Wednesday, February 28, 2007

EU nations scolded by IIPA

I wrote this article for today's EDRI-gram:

The International Intellectual Property Alliance (IIPA), a lobby group representing the American publishing, software, recording and movie industries, has been busy. On 12 February IIPA published its recommendations to the US Trade Representative's 2007 review of global copyright laws. This "Special 301" procedure can lead to significant trade sanctions against countries that are judged to be uncooperative in the US drive for ever stronger intellectual property rights. It has been used over the last two decades to bully developing nations into signing quite inappropriate IP agreements such as the World Trade Organisation's TRIPS and "TRIPS plus" Free Trade Agreements with the US.

IIPA identifies a long list of nations that it considers to be placing social goals such as fighting major crime, improving education and protecting privacy above the profits of its members. As Michael Geist points out, they include 23 of the world's 30 most populous nations. Embarrassingly, while the list includes many leading economies such as Canada and Japan, it leaves out EU nations including the UK, France and Germany.

To their credit, ten EU nations are included in IIPA's hit list, which makes some extraordinary demands. Greece is told that immigrant street vendors involved in copyright infringement should be deported and that tax authorities should audit software licences for all firms. Bulgaria, Hungary and Romania are scolded for concentrating police, prosecutor and judicial attention on their societies' most pressing problems rather than on cases of copyright infringement, while Latvia is warned that it must fully staff its new IPR enforcement police division. Lithuania and Poland are also instructed to increase Customs operations against the import of infringing goods. Italy, Greece, Poland and Sweden are criticised forprivacy laws that prevent disclosing the identity of their customers to right holders based upon an Internet Protocol address. Sweden is admonished for "society's high acceptance of filesharing" and its "notoriety as a piracy safe haven" - and yet right holders are "deeply concerned" about discussion of a compulsory licence to provide artists with compensation for filesharing. Poland's universities and lecturers are instructed to "cultivate a climate of respect for copyright" amongst their students, and Hungary told to "closely monitor" its high-speed academic network for copyright infringement. Spain's prosecutors, judges and law students apparently need some re-education in the value of intellectual property rights, while the Spanish government is ordered to reverse the "stunning" decision of the General Public Prosecutor that his staff have more pressing concerns than the criminal prosecution of peer-to-peer downloaders.

One of IIPA's most consistent complaints is about the protection given by European countries to anti-copying Digital Rights Management technology. IIPA wrongly claims that the World Intellectual Property Organisation's Internet treaties require countries to implement US-style rigid protection of DRM . They criticise countries including Italy, Romania, Sweden and Poland for implementing the EU Copyright Directive in a way that gives their citizens some flexibility over breaking these locks when copyright law allows. Canada, Hong Kong, India, Israel, Japan, Mexico, New Zealand, Switzerland and South Korea are also criticised for their DRM laws.

It is not surprising that US companies lobby to change global laws that would increase their profits. On past performance, the US government is likely to take careful note of their recommendations. But European nations should robustly defend their right to shape copyright policy to meet the needs of their own citizens, and not just those of large copyright holders.

IIPA - Recommendations on 60 countries to USTR in the 2007 Special 301 review on copyright piracy and market access problems (12.02.2007)

Peter Drahos and John Braithwaite, "Information Feudalism" -New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 2002.

Michael Geist - "In Good Company'" (14.02.2007)

Ian Brown - "The evolution of anti-circumvention law" - International Review of Law, Computers and Technology 20(3), 239-260.

Urs Gasser and Silke Ernst, "Best Practice Guide: Implementing the EU Copyright Directive in the Digital Age" (12.2006)

Steve Jobs' DRM claims "ridiculous"

Bob Kohn"If the majors drop DRM, then [Steve Jobs] becomes the consumer's hero. If they don't, the majors, not Apple, get the heat for the incompatibility problem that Jobs has caused himself. Steve can immediately eliminate the incompatibility problem by allowing others to make iPod-compatible devices or sell tracks in Apples proprietary iTunes format. The incompatability problem is the biggest impediment to legitimate music download sales, and if Jobs sublicensed his intellectual property, then the download business would triple in size overnight." —Bob Kohn, founder of eMusic and RoyaltyShare (thanks, Alex!)

Children now get less protection than Victoria Climbié

"ContactPoint, the new database for every child in the country, is in effect a population-surveillance tool. It has nothing to do with protecting children: databases and other computerised processes will not replace the function of the register. The number of referrals to social services has been steady for five years, but the number of children on the child-protection register for physical and sexual abuse has halved. The system has been vanishing before our eyes." —Liz Davies

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Patent Office announces timetable for Gowers responses

The Patent Office has announced the timetable by which it will deal with the recommendations of the Treasury's Gowers review of IP policy (via Open Rights Group). Why will it take until the end of 2008 for the DTI to create an accessible website to allow the filing of a complaint about DRM systems that block people's exercise of their fair dealing rights?

No more secrets

Today's Guardian has a good investigation into the government's Orwellian "transformational government" data-sharing agenda:

Once you have a national identity card, a number and an audit trail, all of this - and everything every government department, bank or supermarket has on you - could be accessed, without your knowledge or consent, by the security services, justified by their slightest suspicion of you. And the national identity scheme commissioner, the watchdog without teeth, wouldn't be able to so much as growl.

Council of Europe team arrives to examine British voting system

A Council of Europe election monitoring team has arrived to scrutinise the UK's voting system, which has been systematically debauched by the Labour party's introduction of mass postal voting and e-voting trials. Will they agree with Judge Richard Mawrey that the UK's elections would now "disgrace a banana republic"?

Monday, February 26, 2007

This was always a needless, immoral war

"We know that Blair committed the country to war long before he ever has admitted, or can admit. We know that parliament and people were deceived by the prime minister and his cabal, wilfully but not accidentally, since it would have been politically impossible for this country to have participated in the war if the full truth had been told. We know that claims about 'WMD' were not some unhappy accident, but a necessity forced upon Blair after he had persuaded himself that he must at all costs support George Bush, right or wrong. We know that the case for war was not made in good faith.

"The only people who appear not to know this are our rulers. They cannot acknowledge it, and are obliged to stick to a false account of events. It's anyone's guess how long it will be before Iraq recovers from the last four years. Another question is how long it will be before political life in this country recovers from the damage inflicted on it." —Geoffrey Wheatcroft

The new Iran-Contra

It seems that the Bush administration is busy cooking up a new Iran-Contra scandal in the Middle East. A former National Security Council official told Seymour Hersh:

The C.I.A. is asking, ‘What’s going on?’ They’re concerned, because they think it’s amateur hour.”

Veterans of that scandal now running Iran-Contra II within the administration have learned lessons (beyond the remarkable fact that they are back in power rather than jail):

“One, you can’t trust our friends. Two, the C.I.A. has got to be totally out of it. Three, you can’t trust the uniformed military, and four, it’s got to be run out of the Vice-President’s office.”

And we wonder why MI5 believes the terrorist threat to the UK to be at its highest level since 9/11?

Sunday, February 25, 2007

Archbishop, tell the gay-bashers where to go

"The Archbishop of Canterbury is bending over backwards to placate the rabid homophobes of the born again charismatic wing of the church in the belief that cohesion is more important than conscience. He knows what we all know, that gayness is not a sin, it’s not even a faux pas. It is the way some people are, but to placate a sordid, spiritually bereft prejudice he will go halfway round the world to search out mendacious phrases to keep the church one big, unhappy, sniggerable communion.

"What he should be doing is laying about him with an axe. He should welcome schism. He should tell them to take their massive thermometers and smudgy imaginations and sod off." —A.A. Gill

Basra is the Waterloo of the Napoleon of Downing Street

"With the collapse of parliamentary scrutiny the prime minister answers for his actions only in press interviews. Last week’s encounter with the BBC’s John Humphrys was another eerie voyage to planet Blair. The response to any bad news was, 'Well, Saddam was a murderous, bloody tyrant', and to any criticism, 'Well, yunno, I disagree.' Blair regards the laws of cause and effect as inoperable in his case. Remove the framework of government from a nation and the consequence is 'not my fault'. If the ensuing mayhem leads to tens of thousands of deaths it is 'not my fault'." —Simon Jenkins

If God calls, I'm in a meeting

The Reverend Tony Blair"Men of power who take instruction from unseen forces are essentially fanatics. Blair is filled with a self-confidence and self-satisfaction that are dangerous. They were evident last week as he refused to take responsibility for anything that has happened in Iraq since America and Britain occupied it. Those who look for judgment not from the electorate or parliament or a free press but from God release themselves from the constraints of democracy." —Michael Portillo

Saturday, February 24, 2007

Blogzilla in Bangalore

Indian statueBlogzilla is in Bangalore at the start of a month-long India trip. Fantastic food, and interesting to see how in many ways India and the UK have so many cultural elements in common that I almost feel at home. Until I pay 35p for lunch…

I'm here to speak at the Indian International Coffee Festival with some other members of our Fair Tracing project. You can find out much more about that at our project blog. On Tuesday I'm heading to Delhi for the Doors conference on food, energy and design. Then next weekend I'm meeting Ralph and Stuart for a fortnight's romp around Varanasi, Agra and Rajasthan. One of my most interesting trips for quite some time!

Tony Blair makes Comical Ali seem the voice of reason

Comical Ali"Just as it was with his apparent inspiration, Comical Ali, it becomes ever more difficult to avoid the suspicion that the prime minister is living in a parallel universe, where success and failure are merely states of mind." —Marina Hyde

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Government rejects DRM ban

DRM-locked CDThe government has rejected calls in a petition on its website to ban Digital Rights Management technology locks (thanks, Alex!):

Many content providers have been embedding access and management tools to protect their rights and, for example, prevent illegal copying. We believe that they should be able to continue to protect their content in this way. However, DRM does not only act as a policeman through technical protection measures, it also enables content companies to offer the consumer unprecedented choice in terms of how they consume content, and the corresponding price they wish to pay.

Since DRM security continues to be a joke, it does nothing of the sort.

Whoever wrote the response is even confused about the legal basis of protection for DRM. They have included a link to the World Trade Organisation's page on TRIPS, which has nothing to do with DRM. I assume they confused TRIPS with the World Intellectual Property Organisation's Internet treaties, from which anti-circumvention laws like the US Digital Millennium Copyright Act and the EU Copyright Directive sprang. Whichever No.10 policy wonk wrote this could do with a quick refresher on IP law before they make any other mistakes.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Blair's half-baked ID e-mail

Tony Blair has e-mailed the signatories of the anti-ID-card petition on his website. The Register thinks his message is "a rag-bag of warmed-over, half-baked, misleading, and just plain untrue claims." No2ID says:

"The PM's claims on this subject are not exactly lies, so much as fact-free. Endlessly repeating a fabrication doesn't make it real, Mr Blair."

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Interception Commissioner lashes out

Sir Swinton Thomas, Interception of Communications Commissioner, has left his post with a bang. In his annual report for 2005-2006 he attacks the idea that intercepted communications could be used as evidence in court, as called for by the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police and the government's own reviews of anti-terrorism policy. He also criticises the "Wilson doctrine" that members of parliament should not be wiretapped as "absurd."

Thomas is well-known for being remarkably cosy with the intelligence agencies and police forces that he is supposed to regulate. His annual reports have all contained details of serious breaches of the law, which are brushed aside by gushing praise for the dedication of those he oversees. In fact, 2006 saw a ruling by the quasi-judicial Investigatory Powers Tribunal that the Metropolitan police had illegally wiretapped one of their own most senior officers. This echoes the case of Alison Halford, whose wiretapping by her own force during a sex discrimination action led to the current UK legislation on interception.

If Thomas thinks that the Wilson doctrine is not an entirely appropriate protection for the rule of law and democracy in the UK, he has spent far too much time in post talking to spy chiefs. It is fortunate that he was replaced last summer by the Rt. Hon. Sir Paul Kennedy.

Monday, February 19, 2007

The road pricing bill: £600 per driver

Department for Transport documents show that a road pricing system that tracked cars would cost £62bn to set up and £8.6bn per year to run (£600 per driver). That almost makes the government's ID card plans look like value for money.

Jackie Ashley comments:

The road-pricing revolt is not the rage of the terminally selfish. It reflects a general view that lower and middle-income people feel overtaxed and overcharged. Driving has got relatively cheaper, but the cost of living is rising again and this rebellion is a symptom of a more general irritation. It reflects other things too, including a justified suspicion of the snooper state and an equally well-founded scepticism about the government's ability to run national computer systems of any kind.

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Iraq should not block all foreign intervention

Paddy Ashdown"I suspect most ordinary Muslims no more want to see their great civilising religion captured by the forces of fanaticism than we, in the past, wanted our religious fanatics to take over Christianity. Yet Western leaders persist in their language and actions to portray this as a great struggle for 'our Western values', in language which mirrors and strengthens our enemies' concept of a global jihad.

"This is both stupid and historically illiterate. It was Islam and the Arab universities, especially in Baghdad, which absorbed into Islam the Hellenic thought we regard as the foundation of 'European values' and preserved its crucial texts for Europe to rediscover at the start of the Renaissance, while Europe was still sunk in the barbarism of the Dark Ages.

"And so we have chosen the wrong mindset to defeat al-Qaeda. We have chosen to fight an idea primarily with force. We seek to control territory; it seeks to capture minds. This is, at heart, a battle of ideas and values. Unless we realise that and can win on that agenda, no amount of force can deliver victory." —Paddy Ashdown, High Representative in Bosnia and Herzegovina 2002-2006

It's vain and venal, but let's trust the Lords

"It is part of New Labour's arrogant modernising ideology that there is nothing which cannot benefit from reform, however hopeless and half-baked that reform might be.

"The true democrat understands that sometimes you have to wait for the right solution and that democracy and freedom are served in mysterious ways, one of which is not to allow the parties' machines any more influence in the House of Lords." —Henry Porter

Gimme gimme gimme

Wheelbarrow of cashA poll and accompanying article in today's Telegraph betray Britain's confused attitudes to wealth and government regulation:

Five successive years of buoyant markets mean this new plutocracy boasts not just income, but wealth - lots of it. A small army of private bankers advises them on what to do with their spare cash. They estimate that some £43 billion of savings have been accumulated by just 35,000 elite City professionals - an average of more than £1 million each in spare change. Nearly double that, £75 billion, is in even fewer hands: the 15,000 to 20,000 super-rich foreigners who live in London, partly to avoid tax.

Unsurprisingly, many of those polled are envious and think "something must be done," top of the list being caps on bonuses. Given the City is esimated to earn 9% of the UK's GDP, such artificial constraints could prove very expensive indeed if they led highly mobile financial industry workers to move to Zurich, Hong Kong or elsewhere.

Road charging alternatives are being ignored

Road toll gantryTony Blair's "listening" response to the 1.5m people that have signed his website's petition against road charging will be to write to each person explaining why they are wrong.

As Simon Jenkins says:

"Merely raising petrol duty, a general mobility tax, is nowadays seen as too crude. Opposition to satellite tracking is fierce and understandable, especially when proposed by a government with so little concern for civil liberties (and so inept at computing)."

How seriously has the government examined alternatives, both technological (such as the anonymous prepaid toll cards of Singapore) and the simpler and cheaper taxation of city centre parking spaces? Instead, the Department for Transport is considering "voluntary" satellite tracking trials.

A "mobility tax" in the form of increased fuel duty may be less equitable, but it is the only way to tackle the climate change (as opposed to congestion) impact of increased driving.

Saturday, February 17, 2007

E-cash must be anonymous

Play cash"When it comes to trading convenience against privacy, most people seem to back convenience every time. With cash, however, it might be different. The more the state intrudes into electronic cash, the more it encourages inefficient notes and coin. From the first slave who bought his freedom, money has been what Dostoyevsky called 'coined liberty'. As Adam Smith would no doubt have observed, just because the state can pry into electronic cash does not mean it should." —The Economist

EU states go wild on data retention

It seems that France, Germany and the Netherlands are all using the EU Data Retention Directive as an excuse to store even more information about their citizens' communications than European law requires (via EDRI). As Google's European privacy counsel says: some of their plans are "totally unenforceable and would never work."

Friday, February 16, 2007

Worried about being watched? You already are

ANPR systemAs Steve Mathieson points out in the Guardian, drivers worried about the privacy implications of congestion charging should be concerned about another system already in operation. Automatic Numberplate Recognition (ANPR) systems across Britain are being linked up by the Association of Chief Police Officers, and can be used to track cars across the country.

You can find out more in a report I co-authored with FIPR colleagues in 2004 for the Information Commissioner's Office.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

We don’ t really want politicians to listen to us

"Let me suggest a better way of dispelling voter cynicism. Declare that the Transport Secretary has not the slightest intention of letting a mass lobby — even one with internet access — bully him out of what’s in the public interest; that 2 per cent of the population is not a groundswell, still less an argument; that the signatories are ignorant of his plans; and that if the public really do think we can carry on offering free road space to a growing number of cars, the public are simply wrong." —Matthew Parris

Music execs criticise DRM systems

Kopierschutz? Nein danke!A new Jupiter Research study has found that two-thirds of European record industry executives think DRM is reducing music sales. But most are still stuck in the DRM groove:

"Despite everything that has been happening the record labels are not about to drop DRM," said [study co-author] Mr Mulligan. "Even though all they are doing is making themselves look even less compelling by using it."

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Nationwide fined £1m for stolen laptop

Financial Services AuthorityIt seems that the Financial Services Authority has rather fiercer teeth than the Information Commissioner's Office. The FSA has just fined Nationwide almost £1 million for losing a laptop containing customer data, and commented:

"The failure to manage or monitor downloads of very large amounts of data onto portable storage devices meant that Nationwide had limited control over information held in this way or how it was used."

How refreshing to hear that a regulator both understands the root cause of many of these data thefts, and is willing to fine companies amounts that will give the industry a proper incentive to take notice.

Driven round the bend — at £1.50 a mile

Gridlocked trafficCongestion charging could play an important part in curbing urban congestion — and if the government paid more attention to issues such as privacy and rebalancing rather than increasing taxes, the country could have a more sophisticated discussion of the options. But there are some cogent objections that need to be dealt with first:

"When Labour came to power 10 years ago, John Prescott proclaimed: I will have failed if in five years time there are not many more people using public transport and far fewer journeys by car.' He has failed. Since that proclamation, the number of motor vehicles has increased by 7.5m…

"Congestion pricing is not the answer. It will simply disperse the problem into those parts of the country currently least congested, encouraging yet more sprawl and low-density, car-dependent land-use patterns. The on-street car parking in older urban areas has been full for some time. Overwhelmingly the extra cars each year must find parking spaces out of town." —Prof. John Adams, UCL

"As Britain does not have sufficient rail capacity to absorb the effects of a successful road-pricing policy, this indicates that the forthcoming comprehensive spending review should signal a long-term shift in transport policy, with motorway-widening and airport expansion supplanted by increased investment in our railways. If road pricing goes ahead, all revenues should be ring-fenced for public-transport investment." —Bob Crow, RMT

"Clever government advisers who never leave London admit to being in thrall to the success of the capital’s congestion charge. Innovative, brave, progressive . . . the superlatives fly. But London has fewer cars per head than anywhere else in the country: 345 per 1,000 population, compared with 473 for Great Britain as a whole. In the West Midlands, East of England, South East and South West it is more than 500. People outside London are far more dependent on their cars. You cannot extrapolate from a West London congestion charge to a universal one. Even in the Outer London areas to where it is being extended, it is facing far greater resistance than it did in the city centre: less public transport, you see, and not such bad congestion." —Alice Miles

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

One million people can't be wrong

"Do we have enough bicycle lanes in Britain yet? No. Are we doing enough to deal with the two million cars being driven illegally? No. Is our rail network both comfortable enough and reliable enough to make one want to leave the car in the garage? No. Will road pricing be easy to install and administer? Not on your life. Even the Department of Transport's own documents admit it will cost tens of billions to install, billions to run, and that computer technology will have to be freshly installed in cars to make the whole system work.

"It might be possible — on the basis of these points alone — to persuade oneself that the Government does not yet have an air-tight case for road pricing. It certainly does not have a secure enough platform from which to dismiss the worries of a million Britons." —Andrew O'Hagan

Government making a bad job of Lords reform

The burning of the House of Lords and CommonsThe government is busy trying to finish off the reform of the House of Lords it started by removing most hereditary peers in 1999. But as the Economist observes: without a clear idea of the purpose of the second house of parliament, how can you decide on its composition?

Powerful upper houses occur in federal states, and they are powerful because their senators are elected to represent a discrete interest. Since Britain is not federal, it is not clear whom the elected peers would be there to represent. And, without a veto, they would be in the odd position of having a mandate from the electorate but not much chance to exercise it.

The government needs to decide if it wants a house of experts able merely to ask the Commons to think again on legislation; or a powerful democratic counterbalance to the elective dictatorship of the British parliamentary system. Only then will the mix and method of appointment and election suitable for the Lords become apparent. Meanwhile, Jack Straw's attempt to force through the least-unpopular option in his reform Bill should be scrapped.

Monday, February 12, 2007

Meritocracies need wealth taxes

Lord LipseyLord Lipsey thinks those arguing for the abolition of inheritance tax are delusional:

Six per cent of households are rich enough to pay inheritance tax because they have £285,000 or more. According to the official Family Resources Survey, in 2004-05, 49% of households had less than £1,500 in savings. Before Gordon Brown rushes to the rescue of the rich, he might give a thought to that group of people, eight times more numerous and many, many times more deserving.

It is certainly the case that in a meritocracy, allowing families to build up wealth over generations will inevitably lead to an aristocracy of the type we are still trying to get rid of in the UK. This is why Bill Gates, Warren Buffet and other billionnaires have campaigned against President Bush's abolition of the US estate tax. As Lipsey points out, wealthy families can buy their children advantages in areas such as education and healthcare that are hardly compatible with an equal-opportunity society.

The practical problem with our inheritance tax is that it hits families whose main asset is their home, whereas richer individuals have both more diversified assets and better tax advice to minimise its impact. It might therefore be more equitable to replace inheritance tax with a general Capital Transfers Tax, as has been suggested by IPPR; or with an annual wealth tax of around 1% of assets that could be postponed by capital-poor pensioners until the sale or transfer of their property.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Britain, the liar state

"The manipulation of information has been both Blair’s making and undoing. A decade ago brilliant use of spin deluded the British electorate into believing that he would usher in a new political dawn. But manufacturing a 'dodgy dossier' of intelligence to justify the invasion of Iraq shattered trust in him irrevocably.

"As he totters towards his end he remains anxious to define his legacy. It is already established. Nobody now believes anything that the government says." —Michael Portillo

Pan's Labyrinth

Went last night to see Pan's Labyrinth and was completely blown away. This spectacular, Gothic fairy tale set in the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War tells the story of a young girl caught in a desperate struggle between Franco's fascists and the resistance fighters they have been sent to destroy. It weaves her fantasy world of fauns, pixies and terrifying monsters into the brutality and gore of a fight to the death between a sadistic army general and partisans attacking from the Pyrenees.

The writing, acting, cinematography, special effects and score are all top notch. The film fully deserves its six Oscar nominations. I can't recommend it enough!

After Climbié, children are at even more risk

"It is almost impossible to comprehend the brutality described in a London courtroom last week, when Kimberly Harte and Samuel Duncan were jailed for the torture of their young handicapped daughter. Born prematurely and suffering from cerebral palsy, this little girl was repeatedly beaten, kicked, scalded and shut in a dark toilet to sleep…

"Will any lessons be learnt from this case? Thanks to the government’s reforms, it seems even less likely that social workers will concentrate on regular home visits and applying the kind of robust common sense that might have spared this little girl. Instead of focusing on children in danger, local authorities will have to account for the activities of every child in their area and construct and maintain a universal child database. At best, it will be a massive distraction; at worst, more vulnerable children will be exposed to horrible abuse." —Jill Kirkby

NHS security constantly subverted

We have been told over and over again by the NHS that the highest security standards will be applied to centralised medical record databases, and that only authorised staff will have access to patient data. We have numerous practical examples showing this is pure fantasy:

  1. Ross Anderson's finding that health authorities were receiving around 6,000 pretext calls per week.

  2. The Information Commissioner's investigation that found medical records being illegally obtained by private investigators.

  3. The discovery that staff at the Leeds University NHS Trust make 70,000 unauthorised accesses per month to hospital systems.

Now it emerges that as a matter of policy, South Warwickshire General Hospitals NHS Trust is allowing accident and emergency staff to share smartcard logins to save time.

Peter Gutmann comments:

We (New Zealand health IT industry) found that out some years ago: In healthcare IT, there is only one user, and that's "whoever first signed onto the PC this morning" (and the healthcare security policy is "you can do whatever you want as long as you can justify it by saving the patient"). Unfortunately the bureaucrats still haven't grasped this.

Brian Gladman, ex-Ministry of Defence and NATO, says:

If my experience is anything to go by, the folk designing the software would have been well aware of the need to keep sign-on times low. What they would not have been aware of is the impact of a high assurance security architecture on the system cost involved in sign on and sign off.

MOD learnt this lesson over a decade ago when it had to write off several hundred million pounds by scrapping major 'secure' IT systems because the sign on times were measured in minutes and the reponse time for simple queries was even worse. Moreover users simply ignored security procedures and undermined the intended security in exactly the same way that we are now seeing in the NHS use of IT.

If, like me, you find it incredible that the government wants to put your medical records into these databases without your permission, you should join the Big Opt Out campaign.

The mother of all road rage

Road charging computer"There is no mistaking the sense of accumulating anger about the government proposal that every car contains a device that records road use and tracks every moment of a journey.

"It's the apotheosis of a New Labour policy, a highly evolved and inescapable double whammy that combines taxation and snooping in one simple device, a device which, by the way, the already burdened taxpayer will be expected to buy at a cost of £200. New Labour's backroom boys have come up with the equivalent of the self-cleaning oven or set-top box. All that remains is for Rupert Murdoch to be given the exclusive contract for supplying the inboard tracker.

"You could see the tracker as the automotive version of the ID card but, actually, it will be much more of a threat to you and your pocket. Because it will know where you are and how fast you are going at every moment, your monthly road charge may well come with a fine notice, adding points to your licence. Transport Minister Douglas Alexander has denied this, but people clearly do not believe him because they are becoming aware of the laws of function creep, how road pricing provides excellent opportunities for mass surveillance and control." —Henry Porter

America is doped up in Colombia for a bad trip in Afghanistan

Coca plant"Crop-spraying shifts production into Bolivia, Peru and the Amazon jungle, where mile upon mile of virgin forest is lost to coca each year, an ecological disaster that is a direct result of western drugs policy. As long as prohibition sustains a lucrative market for narcotics, countries such as Colombia will supply it. Traditional coca-growing nations on the Andean spine will have their politics and economics blighted by criminality. Growth will be stifled and governments left vulnerable to left-wing rebellion. The war on drugs is the stupidest war on earth." —Simon Jenkins

Saturday, February 10, 2007

The limits of e-democracy

Road cameraBy far the most popular petition on the prime minister's experimental site is against further road charging, with over 1 million signatures. It seems we have already reached the limit of e-democracy, with Transport Secretary Douglas Alexander saying:

“I understand there are strong feelings on this issue but strong feelings alone are no substitute for considering how we tackle the challenge of congestion."

Alexander also claims that the government is sensitive to the privacy challenges of road charging. I hope this is more than hot air, and that any scheme does not turn into a national traffic surveillance system in the manner of the police's Automatic Number Plate Recognition (ANPR) network and London's CCTV-based congestion charge. If Singapore can do it, why can't we?

A cracking row over ID card lobbying for us all to savour

"It is good to see a leading Conservative take a hardheaded approach to inappropriate lobbying by the business sector. Even if I did not share the Tories’ antipathy to the ID card plan I would find Intellect’s suggestion that the Official Opposition abandon a central policy simply because the Government had padlocked its programme to a contract with the private sector worse than inappropriate: it is outrageous." —Matthew Parris

Ministers wake to potential of people power on the net

Pat McFaddenThe Guardian has a couple of interesting features today on the government's plans for e-democracy. Ministers are sensibly considering funding existing sites from groups such as mySociety rather than duplicating their work. Unfortunately Cabinet Office minister Pat McFadden is still entirely confused by the concept of privacy:

"We need a more sensible debate on how all this information government holds can be used to empower people, rather than have this stupid caricature of CCTV cameras in every home. We have to ask whether information or data sharing is an aid to empowerment, as I believe, or the next step to the big brother state."

Sharing public data, like the proceedings of Hansard, is completely different from government departments spraying private information around without explicit consent from the individuals concerned. Why is this so hard to grasp?

Friday, February 09, 2007

Music "deserves" DRM

Edgar BronfmanThe recording industry is on the offensive against Apple's suggestion that DRM is all the music industry's fault and should be abolished. RIAA chief Edgar Bronfman frothed:

The notion that music does not deserve the same protections as software, television, films, video games, or other intellectual property, simply because there is an unprotected legacy product available in the physical world is completely without logic or merit.

Ah yes, those well-known DRM successes: software, television, films and video games. I've never seen infringing copies of any of those media.

Tech firms tangle with Tories on ID cards

Shadow Home Secretary David Davis MP has replied to Intellect's creepy upbraiding of the Conservatives over their warning to ID card suppliers:

"Your claim to be neither for or against the policy of introducing ID cards in the UK, given the clear commercial interest of a number of your members, is simply disingenuous… incredible and insulting."

The Register's URL says it all: (via Ideal Government)

Bush triumphs in race to bottom

George Bush“Bush will be judged the worst President in American history, from both a conservative and a liberal point of view, finding a consensus on the bottom, at last, and so achieving a landslide victory that evaded him in 2004…

"Bush is not a liberal, and he is not a conservative. He is a right-wing ideologue whose abstract imperatives across the board are characteristically disconnected from actuality. That is precisely the reason why he is a failed president.” —Jeffrey Hart (via Andrew Sullivan)

Pestilent evangelicals

Jeffrey Hart"I loathe populism. Most especially in the form of populist religion, i.e., the current pestiferous bible-banging evangelicals, whom I regard as organized ignorance, a menace to public health, to science, to medicine, to serious Western religion, to intellect and indeed to sanity."—Prof. Jeffrey Hart (via Andrew Sullivan)

Thursday, February 08, 2007

German court blocks police hacking

The Federal Court of Justice in Karlsruhe has blocked police from remotely hacking into a machine to gather evidence, finding that there is no power in German law to allow this (thanks, Dave). In the UK, chief constables have been able to authorise such conduct in relation to serious crime via Part III of the Police Act 1997. It has been rumoured that these powers have been exercised in the ongoing police investigation into the alleged selling of honours and perversion of justice by 10 Downing Street.

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Steve Job's mixed DRM message

Steve JobsSteve Jobs has told the music industry to let Apple sell unencumbered MP3 music files through iTunes (via Open Rights Group). Unfortunately he comes to this sensible conclusion via some nonsensical reasoning:

"To prevent illegal copies, DRM systems must allow only authorized devices to play the protected music. If a copy of a DRM protected song is posted on the Internet, it should not be able to play on a downloader’s computer or portable music device. To achieve this, a DRM system employs secrets. There is no theory of protecting content other than keeping secrets. In other words, even if one uses the most sophisticated cryptographic locks to protect the actual music, one must still 'hide' the keys which unlock the music on the user’s computer or portable music player. No one has ever implemented a DRM system that does not depend on such secrets for its operation.

"The problem, of course, is that there are many smart people in the world, some with a lot of time on their hands, who love to discover such secrets and publish a way for everyone to get free (and stolen) music. They are often successful in doing just that, so any company trying to protect content using a DRM must frequently update it with new and harder to discover secrets. It is a cat-and-mouse game. Apple’s DRM system is called FairPlay. While we have had a few breaches in FairPlay, we have been able to successfully repair them through updating the iTunes store software, the iTunes jukebox software and software in the iPods themselves. So far we have met our commitments to the music companies to protect their music, and we have given users the most liberal usage rights available in the industry for legally downloaded music."

Jobs is quite wrong to say that licensing FairPlay would make it useless. If it's at all sensibly designed (and I don't think Apple are entirely incompetent) FairPlay will not contain global secrets that compromise the entire system (in the way that the DVD player keys compromise CSS, even apart from the weakness of the cipher). If it did, like CSS, they would be very hard to hide in amongst the millions of iPods and iTunes installations out on the interwebs. (This is just the application of Kerckhoff's principle to DRM rather than cryptosystems.)

And, as "DVD Jon" Johansen observes: Microsoft have licensed their own DRM system to dozens of companies, but it has not been broken any more often than FairPlay.

Blaggers: go directly to jail

The Department for Constitutional Affairs has just published its summary of responses to its consultation 'Increasing penalties for deliberate and wilful misuse of personal data' (via Open Rights Group). It concludes:

The Government is therefore minded to amend section 60 of the Data Protection Act 1998 to allow for, in addition to the current fines:

  • On summary conviction, up to six months imprisonment (which will be increased to twelve months imprisonment in England and Wales when s154 of the Criminal Justice Act 2003 comes in to force and in Scotland when s35 of the Criminal Proceedings etc. (Reform) (Scotland) Act 2007 comes into force); and

  • On conviction on indictment, up to two years imprisonment.

The Government believes that the introduction of custodial penalties will be an effective deterrent to those who seek to procure or wilfully abuse personal data, as agreed by the majority of respondents. It is clear that current financial sanctions are not solely a sufficient deterrent to those engaged in the illegal trade in personal information.

Captain Copyright flies in

Captain CopyrightIs it a bird? Is it a plane? NO! It's a UK version of Captain Copyright, the superhero just booted out of Canada because his school copyright lessons were biased.

Why is the Patent Office producing such one-sided "educational" materials for school children? Andrew Adams comments:

The Patent Office has, in my opinion, no business developing teaching materials by relying heavily on the interests of such an interested party and releasing such material with no independent scrutiny. The results of such a collusion are now available on the Patent Office's website. This one-sided presentation of copyright law, and its ethical, philosophical, social policy and economic underpinnings should not be presented by a government organisation.

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

The price of this corruption may be years in opposition

"There was always something rotten at the heart of New Labour: the police investigation marks the moment of its recognition. It is a sad comment that so many people were taken in by New Labour for so long. And the price? The party could yet implode and find itself condemned to opposition for many years to come." —Martin Jacques

Liberty is our best defence

"Our best defence against terrorism is our belief in liberty and tolerance, along with a determination to take no nonsense from enemies of that liberty and tolerance. Liberty is not best defended by sacrificing liberty - certainly not on the say so of a government desperate to clutch at any measure that might make it look robust and competent." —David Davis MP

Monday, February 05, 2007

Scrap ID cards now!

David DavisThe Conservative party has launched a new campaign to scrap ID cards with a petition on the Number 10 website (via Open Rights Group). Shadow Home Secretary David Davis MP has also sent a letter to the Cabinet Secretary that should greatly increase the cost of ID card tenders:

"As you will be aware, the Conservative Party has stated publicly that it is our intention to cancel the ID card project immediately on our being elected to government. You are now formally on notice of our position and fully appraised of the contingent risks and associated liabilities arising from the national identity card scheme.

"I urge you to consider very carefully the Government's position, in advance of the roll-out of the scheme later this year. As a matter of financial prudence, it is incumbent upon you to ensure that public money is not wasted, and contractual obligations are not incurred, investing in a scheme with such a high risk of not being implemented.

"In particular, I would be interested to know what provision, if any, has been made in the relevant contractual arrangements to protect the Government - and public funds - against the costs that would be incurred as a result of early cancellation of the scheme."

Disaster hits new Times website

The Times seems to be going through a quite disastrous transition to a new site design and host. They were cutely "at the pub" most of yesterday evening during the switch. Today, after waiting a minute or two, I get a content-free front page or network error most of the time. When I finally managed to read William Rees-Mogg's opinion piece, the highlighted comments seemed to be from readers who would have scorned Adolf Hilter supporters as hippie liberal scum. Which muppet is responsible for wiping millions from the Times brand in this way?

Slights and suspicions

Roy Hattersley"I strongly favour homicidal fanatics being caught, prosecuted, convicted and imprisoned for long periods. So do most residents of Sparkbrook and Sparkhill, districts of Birmingham that I used to represent in parliament. But I fear that the events of last week - arrests without charge and off-the-record briefings about abduction and decapitation - will make them less enthusiastic about seeing all forms of extremism stamped out. Press has combined with police to make them feel that the whole Islamic community is under suspicion. And they resent it. Although very few of them will ever feel any sympathy for suicide bombers, their alienation from the forces of law and order creates a hinterland of sorts. The terrorists will shelter in the emotional comfort that comes from seeing the gulf widened between Muslims and the criminal justice system." —Lord Hattersley

Archbishop in police state warning

John Sentamu"If you detain people, you must have good enough reason for detaining them and have a chance for there being a successful prosecution. The Home Secretary has not produced the evidence that shows that in 90 days you're capable of getting somebody prosecuted.

"Why does he want these days, so the police do what? Gather more evidence? To me that becomes, if you're not very careful, very close to a police state in which they pick you up and then they say later on we'll find evidence against you. That's what happened in Uganda with Idi Amin." —Archbishop John Sentamu, who fled Uganda during the 1970s

More on Collapse

Children of Men
Still thinking about Jared Diamond's Collapse. Michael O'Hare points out why American football injuries are like climate change. And Diamond's warning of floods of Third World refugees fleeing environmental catastrophe reminded me of the best film I saw last year: Alfonso Cuaron's apocalyptic Children of Men. If you can't imagine a militaristic UK with large tracts of the country turned into concentration camps for asylum seekers, Clive Owen, Julianne Moore and Michael Caine will give you a pretty good idea.

Sunday, February 04, 2007

Collapse: how societies choose to fail or survive

Jared DiamondAfter what seems like an eternity, I've managed to finish reading Collapse by Jared Diamond. It is an extremely dense examination of societies ranging from the Mayans, Vikings and inhabitants of Easter Island to modern-day Australia, Japan and the US. Diamond attempts to find common factors that have caused some of these civilisations to perish, while others managed to reverse a potentially disastrous path.

Every page is packed with thought-provoking facts and ideas (which is why ploughing through 528 pages has taken me so long.) As a piece of popular anthropology this is perhaps unnecessary: half of the case studies would have been quite enough to support the author's main thesis, that short-termist decisions (especially on environmental issues) can be catastrophic for societies. But it's worth reading right through to the strong conclusions:

Because we are rapidly advancing along this non-sustainable course, the world's environmental problems will get resolved, in one way or another, within the lifetimes of the children and young adults alive today. The only question is whether they will become resolved in pleasant ways of our own choice, or in unpleasant ways not of our choice, such as warfare, genocide, starvation, disease epidemics, and collapses of societies. While all of those grim phenomena have been endemic to humanity throughout our history, their frequency increases with environmental degradation, population pressure, and the resulting poverty and political instability.

Examples of those unpleasant solutions to environmental and population problems abound in the modern world and the ancient world. The examples include the recent genocides in Rwanda, Burundi, and the former Yugoslavia; war, civil war, or guerilla war in the modern Sudan, Phillipines, and Nepal, and in the ancient Maya homeland; cannibalism on prehistoric Easter Island and Mangareva and among the ancient Anasazi; starvation in many modern African countries and on prehistoric Easter Island; the AIDS epidemic already in Africa, and incipiently elsewhere; and the collapse of state government in modern Somalia, the Solomon Islands, and Haiti, and among the ancient Maya. An outcome less drastic than a worldwide collapse might "merely" be the spread of Rwanda-like or Haiti-like conditions to many more developing countries, while we First World inhabitants retain many of our First World amenities but face a future with which we are unhappy, beset by more chronic terrorism, wars, and disease outbreaks. But it is doubtful that the First World could retain its separate lifestyle in the face of desperate waves of immigrants fleeing from collapsing Third World countries, in numbers much larger than the current unstoppable influx.

This book is a fascinating introduction to a wide variety of civilisations, and has really opened my eyes to how societies establish and maintain themselves. Highly recommended, if you have the time!

Prepare for election fraud

Sir Alistair Graham"My concern is that while there appears to be clear evidence that electoral fraud is a growing problem, the department, in the interests of making 'voting more convenient', is pushing ahead with pilot schemes on forms of voting that are, at present, even less secure than postal voting.

"Our current systems to combat electoral abuse in Great Britain are unsatisfactory already, so to proceed with these pilots appears to be ill-timed and betrays confusion over priorities." —Sir Alistair Graham, chairman of the Committee on Standards in Public Life

Blair wants history to judge him, but the police are first in line

"Cash for peerages is emblematic of a governing style that has always seemed unfit for purpose. A patronage state dominated by Downing Street can no longer bear the required weight of public confidence. Cabinet government has collapsed, as ministers campaign against each other’s policies (as on hospitals) or discard responsibility for the doings of their predecessors (as at the Home Office). When critics charge British government with being presidential they misunderstand the word. Presidencies have checks and balances. Britain under Blair has been not presidential but courtly, a place of jesters, spinners, flattery, feuds and favouritism. Above all it has revolved round patronage, whose abuse may be its downfall." —Simon Jenkins

Saturday, February 03, 2007

Guess who

"Bad things may have happened, investigators are investigating, but the insouciance, the unflappability, the charm are always there. Interviewed twice by the police? So? Colleagues and advisers arrested? What of it? Ten years of rising prison numbers, a spavined health service, and restricted social mobility? Well, so you say." —Simon Heffer

It means just what Blair chooses it to mean

Alice in Wonderland"These days Mr Blair's answers in times of pressure have such a whimsical circularity that they are self-supporting structures — things are true because he says them. Consider the epistemological status of one of the pronouncements he made when the Iraq invasion had failed to uncover the weapons of mass destruction he had insisted existed. 'I only know what I believe,' he quavered to the Labour conference. The expression 'laughed out of court' seems hopelessly insufficient in the circumstances. One assumes a barrister attempting to advance such an argument would be offered psychiatric help." —Marina Hyde

Friday, February 02, 2007

Invasion of the Mooninites

Mooninites and Khomeini
Jesus' General, Boing Boing and Bruce Schneier are on the case.

This stunningly beautiful country has the tourist appeal of Afghanistan

Platano verde
"As long as the west refuses to curb its demand for cocaine - or legalise and commercialise it - the drug will be produced and traded from the entire Andean region. It is economic illiteracy to pretend that demand can be stemmed by curbing supply, and grotesquely unfair to persecute a poor supplier while one's own elite consumes vast quantities of the stuff. The corruption of Latin America's political economy by the west's narco guilt is sickening." —Simon Jenkins

Thursday, February 01, 2007

US: stop these Manichean delusions

"After World War II, the United States prevailed in the defense of democracy in Europe because it successfully pursued a long-term political strategy of uniting its friends and dividing its enemies, of soberly deterring aggression without initiating hostilities, all the while also exploring the possibility of negotiated arrangements. Today, America's global leadership is being tested in the Middle East. A similarly wise strategy of genuinely constructive political engagement is now urgently needed." —Former US National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski, in testimony this morning to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee (via Andrew Sullivan)

Lord Goldsmith's folly has now been brutally exposed

Lord Goldsmith"The manner in which the criminal investigation of alleged corruption was halted by the attorney general in relation to BAE Systems, like the Suez example, shows how fragile and inadequate are our present constitutional arrangements for protecting the rule of law. This scandal will not bring down the government. But it has gravely eroded public confidence in the government's integrity and it will be an unsavoury part of Tony Blair's precious legacy." —Lord Lester

Fair trade and technology

Can technology make trade fairer? I've been working with colleagues at the universities of Cambridge, Bradford and Queen Mary on a new EPSRC-funded research project to find out. You can read more at our Fair Tracing blog.

We are currently completing preparations for our first field trip to visit our partners in the coffee-growing regions of southern India. I'll also be talking about our work at the India International Coffee Festival in Bangalore, and the Doors of Perception design conference in Delhi. It's going to be an exciting and (hopefully) worthwhile project!

Protect your vote!

ORG e-voting week