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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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Royal Academy of Engineering reports on “Big Brother”

Posted by James Hammerton @ 10:45 pm on 30 March, 2007.
Categories privacy and surveillance, British politics, the database state.
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The Royal Academy of Engineering has published a report into the increasing amount of surveillance and data gathering/sharing going on in Britain. According to Henry Porter:

“There is a choice,” say the authors of the report, “between a Big Brother world where individual privacy is almost extinct and a world where the data are kept by individual organisations or services and kept secret.”

No one seems to ask, as Professor Nigel Gilbert does, why supermarket loyalty cards include your name. “Does it [the card] need to identify you? No, it just needs authentication that you’ve bought the goods. It is the same for Oyster cards on the tube, some of which you have to register for.

Add to this the frantic construction of government databases - the NHS spine, the ID card scheme’s National Identity Register (NIR), the police DNA data base and the now total surveillance of British motorways and town centres by a system that retains journey details for two years - and you realise that the surveillance society is not so much imminent as a clear and present danger. It should take no imagination to see that apart from fundamentally altering the human experience, a surveillance society reduces individual liberty and makes each one of us much more open to abuse from the state and big corporations.

This report is to be welcomed because it is produced not by politically motivated liberals, but by scientists who understand the power and reach of surveillance technology. Richard Thomas, the information commissioner said much the same thing in an excellent report last November that criticised the NIR. And there are signs that the penny is beginning to drop on all sides of the house. The cross-party home affairs select committee is to look into the impact of widespread CCTV, the NIR and the police DNA database.

It is little appreciated that each generation must fight for its freedom and the freedom of its children in distinct ways. We have become complacent about our liberties as though they were in our blood, part of a gene pool of democratic virtues that very few other nations are fortunate enough to possess. But it is no exaggeration to say that among all western societies, Britain’s democracy is the most vulnerable from a kind of internal dissolution.

The Register also comments on this report:

The academics and security consultants behind the Dilemmas of Privacy and Surveillance report, released this week, reckon it’s wrong to believe that increased security means more collection and processing of personal information.

They argue that, providing the right engineering systems are put in place, it’s possible have both increased privacy and more security.

We live in an era of ubiquitous CCTV surveillance, identity cards, and corporate databases - to say nothing of the assault on privacy that has accompanied the War on Terror. The report’s authors reckon that engineers have a key role in making sure privacy safeguards are built into systems. For example, services for travel and shopping can be designed to maintain privacy by allowing people to buy goods and use public transport anonymously.

“It should be possible to sign up for a loyalty card without having to register it to a particular individual - consumers should be able to decide what information is collected about them,” said Professor Nigel Gilbert, chairman of the academy working group that produced the report.

However they also state:

The aims of the report’s authors are noble, but some of their suggested solutions, such as protecting personal information by methods “similar to the digital rights management software used to safeguard copyrighted electronic material like music releases”, fly in the face of evidence that such technologies have proved ineffective. In addition, there’s little evidence that governments or large corporations have paid much heed to privacy concerns in implementing systems to date.

Another serious problem, which the report only partially addresses, is that many privacy-invading technologies have already been put into action without the safeguards the academy would like see applied. Chief among such technologies is camera surveillance. The report calls for more research into how public spaces can be monitored while minimising the impact on privacy.

Authors of the study are holding a free evening event at the Science Museum’s Dana Centre in London on Tuesday 27 March.

Again, I intend to comment directly on this report in due course.

British government unveils new “criminal justice” proposals

As reported in the Times, this week the British government unveiled a new set of big brother/police state criminal justice proposals:

Every suspect in contact with the police faces having their DNA placed on a national database under government plans for a huge extension of “Big Brother” Britain announced yesterday.

All children will also undergo regular compulsory checks to discover if they are at risk of turning into criminals. They would face the crime test at key stages of their development, including when they start school and at 11.

The children of prisoners and Class A drug addicts would be “actively case managed” by youth offending teams in the crime strategy unveiled by 10 Downing Street .

The Government said the plan should “establish universal checks throughout a child’s development to help service providers to identify those most at risk of offending. “These checks should piggy-back on existing contact points such as the transition to secondary schools.”

It was not clear whether the check would involve an interview with a child, or if it would comprise a review of school and police records.

Ministers are also planning to allow police to take the DNA of suspects, to expand the use of scanning equipment to help to detect explosive devices in crowds, and to scan mail for drugs.

Useful commentary on these proposals include the following:

The proposals themselves can be found here. I intend to comment on them directly in due course.

Home Office issues 10,000 fraudulent passports

From this report in the Guardian:

An estimated 10,000 British passports were issued after fraudulent applications in the space of a year - and al-Qaida terrorists have successfully faked applications, the Home Office admitted today.

This same government wants to issue ID cards to every adult resident of Britain backed by a database storing all the names they’ve been known by, the details of every occasion on which their identity is checked, every address they’ve ever lived at, every identity document that’s ever been issued to them, and a unique identifier that will index into other government databases holding information about them.

How can we trust them not to also issue thousands of these cards to those who fraudulently apply for them or to keep the data safe when they demonstrate such incompetence with passports?

British government to remove all barriers to banks sharing personal data

The Telegraph reports that the government is planning to remove all the barriers that prevent the sharing of personal data between banks and credit reference agencies:

Last year’s inquiry by the Treasury Select Committee into credit card charges specifically raised the question of over-indebtedness, and called on banks to increase the amount of data they shared on consumers, to prevent those with big debts taking out ever more loans and plastic.

Credit reference agencies have existed for more than a century in the US but arrived in the UK about three decades ago, at a time when banks were becoming more generous with credit cards and other accounts, but wanted to weed out problem debtors. Today there are three agencies, Experian, Equifax and CallCredit which hold a range of data about who we are, where we live, how much we earn and who we bank and borrow with.

Initially, they could only hold information on customers who failed to pay their debts on time, but more recently they were allowed to include data on good account holders as well as bad. However, many banks were reluctant to trade details of their good customers, for fear of losing them to competitors, so they restricted their data sharing to defaulters.

This changed over the past year or so, as political pressure mounted in the face of alarming stories of customers clocking up tens of thousands of pounds of debt, after acquiring a whole pack of credit cards. If people couldn’t be trusted to borrow responsibly, the lobby grew demanding that banks protect rogue consumers from themselves.

Now all the big lenders and banks pass full details of 350 million credit and current accounts opened since the late 1990s to the three agencies, but they do so with our consent. Roughly a decade ago, institutions introduced a clause into their standard terms asking for our permission to share our personal details with the agencies. Anyone who refused to give permission would have been turned down for the loan or account.

However, there are a further 40m accounts opened before banks changed their terms and conditions where customers have not been asked if they are happy for their details to be disclosed to third parties for credit checking purposes. These are called “non-consensual” accounts, and data relating to them cannot currently be shared. It is these accounts which the Government now wants to lift the blackout on. The Department of Trade and Industry is due to report in May on how this will be done.

HBOS’s head of risk, Nick Robinson, says: “The whole business of credit scoring and credit reference agencies is a bit of a dark art, but we want to be responsible lenders, and it is very difficult to assess someone’s levels of debt, unless we have access to all the financial information we can get,” he says. “We understand that many people will not be comfortable with the prospect of their financial data being shared without their consent. But we have tried sending out forms asking for permission and that doesn’t work. It would seem we have to look at some other “non-consensual” arrangement, which is what the DTI is examining now.” (emphasis added to Telegraph article)

Note the attitude indicated at the end of this quotation: getting consent did not work, so now we will do it without consent! (How dare these awkward customers protect their privacy?!) So much for financial confidentiality. Our bank accounts will soon all be open books.

UK’s Commons Home Affairs Committee launches a short consultation on “A surveillance society?”

[Hat tip: Spy Blog]

On the 27th March, the Home Affairs Committee of Britain’s House of Commons launched a consultation on “A surveillance society?”:

The inquiry will consider the growth of numerous public and private databases and forms of surveillance with a direct relevance to the work of the Home Office. They either derive directly from the work of the Home Office and its related public functions or are controversial because whilst they offer the potential to play a part in the fight against crime their use may impinge on individual liberty.

The inquiry will be wide-ranging, considering the following issues:

* Access by public agencies to private databases
* Data-sharing between government departments and agencies
* Existing safeguards for data use and whether they are strong enough
* The monitoring of abuses
* Potential abuse of private databases by criminals
* The case for introducing privacy impact assessments
* Privacy-sharing technologies
* Profiling.

The inquiry will focus on Home Office responsibilities such as identity cards, the National DNA Database and CCTV, but where relevant will look also at other departments’ responsibilities in this area, for instance the implications of databases being developed by the Department of Health and the DfES for use in the fight against crime.

The Committee’s aim is not to carry out a comprehensive detailed review of the subject of the kind recently carried out by the Surveillance Studies Network on behalf of the Information Commissioner (and published in his report on The Surveillance Society in October 2006); but to build on the Information Commission’s work in exploring the large strategic issues of concern to the general public, with a view to proposing ground rules for Government and its agencies.

The deadline for submissions is the 23rd of April, meaning that less than a month is being allowed for this consultation!

British Government launches new FoI consultation

Posted by James Hammerton @ 7:15 pm on .
Categories British politics, accountability, freedom of information.
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Regarding the British government’s plans to neuter the Freedom of Information Act revise the way the cost of processing a freedom of information request is calculated, the Register reports that the government has launched a second consultation on the matter:

The DCA has now launched a supplementary consultation, asking for views on the plans and for alternative suggestions of how it could balance openness and the need to keep costs to the public purse down.

“It is entirely right a reasonable amount of money and time is spent dealing with requests for information,” said information rights minister Baroness Catherine Ashton. “But public money is limited and it is the government’s responsibility to ensure it is not unduly diverted from supporting the delivery of frontline services.

“We would like to hear all views and ensure people have the opportunity to comment fully, so we have today published a supplementary paper on the consultation, inviting further comments,” she said.

The consultation seeks alternatives to the government’s proposals. “Do you consider that the draft regulations would succeed in dealing with the problem? If not do you have any other suggestions for dealing with disproportionately burdensome requests?” it asks.

The move was welcomed by the Campaign for Freedom of Information, which had opposed the proposed changes. “This raises the strong possibility that the government will eventually decide to leave the current arrangements untouched,” said Maurice Frankel, the campaign’s director. “If it does decide to make any changes they are likely to be far more limited than the highly damaging restrictions which had been proposed.”

The deadline for submissions to the consultation is June 21st.

Cameron pledges to scrap the National Identity Register

Posted by James Hammerton @ 7:47 pm on 26 March, 2007.
Categories political liberties.
Edit This Permalink to this article

Update: The link to the video at Web Cameron had expired, so I’ve tracked down the new link and updated things here — the link below should now work again.

The Tories have already made promises related to scrapping the identity card scheme, e.g as reported earlier by this blog.

However, some semantic room had been left for e.g. abolishing the cards, but continuing with the national identity register, the most sinister part of the scheme, which could allow passports to morph gradually into an ID card scheme very similar to the one the government is proposing.

However David Cameron, on his weblog “Web Cameron”, has recently and unambiguously pledged to scrap the NIR itself:

The second question was, “David, when you scrap ID cards will you also scrap the underlying National Identity database?”

I can give you a straight answer. Yes - we will get rid of the database.

The database is going to cost a fortune to compile. Estimate something like £5bn over ten years I’ve heard from John Reid.

We think the National Identity card scheme is wrong, and the underlying database puts all the identity eggs into one basket, and we think it should go.

Clearly there is a need for the use of biometrics on passports for the future, and we can make that work, but we don’t believe in a compulsory national identity card scheme, and we think the national identity register- the money can be much better spent on other things and we’ve spoken about those in the past”

(Hat tip: UK Liberty)

How safe are Britons from laws aimed at foreigners in the face of such stupidity?

Posted by James Hammerton @ 10:17 pm on 1 March, 2007.
Categories political liberties.
Edit This Permalink to this article

[Hat tip: Pickled Politics]

The Guardian recently reported on a case where a British citizen, born in Blackburn, was detained pending deportation because officials believed he was a foreign national:

Immigration officials assumed that Sabbir Ahmed, who speaks with a Lancashire accent, was Pakistani despite the fact that he was born in Blackburn and has a British passport. His parents come from India but also have British citizenship.

Mr Ahmed, 34, an accountancy student at the University of Leicester, had finished serving a two-month prison sentence for driving while disqualified when he was identified as a foreign national and held for deportation. His case followed a furore over the failure to deport foreign prisoners which cost home secretary Charles Clarke his job last summer.

Mr Ahmed said: “It was so frustrating, it just felt like I was banging my head against a brick wall. I was screaming my innocence to anyone who would listen and they were trying to deport me to a country where I’ve got no ties.”

He was asked to provide documents proving his nationality but was unable to do so because his passport was at his flat in east London and he could not leave Haslar detention centre in Gosport, Hampshire. He was only freed after campaigners from Haslar visitors’ group got access to his flat to recover his documents, and photocopies were shown to a judge at an appeal hearing against the deportation.

How stupid can those who rule over us be? All it would have taken is for someone to check Mr Ahmed’s flat to see if he had the passport.

Bill enabling your social security info to be handed to the BBC (and others)

Another “catchup” post.

Back in December, Spyblog reported on the Digital Switchover (Disclosure of Information) Bill. This bill allows the government to hand over information relating to social security and/or war pensions to another person on request, if that person is:

  • The BBC,
  • A company that the government, the BBC or a nominee of the BBC holds a majority stake in,
  • any person engaged by the BBC, or the secretary of state, or a company as described above, to provide any service connected with switchover help functions (including establishing whether a person needs help with the switchover).

This is apparently related to the upcoming switching off of the analogue signal and its replacement by the BBC’s digital services. The precise information to be handed over will be determined by a statutory instrument once the bill is passed and comes into force. But the explanatory notes, clause 24, gives an idea of the information that the government envisages handing over for this purpose:

The precise details have not been finalised, but it is envisaged that this power will be used to specify for this purpose the following information about an identifiable person, namely—

  • their name, and any alias by which they may be known, marital status (if known), address and date of birth;
  • their National Insurance number;
  • whether they are eligible for any of the benefits that will establish entitlement to help and (if so) those in respect of which they have an award of benefit;
  • the fact that they have ceased to receive such benefits, where that is the case;
  • details of any partner (including details of date of birth and National Insurance number) and whether they receive pension credit, income support or income-based jobseeker’s allowance (to check upon what level of support the household is entitled to);
  • if the qualifying person for disability living allowance is a child, whether the responsible adult or adults is receiving pension credit, income support or income-based jobseeker’s allowance;
  • whether they live in a residential care or nursing home (so helping to ensure that the right kinds of help are available in residential care and nursing home settings);
  • details of any person appointed to act on their behalf (to allow such people to be contacted to alert them to the availability of help);
  • the fact that they have died, where that is the case.

Why should any of this information be handed to the BBC, or to the people employed by the BBC/Secretary of State to help with the digital switchover? As Spy Blog points out, the switching of Radio 4 from long wave to FM, and the retuning of video recorders in order to receive Channel 5 were all achieved without the need for such information to be passed to the BBC (or Channel 5).

Steve Boggan on the database state

Although he doesn’t use the phrase “the database state”, Steve Boggan’s recent article in the Guardian is a useful primer on the development of the database state in Britain, explaining how the National Identity Register fits in with other government databases and the government’s plans to allow more sharing of personal data:

The Identity Cards Act makes provision for the establishment of a national identity scheme commissioner to monitor the whole thing. But it also provides for the sharing of your data - without your consent - with the director general of the security service, the chief of the intelligence service, the director of communications at GCHQ, the director general of the Serious Organised Crime Agency and chief police officers up and down the country. And this, the act says, is not something the commissioner may keep under review. He will have no watchdog powers over the security services in this regard.

The prime minister likes to call all this “transformational government” and few would deny that changes are, indeed, taking place. For example, next year will see the introduction of the children’s information sharing index, which will track every child, and all services they receive, from birth. And, of course, there is the NHS care records system, the so-called Spine database on which the government wants to hold all personal health information.

Once you have a national identity card, a number and an audit trail, all of this - and everything every government department, bank or supermarket has on you - could be accessed, without your knowledge or consent, by the security services, justified by their slightest suspicion of you. And the national identity scheme commissioner, the watchdog without teeth, wouldn’t be able to so much as growl.

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