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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.

UK government still pressuring Nominet

Posted by James Hammerton @ 1:13 pm on .
Categories freedom of speech, British politics.
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In an earlier article, I mentioned that the government may be planning a power grab at Nominet who handle the internet’s .uk domain registry. The Register reported recently on a further development with Nominet:

Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform official David Hendon was speaking on Wednesday at the not-for-profit’s annual registrars’ meeting, where recent infighting over the future of the .uk registry took top billing. He said Nominet and the domain industry need to take more heed of the government agenda on phishing, spam and “bad content”.

Hendon said: “These are all internet problems and [internet users] think someone should do something about it. Although many internet users think the government should keep out of the internet, I suggest to you that most ordinary people who just use the internet like they use the banking system or the trains think that the government should make sure it all works properly for them and that bad things get stopped from happening.”

In response to a worried letter from Hendon, Nominet will imminently appoint an independent reviewer to examine whether its corporate structure is able to represent government and wider concerns, as well as those of its members. A boardroom split has emerged in recent weeks; two elected non-executive directors have called for the CEO Lesley Cowley and Chairman Bob Gilbert to resign, saying the views of members on issues such as pricing are not properly considered and alleging mismanagement of discipline and executive pay.

Hendon said: “It is hard to find another example like the DNS where such a vital aspect of the critical national infrastructure is left in the hands of a private company which is unlicensed and unregulated. I have to say that my searchlight has swept round to Nominet because I am not certain that my previous confidence in the way the board runs the company will continue to be well founded in the future.”

Of course the government has done a sterling job of making sure our banking system lends responsibly and our public sector IT systems don’t leak information like a sieve, so they’re just the people to run the UK’s internet into the ground.

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.

On Hazel Blears and blogging

Posted by James Hammerton @ 8:14 pm on 8 November, 2008.
Categories freedom of speech, British politics.
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Further to my previous article, here is my direct response to Hazel Blears’ Comment is Free article entitled Nihilistic new media, in which she attacked bloggers (and commentators in the mainstream media) for fueling “a culture of cynicism and despair”.

In a nutshell, I accuse Blears of talking authoritarian rot. She does not present a shred of evidence that cynicism about politics and politicians can be traced to bloggers, and the argument she uses in her attempt to portray them as fueling cynicism about politics actually implicates the politicians, not the bloggers who are merely the messengers. She simply fails to understand how blogging and bloggers work. She also exhibits some very authoritarian tendencies in the language she uses.

Below, I illustrate these points by examining several quotations from her speech:

And in recent years commentary has taken over from investigation or news reporting, to the point where commentators are viewed by some as every bit as important as elected politicians, with views as valid as cabinet ministers.

This is a curious comment. Blears seems to suggest that being a cabinet minister confers some sort of validity on ones views when it does no such thing. Being a cabinet minister merely means you are in a position to inflict your views on the country in the form of public policy. For this reason, the views a cabinet minister has and the reasoning they use to justify them and the polices they pursue as a result deserve to receive the utmost scrutiny. To the extent that commentators provide that scrutiny they are providing a public service.

And if you can wield influence and even power, without ever standing for office or being held to account by an electorate, it further undermines our democracy.

The commentariat operates without scrutiny or redress. They cannot be held to account for their views, even when they perform the most athletic and acrobatic of flip-flops in the space of a few weeks.

This claim betrays both an authoritarian view point, a flawed view of democracy and a false view of the commentariat’s ability to act with impunity. Blears comment suggests that being an influential commentator speaking their mind is undemocratic, when in fact, for a democracy to operate properly, it is insufficient just to hold elections, one must also have a culture that encourages people to express their views and to scrutinise the views and actions of those who (would) rule over us. The fact that influential commentators can speak their mind is in fact a sign of a healthy democracy! Yet Ms Blears seems not to like it.

Also, Blears is wrong to suggest that the commentators are not, or cannot be, held to account and operate without scrutiny or redress. They are and can be held to account, and are scrutinised in several ways:

  • We have laws against libel and defamation to deal with the worst instances of misrepresentation and deceit on the part of individuals and newspapers, when such misrepresentation damages the reputations of others.
  • Their outpourings can be read and criticised by both politicans, other commentators, readers’ letters and these days… wait for it… bloggers! Indeed one well known blogger, Tim Worstall, regularly dissects the outpourings of Polly Toynbee, George Monbiot and other commentators pointing out errors of fact, errors of logic, the consequences of the things they propose, their changes of position and occasions when their views contradict each other. This is not unusual. I have seen many bloggers attack the mainstream media for representing only a narrow range of views, for misrepresenting issues or occasionally for forgetting or contradicting what they wrote the previous week.
  • Their editors can hold them to account.
  • The readers of the newspapers can vote with their feet if they don’t like what they’re reading.

I get the impression Blears does not like the freedom the press has, and does not understand the impact of the freedom that bloggers currently have.

There are some informative and entertaining political blogs, including those written by elected councillors. But mostly, political blogs are written by people with a disdain for the political system and politicians, who see their function as unearthing scandals, conspiracies and perceived hypocrisy.

I take issue with Blears’ characterisation of political bloggers. Yes some may have a disdain for the political system and for politicans, but many do do not. Nor is it true that they mostly unearth scandals and conspiracies or perceived hypocrisy (but what would be wrong with that if they did?!). The political blogs I’ve read include highly partisan blogs promoting a particular party and attacking the rest, blogs that examine the impact of government policies, blogs that scrutinise the outpourings of the commentariat and politicians, blogs that cover international affairs, blogs that specialise in covering elections and opinion polling, and blogs that examine government legislation. Many blogs contain elements of all the above mentioned topics. Blears seems to be unaware of the diverse nature of political blogging.

Unless and until political blogging adds value to our political culture, by allowing new and disparate voices, ideas and legitimate protest and challenge, and until the mainstream media reports politics in a calmer, more responsible manner, it will continue to fuel a culture of cynicism and despair.

Ms Blears this comment is unmitigated bullshit, for the following reasons:

  • Even if you were right that bloggers predominantly disdain politicians and politics and see their role as unearthing scandals, conspiracies and hypocrisy, they would already be adding value, by exposing those politicians who undermine democracy by lying, engaging in corruption, acting hypocritically and trying to pull the wool over people’s eyes as they do so.
  • Anyone with internet access (e.g. someone with access to a public library!) can set up a blog without paying a penny to do so. Blogging has thus already allowed new and disparate voices, ideas, legitimate protest and challenge to emerge on a scale never seen before. You can find people blogging from every conceivable political viewpoint whether it be hardline Marxist, radical free market libertarians, greens, conservatives, socialists, fascists or for that matter racists. This is freedom of speech in action!
  • To the extent that exposing scandals, conspiracies and hypocrisy fuels cynicism and despair, blaming bloggers and commentators for engaging in such activity is shooting the messenger. The politicans who lie, engage in corruption, act hypocritically and try to pull the wool over the eyes of the public are the fuel for such cynicism here. You seem to be suggesting that bloggers should not expose such people, lest it fuel cynicism!

The fact that you attack the messengers, the people who are subjecting politicians to scrutiny on a scale and in a manner that hitherto was not previously possible makes me wonder whether you really believe in “allowing new and disparate voices, ideas and legitimate protest and challenge”. Bloggers are already doing exactly this, and yet you write rubbish like the above about them. You are fuelling my cynicism about your politics in doing so. Shame on you!

Is the UK government planning to regulate online content?

Posted by James Hammerton @ 1:53 am on .
Categories freedom of speech, British politics.
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[Hat tip: Guy Herbert writing at Samizdata]

Consider:

  • This recent report from the Royal Television Society conference:

    Answering questions from the floor at the Royal Television Society conference in London last month, Minister for Truth Andy Burnham said:

    “The time has come for perhaps a different approach to the internet. I want to even up that see-saw, even up the regulation [imbalance] between the old and the new.”

    The idea that the internet was “beyond legal reach” and a “space where governments can’t go” was no longer the case.

    In his final annual lecture for Ofcom last week Lord Currie expressed a belief that tighter regulation was coming. He said: “Ask most legislators today and, where they think about it, they will say that period [of forbearance] is coming to an end.”

    His comments are not so much a call for a new role for Ofcom as a recognition that such a role may be coming. A spokesperson for Ofcom added that decisions would need to be taken by the government, particularly as to where any new regulatory responsibility would lie.

    Ofcom is not pitching for such responsibility. Rather it is highlighting the importance of issues that are likely to arise from this new government direction.

    One such issue is just how practical it would be to put in place any form of regulation based on site – or even page – classification.

    According to Andy Burnham, the introduction of a ratings system for internet content would not be “over-burdensome”. We have asked the Ministry of Truth (aka Department for Culture, Media and Sport) on several occasions how such a system might work and how its Minister’s view that such regulation would be easy to implement could be squared
    with general consensus that it would be unworkable. Or, as one expert put it: “bonkers”. We asked again last week.

    The Ministry did not feel they could elucidate further. A spokesperson explained that as the UK Council for Child Safety on the Internet had only just been set up, and would be making recommendations about regulating the internet in due course, “it wouldn’t be helpful or appropriate for us to speculate about what those recommendations might
    be”

  • This report about a possible power grab for a company at the centre of the UK’s internet infrastructure:

    Ministers led by Peter Mandelson are considering a power grab at the independent company at the centre of UK’s internet infrastructure, The Register can reveal.

    Mandelson’s Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform (BERR) has asked Nominet, which is in charge of the .co.uk registry, to justify its independence from Whitehall.

    In a letter dated October 15, senior civil servant David Hendon, BERR’s Director of Business Relations, asked Nominet chairman Bob Gilbert: “What arguments would you employ to convince my Ministers that the present relationship between government and the company is appropriate in ensuring that public policy objectives in relation to the management of the domain name system and the standing of the UK in the internet community are understood and taken into account?”

  • Hazel Blears MP’s recent article attacking bloggers (and other commentators) at Comment is Free:

    But with the caveat that politicians always complain about their own political culture, let me say that we are witnessing a dangerous corrosion in our political culture, on a scale much more profound than previous ages, and the role of the media must be examined in this context.

    Famously, Tony Blair called the media a “feral beast” in one of his last speeches as prime minister. But behind the eye-catching phrase was a serious and helpful analysis of a 24-hour broadcast media and shrinking, and increasingly competitive, newspaper market which demands more impact from its reporting – not the reporting of facts to enable citizens to make sense of the world, but the translation of every political discussion into a row, every difficulty a crisis, every rocky patch for the prime minister the “worst week ever”.

    The changing structure of the media is what drives this desire for impact and the retreat from dispassionate reporting.

    And I would single out the rise of the commentariat as especially note-worthy. It is within living memory that journalists’ names started to appear in newspapers; before then, no name was attached to articles. And in recent years commentary has taken over from investigation or news reporting, to the point where commentators are viewed by some as every bit as important as elected politicians, with views as valid as cabinet ministers. And if you can wield influence and even power, without ever standing for office or being held to account by an electorate, it further undermines our democracy.

    The commentariat operates without scrutiny or redress. They cannot be held to account for their views, even when they perform the most athletic and acrobatic of flip-flops in the space of a few weeks. I can understand when commentators disagree with each other; it’s when they disagree with themselves we should worry.

    There will always be a role for political commentary, providing perspective, illumination and explanation. But editors need to do more to disentangle it from news reporting, and to allow elected politicians the same kind of prominent space for comment as people who have never stood for office.

    This brings me to the role of political bloggers. Perhaps because of the nature of the technology, there is a tendency for political blogs to have a Samizdat style. The most popular blogs are rightwing, ranging from the considered Tory views of Iain Dale, to the vicious nihilism of Guido Fawkes. Perhaps this is simply anti-establishment. Blogs have only existed under a Labour government. Perhaps if there was a Tory government, all the leading blogs would be left-of-centre?

    There are some informative and entertaining political blogs, including those written by elected councillors. But mostly, political blogs are written by people with a disdain for the political system and politicians, who see their function as unearthing scandals, conspiracies and perceived hypocrisy.

    Unless and until political blogging adds value to our political culture, by allowing new and disparate voices, ideas and legitimate protest and challenge, and until the mainstream media reports politics in a calmer, more responsible manner, it will continue to fuel a culture of cynicism and despair.

Could it be that the government does not like being subjected to the scrutiny that many bloggers and commentators now provide?

I intend to write a direct response to Blears’ article later. In the meantime, below are links to some of the online responses to Blears’ article:

email feedback@magnacartaplus.org

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