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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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UK’s Commons Home Affairs Committee launches a short consultation on “A surveillance society?”

Posted by James Hammerton @ 7:39 pm on 30 March, 2007.
Categories privacy and surveillance, British politics, the database state.
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[Hat tip: Spy Blog]

On the 27th March, the Home Affairs Committee of Britain’s House of Commons launched a consultation on “A surveillance society?”:

The inquiry will consider the growth of numerous public and private databases and forms of surveillance with a direct relevance to the work of the Home Office. They either derive directly from the work of the Home Office and its related public functions or are controversial because whilst they offer the potential to play a part in the fight against crime their use may impinge on individual liberty.

The inquiry will be wide-ranging, considering the following issues:

* Access by public agencies to private databases
* Data-sharing between government departments and agencies
* Existing safeguards for data use and whether they are strong enough
* The monitoring of abuses
* Potential abuse of private databases by criminals
* The case for introducing privacy impact assessments
* Privacy-sharing technologies
* Profiling.

The inquiry will focus on Home Office responsibilities such as identity cards, the National DNA Database and CCTV, but where relevant will look also at other departments’ responsibilities in this area, for instance the implications of databases being developed by the Department of Health and the DfES for use in the fight against crime.

The Committee’s aim is not to carry out a comprehensive detailed review of the subject of the kind recently carried out by the Surveillance Studies Network on behalf of the Information Commissioner (and published in his report on The Surveillance Society in October 2006); but to build on the Information Commission’s work in exploring the large strategic issues of concern to the general public, with a view to proposing ground rules for Government and its agencies.

The deadline for submissions is the 23rd of April, meaning that less than a month is being allowed for this consultation!

British Government launches new FoI consultation

Posted by James Hammerton @ 7:15 pm on .
Categories British politics, accountability, freedom of information.
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Regarding the British government’s plans to neuter the Freedom of Information Act revise the way the cost of processing a freedom of information request is calculated, the Register reports that the government has launched a second consultation on the matter:

The DCA has now launched a supplementary consultation, asking for views on the plans and for alternative suggestions of how it could balance openness and the need to keep costs to the public purse down.

“It is entirely right a reasonable amount of money and time is spent dealing with requests for information,” said information rights minister Baroness Catherine Ashton. “But public money is limited and it is the government’s responsibility to ensure it is not unduly diverted from supporting the delivery of frontline services.

“We would like to hear all views and ensure people have the opportunity to comment fully, so we have today published a supplementary paper on the consultation, inviting further comments,” she said.

The consultation seeks alternatives to the government’s proposals. “Do you consider that the draft regulations would succeed in dealing with the problem? If not do you have any other suggestions for dealing with disproportionately burdensome requests?” it asks.

The move was welcomed by the Campaign for Freedom of Information, which had opposed the proposed changes. “This raises the strong possibility that the government will eventually decide to leave the current arrangements untouched,” said Maurice Frankel, the campaign’s director. “If it does decide to make any changes they are likely to be far more limited than the highly damaging restrictions which had been proposed.”

The deadline for submissions to the consultation is June 21st.

Cameron pledges to scrap the National Identity Register

Posted by James Hammerton @ 7:47 pm on 26 March, 2007.
Categories political liberties.
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Update: The link to the video at Web Cameron had expired, so I’ve tracked down the new link and updated things here — the link below should now work again.

The Tories have already made promises related to scrapping the identity card scheme, e.g as reported earlier by this blog.

However, some semantic room had been left for e.g. abolishing the cards, but continuing with the national identity register, the most sinister part of the scheme, which could allow passports to morph gradually into an ID card scheme very similar to the one the government is proposing.

However David Cameron, on his weblog “Web Cameron”, has recently and unambiguously pledged to scrap the NIR itself:

The second question was, “David, when you scrap ID cards will you also scrap the underlying National Identity database?”

I can give you a straight answer. Yes - we will get rid of the database.

The database is going to cost a fortune to compile. Estimate something like £5bn over ten years I’ve heard from John Reid.

We think the National Identity card scheme is wrong, and the underlying database puts all the identity eggs into one basket, and we think it should go.

Clearly there is a need for the use of biometrics on passports for the future, and we can make that work, but we don’t believe in a compulsory national identity card scheme, and we think the national identity register- the money can be much better spent on other things and we’ve spoken about those in the past”

(Hat tip: UK Liberty)

How safe are Britons from laws aimed at foreigners in the face of such stupidity?

Posted by James Hammerton @ 10:17 pm on 1 March, 2007.
Categories political liberties.
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[Hat tip: Pickled Politics]

The Guardian recently reported on a case where a British citizen, born in Blackburn, was detained pending deportation because officials believed he was a foreign national:

Immigration officials assumed that Sabbir Ahmed, who speaks with a Lancashire accent, was Pakistani despite the fact that he was born in Blackburn and has a British passport. His parents come from India but also have British citizenship.

Mr Ahmed, 34, an accountancy student at the University of Leicester, had finished serving a two-month prison sentence for driving while disqualified when he was identified as a foreign national and held for deportation. His case followed a furore over the failure to deport foreign prisoners which cost home secretary Charles Clarke his job last summer.

Mr Ahmed said: “It was so frustrating, it just felt like I was banging my head against a brick wall. I was screaming my innocence to anyone who would listen and they were trying to deport me to a country where I’ve got no ties.”

He was asked to provide documents proving his nationality but was unable to do so because his passport was at his flat in east London and he could not leave Haslar detention centre in Gosport, Hampshire. He was only freed after campaigners from Haslar visitors’ group got access to his flat to recover his documents, and photocopies were shown to a judge at an appeal hearing against the deportation.

How stupid can those who rule over us be? All it would have taken is for someone to check Mr Ahmed’s flat to see if he had the passport.

Bill enabling your social security info to be handed to the BBC (and others)

Another “catchup” post.

Back in December, Spyblog reported on the Digital Switchover (Disclosure of Information) Bill. This bill allows the government to hand over information relating to social security and/or war pensions to another person on request, if that person is:

  • The BBC,
  • A company that the government, the BBC or a nominee of the BBC holds a majority stake in,
  • any person engaged by the BBC, or the secretary of state, or a company as described above, to provide any service connected with switchover help functions (including establishing whether a person needs help with the switchover).

This is apparently related to the upcoming switching off of the analogue signal and its replacement by the BBC’s digital services. The precise information to be handed over will be determined by a statutory instrument once the bill is passed and comes into force. But the explanatory notes, clause 24, gives an idea of the information that the government envisages handing over for this purpose:

The precise details have not been finalised, but it is envisaged that this power will be used to specify for this purpose the following information about an identifiable person, namely—

  • their name, and any alias by which they may be known, marital status (if known), address and date of birth;
  • their National Insurance number;
  • whether they are eligible for any of the benefits that will establish entitlement to help and (if so) those in respect of which they have an award of benefit;
  • the fact that they have ceased to receive such benefits, where that is the case;
  • details of any partner (including details of date of birth and National Insurance number) and whether they receive pension credit, income support or income-based jobseeker’s allowance (to check upon what level of support the household is entitled to);
  • if the qualifying person for disability living allowance is a child, whether the responsible adult or adults is receiving pension credit, income support or income-based jobseeker’s allowance;
  • whether they live in a residential care or nursing home (so helping to ensure that the right kinds of help are available in residential care and nursing home settings);
  • details of any person appointed to act on their behalf (to allow such people to be contacted to alert them to the availability of help);
  • the fact that they have died, where that is the case.

Why should any of this information be handed to the BBC, or to the people employed by the BBC/Secretary of State to help with the digital switchover? As Spy Blog points out, the switching of Radio 4 from long wave to FM, and the retuning of video recorders in order to receive Channel 5 were all achieved without the need for such information to be passed to the BBC (or Channel 5).

Steve Boggan on the database state

Although he doesn’t use the phrase “the database state”, Steve Boggan’s recent article in the Guardian is a useful primer on the development of the database state in Britain, explaining how the National Identity Register fits in with other government databases and the government’s plans to allow more sharing of personal data:

The Identity Cards Act makes provision for the establishment of a national identity scheme commissioner to monitor the whole thing. But it also provides for the sharing of your data - without your consent - with the director general of the security service, the chief of the intelligence service, the director of communications at GCHQ, the director general of the Serious Organised Crime Agency and chief police officers up and down the country. And this, the act says, is not something the commissioner may keep under review. He will have no watchdog powers over the security services in this regard.

The prime minister likes to call all this “transformational government” and few would deny that changes are, indeed, taking place. For example, next year will see the introduction of the children’s information sharing index, which will track every child, and all services they receive, from birth. And, of course, there is the NHS care records system, the so-called Spine database on which the government wants to hold all personal health information.

Once you have a national identity card, a number and an audit trail, all of this - and everything every government department, bank or supermarket has on you - could be accessed, without your knowledge or consent, by the security services, justified by their slightest suspicion of you. And the national identity scheme commissioner, the watchdog without teeth, wouldn’t be able to so much as growl.

Is the Magna Carta British or English?

Posted by Administrator @ 3:41 pm on 28 February, 2007.
Categories site news.
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We have received the following comment from one of our readers. There is some disagreement amongst the MCP contributors as to whether the commenter has a point. Thus, with some amusement, we place the on-going discussion here.

The responses from our contributors continue in the comments - you can of course add your own 5s18d.

“Sir,

“I object to the national origin with which you have attributed the Magna Carta (1215) and the Bill of Rights (1689). You have branded them as being of a Great British origin.

“This is inaccurate rubbish, Great Britain didn’t even exist when these 2 great documents were drafted and signed.

“They are both English in origin. Drafted for the benefit of the people of England, living in the country of England. The Magna Carta is an English document, the Bill of Rights is an English document.

“There, that wasn’t too hard was it?

“It is VERY IMPORTANT that people should NEVER try to rewrite history. You should correct these two glaring inaccuracies on your web site sources without delay….”

Freedom of information roundup — UK act to be completely gutted

Posted by James Hammerton @ 10:17 pm on 27 February, 2007.
Categories accountability, freedom of information.
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I’ve been meaning to catchup on a number of freedom of information related stories, and finally I’ve got the chance:

  • Firstly, back in September, the Register reports that Privacy International published a survey showing that 70 countries have now enacted freedom of information laws, over half of which were adopted within the last 10 years:

    Almost 70 countries have now adopted freedom of information (FOI) laws, according to civil liberties group Privacy International. Over half of those have been adopted in the last 10 years, according to a survey just published.

    “The previous two years have been an exciting time for those promoting and using the right of access to information,” said the report’s author, David Banisar, in its foreword. “Countries on every continent have adopted laws. Others have amended and improved their laws. International rights and duties through the UN and other international bodies have emerged. Innovation has flourished.”

    The report found that FOI laws are used across the world to ensure that governments are open and accountable. It also found, though, specific instances where the laws have been used for very specific ends beneficial to citizens.

    In India, the report found, FOI laws are used to gather data on food vendors to find out which vendors are not providing government-subsidised food to the poor. The food distribution system has changed as a result.

    However, not all is rosy with this picture:

    The report also found some significant problems with FOI laws across the world.

    “There is much work to be done to reach truly transparent government,” said the report. “The culture of secrecy remains strong in many countries. Many of the laws are not adequate and promote access in name only. In some countries, the laws lie dormant due to a failure to implement them properly or a lack of demand. In others, the exemptions and fees are abused by governments. New laws promoting secrecy in the global war on terror have undercut access.”

    The report itself can be found here.

  • This blog reported earlier on plans to change the basis on which the cost of processing FoI requests is calculated that would hobble Britain’s FoI Act. Draft regulations implementing these changes have been published and a consultation is open on them (and has been since 14th December) until the 8th March. A debate of these draft proposals in Parliament took place recently and is covered here by UK Liberty.

    It is worth noting that the draft regulations will be introduced to Parliament via the negative resolution procedure (see page 5 of the consultation document), which means that the regulations will be enacted unless one of the Houses of Parliament votes against it — there need not be a vote in favour and if a vote isn’t called, the regulations pass.

  • There is also a private member’s bill going through Parliament, introduced by Tory Party Whip, David MacLean that would exempt both Houses of Parliament plus all correspondence between MPs and public authorities from the Freedom of Information Act’s provisions.

Between them, it seems the government and the Tory party are about to gut Britain’s Freedom of Information Act to the point of making it useless. Other articles about the government’s attacks include this from the Times and this from the First Post . UK Liberty commented on the private member’s bill here.

Bruce Schneier on ID cards

Posted by James Hammerton @ 9:10 pm on 26 February, 2007.
Categories privacy and surveillance, the database state.
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Bruce Schneier, a cryptography and security expert, recently wrote a critique of America’s “Real-ID Act”. Many of the points apply equally well to the ID scheme Britain is in the process of implementing, for example:

But even if we could solve all these problems, and within the putative $11 billion budget, we still wouldn’t be getting very much security. A reliance on ID cards is based on a dangerous security myth, that if only we knew who everyone was, we could pick the bad guys out of the crowd.

In an ideal world, what we would want is some kind of ID that denoted intention. We’d want all terrorists to carry a card that said “evildoer” and everyone else to carry a card that said “honest person who won’t try to hijack or blow up anything.” Then security would be easy. We could just look at people’s IDs, and, if they were evildoers, we wouldn’t let them on the airplane or into the building.

This is, of course, ridiculous; so we rely on identity as a substitute. In theory, if we know who you are, and if we have enough information about you, we can somehow predict whether you’re likely to be an evildoer. But that’s almost as ridiculous.

Even worse, as soon as you divide people into two categories — ­more trusted and less trusted people — ­you create a third, and very dangerous, category: untrustworthy people whom we have no reason to mistrust. Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh; the Washington, DC, snipers; the London subway bombers; and many of the 9/11 terrorists had no previous links to terrorism. Evildoers can also steal the identity — ­and profile — ­of an honest person. Profiling can result in less security by giving certain people an easy way to skirt security.

There’s another, even more dangerous, failure mode for these systems: honest people who fit the evildoer profile. Because evildoers are so rare, almost everyone who fits the profile will turn out to be a false alarm. Think of all the problems with the government’s no-fly list. That list, which is what Real IDs will be checked against, not only wastes investigative resources that might be better spent elsewhere, but it also causes grave harm to those innocents who fit the profile.

Enough of terrorism; what about more mundane concerns like identity theft? Perversely, a hard-to-forge ID card can actually increase the risk of identity theft. A single ubiquitous ID card will be trusted more and used in more applications. Therefore, someone who does manage to forge one — ­or get one issued in someone else’s name — ­can commit much more fraud with it. A centralized ID system is a far greater security risk than a decentralized one with various organizations issuing ID cards according to their own rules for their own purposes.

I recommend reading the whole thing.

Applying for a British passport? Then (soon) you must attend an interview and give your fingerprints…

The British government’s identity card scheme will involve interviewing people and taking their fingerprints when they register for the scheme. However, initially the government is piggybacking this scheme onto the process of applying for a passport.

On the 26th March, the first of 69 new interview centres will be opened, and from April onwards, some first time passport applicants will find they have to travel to one of these centres to be interviewed before getting their passport.

Later in the year, the collection of fingerprints during this process will commence. Eventually all first time applicants will be called for interview, and then from 2009 onwards the plan is that everyone applying for a new passport will be called for interview, and their details will be entered onto the national identity register. They will also get an ID card unless they “opt out”.

However “opting out” merely means you don’t get the ID card — the info is still collected and store on the NIR. Moreover the government plans to make it compulsory for everyone to register and get a card after the next general election, should they still be in power.

See the following for more info:

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