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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


DNA to be held for 6 years in England and Wales

[I earlier misread the article. I thought they’d decided to retain for violent/sexual offences for upto 6 years, but actually they’ve changed from earlier proposals where such retention was for 12 years with 6 years blanket retention, to “merely” 6 years blanket retention].

Last year the European Court of Human Rights ruled against the British government’s policy on DNA retention of everyone who is arrested in England and Wales. The government has finally announced their new policy, namely that DNA will be held for 6 years rather than indefinitely, as was the case prior to the ECHR ruling or for 6 to 12 years as in their earlier proposals. However it is 6 years retention for all offences, no matter how trivial, and thus more draconian than anywhere else. And remember this applies to anyone arrested, not merely those charged or convicted of an offence.

Number of local council snoopers clipped

The Register report that the number of local council officials who can authorise use of surveillance powers under RIPA is set to be cut:

The number of local officials who can authorise access to communications records and order surveillance operations will be cut under changes to snooping regulations announced today.

The Home Office’s move follows repeated controversy over the use of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA) by local authorities probing trivial trangressions such as littering and people putting their bins out on the wrong day.

Only director-level officials will now be able to authorise use of RIPA powers, Alan Johnson said.

Whilst this may reduce some of the worst excesses and is a small step in the right direction, it fails to address the fundamental problem lying behind such powers, namely that officials are able to use them under their own authority without adequate oversight and there is no effective way of holding them accountable for the use of these powers. The use of these powers should require officials to obtain a warrant from a judge, where they must persuade the judge that the use of surveillance is both necessary and proportionate and must explain what evidence of criminal activity they expect to uncover. Parliament must also be able to exercise effective scrutiny, both via an annual report but also a committee that meets regularly to over see the system. More radically, I wonder whether people should be informed of the surveillance done on them, once the investigations are safely over, for how else is one to discover that such powers are being abused?

Big Brother Watch

Posted by James Hammerton @ 8:35 pm on 14 November, 2009.
Categories privacy and surveillance, British politics, the database state.
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Big Brother Watch is a new campaign, launched by the founders of the Taxpayer’s Alliance. Their mission is to document and fight the erosion of civil liberties in Britain.

The launching of this group is a sign, alongside the appearance of several books, the long running campaign by Henry Porter, the Convention on Modern Liberty and pledges by both the Tories and the Lib Dems to roll back the database state and restore civil liberties, that concern about civil liberties in Britain is gathering momentum.

Whether this will be enough to stem, let alone reverse, the recent onslaught is yet to be seen.

Cameron agreeing to repeal the Identity Cards Act 2006

Posted by James Hammerton @ 4:54 pm on 25 October, 2009.
Categories privacy and surveillance, British politics, the database state.
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YouTube - David Cameron - Repealing The Identity Cards Act

This is unequivocal!

Brighton residents face ID checks at home in run up to Labour conference

From The Argus:

During the conference, from September 27 to October 1, police will seal off a secure ‘island site’ around the Brighton Centre, Hilton Metropole, Grand Hotel and Russell Road car park.

But residents and workers further afield will also have to prove who they are.

Police working with Brighton and Hove City Council have already sent letters to businesses and homes around the conference centre which will be affected by Operation Otter.

Officers will visit homes and ask residents to show an identity document like a passport of driving licence, as well as confirming their address with a bank statement or utility bill.

The names will then be checked against the police national computer to check whether they are wanted or suspected of terrorism.

What if one of the residents has no passport and no driving licence with them?

Taxman allowed access to National Identity Register data

Posted by James Hammerton @ 10:00 am on 18 May, 2009.
Categories privacy and surveillance, British politics, the database state.
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According to the Telegraph:

HM Revenue and Customs staff will be able to examine people’s financial transactions on the scheme’s database and search for evidence of undeclared earnings or bank accounts.

The disclosure will likely to provoke further concern over the £5.5 billion project, which has been condemned as a waste of money and an invasion of privacy.

Campaigners have already raised fears the Home Office, police, and security officials would have access to the scheme’s database.

The scheme’s log records each time an ID card is used to verify a person’s identity when they make a high value purchase, open a bank account or take out a mortgage.

Tax officials could use the system to look for cases where large numbers of high value purchases have been recorded, which might indicate that a person earns more than they declare.

The database will also include information on checks made by employers that job applicants are eligible to work in Britain. This could alert the taxman to people who have undeclared second occupations.

Companies will be allowed to check details on the database for a fee of around 60p per inquiry. Each time a check is made against the ID card, it will be logged on the National Identity Register.

To anyone following the development of this scheme, the news above should come as no surprise.

Update to National Identity Scheme Briefing Doc

Posted by James Hammerton @ 6:42 pm on 10 May, 2009.
Categories site news, privacy and surveillance, British politics, the database state.
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I’ve updated the National Identity Scheme Briefing Document to take into account recent changes to the scheme.

How storing DNA differs from storing passport photos

Alasdair Palmer, writing in the Sunday Telegraph, claims that keeping DNA is no different from storing photos:

Most people react to the state’s photo database with a shrug: they have my photo? Big deal. And yet many of the same people also feel profoundly threatened by the Government’s DNA database, asserting that it really is an assault on privacy, liberty and the presumption of innocence. This is deeply puzzling. A record of your DNA is simply the equivalent of a photo of the inside of one of your cells. Why get worried about that – but not about a picture of your face?

I have yet to come across any reason for thinking that it is more destructive of liberty and privacy for the government to keep a record of the intricate chemical mechanism that reproduces your cells than it is for it to keep your photo. Certainly the European Court did not provide one. The court insisted that the Government violated human rights law when it retained DNA data. But the arguments it gave – that the retaining of DNA was “blanket and indiscriminate” – would equally apply to every state’s passport photo archive. And the European Court did not require the British Government to destroy its photo database on the grounds that it was “disproportionate”.

There are a several differences between storing photos on a passport database and storing people’s DNA:

  • DNA contains far more sensitive information about you than the photograph of your face and shoulders stored in the passport database. For example, using DNA samples you can determine the degree to which people are related and how susceptible a person is to a range of diseases. The potential for the abusing a DNA database by selling such information on or providing to those who have no business knowing it will be magnified should such a database be made “universal”.
  • Because we involuntarily leave DNA around in the form of hairs and skin cells as we go about our daily lives, DNA can be used to help determine whether someone has been in a given location, by comparing someone’s profile against the samples found at the location. This is the very basis upon which DNA profiling works. Until we have facial recognition systems that work reliably (we currently don’t) this simply cannot be done with photographs, and it would also require CCTV cameras to be far more pervasive than they are now.
  • The storage of a photo in a passport database is done for purposes of verifying that a passport belongs to the person presenting it, rather than for identifying people. The purpose of storing DNA in the National DNA database is to help identify who was at the scene of a crime during investigations.

All three of these differences impact on the level of intrusion into privacy represented by the two cases, and make the storing of DNA a more intrusive proposition than the storing of a photograph for limited purposes.

Later on Palmer writes:

There is a clear public policy justification for the DNA database, and it is not just that it helps provide evidence to convict the guilty. It is equally important for acquitting the innocent.

Many people have already been ruled out of police inquiries because their DNA does not match that found at the scene of the crime. A few have been released from prison sentences because DNA proved they could not have committed the crimes of which they were convicted.

It requires a strange view of the importance of not convicting the innocent – the “presumption of innocence” central to our criminal law – to decry the retaining of DNA samples. For retaining DNA simply makes it possible for the courts to apply that principle more effectively.

This is a flawed argument. There is NO NEED WHATSOEVER to store innocent people’s DNA for the purposes of eliminating them from investigation. Should suspicion fall on someone who is innocent, you can test their DNA against that found at the crime scene, without there being any need for their DNA sample to be stored in the database, simply by taking a sample from them to test at that time.

It is worth considering the likely consequences of trying to make a “universal” DNA database:

  • DNA profiling currently involves a false match rate of 1 in a few million. If you restrict the DNA database to only those who are convicted of crimes and those who are currently under investigation, you reduce the likelihood of accidental matches. A “universal” DNA database for all 60 million inhabitants of the UK will generate false matches on just about every search, thus degrading the value of the DNA database as a crime fighting tool.
  • One strategy for criminals to try and counter the DNA database is to plant someone else’s DNA at a crime scene (and minimise the risk of leaving your own there). Making the DNA database “universal” will make this strategy more likely to work since it is far more likely that the person you choose will have their DNA stored on the database, again degrading the usefulness of DNA.
  • Those criminals who do not wish their DNA to be stored on the database are unlikely to meekly go along with efforts to make it universal. Strategies they can employ to prevent being caught by the system include registering under someone else’s identity; bribing, tricking or intimidating the database maintainers to alter or delete their record or simply evading registration.
  • It is inevitable that attempts to construct a “universal” DNA database will involve error. No database of the size we’re talking about can be constructed error free. Samples will get mislabeled, matched to the wrong records or even lost. This is true even for the current DNA database, but the logistics of trying to create a “universal” database will likely increase the error rate. Also, instead of those affected primarily being those who’ve been convicted of crime or arrested within the last 12 years, these errors would affect literally anyone.

For all these reasons, my view is that DNA samples should only be kept for those currently under investigation and those convicted of crime. The DNA database will be more effective, the error rates will be lower, the scope for abuse of the system will be lower and the intrusion into privacy will be lower.

Privacy in the Age of Persistence

Posted by James Hammerton @ 10:03 pm on 27 March, 2009.
Categories privacy and surveillance, the database state.
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Bruce Shneier has written an article that nicely summarises the problems caused for privacy in the age of cheap, powerful information technology:

You’re living in a unique time in history: the technology is here, but it’s not yet seamless. Identification checks are common, but you still have to show your ID. Soon it’ll happen automatically, either by remotely querying a chip in your wallets or by recognizing your face on camera.

And all those cameras, now visible, will shrink to the point where you won’t even see them. Ephemeral conversation will all but disappear, and you’ll think it normal. Already your children live much more of their lives in public than you do. Your future has no privacy, not because of some police-state governmental tendencies or corporate malfeasance, but because computers naturally produce data.

Cardinal Richelieu famously said: “If one would give me six lines written by the hand of the most honest man, I would find something in them to have him hanged.” When all your words and actions can be saved for later examination, different rules have to apply.

Society works precisely because conversation is ephemeral; because people forget, and because people don’t have to justify every word they utter.

Conversation is not the same thing as correspondence. Words uttered in haste over morning coffee, whether spoken in a coffee shop or thumbed on a BlackBerry, are not official correspondence. A data pattern indicating “terrorist tendencies” is no substitute for a real investigation. Being constantly scrutinized undermines our social norms; furthermore, it’s creepy. Privacy isn’t just about having something to hide; it’s a basic right that has enormous value to democracy, liberty, and our humanity.

We’re not going to stop the march of technology, just as we cannot un-invent the automobile or the coal furnace. We spent the industrial age relying on fossil fuels that polluted our air and transformed our climate. Now we are working to address the consequences. (While still using said fossil fuels, of course.) This time around, maybe we can be a little more proactive.

Just as we look back at the beginning of the previous century and shake our heads at how people could ignore the pollution they caused, future generations will look back at us – living in the early decades of the information age – and judge our solutions to the proliferation of data.

Minister confirms U-turn on data sharing

Posted by James Hammerton @ 4:10 pm on 21 March, 2009.
Categories privacy and surveillance, British politics, the database state, accountability.
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The Register reports:

Justice minister Michael Wills confirmed to Parliament yesterday that clause 152 of the Coroners and Justice Bill to provide ministers with unlimited inter-department data sharing has been removed.

But data sharing is not dead yet. We’ve won a battle, but the war continues:

Wills told the House the proposals would be redrafted and will be reintroduced at some point in the future - as predicted by our own Monsieur Ozimek ten days ago.

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