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This page provides occasional items, linked to the original articles, as we attempt to keep up with the rapidly changing situation on civil liberties.
Archive of old news service:
2002 - 2004

1st Jan to 9th Sept 2005


A taste of life under the National Identity Scheme

Posted by James Hammerton @ 4:08 pm on 14 February, 2009.
Categories privacy and surveillance, British politics, the database state.
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Henry Porter relates the story of a friend of his whose wife is required to get an ID card as a foreign (US) national:

I am passing this story on because I have had my first taste of what a state with ID cards would be like, and I have found it very depressing and actually much more scary than I thought I would. The reality of this apparently secure and efficient ID card system is that it is wide open to human error, technical failures and abuse.

A mistake on an ID card will take a very long time to correct, and their mistake becomes your problem, your responsibility. It is a very disempowering and depressing process where a citizen becomes a cog in a vast machine.

This is not just your video club membership, or your supermarket loyalty card … this is your citizenship and identity, allowing you access to services and allowing you to leave and enter the country.

My wife has been unable to travel since early January because of this mistake by UKBA. We are hoping no family emergencies occur before UKBA get around to returning her passport and ID card.

I still have a slight worry that if we complain publicly then someone within UKBA may have the power to vindictively sabotage my wife’s future leave to remain in the UK … not something I have ever feared before in this country. I also don’t want my wife to end up being deported to Samoa by mistake!

Nothing to hide, nothing to fear indeed…

MP accuses Brighton police of scare tactics

David Lepper MP has accused Brighton Police of ‘scare tactics’:

In a surprise intervention David Lepper, Labour MP for Brighton Pavilion, said the police’s decision to photograph people entering and exiting the Cowley Club in London Road for a meeting about the environment last week appeared designed to scare activists rather than prevent crime.

Mr Lepper has written to Chief Supt Graham Bartlett, the force’s divisional commander for Brighton and Hove, demanding why officers were posted opposite the venue on Friday.

Members of the Cowley Club, which was hosting a meeting of environmental protest group Earth First, were confronted with four uniformed officers outside the Somerfield store, opposite the venue, snapping visitors using a paparazzi-style lens.

Sussex Police has said the photography was part of ongoing police work to gather information to support future operations. But Mr Lepper yesterday dismissed the police’s response and said he wanted an explanation.

He said: “It looks more like an attempt to intimidate people going in and out of the Cowley Club rather than genuine surveillance. To have such a large number of uniformed officers with a camera with a telephoto lens seems like it’s meant to deter people from going in there.

“I accept that police need to gather information but this is a ham-fisted way of doing it.”

Britain’s war on photography

Posted by James Hammerton @ 11:44 pm on 13 February, 2009.
Categories political liberties, democracy and the rule of law, British politics, culture of suspicion.
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For some time now I’ve been gathering stories regarding the harassment and general suspicion of photographers in Britain. Note that the basic position in law is that it is perfectly legal in Britain to take photographs in public streets (though some erosion of this is occuring under “anti-terror” laws), yet it seems to me that photographers are increasingly finding themselves challenged by both the police and other officials.

A further issue is that people photographing or videoing protests are increasingly being obstructed or harassed by the police, as are the protestors themselves.

Finally, on February 16th a new law comes into force that the police may use to prevent people filming or taking photos of them. A mass protest against this law and the harassment of photographers has been organised for 11am on this date.

Below is a selection of various stories illustrating the problem, including some stories related to the legal situation and official campaigns that fuel suspicion about photographers:

Universal DNA database - Britain changes tack

[Hat tip: The ARCH Blog]

In 2008 the European Court of Human Rights held that holding the DNA samples of people who had never been convicted of a crime was a breach of their right to privacy, thus bringing into question the policy of indefinitely holding of DNA samples of over 570,000 people who were never convicted of any crime.

Despite this, the government has indicated that it intends to store DNA samples in an NHS database:

The Connecting For Health register – due to come online in 2012 – will hold the electronic medical records of everyone in the UK.

But many fear it will breach patient confidentiality, as a million doctors, nurses and receptionists will have access to it. The surprising admissions came out of a House of Lords inquiry into genetic medicine last month.

When asked if it was ‘valuable to combine genetic data with personal medical data’, Prof Davies replied: ‘The Government is absolutely determined to exploit this research opportunity.’

When Ms Primarolo was asked if it was likely the database would one day hold patients’ DNA, she said: ‘I think the long-term objective would be yes.’

Furthermore, Genewatch points out the Coroners and Justice Bill contains powers to create such a database by stealth (from

A nationwide DNA database could be created by stealth, a report has warned, because of the new data sharing proposals currently passing through parliament.

A GeneWatch report has warned that the DNA collected for medical purposes in the newborn screening programme could be shared with the national DNA database without any need of further legislation.

The Coroners and Justice Bill, which is currently going through the parliamentary debate process, includes proposals for Information Sharing Orders. These allow any government data to be shared for reasons other than its initial purpose. As it stands, the Data Protection Act requires data to only be used for the purpose it was first taken.

GeneWatch said that if the new data sharing proposals are voted in, then the government could implement this plan via an Information Sharing Order without parliamentary oversight. Instead all Information Sharing Orders will be scrutinised by the Information Commissioner, with his opinion available to MPs in writing, and will also face a Privacy Impact Assessment.

Meanwhile, the Times reports:

Every baby born a decade from now will have its genetic code mapped at birth, the head of the world’s leading genome sequencing company has predicted.

A complete DNA read-out for every newborn will be technically feasible and affordable in less than five years, promising a revolution in healthcare, says Jay Flatley, the chief executive of Illumina.

Only social and legal issues are likely to delay the era of “genome sequences”, or genetic profiles, for all. By 2019 it will have become routine to map infants’ genes when they are born, Dr Flatley told The Times.

This will open a new approach to medicine, by which conditions such as diabetes and heart disease can be predicted and prevented and drugs prescribed more safely and effectively.

The development, however, will raise difficult questions about privacy and access to individuals’ genetic records. Many people may be reluctant to have their genome read, for fear that the results could be used against them by an employer or insurance company.

So we have a stated government intention to create a DNA database storing samples from every person, proposed legal powers that could be used to achieve it with the barest minimum parliamentary scrutiny, plus a private company claiming the technology will soon be in place to do it.

It thus seems to me this will happen unless people act to stop it.

Spy centre will track you on holiday -Times Online

Posted by James Hammerton @ 7:06 pm on 8 February, 2009.
Categories privacy and surveillance, British politics, the database state.
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The Times Online reports:

THE government is building a secret database to track and hold the international travel records of all 60m Britons.

The intelligence centre will store names, addresses, telephone numbers, seat reservations, travel itineraries and credit card details for all 250m passenger movements in and out of the UK each year.

The computerised pattern of every individual’s travel history will be stored for up to 10 years, the Home Office admits.

The government says the new database, to be housed in an industrial estate in Wythenshawe, near Manchester, is essential in the fight against crime, illegal immigration and terrorism. However, opposition MPs, privacy campaigners and some government officials fear it is a significant step towards a total surveillance society.

Privacy in Germany

Ralf Bendrath providers a useful overview of the struggles for privacy in Germany in 2008.

Britain’s legislative incontinence

Via UK Liberty, I found John Ozimek’s article in the Register, describing the problems the courts are having in keeping up with the law:

Late last year, an appeal in R. v. Chambers [2008] EWCA Crim 2467 was halted at the 11th hour when it turned out that the regulation which the defendant was appealing and under which he had previously been found guilty had in fact been superseded by new law… some seven years previously.

This only came to light when a draft judgment on the case was passed to a lawyer at Revenue and Customs, who spotted the error and instantly alerted the court. Confusion all round, and while the court dialogue didn’t quite match exchanges regularly heard under the jurisdiction of the infamous Justice Cocklecarrot, it is possible to detect prosecution counsel shrivelling beneath the displeasure of Lord Justice Toulson

Echoing recent comments by Lord Phillips, head honcho in our legal system, Lord Justice Toulson blamed this chaos on four factors - first, that “the majority of legislation passed today is secondary legislation”. That is, it is not passed directly by parliament, but is the result of Ministers laying regulations before parliament (statutory instruments).

Then, “the volume of legislation has increased very greatly over the last 40 years”. In 2005 alone, there were “2868 pages of new Public General Acts and approximately 13,000 pages of new Statutory Instruments” – to which should be added another 5,000 pages of European Directives and Regulations, plus the outpourings of our new devolved assemblies.

Assuming a page can be read every 5 minutes, then an MP would have to spend 79430 minutes reading the Acts of Parliament and the SIs for 2005 alone. That’s over 55 days of continuous reading, or over 165 days of reading continuously for 8 hours (almost 30 devoted to the Acts), just to read each of 2005’s SIs or Acts once. How on earth can MPs provide even remotely adequate scrutiny of legislation given such volumes of it to read? SIs of course are given the barest minimum of scrutiny - they cannot be amended, and (at best) there is only one vote in each House to approve them after a 90 minute debate.

The above calculation excludes European Directives and the explanatory notes that accompany Acts of Parliament and SIs. In his book “How to Label a Goat”, Ross Clark notes (on page 239 at the start of Chapter 18) that in the year starting June 1 2005 there were 29 Acts of Parliament, with 3592 SIs. Once you included the explanatory notes for this legislation, you had a total of 100,000 pages to read.

That’s equivalent to over 1041 working days worth of continuous reading. Even if you could reach a page per minute, it’s still over 208 working days of reading. And that’s just 1 year’s worth of legislation and supporting documentation.

And they say ignorance of the law is no excuse.

Banks doubt usefulness of ID card scheme

Posted by James Hammerton @ 5:39 pm on 7 February, 2009.
Categories privacy and surveillance, British politics, the database state.
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[Hat tip: UK Liberty] reports:

While the Home Office is hoping ID cards will one day be used for everything from claiming benefits to opening bank accounts, the UK financial services industry has its doubts over how useful the cards will prove.

The UK payments association Apacs - whose members includes the UK’s major high street banks - is worried that security features that would have made the card useful for checking identity in large money transfers and online transactions have been stripped from the scheme.

Head of security for Apacs Colin Whittaker told a conference hosted by the BCS Security Forum yesterday: “Some of the features we were expecting in the ID card are not going to be present for the foreseeable future.

“There’s nothing in the middle tech range which is where a lot of the user case scenarios - particularly in the financial sector - are going to give more value. For example, doing a high-value cash withdrawal, a counter-based withdrawal, where a financial institution asks you to put the ID card in a reader, checks it’s a valid card and takes a pin number.

“The online capabilities that we were hoping were going to be present are unlikely to be there for the foreseeable future.”

ID cards are here - but the police cannot read them.

[Note: The original version of this article stated that no cards readers exist, however the situation reported is that the police don’t have any. Apologies for the earlier error]

Last year, the government started issuing ID cards to the foreign workers, hailing it as the first step in implementing the National Identity Scheme(NIS).

However, the cards cannot currently be read by the police as there are no card readers for them to check people’s identity against the National Identity Register (NIR) yet.

It thus looks as if the key infrastructure for the scheme to work as intended is not yet in place. Whilst that is so, all that’s changed is that people who needed a visa to reside in the UK now have to get a card. The NIR is a critical component in the government’s plans as are the readers and infrastructure required to check people’s identities against the NIR. Until this infrastructure is in place, the NIS will thus be operating in name only.

The Guardian: Foreign 6-year-olds are being fingerprinted on entry to the UK

Posted by James Hammerton @ 7:12 pm on 1 February, 2009.
Categories privacy and surveillance, British politics, European Union politics.
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The Guardian reports:

Two months ago, the UK Borders Agency began fingerprinting foreign children over six years old, from outside the European Economic Area and resident in Britain. At the time Jacqui Smith was congratulated for her tough line on issuing identity cards to foreign residents and no one, not even parliament, noticed that the biometric requirements applied to children of six. And parliament didn’t know because it was never asked to approve the policy.

Nowhere in the world are you more powerless than at a border. As a foreigner you also enjoy far fewer rights than locals. Do you think these children or their parents dare to speak up against the bureaucracy of the UK Borders Agency? In fact, no one has called the Borders Agency to account. Home Office officials I have talked to outside the agency were shocked that official government policy is now to fingerprint children.

When asked why (question 226407), the Home Office itself offers a much more solid defence: that the EU requires it. What it does not admit is that the British government is almost alone in pushing the EU to ensure that the age when fingerprinting can start is so low. Home Office officials pushed the EU to establish a standard age of six, despite opposition within other European governments. The next time you hear a government official support the EU, it is not just because it is a vehicle for “peace, prosperity and freedom”, but also because it is a vehicle to push through policies that the UK government would prefer not to pursue through the legislature at home.

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