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The Convention on Modern Liberty: a personal view, part two

In this article, I’ll provide an overview of what was said at the Surveillance in Scottish Society sessions of the Glasgow Convention on Modern Liberty.

Please note however that there were parallel sessions on democracy (in the morning) and the liberty of vulnerable groups (in the afternoon) which I cannot cover.

Also the article below is constructed from rather haphazard notes and already fuzzy memories, but I hope it will convey a decent overview of my experience.

(more…)

To British readers: Write to your MPs

Posted by James Hammerton @ 8:47 pm on 1 March, 2009.
Categories privacy and surveillance, British politics, the database state.
Edit This Permalink to this article

Phil Booth, quoted by Guy Herbert on Samizdata.net

At the Convention on Modern Liberty, I launched NO2ID’s request that everyone at the convention – and around the UK – tells their MP right now that they refuse their consent to having their information shared under any “information sharing order”, a power currently being slipped onto the statute books in clause 152 of the coroners and justice bill .

Please tell yours too. It’s important, and urgent – and something that only YOU can do. If you never have before, now’s the time to write to your MP – in a letter, or via www.WriteToThem.com.

Jack Straw has been making noises that could signal a ‘compromise’, but the only acceptable action is to remove clause 152 entirely from the bill. It is not linked to any other clause, despite being sandwiched between other powers and so-called safeguards offered to the information commissioner. It cannot be improved, and Straw can’t be allowed to merely “dilute” it. Clause 152 just has to go.

It’s imperative that in coming days every MP hears from his or her constituents. Please tell them you refuse consent to having your information, taken for one purpose, arbitrarily used for any other purpose. And ask them to vote clause 152 off the bill.

I have already written to my MP making these points. I urge all those opposed to this measure to do so.

The Convention on Modern Liberty: a personal view, part one

Yesterday the Convention on Modern Liberty took place. I attended the Glasgow convention, organised jointly by NO2ID Scotland and the Institute for Advanced Studies (IAS).

In this article, I provide an overview of my experience attending the Glasgow convention. I shall delve into more detail about various topics later in followup articles.

The first thing I’d like to do is to congratulate both NO2ID Scotland, especially Dr Geraint Bevan, and the IAS, especially Professor Mike Nellis, for organising a highly successful event. There were over 100 people from all sorts of backgrounds attending, more than had originally been planned for. The video links from the London Convention worked very well and there was a wide range of speakers and topics covered in the Glasgow sessions. I was particularly impressed with the questions from the audience and subsequent discussions that accompanied the talks. Notably, most people stayed for the whole day, i.e. from 9.30am through to a slightly late 5.40pm finish. The atmosphere was positive and I think most people will have come away from the event knowing a lot more than they did before, knowing who to get in touch with about these issues, and also with some ideas to followup on for campaigning on these issues. I shall talk in a bit more detail about what was said at the Glasgow Convention in a followup article.

The impression I got of the London event was also positive. There were excellent speeches and talks from the likes of Shami Chakrabarti, Dominic Grieve, Chris Huhne and David Davis, and interesting, pertitinent questions from an audience numbering in the thousands, with £35 tickets having been sold out. Here, again the organisers deserve congratulations, most notably Henry Porter for kicking the whole thing off after David Davis’s resignation.

As a starting point for a general campaign on liberty, the Convention has at least succeeded in getting large numbers of people from different backgrounds who are concerned about the erosion of liberty to talk to each other and start thinking about what to do about it. The main question is whether it’ll amount to more than preaching to the converted. To an extent, on the day, the Convention was bound to involve only those who were concerned about or otherwise take an interest in the erosions of liberty because the audience is self selecting.

However the debates generated in the media in the run up to the Convention already involve a move beyond preaching to the converted. Also, some time was spent discussing ideas for what to do about the erosion of liberty, and various ideas have already been put forward. Examples of these ideas included Baroness Kennedy’s suggestion of a concerted campaign involving drawing up a list of civil liberties issues and asking where candidates at the next election stand; Chris Huhne’s Freedom Bill; one speaker’s suggestion that we should educate children about the importance of human rights; Phil Booth urging people to write to their MPs to tell them they refuse consent to data sharing under the Coroners and Justice Bill and Patrick Harvie’s suggestion of “liberty theatre” to try and make people aware of what liberty is, and how precious it is.

My overall impression is that, whilst the Convention has made a good start in getting people together/putting them in touch with each other, the question of what to do about the erosion of liberty has only begun to get a serious answer. This is not a criticism. It seems to me that it was only ever likely to make a start on this question in the first place, that it has done so with a broad range of people is a success. Also, there is clear intent to followup on the Convention, with suggestions for it becoming an annual event, plus people have exchanged contact details to start networking for followup events. My own view is that there is probably no particular magic bullet, but if everyone concerned with these issues can think of ways of getting the message out, ways of influencing both those in power and the general public to pay heed to liberty, and act upon their ideas, then the Convention stands a good chance of being the turning point that I hope it will be.

Good luck to the Convention on Modern Liberty

Tomorrow, the Convention on Modern Liberty will take place in London with satellite Conventions in Glasgow, Belfast, Manchester, Birmingham, Cambridge, Cardiff and Bristol.

I’ve been monitoring the erosion of civil liberties in Britain, with increasing concern, for a decade now, and I hope that this Convention will mark a turning point that will see these erosions of liberty halted and reversed. By getting people from different backgrounds and different political perspectives together to discuss these issues, hopefully eveyone who is concerned by this trend will be able to get together and campaign more effectively. Ideally the Convention will spawn a regular event, and/or renewed pressure on our politicians to listen.

So how successful will the Convention be? Time will tell of course, but it’s worth noting that tickets for the London Convention sold out, whilst the Glasgow Convention has had to be extended to hold a second parallel session since it was oversubscribed. This suggests that people are concerned about these issues and are willing to give up a Saturday to find out more and to help campaign against it.

Update on data sharing proposals

Posted by James Hammerton @ 7:04 pm on 21 February, 2009.
Categories privacy and surveillance, British politics, the database state, accountability.
Edit This Permalink to this article

Regarding the proposed power to allow Ministers to order data sharing via statutory instrument, I thought I’d post an update on recent developments:

  • The British Medical Association have claimed that the data sharing powers will jeopardise medical confidentiality:

    Dr Hamish Meldrum, chairman of the British Medical Association, told the Guardian that the profession was “extremely concerned” about legislation tabled by Jack Straw, the justice secretary.

    Clause 152 of the Coroners and Justice Bill would allow the Department of Health to share information on NHS databases with other ministries and private companies.

    Health ministers have no immediate plan to make use of the power, which would give all Whitehall departments a fast-track procedure for getting permission to share data without parliamentary debate.

    The NHS is proceeding slowly with a scheme to upload the medical records of everyone in England on to a national database known as the Spine. Ministers have given frequent assurances to patients that the information would only be accessed by healthcare staff who need it.

    But Meldrum said patients could not know whether future ministers would abide by this undertaking. According to the BMA, the trust between doctors and patients would be destroyed if Straw’s bill, as it stands, became law.

    Meldrum told the Guardian: “The bill gives any minister the right to access patient-identifiable information - and give others access to it. There appears to be no limit to what could be done with this information as long as the minister can make a vague… justification, claiming that sharing the information is in line with government policy at the time.

    “The doctor-patient relationship is built primarily on trust that information is given confidentially and will not normally be shared without the patient’s consent. Once we go down the road where that principle can be breached, widespread possibilities could flow.”

  • The British Computer Society and the Information Commissioner’s Office have also both criticised the proposals:

    The Bill would allow one of the central principles of the DPA – that information collected for one purpose by one organisation should not be used by another organisation for another – to be set aside.

    It would allow ministers to issue an “information sharing order” as long as this will be in support of a public policy and held to be in the public interest.

    The BCS said this would “devalue the principle of informed consent that lies at the heart of the DPA” which could “heighten distrust that citizens have of government and central initiatives” and have “disastrous consequences in the hands of a less benevolent government.”

    It also argued that the measures might not survive a challenge under Article 8 of the Human Rights Act, which guarantees a respect for private and family life.

    In a commentary on its website, the ICO said the measures should be restricted to “precisely defined circumstances in which there is a legal barrier to information sharing that would be in the public interest” and that “large scale data sharing initiatives that would constitute significant changes to public policy” should be excluded.

    It also argued that it should be stated explicitly that any data made subject to an information sharing order was still protected by the DPA and the Human Rights Act.

  • The Out-law.com website covers the Information Commissioner’s Office concerns in more detail:

    The ICO has released its second opinion on the contents of the Coroners and Justice Bill, which proposes legalising greater sharing of information between Government departments and with outside contractors and private companies who request it.

    When the Bill’s proposals were first published, the ICO was less critical.

    “Some have suggested that the Bill’s information sharing provisions represent an unwarranted interference with the privacy of personal information. We do not agree. The provisions of the DPA will continue to apply to the sharing of personal information whether undertaken within the scope of an information order or otherwise,” said its opinion, published on 22 January.

    The ICO now believes that the proposed new law poses some dangers to privacy and for Government’s accountability for the processing of personal data it has collected.

    “The Bill’s information-sharing provisions are too wide, and its safeguards relatively weak,” it said. “The provisions should only apply in precisely defined circumstances where there is a legal barrier to information sharing that would be in the public interest.”

    Rosemary Jay, a privacy law expert at Pinsent Masons, the law firm behind OUT-LAW.COM, warned of similar concerns when the Bill was published.

    “It would allow for information to be shared with banks or other financial institutions,” she said in January. “There is no restriction on purpose of the sharing so for example it would enable the Minister to make an order empowering the tax authorities to disclose the earnings of individuals to credit reference agencies.”

    Jay said that such disclosures could be made without the person whose information is being shared ever knowing about it.

    The ICO is also concerned that the law will allow Government to make major changes in the field of information law without consulting Parliament.

    “The Bill needs an additional safeguard, to prevent the use of information-sharing orders in the context of large-scale data sharing initiatives that would constitute significant changes to public policy,” said the opinion.

    The Bill allows the ICO to investigate Government departments it suspects of not processing or sharing information properly through the issuing of an assessment notice.

    “The Assessment Notice provisions need to be widened, so the Information Commissioner can serve an assessment notice on any data controller,” said the ICO’s latest opinion. “The risks can be just as great outside the public sector and the boundary lines between the sectors are increasingly blurred. The House of Lords Select Committee on the Constitution supported this conclusion at paragraph 238 of its recent ‘Surveillance: Citizens and the State’ report.”

  • The Coroners and Justice Bill passed its Second Reading in the House of Commons and is now in the Committee stages. NO2ID has covered the second reading debates and votes on their discussion forums, including links to transcripts of the debate and a list of how MPs voted. 278 MPs voted to allow a second reading, whilst 47 opposed. The NO2ID forums have also covered the Committee Stage debates that have occurred so far.

Met police impose CCTV surveillance on Islington pubs

From the Register:

The story begins with a letter to the Guardian last week, from Nick Gibson. He is currently renovating Islington pub The Drapers Arms, after its previous owners allowed it to go insolvent and then disappeared.

In his letter, he argues that if he had merely taken over an existing licence, the police could not have imposed any additional conditions. However, because this was now a new licence, the police were able to make specific requests, including one particular request in respect of installing CCTV.

Mr Gibson wrote: “I was stunned to find the police were prepared to approve, ie not fight, our licence on condition that we installed CCTV capturing the head and shoulders of everyone coming into the pub, to be made available to them upon request. There was no way that they could have imposed this on the previous licence holder.”

We spoke to the Police and to Islington Council. The Council were clear that this was not their policy: they would look at individual licence applications in the light of representations made to the Licensing Committee and decide on a case by case basis.

It was left to the Met to confirm the existence of a blanket policy for some parts of London. A spokeswoman for the Met said: “The MPS overall does not have a policy of insisting CCTV is installed within licensed premises before supporting licence applications.

“However, individual boroughs may impose blanket rules in support of their objectives to prevent crime and disorder and to assist the investigation of offences when they do occur.

“Islington is one of the most densely populated districts for licensed premises in London and the borough’s licensing authority is committed to providing a safe environment in which to socialise.

“To this end, Islington police recommend all premises are required to install CCTV and make those images available to police upon request before a licence is granted.”

Yet again the Met police police are pushing for mass surveillance.

Reminder: The Convention on Modern Liberty (28th February)

Just a reminder that on the 28th February, the Convention on Modern Liberty gets underway in London with parallel sessions in Glasgow, Belfast, Manchester, Cardiff, Cambridge and Bristol.

Well said

Posted by James Hammerton @ 4:50 pm on 14 February, 2009.
Categories privacy and surveillance, British politics, the database state.
Edit This Permalink to this article

UK Liberty writes:

I can’t see how the blanket retention of all data relating to all journeys in and out of the UK can possibly be proportionate, particularly as the data they store now only leads to 0.0036% of travellers being arrested (no information on convictions, as per usual). This is even lower than the proportion of people arrested (for any reason) after being searched under s44 Terrorism Act.

A taste of life under the National Identity Scheme

Henry Porter relates the story of a friend of his whose wife is required to get an ID card as a foreign (US) national:

I am passing this story on because I have had my first taste of what a state with ID cards would be like, and I have found it very depressing and actually much more scary than I thought I would. The reality of this apparently secure and efficient ID card system is that it is wide open to human error, technical failures and abuse.

A mistake on an ID card will take a very long time to correct, and their mistake becomes your problem, your responsibility. It is a very disempowering and depressing process where a citizen becomes a cog in a vast machine.

This is not just your video club membership, or your supermarket loyalty card … this is your citizenship and identity, allowing you access to services and allowing you to leave and enter the country.

My wife has been unable to travel since early January because of this mistake by UKBA. We are hoping no family emergencies occur before UKBA get around to returning her passport and ID card.

I still have a slight worry that if we complain publicly then someone within UKBA may have the power to vindictively sabotage my wife’s future leave to remain in the UK … not something I have ever feared before in this country. I also don’t want my wife to end up being deported to Samoa by mistake!

Nothing to hide, nothing to fear indeed…

Universal DNA database - Britain changes tack

[Hat tip: The ARCH Blog]

In 2008 the European Court of Human Rights held that holding the DNA samples of people who had never been convicted of a crime was a breach of their right to privacy, thus bringing into question the policy of indefinitely holding of DNA samples of over 570,000 people who were never convicted of any crime.

Despite this, the government has indicated that it intends to store DNA samples in an NHS database:

The Connecting For Health register – due to come online in 2012 – will hold the electronic medical records of everyone in the UK.

But many fear it will breach patient confidentiality, as a million doctors, nurses and receptionists will have access to it. The surprising admissions came out of a House of Lords inquiry into genetic medicine last month.

When asked if it was ‘valuable to combine genetic data with personal medical data’, Prof Davies replied: ‘The Government is absolutely determined to exploit this research opportunity.’

When Ms Primarolo was asked if it was likely the database would one day hold patients’ DNA, she said: ‘I think the long-term objective would be yes.’

Furthermore, Genewatch points out the Coroners and Justice Bill contains powers to create such a database by stealth (from www.publicservice.org.uk):

A nationwide DNA database could be created by stealth, a report has warned, because of the new data sharing proposals currently passing through parliament.

A GeneWatch report has warned that the DNA collected for medical purposes in the newborn screening programme could be shared with the national DNA database without any need of further legislation.

The Coroners and Justice Bill, which is currently going through the parliamentary debate process, includes proposals for Information Sharing Orders. These allow any government data to be shared for reasons other than its initial purpose. As it stands, the Data Protection Act requires data to only be used for the purpose it was first taken.

GeneWatch said that if the new data sharing proposals are voted in, then the government could implement this plan via an Information Sharing Order without parliamentary oversight. Instead all Information Sharing Orders will be scrutinised by the Information Commissioner, with his opinion available to MPs in writing, and will also face a Privacy Impact Assessment.

Meanwhile, the Times reports:

Every baby born a decade from now will have its genetic code mapped at birth, the head of the world’s leading genome sequencing company has predicted.

A complete DNA read-out for every newborn will be technically feasible and affordable in less than five years, promising a revolution in healthcare, says Jay Flatley, the chief executive of Illumina.

Only social and legal issues are likely to delay the era of “genome sequences”, or genetic profiles, for all. By 2019 it will have become routine to map infants’ genes when they are born, Dr Flatley told The Times.

This will open a new approach to medicine, by which conditions such as diabetes and heart disease can be predicted and prevented and drugs prescribed more safely and effectively.

The development, however, will raise difficult questions about privacy and access to individuals’ genetic records. Many people may be reluctant to have their genome read, for fear that the results could be used against them by an employer or insurance company.

So we have a stated government intention to create a DNA database storing samples from every person, proposed legal powers that could be used to achieve it with the barest minimum parliamentary scrutiny, plus a private company claiming the technology will soon be in place to do it.

It thus seems to me this will happen unless people act to stop it.

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