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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


Getting the cattle to tag themselves

Posted by James Hammerton @ 2:45 pm on 11 February, 2006.
Categories privacy and surveillance.
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Fancy a pint? You’ll need to give your fingerpint…

According to this report in the Times:

WITH 45 pubs and half a dozen clubs, the centre of Yeovil in Somerset can seem like the Wild South West on a Saturday night.

Groups of young people make their way from Globetrotters to The Beach or the Chicago Rock Café. If they are refused entry to one they can always try another.

Not any longer. Yeovil is to become the first town in Britain to install “biometric” fingerprint scanners in pubs and clubs that will instantly identify potential troublemakers. If it is successful, the government-backed scheme could be extended to other towns.

Five clubs, including those mentioned above, have so far signed up for the trial, which is being backed by Avon and Somerset police. The scheme’s backers hope that the rest of the town’s licensed premises will join “within months”.

Clubbers and drinkers will be asked to register by providing proof of ID and personal information including name, address, date of birth and a photograph. They will then have the print of their right index finger scanned on to a computer.

Each time a person enters premises in the scheme his or her finger will be scanned, bringing up a list of personal details. In return for participating, people will no longer have to produce means of identification on entry to nightclubs.

Although a few venues elsewhere in Britain have introduced fingerprint scanners, this is the first time they have been “networked”. If someone is identified as a troublemaker his or her details can be flashed to other licensed premises within seconds, giving doormen warning to look out for them.

And if fingerprints don’t work, I fear there is an alternative:

The old excuse ‘I’ve left my wallet at home’ will soon no longer hold when it’s your round. A nightclub is about to offer its regulars the option of having a microchip implanted in their arm that will obviate the need to carry cash or plastic.

Queuing for entry or a drink at the bar would also become a thing of the past when the ‘digital wallet’ is introduced by Bar Soba in Glasgow. The chip is already proving popular with VIP members at two nightclubs in Barcelona and Rotterdam.

While the concept strikes critics as Orwellian, others believe that, as we stride ever-closer towards a cashless society, it is only a matter of time before the chip becomes a method of fraud-proof common currency.

Brad Stevens, owner of Bar Soba, said his motivation for introducing the technology was to be cutting-edge and to reward loyal customers. He said he had received a surprisingly enthusiastic response from regulars.

Meanwhile, the British government wants to rule by decree

Posted by James Hammerton @ 2:02 am on .
Categories democracy and the rule of law.
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The government recently published the Legislative and Regulatory Reform Bill.

This bill gives Ministers the power to alter any Act of Parliament or subordinate legislation for the purposes of “reforming legislation” or “implementing the recommendations of any one or more of the United Kingdom Law Commissions, with or without change”, via parliamentary order, subject to the following constraints:

  • They cannot impose, increase or decrease taxes.
  • They cannot create new offences carrying more than 2 years in prison as a punishment or increase punishments for existing offences beyond 2 years in prison.
  • They cannot make provision in areas of legislation devolved to the Scottish Parliament or Welsh Assembly.
  • They must have a consultation first with people the Minister specifies.
  • Either of the Houses of Parliament can insist on both Houses having to approve of the order first, but are required to do so within 21 days of the order being placed.

Thus the government wants to be able to alter any primary legislation by parliamentary order, including being able to create new criminal offences carrying upto 2 yrs imprisonment. Note that as things stand the bill itself could be modified this way (e.g. to make it even easier to alter legislation). Note also that at best, there’s a single vote on the order and amendments cannot be tabled (though the Minister can produce a revised order under the “super-affirmative” procedure).

See for more discussion.

British Muslim group calls for ban on depictions of Mohammed

Posted by James Hammerton @ 1:34 am on .
Categories political liberties.
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The Guardian reports that a group called the Muslim Action Committee wants a ban on depictions of the prophet Mohammed:

Imams from across the United Kingdom today demanded changes to the Race Relations Act and a bar on British newspapers printing images of Muhammad.

The Muslim scholars said that Muslims should be given the same legal rights as Sikhs and Jews, and that the Press Complaints Commission’s code of conduct should be tightened to prevent the publication of potentially offensive images of Islam’s prophet.

The logic behind this call is interesting, according to the BBC’s report on the same matter:

Mr Saddiqi said they had concluded they wanted the Race Relations Act modified to give Muslims the same protection as Sikhs or Jews.

He also said the Press Complaints Commission code of conduct should be tightened to prevent publication of any images of Muhammad, but added the clerics accepted criticism and discussion of Islam should be allowed.

He said the code was a voluntary code to ensure the media treated people with respect and called for that respect to be shown to Muslims, whose religion forbids any pictorial depiction of Muhammad.

Mr Saddiqi said: “That act in itself is deeply offensive, it’s akin to someone standing up in your face and abusing your mum, your sister, your dad, and it’s akin to a deliberate act of provocation.”

Thus we’re being told that if we do not observe the Muslims’ ban on depicting Mohammed, i.e. obey a particular tenet of their religion, Muslims will take this as a deliberate act of provocation as if we’d just insulted their entire family. This is an attack on both freedom of speech and religious freedom.

Protestors in London call for those who depict Mohammed to be beheaded

Posted by James Hammerton @ 12:32 am on 4 February, 2006.
Categories political liberties.
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[This is a reproduction of an article at my other blog]

Channel 4’s special report in the Danish cartoon row features a protest outside Regents Park Mosque. The protestors can be clearly heard chanting “Denmark, USA, 7/7 on its way”, the placards features slogans such as “Behead the one who insults the Prophet”, “Annihilate those who insult Islam” and “Freedom of expression can go to hell”. Click on the video link on this page to see the report.

Here are some photos of the placards. One reads “Be prepared for the real Holocaust”. Another reads “Freedom go to Hell”.

If anyone wants to know who some of the enemies of the open society are, look no further.

Is this a remotely sane or reasonable response to the publication of these cartoons?

What we have here is a group of militant religious fundamentalists trying to dictate what we can and cannot print in our newspapers, on the basis that if we violate a particular tenet of their religion, they will feel offended and insulted. They are trying to make us obey a tenet of their religion whether we subscribe to that religion or not. They are also calling for the death of those who dare to depict Mohammed, and some seem to be calling for a holocaust.

If we decide to give in on this, what will the religious zealots claim insult for next? The drinking of alcohol? The eating of non Halal food? Women who dare to dress in anything more revealing than a burqa?

I sincerely hope most Muslims have nothing to do with people like the protestors above. It is worth noting that some Muslims are bravely standing up for free speech. We should give them our support and stand up for free speech ourselves.

On freedom of speech and causing offence

Posted by James Hammerton @ 1:48 am on 2 February, 2006.
Categories political liberties.
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Over on my other blog I’ve been discussing the Danish cartoons controversy. To quote the most pertinent point I wished to make:

One of the criticisms I’ve seen levelled at those who have published the cartoons is that by publishing the cartoons they were offending/insulting Muslims. I have, for example, seen (via a comment at Samizdata — a comment robustly responded to by other commenters and the editors of Samizadata, e.g. see the link above) the newspapers’ actions compared with shouting insults at someone in the street and freedom of speech described as the freedom to insult.

It is worth considering why freedom of speech is important, including considering why even the right to cause offence should be protected. Fundamentally, in a society where you have freedom of speech, it means that you can say what you believe to be true without reprisal.

It is no good to say, “you are allowed to express yourself so long as you do not offend or insult anyone” for one simple reason: those who would feel (or claim to feel) insulted or offended by the truth would be able to suppress the truth if mere offence or insult was a sufficient reason to prosecute someone. A society which prohibits mere offence, stifles freedom of expression.

Is the UK Passport Service developing an alternative identity card and database?

Posted by James Hammerton @ 8:26 pm on 29 January, 2006.
Categories privacy and surveillance.
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John Lettice, writing in the Register, suggests that the UK Passport Service is developing a scheme very similar to the proposed ID card plus identity register of the Identity Cards Bill (from page 2 of Lettice’s article):

Baroness Scotland helps explain the extent to which the National Identity Register already exists: “We have called the central new database ‘the register’, but noble Lords will be familiar with the fact that the Passport Office currently has a database. When we include the biometric data that will come from facial recognition and fingerprints, that information will have to be contained on that database. As a result of the demands made on the service, we have now piloted passport validation, a commercial service that will come on stream in 2006. It is demand-led because, even under the current legislation, there has been a demand for that from the business community.

“All of those items are coming anyway, and the passport service will have to provide for them. So if we look at the differences between the service that will be provided now and that which we anticipate will be necessary to be provided in the long term, the differences are not great. I will list them. A database of basic personal information and biometrics exists, and that will continue. An identity document that stores information, including biometrics, is already provided. The ability for banks and other organisations to validate identity documents with consent exists now in pilot form. Disclosure to the police and other agencies of data held on the passport database happens already, and this would include the equivalent audit usage data.
Click Here

“So what is new? The production of cards as well as passports is new. We do not currently record changes of address, but we propose to do so in the future. The IT infrastructure will be slightly bigger; and the scheme will be enforced; that is, civil penalties, mainly post-compulsion.”

You can see the inexorable logic when it’s put like that. The database will exist, will include biometrics, and via passports alone will ultimately cover 80 per cent of the UK population. The Passport Service’s transformation from a document-centred to a person-centred database positions it as the sole custodian of ‘gold standard’ identification in the UK, and the inclusion of biometric ID capabilities tying the individual to the identity document produces further potential benefits. When you go down to the bank to prove you exist, the bank can use a reader to associate you with the identity document, and all of the other claimed ID scheme benefits follow from there.

From this kind of perspective the fact that the UKPS ID Register (or, erm, “database”, as Baroness Scotland puts it) can only ever cover those in the population who’re UK passport holders is clearly anomalous. But if the ID scheme died and the Government nevertheless continues with the approach, and passport-linked biometric ID infrastructure begins to grow through Government and the commercial sector, we can anticipate how the tentacles will grow.

People might start demanding that ID documentation in a more convenient format (Passport Lite?) be issued. And you could envisage other Government departments (DWP, NHS and DVLA being obvious examples) increasingly using the UKPS database systems for the validation of their own existing ID documentation and systems, and dusting off plans to morph driving licences into ID cards, and to produce “entitlement cards”.

A further point to note here is that apparently the UK Passport Service scheme is being created via the government exercising its powers of “Royal Prerogative”, meaning that Parliament doesn’t get a look in. For details see page 3 of Lettice’s article.

Another Lords defeat for the Identity Cards Bill

Posted by James Hammerton @ 8:48 pm on 23 January, 2006.
Categories privacy and surveillance.
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The BBC reports that the House of Lords have inflicted another defeat for the government over the Identity Cards Bill:

The government has been defeated twice in the Lords over its Identity Cards Bill, as opposition peers attempt to make the scheme entirely voluntary.

Ministers want applicants for passports and driving licences to be obliged to go on the ID card register.

But peers decided by 186 votes to 142 - a majority of 44 - to ensure that entry on the list is voluntary.

The government lost again when peers called for a separate Act of Parliament before cards could be made compulsory.

The votes were among a series of Lib Dem and Tory amendments aimed at making sure people have a choice.

These defeats followlast week’s amendment requiring the government to produce a detailed estimate of the costs of the scheme before the scheme can go ahead.

It is interesting to consider now what these defeats mean. When the bill goes back to the House of Commons they have the choice of overturning the amendments and sending the bill back to the House of Lords, or of accepting the amendments, or of using the Parliament Act to overrule the House of Lords. However, the last option would require the Bill to be reintroduced to Parliament in the next Parliamentary session resulting in a year or so’s delay.

So the critical questions are whether the government wishes to tough it out, playing ping-pong over the bill with the House of Lords, whether the House of Lords will insist on these amendments and whether Labour MPs will be swayed to back e.g. the amendment requiring a complete costing of the scheme. The government is ludicrously holding some figures back on “commercial” grounds — this is taxpayer’s money they’re proposing to spend and they want to keep MPs and the public in the dark over the costs.

If the House of Lords insists on its amendments, the government will either have to accept them or accept a year’s delay in implementation. If it accepts the amendment about costing, that will also delay the bill. If they accept the amendment making getting a card and being registered voluntary for those applying for the passport, they will accept delays in take-up of the scheme should it go ahead.

Whichever way it goes buys more time for those opposed to the scheme to campaign against it either in terms of stopping the bill, or in terms of persuading large numbers of people not to register whilst the scheme is entirely voluntary.

The crucial variable is that the House of Lords must not back down. Backing down will let the government get the bill on the books on its own timetable, with those who apply for or renew passports being compelled to register (or forgo having a passport).

Prosecution and police to decide sentence where defendant pleads guilty to minor offences

Posted by James Hammerton @ 2:57 am on 22 January, 2006.
Categories democracy and the rule of law.
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Recently, the government has proposed that if a suspect pleads guilty to a minor offence, the sentence will be decided between the police and prosecutor (note no mention of the defence!):

Lord Falconer, the Constitutional Affairs Secretary, and Mike O’Brien, the solicitor general, are drawing up proposals to bypass the court process in as many as half the cases heard by magistrates every year.

Defendants who plead guilty to offences such as shoplifting, theft and criminal damage would have their punishment decided by the prosecutor, in consultation with the police, instead of going to court. Ministers believe that about half of the two million cases heard annually by magistrates could be handled in that way.

The plan would represent a revolution in the criminal justice system which has always been based on the principle that sentencing should be weighed in court, with the defence entering a plea in mitigation in response to the prosecution’s case.

Probation officers and magistrates are worried about power over sentencing being handed to the police and prosecutors. Judges are also likely to worry about any proposal to undermine the court system. The Government’s attempt to end jury trials in some cases was blocked by the Lords.

This is an insidious measure. The courts are there not just to decide guilt or innocence but to decide on an appropriate sentence in an impartial manner. Allowing the police and prosecution to decide on a sentence between themselves violates this impartiality — these parties have vested interests in the case. Also the defence is notably absent from the decision.

If the proposal goes ahead, there will be a strong incentive for the police/prosecution to pressure a suspect to admitting guilt — it will be lot less effort and lot less time consuming if the suspect admits guilt and the police and prosecution get to decide the sentence. The police will notch up a conviction and save time and money and will thus be quite happy with such an outcome. This does not mean that such an outcome would be just.

The proposal is thus in many ways typical of the Blair administration — it puts administrative convenience and the saving of money before justice, whilst weakening the power of the courts and replacing the rule of law with the rule of men.

Also, as the Talk Politics blog notes, the European Convention on Human Rights prevents someone being either imprisoned or forced to carry out a task (e.g. community service) without a fair hearing before a court, leaving only a fine as a possible punishment in such cases. So unless Blair intends derogating from the ECHR (or, perhaps, arguing that the police and prosecution themselves constitute a court!) the only sentence the police/prosecution could pass is a fine. Is having the perpetrator paying a fine likely to be what the victim of a theft or criminal damage wants?

Annoying someone via the internet anonymously is illegal in the US

Posted by James Hammerton @ 2:20 am on .
Categories political liberties, democracy and the rule of law.
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Bruce Schneier recently commented on Bush’s signing into law of a bill that would make it illegal to annoy someone, anonymously, via the internet. From the article Schneier cites:

Buried deep in the new law is Sec. 113, an innocuously titled bit called “Preventing Cyberstalking.” It rewrites existing telephone harassment law to prohibit anyone from using the Internet “without disclosing his identity and with intent to annoy.”

To grease the rails for this idea, Sen. Arlen Specter, a Pennsylvania Republican, and the section’s other sponsors slipped it into an unrelated, must-pass bill to fund the Department of Justice. The plan: to make it politically infeasible for politicians to oppose the measure.

However, Schneier writes in an update to his article:

EDITED TO ADD (1/9) Some commenters to BoingBoing clarify the legal issues. This is from an anonymous attorney:

“The anonymous harassment provision ( Link ) is the old telephone-annoyance statute that has been on the books for decades. It was updated in the widely (and in many respects deservedly) ridiculed Communications Decency Act to include new technologies, and the cases make clear its applicability to Internet communications. See, e.g., ACLU v. Reno, 929 F. Supp. 824, 829 n.5 (E.D. Pa. 1996) (text here), aff’d, 521 U.S. 824 (1997). Unlike the indecency provisions of the CDA, this scope update was not invalidated in the courts and remains fully effective.

In other words, the latest amendment, which supposedly adds Internet communications devices to the scope of the law, is meaningless surplusage.”

Here we have two phenomena I’ve noted in recent British bills, firstly measures included in bills which are not related to the matters the rest of the bill addresses — making it difficult for MPs to vote them down without jeopardising legislation they might otherwise support — and secondly, measures that criminalise actions that are already criminalised. Such tactics seem to me calculated to confuse and, with respect to criminalising already criminalised actions, to giving a visible impression of action on the part of the government.

Indeed, military action and large changes in taxation and spending aside, passing legislation is the most visible manner in which a government can portray itself as taking action — a government that pledges to tackle a problem will most likely pass legislation ostensibly aimed at dealing with it.

Very few people will actually read the legislation to see if it does what it says on the tin. Unfortunately this will likely include many elected representatives — the volume of legislation in Britain at least makes reading every clause of every bill impossible, and many MPs will focus only on “flagship” legislation and even then will rely on the reports of select committees, or the governments own claims about the legislation when deciding how to vote.

With regards to the freedom of speech aspects of the measure discussed above, the US constitution should hopefully provide some protection for people and might be used at least to blunt it’s impact. Were such a measure to be passed in Britain there seems to be no constitution worth speaking of. The Human Rights Act is the closest thing we’ve got, but consider the difference between the American Bill of Rights’ first amendment and article 10 of the ECHR (which the Human Rights Act enshrines in UK law. The latter is full of holes.

Lords defeats for British government on ID cards and Terrorism bills

Posted by James Hammerton @ 10:06 pm on 17 January, 2006.
Categories privacy and surveillance, political liberties, democracy and the rule of law.
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The House of Lords has passed some opposition amendments to both the Identity Cards Bill and the Terrorism Bill.

Regarding the Identity Cards Bill, it has been amended so that the government must disclose their estimates of the full costs of the scheme before it can go ahead:

The victory by Tory and Liberal Democrat peers together with some Labour rebels means that Charles Clarke, the Home Secretary, will have to come up with hard figures for the scheme, which an independent report has warned may cost as much as £19 billion over the next decade, about the same as the development and purchase cost of the Royal Air Force’s new Eurofighter.

The Home Office will now have to present its costings to the Commons and the National Audit Office, meaning that Labour MPs opposed in principle to what has been mocked as a “breathing licence” will get another chance to vote against it.


Yesterday’s vote of 237 to 156 follows two reports from the London School of Economics warning of the potentially colossal price of equipping every adult in Briton with a card. The only figure made available by the Home Office so far is one for annual running costs of £584 million.

But that refers only to the Home Office and not to other departments that will have to alter systems and install equipment such as “readers” capable of verifying biometric data.

In addition, there is no mention of the enormous capital cost. The LSE has warned that the charge for each card may have to be £300 just to cover costs.

The Government has concealed its estimate on the grounds that IT companies bidding to supply hardware and software would use it as a minimum start point in negotiations. But that argument was rejected by opposition peers, who said that such a lucrative deal would have companies scrambling to undercut each other.

Clearly the government will say anything to try and hide the full cost to taxpayers represented by this scheme. Having to produce a full costing of the scheme may help those who wish to see it kicked into the long grass, by delaying it further.

Meanwhile the Lords have also passed amendments to the Terrorism Bill, removing the offence of glorification of terrorism and redefining the offence related to publishing a terrorist publication so that someone would commit the offence only if they acted recklessly or with intent.

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