Sunday, September 30, 2007

The Internet provides limited support to freedom fighters

"I am not persuaded that the internet and mobile phone make peaceful uprising easier. In the technology race between state and the people, the state has constantly moved to control technology or equip itself with the means of spying on its citizens, as in Britain and the USA. The Chinese first censored Google, then allowed the US search engine to censor itself, which, if nothing else, proves that a company which celebrated its ninth birthday last week has the morals to match its age…

"But the thing that should come to us as we allow the sequestration of our rights to assemble in Parliament Square, to communicate without being monitored and to move about without being watched is that once these things disappear into the vaults of the state, we face a long, perilous fight to reclaim them." —Henry Porter

The snooper's charter bites

"In the past, surveillance was based on the targeting of specific individuals or groups. Now, systematic surveillance pro-actively profiles millions of people at a time – an often futile quest to second-guess the bad guys by treating everyone as a potential suspect… It is time for [Information Commissioner] Mr Thomas and the watchdogs to start growling." —Simon Davies

Saturday, September 29, 2007

Burma: another triumph for the world community

"These international outrages always give us the chance to see other countries in their true colours: it said much for the way Russia is going that, when invited by France to do something through the UN to help Burma, the reply was that it would send observers into Paris the next time there were riots in France.

"Russia's support for totalitarianism should have it thrown out of the G8, where it sits like a philanderer in a convent." —Simon Heffer

Gordon Brown is less than he seems

Gordon Brown"You might have thought that impatience for command and the long years during which he was denied it would have turned Gordon Brown and his political acolytes into a team bursting with ideas and energy, full of talent, exuberant at the chance to put their ideas on show. You would have been disappointed. They looked like a shadow administration, muscles wasted, minds soured, lost for words, reaching for the comfort of old clich├ęs: second-raters surprised by the light." —Matthew Parris

Friday, September 28, 2007

The war on electronics


After the whole Aqua Teen Hunger Force fiasco, police in Massachussetts have outdone themselves by nearly shooting dead a 19-year old student who had the temerity to enter Logan airport with a home-made lit-up jumper (via BoingBoing).

Instead of fighting electronics, liquid, denim jackets and abstract nouns, wouldn't it be nice if police concentrated on activites that had some chance of actually preventing terrorist atrocities?

Learning to live with Big Brother

"On the face of things, the information age renders impossible an old-fashioned, file-collecting dictatorship, based on a state monopoly of communications. But imagine what sort of state may emerge as the best brains of a secret police force—a force whose house culture treats all dissent as dangerous—perfect the art of gathering and using information on massive computer banks, not yellowing paper." —The Economist

AC Grayling on ID cards

AC Grayling"Q: Are ID cards either philosophically or pragmatically justifiable?

"A: Emphatically no. A requirement for every citizen to carry a device that enables the authorities to demand immediate information about them dramatically changes the relationship of individuals to the state, from being private citizens to being numbered conscripts. An ID card or device (technology will rapidly supplant plastic cards because the latter are too easily lost or stolen) is a surveillance instrument, a tracking device, like a car number plate or the kind of tag punched into a cow's ear." (via No2ID)

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Burma cyber-dissidents crack censorship

Burmese campaignersBBC News has an interesting article on the circumvention of Internet filters by Burmese campaigners, including a quote from me: "The Burmese government has a very repressive filtering regime… but it can be a bit inconsistent — one of the internet service providers blocks only international sites, the other only regional ones." You can find out much more on the OpenNet Initiative's Burma page.

Intelligence is banal

Richard DearloveAn interesting Real-Time Club dinner last night, featuring a speech by ex-MI6 Chief Sir Richard Dearlove and an hour of discussion. One of my favourite comments of the evening (Chatham House rules forbid me from attributing!) was that "intelligence is banal" — it is about piecing together many pieces of mundane information to create something useful.

There was also much debate about the effectiveness of the UK's intelligence agencies. One attendee pointed out major successes in halting Libya's progress towards nuclear status and in forcing the IRA to the negotiating table. I would recommend UK Eyes Alpha by Mark Urban for a counterpoint. Urban's conclusion in 1997 was that UK agencies had failed to provide value for money since the end of the Second World War, funking the Cold War and other tasks. The Irish War by Tony Geraghty has excellent coverage of the activities of intelligence agencies and special forces in Northern Ireland.

Another interesting comment was that while compartmentalisation during the Cold War kept HUMINT and SIGINT separate, they are now much better integrated. Critical to the agencies' work is analysis of vast quantities of data obtained from communications providers, banks, airlines and other industry sectors. In other words, even if you are paranoid, they are still out to get you :)

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Harvard CO-OP Gets an "F" on Intellectual Property

"Under my proposed 'Anti-IP Troll Free Speech Protection And Competition Enhancement Act,' Congress would give people a right to gain both injunctive relief and statutory penalties when harassed with frivolous intellectual property claims.

"Because as this most recent example of 'Murphy’s Law at the Harvard Coop' demonstrates, it has become just all too easy to make vague claims about 'intellectual property' to justify all manner of harassment. And unless we provide some possible consequences for abusing people with bogus intellectual copyright claims, people and businesses that want to suppress speech or hinder competition will keep doing it." —Harold Feld (via A2K)

The real price of freedom

"There are those who see the fight against al-Qaeda as a war like the second world war or the cold war. But the first analogy is wrong and the moral of the second is not the one intended.

"A hot, total war like the second world war could not last for decades, so the curtailment of domestic liberties was short-lived. But because nobody knew whether the cold war would ever end (it lasted some 40 years), the democracies chose by and large not to let it change the sort of societies they wanted to be. This was a wise choice not only because of the freedom it bestowed on people in the West during those decades, but also because the West's freedoms became one of the most potent weapons in its struggle against its totalitarian foes.

"If the war against terrorism is a war at all, it is like the cold war—one that will last for decades. Although a real threat exists, to let security trump liberty in every case would corrode the civilised world's sense of what it is and wants to be." —The Economist

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Directionless.gov

Waiting for Islington
It's easy to get frustrated at the cack-handed nature of many government computerisation projects. However, I had two reminders of the alternative recently. First I had to wait over an hour at Islington's customer "service" centre for a parking permit that was bizzarely unavailable online. As you can see from the photo, most of the service desks were empty, and we were given no indication of how much longer we were likely to have to wait.

Queuing to register at UCL
Then I came across the queue of new postgraduate students waiting to register at UCL, which snaked through the north cloisters and around the quad outside. Was there no way this first "customer" experience of the university could be better managed through UCL's extensive online services?

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Privacy watchdog sounds alarm on police data protection

Peter HustinxEuropean Data Protection Supervisor Peter Hustinx has warned that the EU is trying to water down the protection of personal data in the law enforcement sphere:

"When the [Data Protection Framework Decision] was first proposed, it was supposed to cover all aspects of policing and the judiciary. The recent agreement by the Council severely limits the scope of the text, and therefore also limits the level of protection the European citizen can expect from the resulting agreement. As I have stated in previous Opinions, the DPFD cannot lessen the level of protection offered, otherwise this will make it more difficult for police services to meet their international obligations."

Who 0wns the Internet?

If you are in Glasgow late October you might be interested in the seminar I am giving for the university: Who 0wns the Internet?

Monday, September 17, 2007

The revenge of the competition regulators

Microsoft has lost its appeal against the half-a-billion euros fine imposed in 2004 by the European Commission for anti-competitive behaviour.

The network effects in many digital markets make competition law more vital than ever if we are to see vibrant free markets. A loss today for the Commission's competition directorate would have been disastrous, forcing them to tread much more carefully in regulating digital monopolists. Hopefully this morning's ruling from the Court of First Instance will encourage them to act more boldly in future.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Defeating terror the British way

"Due process and the rule of law have protected us for centuries. They should not be sacrificed now. That is why the government should explore a number of changes which will make it easier to bring terror suspects to British courts: allowing the Crown Prosecution Service to bring charges even when there is a delay in producing all the evidence; the use of postcharge questioning, with appropriate safeguards, when there is a need to obtain further information. The use of 'plea-bargaining' should be used more in terrorism cases so that suspects on the edge of terror plots are encouraged to provide intelligence on terror masterminds. Intercept evidence should be made admissible in court.

"Taken together these measures would represent a powerful strengthening of our ability to bring terrorists to justice. They go with the grain of our own legal traditions and safeguards and would avoid a fruitless parliamentary spat on the further extension of the 28-day period during which suspects can be held without charge. The fact that Gordon Brown is determined to make this the centrepiece of his antiterror package, without producing compelling evidence of its necessity, suggests he is just as susceptible to political grandstanding on terrorism as his predecessor." —Nick Clegg MP

Our sex lives are our own business

"A revolution of thought needs to take place. The personal information of innocent people, their digital footprints, their movements, as well as the things consenting adults get up to must not be allowed to become the property of the state or the subject of regulation by a lot of po-faced, reformed dope-smokers who can think of little but the improvement of their fellow human beings." —Henry Porter

On being a professional geek

The EFF crowd
Wendy Grossman has a nice article in the Telegraph on the damaging impact for the UK of the computing industry's public image. You may find its explanation of my interest in computer science amusing :)

Friday, September 14, 2007

Oh! What a Lovely War on Terror

"With the threat of communism gone, the military/industrial complex needs a new cause. Allied to a booming police and intelligence bureaucracy, it has grasped eagerly at terrorism. It has no interest in keeping that threat in proportion, and every interest in exaggerating it. To cover the bungles that led to 9/11, this security/industrial complex portrayed the terrorists as awesome and ubiquitous, capable of building vast bomb-proof bunkers in the Hindu Kush, fake plans of which were dumped on a gullible press. State security agencies dance to the tune of Oh! What a Lovely War. They enslave the language of freedom in the cause of repression." —Simon Jenkins.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Fears over NHS e-records system

The Commons health select committee has today published its report into electronic patient records and attacked the security of the scheme.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Nothing new under the sun

Allan Horsfall has a knock-out riposte to yesterday's floating of government plans to criminalise the purchasing of sex. Lord Wolfenden wrote 50 years ago in his report that revolutionised UK sex laws:

Prostitution is a social fact deplorable in the eyes of moralists, sociologists and, we believe, the great majority of ordinary people. But it has persisted in many civilisations throughout many centuries, and the failure of attempts to stamp it out by repressive legislation shows that it cannot be eradicated through the agency of the criminal law. It remains true that without a demand for her services the prostitute could not exist, and that there are enough men who avail themselves of prostitutes to keep the trade alive. It also remains true that there are women who, even when there is no economic need to do so, choose this form of livelihood. For as long as these propositions continue to be true there will be prostitution, and no amount of legislation directed towards its abolition will abolish it.

Public consultation is a bromide for democracy

"I have followed the politics of development planning for long enough to recognise that public consultation is even easier to manipulate than parliamentary politics. In several cases I have seen how fake consultations have been used to manufacture consent among unwilling populations, giving a semblance of democracy to decisions that have already been made by property developers and venal councillors. This is by no means an argument against consultation or participation, just a warning that it is not a magic formula for democratic renewal. Every process can be corrupted: all forms of democracy require perpetual vigilance." —George Monbiot

I highly recommend The Future of Freedom by Fareed Zakaria as a detailed examination of the problems of direct democracy.

Monday, September 10, 2007

CIA director flunks an interrogation

"Our nation’s reputation has been trashed around the world. We are now despised and distrusted by populations which only a few years ago were close allies. We have provided the necessary fuel to resurrect and spread Islamic radicalism around the world. Are we safer as a result of these practices? No, our country is far less safe. The Taliban is resurgent in Afghanistan. Osama bin Laden remains free to tape his appeals and recruit. And our sense is that Al Qaeda is at least as strong as it was on 9/11. Those are the measures of a widespread failure–it’s a failure of leadership, of vision, of ideas." —Scott Horton (via Andrew Sullivan)

Colluding with terrorism

"If truth is the first casualty of war, then liberty is the second. The 'war on terror' has become, albeit often inadvertently, a war on liberty. Faced with the threat of mass terror attacks like 7/7, our government has concluded that maintaining both security and freedom is too complicated, difficult and costly. Liberty has to be sacrificed for the greater good." —Peter Tatchell

Sunday, September 09, 2007

Labour loves a man in uniform

"Under Labour, the police have been given everything they asked for by way of money and new powers and with these they have acquired a sense of entitlement and air of menace that is wholly unsuitable to the policing of a largely peaceful democratic state. Meanwhile, the poor bloody army has suffered cutbacks, shortages of equipment and the truly calamitous indifference of the public to the service and sacrifice that young soldiers are making every day." —Henry Porter

The Shock Doctrine

Shock DoctrineNaomi Klein and Alfonso Cuarón have created a powerful short film to promote Klein's new book The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism.

I am a huge fan of Cuarón's Oscar-winning Children of Men, and like Klein, worry that the horrific refugee camps it portrays are easily imaginable in a future Britain over-run by millions fleeing climate catastrophe in the developing world.

I also greatly enjoy Klein's work. No Logo is beautifully written — although I agree with The Economist that Klein's central thesis is wrong, and that brands allow consumers to make more ethical purchasing decisions than is possible with unbranded commodity goods. Prof. Jeffrey Sachs, no snout-in-trough capitalist, similarly argues that investment by multinational companies is an essential step to raising countries out of poverty.

Klein/Cuarón's short film is a powerful indictment of the US torture techniques honed over decades and unleashed with a vengeance by George Bush. However, I think Klein is again wrong to link this torture so centrally with the global advance of free-market economics. It is clear that US support for Augusto Pinochet's coup against socialist Salvador Allende led to a dictatorship of torturing fascists whose governing programme included radical reform of that country's economy. However, it is twisting history to argue that Boris Yeltsin's brave squashing of an attempted Communist coup against Mikhail Gorbachev was linked to his later economic reform programme and its unfortunate promotion of gangster capitalism.

Inter-cutting scenes of electroshock therapy with pictures of Milton Friedman, Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan will sadly lead many to dismiss the whole film as hysterical nonsense. This is unfortunate, given the more sophisticated debate it should provoke on democratic control of economic reform. Still, it will doubtless sell millions of books.

UPDATE: Jonathan Fenby explains in today's Guardian why Klein is also wrong to cite China in support of her "shock therapy" thesis.

UPDATE 2: "The fall of the Soviets is a crime against democracy? What has that woman been smoking?" —Tim Worstall

Taking liberties with our DNA

"If Whitehall cannot manage the details of a few farmers one dreads to think what the nomenklatura would do with about 90m new genetic profiles, or indeed with our NHS medical details. Even when they did not abuse, lose, confuse or accidentally reveal our secrets themselves, other people would most certainly steal them to abuse them, through hacking or corruption as well as inadequate security." —Minette Marin

Saturday, September 08, 2007

Google's privacy not good enough

"It is unlikely that Google's justification for retaining server log data to improve the quality of its search services and to comply with security-related obligations elsewhere will be regarded as acceptable by the Article 29 Working Party…

"The Retention Directive only applies to data that is generated or processed by providers of publicly available electronic communications services or of public communications networks and even if Google's search service was caught on a wide interpretation of this, it would be unlikely that the categories of data given in the Retention Directive could be extended by EU Member States in their implementing legislation to cover the contents of a search query." —Lisa Comber, Faegre & Benson LLP

Quantifying the Cost of Substandard Patents

Quantifying the Cost of Substandard Patents: Some Preliminary Evidence (Phoenix Center for Advanced Legal & Economic Public Policy Studies):

The purpose of patent policy is to balance the incentive to invent against the ability of the economy to utilize and incorporate new inventions and innovations. Substandard patents that upset this balance impose deadweight losses and other costs on the economy. In this policy paper, we examine some of the deadweight losses that result from granting substandard patents in the United States. Under plausible assumptions, we find that the economic losses resulting from the grant of substandard patents can reach $21 billion per year by deterring valid research with an additional deadweight loss from litigation and administrative costs of $4.5 billion annually. This brings the total deadweight loss created by our “dented” patent system to be at least $25.5 billion annually. These estimates may be viewed as conservative because they do not take into account other economic costs from our existing patent system, such as the consumer welfare losses from granting monopoly rents to patent holders that have not, in the end, invented a novel product, or the full social value of the innovations lost.

Friday, September 07, 2007

Electronic downloads make us want our Pavarottis in person

"For all the glittering array of micro-technology, most of us still rise, dress, eat, work and play with much the same requirements as we did half a century ago. Electronic technology has made it easier and cheaper to acquire a better quality of life. But what we want to do with it is remarkably constant. E-topia has altered the means but offered no new message." —Simon Jenkins

Thursday, September 06, 2007

What caused the £1.5bn farm payments fiasco?

"The single payment scheme's … implementation last year to a near-impossible timetable was a masterclass in bad decision-making, poor planning, incomplete testing of IT systems, confused lines of responsibility, scant objective management information and a failure by the management team to face up to the unfolding crisis." —Edward Leigh, chairman of the Public Accounts Committee

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Free Trade Agreements vs sovereignty

Former World Bank chief economist Joseph Stiglitz is none too keen on US Free Trade Agreements:

It’s not about trading goods; it’s about losing sovereignty. And it’s about helping American drug companies. It’s about America pushing for a particular agenda. It has not benefited any country. In fact, the free trade agreement with Mexico was the strongest, but the gap between Mexico and the United States increased in the first decade.

Why MI5 spied on Orwell for a decade

"This man has advanced communist views … He dresses in a bohemian fashion both at his office and in his leisure hours." —Special Branch Sergeant Ewing

Monday, September 03, 2007

Blogzilla goes to Berlin

You can read about Blogzilla's weekend voyage to Berlin (via the wonders of a Deutsche Bahn Nachtzug) on the ORG website. Back to Munich tomorrow to talk cybercrime!

Saturday, September 01, 2007

Should ISPs try to keep packets within the EU?

Changes to the US Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act provoked an interesting discussion with some colleagues. Does European data protection law require in any way that Internet Service Providers keep intra-EU Internet traffic within European networks? After all, IP addresses are personal data and European organisations are not allowed to export personal data to countries (like the US) without adequate data protection law.

One colleague noted that Recital 47 of the Data Protection Directive (95/46/EC) specifies that ISPs are data controllers in respect of personal data added to communications that are "necessary for the operation of the service." Do they therefore have to ensure packets are only sent outside the EU when necessary for the performance of their contract with a user, or get explicit consent (Article 26 DPD)?

Another replied that peering/transit ISPs, who would normally be responsible for international links, cannot link IP addresses to customer identities — that can only be done easily by the customers' own ISP. Of course, those with access to the customer's ISP records can also make this link, which in the UK means a large part of the government.

It seems therefore that this question can only be answered by a very detailed examination of the "necessity" test as applied to ISP routing decisions, and how easily data may be linked to an individual to be defined as personal data under specific national laws.