border controls? And why is Reid suggesting we need extra pre-charge detention before exhausting all other avenues, including seeking a derogation from the European Convention on Human Rights, if necessary?

Talking(sic) Liberties charts Tony Blair’s legacy. The question is where does Gordon Brown stand in this debate. It is a sign of the leadership to come that he has said nothing on these issues.

Liberty and security are not tradable commodities. We cannot defend our freedoms by sacrificing them.

Taking Liberties, The Movie

Taking Liberties is a documentary film charting the erosion of civil liberties since 1997 has been produced and is due to be released in cinemas on June 8th. There’s also a book accompanying this. It’ll be interesting to see how much of mountain of the liberty eroding legislation this government has produced gets covered.

On the proposed “Stop and Question” powers

Britain’s (soon to be ex-)Home Secretary, John Reid has apparently proposed that the police should be given powers to stop and question people (see also the Telegraph’s and BBC’s coverage), possibly without needing to have “reasonable suspicion” of those they stop. Those stopped will have to identify themselves and answer questions about their movements, on pain of imprisonment and/or a £5,000 fine. Ironically this would involve establishing powers in mainland Britain that are due to be phased out in Northern Ireland.

Putting the assault on liberty (in particular the assault against the right to silence) this represents to one side, an interesting question here is whether such powers will be effective in combatting terrorism, the ostensible “raison d’etre” behind the proposal.

Now bear in mind that the police can already ask anyone anything they like, but no one is required to answer any of the questions. They can also arrest those that suspect of involvement in terrorism and place people under surveillance and also have stop and search powers. The government can also place control orders on people suspected of involvement in terrorism. For the proposed powers to make a difference they’d somehow have to catch those they aren’t already investigating/catching using existing methods.

There’s a simple reason for thinking it won’t make much difference — an actual terrorist questioned under these laws will simply give a cover story. Unless the police are prepared to surveil those they question, then they are unlikely to uncover the lies told to them by any criminals or terrorists they stop. Yet if they are prepared to surveil them, they don’t need to stop and question them under these proposed powers.

The impact therefore would seem to me to be that the police will get fairly reliable information about what law abiding people are doing, plus unreliable information from others whom they’d use existing powers to investigate anyway. And of course some law abiding people may not wish tell the authorities what they are doing, despite it being perfectly legal, since it may involve betraying confidences, advertising that one is a member of an unpopular group, or revealing an affair. I.e. it may involve revealing sensitive information that could be used against them by unscrupulous police officers.

It’s also worth considering the words of Cardinal Richelieu in this context:

If you give me six lines written by the most honest man, I will find something in them to hang him.

The point being of course that if you get enough information about an individual then a determined mind can cherry pick and/or reinterpret bits of it to paint that individual in a suspicious light, and power such as this, give the authorities the means to obtain such information for the purposes of harassing/silencing individuals who might challenge their power.

Finally, UK Liberty, Iain Dale, Tim Worstall and Samizdata have all given good commentary on this issue.

Latest developments on Freedom of Information in Britain

Posted by James Hammerton @ 6:51 pm on 25 May, 2007.
Categories British politics, accountability, freedom of information.
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Latest developments regarding Britain’s Freedom of Information Act:

  • Alistair Darling, a government minister, has expressed concerns about the use of the Freedom of Information Act to obtain civil servants’ advice to ministers and MPs’ correspondence with Ministers, suggesting he wants tighter restrictions on the FoIA over such communications. In his leaked letter to Lord Falconer he writes:

    First there is the position of MPs’ correspondence under the Act. Disclosure of letters between MPs and Ministers, even if ostensibly innocuous, will inhibit the dialogue between MPs and their constituents and MPs and Ministers. It can’t be right that a constituent’s affairs could be made public because he asked his MP to write to a Minister. And if we are to live under the constant threat of publication, this will prevent MPs from expressing their views frankly when writing to a Minister. We need urgent advice on what the position is.

    Second, I am concerned that the FOI Act, as it appears, prevents us from protecting robustly and across the board advice from officials to Ministers. Here again we should be able to guard more effectively against the incremental harm to the policy development process that must inevitably arise from the disclosure of individually innocuous submissions.

    He concludes:

    For immediate purposes, I would ask that officials, led by yours, conduct a speedy review of these aspects of the FOI.

    On MPs’ correspondence and advice to Ministers, we need to examine whether a more robust approach is possible to applying FOI exemptions and the scope for a more generic approach to guard against incremental harm from individual disclosures.

    On coordination between Departments, it would be helpful if officials could examine interdepartmental arrangements for handling FOI requests, taking in the role of the Clearing House, to ensure a consistent and rigorous approach to cross cutting requests. I expect this would entail clear instructions across Whitehall from your Department.

    Beyond that, we will need to watch Information Tribunal case law carefully and in due course consider whether change to the legislation is needed to redress an apparent imbalance between the “right to know” and the protection of private space where necessary for good governance.

  • There are reports that Lord Trefgarne may have decided to sponsor David Maclean’s Freedom from Scrutiny Freedom of Information (Amendment) Bill in the Lord. Without a sponsor the bill will fall. From the Press Gazette:

    Critics of a backbench bid to exempt Parliament from the Freedom of Information Act today vowed to do everything possible to stop it becoming law amid confusion over whether it has found a Tory backer in the Lords.

    The Liberal Democrats said Lord Trefgarne had agreed to sponsor David Maclean’s Freedom of Information (Amendment) Bill - a claim later confirmed by Government sources.

    Maclean, the Tory former chief whip, refused to confirm the reports but said: “He is one of a few people I am talking to about it. There is no rush.”

    Meanwhile, a Conservative Party spokeswoman insisted a sponsor had not yet been secured in the Lords.

  • Richard Thomas, the Information Commissioner has stated he hadn’t received any complaints about MPs’ correspondence with their constituents being released, undermining the case being made for the bill by its proponents. From the Independent:

    Richard Thomas, the Information Commissioner, said he had not received any complaints from members of the public that their correspondence with an MP had been wrongly disclosed under the terms of the two-year-old legislation.

    Note that the legislation is actually 7 years old, but has only been in operation since 1st January 2005.

David Cameron and Freedom of Information

Posted by James Hammerton @ 9:06 pm on 24 May, 2007.
Categories British politics, accountability, freedom of information.
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After failing to turn up and vote (which Menzies Campbell, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown also failed to do) when the House of Commons voted for the Freedom of Information (Amendment) Bill, David Cameron has instructed Tory peers to block the bill:

David Cameron has told Conservative peers to vote against a controversial
bill introduced by one of his own backbenchers which would exempt MPs from the Freedom of Information Act.

The Tory leader said he wanted to find a way to protect MPs correspondence but that he could not support the private members’ bill, pushed through the Commons last week by former Conservative chief whip David Maclean. “If it could be amended in such a way that we are happy with, we would
consider it, but at the moment, it is no go,” Mr Cameron said.

In my view, this is the correct approach. The bill as it stands will exempt Parliament from Freedom of Information Act(FoIA) and will also exempt all correspondence between MPs and public authorities. The ostensible concern behind the bill was to protect the correspondence MPs made on behalf of their constituents with public authorities. If the bill had been written simply to protect this correspondence, then it would be a reasonable amendment to our current FoIA legislation making it absolutely clear such correspondence is not to be released.

Such correspondence should already be protected by the Data Protection Act, and sections 40 and 41 of the FoIA, but some MPs have expressed concern that this existing protection isn’t working. A bill targetted at strengthening this protection is fine, though I suspect issuing better/simpler guidance on the matter to the relevant public authorities would also be a solution.

However, I don’t understand why a bill completely exempting Parliament and the totality of MPs’ correspondence with public authorities was proposed as the means of dealing with this problem.

Finally, David Maclean has proposed to amend the bill to make publication of MPs’ expenses mandatory. Welcome as this move is, it misses the point which is that Parliament should not have a blanket exemption from the FoIA.

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