Thursday, August 31, 2006

Flat-pack President

Dubya at a soldier's funeralJesus' General has the perfect answer to Democrat cynics who criticise President Bush's conduct of the War on Terror: flat-pack cut-outs that would let Dubya be in several places at once.

They wonder why he has time for vacations (a whole year's worth of vacation time in the first five years of his presidency) but is unable to free himself for a few hours to attend a soldier's funeral a stones's throw across the Potomac at Arlington.

It doesn't have to be that way. With a dozen or so Flat Deciders™, he could attend nearly every soldier's funeral. I doubt most people would even notice that he's only a cardboard cut-out. Indeed, the fact that the Flat Decider™ is merely a cold, heartless, two-dimensional rendition of a real human being is what makes it so realistic. Add the optional Pull-My-Finger™ fun kit, and no one will be able to tell the difference.

What to do in Moscow?

I am going to speak at a NATO conference in Moscow in October on information security and counter-terrorism. Boing Boing has kindly supplied some inspirational ideas for how I should spend my time on the world-famous Metro…

Sleeping the journey away

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Picture of the week

(Thanks, Ashley!)

The wages of spin

Absolutely FabulousThe Tories have revealed that government spending on PR has soared by £200m since Labour came to power, with the number of spin merchants employed in that time growing by a factor of three to 3,200. And look at the marvellous reputation they have built for Tony Blair…

The Torygraph harrumphs:

This obsession with appearance over reality - with what voters can be made to believe has happened, as opposed to what has actually occurred - has created a degree of distrust and cynicism in the electorate that is quite unprecedented in modern British political history.

Why don't Labour dump Blair?

Blair and Bush
"In the past 100 years, only three governments have fallen after Commons votes, and then in unusual circumstances. And yet every government from 1837 to 1874 fell after a parliamentary vote, not to say in 1886 and 1895.

"By no accident, it is now very difficult for a Labour party leader to be removed by the party itself, harder than it was for the Tories to remove Thatcher or Duncan Smith. But there is nothing to stop MPs from voting in the clean, clear light of the Commons against a government which no longer enjoys their support. It really ought to be easier to get rid of an unwanted prime minister than an inadequate football manager." —Geoffrey Wheatcroft

Non-Christian politicians 'legislate sin'

Katherine HarrisCongresswoman Katherine Harris (R-FL) recently stated that separation of church and state was "a lie," and that non-Christian elected officials would "legislate sin." What do you think?

Andy Lees, Systems Analyst: "What kind of lie is 'separation of church and state?' A 'the check is in the mail' kind of lie, or a 'the world was created in seven days and dinosaurs never existed' kind of lie?"

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

The Z-team

"In the past week, a mere three people whom we might describe as "of note" have ventured on the record to defend Blair. They are Lord Falconer, Stephen Byers and Cliff Richard. Clearly, it would be the most monstrous flattery to this triumvirate to refer to them as the B-team. In fact, when seeking the appropriate letter to prefix this shower of terminal loyalists, we need not even trouble ourselves with the first half of the alphabet." —Marina Hyde

Home Office IT systems hacked 5 times

Mark Hunter MPThe Home Office has admitted that its computers have been hacked into five times in the last five years (thanks, David!). Mark Hunter MP commented:

It is simply not possible to make government databases 100% secure, so it is absolute folly to put all the precious personal data of our citizens in one place. The government's claims that ID cards will cut identity fraud look increasingly unrealistic. If the ID card database is breached, people could find their iris scans and finger prints as well as personal data and National Insurance numbers stolen.

How does hosting affect security?

WritelyGoogle is offering organisations hosted e-mail, calendar, chat and web publishing services under their own domains — so you could for example use gMail with an address.

This kind of outsourced technology service is likely to become much more common in future, but are companies thinking through the privacy and security implications of allowing another organisation to hold extremely sensitive corporate data on their behalf? This will be even more relevant as hosted word-processing and spreadsheet tools like Writely are deployed.

Running the Google server software on your own processing and storage devices would be much safer. Although you might want to turn off any automatic software updates…

Mind-boggling figures from the War on (some) Drugs

Heat image of cannabis factoryAccording to the Metropolitan police, cannabis factories earn London-based syndicates at least £100m per annum. That is £100m a year to fund violent crime, people smuggling and the distribution of cannabis with seven times higher levels of the psychoactive component THC than foreign imports, threatening the health of Britain's estimated 2m users.

Praise be to joined-up government!

Saturday, August 26, 2006

'Trust us, we mean well' is not a guarantee

'By extending the reach of the state and breaking down the principle of functional separation between government departments, you set up the mechanisms by which a future government might abuse its citizens. What is in the "public interest" is subject to capricious changes of definition, as we all know. "Trust us, we mean well" is not enough of a guarantee.

Two dicta are appropriate here: "knowledge is power" and "information wants to be free". We return to the principal problem with ID cards. The best way — the only way — to prevent a government abusing a comprehensive database on its citizens is to prevent that database existing in the first place. And the larger and less Balkanised the database, the more frictionless and unaccountable the exchanges of information, and the more difficult it becomes to keep data secure.' —Sam Leith (thanks, Helen!)

House of Lackeys

Jack StrawOur old friend Jack Straw is proposing to reform the House of Lords to elect 50% of members under a party list system. The Times is unimpressed:

It is an irritation for ministers to be told that there are imperfections in their parliamentary offerings, but it upholds the public interest for such observations to be aired, even if they are then ignored. There will be few incentives for those indirectly elected on a party list to be that forensic or intrusive. This House of Lords would be a House of Lackeys.

Just say no to Scientology

This band of protestors were outside the "Church" of Scientology's new offices in London's West End this afternoon. Perhaps they were hoping that Cardinal Cruise would drop by now that he is taking some time out from his contract with Paramount?

More iSoft woes

Digby JonesSir Digby Jones, former director of the Confederation of British Industry, was a non-executive director of iSoft at the time of the accounting "irregularities" now being investigated by the Financial Services Authority. He claimed in 2004 to have found allegations from the Guardian baseless. And it appears that we have Bill Gates to thank for the whole crazy £20bn scheme.

The Guardian has an apocalyptic warning:

By far the most important priority now is to keep the show on the road. It will not be easy for iSoft's new management to focus on sorting out its daunting problems. The City is baying for better results, the Financial Services Authority is investigating its accounts, the government is trying to prevent further cost overruns - a move that might propel other big contractors into trouble - and doctors have yet to make up their minds whether they want patients to have an opt-out rather than an opt-in for providing personal records. In retrospect, the project was far too ambitious to have been implemented within such a short political timetable. But that is cold comfort now. The urgent priority is to take whatever unpalatable action is necessary to prevent the modernisation of the NHS from being suffocated by its own complexity.

Friday, August 25, 2006

Changing literary tastes in the UK

"One of the few authors whose publishing contracts contained more interesting sentences than his novels, [Dan] Brown has defamed the name of popular fiction with his subliterate drivel. His departure from the charts immediately raises the literary quality of bestselling fiction." —Mark Lawson

Minister of Justice criticizes anonymization service

AN.ONThe Justice Minister in the German state of Schleswig-Holstein is upset the state data protection authority is developing anonymisation software that protects people's privacy online (thanks, Dave!):

"The spending of taxpayers' money on a project that makes it possible for terrorists and criminals of all kinds to commit crimes without being caught, cannot be countenanced. Something that at the time was created for legitimate data-privacy reasons, these days more or less amounts to an invitation to criminals operating in such areas as child pornography, say, or to terrorists, to get their hands on and use for their own ends. Such programs are more or less designed to foil authorities' attempts to act swiftly." — Uwe Döring

"These conclusions are very difficult to comprehend. The project was carried out in close cooperation with the prosecuting authorities of both the German federal states and the federal government. The business community has also pointed out to us that for companies it is a very important tool for protecting themselves against industrial espionage on the Internet." —Thilo Weichert, head of the state data protection authority

Who killed the newspaper?

'Of all the “old” media, newspapers have the most to lose from the internet. Circulation has been falling in America, western Europe, Latin America, Australia and New Zealand for decades (elsewhere, sales are rising). But in the past few years the web has hastened the decline. In his book “The Vanishing Newspaper”, Philip Meyer calculates that the first quarter of 2043 will be the moment when newsprint dies in America as the last exhausted reader tosses aside the last crumpled edition. That sort of extrapolation would have produced a harrumph from a Beaverbrook or a Hearst, but even the most cynical news baron could not dismiss the way that ever more young people are getting their news online. Britons aged between 15 and 24 say they spend almost 30% less time reading national newspapers once they start using the web.' —The Economist

NHS responsibilities for information governance

Thanks to an anonymous friend for the contents of this letter from the acting head of the National Health Service:
Department of Health
Richmond House
79 Whitehall

21 August 2006

Gateway Ref: 7042

To: SHA Chief Executives

Dear Colleague

National Programme for IT — responsibilities and information governance

Following the recent NAO report and PAC Chief Executive’s hearing, I want to restate the key responsibilities and accountabilities in relation to the National Programme for IT.

New arrangements shared with you at the NHS Management Board in July will ensure that we can deliver our commitment to implement the pertinent NAO recommendations on implementation and tracking progress against the business cases. These arrangements are as follows:

  • you are the appointed SRO for implementation and benefits realisation of the programme for your part of the NHS

  • you should appoint a CIO who can report to you and be accountable for delivery of the NPfIT. It is expected that the CIO will work collaboratively with commissioning and service development colleagues to ensure there is a joined up approach to exploiting the benefits of the technology in pursuit of service transformation and improvements in quality safety and productivity

  • you should put in place implementation programmes with identified benefits streams which are robust, achievable and supported across the health community

  • you will provide annual statements of benefits realised across the NHS in your area. The scope and mechanism for reporting will be developed collaboratively by SHAs, the National Programme and ISIP

  • PCT CEOs are delegated SROs for their areas and that PCTs should have the necessary capability to deliver the NPfIT locally, working with their providers

  • reinforce in the FT diagnostic and PCT development process the accountabilities and capabilities required to deliver the IM&T agenda successfully.

The scope and function of the National Programme Office will be extended to ensure the capacity exists to incorporate the SHA programmes. A single source of data will exist to report progress against implementation plans and benefits realised as recommended in the NAO report. The same information source will support the management of risks and issues and the identification of the need for intervention down the management line through Duncan Selbie, the Director General of Commissioning.

Information Governance and the Care Record Guarantee

The Care Record Guarantee has been endorsed by Ministers and is available at and in the ‘what’s new in patient confidentiality and Access to Health Records’ section at It sets out the principles the NHS should establish to enable patient information to be shared appropriately by health care staff to improve standards of care, while ensuring that it is kept securely and confidentially. It is important to note that the provisions of the guarantee apply to all local patient information systems, whether a new NPfIT application/compliant application or not.

It is possible that publication of the Care Record Guarantee will promote local enquiries from the public regarding how information on them is held and used locally and of their options for influencing decisions on those matters. NHS organisations are advised to strengthen existing arrangements for dealing with such enquiries, and to ensure with local partners a review of Information Governance to ensure that local procedures for using and sharing patient information reflect as far as possible the commitments within the Care Record Guarantee.

To assist in this exercise, a high-level review of Information Governance in the NHS was carried out by the National IT Programme Board and its recommendations were agreed by ministers earlier this year. It is available at The Department of Health has also issued v4 of the Information Governance Toolkit in June 06, currently available at From early September, it will also be available on the NHS CFH website together with guidance on the Information Governance responsibilities of Organisations using the Care Record Service.

The annual compliance statement of all NHS organisations for 06/07, based on the Information Governance toolkit, will reflect the delivery of these requirements.

I have asked Richard Jeavons to oversee this work on my behalf and he will be happy to discuss this further with you if that would be helpful.

Yours sincerely


cc. SHA CIOs
Richard Jeavons
Richard Granger
Gordon Hextall

Blair's foreign policy is now a threat to national security

"As Lebanon showed, the foreign policy advanced in Britain's name, but without its support, is not Labour's, the government's or even the cabinet's. It is shared by few people beyond Downing Street and Blair's ever-decreasing circle of admirers. That makes it all the more regrettable that so many of his ministers felt the need to associate themselves publicly with his errors. There is now a strong public appetite for a change of foreign-policy direction, and Labour will need to tap into that if it is to recover the authority to govern." —David Clark

Thursday, August 24, 2006

The politics at the centre of the Bush administration

Karl Rove"I squeezed into a chair near the open door to Rove’s modest chamber, my back against his doorframe. Inside, Rove was talking to an aide about some political stratagem in some state that had gone awry and a political operative who had displeased him. I paid it no mind and reviewed a jotted list of questions I hoped to ask. But after a moment, it was like ignoring a tornado flinging parked cars. "We will fuck him. Do you hear me? We will fuck him. We will ruin him. Like no one has ever fucked him!" As a reporter, you get around—curse words, anger, passionate intensity are not notable events—but the ferocity, the bellicosity, the violent imputations were, well, shocking." —Ron Suskind

Fortune Cookie Neoconservatism

"There is a phrase that you can tack on to most neoconservative op-eds and essays — which helps to clarify the point they are trying to make. Whenever a neoconservative says something should be done, whether it is democracy promotion, or instilling purpose in an enervated American populace, or diplomacy you can finish the thought for him by adding three little words: by killing people." —Michael Brendan Dougherty (via Daily Dish)

Ministers plan to overturn key data protection principle

Douwe KorffTony Blair is threatening to abolish data protection rules within government, moving to a presumption that personal data will be shared between departments. My colleague Douwe Korff, a professor of human rights law, has written the following pungent analysis of this plan:

I already passed this on to German colleagues as an example of what happens if you don't have a constitutional base for data protection.

Of course, this proposal, if implemented, would basically throw data protection in the public sector out of the window: purpose-limitation is a (perhaps the) core principle of data protection. If implemented as reported, it would manifestly — indeed almost expressly and explicitly — violate the Council of Europe convention on data protection, the EU framework directive on data protection, various data protection guidelines adopted in the third pillar, etc.

I would argue that it would also violate article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights and thus the Human Rights Act that incorporates the convention in UK law. However, that is a more complex line of reasoning, in that data protection is to be read into that article, which protects "private life" (among other things). The European Court of Human Rights is increasingly doing just that, and a manifest violation of the purpose-limitation principle is therefore likely to be held to also violate article 8. UK judges might do that too under the Human Rights Act, so it wouldn't have to wait to go all the way to Strasbourg.

My guess is that the government's own lawyers will be pointing all this out, and that when the proposal gets written up, it'll all be more subtle: they'll build tests into the law that would seem to restrict data sharing but that will in practice be so loosely applied as to make the purpose-limitation principle meaningless in the public sector (and will be deliberately drafted to allow for such lax application). Legal drafters in the UK are good at this, and often manage to persuade the court in Strasbourg that the law in some area is fine, even when practitioners know this is rubbish and the law is not applied in the way the government says it is.

In many other countries, the national data protection authority would issue an opinion on such a matter (indeed, is often required to issue such an opinion), but the Information Commissioner here is rather reluctant to do so…

What the terrorists want

"The surest defense against terrorism is to refuse to be terrorized. Our job is to recognize that terrorism is just one of the risks we face, and not a particularly common one at that. And our job is to fight those politicians who use fear as an excuse to take away our liberties and promote security theater that wastes money and doesn't make us any safer." —Bruce Schneier

First round to Iran

"If the US or Israel were to bomb Iran’s nuclear installations, Iran would have the strongest possible pretext to ramp up the oil price to $150 a barrel or higher by closing or restricting traffic in the Strait of Hormuz. Thus a military attack on Iran, just like economic sanctions, would increase the Government’s capacity to finance global terrorism and curry favour with the Iranian public. It would also cause potentially catastrophic disruption to the world economy when the American public is already turning against the Iraq adventure and Republicans face a potentially disastrous electoral defeat." —Anatole Kaletsky

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Is there still a terrorist threat?

"Although it remains heretical to say so, the evidence so far suggests that fears of the omnipotent terrorist — reminiscent of those inspired by images of the 20-foot-tall Japanese after Pearl Harbor or the 20-foot-tall Communists at various points in the Cold War (particularly after Sputnik) — may have been overblown, the threat presented within the United States by al Qaeda greatly exaggerated. The massive and expensive homeland security apparatus erected since 9/11 may be persecuting some, spying on many, inconveniencing most, and taxing all to defend the United States against an enemy that scarcely exists." —Prof. John Mueller (thanks, Glyn!)

The price of dictatorship

Benazir Bhutto"The new Pakistani dictator, General Pervez Musharraf, has played the west like a fiddle, dispensing occasional support in the war on terror to keep America and Britain off his back as he proceeded to arrest and exile opposition leaders, decimate political parties, pressure the press and set back human and women's rights by a generation." —Former Prime Minister of Pakistan, Benazir Bhutto

NHS, meet the Information Commissioner

Here is my final attempt at having the Department of Health remove me from unnecessary and invasive medical databases before I complain to the Information Commissioner:

Dominic Ward
Department of Health
Richmond House
79 Whitehall

22 August 2006

Dear Mr. Ward,

Thank you for your letter of 3 July.

I do appreciate that the Department of Health is yet to finalise the working arrangements for the National Care Records Service. However, I would ask for the third time that the department comply with my original request: please instruct all data controllers within the NHS who may hold identifiable information about me that I am opting out of all secondary processing of my personal health information to the greatest extent permitted by law. This includes the Care Records Service, the NHS-Wide Clearing Service, the Hospital Episode Statistics service and the Prescription Pricing Authority (PPA) database.

If you cannot satisfy this request, contrary to the assurances given by Caroline Flint MP to the House of Commons on 16 June 2005, I will be forced to complain about this unfair and distressing treatment to the Information Commissioner.

Yours sincerely,

Ian Brown.

NHS still ignoring privacy request

The Department of Health database saga continues. I received the following response to my letter requesting to opt-out of storage of my medical data in systems not directly related to my own care:
Department of Health
Richmond House
79 Whitehall London
Tel: 020 7210 3000

3 July 2006

Dear Mr Brown,

Thank you for your further letter of 14 April about the National Care Records Service (NCRS). Your letter has been passed to me for reply and I apologise for the delay in doing so.

I am afraid we cannot comply with your request at this time as the full details of how the NCRS will work and how patients can opt out have yet to be finalised. These issues will be resolved in the coming months and there will be a national campaign advising those patients who do wish to opt out how to do so.

I hope that this reply is helpful.

Yours sincerely,


Dominic Ward
Customer Service Centre
Department of Health

US interventions have boosted Iran

"The United States needs to take a step back and reassess its entire policy towards Iran and work out, first of all, what does it want and how is it going to achieve it, because at the moment everything is rather like putting a sticking plaster on a fairly raw wound, and it is not really actually doing much at all." —Dr. Ali Ansari

Identity Crisis: how identification is overused and misunderstood

Identity CrisisThis sounds like a good read:

"The advance of identification technology—biometrics, identity cards, surveillance, databases, dossiers—threatens privacy, civil liberties, and related human interests. Since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, demands for identification in the name of security have increased. In this insightful book, Jim Harper takes readers inside identification—a process everyone uses every day but few people have ever thought about. Using stories and examples from movies, television, and classic literature, Harper dissects identification processes and technologies, showing how identification works when it works and how it fails when it fails. Harper explodes the myth that identification can protect against future terrorist attacks. He shows that a U.S. national identification card, created by Congress in the REAL ID Act, is a poor way to secure the country or its citizens. A national ID represents a transfer of power from individuals to institutions, and that transfer threatens liberty, enables identity fraud, and subjects people to unwanted surveillance. Instead of a uniform, government-controlled identification system, Harper calls for a competitive, responsive identification and credentialing industry that meets the mix of consumer demands for privacy, security, anonymity, and accountability. Identification should be a risk-reducing strategy in a social system, Harper concludes, not a rivet to pin humans to governmental or economic machinery."

Why sustainability, not terrorism, should be our real security focus

"Sustainability is a national security priority. Perhaps the national security priority. If scientists are correct, far more people have already lost their lives from the direct and indirect effects of climate change than terrorism. The health effects of sprawl, car accidents, chemical spills, environmentally-influenced cancers: all of these things are probably bigger threats to the lives of average Americans than terrorism. Certainly preventable disease, unneccessary hunger, solvable poverty and environmental degredation already cause far more death and suffering in the world than any terrorists ever could. And the things we need to do to alleviate these problems also tend to make us more secure and our systems more stable in the face of whatever terrorism might occur." —Alex Steffen (via Craig Murray)

Silly lists and stupid rules won't help the Tories win

Margarte Thatcher"For half a century after the second world war, the Tories ran the most formidable election machine in Europe. Thatcher destroyed it. She told her party merely to obey and refused to listen to it. She also took away its power base and source of patronage in city and county government. Blair has made the same mistake and is paying for it. The remorseless centralisation of British politics has caused the collapse of both party membership and election turnout." —Simon Jenkins

Home Office ad banned for porn link

You couldn't make this up:

A radio advertisement for a government website showing children how to avoid online paedophiles has been banned after a listener who tried to use the link was taken to a porn site.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

UK is not short of scientists

Professor Frink"Those who lobby for state support — be they French farmers, US steel-makers or British scientists — claim to be the backbone of the nation, the foundation of the future or something similarly fabulous. But it is a perverse argument. If what you produce is so valuable, why can you not find willing buyers at the unsubsidised market price? Let us hope that educational standards soon rise to the level where the producers of such self-serving nonsense can find no one willing to buy it." —Jamie Whyte

The Byers plan deliberately ignores obscene inequality

Polly Toynbee is dismayed by Stephen Byers' call for the abolition of inheritance tax. For once I agree with her: how can you have a meritocracy if wealth cascades down the generations, creating or reinforcing an artistocracy as we now see developing in the US? The children of rich parents are already bought massive advantages in education, healthcare and other factors that make a huge difference to people's life chances.

A bundle of good ideas is in the air. The Institute for Public Policy Research wants to band inheritance tax so people pay very little at first: nine out of 10 would pay less, yet it would raise £150m more. Social democratic Sweden recently abolished inheritance tax, but has a property tax instead. The Bow Group, a Tory thinktank, calls for a 1% levy on all property over £70,000, with a 38% flat tax to simplify the whole system and make it more socially just at the bottom. Simpler flat taxes need not be regressive: the Joseph Rowntree Foundation has just published a report from the poverty researcher Donald Hirsch and the Institute for Fiscal Studies, which suggests a flat rate of 35% could lift many out of the poverty trap at the bottom. Foolishly the Liberal Democrats are ditching their best policy - to add a 50% top rate on earnings over £100,000, which would bring in £6.5bn just from the top 1%.

I believe another important idea is to extend Capital Gains Tax to capital transfers, so that inheritance tax cannot be avoided simply by transferring assets at least seven years before death.

What goes around...

The Guardian reports on polling data that gives the Conservatives a 9-point lead over Labour:

Ministers - including Mr Blair - have repeatedly denied that there is a connection. But 72%, including 65% of Labour voters, think government policy has made Britain more of a target for terrorists. Only 1% of voters believe the government's foreign policy has made Britain safer, a devastating finding given that action in Iraq and Afghanistan has been justified in part to defeat Islamist terrorism.

That may explain why Labour support has dropped four points in a month, to 31%, the lowest figure recorded by ICM for the Guardian since just before the 1987 election and the second lowest since the poll series began in 1984.

Monday, August 21, 2006

To fight reactionaries we must tackle the crisis that they feed off

"The war on terror did not create Islamic fundamentalism but it has exacerbated it. The government should not change its foreign policy because it makes Muslims angry (it should change it because it is immoral, ineffective and makes virtually the entire world angry). But nor should it treat this anger as though it were the unpredictable response of fanatics who don't watch the news and operate in isolation to world events." —Gary Younge

Power and the people

President Ahmadinejad
"Ahmadinejad, the articulate champion of Iran's national rights, is a potent figure. But Ahmadinejad, the would-be visionary leader of a resurgent revolution awaiting the coming of the Hidden Imam, is living a dangerous illusion. And it is Iranians, not the US air force, who should be allowed to shatter his dream." —Simon Tisdall

'No believable plan' for completion of NHS overhaul

A review of critical software being built as part of the NHS National Programme for IT by iSoft has found serious problems:

The Accenture and CSC review took a different view from that of Mr Whiston, who quit iSoft two months ago. It labelled 13 out of 39 matters relating to Lorenzo "red", meaning they raised issues requiring immediate work.

Among the areas of acute concern was about iSoft's ability to plan and estimate how long the development process would take and its confusing "progress management". Even "clinical safety" was labelled red by the reviewers.

Most seriously, however, the Lorenzo review found "no evidence for the development, nor testing of, technical procedures that would be required for operation and maintenance of the live system ... this is the main risk to the successful delivery of a fit-for-purpose solution."

CIA's secret UK bank trawl may be illegal

Information Commissioner Richard ThomasThe investigations into SWIFT's transfer of personal financial information to the US government triggered by complaints from Privacy International is moving forward slowly but surely:

A spokesman for the information commissioner told the Guardian that the privacy issue was being taken "extremely seriously". If the CIA had accessed financial data belonging to European individuals then this was "likely to be a breach of EU data protection legislation", he said, adding that UK data protection laws may also have been breached if British banking transactions had been handed over. The commissioner is requesting more information from Swift and the Belgium authorities before deciding how to proceed.

Sunday, August 20, 2006

The shady world of blagging

Radio 5 had a good programme this morning on the shady world of "blagging" of personal information by private detectives. It was astonishing to hear a representative of an association of investigators say that this illegal activity is a mainstay of his members' activities. Information Commissioner Richard Thomas and I also took part in the debate, which you can listen to again this week:

Just how safe are our personal details and files? A rape victim tells the Five Live Report of how her attacker - a convicted child rapist - hired a private detective to track her down. The private eye illegally obtained the victim's bank details, telephone and medical records after her evidence led to the rapist's conviction and a nine-year sentence.

Reporter Matthew Chapman examines dozens of cases where so called 'blaggers' put individuals at risk by illegally obtaining personal information for a living; and asks why are they receiving such small fines in the courts despite making, in some cases, over a million pounds a year.

Zombies take over Apple store, criticise Mac encryption

(Via Boing Boing)

Saturday, August 19, 2006

The secret persuaders

"BSC was set up by a Canadian entrepreneur called William Stephenson, working on behalf of the British Secret Intelligence Services (SIS). An office was opened in the Rockefeller Centre in Manhattan with the discreet compliance of Roosevelt and J Edgar Hoover of the FBI. But nobody on the American side of the fence knew what BSC's full agenda was nor, indeed, what would be the massive scale of its operations. What eventually occurred as 1940 became 1941 was that BSC became a huge secret agency of nationwide news manipulation and black propaganda. Pro-British and anti-German stories were planted in American newspapers and broadcast on American radio stations, and simultaneously a campaign of harassment and denigration was set in motion against those organisations perceived to be pro-Nazi or virulently isolationist (such as the notoriously anti-British America First Committee - it had more than a million paid-up members)." —William Boyd

Friday, August 18, 2006

Ryanair threatens government over airport security

Michael O'Leary"The best way to defeat terrorists and extremists is for ordinary people to continue to live their lives as normal. Because of the additional security restrictions imposed by the Government last Thursday, the shambles at the London airports has been anything but normal.

"The UK Government successfully led the return to normality of the London Underground within two days of the 7/7 terrorist attacks. It is important that they now restore security at the London airports to normality and remove some of these nonsensical, and (from a security perspective) totally ineffective restrictions which were introduced last week. If they don’t, and if they allow these restrictions stay in place, then the Government will have handed the extremists an enormous PR victory." —Ryanair CEO Michael O'Leary

Recall Parliament now

Jon Trickett"The arguments that unattributable sources close to No 10 have given to the press for not recalling parliament are bizarre. One newspaper was told that the government could not justify the expense of recalling parliament. Aid agencies working in Lebanon were reportedly told that the government could not justify the use of officials' time in organising a recall.

The truth is that the government simply did not want to have to justify its conduct during the Middle East crisis in the House of Commons. No 10 cynically used its residual monarchical powers to deny MPs the right to meet at a dangerous moment in the life of the nation." —Jon Trickett MP

There are no hereditary kings in America

Judge Anna Diggs TaylorJudge Anna Diggs Taylor has delivered a spectacular slap to John Yoo and his friends who furnished Bush with the "unitary executive" legal theories intended to bypass Congress and the courts (thanks, Tristan!):

"The Government appears to argue here that, pursuant to the penumbra of Constitutional language in Article II, and particularly because the President is designated Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy, he has been granted the inherent power to violate not only the laws of the Congress but the First and Fourth Amendments of the Constitution, itself.

We must first note that the Office of the Chief Executive has itself been created, with its powers, by the Constitution. There are no hereditary Kings in America and no power not created by the Constitution. So all "inherent power" must derive from that Constitution."

Thursday, August 17, 2006

Attack of the conspirazoids

"To instantly grasp how contorted their stances have become, consider the daily spectacle of ministers denying any link between foreign policy and snowballing support for Islamist terrorists, and claiming that anybody who advances one is "justifying" their actions (these are, presumably, people who have history O-levels partly secured via essays placing the rise of Hitler in the context of the treaty of Versailles, written with no fear of being labelled a Nazi)." —John Harris

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

The west can't win this fight

Peter GalbraithFormer US Ambassador Peter Galbraith thinks that the US and UK governments must accept the reality of an Iraq partitioned into Kurdish, Sunni and Shia states, even if the latter will ally with Iran:

The American and British leaders have a choice. They can bring to Iraq the resources needed to win, accepting an arduous campaign that still may not succeed in unifying the country. Or, they can reconfigure the forces in Iraq to a mission that can be accomplished. Putting this decision off until there is a new US president in 2009, as Bush has recently suggested, is wrong — and cowardly.

Wait, aren't you scared?

'I am absolutely buffaloed by the people who insist I man up and take it in the teeth for the great Clash of Civilizations -- "Come ON, people, this is the EPIC LAST WAR!! You just don't have the stones to face that fact head-on!" -- who at the whiff of an actual terror plot will, with no apparent sense of irony, transform and run around shrieking, eyes rolling and Hello Kitty panties flashing like Japanese schoolgirls who have just realized that the call is coming from inside the house!'Kung Fu Monkey (via Daily Dish)

The UK Terror plot: what's really going on?

"This is more propaganda than plot. Of the over one thousand British Muslims arrested under anti-terrorist legislation, only twelve per cent are ever charged with anything. That is simply harrassment of Muslims on an appalling scale. Of those charged, 80% are acquitted. Most of the very few - just over two per cent of arrests - who are convicted, are not convicted of anything to do terrorism, but of some minor offence the Police happened upon while trawling through the wreck of the lives they had shattered." —former ambassador Craig Murray is highly sceptical of media coverage of the "terror plot"

Terrorists, be afraid of www

"A ragtag army of hypocritical and lying fundamentalists wants to kill us and one day they will just be another phase of history… The march of the world wide web is unstoppable; rather like the British public’s determination to fly away on holiday. Islamic terrorism might lurk within it now, but in the end www will destroy them. The truth will out." —Alice Miles

Terrorists 'can just fly in from abroad to avoid new controls'

Michael O'LearyIt seems that the absurd "security" restrictions in Britain's airports are finally leading to some sensible comments about risk trade-offs, rather than the usual "if it saves one life…" nonsense:

“We need credible, consistent international standards. Passengers will want to know why they are subject to one security regime on the outbound flight but a very different one on the return.” —British Air Travel Association

“What security expert decided that a large briefcase was safe as hand luggage but the normal carry-on wheelie bag isn’t? Surely common sense would suggest that if the safety and security of British citizens is under threat, why has the Government not banned luggage, liquids and gels on the London Underground or on Eurotunnel? We call on the UK Government to return air travel to normal, to eliminate the queues, delays and cancellations at the London airports, which will prove to extremists everywhere that Britain’s airports and airlines will not be disrupted or grounded by their futile attempts to undermine normal life.” —Michael O'Leary, CEO, Ryanair

"Many of the 23 million passengers who change planes at Heathrow would choose to fly via Frankfurt, Paris or Amsterdam to avoid the risk of cancellations and the hand- luggage restrictions." &mdash:JP Morgan

"Now we are told that airlines will require three hour check-in times, with flying conditions comparable to those endured by paratroops on active duty. Airports will punctuate any foreign holiday with purgatory. Only the public's craving for exotic leisure and the government's fiscal indulgence of cheap flights keeps air travel's price/horror ratio in equilibrium." —Simon Jenkins

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Scrambling for Safety

Lord Phillips of SudburyYesterday's Scrambling for Safety meeting on government surveillance powers was a great success, with over 100 attendees and some really interesting speakers. You can read a good overview at BBC News (thanks, Gus!). The slides are available from the FIPR website.

Lord Phillips (left) said: "You do not secure the liberty of our country and value of our democracy by undermining them. That's the road to hell."

31% of UK students are creationists

Flying Spaghetti MonsterCould these two stories be linked?

"Britain is in danger of running out of scientists because of flaws in its secondary education system, business leaders warn today. Thousands of potential physicians, biologists and chemists are being lost because of a "stripped-down" science curriculum, a lack of specialist teachers and uninspiring careers advice, the Confederation of British Industry claims." —The Guardian, 14/8/06

"In a survey last month, more than 12% questioned preferred creationism - the idea God created us within the past 10,000 years - to any other explanation of how we got here. Another 19% favoured the theory of intelligent design - that some features of living things are due to a supernatural being such as God. This means more than 30% believe our origins have more to do with God than with Darwin - evolution theory rang true for only 56%." —The Guardian, 15/8/06

The myth of airport security

'Today, Britain’s state of alert will be downgraded from “Oh my God, oh my God, oh my God” to “Is it me or is that bloke with the beard sweating a bit?” which means small hand luggage will be allowed, but no liquids. Water bottles being the new shoes — remember Richard Reid, when everyone was under attack from Hush Puppies? — it is absolutely vital that we do not take liquid refreshment on to planes. Trains, fine: because, of course, whoever would think of targeting the rail network in Britain? Not this year, anyway. Well, I’m certainly feeling safer.' —Martin Samuels

Sunday, August 13, 2006

It’s sporting to use drugs

"Bodies are unfair, life’s unfair. Sport is a metaphor for life. The obvious answer is for the urine sniffers to throw in the wet wipes and get back to the basics. Allow everyone to do whatever they want to win: stuff themselves with steroids; grow camel humps to keep the extra blood in; have testicle implants in their knees." —AA Gill

It’s time for Bush and Blair to try plan B – the humility option

"The Falklands war was just and the first Gulf war was a rightful resistance to aggression. When land troops were finally sent to respond to a humanitarian disaster in Kosovo this, too, was justified (although technically illegal). There was sense in Blair’s 1999 Chicago speech, despite the neglect of such caveats as feasibility and relevance to national interest. Both the Afghan and Iraqi ventures were ill conceived. They were a rush to arms without thought or planning. Both have led to an appalling toll of death and destruction without bringing the countries stability or security. Their most tragic outcome has been to replace the widespread sympathy for America after 9/11 with a global anti-Americanism. As for Blair’s thesis that these wars have made Britain a safer place, tell that to airline passengers this weekend." —Simon Jenkins

"And if you want to know what you can do to help? Don't be terrorized. They terrorize more of us if they kill some of us, but the dead are beside the point. If we give in to fear, the terrorists achieve their goal even if they were arrested. If we refuse to be terrorized, then they lose -- even if their attacks succeed." —Bruce Schneier

Saturday, August 12, 2006

British foreign policy is endangering us all

"There may be ministers who genuinely believe that the price to be paid for our policies overseas is worth it — but they should not insult the public’s intelligence by saying that they have had no impact on the terror threat that Britain is facing. The presumption now must be that al-Qaeda-inspired groups will keep on targeting Britain." —Inayat Bunglawala

The War on Liquids and Gels

"Does Tony Blair get to bring his laptop on his government plane? Can Laura Bush keep her lipstick with her on Air Force One? Does Dick Cheney take off his shoes and get them x-rayed before he flies? How about Condi Rice's knee-high lace-up boots? Is her mission to Israel delayed while she tries to re-lace them while balancing her laptop bag on one shoulder and trying to get her watch back on?" —Cory Doctorow

"Governor Schwarzenneger has deployed 300 National Guardswomen and men to California's airports to ensure that if liquid/gel/iPod terrorists escape from a British prison and fly to San Diego (without blowing up the plane), and then get off and start hijacking the entire airport, they can be shot. To make the state's airports more normal, it is necessary to first make them extraordinary and abnormal by filling them with armed, nervous teenagers. I see." —Cory Doctorow

Plotters are common criminals

The constellations"I look at Orion and I do not see the Hunter, his belt or his sword. I see a group of unrelated stars. Whether, however, we discern Great Bears, ploughs, crabs, crosses or only chaos, this kind of star-gazing is harmless because we cannot by imagining shapes create the things we have imagined. More dangerous are the constellation-makers among our presidents, prime ministers and newspaper leader writers: it does lie within their power to breathe life into the monsters they think they see. If they keep shouting that we face a clash of civilisations, a war of the worlds, they may drive bigger numbers on both sides into the arms of the smaller numbers who do want to rally volunteers for a battle.

Our enemies want a fight, so here’s a novel suggestion. Let’s not oblige. Let’s keep our tanks and helicopters and cluster bombs locked within our armouries; let’s keep listening and watching and arresting and bringing to court; let’s keep our liberties and accord them theirs; and let’s carry on treating these people for what they are: a big, bloody nuisance." —Matthew Parris

Friday, August 11, 2006

War Crimes Act Changes Would Reduce Threat Of Prosecution

"Don't trust the motives of any lawyer who changes a statutory provision that is short, clear, and to the point and replaces it with something that is much longer, more complicated, and includes exceptions within exceptions." —Rear Adm. John D. Hutson, head of US Navy legal service 1997–2000, criticising Bush administration plans to avoid trials for war crimes (via Daily Dish)

It's Reid who doesn't get it

Who brought these fucking beverages on this motherfucking plane?Dan Plesch has exactly the right response to John Reid's repugnantly opportunistic blast against human rights hours before the police arrested the Heathrow terror plot suspects:

"Popular trust in government is a necessary foundation of a society's defences against terrorism. We need to believe we are being told the truth and that our government is acting in good faith. Unfortunately there is now sufficient reason to be sceptical about who we should entrust our security to…

Our own base is now less secure than before 9/11, based on the number of actual and alleged threats, while our continued unnecessary dependence on oil makes our home base hostage to adverse regime change abroad. There are indeed those who do not get the terrorist threat. Principal among them are the prime minister and his supporters."

Meanwhile, I agree with every word from Cory Doctorow on the security measures now shutting down the UK aviation system. And why are security guards dumping potentially explosive liquids into large vats in the middle of crowded airports?

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Blogzilla in Cameroon

This week I'm visiting Yaoundé to talk about intellectual property requirements in free trade agreements. It's the rainy season in Cameroon so I am sadly having to avoid the outdoor swimming pool. I flew in to Douala on Monday then drove to the capital yesterday. Two-day trips are really quite tiring!

What would you do in Lebanon?

"First, stop recruiting enemies, by withdrawing from the occupied territories in Palestine and Syria. Second, stop provoking the armed groups in Lebanon with violations of the blue line - in particular the persistent flights across the border. Third, release the prisoners of war who remain unlawfully incarcerated in Israel. Fourth, continue to defend the border, while maintaining the diplomatic pressure on Lebanon to disarm Hizbullah (as anyone can see, this would be much more feasible if the occupations were to end). Here then is my challenge to the supporters of the Israeli government: do you dare to contend that this programme would have caused more death and destruction than the current adventure has done?" —George Monbiot

Saturday, August 05, 2006

Perjury threats after Sheridan swings jury

Tommy Sheridan
“Brothers and sisters, what today’s verdict proves is that working-class people, when they listen to the arguments, can differentiate the truth from the muck.” —Tommy Sheridan MSP, winner of a libel case against the News of the World who claimed he had taken part in drug-fuelled orgies

Who's the extremist?

"Blair seems to inhabit an imaginary world he has constructed. He stands at its middle as the King of Salvation, blind to all the bitterness and suffering his absurd wars are creating. Those who exist outside this fantastic realm, he insists, are deluded: from the Arab street, indoctrinated by 'years of anti-Israeli and therefore anti-American propaganda', through to the British public, which he fears 'sympathises with Muslim opinion', including his MPs, his cabinet, and the Foreign Office." —Soumaya Ghannoushi

Thursday, August 03, 2006

Talk to the organ grinder, not the monkey

Organ grinder"In spite of the disasters he has wreaked abroad, in spite of the growing scandal and incoherence of his performance at home, Mr Blair is still a consummate politician. How else can one explain the failure of his party to do the decent thing and get rid of him? Why else does it still appear as though he alone controls the timing and circumstances of his departure? One day we may feel sorry for Mr Blair for the damage he has done to his place in history and to himself. But that moment is not yet. For now, he should no longer attempt to stand upon the order of his going, but go. At once." —Rodric Braithwaite, UK ambassador to Moscow 1988-92, foreign policy adviser to John Major and chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee

Blair defiant and isolated

Tony Blair"Like a man who sets fire to his house and then discusses the flames, Tony Blair has a habit of drawing attention to his policy failures by analysing them. He did it in Los Angeles on Tuesday night in a significant speech on the Middle East that described a region ablaze with conflict without recognising his own role as one of the arsonists." —The Guardian

Parliament must reassert control

"Power is now more centralised in Britain than at any time since the second world war. Within Whitehall power has been sucked upwards to No 10, and at the same time it has drained away from the cabinet, the parliamentary Labour party and the national executive and funnelled towards more presidential rule from the centre. Unlike in the US, however, where power is shared between the president and a countervailing Congress, presidential power in the UK commands every aspect of the power structure and, with few exceptions, can enforce its will without consultation or concession. The division of powers, on which the unwritten constitution of Britain has depended for centuries, is being eroded. The checks and balances have all but collapsed." —Michael Meacher MP

A little democracy is a dangerous thing

"What we in the community of established liberal democracies should do is not abandon the pursuit of democratisation but refine it. Recognise that only in exceptional circumstances (such as postwar Germany and Japan) do democracies grow from under military occupation, and that the purpose of building democracy does not justify military intervention. Accept that, as the Iranian dissident Akbar Ganji wrote in the New York Times, it's better for people to find their own paths to freedom, and our job is to support them. Learn from experience that well-defined borders, the rule of law and independent media are as important as an election - and may need to precede it. That along the way you have to negotiate with nasty people and regimes, such as Syria and Iran. And that, in this dirty, complicated world, advocates of armed struggle - terrorists, if you will - can become democratic leaders. Like Menachem Begin. Like Gerry Adams. Like Nelson Mandela." —Timothy Garton Ash

We're all going on a free summer holiday!

Rev. Blair - more blood vicar?Private Eye's St Albion Parish News has an interesting update from the Rev. A. R. P. Blair on his summer plans:

You all know that my favourite holiday resort is Cliff Richard's villa in Barbados. But I bet you didn't know that St Albion's most famous ex-chorister could soon be living in abject luxury, simply due to a silly law about the copyright of his wonderful records that have given people so much pleasure over the years. Can you believe it?

Please help by joining the vicar's petition to save poor Cliff. Just sign below and make sure this "Bachelor Boy" has a "Living Wage"!!

I think Sir Cliff should be given a peerage:


Wednesday, August 02, 2006

We must rethink the WoT

Tony BlairThe problem with this, as with so many of Tony Blair's statements, is that he needs to walk the walk, not just talk the talk:

"We will not win the battle against this global extremism unless we win it at the level of values as much as force, unless we show we are even-handed, fair and just in the applications of those values to the world. At present we are far away from persuading those we need to persuade that this is true."

He could start by instructing his Home Secretary to act upon rather than attack judicial defeats of their Draconian policies.

UPDATE: As David Clark says: "Blair's failure has been his inability to translate his analysis into a viable strategy for bringing about the just global order he envisages. For this he has only himself to blame. Where on earth did he get the idea that George Bush - the most rightwing president in modern American history - would be a willing ally in his great liberal scheme?"

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Bush Grants Self Permission To Grant More Power To Self

Breaking constitutional news from the Onion:

In a decisive 1–0 decision Monday, President Bush voted to grant the president the constitutional power to grant himself additional powers.

JCHR calls for use of wiretap evidence

Andrew Dismore MPParliament's Joint Committee on Human Rights has released a report that is scathing of the government's authoritarian counter-terrorism legislation (thanks, Dave!). It strongly suggests that other mechanisms would be more successful. For example:

"[The JCHR] concludes that the ban on the use of intercept evidence in court should now be removed and attention turned urgently to ways of relaxing the ban… [Such measures] should make it unnecessary to contemplate any further extensions to the maximum period of pre-charge detention of 28 days. We believe it is essential to avoid any counter productivity which, instead of enhancing protection, may well undermine it. Justice must be seen to be done"

Happy Birthday to ORG

The Open Rights Group had its first birthday on Friday, and the BBC has published a nice round-up of ORG's achievements so far:

"People who are more motivated, who feel the issues and know something must be done can campaign more powerfully even against highly resourced groups like the music industry" — ORG Operations Manager Michael Holloway

If you think that issues such as net neutrality, censorship, internet privacy and RFID tags are important, you should sign up and become an ORG supporter!

The futility of force

"[NATO] is engaged in a battle for 'hearts and minds', a task that requires political and civil institutions, diplomacy and negotiations, not the barrel of a gun or a bomb from a warplane. Afghanistan is an unprecedented test for the military, and the member governments, of the world's most powerful alliance." —Richard Norton-Taylor