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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 proposes raising school-leaving age to 18

Posted by James Hammerton @ 9:47 pm on 8 April, 2007.
Categories political liberties, British politics.
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Catchup-mode again.

Back in March, the government proposed raising the school leaving age to 18, with sanctions such as £50 fines and ASBO-style “attendance orders”.

Since then, there has been critical commentary from the following bloggers that’s worth reading:

Fabian Tassano and others have since set up Educational Conscription, a blog dedicated to resisting this measure, suggesting that the new plans are simply a form of conscription and asking whether it is right that people considered old enough to (in no particular order) get married, join the army, have children and learn to drive (as 17 yr olds can) should be forced to stay on in education.

2 new sections added to ID cards briefing document

I have added two new sections to the identity cards briefing document I produced earlier. These sections cover how one gets an ID card and when you will have your identity checked under the scheme.

Bowland Dairy Farms, the EU and the rule of law

I’ve been meaning to cover this story for ages, because it suggests that the rule of law in the EU can be brushed aside by the European Commission, who have ignored a ruling of the European Court of Justice.

Tim Worstall reported on the case of Bowland Dairy Farms here and here, citing Christopher Booker’s story in the Telegraph.

In summary, Bowland Dairy Farms, an £8million per year business selling curd cheese to five EU countries, was visited on June 12th 2006 by officials from the European Commission’s Food and Veterinary Office (FVO). After a 90 minute look through the farm’s paperwork, they claimed that the milk in the curd cheese broke EU regulations on anti-biotic residues and issued a “rapid alert notice” that the farm’s products were unsafe.

The UK’s Food Standards Authority (FSA) subsequently did an inspection and disagreed, and allowed production to resume. However the FVO insisted the milk did not comply with EU rules, to which the FSA responded that the FVO inspectors were confused over which type of milk was being used. The FSA made a statement to all EU members that there was no evidence of contaminated milk being used and that the cheese was perfectly safe to use. The Commission appended its own negative comments to this statement and maintained the ban.

Bowland Dairy Farms took the FVO to the European Court of Justice (ECJ), the highest court in the EU and supposedly the ultimate arbiter of EU law. On Sept 8th, after considering the case the ECJ found completely in Bowland Dairy Farms’ favour, and ordered the Commission to withdraw its statement about the farm and the ban. The Commission refused twice, and the ECJ ordered the Commission to stand aside on September 12th. The Commission tried to append a statement to the court order saying they’d merely lost on a technicality, and the judge order this to be removed.

On September 27th, the FVO reinspected the farm and found little wrong. However, in October the Commission asked its standing committee to approve a ban preventing Bowland Dairy Farms from any further trading, without the court orders or any evidence being presented to the committee. The committee duly voted for the ban. An EU-wide directive was issued preventing anyone from placing curd cheese manufactured by Bowland on the market and apparently has the force of law. Bowland Dairy Farms are no more.

The scary thing about this is that the actions of the European Commission in doing this were clearly illegal — they had been ordered by what is supposed to be the highest court in the EU to lift the ban and they refused and instead pursued it with more vigour. Surely this means that the rule of law has been brushed aside in this case? And if so, what’s to stop the rule of law being brushed aside in other cases?

Farmer’s herd of cattle destroyed because of unspecified “irregularities” in paperwork

Posted by James Hammerton @ 9:16 pm on 1 April, 2007.
Categories democracy and the rule of law, British politics, European Union politics.
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Christopher Booker, writing in the Telegraph, tells us the story of David Dobbin, a farmer who had his herd of prize-winning cattle, worth at least £500,000, destroyed by DEFRA officials, enforcing EU regulations, on the basis of unspecified irregularities in his paperwork:

EU and british government to fingerprint kids

I realise I’ve been a bit slow on reporting on this but here goes anyway. Early in March, The Register reported that the government apparently plans to take the fingerprints of children as young as 11 for biometric passports:

Home Office minister Liam Byrne told ITV1 television’s The Sunday Edition that the Identity and Passport Service wanted to fingerprint all children over the age of 11 and keep their particulars on a database.

The reason, he said, is because it is currently possible get a 10 year passport without biometrics while a child and still be carrying it validly at age 17, the age at which a biometric passport would be issued to someone who applied afresh for their travel permit.

According to this article, the European Union has already agreed to fingerprint children as young as 12:

A Home Office spokesman said it is bound by the rules of the European Schengen agreement, which Britain isn’t signed up to, but has vowed to mirror, to introduce biometric fingerprints to British passports by 2009.

The spokesman said the Europeans hadn’t decided on a minimum age for demanding that someone proffer their biometrics at border control.

However, the European Council pretty much already agreed last summer that children as young as 12 would be stored on Europe’s fingerprint database.

New briefing document: The British National Identity Scheme

Magna Carta Plus has a series of briefing documents that cover specific topics in more detail than is usually the case with news/blog articles, and which may be updated periodically. They can be found here, or via the lower button to the left of the main title bar above.

A new briefing document on the British government’s identity card scheme has just been added. Comments are welcome on both this and the other briefing documents.

Royal Academy of Engineering reports on “Big Brother”

Posted by James Hammerton @ 10:45 pm on 30 March, 2007.
Categories privacy and surveillance, British politics, the database state.
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The Royal Academy of Engineering has published a report into the increasing amount of surveillance and data gathering/sharing going on in Britain. According to Henry Porter:

“There is a choice,” say the authors of the report, “between a Big Brother world where individual privacy is almost extinct and a world where the data are kept by individual organisations or services and kept secret.”

No one seems to ask, as Professor Nigel Gilbert does, why supermarket loyalty cards include your name. “Does it [the card] need to identify you? No, it just needs authentication that you’ve bought the goods. It is the same for Oyster cards on the tube, some of which you have to register for.

Add to this the frantic construction of government databases - the NHS spine, the ID card scheme’s National Identity Register (NIR), the police DNA data base and the now total surveillance of British motorways and town centres by a system that retains journey details for two years - and you realise that the surveillance society is not so much imminent as a clear and present danger. It should take no imagination to see that apart from fundamentally altering the human experience, a surveillance society reduces individual liberty and makes each one of us much more open to abuse from the state and big corporations.

This report is to be welcomed because it is produced not by politically motivated liberals, but by scientists who understand the power and reach of surveillance technology. Richard Thomas, the information commissioner said much the same thing in an excellent report last November that criticised the NIR. And there are signs that the penny is beginning to drop on all sides of the house. The cross-party home affairs select committee is to look into the impact of widespread CCTV, the NIR and the police DNA database.

It is little appreciated that each generation must fight for its freedom and the freedom of its children in distinct ways. We have become complacent about our liberties as though they were in our blood, part of a gene pool of democratic virtues that very few other nations are fortunate enough to possess. But it is no exaggeration to say that among all western societies, Britain’s democracy is the most vulnerable from a kind of internal dissolution.

The Register also comments on this report:

The academics and security consultants behind the Dilemmas of Privacy and Surveillance report, released this week, reckon it’s wrong to believe that increased security means more collection and processing of personal information.

They argue that, providing the right engineering systems are put in place, it’s possible have both increased privacy and more security.

We live in an era of ubiquitous CCTV surveillance, identity cards, and corporate databases - to say nothing of the assault on privacy that has accompanied the War on Terror. The report’s authors reckon that engineers have a key role in making sure privacy safeguards are built into systems. For example, services for travel and shopping can be designed to maintain privacy by allowing people to buy goods and use public transport anonymously.

“It should be possible to sign up for a loyalty card without having to register it to a particular individual - consumers should be able to decide what information is collected about them,” said Professor Nigel Gilbert, chairman of the academy working group that produced the report.

However they also state:

The aims of the report’s authors are noble, but some of their suggested solutions, such as protecting personal information by methods “similar to the digital rights management software used to safeguard copyrighted electronic material like music releases”, fly in the face of evidence that such technologies have proved ineffective. In addition, there’s little evidence that governments or large corporations have paid much heed to privacy concerns in implementing systems to date.

Another serious problem, which the report only partially addresses, is that many privacy-invading technologies have already been put into action without the safeguards the academy would like see applied. Chief among such technologies is camera surveillance. The report calls for more research into how public spaces can be monitored while minimising the impact on privacy.

Authors of the study are holding a free evening event at the Science Museum’s Dana Centre in London on Tuesday 27 March.

Again, I intend to comment directly on this report in due course.

British government unveils new “criminal justice” proposals

As reported in the Times, this week the British government unveiled a new set of big brother/police state criminal justice proposals:

Every suspect in contact with the police faces having their DNA placed on a national database under government plans for a huge extension of “Big Brother” Britain announced yesterday.

All children will also undergo regular compulsory checks to discover if they are at risk of turning into criminals. They would face the crime test at key stages of their development, including when they start school and at 11.

The children of prisoners and Class A drug addicts would be “actively case managed” by youth offending teams in the crime strategy unveiled by 10 Downing Street .

The Government said the plan should “establish universal checks throughout a child’s development to help service providers to identify those most at risk of offending. “These checks should piggy-back on existing contact points such as the transition to secondary schools.”

It was not clear whether the check would involve an interview with a child, or if it would comprise a review of school and police records.

Ministers are also planning to allow police to take the DNA of suspects, to expand the use of scanning equipment to help to detect explosive devices in crowds, and to scan mail for drugs.

Useful commentary on these proposals include the following:

The proposals themselves can be found here. I intend to comment on them directly in due course.

Home Office issues 10,000 fraudulent passports

From this report in the Guardian:

An estimated 10,000 British passports were issued after fraudulent applications in the space of a year - and al-Qaida terrorists have successfully faked applications, the Home Office admitted today.

This same government wants to issue ID cards to every adult resident of Britain backed by a database storing all the names they’ve been known by, the details of every occasion on which their identity is checked, every address they’ve ever lived at, every identity document that’s ever been issued to them, and a unique identifier that will index into other government databases holding information about them.

How can we trust them not to also issue thousands of these cards to those who fraudulently apply for them or to keep the data safe when they demonstrate such incompetence with passports?

British government to remove all barriers to banks sharing personal data

The Telegraph reports that the government is planning to remove all the barriers that prevent the sharing of personal data between banks and credit reference agencies:

Last year’s inquiry by the Treasury Select Committee into credit card charges specifically raised the question of over-indebtedness, and called on banks to increase the amount of data they shared on consumers, to prevent those with big debts taking out ever more loans and plastic.

Credit reference agencies have existed for more than a century in the US but arrived in the UK about three decades ago, at a time when banks were becoming more generous with credit cards and other accounts, but wanted to weed out problem debtors. Today there are three agencies, Experian, Equifax and CallCredit which hold a range of data about who we are, where we live, how much we earn and who we bank and borrow with.

Initially, they could only hold information on customers who failed to pay their debts on time, but more recently they were allowed to include data on good account holders as well as bad. However, many banks were reluctant to trade details of their good customers, for fear of losing them to competitors, so they restricted their data sharing to defaulters.

This changed over the past year or so, as political pressure mounted in the face of alarming stories of customers clocking up tens of thousands of pounds of debt, after acquiring a whole pack of credit cards. If people couldn’t be trusted to borrow responsibly, the lobby grew demanding that banks protect rogue consumers from themselves.

Now all the big lenders and banks pass full details of 350 million credit and current accounts opened since the late 1990s to the three agencies, but they do so with our consent. Roughly a decade ago, institutions introduced a clause into their standard terms asking for our permission to share our personal details with the agencies. Anyone who refused to give permission would have been turned down for the loan or account.

However, there are a further 40m accounts opened before banks changed their terms and conditions where customers have not been asked if they are happy for their details to be disclosed to third parties for credit checking purposes. These are called “non-consensual” accounts, and data relating to them cannot currently be shared. It is these accounts which the Government now wants to lift the blackout on. The Department of Trade and Industry is due to report in May on how this will be done.

HBOS’s head of risk, Nick Robinson, says: “The whole business of credit scoring and credit reference agencies is a bit of a dark art, but we want to be responsible lenders, and it is very difficult to assess someone’s levels of debt, unless we have access to all the financial information we can get,” he says. “We understand that many people will not be comfortable with the prospect of their financial data being shared without their consent. But we have tried sending out forms asking for permission and that doesn’t work. It would seem we have to look at some other “non-consensual” arrangement, which is what the DTI is examining now.” (emphasis added to Telegraph article)

Note the attitude indicated at the end of this quotation: getting consent did not work, so now we will do it without consent! (How dare these awkward customers protect their privacy?!) So much for financial confidentiality. Our bank accounts will soon all be open books.

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