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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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1st Jan to 9th Sept 2005

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The state, encryption and data loss.

Posted by James Hammerton @ 7:09 pm on 27 September, 2008.
Categories privacy and surveillance, British politics, the database state.
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By now, most Britons will be aware of at least some of the numerous cases of data loss by the government and public bodies that seem to occurring on a regular basis, (for example see UK Liberty’s data loss page). It seems the most frequent means by which the data goes missing involve one of the following:

  • Someone loses laptops, CDs or memory sticks in the course of their activities.
  • CDs or memory sticks go missing in the post.
  • Laptops, memory sticks or CDs get stolen.

With modern technology, devices that store huge volumes of data can be carried around in our pockets. E.g. I have a 4 GB memory stick that’s only a few centimetres in length and about 1.5cm wide, and about 0.75 cm thick. Modern mobile phones, PDAs and laptops will also store large amounts of data. It is inevitable that large organisations will lose these devices, and that some of them will suffer from the theft of such devices.

The loss or theft of these devices would not matter so much though, if it weren’t for the fact that the data is not encrypted.

For example when the child benefits database, containing personal information about every family with a child in Britain (at the time) went missing in the post, had the data been properly encrypted, the risk of the data being misused by someone who finds the CDs would be minimal because without the password to decrypt the data, they simply would not have been able to read the information. Of course doing this does not make the data 100% secure, but it does greatly reduce the risks from the loss of such devices.

The advice for any organisation that needs to transfer data in a secure manner is simple. Do not download it onto a CD, laptop, memory stick or any other portable device without encrypting it. But is this advice being followed by the government? Well, with regards to the Home Office, it appears the answer is “no”. Their policy is that they do not always encrypt data before transferring it by disk.

What this means is that we cannot trust the Home Office to take adequate precautions to protect our personal data.

There is no excuse for this. There are numerous encryption packages available, including free open source products such as the GNU Privacy Guard, and for that matter the government itself has helped to develop encryption techniques, e.g. GCHQ pioneered public key encryption. And this bunch of jokers propose to create a national identity scheme, that will record who we do business with throughout our lives, whilst enabling the linking together of disparate databases of personal information and widespread sharing of such data, whilst claiming it will be secure. And that’s just one of their mass surveillance schemes.

Order allows public bodies to pass our confidential information to private organisations

Posted by James Hammerton @ 6:16 pm on 14 September, 2008.
Categories privacy and surveillance, British politics, the database state.
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[Hat tip: Spy Blog]

The government recently issued a statutory instrument specifying the following organisations for the purposes of section 68 of the Serious Crime Act 2007:

  • CIFAS
  • Experian Limited
  • Insurance Fraud Investigators Group
  • N Hunter Limited
  • The Insurance Fraud Bureau
  • The Telecommunications United Kingdom Fraud Forum Limited.

The impact of this is to enable public bodies to share any data they hold about you, including confidential data, to any of the above organisations for the purposes of the detection, prevent or prosecution of fraud. E.g. section 68 reads:

(1) A public authority may, for the purposes of preventing fraud or a particular kind of fraud, disclose information as a member of a specified anti-fraud organisation or otherwise in accordance with any arrangements made by such an organisation.

(2) The information—

(a) may be information of any kind; and

(b) may be disclosed to the specified anti-fraud organisation, any members of it or any other person to whom disclosure is permitted by the arrangements concerned.

(3) Disclosure under this section does not breach—

(a) any obligation of confidence owed by the public authority disclosing the information; or

(b) any other restriction on the disclosure of information (however imposed).

(4) But nothing in this section authorises any disclosure of information which—

(a) contravenes the Data Protection Act 1998 (c. 29); or

(b) is prohibited by Part 1 of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 (c. 23).

Note that information of any kind can be disclosed even where an obligation of confidence exists. How long will it be before CDs or memory sticks holding such information go missing in transit to/from the organisations above?

Peter Clark and “the surveillance society”

Peter Clark, writing recently in the times, argues that “the surveillance society” has enabled the conviction of several people plotting to set off bombs, created out of liquid explosives and disguised as soft drinks:

We have what is probably the most effective counter-terrorist machinery in the world. The organisations involved have been at full stretch for years, and despite the gainsayers, the legal and ethical standards of the counter-terrorist effort are incredibly high - the British public demands and deserves no less.

They also deserve a better quality debate about the relationship between individual liberties and collective security.

Take this case. To save the lives of the innocent and convict the would-be killers we used all the tools in the security armoury. Deeply intrusive surveillance, informants, CCTV, DNA, telephone call data and so on. This was not about collecting information for its own sake - it was to secure evidence to put before a court.

Some critics fail to understand that sophisticated, modern evidence gathering has allowed the most complex terrorist conspiracies to be tried in our criminal courts in front of a jury. No need for military commissions or the juryless Diplock courts of Northern Ireland.

The series of terrorist convictions in recent years has been a victory for the rule of law and sends out a strong, positive signal to all communities. But it couldn’t have happened if things that used to be buried deep in the world of intelligence were not now brought blinking into the light of the courtroom.

And what if we had failed? What if the prosecution case was right, and half a dozen American airliners were to be brought down by British terrorists, operating from Britain and in effect using the UK as a launch pad for an attack on the United States? What would have happened to the UK and indeed the global economy? What would the impact have been on UK/US relations? What about the pressure it would have placed on Muslims in the UK? A very senior politician, at the time of the arrests, told me he thought it could have led to a breakdown in the community cohesion that had survived the attacks in 2005.

So let’s remember the benefits of the “surveillance society”. We should draw satisfaction that due to terrorist convictions in our courts, thousands of people are alive today because those who wanted to kill them could be bugged and burgled - within the Rule of Law and for the common good.

The problem with this argument is simple. Peter Clark is not talking about “the surveillance society” at all. He is talking about targetted surveillance against those whom the police have reason to believe may pose a serious threat.

I have no problem with “all the tools in the security armoury” being used to investigate those whom the authorities have reason to believe are up to no good, so long as safeguards are in place to ensure such intrusive surveillance really is directed against such people and isn’t abused. Clark and I might have a real argument about precisely what those safeguards should be, but that is beside the point. The point is that Clark is conflating targeted surveillance with “the surveillance society”, the latter of which involves routine mass surveillance of the general public. Such routine mass surveillance is completely unnecessary for the sort of targetted surveillance Clark is talking about and is not supported by the successes of surveillance targeted against suspected terrorists.

UK Liberty also has some good comments on Clark’s article.

Google mapping Britain’s erosion of civil liberties

[Hat tip: UK Liberty]

This looks like an interesting project

Some resistance to the database state

Computer Weekly reports on the Trades Union Congress voting to resist the National Identity Scheme “with all means at its disposal”:

The TUC in Brighton this week has pledged to resist the national ID card scheme “with all means at its disposal”, including industrial and legal action.

The motion, tabled by pilots’ union BALPA, was carried overwhelmingly by TUC delegates.

The government plans to introduce national ID cards for airside workers from next year, but BALPA said that carrying a national ID should not be obligatory for employees.

The TUC motion puts unions on a collision course with the government over civil liberties.

Local councils adopting “Allegations Management Systems”

The Telegraph recently reported:

Local authorities around the country are setting up databases to hold records of accusations made about anyone from teachers and doctors to Scout leaders and private tutors.

They are employing staff just to look into the claims - which can be made anonymously - who are required to contact police, social services or the adult’s employer and then keep track of the case.

Details of the allegation will be kept on the accused’s personnel file until they retire so they can be seen by potential employers, and in a reversal of the basic tenet of English law they will only be deemed innocent if they can prove it.

The system was introduced in the wake of the Soham murders to make sure authorities keep track of anyone suspected of child abuse.

But critics claim it gives too much power to unaccountable council officers, creates extra red tape for bosses and will lead to innocent professionals having their careers blighted by malicious allegations.

They also warn it will drive people - particularly men - out of working with children for fear of being labelled a paedophile. Already just 2 per cent of teachers of the youngest primary school pupils are male.

It comes on top of the new vetting system being implemented for everyone who works with under-16s, the Independent Safeguarding Authority, which will lead to 11.3 million adults having their backgrounds checked.

The Pub Philosopher also reports on this.

So if you work with children, you’ll work in a world where one anonymous allegation made against you can, even if groundless, haunt you for the rest of your working career (of possibly ‘just’ a decade if the Pub Philosopher is correct), as it’ll be kept on file, shared with employers, social services and the police. This is in addition to the requirement of everyone working with children to undergo mandatory criminal records checks.

Thus the culture of suspicion marches on.

Telegraph: Council officials told to question adults in public park without children

Posted by James Hammerton @ 9:53 pm on 9 September, 2008.
Categories political liberties, freedom of speech, British politics, culture of suspicion.
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Update: UK Liberty has some good commentary on this story.

Fancy going for a stroll in a public park? Apparently, if you do so in the Telford and Wreckin council area, and fail to bring any children with you, you may find yourself questioned about what you’re doing and asked to leave, ostensibly in order to protect children from paedophiles. The Telegraph reports:

The policy came to light after two environmental campaigners dressed as penguins were thrown out of Telford Town Park when caught handing out leaflets on climate change.

Rachel Whittaker and Neil Donaldson, of the Wrekin Stop War pressure group, were told they had to leave the park because they had not undergone Criminal Records Bureau checks or risk assessments before being allowed near children.

David Ottley, Telford & Wrekin’s sports and recreation manager, said in a letter to them: “Our Town Park staff approach adults that are not associated with any children in the Town Park and request the reason for them being there.”

“In particular, this applies to those areas where children or more vulnerable groups gather, such as play facilities and the entrances to play areas.”

However Miss Whittaker, 34, said: “I’m outraged that my concern for the planet and for the future of all children can be turned into petty bureaucracy.

“It is dangerous as well as frightening people, it could start a hysterical society and punishes people who have done nothing wrong while giving an outlet for those with sinister motives a way of getting around it.

“I think they are reacting to what was is essence an expression to public expression of free speech - and how many child molesters dress up as penguins anyway?”

And so the culture of suspicion marches on…

International day of protest against surveillance 11 October - Freedom not Fear

Posted by James Hammerton @ 8:25 pm on 8 September, 2008.
Categories privacy and surveillance, the database state.
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[Hat tip: UK Liberty]

From Stoppt die Vorratsdatenspeicherung:

Surveillance, distrust and fear are gradually transforming our society into one of uncritical consumers who have “nothing to hide” and - in a vain attempt to achieve total security - are prepared to give up their freedoms. We do not want to live in such a society!

We believe the respect for our privacy to be an important part of our human dignity. A free and open society cannot exist without unconditionally private spaces and communications.

The increasing electronic registration and surveillance of the entire population does not make us any safer from crime, costs millions of Euros and puts the privacy of innocent citizens at risk. Under the reign of fear and blind actionism, targeted and sustained security measures fall by the wayside, as well as tackling peoples’ actual daily problems such as unemployment and poverty.

In order to protest against security mania and excessive surveillance we will take to the streets in capital cities in many countries on 11 October 2008. We call on everybody to join our peaceful protest. Politicians are to see that we are willing to take to the streets for the protection of our liberties!

And:

Our demands

  1. Cutback on surveillance
    • no blanket registration of all air travellers (PNR data)
    • no information exchange with the US and other states lacking effective data protection
    • no secret searches of private computer systems, neither online nor offline
    • no blanket surveillance and filtering of internet communications (EU Telecoms-Package)
    • abolish the blanket logging of our communications and locations (data retention)
    • abolish the blanket collection of our biometric data as well as RFID passports
    • abolish the blanket collection of genetic data
    • abolish permanent CCTV camera surveillance and automatic detection techniques
    • scrap funding for the development of new surveillance techniques
  2. Evaluation of existing surveillance powers

    We call for an independent review of all existing surveillance powers as to their effectiveness and harmful side-effects.

  3. Moratorium for new surveillance powers

    After the homeland armament of the past few years we demand an immediate hold to new homeland security laws that further restrict civil liberties.

  4. Guaranteeing freedom of expression, dialogue and information on the Internet
    • Ban the installation of filtering infrastructure on ISP networks.
    • Only independent and impartial judges may request the removal of Internet content.
    • Create a full right to quote multimedia, today indispensable to public debate in democracies.
    • Protect common internet places of expression (participatory sites, forums, comments on blogs) today threatened by inadequate laws encouraging self-censorship (chilling effect)

M&C Saatchi reported to be hired to promote British National Identity Scheme

Posted by James Hammerton @ 6:38 pm on 7 September, 2008.
Categories privacy and surveillance, British politics, the database state.
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According to the Mail on Sunday newspaper:

The Government is paying a top advertising agency to ‘sell’ its controversial £20billion ID card scheme to the public.

The Home Office has employed M&C Saatchi to mount a marketing blitz ahead of the National Identity Scheme’s launch in November.

ID cards will allow the Government to hold the personal details of 60million citizens - including fingerprints and iris patterns - on a central database.

But there are fears that fraudsters, terrorists or blackmailers could steal the information and use it for criminal purposes.

Despite this, the Home Office has ordered that all non-EU workers living in Britain hold an ID card as of November.

M&C Saatchi will begin the campaign with TV adverts and posters explaining the cards’ ‘benefits’ to a sceptical public.

The firm is also believed to be behind a Home Office website, www.mylifemyid.org, which has been advertised on social networking sites Facebook and Bebo since July.

The site invites youngsters to sign up for ID cards on a ‘purely voluntary basis’.

If Saatchi are indeed behind the MyLifeMyId website, this can only be good news for the opponents of the national identity scheme:

Trust Britain’s youth to be characteristically ungrateful. The Government goes to all the effort of making a website for 16 to 25- year-olds to express their views on identity cards, and all they get in return is a solid mixture of scorn, sneering and scepticism smattered across their fancy new forums.

In a bid to get the country’s youngsters on board the controversial scheme, the Home Office has launched MyLifeMyId.org, where 16 to 25 year olds “can have their say about identity issues in the UK.”

But anyone browsing the discussions on the site would be hard pushed to find a single positive comment, with contributors branding the controversial scheme as “creepy,” “dirty” and “illegal” and the website itself as an “online propaganda machine”.

One contributor writes: “I think it’s pretty disingenuous of the government to come out and say “hey, yo, cool dudes! If you sign up for our hip hoppin’ ID card scheme you’ll never have to carry a heavy s*** passport to prove your age to some wack bartender again” or however it is they think we talk.” Meanwhile, amcs1983 had this to say: “So far the stats look like 100% say no to ID cards. Time to lose these results in a train station…..”

At the time of writing, the discussion forums of MylifeMyID.org still seem to be dominated by commenters who are sceptical, if not hostile, to the National Identity Scheme.

EU-wide powers for “trial in absentia” proposed

Posted by James Hammerton @ 9:41 pm on 3 September, 2008.
Categories democracy and the rule of law, British politics, European Union politics.
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[Hat tip: abelard]

The Times reports:

British citizens could be convicted in their absence by foreign courts for traffic, credit card or other criminal offences under plans approved in principle by the European Parliament.

The proposals would allow citizens to be extradited automatically under fast-track procedures at the request of another European Union country on the basis of a decision by the foreign court.

The overwhelming adoption by the Parliament of the proposals, which now go to the Council of Ministers, was condemned yesterday as “throwing habeas corpus out of the window”.

Philip Bradbourn, the Conservative justice and home affairs spokesman in the European Parliament, said: “This initiative would enable courts to pass judgments in absentia. It goes against one of the most fundamental corner-stones of British justice – that the accused has a right to defend himself at trial. If other EU countries want to go ahead with this proposal that’s their choice, but the British Government should have no part [of it].”

The proposal has been put forward by seven EU countries, including Britain, to strengthen procedural safeguards in the European Union and mutual recognition of processes in criminal proceedings. Countries can opt out from the proposals even if they are adopted by the Council of Ministers.

Thus you could be tried and found guilty in another EU country and the first you’d know about it is when the fast-track extradition warrant is served against you. Note that EU states can extradite people under the European Arrest Warrant without any evidence being presented to the courts of the country that the person is being extradited from.

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