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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


Is the bill to rescind AIG bonuses a bill of attainder?

Posted by James Hammerton @ 12:29 pm on 21 March, 2009.
Categories democracy and the rule of law, US politics.
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According to

Senator Judd Gregg, a New Hampshire Republican, predicted Congress’s efforts to rescind American International Group Inc.’s bonuses through higher taxes would be thrown out by the courts. He said the legislation before lawmakers violates the constitutional ban on bills of attainder, which restricts lawmakers’ ability to punish individual Americans.

“It’s basically targeted on a small group of people, which is technically a bill of attainder,” Gregg said.

See also: Wikipedia on “Bill of attainder”.

Brits consider tracking all social networking traffic

Posted by James Hammerton @ 9:44 pm on 20 March, 2009.
Categories privacy and surveillance, British politics, the database state.
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ZDNet reports:

The UK government is considering the mass surveillance and retention of all user communications on social-networking sites including Facebook, MySpace, and Bebo.

Home Office security minister Vernon Coaker said on Monday that the EU Data Retention Directive, under which ISPs must store communications data for 12 months, does not go far enough. Communications such as those on social networking sites and instant messaging could also be monitored, he said.

“Social-networking sites, such as MySpace or Bebo, are not covered by the directive,” said Coaker, speaking at a meeting of the House of Commons Fourth Delegated Legislation Committee. “That is one reason why the government are looking at what we should do about the Intercept Modernization Program, because there are certain aspects of communications which are not covered by the directive.”

Under the EU Data Retention Directive, from the March 15, 2009, all UK internet service providers (ISPs) are required to store customer traffic data for a year. The Intercept Modernization Program (IMP) is a government proposal, introduced last year, for legislation to use mass monitoring of traffic data as an anti-terrorism tool. The IMP has two strands: that the government use deep packet inspection to monitor the web communications of all UK citizens; and that all of the traffic data relating to those communications are stored in a centralized government database.

Why is our government so keen on subjecting everyone to such surveillance?

The Gateway Reviews for the National Identity Scheme are finally published

It seems it can take over 4 years to obtain information under the Freedom of Information Act, even when the Information Commissioner and Tribunal come out on your side. Discussion of the documents can seen on NO2ID’s forum. Philip Johnston also discusses this at the Telegraph blog site.

State-owned bank, RBS, asked potential customers if they were members of political parties

Posted by James Hammerton @ 1:59 pm on 15 March, 2009.
Categories privacy and surveillance, democracy and the rule of law, British politics.
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Fraser Nelson, writing in the Spectator:

FN: Could you repeat the exact question again?

RBS: Is she a member of any political party, basically? (note: he was referring to my mother-in-law)

FN: I must admit I’m not entirely happy with answering that question. I don’t see what relevance it has to…

RBS: [He says a supervisor will call me back, as one of the company directors lives abroad]

FN: But listen, I mean when you call back, we may be prepared to answer that political question. But can you explain again one more time why it’s relevant?

RBS: It is put upon us by the Financial Services Authority to try and omit any money laundering and things like that. It helps us crack down on fraudulent merchants by asking these types of questions.

FN: But I don’t understand why, say, if she is a member of the Conservative Party or Labour Party, that is related to fraud?

RBS These are questions thrust upon us by the Financial Services Authority, sir. It would be the same no matter where you apply for merchant services, the same question would be asked. It is legally binding. It’s to try and omit any fraudulent activity. I presume the reason why we ask that question is because there is a high volume of fraud in that sector. Where people who are of that sort of nature maybe are inclined to commit fraud. I’m not for a minute implying that she will do. But that’s just trying to protect us and you, as well, you see.

Later on he also writes:

UPDATE: Just to be clear, I agree with the Coffee Housers who say this is cock-up and not conspiracy. But the FSA say this Politically Exposed Person (PEP) is simply part of anti-fraud toolkit (it has been for years, apparently) so there is no requirement to ask it of every new client. RBS took it upon itself to pose this question, around the time of its state ownership. I’m sure the timing was also a coincidence. I accept it was a blunder, magnified by the attempts of its baffled call center staff to interpret the question. But whatever the explanation, whether it be accident or design, consider the end result: we have a state-owned bank asking clients if they are “politically exposed”. And that just won’t do.

Everyone departing the UK to have their journey recorded for 10 years

Update: UK Liberty puts the cost of this scheme at £413,793 per arrest, and estimates a cost of over £2million per conviction, by applying the conviction rates for arrests under the Terrorism Act.

The Telegraph reports:

Anyone departing the UK by land, sea or air will have their trip recorded and stored on a database for a decade.

Passengers leaving every international sea port, station or airport will have to supply detailed personal information as well as their travel plans. So-called “booze crusiers” who cross the Channel for a couple of hours to stock up on wine, beer and cigarettes will be subject to the rules.

In addition, weekend sailors and sea fishermen will be caught by the system if they plan to travel to another country - or face the possibility of criminal prosecution.

The owners of light aircraft will also be brought under the system, known as e-borders, which will eventually track 250 million journeys annually.

Even swimmers attempting to cross the Channel and their support teams will be subject to the rules which will require the provision of travellers’ personal information such as passport and credit card details, home and email addresses and exact travel plans.

Later on:

A UK Border Agency spokesman defended the e-borders scheme. “It allows us to secure the UK’s Borders by screening people as they travel in and out of the UK.

“The e-Borders scheme has already screened over 82m passengers travelling to Britain, leading to more than 2,900 arrests, for crimes including murder, drug dealing and sex offences. e-borders helps the police catch criminals attempt to escape justice.”

So they think an arrest rate of 1 in 28,276 (after rounding) justifies subjecting everyone to such surveillance. In what way is this even a remotely efficient means of catching criminals?

Ben Goldacre has written a pertinent article about the maths of such surveillance.

Data sharing to be dropped from Coroners and Justice Bill?

Posted by James Hammerton @ 1:57 pm on 8 March, 2009.
Categories privacy and surveillance, British politics, the database state, accountability.
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Update: Spy Blog takes a distinctly sceptical view of the reports mentioned below.

Reports in the Telegraph, the Observer and the Daily Mail all suggest that the data sharing clauses of the Coroners and Justice Bill are to be dropped. From the Telegraph:

Jack Straw, the Justice Secretary, is to shelve proposals which critics said would have led to patients’ confidential medical records being passed to third parties.

A spokesman for Mr Straw said the “strength of feeling” against the plans had persuaded him to rethink.

The proposals will be dropped entirely from the Coroners and Justice Bill, and a new attempt will be made to reach a consensus on introducing a scaled-back version at an unspecified stage in the future.

“He has looked at it and he now wants to withdraw the clauses. We have asked Cabinet colleagues to agree to this,” said Mr Straw’s spokesman.

“Jack recognised the strength of feeling and he recognised that the clause was drafted in a way that was too wide, and so needed to be looked at again.

“He understood that this issue had touched a nerve for a lot of people, and he understood why.”


Last week more than 30 groups wrote to Mr Straw outlining their concerns that the proposals would allow the government to disclose “almost limitless” personal details about individuals, and even pass the records to private companies.

Bodies including the Royal College of Psychiatrists and the Independent Schools Council said the measures were “among the most wide-ranging and potentially intrusive proposals ever laid before Parliament”.

Other signatories to a joint letter of protest included Claire Rayner, the president of the Patients Association, Professor Dinesh Bhugra, president of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, and Bob Oddy, general secretary of the Licensed Taxi Drivers’ Association.

It was also backed by Neal Lawson of the left-wing pressure group Compass and Professor Richard Parish, chief executive of the Royal Society for Public Health.

It looks as if the backlash against the idea is forcing the government to back off. The critical questions left now are:

  • When will the new proposals come forward? If they’re put forward in the current parliamentary session, then the government can have them in force before the next election, unless they get defeated. Thus if they’re still objectionable, there’ll still need to be another fight to stop them. If they’re delayed until the 2009-2010 parliamentary session, then there’s a chance the bill will fall when the next general election is called. Thus a demonstration of opposition might merely need to delay the bill.
  • How limited will the new proposals be? It would not be surprising if the government put in some token “safeguards” and claimed they’d listened to criticism. There is a risk that any “fast track” mechanism will be misused by ministers and that the proposed safeguards will be ineffectual. Personally I regard the only remotely adequate safeguard is for any proposed sharing of personal data to be given full parliamentary scrutiny in the form of primary legislation. We need to stop giving ministers enabling powers that allow them to bypass parliamentary debate and scrutiny by putting their proposals forward as statutory instruments.

In the meantime, I await the removal of the data sharing clauses from the Bill.

The Convention on Modern Liberty: a personal view, part three

This article is the last of my series of articles on the Convention on Modern Liberty. In this article, I look at what the Convention has achieved and give a personal view on the question: What happens next?

So what has the convention achieved? A cynical person might suggest that all the Convention has achieved is to gather people together for sessions of preaching to the converted. The more conspiratorially minded might even suggest that the Convention has been deliberately set up as controlled opposition to keep the public quiet.

The Convention is already failing at merely providing “controlled opposition” in that it has succeeded in raising awareness of the erosion of liberty amongst the general public. My evidence for the raising of awareness is this: look at the coverage of civil liberties and of the Convention itself that accompanied the run-up to and the aftermath of the Convention in both the mainstream media and the online media. Helpfully, both Jack Straw, David Blunkett and Tom Harris have all attacked the Convention, providing further publicity and opportunities to raise awareness, as well as suggesting that the government and the Labour party are worried. There is also some sign that the pressure being exerted, partly via the Convention, over the data sharing clauses of the Coroners and Justice Bill is bearing fruit with hints that the measure will be watered down.

This raising of awareness also partly addresses the charge of preaching to the converted. By generating debate in the media, on blogs and on websites, the Convention has already got people talking about these issues who otherwise wouldn’t, and has got those who defend the government’s record to respond. On the day the Convention was not simply about preaching to the converted. We had people from all sorts of backgrounds and perspectives, discussing and debating the issues, including the issue of how to halt and reverse the erosion of liberty. There were MPs from across the political spectrum, activists, lawyers, authors, researchers, students, teachers, software developers, bloggers and many ordinary people attending the event whether in London or elsewhere in the country. There even people there trying to defend the government’s record and trying to defend the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act. People will have come away better informed about the issues, with contacts who can help in campaigning on the issues, and with ideas for what to do next. The Convention has also set up a social networking site to enable people to keep in touch with each other, discuss, debate and plan how to take things forward.

So the Convention has succeeded in raising awareness, generating debate and putting like minded people in touch with each other. It has even contributed to raising opposition to a specific erosion of privacy, namely the data sharing clauses mentioned above. This is all to the credit of those involved and is an achievement to be proud of.

However if the Convention is truly to be the turning point I hope for, much more will need to happen. The erosion of liberties has to stop and be reversed. In other words, we need to persuade both present and future politicians that eroding liberties is a Bad Idea, one that is liable to lose elections for them. And we need to do so whilst we still have a sufficient freedoms left to be able to campaign and to be able to vote. As David Davis said, by the time Britain becomes a police state, it will be too late.

We thus need to engage in the political processes of this country in order to persuade ordinary voters to vote against candidates who promise to erode liberties and to vote for candidates who promise to protect our rights.

We need to persuade people that the erosions of liberty simply give the state, and those who’d hijack it for their own purposes, more power over the public without any real benefit, that they merely amount to greater social control being exerted and they thus undermine democracy.

We need to address the false arguments that pit liberty against security, that suggest if we have nothing to hide then we have nothing to fear.

We need to ensure people are aware of the intrusive nature of schemes such as the National Identity Scheme or the database of communications data.

In the short to medium term I think we must have the following goals (at minimum!):

  • Defeat of the data sharing proposals in the Coroners and Justice Bill. If these proposals go through, then personal data held by one organisation will not be safe from any government that decides the data should be shared with any other organisation it chooses. Any safeguards introduced for schemes such as the National Identity Scheme will be worthless as they can be cast aside via an order in Parliament.
  • Defeat of the plans to create a central database of everyone’s communications data. This is mass surveillance of the general public, pure and simple, and should be opposed by anyone who believes in the right to privacy. If it goes ahead, it will give the authorities considerable power over those who get in their way.
  • Defeat of the National Identity Scheme. If this scheme goes ahead, it will involve mass surveillance, linking of data and the government getting a de facto veto over our access to any products or services that require checking someone’s NIR entry or card.
  • Defeat of the current government at the next General Election. My reason for suggesting this is simple. If this government continues into a fourth term, it will conclude that the erosion of liberty has negligible electoral consequences and will push that agenda even harder than before. Halting, let alone reversing, this agenda will become hugely more difficult in such circumstances. I’d add that defeat of the above three schemes will probably require defeating the current government.
  • Repeal or reform of offending legislation to reverse the erosion of liberty. That the Lib Dems have produced a Freedom Bill involving such repeals and that the Tories have also suggested some related repeals is a sign that such a goal is achievable. However, I regard a change of government as a pre-requisite. I simply do not believe the present lot will consider such a thing if they win again.
  • Generally, to maximise pressure on the (future) government to restore civil liberties.

Success in the above goals will form a good start, but the longer term goal must be to effect political changes that entrench our liberties in a manner that prevents the ongoing, step by step, erosion we’ve seen in the past 15 to 20 years or so.

All of these goals require persuading voters that the erosions of civil liberties matter, raising awareness of the erosions and the consequences of those erosions and exposing any broken promisses or further erosions of liberty that future governments engage in. Each person concerned about these issues, whether their focus is on the erosion of due process in the criminal justice system, the rise of mass surveillance or the restrictions of freedom of speech and the right to peaceful protest can play a role by telling others what they know about these issues, whether it be through blogging, writing to the newspapers, telling their friends or writing to their elected representatives.

The question left is how those who want to change things can produce effective vehicles for doing all these things. Some will work effectively within the political parties persuading them to change, others will work via pressure groups such as NO2ID or Liberty lobbying politicians and campaigning to the public, others still will blog, write newspaper or magazine articles or produce TV programs or videos on You Tube. The diversity of approaches already on display in getting us this far is encouraging - it makes it more likely that some them will succeed.

If those concerned about the erosion of liberty all resolve to act to change the situation, then it seems to me there is everything to play for.

Carnival on Modern Liberty

Part of the legacy of the Convention on Modern Liberty is the Carnival on Modern Liberty, which is a weekly round-up of liberty-related articles hosted at a different blog each week. The current edition (the seventh so far) is hosted at Liberal England. Below is a list of the previous editions:

You can submit links for each week’s Carnival at the Carnival’s home page.

British Government to require voters to provide ID to register to vote

The Times reports:

In an historic shift, which comes after years of campaigning by the Electoral Commission and The Times, the Government finally agreed yesterday to end the system whereby one person in each household names all those eligible to vote in their property.

Voters will be allowed to register individually on the electoral roll from the autumn of 2010 by either signing a form or providing identification. Household registration will still be an option until the autumn of 2015, when individual registration will become compulsory if it is given approval by the Electoral Commission.

Michael Wills, the Justice Minister, called the decision “radical and unprecedented” last night.

Campaigners have been pressing for individual registration as a way of tackling rising electoral fraud, such as “ghost voters” who are registered but do not exist in a house and fraudsters who apply for bogus postal votes.

A report for the Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust found last year that there have been at least 42 convictions for electoral fraud in Britain in the past seven years.

In 2004 a judge quashed the results of two local council elections in Birmingham after deciding that there had been systematic large-scale postal-vote rigging. The judge said that he had heard evidence of fraud that “would disgrace a banana republic”. In 2007 a Tory councillor was found guilty of using bogus postal votes to ensure that he was voted into office in Slough.

A number of comments:

  • The government made it easier for people to apply for postal votes, with the result that they made it easier for voting fraud to take place.
  • This proposal is being put forward as a solution to a problem the government created with earlier policies. It makes voting, whether by post or otherwise, more difficult, and gives the government more power over the voting process by determining the form of ID required to register to vote. An unscrupulous government could use this measure to disenfranchise voters.
  • If the National Identity Scheme goes ahead, it’ll only be a matter of time before having a valid entry on the National Identity Register becomes necessary if you’re to register to vote.

Home Office wants powers to force CCTV on shops and pubs

Posted by James Hammerton @ 8:25 pm on .
Categories privacy and surveillance, British politics.
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The Register reports:

If you’re planning to buy alcohol in the near future, and prefer not to have your mugshot made available to the local police, best to stock up now. Because, buried deep within the debate around the s.31 of the Policing and Crime Bill are provisions that will allow the Secretary of State to instruct your local corner shop - or pub - to instal CCTV and retain pictures of anyone buying alcohol for at least 60 days. Said pics will, of course, be available to the police on request.

Like so much other legislation passed by this government, nothing is ever straightforward. The Policing Bill merely gives the Secretary of State the power to issue secondary legislation (aka statutory instruments – or executive diktat): these would consist of

- a small number of mandatory licence conditions”, which the government suggests should be no more than nine in number, “that apply to all new or existing licences and club premises certificates which permit the sale of alcohol,


- a larger number of permitted conditions, which the licensing authority can, in consultation with responsible authorities, apply to more than one licensed premises or club at a time.

In other words, Parliament is being asked to sign a blank cheque: give us the powers now, and we will use them as we see fit at a later date.

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