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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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Good luck to the Convention on Modern Liberty

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

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

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

Update on data sharing proposals

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Met police impose CCTV surveillance on Islington pubs

From the Register:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More on Britain’s War on Photography

Further to my recent article on Britain’s war on photography, I came via UK Liberty across septicisle’s excellent article on his blog “Obsolete” about the new powers in Section 76 of the Counter Terrorism Act 2008:

With this in mind, it’s incredibly easy to be greatly cynical about the new offence created in the latest and greatest “Counter-Terrorism” Act. Contained in section 76 is the criminalisation of “[E]liciting, publishing or communicating information about members of armed forces etc“, which you would imagine ostensibly is intended to stop individuals, such as those convicted of plotting to kidnap and behead a Muslim soldier, from compiling information on potential targets, whether it be home addresses or photographs of soldiers themselves. That alone is contentious; what is even more contentious is that this covers not just members of the armed force and the intelligence services, but also humble police constables.

It’s rather difficult not to connect this directly to what has become more than just individual, jumped-up officers of the law asking members of the public what they’re doing when they’re seen taking photographs of almost anything, as has become almost routine for some whose simple pleasures including taking pictures of buildings, or even getting a camera out in the vicinity of children. While this does not directly cover that, what it will directly cover is the photographing of police officers, which has also become something of a point of concern, with those photographed routinely demanding that such pictures be deleted, even going so far as to confiscate the devices if they’re digital and doing it for them. This has been especially noted on demonstrations, where ironically there are now almost always dedicated teams of officers, known as Forward Intelligence Teams, who film and take photographs of everyone, regardless of whether there is even the slightest likelihood of violence or the breaking of the law. FIT was originally set up to monitor football crowds for hooligans; now those exact same methods are used to do little more than intimidate peaceful protesters.

In response, the likes of FIT Watch have been set up to give the officers a taste of their own medicine. It could be argued that the archives of FIT Watch could be used by those with less salubrious methods to target officers for far more than just tit for tat gestures, but the chances of this seem to be negligible. Rather, what section 76 does is simply put into law what the officers have already been unofficially practising for some time.

The consequences of this could not potentially be more serious. It essentially means that anyone who comes across an instance of the police abusing their powers and manages to record it can have their evidence destroyed with next to no powers of appeal. It will further empower officers to intervene with photographers regardless of what they are doing. It in effect gives carte blanche to the police to stop anyone from recording almost anything, with the excuse being they themselves might be the ones being targeted. Furthermore, because of the vagueness of the legislation, which is almost certainly deliberate, it’s up to the police and the courts themselves to intrepret when there was a breach. It’s a recipe for completely disempowering the individual while empowering the authorities of the state to do almost whatever they feel like, with little sanction for appeal.

Trial of CCTV cameras that also listen in Glasgow

Posted by James Hammerton @ 6:03 pm on 15 February, 2009.
Categories privacy and surveillance, British politics, accountability, culture of suspicion.
Edit This Permalink to this article

BBC News in Scotland reports:

But teaching a computer system to recognise the specific characteristics of aggression has taken more than a decade, building on research at the University of Groningen.

Bram Kuipers explains how the system operates

Sound Intelligence say Sigard is able to discriminate between the sound of aggression and other, everyday loud noises like passing trucks and car horns.

Kuipers demonstrated this by clapping his hands. A display screen noted the sounds but took no action. Then he shouted aggressively. This time an alarm sounded and a CCTV camera spun round to look directly at the source of the shouting.

Such systems are already in everyday use on the streets of several Dutch towns and cities. The company said it also has uses in potential flashpoints like prisons and benefits offices.

There are hopes eventually to sell Sigard in other markets - hence the Glasgow trial.

“We installed a couple of microphones in one of the main streets of Glasgow,” Kuipers said.

“It’s working. We detected aggression and it’s currently under evaluation.”

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

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

Philip Johnston on the Wilders case

Philip Johnston has an excellent article in the Telegraph on the Geert Wilders case:

What, then, possessed the Home Office to ban Wilders – an unprecedented action against a democratically-elected politician from a European state, who is entitled to free movement within the EU? By any measure, it was an extraordinary decision; yet it was not even raised in parliament, the supposed guardian of our freedoms, though some MPs have commented on the ban, largely to support it.

Were Wilders a terrorist preaching violence against particular groups, it could be understood on public order grounds. The order issued by Jacqui Smith, the Home Secretary, read: “The Secretary of State is of the view that your presence in the UK would pose a genuine, present and sufficiently serious threat to one of the fundamental interests of society. The Secretary of State is satisfied that your statements about Muslims and their beliefs, as expressed in your film Fitna and elsewhere would threaten community harmony and therefore public security in the UK.”

Yet what possible threat to public security is posed by a Dutch MP showing a film, in private, to a smattering of peers on a Thursday afternoon in February? Of itself, the film does not call for violence against Muslims; indeed, it suggests that Islam is a cause of violence, a view with which you are entitled to agree or feel strongly about, but not to prohibit.

The reason for the ban appears to have been the possibility of protests by some Muslim organisations against Wilders’s visit. In other words, his freedom to express a view and the liberty of peers to hear it in an institution supposedly devoted to free speech, were set aside in the face of intimidation – the opposite of what happened in the Rushdie case, even if that author was forced into hiding.

What is particularly insidious is the application of double standards. One of those most opposed to Wilders’s visit is the Muslim peer Lord Ahmed, though he denies allegations that he warned parliamentary authorities that 10,000 demonstrators would take to the streets. Yet two years ago, Lord Ahmed invited Mahmoud Abu Rideh, a Palestinian previously detained on suspicion of fundraising for groups linked to al-Qaeda, to Westminster to meet him. When he was criticised for doing so, he said it was his parliamentary duty to hear Rideh’s complaints. He does not appear to see any contradiction with the position he now adopts against his fellow peers.

Geert Wilders: some links

Posted by James Hammerton @ 5:21 pm on 14 February, 2009.
Categories political liberties, freedom of speech, British politics, European Union politics.
Edit This Permalink to this article

By now most readers will probably have heard of the upcoming prosecution of Geert Wilders for his views on Islam (e.g. as expressed in Fitna) and of him being banned from entering the UK. Unfortunately, my time is pressed so I’ve not been able to cover this in the way I’d like to.

My position is that if Wilders has not been inciting violence then there is no case for either the prosecution or the ban on him entering the UK. As far as I can tell, he has not been inciting violence.

I disagree with his desire to ban the Koran on precisely the same grounds as I disagree on prosecuting him for expressing his views of Islam. I believe in freedom of speech, and regard the causation of offence as insufficient grounds to ban the expression of someone’s views.

Anyway here are various links to articles covering the story:

Journalist threatened with legal action for exposing nonsense

Posted by James Hammerton @ 5:05 pm on .
Categories freedom of speech, British politics.
Edit This Permalink to this article

[Hat tip: UK Liberty]

Ben Goldacre writes:

Two days ago I posted about a 7th Jan 2009 broadcast in which their presenter Jeni Barnett exemplified some of the most irresponsible, ill-informed, and ignorant anti-vaccination campaigning that I have ever heard on the public airwaves. This is important because it can cost lives, and you can read about the media’s MMR hoax here.

To illustrate my grave concerns, I posted the relevant segment about MMR from her show, 44 minutes, which a reader kindly excerpted for me from the rest of the three hour programme. It is my view that Jeni Barnett torpedoes her reputation in that audio excerpt so effectively that little explanation is needed.

LBC’s lawyers say that the clip I posted is a clear infringement of their copyright, that I must take it down immediately, that I must inform them when I have done so, and that they “reserve their rights”.

However LBC seems to have reckoned without the internet as Goldacre later writes:

Since LBC unwisely threw their legal weight around to prevent you from being able to freely experience and ponder that astonishing 44 minute tirade against MMR, the inevitable has happened. The audio has been posted on a huge number of websites around the world, over 120 blogs so far are linking to the story, and more importantly, hundreds of thousands of people are talking and reading about the ignorance that Jeni Barnett exemplified in that worrying broadcast. It has been covered in the Times, and an Early Day Motion is being set down in parliament.

Well said

UK Liberty writes:

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

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