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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

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Online tax return system considered too risky for the famous

Posted by James Hammerton @ 10:15 pm on 26 January, 2008.
Categories privacy and surveillance, British politics, the database state.
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[Hat tip: Samizdata and Tim Worstall]

From a report in the Telegraph:

The security of the online computer system used by more than three million people to file tax returns is in doubt after HM Revenue and Customs admitted it was not secure enough to be used by MPs, celebrities and the Royal Family.

Thousands of “high profile” people have been secretly barred from using the online tax return system amid concerns that their confidential details would be put at risk.

And:

From this year, anyone wishing to file a self-assessment tax return after October will have to do so online or face stiff penalties.

However, HMRC has a list of those excluded from the new rules who must send hard copies of returns for “security reasons”.

Hundreds of thousands of people are expected to use the electronic system to make the Jan 31 deadline this week.

Tax records contain bank details, national insurance numbers, salary and details on investments and savings - all valuable to fraudsters.

On Friday, senior accountants said they had concerns over the security of the system - apparently confirmed by the Revenue’s secret policy.

Mike Warburton, of the accountants Grant Thornton, said: “Either the Revenue have a system which can guarantee confidentiality for all or they should defer plans to force online filing. It is extraordinary that MPs and others can enjoy higher security.”

Mark Wallace, of the Taxpayers’ Alliance, said: “This double standard is unacceptable. If the online system is not secure enough for MPs, why should ordinary taxpayers have to put up with it?”

This is of course the same HMRC who lost 25 million child benefit records. Why should anyone, famous or otherwise, trust these people or their online system to keep their personal data safe?

What’s going on with Britain’s National Identity Scheme?

Posted by James Hammerton @ 10:23 pm on 25 January, 2008.
Categories privacy and surveillance, British politics, the database state.
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Recently there have been a number of headlines related to Britain’s National Identity Scheme, apparently due to the Tories obtaining leaked Home Office documents relating to the scheme. The headlines concerned have suggested both delays, the possibility of the scheme being shelved and possible extensions to the scheme. Below are some examples:

So what is going on? Has the scheme been delayed? Has it been extended? Will it be shelved?
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Happy 2008!

Posted by James Hammerton @ 6:42 pm on 5 January, 2008.
Categories privacy and surveillance, political liberties, British politics, the database state.
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So a new year is now upon us.

Looking back I think one of they key developments of 2007 in Britain has been the increased awareness of the dangers of the database state, in the wake of numerous stories about how various departments of the British government have lost personal data, had it stolen and/or seriously mishandled it (e.g. sending unencrypted CDs through the post). The government has shown, beyond reasonable doubt to many people, that they cannot be trusted with our personal data.

As a consequence recent opinion polls have been showing a majority of people are now opposed to the national identity scheme. Given that this scheme involves collecting and sharing personal data on a far wider scale than is done currently, it is only logical to expect even more scope for the loss/abuse of personal data arising from the scheme. This point now seems to have penetrated the public consciousness. This development could spell the end of the identity scheme and make it harder for the government to pursue other schemes that involve collecting and sharing vast amounts of personal data. I hope it does.

On the civil liberties front more generally, there are of course many more developments that need to be fought, such as the extension of pre-charge detention and other draconian measures. For the first time, it seems to me that the public are becoming aware of the dangers of what’s happening. Hopefully this will help to prevent further losses of liberty and further erosion of the rule of law.

The British government’s record on keeping personal data safe

Posted by James Hammerton @ 10:14 pm on 21 November, 2007.
Categories privacy and surveillance, British politics, the database state, accountability.
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In light of the recent loss of CDs containing the personal details of 25 million people by HM Revenue and Customs, it seems appropriate to summarise this government’s recent record on losing personal data and identity documents:

Note that this is a topic I have covered before, the following list summarises the events previously reported:

Clearly, the government cannot be trusted with our personal data.

Finally, a comprehensive list of data abuse stories (including commercial cases) can be found at UK Liberty’s data abuse page.

NO2ID calls in “refuse to register” pledge.

Posted by James Hammerton @ 10:01 pm on 19 November, 2007.
Categories privacy and surveillance, British politics, the database state.
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Some time back, NO2ID ran a pledge for people to refuse to register for the national identity card and to pay £10 to a legal defence fund, assuming 10,000 others would join in. In the event, 11,361 people signed the pledge (1,361 over target).

Now, NO2ID are calling in this pledge. They argue now is the right time thus:

The Identity Cards Act 2006 is now law, and - despite growing opposition, significant delays and rising costs - the new Prime Minister shows no sign of calling a halt to the National Identity Scheme. In 2008, the government intends to pilot fingerprinting and to issue the first ‘biometric residence visas’ to non-EU foreign nationals as a precursor to registering British Citizens.

The legal powers to do these all these things will shortly begin to be applied. Now is the time to call in the legal defence fund part of the pledge.

If anyone wishes to contribute to this fund, whether or not they signed the pledge, there is a paypal button on the page linked to above, near the bottom (the one in the sidebar is for a general donation to NO2ID - the one at the bottom is specifically for the legal defence fund). Alternatively, NO2ID advices:

Please send your donation, by cheque made payable to ‘NO2ID’ to:

NO2ID (Legal Defence Fund)
Box 412
19-21 Crawford Street
London W1H 1PJ

Gordon Brown and civil liberties

Last week, at the University of Westminster, Gordon Brown gave us a speech on liberty and what it means for Britain. I have responded to this speech below. Quotations from the speech are indented.

Addressing these issues is a challenge for all who believe in liberty, regardless of political party. Men and women are Conservative or Labour, Liberal Democrat or of some other party - or of no political allegiance. But we are first of all citizens of our country with a shared history and a common destiny.

And I believe that together we can chart a better way forward. In particular, I believe that by applying our enduring ideals to new challenges we can start immediately to make changes in our constitution and laws to safeguard and extend the liberties of our citizens:

* respecting and extending freedom of assembly, new rights for the public expression of dissent;
* respecting freedom to organise and petition, new freedoms that guarantee the independence of non-governmental organisations;
* respecting freedoms for our press, the removal of barriers to investigative journalism;
* respecting the public right to know, new rights to access public information where previously it has been withheld;
* respecting privacy in the home, new rights against arbitrary intrusion;
* in a world of new technology, new rights to protect your private information;
* and respecting the need for freedom from arbitrary treatment, new provision for independent judicial scrutiny and open parliamentary oversight.

Note here how Mr Brown is talking about giving us “new” rights to express dissent, “new” protections of privacy and “new” rights against arbitrary intrusion. The main reason we need “new” protections is precisely because this government has trashed many of the old ones!

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School uses RFID chips in uniforms to track pupils

Posted by James Hammerton @ 9:21 pm on 22 October, 2007.
Categories privacy and surveillance, British politics, the database state.
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A school in Doncaster seems willing to introduce its pupils to a world where all their movements are tracked. From the Register (again!):

A school in Doncaster is piloting a monitoring system designed to keep tabs on pupils by tracking radio chips in their uniforms.

According to the Doncaster Free Press, Hungerhill School is testing RFID tracking and data collection on 10 pupils within the school. It’s been developed by local company Darnbro Ltd, which says it is ready to launch the product into the £300m school uniform market.

IPS produces shortlist of ID scheme suppliers

A significant milestone has been reached on the British National Identity Scheme. The Register reports that the Identity and Passport Service has now produced a shortlist of 8 companies who will compete for work in implementing the National Identity Scheme. The companies are:

  • Accenture,
  • BAE Systems,
  • CSC,
  • EDS,
  • Fujitsu,
  • IBM,
  • Steria, and
  • Thales

It seems a change of government will definitely be required to scrap this scheme.

ACPO and Home Office propose integrated CCTV network

The Register has an article covering the National CCTV Strategy, a report jointly published by the Home Office and the Association of Chief Police Officers.

After complaining about issues ranging from poor quality of some images, through to the fact that most CCTV systems are privately owned and the police have to have access to the premisses to even establish if CCTV evidence is available from the cameras, the report goes on to propose that all CCTV systems be registered, and eventually, that both live and archived CCTV footage is available via a network, so that people/vehicles can be tracked automatically. The Register states (italics indicate quotations from the report):

This is actually worse than what Jason Bourne has to put up with, as the spooks would one day have no need to know where he was to start following him on camera. Rather, the second he drove the wrong car, used the wrong credit card - or maybe even just took down the top of his hoodie - ding! Nearby cams would swivel round and he would be followed in real time until the cold steel bracelets snapped shut on his wrists.

Honest, that’s the plan:

In future, as technology is developed… such a network will allow the use of automated search techniques (i.e. face recognition) and can be integrated with other systems such as ANPR, and police despatch systems… [there might also be links of] transport system cameras to travel cards [and] shop cameras to Electronic Point of Sale (EPOS) systems… actions can be triggered by associated events and post event CCTV images can be quickly searched against other events/data…

Even the report’s authors note that people might be worried by this.

“Integrated systems significantly increase the capacity to undertake public surveillance,” they say, “and therefore needs to be carefully controlled by Information and Surveillance Commissioners’ guidance…”

Very few of us are in favour of truck bombs in London. The trouble is, this kind of kit - being so much cheaper and easier to access than surveillance teams, aircraft, fortified watchtowers etc. - can, and probably will, get used for many other purposes. The report admits as much.

In addition to the police, there are many other uses and users of CCTV, such as… insurance companies and solicitors… local authority officers… highways enforcement officers, dog wardens, health safety and licensing …

So, potentially your insurers, solicitors acting for your enemies, every petty official in the land, even the bloody dog warden can watch and track you. Unless of course you’re the kind of person who deals only in cash, wears his hoodie up at all times and mainly drives stolen, uninsured or unregistered cars.

I.e. yet another big-brother proposal that the Stasi would have been proud of.

Privacy and surveillance roundup

Continuing in catch-up mode, here’s a round-up of recent privacy and surveillance related stories:

  • Back in July, it was reported that the LTI 20.20, the police’s favourite speed gun, can lie. Amongst it’s many feats, were a recording a bicycle 66mph, a parked car doing 22 mph and a brick wall doing 40mph…
  • [Hat Tip: IanPP]Highlighting just how leaky public bodies can be when it comes to personal data, ZDNet reported in September that an inquiry was being held to find out how a hard drive containing NHS patient data ended up being sold on eBay.
  • The UK’s DNA database currently holds the samples of those who have been investigated of crime, whether they’re charged or cleared or not. This has led to some sections of society being disproportionately represented in the DNA database. Lord Justice Sedley thinks this is unfair. His solution? Every UK resident, plus all visitors to the UK, should be required to have their DNA put on the database. Surely the unfairness would be reduced if only those actually convicted of crime had their DNA permanently stored?
  • The Daily Mail reports that, as of 1st October, all phone companies are required to store information about which people you phone, how long for, from which numbers and in the case of mobile phones, from which location for a minimum of a year. Access to this information must be provided to some 795 public bodies ranging from your local council, the tax authorities and government deparments through to the Food Standards Agency, the Immigration Service and the Charities Commission. This is all down to Statutory Instrument 2199, implementing the European Union’s Data Retention directive. Trevor Mendham comments on this proposal at this blog. Note that in 2009 the plan is for information about your internet communications to be subject to a similar regime, i.e. storing who you email, who emails you, which websites you visit, who visits your website, etc.
  • Part III of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 (RIP Act) was finally brought into force, starting on the 1st October, via this Statutory Instrument. The significance of this is that it means that the police can demand that you provide the encryption key to encrypted data found in your possession, under section 51 of the RIP Act. Note that if you ever knew/had the key to the encrypted data you are presumed to still know/have the key subsequently. Bruce Schneier comments on this policy here. The Strange Stuff blog has created an article which, if you read it on your computer, could lead you to falling foul of this law… How are you going to prove you don’t have the key?
  • The Telegraph reports that scientists have developed a method of tracking people on CCTV that can take account changes such as removing jackets or changing appearance:

    The new system plugs the surveillance gap by enabling an operator to choose a suspect and follow him through dense crowds, and any subsequent changes in appearance.

    It works by attaching about 30 “tags” on small clusters of pixels on the footage, fixing them on different parts of the subject. It then “locks on” to these tags, and as the subject is filmed, the computer is able to follow his or her exact progress on the film, as the target moves about.

    The system has been developed by scientists at the defence company BAE Systems, the University of Reading and Sagem, a French telecoms company.

    Andrew Cooke, the project manager, said: “This kind of technology would allow us to track someone like Bourne.”

    Present CCTV surveillance “hits a brick wall” when a suspect mingles in a crowd or even takes off his jacket. The new system will even be able to pass information from one CCTV camera to another and can be programmed to pick out potential criminals by detecting suspicious body language.

  • The Home Office is currently running a trial of a scheme for fingerprinting airline passengers as they enter the UK at Gatwick Airport, ostensibly as a means of preventing illegal immigration. Such a scheme entails recording every air passenger’s visits to the UK, and is thus yet another form of mass surveillance.
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