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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


How storing DNA differs from storing passport photos

Posted by James Hammerton @ 5:49 pm on 10 May, 2009.
Categories privacy and surveillance, British politics, the database state.
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Alasdair Palmer, writing in the Sunday Telegraph, claims that keeping DNA is no different from storing photos:

Most people react to the state’s photo database with a shrug: they have my photo? Big deal. And yet many of the same people also feel profoundly threatened by the Government’s DNA database, asserting that it really is an assault on privacy, liberty and the presumption of innocence. This is deeply puzzling. A record of your DNA is simply the equivalent of a photo of the inside of one of your cells. Why get worried about that – but not about a picture of your face?

I have yet to come across any reason for thinking that it is more destructive of liberty and privacy for the government to keep a record of the intricate chemical mechanism that reproduces your cells than it is for it to keep your photo. Certainly the European Court did not provide one. The court insisted that the Government violated human rights law when it retained DNA data. But the arguments it gave – that the retaining of DNA was “blanket and indiscriminate” – would equally apply to every state’s passport photo archive. And the European Court did not require the British Government to destroy its photo database on the grounds that it was “disproportionate”.

There are a several differences between storing photos on a passport database and storing people’s DNA:

  • DNA contains far more sensitive information about you than the photograph of your face and shoulders stored in the passport database. For example, using DNA samples you can determine the degree to which people are related and how susceptible a person is to a range of diseases. The potential for the abusing a DNA database by selling such information on or providing to those who have no business knowing it will be magnified should such a database be made “universal”.
  • Because we involuntarily leave DNA around in the form of hairs and skin cells as we go about our daily lives, DNA can be used to help determine whether someone has been in a given location, by comparing someone’s profile against the samples found at the location. This is the very basis upon which DNA profiling works. Until we have facial recognition systems that work reliably (we currently don’t) this simply cannot be done with photographs, and it would also require CCTV cameras to be far more pervasive than they are now.
  • The storage of a photo in a passport database is done for purposes of verifying that a passport belongs to the person presenting it, rather than for identifying people. The purpose of storing DNA in the National DNA database is to help identify who was at the scene of a crime during investigations.

All three of these differences impact on the level of intrusion into privacy represented by the two cases, and make the storing of DNA a more intrusive proposition than the storing of a photograph for limited purposes.

Later on Palmer writes:

There is a clear public policy justification for the DNA database, and it is not just that it helps provide evidence to convict the guilty. It is equally important for acquitting the innocent.

Many people have already been ruled out of police inquiries because their DNA does not match that found at the scene of the crime. A few have been released from prison sentences because DNA proved they could not have committed the crimes of which they were convicted.

It requires a strange view of the importance of not convicting the innocent – the “presumption of innocence” central to our criminal law – to decry the retaining of DNA samples. For retaining DNA simply makes it possible for the courts to apply that principle more effectively.

This is a flawed argument. There is NO NEED WHATSOEVER to store innocent people’s DNA for the purposes of eliminating them from investigation. Should suspicion fall on someone who is innocent, you can test their DNA against that found at the crime scene, without there being any need for their DNA sample to be stored in the database, simply by taking a sample from them to test at that time.

It is worth considering the likely consequences of trying to make a “universal” DNA database:

  • DNA profiling currently involves a false match rate of 1 in a few million. If you restrict the DNA database to only those who are convicted of crimes and those who are currently under investigation, you reduce the likelihood of accidental matches. A “universal” DNA database for all 60 million inhabitants of the UK will generate false matches on just about every search, thus degrading the value of the DNA database as a crime fighting tool.
  • One strategy for criminals to try and counter the DNA database is to plant someone else’s DNA at a crime scene (and minimise the risk of leaving your own there). Making the DNA database “universal” will make this strategy more likely to work since it is far more likely that the person you choose will have their DNA stored on the database, again degrading the usefulness of DNA.
  • Those criminals who do not wish their DNA to be stored on the database are unlikely to meekly go along with efforts to make it universal. Strategies they can employ to prevent being caught by the system include registering under someone else’s identity; bribing, tricking or intimidating the database maintainers to alter or delete their record or simply evading registration.
  • It is inevitable that attempts to construct a “universal” DNA database will involve error. No database of the size we’re talking about can be constructed error free. Samples will get mislabeled, matched to the wrong records or even lost. This is true even for the current DNA database, but the logistics of trying to create a “universal” database will likely increase the error rate. Also, instead of those affected primarily being those who’ve been convicted of crime or arrested within the last 12 years, these errors would affect literally anyone.

For all these reasons, my view is that DNA samples should only be kept for those currently under investigation and those convicted of crime. The DNA database will be more effective, the error rates will be lower, the scope for abuse of the system will be lower and the intrusion into privacy will be lower.

Should MPs’ and candidates’ addresses be private?

I’ve been meaning to post on this for a while. The Register reported:

Members of Parliament have voted themselves the right to withhold their names and addresses from publication. Candidates at Parliamentary elections will get the same right.

This is perhaps less surprising than it ought to have been. Last May, the High Court ruled in a Freedom of Information case that MPs’ addresses should be public information. British citizens ought to be able to check on MP expense claims, or to monitor the living arrangements of individuals such as the Home Secretary.

In July, the government used an order in the House to overturn this, arguing that some personal information – particularly that relating to addresses and travel information – should be withheld from publication on the grounds of national security, and also the possibility that MPs would be harassed.

In October, Julian Lewis, MP for New Forest East raised the matter in the Commons. He praised the Leader of the House, Harriet Harman MP, for her “decisive intervention” in respect of the High Court case.

He pointed out that the High Court’s “dangerous decision” to allow addresses to be revealed was based on the fact they were published every four or five years anyway and asked: “Can we now consider closing this loophole?”

There are a number of points one can make about this:

  • Anyone wishing to harass an MP merely has to wait for them at the House of Commons or their constituency office.
  • In order to vote this country’s elections, I have to register my details in the publicly accessible electoral roll, as does anyone (including MPs) who wishes to vote in an election. If MPs addresses are to be kept secret, why not voters? Surely this is equivalent to me hiding my address from my employer?
  • Contrast the attitude here with requirements on members of the public to register their details in numerous government databases, accessible to numerous public officials, and often run very insecurely, in legislation that these same MPs have voted for.
  • If the MP’s address is secret, how are voters to know if the MP is lying about living locally?

But there is a further issue. The MPs didn’t even debate the measure:

Second, and more worrying, was the way in which this measure was introduced into the House on Monday, as an amendment, with no debate permitted, to the Political Parties and Elections Bill.

No matter how desirable a new law, it might be thought that a debate about its desirability would be even more desirable.

In vain, backbench MP David Heath raised a point of Order as to “whether there is any precedent for taking a Division on a completely undebated new clause, which falls in a later group that we have not yet reached, which is in the hands of Back Benchers from an opposition party and which has not even been moved”.

Mindful of her responsibility to the House, and the weight of centuries of democratic tradition weighing down on her shoulder, Deputy Speaker, Silvia Neal replied: “I have made a decision, and given my ruling and the reasons why this vote has been taken. I have nothing further to add.”

If they’re not going subject legislation to scrutiny, and they wish to hide from the public, then I say sack the lot of them, for they serve no useful purpose.

Lawyer-client privilege no bar to surveillance, say Lords

Posted by James Hammerton @ 10:12 pm on 27 March, 2009.
Categories privacy and surveillance, democracy and the rule of law, British politics.
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The Register reports:

Solicitor Manmohan Sandhu was charged at Antrim Magistrates’ Court with incitement to murder and intending to pervert the course of justice. The evidence against Sandhu consisted of recordings of conversations he had with clients in a room in Antrim police station.

Sandhu claimed that it was against the law for police to record his discussions with his clients because of legal professional privilege. A Divisional Court backed his claim, but the case was appealed to the House of Lords.

Lord Carswell in the House of Lords said that RIPA does allow for the surveillance of privileged communications.

“In its natural and ordinary sense [RIPA] is capable of applying to privileged consultations and there is nothing in its wording which would operate to exclude them,” he wrote in his ruling. “It seems to me unlikely that the possibility of RIPA applying to privileged consultations could have passed unnoticed [in Parliament]. On the contrary, it is an obvious application of the Act, yet no provision was put in to exclude them.”

Lord Carswell said that legal professional privilege cannot be absolute, that it has to have exceptions. “If it were not possible to exercise covert surveillance of legal consultations where it is suspected on sufficiently strong grounds that the privilege was being abused, the law would confer an unjustified immunity on dishonest lawyers,” he wrote.

“There may be other situations where it would be lawful to monitor privileged consultations, for example, if it is necessary to obtain information of an impending terrorist attack or to prevent the threatened killing of a child,” said Lord Carswell. “The limits of such possible exceptions have not been defined and I shall not attempt to do so, but they could not exist if the rule against surveillance of privileged consultations were absolute.”

Privacy in the Age of Persistence

Posted by James Hammerton @ 10:03 pm on .
Categories privacy and surveillance, the database state.
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Bruce Shneier has written an article that nicely summarises the problems caused for privacy in the age of cheap, powerful information technology:

You’re living in a unique time in history: the technology is here, but it’s not yet seamless. Identification checks are common, but you still have to show your ID. Soon it’ll happen automatically, either by remotely querying a chip in your wallets or by recognizing your face on camera.

And all those cameras, now visible, will shrink to the point where you won’t even see them. Ephemeral conversation will all but disappear, and you’ll think it normal. Already your children live much more of their lives in public than you do. Your future has no privacy, not because of some police-state governmental tendencies or corporate malfeasance, but because computers naturally produce data.

Cardinal Richelieu famously said: “If one would give me six lines written by the hand of the most honest man, I would find something in them to have him hanged.” When all your words and actions can be saved for later examination, different rules have to apply.

Society works precisely because conversation is ephemeral; because people forget, and because people don’t have to justify every word they utter.

Conversation is not the same thing as correspondence. Words uttered in haste over morning coffee, whether spoken in a coffee shop or thumbed on a BlackBerry, are not official correspondence. A data pattern indicating “terrorist tendencies” is no substitute for a real investigation. Being constantly scrutinized undermines our social norms; furthermore, it’s creepy. Privacy isn’t just about having something to hide; it’s a basic right that has enormous value to democracy, liberty, and our humanity.

We’re not going to stop the march of technology, just as we cannot un-invent the automobile or the coal furnace. We spent the industrial age relying on fossil fuels that polluted our air and transformed our climate. Now we are working to address the consequences. (While still using said fossil fuels, of course.) This time around, maybe we can be a little more proactive.

Just as we look back at the beginning of the previous century and shake our heads at how people could ignore the pollution they caused, future generations will look back at us – living in the early decades of the information age – and judge our solutions to the proliferation of data.

Minister confirms U-turn on data sharing

Posted by James Hammerton @ 4:10 pm on 21 March, 2009.
Categories privacy and surveillance, British politics, the database state, accountability.
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The Register reports:

Justice minister Michael Wills confirmed to Parliament yesterday that clause 152 of the Coroners and Justice Bill to provide ministers with unlimited inter-department data sharing has been removed.

But data sharing is not dead yet. We’ve won a battle, but the war continues:

Wills told the House the proposals would be redrafted and will be reintroduced at some point in the future - as predicted by our own Monsieur Ozimek ten days ago.

Metropolitan Police propaganda poster fosters suspicion

Posted by James Hammerton @ 3:45 pm on .
Categories British politics, culture of suspicion.
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Spy Blog writes:

Presumably Miles Calcraft Briginshaw Duffy are at least partly to blame for the current Metropolitan Police Service anti-terrorism advertising campaign launched today.

This campaign includes this false and misleading poster, which claims a non existent link between public CCTV and protection against terrorist bombs:

“A bomb won’t go off here because weeks before a shopper reported someone studying the CCTV cameras”

There is no evidence that any Islamic extremist or Irish terrorists or Animal Rights extremists or neo-Nazi extremists, who have exploded, or tried to explode bombs, or set off incendiary devices, have been deterred from doing so by the presence of CCTV cameras. Some may have been tracked down partially through the help of CCTV footage, after their attacks or attempted attacks, but that is not what this poster is implying.

There is no evidence that any of them who have actually had access to any explosives, have ever been caught in the act of “terrorist reconnaissance” of CCTV cameras, neither by members of the public (which is what this poster misleadingly claims), nor by regular Police street patrols, nor even by any covert surveillance of known suspects.

Since you do not need any equipment to check out where public CCTV cameras are, just your eyes and your memory, it is unlikely that any real terrorism or criminal reconnaissance of CCTV camera systems will ever be detected in the way that this poster implies.

This poster is just Climate of Fear propaganda, and it will no doubt be used to justify the harassment of photographers taking photos, perfectly legally in public places, which have been infested with CCTV spy cameras, something for which there is plenty of evidence for.

Australian Government adds Wikileaks to banned website list

Australian Government adds Wikileaks to banned website list:

The Australian communications regulator has issued a stark warning that websites who link out to ‘banned’ hyperlinks are liable to fines of up to Aus $11,000 a day.

The news comes after web forum Whirlpool was threatened with the fine for posting a hyperlink to a blacklisted anti-abortion website.

Wikileaks blacklisted

One of the newest additions to Australia’s ‘blacklisted hyperlinks’ list is Wikileaks; the website that publishes anonymous submissions of sensitive info on everything from corporations, religion and governments.

The blacklisting of certain pages of the site has come about after Wikileaks posted a list of websites at the tail end of 2008 that comprised the ’secret internet censorship’ list for Denmark. On this list were over 3,500 sites that were censored or banned in the country.

Seems Australia has taken the Chinese approach to controlling the internet.

The Data Retention (EC Directive) Regulations 2009 come into force on 6th April 2009

Spy Blog reports:

This Mandatory Data Retention is regardless of whether an Internet Service Provider or Telecommunications Company has any business need for this data any more , and which would therefore have been destroyed or anonymised under the Principles of Data Protection under the Data Protection Act. This data is not data identified as being useful for a particular targeted criminal investigation, but is mass surveillance snooping on the vast majority of the 450 million innocent people in the European Union.

The first part of this EU Directive, regarding landline telephones and mobile phones has already been in force in the UK since October 2007.

Remember that none of the “serious crime” or”terrorism” cases which were trotted out in support of this Data Retention policy actually involved any investigations which needed out of data communications traffic data as old as 12 months. The Soham murders investigation and the tracking of the July 2005 failed terrorist bomber who fled from London to Italy, all used current, Communications Traffic Data no more than a few days old or even in “real time”, which would not yet have been deleted by the telcos in the normal course of their business anyway.


This EU Mandatory Data Retention is not the same as the the Home Office’s evil plans for snaffling all such Communications Data logfiles into a centralised, secret database, something which they appear to be trying to bolt on to the existing Interception Modernisation Programme plans for new equipment etc. for GCHQ - i.e. the recipe for yet another Government IT project cost and delivery overrun in the making.

Such a a database would then allow them to evade even the weak scrutiny by the Interception of Communications Commissioner , Rt. Hon. Sir Paul Kennedy (who only has the power to audit a small sample of the requests made by the list of intelligence agencies, police forces, Whitehall Departments and quangos and Local Government Councils for requests to Communications Services Providers, and to evade any of the restraints on excessive snooping and on speculative mass data trawling through innocent people’s data, which the existing system of having to pay for each request, something which attracts external financial and budgetary scrutiny by senior management of the financial audit trail.

None of this has yet been spelled out in any detail, in spite of the promise of a Communications Data Bill in the Queens Speech in November 2008 (delayed) or a public consultation in January 2009 (delayed), promised by Home Home Secretary Jacqui Smith, back last October.

List of official harrassment of photographers in UK

Further to my recent coverage of the war on photography, via UK Liberty I came across Matt Wardman’s list of incidents involving official harassment of photographers in Britain.

eBorders arrest rate worse than that for random stops and searches

I wrote earlier about the arrest rate (1 in 28,276) of the e-Borders scheme. It appears that e-Borders generates a lower rate of arrest than random stops and searches. UK Liberty writes:

I thought readers would be interested to know that the arrest rate for eBorders, an ostensibly targeted screening program, is many times worse than that for ostensibly random stops and searches under s44 Terrorism Act 2000.

Thanks to James Bridle’s FOIA requests for figures for s44, we know that the Met’s use of s44 has so far resulted in 2,108 arrests out of 191,478 stops and searches - arrest rate 1.1%.

[update 20 March] Or take David Mery’s calculation (see comments below). There were 3,469 arrests out of 275,300 S44(1) and S44(2) stop and searches in England and Wales - arrest rate 1.26%.

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