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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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1st Jan to 9th Sept 2005


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.

Bulk metadata harvesting in US renewed

Posted by James Hammerton @ 8:08 pm on 26 July, 2013.
Categories privacy and surveillance, the database state, US politics.
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The bulk metadata harvesting by the NSA referred to in earlier articles, and due to expire on 19 July, was renewed by the FISA court, presumably for a further 3 months.

On the legality of the NSA’s alleged snooping

One question regarding the allegations that the NSA has been engaged in mass surveillance of people’s communications is to what extent is the alleged snooping legal?

With regards to the order requiring Verizon to hand over the metadata for millions of calls to the NSA, the US government has actively defended the policy (including President Obama himself), thus confirming the alleged snooping was occurring.

The Register reports:

A senior White House official has said that the US National Security Agency is perfectly correct to be downloading the mobile metadata every US caller, and politicians on both sides of the political divide have rallied to defend the practice.

The NSA’s policy – revealed on Wednesday in a leaked court order that the anonymous (no, not that Anonymous) source declined to confirm was real – was described as “a critical tool in protecting the nation from terrorist threats to the United States.”

“It allows counter-terrorism personnel to discover whether known or suspected terrorists have been in contact with other persons who may be engaged in terrorist activities,” the source said, “particularly people located inside the United States.”

Verizon’s general counsel Randy Milch said his company “continually takes steps to safeguard customer privacy,” but that it must comply with government regulations. In a blog post he pointed out that the leaked document shows the order forbids it to discuss the issue and safeguards the content of messages.

The article goes on to state:

The legality of the NSA actions is provided by Section 215 of the Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act (USA PATRIOT Act). The 363-page document was introduced on October 21 2001 and enacted into law three days later.

This allows such monitoring while not allowing the content of communications to be monitored in the same way – that kind of spying currently needs a court order.

Note that the USA PATRIOT Act amended the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. Also the Register articles reports that the Verizon case is part of an ongoing operation running for 7 years, lending credence to the allegation of ongoing harvesting of metadata:

The actions of the NSA were “lawful,” said Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), chair of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, the Washington Post reports. She said the leaked court order appears to be “the exact three-month renewal” of a seven-year operation.

However, that deals with the collection of metadata, whereas PRISM allegedly includes the content of communications. Again the US government response confirms the NSA has access to data from these companies.

Regarding the legality of PRISM, the Guardian published an article explaining how the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), as amended in 2008, ends up permitting such surveillance. To summarise:

  • Originally, to listen in on someone’s phone calls or intercept emails, FISA required an individualised warrant with evidence showing probable cause that the target was an agent of a foreign power or terrorist organisation.
  • FISA was amended in 2008 to legalise the earlier warrantless surveillance that had been conducted in secret by the Bush administration. An individualised warrant is now only required if the target is a US citizen or the communications occur entirely within the US.
  • The amended FISA enables warrantless surveillance of the communications of anyone reasonably believed to be outside the US, with no requirement for there to be suspicion of their involvement on terrorism or any other criminal activity. Thus US citizens/residents communicating with people believed to be outside the US could find their communications under surveillance via this system.
  • Thus the claims from US government representatives that the NSA is not listening in on US citizens’ phone calls or reading US citizens’ emails are misleading if not outright false. Also it appears that those of us who are not US citizens and live elsewhere than the US can be surveilled at will by the NSA under this law.
  • The main oversight mechanism is this: The NSA draws up its general guidelines each year for deciding how to do this surveillance, which the FISA Court then has to approve, but thereafter the NSA is left to carry out it surveillance under those guidelines at its own discretion. Note that the FISA Court carries out its activities mostly in secret.
  • The only other oversight comes in the form of periodic reviews by the Dept Of Justice and Director of National Intelligence.

This leaves the question of whether the amended FISA is itself lawful/constitutional. However every attempt to contest the lawfulness of the amended FISA in light of the US constitution has been thwarted by the DOJ via claims of lack of standing, secrecy or immunity from prosecution.

In short this system seems to allow a lot of discretion, with a cover of secrecy more than sufficient to allow the levels of surveillance claimed in the Guardian’s leaks. Further the US govt has confirmed that they get surveillance data from the companies involved.

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.”

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.

The EU want to keep a record of every internet search - Big Brother Watch

Big Brother Watch reports:

As reported on the Register, more than 300 MEPs in the European Parliament are set to lobby the EU to keep a log of every internet search made in Europe, under the dubious logic of cracking-down on paedophilia.

Guardian: Surveillance cameras in Birmingham track Muslims’ every move

The Guardian reports:

Counterterrorism police have targeted hundreds of surveillance cameras on two Muslim areas of Birmingham, enabling them to track the precise movements of people entering and leaving the neighbourhoods.

The project has principally been sold to locals as an attempt to combat antisocial behaviour, vehicle crime and drug dealing in the area. But the cameras have been paid for by a £3m grant from a government fund, the Terrorism and Allied Matters Fund, which is administered by the Association of Chief Police Officers.

About 150 automatic numberplate recognition (ANPR) cameras have been installed in Washwood Heath and Sparkbrook in recent months. Birmingham’s two predominantly Muslim suburbs will be covered by three times more ANPR cameras than are used to monitor the entire city centre. They include about 40 cameras classed as “covert”, meaning they have been concealed from public view.

Coalition performs u-turn on the Summary Care Record

See this report from Big Brother Watch and this article from Heresy Corner.

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