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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


British government considers database of phone calls, web site visits and emails.

Summary: The proposed central database logging details of who people phone, who they email and what websites they visit, at first glance, merely duplicates the storage of such information by internet and phone companies. However, by creating their own central database, the government will make it easier to look up any British resident’s calls and emails, easier to extend the retention of this data and easier to share the data across government departments and public bodies in the future. It will also create a valuable target for information thieves. All this assumes, of course, that they can manage to get such a large-scale IT project off the ground in the first place…


The National Staff Dismissal Register

Yet more guilt by accusation in Britain. From the BBC:

To critics it sounds like a scenario from some Orwellian nightmare.

An online database of workers accused of theft and dishonesty, regardless of whether they have been convicted of any crime, which bosses can access when vetting potential employees.

But this is no dystopian fantasy. Later this month, the National Staff Dismissal Register (NSDR) is expected to go live.

Organisers say that major companies including Harrods, Selfridges and Reed Managed Services have already signed up to the scheme. By the end of May they will be able to check whether candidates for jobs have faced allegations of stealing, forgery, fraud, damaging company property or causing a loss to their employers and suppliers.

Workers sacked for these offences will be included on the register, regardless of whether police had enough evidence to convict them. Also on the list will be employees who resigned before they could face disciplinary proceedings at work.

And who’s behind this? The AABC, a group set up under a partnership between the Home Office and the British Retail Consortium:

The register is an initiative of Action Against Business Crime (AABC), which was established as a joint venture between the Home Office and the British Retail Consortium “to set up and maintain business crime reduction partnerships”.

To be fair to the Home Office they say they’ve stopped funding this group.

NIS briefing document updated again

Posted by James Hammerton @ 8:59 pm on 10 March, 2008.
Categories privacy and surveillance, British politics, the database state.
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Now the government has published its revised delivery plan for the National Identity Scheme, I’ve updated the briefing document to reflect the changes.

Why the National Identity Scheme threatens liberty and privacy: Updated briefing document.

Posted by James Hammerton @ 9:00 pm on 24 February, 2008.
Categories political liberties.
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I’ve updated the briefing document on the National Identity Scheme, to include a new section summarising why I believe the NIS threatens both individual liberty and privacy.

I’ve also tweaked sections related to the status of the scheme, to include information about the recently leaked Home Office document that suggested a change of plans is in the offing.

Roundup: Freedom of speech

Posted by James Hammerton @ 10:23 pm on 9 February, 2008.
Categories political liberties, freedom of speech, British politics, US politics.
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Now for another round-up, this time on freedom of speech related stories of which there have been a fair number in recent months.

  • Back in October, the Pub Philosopher pointed out how Britain’s new religious hatred law is beginning to bite:

    A number of people have already posted about Father John Hayes, the priest who was interviewed by police on suspicion of inciting racial hatred, after he expressed views about religious dress and radical Muslims in his parish newsletter. Esmerelda wondered whether, given that Father Hayes’s comments were made over a year ago, someone was taking advantage of the new Religious Hatred Act to make their complaint.

    This may give a clue to the response of the police. Usually, the police would look at the evidence in a complaint and then decide whether they thought a crime might have been committed before taking any further action. The problem is, you can’t do that with the Religious Hatred Act.

    Read Section 29B. It says:

    A person who uses threatening words or behaviour, or displays any written material which is threatening, is guilty of an offence if he intends thereby to stir up religious hatred.

    And you can’t work out what someone’s intention was without talking to them.

    To establish whether Father Hayes had broken the law, the police had to judge whether he was a rabid Muslim-hater, hell bent on stirring up a religious war, or a harmless parish priest engaging in theological debate. Presumably, the senior officer who picked up this case decided that the only way this could be done was by sending two coppers to interview Father Hayes.

    As I said last year, this is one of the most worrying aspects of the new law. It is up to the authorities to decide what they think you meant. They can, if they choose, infer meanings from your words that had never occurred to you when you wrote or said them.

    The letter which led to Father Hayes being interviewed can be found here.

    This shows how laws that restrict what people can say can be used to intimidate someone via the mere threat of a prosecution, by someone who might simply dislike what the person said. This can have just as big an effect on free speech as any actual convictions brought under the such laws and such threats can be used without the speech concerned necessarily being proscribed by such laws.

  • Apparently, it is illegal for pub landlords to put up signs saying “FAGGOTS & MINCE NOT ON THE MENU”.
  • (more…)

Roundup: Britain’s National Identity Scheme

Posted by James Hammerton @ 10:08 pm on 7 February, 2008.
Categories privacy and surveillance, British politics, the database state.
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To catch-up on a backlog of material I’m doing a number of roundups. This one is on stories related to Britain’s National Identity Scheme over the last few months.

Online tax return system considered too risky for the famous

Posted by James Hammerton @ 10:15 pm on 26 January, 2008.
Categories privacy and surveillance, British politics, the database state.
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[Hat tip: Samizdata and Tim Worstall]

From a report in the Telegraph:

The security of the online computer system used by more than three million people to file tax returns is in doubt after HM Revenue and Customs admitted it was not secure enough to be used by MPs, celebrities and the Royal Family.

Thousands of “high profile” people have been secretly barred from using the online tax return system amid concerns that their confidential details would be put at risk.


From this year, anyone wishing to file a self-assessment tax return after October will have to do so online or face stiff penalties.

However, HMRC has a list of those excluded from the new rules who must send hard copies of returns for “security reasons”.

Hundreds of thousands of people are expected to use the electronic system to make the Jan 31 deadline this week.

Tax records contain bank details, national insurance numbers, salary and details on investments and savings - all valuable to fraudsters.

On Friday, senior accountants said they had concerns over the security of the system - apparently confirmed by the Revenue’s secret policy.

Mike Warburton, of the accountants Grant Thornton, said: “Either the Revenue have a system which can guarantee confidentiality for all or they should defer plans to force online filing. It is extraordinary that MPs and others can enjoy higher security.”

Mark Wallace, of the Taxpayers’ Alliance, said: “This double standard is unacceptable. If the online system is not secure enough for MPs, why should ordinary taxpayers have to put up with it?”

This is of course the same HMRC who lost 25 million child benefit records. Why should anyone, famous or otherwise, trust these people or their online system to keep their personal data safe?

What’s going on with Britain’s National Identity Scheme?

Posted by James Hammerton @ 10:23 pm on 25 January, 2008.
Categories privacy and surveillance, British politics, the database state.
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Recently there have been a number of headlines related to Britain’s National Identity Scheme, apparently due to the Tories obtaining leaked Home Office documents relating to the scheme. The headlines concerned have suggested both delays, the possibility of the scheme being shelved and possible extensions to the scheme. Below are some examples:

So what is going on? Has the scheme been delayed? Has it been extended? Will it be shelved?

The Serious Crime Act 2007 and mens rea

Posted by James Hammerton @ 5:57 pm on 19 January, 2008.
Categories political liberties, democracy and the rule of law, British politics.
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This post is a belated response to a comment left by “Les” in the comments on this article, who wrote:

Under S45, the prosecution has to show that you BELIEVED that the anticipated offenced WOULD occur and that you BELIEVED that your act WOULD assist or encourage its commission, thus establidhing[sic] Mens Rea.

Without S47, the judge could direct the jury to return a guilty verdict. With S47, if you demonstrate that your act was reasonable, the judge should direct the jury to return a not guilty verdict.

I do not agree that the conditions in S45 are necessarily sufficient to establish mens rea. I raise two counter points:

  • Firstly, why provide the defence in S47 if the conditions in S45 are sufficient to establish mens rea?
  • Secondly, consider the following. If I sell a knife to you there’s a risk you might use it to commit an offence. Of course knowing there is this small risk does not imply that I believe you will commit the crime and my selling a knife to you in the absence of any reason to believe you will commit a crime with it is unlikely to meet the conditions in S45.

    But suppose I sell knives to the general public. If I sell a large enough volume of knives it’s virtually guaranteed that one or more of them will be used to commit a crime. Therefore isn’t anyone selling knives to the public, on a scale large enough that its virtually guaranteed that some of the knives will be used in crime and who also realises that fact, in a position of (a) believing that offences will occur and (b) believing their actions will assist in their commission?

    Now of course section 47 can be used by anyone selling knifes to argue that their actions are reasonable — one would hope a court would agree that it’s unreasonable to prevent people from selling cooking utensils after all!

    But my point is that a person in this position has the burden of proof reversed. It should be the up to the prosecution to prove negligence or recklessness on the part of this knife seller, not the knife seller to prove his actions were reasonable. And in this case it seems to me that the conditions in S45 do not establish mens rea.

    Note that similar arguments to the above could be applied to selling cars, computers, hammers, tools, software or just about anything!

Happy 2008!

Posted by James Hammerton @ 6:42 pm on 5 January, 2008.
Categories privacy and surveillance, political liberties, British politics, the database state.
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So a new year is now upon us.

Looking back I think one of they key developments of 2007 in Britain has been the increased awareness of the dangers of the database state, in the wake of numerous stories about how various departments of the British government have lost personal data, had it stolen and/or seriously mishandled it (e.g. sending unencrypted CDs through the post). The government has shown, beyond reasonable doubt to many people, that they cannot be trusted with our personal data.

As a consequence recent opinion polls have been showing a majority of people are now opposed to the national identity scheme. Given that this scheme involves collecting and sharing personal data on a far wider scale than is done currently, it is only logical to expect even more scope for the loss/abuse of personal data arising from the scheme. This point now seems to have penetrated the public consciousness. This development could spell the end of the identity scheme and make it harder for the government to pursue other schemes that involve collecting and sharing vast amounts of personal data. I hope it does.

On the civil liberties front more generally, there are of course many more developments that need to be fought, such as the extension of pre-charge detention and other draconian measures. For the first time, it seems to me that the public are becoming aware of the dangers of what’s happening. Hopefully this will help to prevent further losses of liberty and further erosion of the rule of law.

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