Thursday, August 30, 2007

Give peace a chance. Forget the war on drugs

"The global war against drugs is in contradiction to the war against violent crime at home and the war against terrorism internationally. Legalising, or at least decriminalising, drugs would, not on its own, end terrorism or gang violence — and it is no substitute for long-term measures to promote development abroad or improve education at home. But a ceasefire in the war against drugs would at least give peace a chance — not only in Afghanistan, but also in the streets of Britain." —Anatole Kaletsky

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Inquisitor-General to spend more time in his torture chamber

Alberto Gonzales
"Gonzales' legacy is so resoundingly awful that one can't imagine which of his failures and transgressions his eventual obituary writers and future historians will highlight. Lying to Congress, which is the clear implication made in testimony by his former aide Monica Goodling? Potential witness tampering, another charge Goodling made implicitly under oath? Helping Bush cover up his old drunk driving conviction?

"Wait, there's more! Helping Bush, then governor of Texas, set a modern record for one governor in ordering 150 executions, reviewing in his capacity as Bush's counsel more than fifty clemency applications and never recommending clemency once? Later, declaring the Geneva Conventions 'quaint'?

"And of course, there's overseeing the firings of nine US attorneys because they would not participate in overtly political prosecutions." —Michael Tomasky

Monday, August 27, 2007


"The added benefit of a new national children’s database is arguable at best. Public confidence in it will be undermined from the start if some information is withheld on such subjective grounds as who qualifies as a celebrity. What information is included may be too basic to be useful, and it may not even include nonpermanent UK residents — such as Victoria Climbié. The Government should spend the money on child safety measures that are less invidious, and less invasive." —The Times

As I said in the accompanying front-page article: when you have got more than 300,000 people accessing this database, it’s very difficult to stop the sale of information.

Happiness, economics and public policy

“A well-functioning democracy with a grip on reality are admittedly modest aims compared with the maximisation of world happiness, but they nevertheless take a certain effort to maintain. Proponents of the use of happiness measures are prepared to undermine economic freedom and democratic decision making in order to achieve the unachievable.” —Helen Johns and Paul Ormerod, on the launch of their report Happiness, Economics and Public Policy

See also commentary by the Guardian's economics editor Larry Elliott.

Reality sewage

"Endemol — the company that has sprayed viewers with a constant diet of reality TV raw sewage for the past seven years." —Rod Liddle

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Hitchens vs Bush

"How do I dislike President George Bush? Let me count the ways. Most of them have to do with his contented assumption that 'faith' is, in and of itself, a virtue. This self-satisfied mentality helps explain almost everything, from the smug expression on his face to the way in which, as governor of Texas, he signed all those death warrants without losing a second's composure." —Christopher Hitchens

Friday, August 24, 2007

The security state as infotainment

"If videotaping activists meets the legal requirement that dissenting citizens have the right to be seen and heard, what else might fit the bill? How about all the other security cameras that patrolled the summit — the ones filming demonstrators as they got on and off buses and peacefully walked down the street? What about the mobile phone calls that were intercepted, the meetings that were infiltrated, the emails that were read? According to the new rules set out in Montebello, all these actions may soon be recast not as infringements on civil liberties but the opposite: proof of our leaders' commitment to direct, unmediated consultation. Elections are a crude tool for taking the public temperature — these methods allow constant, exact monitoring of our beliefs. Think of surveillance as the new participatory democracy; of wiretapping as the political equivalent of MTV's Total Request Live." —Naomi Kleine

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

FISA Changes Mean Heartburn for European Lawmakers

Dugie Stanford has a nice article in yesterday's Washington Internet Daily on European legislators' concerns over the weakening of the US Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. US intelligence agencies may now put Americans' international communications under surveillance without court authorisation. My comment at the end of the story:

Americans are "quite right" to be alarmed over broader warrantless surveillance of their communications,
but the revamped law makes no practical difference to Europeans, said Ian Brown, a research fellow at the Oxford Internet Institute. Intelligence agencies "don't tend to take much notice" of other countries' privacy laws, and the National Security Agency historically has wiretapped foreigners whenever it wanted, he said. In fact, Brown said, most European intelligence units care less about privacy than their U.S. counterparts. He predicted European Parliament members' efforts won't get far.

Stop this lazy scape-goating of human rights

"Frances Lawrence suggests that for taking her husband's right to life his killer should be deprived of his own human rights. Who among us would feel any differently about a man who had killed a loved one? But we utterly fail her family and others who have lost a relative to murder by lazily scape-goating human rights for society's ills." —Katie Ghose

"The alternative &mdash to allow subjective feeling to overrule rational law &mdash is to move back towards the days of crude local justice, of public stocks and floggings and hangings; to the Salem witchhunts, to the boatloads of convicts headed for Van Diemen’s Land." —Alice Miles

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Beneath Heathrow's pall of misery

"We haven't prevented runaway climate change by camping beside Heathrow and by surrounding the offices of BAA, and nor did we expect to do so. But we have made it harder for Alf Pereira and the other invisible people to be swept aside, and harder for the government to forget that its plan for perpetual growth in corporate utopia is also a plan for the destruction of life on earth." —George Monbiot

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Heat: How to Stop the Planet Burning

George MonbiotAnyone hoping to do much flying during their remaining years should think carefully before picking up George Monbiot's latest environmental onslaught.

Heat: How to Stop the Planet Burning (Penguin, 2007) describes the growing evidence that we must reduce carbon emissions by 90% by 2030 if we are to prevent catastrophic climate change from killing millions through famine, flooding and other eco-disasters. Heat sets out a series of practical steps by which we could reach this demanding target. While Monbiot can successfully "fix" the housing, energy, retail and transport systems, after a valiant attempt he concludes that "long-distance travel, high speed and the curtailment of climate change are not compatible. If you fly, you destroy other people's lives" (p.188).

The book is a carefully researched, detailed look at the most arcane details of German housing standards, wind/wave/solar energy technology, supermarket design and a whole range of other subjects that are critical to demolish our carbon emissions. It is also an exhilarating and well-aimed kick in the balls for airport chiefs, energy industry lobbyists, Nigella Lawson, politicians, transport officials, hyperactive businessmen and everyone else who values their comfort and convenience above the lives of millions of citizens of the developing world. Monbiot's beautiful writing makes you alternately laugh, cry and wince:

The middle-class people I know still fly to the Canaries for their holidays. Some of them still have second homes in Croatia and Greece. One environmentalist flies from the UK to Thailand to have a pipe stuck up his bottom (the proper term, I am told, is 'colonic irrigation'). They drive Volvos or sporty convertibles. They use a gas to heat their homes (even in the summer) and have radiators in their conservatories. Many of them haven't even bothered to replace their incandescent lightbulbs.

Yes, it is true that they recycle their bottles and buy handmade candles, organic meat and locally produced vegetables. This permits them to feel that they are on the side of the angels, without being obliged to make any significant change to the way they live. But as soon as they are asked to make a decision which intrudes on the quality or quantity of their lives, their concern about the state of the planet mysteriously evapourates. If the biosphere is wrecked, it will be done by nice, well-meaning, cosmopolitan people who accept the case for cutting emissions, but who won't change by one iota the way they live.

While I have recently been taking the train on trips to western Europe, this book is making me think very seriously indeed about travelling further afield in future. My cycling, recycling, living in a well-insulated flat and being vegetarian are all totally overwhelmed by the carbon emissions of just one or two intercontinental flights each year.

Monbiot deserves the highest praise for the radical yet practical course he sets out in both this book and his weekly Guardian columns. The quality of the research, writing and most importantly message of Heat deserves the widest possible audience.

The Meaning of the 21st Century

James MartinJames Martin does not think small. The Meaning of the 21st Century (Eden Project Books, 2007) is a grand sweep through the incredible challenges and opportunities facing humanity over the next 100 years. It contrasts total nuclear and biological destruction, catastrophic climate change and destitute nations with artificial intellects millions of times faster than our own, the end of ageing and a global high civilisation that recalls the best of the Enlightenment and the Renaissance. Martin believes that if global society can learn to deal with these challenges, it will be rewarded with limitless opportunities after 2100. He is however greatly exercised that rapidly developing technologies and growing global inequality could set our civilisation back hundreds of years.

The Meaning of the 21st Century is a breathtaking tour of the nascent technologies and trends that make today's young people the "transition generation" who must manage this most difficult confluence of circumstances. Much futurology is full of whacky and highly improbable predictions, but Martin simply projects forward well-established trends such as the doubling of computing power every 18 months, rapid population growth and the fast-increasing understanding of genetics and nanotechnology. He interviewed an outstanding collection of scientists, politicians and economists as background, including Lord Patten, Martin Rees, John McCain, Freeman Dyson, J. Craig Ventner, Hernando de Soto and Gordon Moore.

The book is (understandably) lacking detail in some of the areas it considers. For those with the time, I would recommend Collapse by Jared Diamond for a better guide to the success or failure of societies, and The End of Poverty by Jeffrey Sachs on ridding the world of extreme poverty. I also disagreed with some of Martin's recommendations, particularly that future counter-terrorism will require total surveillance with privacy protected only by electronic locks:

Category A people are security-cleared and have automatic identification. A wireless beam can interrogate their identity card (which may be in the form of a ring, racelet or necklace). They can walk through immigration checkpoints or go into the Four Seasons restaurant in New York unaware of the computers that are tracking and validating them. Category B people are essentially good people who choose not to have the automatic identification; they will often be stopped unless they avoid secured places. Category C people will lack full security clearance and will often be subjected to close examination. Category D people will be automatically blocked. (p.355)

This is one of the worse examples of the book's sometime combination of technological enthusiasm with naivety concerning social context. I would prefer we put our energies into building a society where terrorism remains a containable threat rather than a justification for total surveillance and rampant social sorting, which "electronic locks" will not hold back for long.

Nonetheless, the book is a clarion call to politicians, businesses and above all today's school and university students. They all must urgently take action if humanity is to make it unscathed through to the 22nd century.

The God Delusion

Richard DawkinsRichard Dawkins' broadside against religion has been the surprise literary hit of the last year. I waited for the paperback, needing little convincing that religion is an understandable but illogical way to comprehend the world and deal with its everyday problems. Fortunately I've now had the chance to read this hugely enjoyable ode to science and atheism.

Dawkins has long been an excellent science author (The Selfish Gene and Climbing Mount Improbable are engrossing explanations of evolution and should be read by anyone who wants to understand how the natural world works). The God Delusion turns this talent to the supernatural claims of Christianity, Judaism, Islam and the world's other faiths. Dawkins shows that simple scientific method can demonstrate to be highly improbable claims of supernatural beings, afterlives and other widely-believed superstititions. He patiently demolishes a long list of religious nostrums, especially demands that we "respect" bigotry against non-believers, free speech, homosexuality, women, and the rest of the long list of targets of sections of the Bible, Qur'an and other sacred fairy tales:

The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, meglomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully. Those of us schooled from infancy in his ways can become densensitized to their horror. A naif blessed with the perspective of innocence has a clearer perception. (p.51)

Along the way Dawkins shows why morality can (and should) exist independently of religion; the negative impact of religious belief upon society; and why children should be allowed to make up their own minds about their parents' faiths. He (and I) are horrified that the UK government is promoting further sectarian divides by financing new schools segregated on religious grounds.

This book should be a compulsory part of the national curriculum, both for its dissection of religion and its crystal-clear exposition of the scientific method and critical thinking. We are fortunate to have such a powerful thinker and communicator stand up for science in this age of theocracies (including parts of the US government). And as Dawkins says in the preface: "Blasphemy is a victimless crime."

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Dragged into Iraq by a war-hungry clique of military innocents

"From time to time someone says in the Telegraph that we should bring back national service to stiffen the unruly younger generation. Much more to the point would be if no MP were allowed to vote for any war who had not first carried a rifle and, better still, heard the proverbial shot fired in anger. It would concentrate their minds." —Geoffrey Wheatcroft

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Lords a-creeping

"[Lord] Black, who coveted the title so much he sued the prime minister of Canada for blocking his path to English nobility (and ultimately renounced his Canadian citizenship in order to obtain it), is clearly a rogue and a criminal who stole millions of dollars from innocent shareholders. He may spend the rest of his life in jail, but do his crimes warrant an expulsion from England's elite fraternity of aristocrats? A quick glance at a colorful carousel of British lords who dignified their titles with leather pants, porn stars, grenade launchers, and a colony of prostitutes suggests maybe not." —Nick Curran

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Dirty Little Fingers, In Everybody's Pie

"It's always good to remember that in order to make it marginally more difficult for Americans to get high, not only are you footing the $1.9 billion bill it costs the Drug Enforcement Agency to raid homes, pay snitches, arrest doctors, spray poison across Latin America, and storm medical marijuana clinics each year, you also pay your bank to spy on your financial transactions on behalf of the U.S. government." —Radley Balko

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Conservatives attack data protection law

John Redwood MP
John Redwood MP has trailed Tory deregulation plans that would allegedly save UK businesses £14bn each year — including the scrapping of UK data protection laws. Given the strong EU attachment to the Data Privacy Directive and the key part it plays in the single market, alongside the UK's commitments under the Council of Europe human rights and privacy treaties, this is fantasy policymaking. Can we please have something meaningful from the Conservatives on their privacy plans, which are otherwise more sensible (e.g. scrapping ID cards)?

The counter-reformation is coming

"[The digital revolution] is the biggest thing to happen in communications since the printing press. Blogs and YouTube videos are passed around from Basra to Bradford, flooding society in the same way vernacular Bibles and pamphlets exploded into 15th-century Europe. Established authorities were complacent about their monopoly on information. Now, they are like the Catholic hierarchy when people stopped listening to the Latin liturgy and started reading the Gospel and interpreting it for themselves. This is a media Reformation." —Rafel Behr

Friday, August 10, 2007

Lords publish Personal Internet Security report

Lord BroersThe House of Lords Science and Technology Committee has just published its report (led by Lord Broers) on Personal Internet Security. Without overstating the problem, they note the growing damage that online crime is doing to public confidence in the Internet, and call for the government to better incentivise organisations' security efforts.

One of the commitee's main recommendations is that companies need to take more responsibility for their customers' safety online, with suggestions that liability should be imposed on software vendors, financial institutions and Internet Service Providers. The committee also criticises the low priority given by the police to e-crime, not least through the merger of the National High-Tech Crime Unit into the Serious Organised Crime Agency, which is focused on larger-scale criminality, and the hand-off to the banks of responsibility for reporting online financial fraud.

It's nice to see a specific suggestion on bank liability, which Nicholas Bohm, Brian Gladman and I recommended in a 2000 paper (Electronic commerce: who carries the risk of fraud?):

8.16. The steps currently being taken by many businesses trading over the Internet to protect their customer’s personal information are inadequate. The refusal of the financial services sector in particular to accept responsibility for the security of personal information is disturbing, and is compounded by apparent indifference at Government level. Governments and legislators are not in position to prescribe the security precautions that should be taken; however, they do have a responsibility to ensure that the right incentives are in place to persuade businesses to take the necessary steps to act proportionately to protect personal data. (5.53)

8.17. We therefore recommend that the Government introduce legislation, consistent with the principles enshrined in common law and, with regard to cheques, in the Bills of Exchange Act 1882, to establish the principle that banks should be held liable for losses incurred as a result of electronic fraud. (5.54)

Liability for software companies is trickier. Would Free/Open Source Software be exempt? If so, this creates a strong market incentive towards its use (which is not necessarily a bad thing.) If not, will liability fall on authors, download sites, and/or organisations such as the Apache Software Foundation — all of whom would likely react by exiting the software market? The committee suggests a "good samaritan" exemption for FOSS authors, although not aggregators and service companies such as Red Hat.

Limited liability for Internet Service Providers that fail to take reasonable steps to prevent the origination of spam and Denial of Service attacks from their networks is sensible, although the details will be hard to get right. ISPs are not the pots of gold that record companies and others sometimes claim, and have no wish to be the gatekeepers to the Internet envisioned by some lobbyists. Over-broad ISP regulation will increase the cost of Internet access and damage the government's efforts to reduce the digital divide. Lilian Edwards has some suggestions on the creation of a "security commons" that are worth considering.

Overall the report has a raft of sensible suggestions for improving the trustworthiness of the Internet in the UK. The Home Office has responded positively to the report and hopefully will consult widely over legislation to implement the report's recommendations.

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Post-election audits: restoring trust in elections

The Brennan Center has released a set of extremely timely recommendations on the auditing of elections:

  • Post-election audits of voter-verifiable paper records are a critical tool for detecting ballot-counting errors, discouraging fraud, and improving the security and reliability of electronic voting machines in future elections. Unfortunately, of the thirty-eight states that require or use voter-verifiable paper records throughout the state, twenty-three do not require such audits after every election.

  • Of the few states that currently require and conduct post-election audits, none has adopted audit models that will maximize the likelihood of finding clever and targeted software-based attacks, non-systemic programming errors, and software bugs that could change the outcome of an election.

  • We are aware of only one state, North Carolina, that has collected and made public the most significant data from post-election audits for the purpose of improving future elections. Based upon our review of state laws and interviews with state election officials, we have concluded that the vast majority of states conducting audits are not using them in a way that will maximize their ability to improve elections in the future.

  • Regardless of the audit model a jurisdiction implements, there are several simple, practical, and inexpensive procedures that it can adopt to achieve the most important post-election auditing goals, without imposing unnecessary burdens on election officials.

Monday, August 06, 2007

Survey says: only DRM-free music is worth paying for

The results are in from a large-scale consumer survey on Digital Rights Management (via Open Rights Group):

"The takeaway from the survey is that DRM's bad reputation is spreading among general music consumers, and there is a growing aversion to purchasing music that comes with DRM. Despite this, the general understanding of the struggle the industry faces with piracy is still somewhat positive among those same consumers. Still, given that file sharing in the UK is at an all-time high, it would appear that the the music industry needs to remove the digital locks on its tunes, and fast."

Sunday, August 05, 2007

The war for righteousness

"Now indubitably Saddam Hussein was unrighteous; but so are nearly all the masters of the 'emergent' African states, and so are the grim ideologues who rule China, and the hard men in the Kremlin, and a great many other public figures in various quarters of the world. Why, I fancy that there are some few unrighteous men, conceivably, in the domestic politics of the United States. Are we to saturation-bomb most of Africa and Asia into righteousness, freedom, and democracy? And, having accomplished that, however would we ensure persons yet more unrighteous might not rise up instead of the ogres we had swept away?" —Russell Kirk

Each DNA swab brings us closer to a police state

"Taken in the context of the ID card database, the national surveillance of vehicles and retention of information about every individual motorway journey, the huge number of new criminal offences, the half million intercepts of private communications every year, the proposed measures to take 53 pieces of information from everyone wishing to go abroad, which will include powers to prevent travel, this widening of the DNA database for minor misdemeanours confirms the pattern of attack on us all. It is time to pay attention to what the government under Labour has done to British society and what may be awaiting us just a short distance down the road." —Henry Porter

Saturday, August 04, 2007

Our privacy belongs to us not the Government

"Our privacy is something that belongs to us: not something the Government gives us, on probation, as a favour. They serve us: not vice versa. This may be a matter of principle, but it is one that could scarcely have more profound practical importance.

"The only way to make absolutely certain that a national DNA database is not subject to abuse — by this police service or any successor police service; by this Government or any successor government — is to make absolutely certain that such a database does not exist in the first place." —Sam Leith

I'd risk flying with terrorists to escape this airport hell

"Clearly, with our changing climate, the more reasons people have to hate airports the better. And the sooner we stop pretending air travel is a service industry — as opposed to a badly run nightmare world where every penalty and hardship is passed down to the little guy — the better." —Marina Hyde

Friday, August 03, 2007

The perfect e-voting storm

I was lucky enough last night to hear a presentation by two of the team that carried out the devastating security reviews of California's e-voting machines released yesterday. Short version: rampant voting viruses could eat your election. We have also this week heard about other attacks in Connecticut and Florida.

Time to invest in pencil manufacturers?

Thursday, August 02, 2007

How abominable can flying get?

"Just how abominable does flying have to get before many of us decide it's not worth the danger? The danger is not terrorism, but the extravagant efforts to combat it… With farcical regimes of 100ml toiletries in one-litre Ziploc bags, shoe x-rays, laptop swabs for explosives, banished kerbside drop-offs, delays, flight cancellations and whole terminal closures over endless 'security' concerns that these days no one bothers to explain to the hapless passengers, air travel in the UK can't get much worse short of collapse." —Lionel Shriver

Less talk, more action

"The Energy Performance Certificate promises to be another bright idea ruined by shoddy execution, another bodge-up in Blu-Tack Britain. It recalls other fiascos: the Child Support Agency, the chaotic implementation of family credit, rail privatisation, the NHS computer system, the reforms to the Passport Office, even the newly reported shortage of judges (in a country that has lawyers like barns have mice)… our public administration has specialised in low-level, chronic inefficiency with a counterpoint of big talk." —Libby Purves

Electoral Commission: stop e-voting trials

The Electoral Commission has published its evaluations of the May elections, including e-voting and e-counting trials. Its recommendations are:

  • No more pilots of electronic voting without a system of individual voter registration. There also needs to be further consideration of its wider implications and significant improvements to testing and implementation.

  • No further pilots of electronic counting, and more robust procurement and testing processes when electronic counting is used in future elections.

  • That the government makes a decision whether to allow voting in advance of polling day further pilots are unnecessary

  • That the government publishes a strategy for modernising the electoral process including changes to improve security

  • That the value of signing for ballot papers is limited in the absence of individual registration

Media coverage in the Guardian and BBC News.

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

The future of electronic patient records

An interesting report from the British Computer Society about two recent conferences on the future of electronic patient records:

We considered what sort of society we wanted and recalled the warning of information commissioner Richard Thomas that the UK could 'sleepwalk into a surveillance society' as a result of collecting more and more information about people that is accessible to many people and shared across many boundaries; just what should shared health and care records aim to do?