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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


Britain’s proposals to allow sharing of personal data

Posted by James Hammerton @ 6:30 pm on 18 January, 2009.
Categories privacy and surveillance, British politics, the database state, accountability.
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The Coroners and Justice Bill was recently published and contains amendments to the Data Protection Act enabling government ministers to order the sharing of personal data.

To summarise:

  • Ministers at both Westminster and the devolved administrations will be able to issue “information sharing orders”(ISOs) that enable any person to share information that consists of or includes personal data, subject to conditions outlined below.
  • A Minister making an ISO must be satisfied that:
    • the sharing of information enabled by the order is necessary to secure a relevant policy objective.
    • the effect of the provision made by the order is proportionate to that policy objective, and
    • the provision made by the order strike a fair balance between the public interest and the interests of any person affected by it.
  • An ISO must specify the person or class of persons enabled to share information, the purposes for which the information may be shared and the information or class of information that may be shared.
  • An ISO may not enable any sharing of information which (in the absence of any provision made by the order) would be prohibited by Part 1 of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000.
  • An ISO may:
    • confer powers on the person in respect of whom it’s made.
    • remove or modify any prohibition or restriction imposed on the sharing of information by that person or on further or onward disclosure of information.
    • confer powers on any person to enable further or onward disclosure of the information
    • prohibit or restrict further or onward disclosure of the information
    • impose conditions on the sharing of information
    • provide for a person to exercise a discretion in dealing with any matter
    • enable information to be shared by or disclosed to the Minister making the order
    • modify any enactment
    • create offences punishable by upto 2 years in prison
  • Ministers are entitled to make ISOs only for purposes relevant to the departments they are in charge of.
  • A Minister proposing to make an ISO must allow a consultation with representations from those likely to be affected by the order, submit a draft of the order to the Information Commissioner and allow 21 days for the Information Commissioner to make a report, before putting the order before Parliament (or in the case of Scottish Ministers the Scottish Parliament).
  • ISOs will be made be statutory instrument requiring approval of both Houses of Parliament (or in the case of orders made by Ministers in the devolved administrations, approval of their respective legislatures).

In short, this will allow government ministers to order the sharing of personal information for any purpose they see fit. Note that the orders can even modify any legislation that might get in the way.

The government will claim that the requirement to consult and get a report from the Information Commissioner will be “safeguards”, but these requirements are fig leaves that will do nothing to stop a government intent on getting its way; a delay of 21 days is not much of a delay.

The government will also tout the requirement for a vote of approval from Parliament as a “safeguard”, but the level of scrutiny an ISO will get is minimal (statutory instruments often get only a 90 minute debate before being voted on) and the government will be in control of the procedures and timetable of Parliament.

Barcode Nation

Barcode Nation seems to be the latest blog dedicated to covering the erosion of liberty in the UK, joining stalwarts such as Spy Blog and UK Liberty.

The Convention on Modern Liberty in Glasgow and Belfast

I blogged earlier about the Convention on Modern Liberty.

The Convention website has since published details about the Glasgow Convention and the Belfast Convention.

Those living elsewhere in Britain can check out the Across the UK page to see what’s happening near them.

NO2ID Video: Take Jane

Posted by James Hammerton @ 11:08 am on 10 January, 2009.
Categories privacy and surveillance, British politics, the database state.
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This video highlights one of the problems that the National Identity Scheme(NIS) is likely to make worse.

Whilst the above scenario could happen (I think it is quite likely to happen), the following have happened and involve similar problems with existing government databases:

Many other examples can be found via this Magna Carta Plus article.

The NIS will make these problems worse by requiring people to register changes of address (on pain of penalties upto £1000), by storing data in one central database accessed by all public bodies and by facilitating the cross-linking and sharing of data by those public bodies.

The Convention on Modern Liberty: 28th February 2009

The Convention on Modern Liberty is a convention being organised for the 28th February 2009. To quote from the website:

A call to all concerned with attacks on our fundamental rights and freedoms under pressure from counter-terrorism, financial breakdown and the database state

This looks like it will be an interesting set of events, with conventions planned in London, Belfast, Birmingham, Cambridge, Glasgow, Manchester, Southampton and Swansea.

I’ll post more news when I get it.

Jacqui Smith on “Protecting rights; Protecting Society”

Posted by James Hammerton @ 6:53 pm on 21 December, 2008.
Categories privacy and surveillance, British politics, the database state.
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[Hat Tip: Spy Blog and UK Liberty]

Jacqui Smith, Britain’s Home Secretary recently gave a speech on “Protecting rights; Protecting society” to Intellect, a trade association for the technology industries, in which she sought to set out the government’s position on subjects such as CCTV, the use of RIPA and the DNA database.

Smith’s speech contains numerous failings, however for lack of time for a comprehensive response, I shall limit myself to the following:

NB: The links in the above list will only work in the permalink view of this article. I’m not sure how to persuade Wordpress to do something more intelligent with them.

It seems to me these points alone seriously undermine the credibility of the speech. Those curious about other failings are referred the Spy Blog and UK Liberty responses to her speech, linked to at the top of this article, to see other topics covered. Meanwhile, I explain each of the claims made above in the remainder of this article.


Britain’s “Snoopers” database delayed

Posted by James Hammerton @ 5:37 pm on 24 November, 2008.
Categories privacy and surveillance, British politics, the database state.
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Recently, a headline in The Independent inaccurately claimed that the database storing the communications data related to every website visit, download, email, phone call and text message sent within Britain has been shelved. In fact, as the article itself makes clear, it has merely been postponed:

The timetable for setting up a giant “Big Brother” database is slipping after the scheme was dropped from next month’s Queen’s Speech. The Independent has highlighted growing fury over government moves to collate details of every telephone call, email and internet visit.

Whitehall sources confirmed last night that the plans would not be included in the Queen’s Speech on 3 December, in which the Government outlines its legislative programme for the next parliamentary year. Insisting they were committed to the scheme as a tool in the fight against crime and terrorism, they said a consultation paper early next year would set out options for collecting the information.

But there is no firm indication when the new Communications Data Bill will be published, raising the prospect of it being delayed until after the next general election expected in 2010.

Admittedly, if it is delayed beyond the next election that might kill it off should Labour lose and the new government are determined to end the ongoing attacks on privacy and civil liberties. However it is clear the government is still planning to introduce such a scheme, and it could be in place by 2012, as this recent Register article explains:

The government Interception Modernisation Programme (gIMP), a plan by spy chiefs to centrally collect details of every phone call, text, email and web browsing session of every UK resident, could be in place by 2012, according to a Home Office minister.

Lord West told the House of Lords yesterday the government is aiming to have the enormous database of communications and “black box” interception hardware in place around the same time as BT completes its 21CN transition to an all-internet protocol network.

“Exactly how quickly that [BT’s new backbone] will come in is difficult to predict, but it will be complete by about 2011-12. That is the sort of timescale we are looking at,” he said. Advocates of the system say the completion of 21CN will seriously impinged on the ability of law enforcement to track serious crime.

Last month home secretary Jacqui Smith said the Communications Data Bill, which is planned to legislate for the gIMP, would be delayed a second time and not appear in the Queen’s Speech in early December. Instead, she said, a consultation will be opened in January with the aim of achieving consensus on GCHQ’s communications data harvesting ambitions.

Independent Register sources in politics, the civil service and industry have all said that the gIMP is proceeding anyway with initial funding of almost £1bn. It’s been reported that government estimates say the final cost of collecting and storing information about every electronic communication will be £12bn. Lord West said no decisions have been taken “on which way to go”.

The gIMP won’t record the content of communications, but the central database will be linked to wiretap hardware. The two parts of the system will together allow government eavesdroppers to easily dial into the content of any IP stream of interest.

Still the delay does allow those opposed the scheme more time to build up a campaign against it, and leaves it open to the vagaries of the electoral cycle, so the odds of killing the scheme off have improved as a result.

Round up: Britain’s National Identity Scheme

Posted by James Hammerton @ 10:00 pm on 23 November, 2008.
Categories privacy and surveillance, political liberties, British politics, the database state.
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Update (24/11/2008): I should of course emphasise that the fines for failing to update your details are upto £1000. My understanding is that they will start, for a first offence, at £125, according to a thread on the NO2ID forum.

Here’s a round up of recent news regarding Britain’s National Identity Scheme (NIS):

  • Starting on November the 25th 2008, all foreign nationals from outside the European Economic Area (EEA) will be issued with a biometric identity card. The Register reported that the government estimates that it will issue 50,000 cards between November 2008 and April 2009.

    The government are selling this as the first step in setting up the NIS, however all that’s happening is that where people who needed a visa to live and work in Britain would get a stamp in their passport, they are now issued a biometric card. The National Identity Register (NIR) has not yet been set up, and thus whilst the applicants details are being centrally recorded, this is done on a database that will need to be merged with the NIR. A BBC report on the issuing of the cards to non-EEA nationals makes this clear:

    The cards partly replace a paper-based system of immigration stamps - but will now include the individual’s name and picture, their nationality, immigration status and two fingerprints.

    Immigration officials will store the details centrally and, in time, they are expected to be merged into the proposed national identity register. (emphasis added)

    The government has also suggested that people can pre-register their interest in getting a card and envisage handing out the first such cards in late 2009.

  • Until recently, the plan was that people would enroll for the identity scheme at a network of interview centres which would collect their details and biometric information. However the government has announced that it will be inviting the private sector to set up enrollment centres so that people could submit their biometrics via post offices, shops and other private firms. A consequence of this is that there will be price hikes for obtaining a card as firms charge for using their enrollment service. The extra charges are expected to be in the region of £20 to £40 pounds. Note that the cost of applying for a passport, which was £18 pounds when Labour came to power, £56 pounds in 2006 and £72 pounds earlier this year, is now set at over £100 pounds! The government claim this is to cover the cost of fingerprinting everyone. I suspect they are also paying for the NIS via the increased passport prices.

    A further consequence of this move is that now the biometric details will be collected separately from the rest of the registration process, raising questions about how secure the transmission of the data back to the government will be and how reliably they’ll be able to match up the correct biometrics with a given application. Naturally, the government assures us it will all be very secure, but they leak data like a sieve so why trust them?

  • Resistance to the ID card scheme seem to be growing amongst the trade unions, especially BALPA, the union for airline pilots. The government plans to start requiring airside airport works to enrol in the scheme from next year, but BALPA has expressed its opposition to this. According to the Register:

    News emerged today that government plans for a compulsory UK national ID card pilot scheme in the airline industry are deadlocked by industrial and union opposition, casting a blight over the unveiling of the cards’ design.

    The Financial Times reports this morning that the government’s intended rollout of the biometric ID cards among UK citizens - which was to start first among airport workers - is stalled. Both trade unions and industry bodies were adamantly opposed to the plans, and doubtful that the wider UK ID scheme would ever proceed given Conservative pledges to ditch it in the event of winning the next election.

    “We do not see the ID scheme bringing any security or business benefits,” Roger Wiltshire of the British Air Transport Association told the FT.

    “All we see is additional problems and costs.”

    Robert Siddall of the Airport Operators’ Association went further, telling the paper that the ID rollout “is not going anywhere, that’s for sure. You cannot run a pilot scheme in a sector where so many … are opposed.”

    Apart from air-transport management, it was also clear that unions were equally determined to resist the cards. The TUC has voted against them this month, and the airline pilots’ union Balpa threatened a legal challenge if the government tries to make ID cards compulsory for its members.

    More recently, the government announced that the issuing of cards to airside airport workers will only occur at 2 airports in 2009, namely Manchester and City of London, and BALPA are reported to be meeting to discuss how to ramp up their opposition.

  • NO2ID, the campaigning organisation devoted to opposing the NIS and other database state schemes, claims to have obtained Home Secretary Jacqui Smith’s fingerprints surreptitiously. Guido Fawkes has also covered this.
  • The media have been helpfully reminding people that if they register on the NIR then they are required to keep their information accurate and uptodate on pain of a £1000 fine, e.g. see these reports at the BBC and the Guardian. E.g. failing to tell the Identity & Passport Service about a change of name or change of address could result in you paying up £1000 for the privilege.
  • The Scottish Parliament recently voted against the NIS, for the third time in a row. Although the Parliament can’t prevent the scheme being imposed north of the border, they can prevent Scottish public services from using the scheme and thus limit their use.
  • Finally, it has emerged that the government envisages that most biometric checks will not be done against the NIR, but merely with the biometrics stored on the card. The consequence of this is that a forged card is more likely to pass muster than if biometric checks were routinely done against the database.

Jacqui Smith on the Snooper’s Database

Posted by James Hammerton @ 7:59 pm on 19 October, 2008.
Categories privacy and surveillance, British politics, the database state.
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British Home Secretary Jacqui Smith recently gave a speech to the IPPR, where she made (admittedly indirect) reference to the plans to record all communications data, i.e. data about who you phone, who you email, which websites you download material from, but not the content of such transactions, in a central database.

I shall focus here solely on the part of the speech dealing with communications data:

Our ability to intercept communications and obtain communications data is vital to fighting terrorism and combating serious crime, including child sex abuse, murder and drugs trafficking. Communications Data – that is, data about calls, such as the location and identity of the caller, not the content of the calls themselves – is used as important evidence in 95% of serious crime cases and in almost all Security Service operations since 2004.

But the communications revolution has been rapid in this country and the way in which we intercept communications and collect communications data needs to change too. If it does not we will lose this vital capability that we currently have and that we all take for granted. [For example, in the Soham murders and 21/7 convictions.]

All this is a reflection of the technological and behavioural changes that the growth of the internet brings. Once again, that is not a Government policy which is somehow optional. It is a reality to which Government needs to respond.

The changes we need to make may require legislation. The safeguards we will want to put in place certainly will. And we may need legislation to test what a solution will look like.

So far, one needs to be remember several things at this stage and consider these comments in context:

  • Phone and internet companies already record communications data, that is data about the origin, location, destination and length of phone calls, emails, text messages, downloads and website visits. The government can demand this data, and has granted the power to demand the data not only to the police and security services but to local councils, government departments and numerous government bodies. In most cases, they can demand this data without a warrant.
  • The government has pushed, at EU level, for phone and internet companies to be required to store this data for at least a year.
  • The EU data retention directive already requires phone companies to store the data related to phone calls for at least a year, and will soon require internet companies to store the data related to emails, downloads and website visits too.
  • The government is proposing (though this is not directly mentioned in the speech), to store all this data in one central database for its own purposes.

It seems to me that the government and security agencies can keep on top of the terrorist threat quite adequately as it stands now with the current arrangements. Moreover it is still a targetted approach in that they have to ask for the data related to those they suspect of being up to no good, whereas if a central database is created, then they have the data relating to everyone.

This changes the nature of what is going on and thus becomes mass indiscriminate surveillance. It also enables the data to be stored for whatever length of time the government chooses, using tax payer’s money to bear the costs of doing so, where extending the length of time for such data retention by the phone and internet providers would impose a burden on those businesses. It gives the government a lot more freedom of action over exactly how much data is retained for how long and over how it will be used.

I do not trust this or future governments to refrain from using such data for fishing expeditions or worse. I do not trust this or future governments to secure this data against being stolen by foreign spy agencies, organised crime, terrorists or corrupt government officials. The database will be a honeypot for such organisations wishing to subvert the institutions of the state, including institutions such as GCHQ, MI5 or MI6. For some reason, Jacqui failed to mention these risks.

But before proceeding to legislation, I am clear that we need to consult widely with the public and all interested parties to set out the emerging problem, the important capability gaps that we need to address and to look at the possible solutions. We also need to agree what safeguards will be needed, in addition to the many we have in place already, to provide a solid legal framework which protects civil liberties.

This consultation will begin in the New Year and I want this to be combined with a well-informed debate characterised by openness, rather than mere opinion, by reason and reasonableness. In this, as in the other work we do, my aim is to achieve a consensus and I hope that others will approach the serious issues posed for our national security capabilities in the same spirit.

If this government genuinely approaches this in a spirit of openness and reasonableness, it’ll be a first. They have lied and obfsucated repeatedly over issues such as identity cards and pre-charge detention, it’ll mark a considerable change of habit to do otherwise now…

So let me set the terms for that open and reasoned debate now, and be clear on what we are not going to do.

There are no plans for an enormous database which will contain the content of your emails, the texts that you send or the chats you have on the phone or online. Nor are we going to give local authorities the power to trawl through such a database in the interest of investigating lower level criminality under the spurious cover of counter terrorist legislation. (emphasis added)

And here we have the classic, “attack a straw man” tactic designed to distract attention from what they are planning to do. I’m not aware that anyone has claimed the government want to store a database of the content of all phone calls, emails, etc. The media coverage I’ve seen has been clear that the database would store only the communications data, not the content of the communications themselves.

And note the promise being made with regards to local authorities. Smith is saying that they will not be allowed to trawl a database of the content of your communications.

She is not saying that they won’t be allowed to trawl a database that records who it is you are communicating with.

Local authorities do not have the power to listen to your calls now and they never will in future. You would rightly object to proposals of this kind and I would not consider them. What we will be proposing will be options which follow the key principles which govern all our work in this area – the principles of proportionality and necessity.

So she reiterates that the government won’t do something nobody is claiming they are doing anyway.

And that’s all she’s said on the matter in this speech.

Thus she has in fact dodged the issue.

Proposal to require passports to buy mobile phones

According to both Scotland on Sunday and the Times, the British government is considering requiring people to present their passports, or other official ID, when buying mobile phones. From the Times’ article:

A compulsory national register for the owners of all 72m mobile phones in Britain would be part of a much bigger database to combat terrorism and crime. Whitehall officials have raised the idea of a register containing the names and addresses of everyone who buys a phone in recent talks with Vodafone and other telephone companies, insiders say.

The move is targeted at monitoring the owners of Britain’s estimated 40m prepaid mobile phones. They can be purchased with cash by customers who do not wish to give their names, addresses or credit card details.

The pay-as-you-go phones are popular with criminals and terrorists because their anonymity shields their activities from the authorities. But they are also used by thousands of law-abiding citizens who wish to communicate in private.

The move aims to close a loophole in plans being drawn up by GCHQ, the government’s eavesdropping centre in Cheltenham, to create a huge database to monitor and store the internet browsing habits, e-mail and telephone records of everyone in Britain.

The “Big Brother” database would have limited value to police and MI5 if it did not store details of the ownership of more than half the mobile phones in the country.

So this seems to be a knock-on effect of the plans to introduce the snooper’s database of the origin, the location, the destination and the length of phone calls, emails and website visits in the UK.

However as an anti-crime/anti-terrorism measure it seems rather ineffective to me. Surely anyone wishing to circumvent this requirement merely has to do one of the following:

  • Steal a mobile phone.
  • Obtain a mobile phone second hand in a private transaction.
  • Forge ID documents with which to buy phones.
  • Obtain a phone from abroad.
  • Learn how to alter a phone’s identity.

Making any or all of these illegal is hardly going to stop people already intent breaking the law from doing these things. Meanwhile the law abiding public get subjected to ever greater levels of surveillance. Perhaps that’s the point.

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