Wednesday, December 31, 2008

New year, new database madness

"So now we arrive here, at the beginning of 2009, in database mayhem. Our electronic information is being gathered at ever increasing speed. It is being kept everywhere from Newcastle to Iowa. It is unregulated and it is unaccounted for. It is being taken from cars, left on train seats, lost in the post, stolen left, right and centre by internet hackers of every stripe, by women's magazines keen to make a point, by schoolboys. Twenty five million of us have had our details compromised so far. And the government's greed for our private information is still not being reined in…

"Whether it's the public or the private sector that handles this morally compromised, wholly unjustifiable, technically unsustainable data-gathering exercise hardly matters, despite the protestations of some sectors of the IT and communications industry. What really matters is that it is being done at all." —Christina Zaba

Former DPP attacks intercept plans

Former Director of Public Prosecutions Sir Ken Macdonald is a man after my own heart. Regarding government plans to build a massive database tracking everyone's communications, he tells today's Guardian:
"This database would be an unimaginable hell-house of personal private information. It would be a complete readout of every citizen's life in the most intimate and demeaning detail. No government of any colour is to be trusted with such a roadmap to our souls."

Monday, December 29, 2008

Public goods, or private favours?

Lawrence Lessig has recently announced his return to Harvard University as director of the Safra Center for Ethics, sadly removing himself from the running for chairman of the Obama administration Federal Communications Commission. A great shame, given his clarion call for FCC reform:
"America's economic future depends upon restarting an engine of innovation and technological growth. A first step is to remove the government from the mix as much as possible. This is the biggest problem with communication innovation around the world, as too many nations who should know better continue to preference legacy communication monopolies. It is a growing problem in our own country as well, as corporate America has come to believe that investments in influencing Washington pay more than investments in building a better mousetrap. That will only change when regulation is crafted as narrowly as possible. Only then can regulators serve the public good, instead of private protection. We need to kill a philosophy of regulation born with the 20th century, if we're to make possible a world of innovation in the 21st."

Despite their clear legislative mandate to leave well alone ("Please note that Ofcom does not regulate the internet"), the UK's communications regulator is increasingly stepping in to debates over net neutrality, P2P blocking and other contentious Internet policy issues. To avoid problems of regulatory capture and anti-consumer initiatives, perhaps they should listen more carefully to Prof. Lessig.

Generation Crime

"The failure of Prohibition taught social reformers something important about regulatory humility: Too often liberals and conservatives alike simply assume that a law will achieve what the law seeks to achieve. Too rarely do they work out just how. Humility teaches us to rein in the law where it is doing no good, if only to protect it where it does good or where it is necessary.

"Copyright law's extremism is not necessary. We can achieve the objectives of copyright law—compensating artists—without criminalizing a generation. We need to start doing that, now." —Lawrence Lessig

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Labour party: meet the Internet

You sometimes can only despair at the comments of ministers regarding the Internet. Today's head-in-hands moment comes from Culture Secretary Andy Burnham:

"Leaving your child for two hours completely unregulated on the internet is not something you can do. This isn’t about turning the clock back. The internet has been empowering and democratising in many ways but we haven’t yet got the stakes in the ground to help people navigate their way safely around … what can be a very, very complex and quite dangerous world… The change of administration is a big moment. We have got a real opportunity to make common cause. The more we seek international solutions to this stuff — the UK and the US working together — the more that an international norm will set an industry norm."

It is hard to know what is more alarming: Burnham's ignorance of the US constitution and the limits it places on governmental action; or of the US debates throughout the 1990s on regulating online speech in which the US courts came down decisively against Congressional and Presidential efforts to restrict "obscenity":
As the most participatory form of mass speech yet developed, the Internet deserves the highest protection from governmental intrusion—just as the strength of the Internet is chaos, so the strength of our liberty depends upon the chaos and cacophony of the unfettered speech the First Amendment protects.

Sorry to push my own work on this subject yet again; but why bother documenting the practical options open to governments if they make technology policy in the style of King Canute?

Thursday, December 25, 2008

The year of the database state

"I've always believed that the democratic state must be given power to act on behalf of us all but that is not the same as the state granting itself powers to know everything about us and to bully those who resist its invasive instincts. In 2004, the Courts and Tribunals Enforcement Act made it legal for the first time in 400 years for bailiffs to force entry into homes on a civil order and remove goods. Now we hear from the Justice Ministry that bailiffs may offer reasonable violence to force inside their own homes. That gives us an idea of how the government plans to enforce the £1,000 fines handed out to ID card refuseniks — ultimately by violence meted out by men who may be no better than nightclub bouncers." —Henry Porter

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

My Christmas message? There's probably no God

"It is embarrassing to be the only western democracy that has theocracy built into its legislature. The 26 bishops in the Lords interfere regularly: they are a threat on abortion, and their campaign sank the Joffe bill, giving the terminally ill the right to die in dignity. Of course they should not be there, when only 16% of people will grace the pews on Christmas Day, and Christian Research forecasts church attendance falling by 90%. But a dying faith clings hard to its inexplicable influence on public life." —Polly Toynbee

Monday, December 22, 2008

The vital war on religion

"Secularists in the west say to the apologists of the religions: your beliefs are your choice, so take your place in the queue. They also say: you've had it your own way for a very long time — and committed a lot of crimes in the process — and you still fancy yourself entitled, but you aren't. You don't smell too good at times, so don't try to tell me what I can read, see on TV, do in my private time, think or say. In fact, keep your sticky fingers off my life. Believe what you like but don't expect me to admire or excuse you because of it: rather the contrary, given the fairy-stories in question. And when you are a danger to the lives and liberties of others, which alas is too frequently the wont of your ilk, we will speak out against you as loudly, persistently, and uncompromisingly as we can." —A.C. Grayling

"In our judgment, the appeal succeeds. The council were not taking disciplinary action against Ms Ladele for holding her religious beliefs; they did so because she was refusing to carry out civil partnership ceremonies and this involved discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation. The council were entitled to take the view that they were not willing to connive in that practice by relieving Ms Ladele of these duties, notwithstanding that her refusal was the result of her strong and genuinely held Christian beliefs. The council were entitled to take the view that this would be inconsistent with their strong commitment to the principles of non-discrimination and would send the wrong message to staff and service users." Judgment in London Borough of Islington v Ladele [2008] UKEAT 0453_08_1912

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Yahoo! mocks Google Privacy Theatre

"Yes, Yahoo! is balancing as well. But the wounded web portal has gone significantly further than Google to protect its users from hacks, subpoenas, and, yes, national security letters. The rub is that Yahoo! handles about 20 per cent of US search traffic — and Google commands 70." —Cade Metz

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Home Secretary doing best to attack our rights

Jacqui Smith
It is unsurprising to see that the home secretary's speech yesterday on "protecting rights" is full of evasions and half-truths. She switches from justifying surveillance powers to investigate terrorism and serious crime to discussing the needs of the TV Licensing Agency to catch "persistent offenders" (does Charles Moore know?) or for councils to evict "noisy neighbours." She waves shrouds about individual cases, when the evidence is that the bloating of our National DNA Database to a size far beyond anywhere else in the world has had little impact on crime. She continues the push towards the "modernisation" of interception, aka a £12bn centralised database containing details of everyone's communications and Internet activity.

Her rhetoric is unpleasant tabloid-baiting fantasy given the recent S and Marper decision of the European Court of Human Rights. Perhaps she has been taking lessons from the Secretary of State for Justice?

All this public waste is born of a macho bigness fixation

"Anyone inquiring after the £12bn NHS computer will know that this useless piece of equipment has nothing to do with efficiency or public benefit. It is merely the ultimate macho investment, a vast contract suitable for real men to play with, bespeaking big jobs for ex-officials and big freebies for ministers. The computer is to NHS bosses what ID cards are to the Home Office and aircraft carriers are to the MoD. They confer virility on ministers and managers alike, more so than equipping the poor bloody infantry on their respective frontlines. Gordon Brown at the weekend lauded the 'bravery' of dead marines in Afghanistan, ignoring the added bravery required because he's blown billions on jets, submarines and aircraft carriers rather than boring field armour." —Simon Jenkins

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

UK surveillance powers to be reviewed

I am delighted to see that the government is to review the use of surveillance powers by local councils. The Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act, passed in 2000 to combat terrorism and serious crime, has recently been used against dog fouling; the employment of paper boys without permits; families living outside school catchment areas; and the unlawful selling of potted plants.

Even better news is a Conservative party pledge to require approval from a magistrate before these powers are used. I do hope my book chapter on the regulation of communications surveillance had some influence on this (since we discussed it over the summer :)

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Global governance challenges

Oxford's James Martin 21st Century School has kindly asked me to contribute to their seminar series next term on Global Governance Challenges. My topic — Faraday Cages, Marbled Palaces and Humpty Dumpty: the Reality of Internet Governance:

Decisions that will shape our information societies for decades are being made today — but not where you might expect. Rather than the White House or Silicon Valley, look to Fort Meade in Maryland and the World Intellectual Property Organization in Geneva for the source of policies that will have the biggest impact on global privacy, security and innovation. Which is to be master? Should — and could — citizens have a bigger say?

Hope to see some Blogzilla readers on 26 February at the Old India Institute!

A betrayal of democracy

"Michael Martin, the Speaker of the House of Commons, and his unlucky placewoman Jill Pay, the serjeant-at-arms, were prepared to let the police into the Commons. I don’t believe there was any conspiracy; both were just too ignorant to do their jobs properly and had too little real understanding of the point of parliamentary procedure.

"It may be snobbish, but it’s true. Neither is really qualified for the post by education or by experience. They both showed an unquestioning deference to the police. The rise of democracy was supposed to be the end of undue deference, yet here were the defenders of the people’s Commons touching their forelocks to the filth." —Minette Marrin

Friday, December 12, 2008

Cybercrime report bonanza

Lilian Edwards and I spent the summer months researching McAfee's annual Virtual Criminology Report. It was published earlier this week, with some nice media coverage. Cyberscams are multiplying; we made a number of recommendations for reversing this trend:
  1. Significantly more training and resourcing for cybercops, prosecutors and judges, alongside the mainstreaming of cyberevidence gathering and prosecution.
  2. Legal or co-regulatory incentives for Internet Service Providers to follow best practice in network design and operation — incentivising ISPs in turn to work both with other service providers and their customers to improve levels of security. ISPs should also be encouraged to work more closely with police as the gatekeepers of the Internet.
  3. Security breach disclosure requirements — we cannot expect a market in secure products and services to develop without the information needed to allow customers to quantify security levels. The new EU rules are a start but need widening beyond the telecoms sector and scrutinised to make sure they are not implemented in a token way, and to avoid customer ‘security fatigue.’
  4. In the US, there are stopgap measures on a state level for data breach notification. Dozens of states have passed different laws. A simple, straightforward data breach notification standard is needed to help companies respond uniformly and seamlessly, and to ensure citizens get the widest level of protection, regardless of which state they are from. In addition, enterprises that hold sensitive personal information should meet a common security standard so the possibility of a breach is reduced.
  5. Legal responsibility for both businesses and government agencies when customers suffer Internet-related security losses, except in cases of gross negligence by customers. Banks in particular must be given strong legal and commercial incentives to introduce more secure technology and better fraud detection systems, or they will inevitably cut margins on security as they struggle to ride out the credit crunch and economic downturn. Clear bank liability would reward banks that are taking security seriously, greatly reduce the problems customers have faced, and correspondingly increase online trust and convenience — vital for e-commerce and e-government to flourish in future.
  6. Continued consumer education through focused programmes. However, systems must be designed to make it difficult for users to make security mistakes — we cannot expect the average Internet user to become a security expert. Media literacy programmes for informed consumer choice are not enough to ensure users prioritise security over convenience or short term goals.
  7. Limited liability for software vendors when they are not following best security practice in their system design and operation. We cannot stop the flood of malware until operating systems and key applications, especially browsers and email clients, are significantly more secure.
  8. The use of government procurement power to demand significantly higher standards of security in software and services – incentivising security enhancements that will spill over to private users. Government information security agencies should follow the example of the US National Security Agency in working with software companies to significantly increase software security levels.

Thanks again to all of our colleagues that shared their ideas and comments with us for this research.

A number of interesting related studies have been published this year (thanks, Gohsuke!):

Securing Cyberspace for the 44th Presidency — the Center for Strategic and International Studies argues that President Obama should create a comprehensive national security strategy for cyberspace, echoing many of our own recommendations.

Financial Aspects of Network Security: Malware and Spam — the International Telecommunications Union develops a framework for assessing the financial impact of malware.

The OECD calls for a global partnership against malware, and a move from reactive responses to proactive threat reduction and mitigation.

The data sharing cockroaches

"A close look at the Coroners and Justice Bill, published with the Queen's Speech, will tell you that the government has been up to its old trick of using the cover of reform to push a surveillance agenda, in this case to 'remove barriers to effective data sharing to support improved public services and the fight against crime and terrorism' … Civil servants will be crawling through our personal information like an infestation of cockroaches that can never be exterminated." —Henry Porter

Will the young pick up the tab?

"Politicians find these questions of intergenerational conflict very difficult. They would prefer to evade them, especially when they involve large and politically active constituencies. That's why the government was slow to introduce even Adair Turner's relatively modest proposals; why it backed away from substantial reform of public sector pensions; and why it decided to make students pay for university, rather than impose a retrospective graduate tax on those who had already benefited. But we can't afford this kind of myopia. What's the right balance over our lifetime between working and dependence, and how should we balance the competing interests of generations at a time of chaos, cuts and profound change? We all have a profound interest in the answers." —Jenni Russell

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Controlling the DNA database

"Technology can be a powerful force for human rights. Earth-observation satellites, for example, have provided evidence on conflicts and ethnic atrocities in areas where journalists are banned. And DNA fingerprinting has resulted in the freeing of wrongly convicted individuals, a role exemplified by the US Innocence Project in New York. The idea that the identity of a human can be revealed from samples of any cell in his or her body is a symbol of the fact that every person is unique. The declaration of human rights asks us to treasure and honour all these unique individuals with respect for their autonomy — not to simply look for better ways to barcode them." —Nature

"The point [the European Court of Human Rights] is making is that DNA carries information not just on yourself, but also on family relationships. So, it's an invasion of privacy and of family life. I totally agree. They also made the point that it stigmatizes branches of society. The innocent people are not a random cross-section of British society — they are strongly biased towards juveniles, towards ethnic minorities and so on." —Professor Sir Alec Jeffreys, inventor of DNA fingerprinting

Freedom is taking a battering under kneejerk New Labour

"In 1951 we were the first country to ratify the European Convention on Human Rights. British lawyers were leading authors of the convention. It was a natural expression of Britain's moral self-confidence in the postwar years, an assertion of the universal liberal values that had thwarted the threat of fascism and tyranny in Europe. Above all, it was a statement of the inalienable rights we all enjoy, to be free from unjustified state intrusion and abuse. A continent that had been drenched in the blood of militant collectivism had rediscovered the simple, liberal belief in the rights of individual citizens to a life unmolested by arbitrary government abuse." —Nick Clegg MP

The UDHR is 60!

"Instead of bemoaning the fact that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights era has not yet made enough of a difference, let us work to make it make more of a difference. The mistake is to be utopian rather than meliorist in one's ambitions for doing so. The utopian despairs if perfection proves unattainable, but the meliorist — he who seeks to make things better, incrementally, cumulatively, tirelessly — can take new hope from every success, however small: the political prisoner freed, the military junta replaced by democracy, the tyrant brought to book before a court. In the 60 years since the adoption of the UDHR these things have happened, and they have happened because of the new sentiment it introduced to the world: that is the beginning of something not just better, but good. Rome, as they say, was not built in a day."—A.C. Grayling

Monday, December 08, 2008

The Great Firewall of Britain

The censorship capability that BT and later other major ISPs have been building into the UK Internet has now hit the mainstream after the blocking of a Wikipedia page. Bizarrely, BT themselves seem not to be blocking the album cover at issue, leaving that to Virgin Media, Be Unlimited/O2/Telefonica, EasyNet/UK Online, PlusNet, Demon, and Opal.

There is much more information in a book chapter of mine that should be published any day now: Internet censorship — be careful what you ask for. You can also read about the opaque way in which the so-called Cleanfeed system came about in our report on self-regulation for the European Commission.

Before the government and these ISPs march us any further down this road, they might like to think about more effective mechanisms for removing child abuse images from the Internet, rather than strangling at birth the Internet's support for freedom of expression.

Saturday, December 06, 2008

The temptations of instant truth

"When publication was a clodhopping business and fact-gathering laborious, personal privacy was protected by a sort of de facto armour. We never had to confront an imagined world where anyone could find out anything about anyone and tell everyone within seconds.

"But today, not only have we the means to retrieve and transmit at breakneck speed the fruits of intrusions into privacy, but we're getting frighteningly clever at the intrusion too. Long-lens photography, easily trackable communications, instant mobile phone photography, the facility to record almost anything, anywhere, ease of storage of vast files of information… all this forces me to wonder whether in the past, when practical constraints clipped the wings of free speech, we could tell ourselves (in what we thought an argument of principle) that we recognised no limits to how far it should fly. We have not that luxury now." —Matthew Parris

Friday, December 05, 2008

What is privacy?

"Privacy is indeed a right. It is more: it is an essential. Private life, a margin of inviolability for our thoughts, feelings, intimacies, reflections, anxieties, our hopes and nascent plans, and our recoveries from the abrasions of life, are fundamentals of personal and psychological health. Even lovers must have their privacies from one another. It is a strange and shallow human existence that lives at every moment under the burning eye of the inquisitor – exactly what the church once wanted us to think was our predicament: existence before the never-closed eye of a jealous divinity, even when we are alone in the dark. It shows that the state, in wanting to attach so many electronic and bureaucratic monitors to its ordinary citizens, has given up on that other idea." —A.C. Grayling

Monday, December 01, 2008

Britain celebrates the UDHR

"How is Britain to mark the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights?

"With the continued development of £12bn plans to set up a vast data silo to store information on all phone calls, emails and internet connections? Another soviet style article from Jack Straw, which tells us how the inventory of freedoms has increased under Labour? Or the issue of ID cards to foreigners by a government that knows the public don't give a damn about the rights and privacy of foreigners?

"Somehow we always knew that Jacqui Smith would be at the centre of this important anniversary but you have to hand it to the government: nobody had predicted that human rights and freedom in Britain would be celebrated with the arrest and fingerprinting of an opposition MP by terror police, the search of his premises, hard drives and telephones, the taking of his DNA and the attempted intimidation of his wife, Alicia." —Henry Porter

The nanny state marches on

"The Government is caught between an instinctive paternalistic bossiness (smoking, binge-drinking, lack of exercise, ID cards and over-eating) and a laissez faire liberalism (24-hour drinking, flexible gaming laws, downgrading (then upgrading) cannabis and betting on Sundays). No wonder everyone is confused." —Philip Johnston

The limits of policing

It seems there is a silver lining to the shocking trampling of parliamentary democracy by the Metropolitan Police in their arrest of Damian Green MP and ransacking of his home and offices. Parliamentarians have finally discovered a limit to the authoritarian "nothing to hide" rhetoric of Blair and Brown. Blinking, they survey the several thousand new criminal offences they have created over the last decade; the vast new powers they have given the police; and the culture of fear Labour has stirred up as a blunt electoral wedge against the opposition. (As an aside, theories of cognitive development suggest that at around 11 years of age children should be able to imagine the consequences of events for others without direct personal experience.)

It will be interesting to see the details of this episode emerge over the next few days. How will the Speaker of the Commons explain the permission given to the police to enter Parliament? Did the police lie to the Serjeant at Arms? Were search warrants required? Did the Home Secretary authorise the interception of Damian Green's communications, in contravention of the Wilson doctrine?

As Jackie Ashley comments in today's Guardian: "all parties should take this opportunity to stand back and ask what kind of policing we want in this country. Yes, there is a terrorist threat which is both real and complex. Yes, it is right to look at police powers, as well as to support a larger and more sophisticated security service. But this does not mean we need to follow the US model, with local politics and local policing becoming synonymous, and the growth of an invasive, super-policing agency armed with extreme surveillance techniques, operating above the reach of mere MPs."

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Free speech and the Queen of England


Earlier this month the Queen (very indirectly ;) hosted a conference on freedom of expression online. No Frontiers: Free Speech and the Internet, held at Cumberland Lodge in Windsor Great Park, featured presentations from a number of writers, researchers and activists — including yours truly. Jonathan Heawood and Siobhan Butterworth covered the event for the Guardian. You can also see my slides.

Let's talk nukes

"In these drastically straitened times, we need to stop being a nation of people who could tell you in pounds and pence the curtain allowance given to MPs, but can barely get in the ballpark on how much we spend on nuclear missiles. Those who used to chuck all sorts of luxuries into their supermarket trolleys without really paying attention to the price are suddenly all over their weekly budgets; and these same people should start thinking about major public spending the same way. It's time to start talking about nuclear weapons again — and I for one shall be boosting the economy by getting a Scrap Trident badge made up without delay." —Marina Hyde

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Privacy and behavioural targeting

On Tuesday night I spoke at an advertising industry event on behavioural targeting. Websites increasingly attempt to display ads to users based on their previous behaviour — particularly the sites they have just visited. Clearly, this has the potential to create privacy problems unless done very carefully.

Neil Maybin has published a good summary of the evening's discussion.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Wanted: an opposition

"One reason Brown astonished everyone by bringing back Peter Mandelson was that, whatever else, Mandelson is genuinely clever and able, and most members of the present cabinet are conspicuously neither.

"Despite that, it's hard to escape a sense there is something wrong with the Conservatives. These Tory boys may be clever, but they are too often silly. There's an indefinable feeling of a smirk about to break through; a frivolous flavour of undergraduate politics hangs over them." —Geoffrey Wheatcroft

Sunday, November 23, 2008

The lumpen celebritariat

"The celebritariat—and the illusion of easy access to it—has played the role in postwar Britain that my father expected to be played by the educational meritocracy. The Rise of the Meritocracy ends with a riot at Peterloo in which the disenfranchised masses overthrow their new masters. This is largely because the meritocratic class has become so efficient at identifying the most able children at birth that the ones left behind have no hope of making it. Will the day come when the celebritariat endangers its own existence by becoming a self-perpetuating elite, closed off to new members? There are signs that this is beginning to happen, with the children of famous people inheriting their celebrity status, just as aristocrats inherited their parents estates. It sounds odd to say it, but for those like my father who dream of turning Britain into a socialist paradise, the greatest cause for hope may be the existence of Peaches Geldof." —Toby Young, son of social activist and sociologist Michael Young

Monday, November 17, 2008

Internet! Panic!

John ReidIt seems that former Home Secretary John Reid has only just discovered some of the Internet scare stories of the 1990s. He tells the Daily Telegraph breathlessly:
"We have to recognise that on the net you can practically get the full DNA of the First World War flu that killed 24 million people."

If Mr Reid had taken the time to read any of the literature on this subject, he might realise that there is more to weaponising flu, anthrax and other biological agents than finding usually-inaccurate sets of instructions or DNA sequences online. He could start with Simson Garfinkel's Database Nation, first published in 2000. For an update he could even read my Terrorism and the Proportionality of Internet Surveillance. Maybe he should have done this before he started making policy in this area as Home Secretary.

I am slightly embarrassed to see that University College London is to host Reid's new thinktank, the Institute of Security and Resilience Studies.

NHS medical research plan threatens patient privacy

Harry CaytonVive la resistance! Following the Home Office, it seems Department of Health insiders are now also realising that gross invasions of privacy are not a magic solution to every social ill.

Harry Cayton, chair of the new National Information Governance Board for Health and Social Care, has told the government to quash plans to share patient records with researchers without consent:

There is pressure from researchers and from the prime minister to beef up UK research. They think of it as boosting UK Research plc. They want a mechanism by which people's clinical records could be accessed for the purposes of inviting them to take part in research, which at the moment is not allowed. I think that would be a backward step.

It would be saying there is a public interest in research that is so great that it overrides consent and confidentiality. That is not a proposition that holds up.

We believe this is a breach of good practice in confidentiality and consent, and have questioned if there is a sound legal basis for it.

DoH minister Alan Johnson has given a typical government response treating the Information Governance Board's concerns as just another consultation submission that will be given minimal attention. It doesn't help that Information Commissioner Richard Thomas earlier this year gave medical researchers a free pass on access to patient data.

This is another timely reminder that figleaf "governance" arrangements are no substitute for data minimisation in protecting privacy.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Conservatives: we blew it

"The law cannot be made identical with morality. Scan the list of the Ten Commandments and see how many could be enforced even by Rudy Giuliani." —P.J. O'Rourke in an obituary for American conservatism

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Brideshead Revisited

Brideshead Revisited
Given my distinct distaste for foppish aristocratic wannabes, it took a long flight to Mumbai to persuade me to watch the recent Brideshead Revisited adaptation. The movie is little more than an extravagant travelogue set between Oxford, Castle Howard in Yorkshire, Venice and Morocco. However, I was intrigued as to why such a fusty old Tory as Evelyn Waugh had written what seemed to be such a damning attack on Catholicism and the upper classes.

According to that lodestar of literary criticism Wikipedia, the novel was intended to persuade post-war atheists of the redeeming nature of faith and the gentle qualities of the English artistocracy. This was somehow translated into a film that showed the Catholic church destroying the lives of everyone it touched, and contrasted the straightforward hard work of the middle-class narrator Charles Ryder and his father (and fleetingly, his working-class Yorkshire NCO) with the decadant Marchmain family. Perhaps director Julian Jarrold is a secret class warrior. If so, I thoroughly approve ;)

At last, we get the real US back


Blogzilla is mid-way through a zip around India, which is why things have recently been quiet. But even halfway around the world, the US election result was huge news. India's first interest is in Obama's intentions regarding Kashmir. However, the immediate boost in US standing and soft power brought about by his election is clear.

As a great fan of the US and its system of government, my strongest emotion last Wednesday while watching Obama's victory speech live in Mumbai was relief. Relief at the end of the excresence of an administration of war criminals who had mounted a coup d'etat against the US Constitution. Relief at the rejection of a vice-presidential candidate whose proudest attribute seemed to be ignorance. Relief most of all that in Andrew Sullivan's words: "With men and women finally back in power I can trust to act reasonably and ethically and within the rule of law, I feel less hesitation in getting on with life."

Obama clearly cannot be the saviour of pre-election hype. But once he has closed Guantanamo Bay, stopped the CIA from torturing detainees, and started to act once again as if the Constitution applies to the President, we might start to see the return of the US's reputation as a beacon of freedom that George W. Bush has done so much to destroy.

Judge Dacre dispenses little justice from his bully pulpit

"Who wouldn't prefer Mr Justice Eady protecting people's reasonable right to privacy than Judge Paul Dacre waving his chequebook from his tawdry pulpit, deciding who shall be whipped in public for which sins…

"These are things a free press will always do. Sometimes it campaigns for good causes, sometimes for bad ones. However, the right to strip naked anyone the press chooses is surely one of the most morally dubious abuses of press freedom yet devised." —Polly Toynbee on Daily Mail editor Paul Dacre's criticisms of the Human Rights Act

Friday, October 31, 2008

Bebo kids will value privacy when adults do

"When we tell kids to safeguard their privacy from everyone except governments, merchants, advertisers, entertainment giants, schools, Transport for London and parents, we tell them that we're not really serious about this stuff. Worse, when we allow our own private information to be taken by all these parties, we tell them that privacy is the cheapest coin of all. When BT secretly installs spyware in our browsers and captures all our clicks in order to serve ads to us, our lack of outrage tells our kids everything they need to know about the value of privacy.

"Kids do care about their privacy, but blatant hypocrisy in 'pro-privacy' campaigns triggers kids' lie detectors and sends them fleeing in the opposite direction. Give your kids honest, useful privacy information and watch them become deadly privacy ninjas — hope for a world in which citizens understand security and demand effective measures from their governments." —Cory Doctorow

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Conservatives for Obama

Conservatives (as opposed to the neo-con crazies that run the current Republican party) are lining up behind Barack Obama for president. Christopher Hitchens writes:
This is what the Republican Party has done to us this year: It has placed within reach of the Oval Office a woman who is a religious fanatic and a proud, boastful ignoramus. Those who despise science and learning are not anti-elitist. They are morally and intellectually slothful people who are secretly envious of the educated and the cultured. And those who prate of spiritual warfare and demons are not just "people of faith" but theocratic bullies. On Nov. 4, anyone who cares for the Constitution has a clear duty to repudiate this wickedness and stupidity.

Andrew Sullivan has 10 reasons to vote Obama. Here are his top three:
3. Two words: President Palin.

2. Conservative reform. Until conservatism can get a distance from the big-spending, privacy-busting, debt-ridden, crony-laden, fundamentalist, intolerant, incompetent and arrogant faux conservatism of the Bush-Cheney years, it will never regain a coherent message to actually govern this country again. The survival of conservatism requires a temporary eclipse of today's Republicanism. Losing would be the best thing to happen to conservatism since 1964. Back then, conservatives lost in a landslide for the right reasons. Now, Republicans are losing in a landslide for the wrong reasons.

1. The War Against Islamist terror. The strategy deployed by Bush and Cheney has failed. It has failed to destroy al Qaeda, except in a country, Iraq, where their presence was minimal before the US invasion. It has failed to bring any of the terrorists to justice, instead creating the excrescence of Gitmo, torture, secret sites, and the collapse of America's reputation abroad. It has empowered Iran, allowed al Qaeda to regroup in Pakistan, made the next vast generation of Muslims loathe America, and imperiled our alliances. We need smarter leadership of the war: balancing force with diplomacy, hard power with better p.r., deploying strategy rather than mere tactics, and self-confidence rather than a bunker mentality.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Home Office to deploy mobile fingerprint scanners

Mobile fingerprint scannerThe Guardian is today reporting plans to equip police with mobile fingerprint scanners. While it is a sensible use of technology to save the police from arresting suspects simply in order to take their fingerprints at the station, suppliers are already salivating at the potential for feature creep — for example, including cameras linked to a national facial recognition database.

It is almost almost inevitable that once fingerprinting becomes much faster and cheaper, it will be used much more widely. How happy would you feel at being randomly stopped in the street and fingerprinted by a police officer "just in case"? How often is this likely to happen in the streets of Brixton and Hackney, compared to say Oxford?

A nation of suspects and informers

"I was once an advocate of joined-up government, because I wanted efficiency. But too often joined-up government seems to mean joined-up fascism. In June, a select committee of MPs heard some astonishing evidence from respected campaign groups. One, Parents Against Injustice, gave instances where people whose children were being taken into care had not been allowed to challenge the allegations against them. The Association for Improvements in the Maternity Services (Aims), said that midwives were being turned into 'health police'. Jean Robinson, of Aims, said that she had seen case after case where health visitors and midwives were not supporting postnatally depressed mothers but reporting them to police and social workers, whose interventions largely made things worse." —Camilla Cavendish

"Is Jacqui Smith, the home secretary, a pocket dictator? Is there no drop of liberalism in her veins, no concept of personal freedom, no fear of a repressive state? Or is she just another home secretary? This month she apparently felt obliged by dark forces beyond her control to add another weapon to the armoury of illiberal power. She wants to record at her Cheltenham communications headquarters every mobile phone call, text and internet message of every Briton living. This is close to madness." —Simon Jenkins

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Home Office blanches at Big Brother database

Big Brother databases
How astonishing. It appears that the government's authoritarian appetite for a massive central database of all UK communications is facing opposition even within the Association of Chief Police Officers and the Home Office.

ACPO's Data Communications Group member Jack Wraith told the Sunday Times: "If someone’s got enough personal data on you and they don’t afford it the right protection and that data falls into the wrong hands, then it becomes a threat to you.” A leaked memo reveals that officials believe the plans are “impractical, disproportionate, politically unattractive and possibly unlawful from a human rights perspective.” No2ID has a list of the practical difficulties. Lord Carlile QC, the independent reviewer of terrorist legislation, said that the idea was "awful."

Henry Porter adds in the Observer:
Two years ago I wondered in these pages when the penny would drop with the British public and the media about the attack on civil liberties. It is plainly beginning to. The public is worried about the shoddy laws the government tries to rush past them with its phony calls for consensus and reasonableness.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Playground national security policy

Stella Rimington"After the [42 days] vote in the House of Lords, one heard the home secretary saying something like, 'Well nobody can say I'm not tough on terrorism'. As though the implication was there are people who aren't. Which strikes me as very odd. Because most of the people in the House of Lords whose contributions to that debate I'd read were serious people, who'd possibly spent a life, as I have, trying to protect the country from serious threats. So the implication that, you know, a politician was going to say 'I'm tougher on terrorism than you are' struck me as …" —Dame Stella Rimington, former director-general of MI5

Friday, October 17, 2008

Losing the war on trust

"The home secretary's entire argument about the [terrorist] threat and its nature has to rest on our taking many of her assertions on trust. If we can see that the government can't even be accurate about past threats, why should we believe their analysis of current ones? Why should we give up every last vestige of privacy in our private lives because the government asserts that this may be helpful to them sometime in the future? The Home Office may have recognised the need to win this argument, but it hasn't constructed an effective one yet." —Jenni Russell

Woman killed over Facebook relationship status

The Press Association reports the horrifying aftermath of a breakup:

A jealous husband who stabbed his wife to death because he felt "humiliated" over a posting she made on the social networking website Facebook was jailed for life today.

Wayne Forrester told police he was "devastated" that wife Emma had changed her online profile to "single" four days after he had moved out.

Forrester, an HGV driver, drove to the marital home in New Addington, near Croydon, south London, armed with a kitchen knife and a meat cleaver in the early hours of February 18.

Fuelled by cocaine and alcohol, he attacked his wife as she lay in bed, beating her, tearing out clumps of her hair, and stabbing her in the head and neck.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

There are rewards for us all in this crunch

"H L Mencken said practical politics was the business of 'keeping the populace alarmed, and hence clamorous to be led to safety, by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary'. Today’s hobgoblin has been a war on terror. The credit crunch is not imaginary. It should cause government to concentrate on things that matter. It should mean no more macho distractions such as 42-day detention, extravagant surveillance and Home Office-generated anti-Muslim prejudice. There should be no more crazy defence projects and bloated security programmes." —Simon Jenkins

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Freedom not Fear

Freedom not Fear
To Parliament Square this morning, for an event organised by ORG and No2ID as part of the international Freedom not Fear day. Photographers from around the country have uploaded hundreds of images of the UK's slide into a surveillance state. The ORG/No2ID production team cleverly combined them into a collage that was revealed to the fascination of hundreds of tourists milling around. Let's hope it encourages more people to think about where exactly the authoritarian technology programme of this government is taking our society.

Thursday, October 09, 2008

US needs to get over its cultural civil war

"The world needs the United States to get over its cultural civil war, and get over it fast. Not that these moral, cultural and social issues are unimportant. They are among the most important things. But they are also among the most private things. The business of government and the law should be confined to providing a liberal (in the classical sense) framework in which men and women can make personal choices about private goods. That should be only a small part of what government does. By contrast, the central business of government is to provide public goods such as national and personal security, the regulation of markets in which private enterprise can flourish, the international development that is in all our national interests, and a clean environment using diversified, sustainable energy supplies. That's what the United States needs from its new president, and that's what the world needs from the United States." —Timothy Garton-Ash

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Terrorism is social, not political

Bruce Schneier points out an extremely interesting paper from Max Abrahms: What Terrorists Really Want — Terrorist Motives and Counterterrorism Strategy. Abrahms' conclusion is that terrorists are principally motivated by social goals, and hence counterterrorism policy should be focused upon weakening their social bonds:

Demand-side strategies should focus on divesting terrorism's social utility, in two ways. First, it is vital to drive a wedge between organization members. Since the advent of modern terrorism in the late 1960s, the sole counter-terrorism strategy that was a clear-cut success attacked the social bonds of the terrorist organization, not its utility as a political instrument. By commuting prison sentences in the early 1980s in exchange for actionable intelligence against their fellow Brigatisti, the Italian government infiltrated the Red Brigades, bred mistrust and resentment among the members, and quickly rolled up the organization. Similar deals should be cut with al-Qaida in cases where detainees' prior involvement in terrorism and their likelihood of rejoining the underground are minor. Greater investment in developing and seeding double agents will also go a long way toward weakening the social ties undergirding terrorist organizations and cells around the world. Second, counter-terrorism strategies must reduce the demand for at-risk populations to turn to terrorist organizations in the first place. To lessen Muslims' sense of alienation from democratic societies, these societies must improve their records of cracking down on bigotry, supporting hate-crime legislation, and most crucially, encouraging moderate places of worship—an important alternative for dislocated youth to develop strong affective ties with politically moderate peers and mentors.

Certainly more constructive than attempting to throw terrorist suspects in jail for 42 days without charge.

Protecting Individual Privacy in the Struggle Against Terrorists

A panel of highly distinguished statesmen and academics convened by the US National Research Council has just published a report on the efficacy of data mining in tracking down terrorist suspects. Their conclusion:

The preliminary nature of the scientific evidence, the risk of false positives, and operational vulnerability to countermeasures argue for behavioral observation and physiological monitoring being used at most as a preliminary screening method for identifying individuals who merit additional follow-up investigation. Although laboratory research and development of techniques for automated, remote detection and assessment of anomalous behavior, for example deceptive behavior, may be justified, there is not a consensus within the relevant scientific community nor on the committee regarding whether any behavioral surveillance or physiological monitoring techniques are ready for use at all in the counterterrorist context given the present state of the science.

Since data grabbing and mining has been a central focus for post-9/11 US and UK counter-terrorism policy, this is a dynamite report. The silver lining is that in these difficult financial times, the UK government could save £32bn by scrapping the Intercept Modernisation Programme (£12bn) and National Identity Register (£20bn) alone.

We clearly now need to sweep away the Database State groupthink that has infested Downing Street and the White House. If Gordon Brown and George Bush cannot achieve that, perhaps their political opponents will.

More from Ryan Singel, Cory Doctorow and Sir Bonar Neville-Kingdom.

The all-seeing state

"We all have a gulf between who we really are and the face we present to the world. Suddenly that barrier will be taken away. Would a protester at the Kingsnorth power station feel quite so confident in facing the police if she knew that the minute she was arrested, the police could find out that she'd just spent a week looking at abortion on the web? Would a rebel politician stand up against the prime minister if he knew security services had access to the 100 text messages a week he exchanged with a woman who wasn't his wife? It isn't just the certainty that such data would be used against people that is a deterrent, it's the fear. As the realisation of this power grew, we would gradually start living in the prison of our minds." —Jenni Russell

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Something is rotten in the House of Commons

"There is an authoritarian cancer in the British system that has metastasised. From the Treasury-inspired 'transformational government', to local council CCTV, to the interception modernisation programme that proposes to 'live tap' all electronic communication, to ID cards — you name it, it seems, and they will be onto it — an official will is at work to police, control, arrest and expel. It regards restraints, from the Human Rights Act to parliamentary scrutiny as 'old thinking'. And it is turbo-charged by the huge funding opportunities that 'new thinking' permits." —Anthony Barnett

Sunday, October 05, 2008

Wiretap Nation

GCHQ doughnutGCHQ and the Serious Organised Crime Agency (SOCA) have been lobbying behind the scenes for the last year for a massive increase in the level of surveillance of the UK Internet. The government has agreed in principle to spend £12bn installing deep packet inspection equipment into Internet Service Providers around the country, feeding "communications data" about every e-mail, instant message and website visit to a centralised data warehouse that can be accessed by 653 government agencies. However, they have recently backed off from providing new surveillance powers in the forthcoming Communications Data Bill. More details of the GCHQ plan have been revealed today in the Sunday Times.

Should we really be competing with Russia, China and other autocratic nations for the title of most wiretapped country? As Dominic Grieve, Tory shadow home secretary, commented: "Any suggestion of the government using existing powers to intercept communications data without public discussion is going to sound extremely sinister.” Officials may be panicking about the changing nature of communications technology. Instead of hyperventilating they might consider how proportionate is their proposed response of monitoring everyone's associates, movements and information consumption.

You can find out more about UK law on communications surveillance (and how it might be restrained) in a draft of a forthcoming book chapter I recently completed. You can also read about the wider human rights issues in a forthcoming European Journal of Criminology article by myself and Douwe Korff.

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Terrorism and human rights

"Terrorism must be fought with means that fully respect human rights and the rule of law, excluding all forms of arbitrariness. Injustice breads terrorism and undermines the legitimacy of the fight against it." —Committee on Legal Affairs and Human RIghts, Parliamentary Assembly, Council of Europe

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

The perplexing banality of libertarian paternalism

"Despite the welcome weight Thaler and Sunstein throw behind a few genuinely liberty-enhancing policies, the thrust of the conceptual renovation behind the term libertarian paternalism is to empower, not limit, political elites. In the libertarian paternalist scheme, the rules will allow for an easy opt-out only so long as those writing the rules happen to care about preserving choice. The 'libertarian' part of the equation is secured by good will alone. If that falters, we are left with paternalism, plain and simple. Old-fashioned libertarianism, it turns out, had a great deal to say about the choice architecture of politics. Given the intense attractions of power and the limits of benevolence, liberty (and therefore the commonweal) is best secured by setting in place a structure of rules that strictly limits the discretion of the powerful. That includes the discretion even of choice-loving technocrats." —Will Wilkinson, reviewing the wildly popular Nudge by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein

Long-term solutions to cybersecurity threats

I'm in Brussels today talking about strategic policy responses to cybersecurity threats. We've had an interesting set of presentations from around Europe and the US. Here is mine:

Monday, September 29, 2008

Tories to scrap child database

The Conservative Party have been determined to scrap the government's National Identity Register project for the last two years. They have now also realised the dangers of the parallel ContactPoint database of all 11 million children in England, which we wrote about for the Information Commissioner's Office in 2006. Shadow Schools Secretary Michael Gove today told the Daily Telegraph:

"ContactPoint can never be secure. We are taking this action because we are determined to protect vulnerable children from abuse, ConactPoint would increase that risk. The government has proved that it cannot be trusted to set up large databases, and cannot promise that inappropriate people would not be able to access the database. It would be irresponsible to implement something that is such a danger to our children. After all the problems we have with this government losing sensitive data we need to do things differently. We need to invest in people. Strengthening relationships, not building another Big Brother system."

Saturday, September 27, 2008

All GikIIId out

This week's GikIII conference was a big success — we had a whole load of thought-provoking presentations on law, technology and popular culture. Thanks to everyone who helped us with the organisation and who visited us in Oxford to take part. You can read more from Wendy Grossman, Fernando Barrio, Andres Guadamuz, Peter Jenkins and Lilian Edwards.

Here is Chris Marsden and my GikIII effort on competition law and social utilities:

Friday, September 26, 2008

Legislating for Web 2.0

The Society for Computers and Law organised a great policy forum earlier this week in London on Legislating for Web 2.0:
Europe is fast approaching a new set of Directives to regulate European law, from four directions:

  • The Audiovisual Media Services Directive was enacted on 18 December 2007;

  • The new review of the Electronic Communications Services Framework (5 Directives and a Regulation) is taking place in the course of 2008;

  • The Electronic Commerce Directive remains under constant review and is in tension with several national laws;

  • The Consumer Acquis (8 Directives) is currently being reviewed.

This flurry of legislative activity at European level ties in with a set of activities at UK level that affect the Internet environment — the implementation of the governmental response to the Gowers Review, the preparations for reform of the Wireless Telegraphy Act to make spectrum secondary trading easier.

There may well be reform of the Communications Act 2003, flagged up by outgoing Culture Secretary James Purnell in his Oxford speech of 16 January 2008 — presumably after the next General Election and therefore timed to coincide with implementation of the European Directives, whether AVMS (by end-2009) or ECS (by 2010-11).

Notably, there is also significant competition law interest in the Internet aside from the “usual suspects” in telecoms — from the Google-Doubleclick merger to the failed Microsoft-Yahoo! Merger. The 2008 Forum will expand its focus a little by engaging with this debate — both from a law and economics viewpoint, but also in terms of the consumer, copyright and privacy law implications, as well as the ever-developing role of the Internet intermediary as enshrined in the E-Commerce Directive.

You can now listen to all the speakers (including my two contributions) at their website. More from Lilian Edwards.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Solving the UK's budget crisis

The Sunday Times reports:

The Centre for Economics and Business Research (CEBR), in a report to be published tomorrow, says that borrowing will hit £90 billion next year, more than £50 billion above Alistair Darling’s forecast in the March budget. This year’s budget deficit will be £63 billion, it says, £20 billion above the chancellor’s estimate.

I have a suggestion for our Chancellor. Why not cancel the upgrading of the UK's nuclear arsenal; the National Identity Scheme; and radically scale back the NHS National Programme for IT? That will save the UK respectively £70bn; £20bn; and around £15bn. Couldn't £105bn be used rather more productively right now?

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Psychologists vote against role in interrogation

The complicity of the American Psychological Association in torture at Guantanamo Bay and elsewhere has been deeply disturbing. Particularly repellent has been the CIA's perversion of Martin Seligman's work on learned helplessness. Finally, the APA has rejected this disgusting conduct, with a (small) majority of members voting in favour of the following petition:

Whereas torture is an abhorrent practice in every way contrary to the APA's stated mission of advancing psychology as a science, as a profession, and as a means of promoting human welfare.

Whereas the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Mental Health and the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture have determined that treatment equivalent to torture has been taking place at the United States Naval Base at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. [1]

Whereas this torture took place in the context of interrogations under the direction and supervision of Behavioral Science Consultation Teams (BSCTs) that included psychologists. [2, 3]

Whereas the Council of Europe has determined that persons held in CIA black sites are subject to interrogation techniques that are also equivalent to torture [4], and because psychologists helped develop abusive interrogation techniques used at these sites. [3, 5]

Whereas the International Committee of the Red Cross determined in 2003 that the conditions in the US detention facility in Guantánamo Bay are themselves tantamount to torture [6], and therefore by their presence psychologists are playing a role in maintaining these conditions.

Be it resolved that psychologists may not work in settings where persons are held outside of, or in violation of, either International Law (e.g., the UN Convention Against Torture and the Geneva Conventions) or the US Constitution (where appropriate), unless they are working directly for the persons being detained or for an independent third party working to protect human rights[7].

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

The Presidency of Dick Cheney

Dick Cheney"As Cheney sees it, public opinion is fickle, ill-informed, self-contradictory, emotional — nothing like his own conversation with himself and trusted aides. He speaks disdainfully of critics as 'elites,' but his own view of democracy is at the far elite extreme. Voters are entitled to choose a president every four years, he said at the National Press Club, but then they need to let him do his job. The transaction is like hiring a surgeon; pick a good one, and don’t try to tell him where to place the knife. This 'trustee' model of democracy is associated with Edmund Burke, the Old Whig philosopher in 18th century England. It is not the model that took root here when the Founders designed a plan of government that derived its authority from the people. If you take Cheney’s view, aggressive efforts at secrecy, for our own good, to prevent us from making the wrong choices or interfering with government’s important work, are a rational response." —Bart Gellman, author of a new biography of Vice-President Dick Cheney

John McCain invented the BlackBerry!

Al Gore and his Internet are nothing on Senator McCain:

Monday, September 15, 2008

Lack of privacy controls costs Barclays £500,000

The Daily Mail reports:
A teenage bank worker who helped fraudsters fleece her wealthy customers out of nearly £500,000 in an 'alarmingly simple' sting was jailed for 18 months today.

Ruth Akinyemi, who was 18 at the time, leaked vital details including dates of birth and account passwords from the Barclays bank computer system.

Some questions:
  1. Why could a teenage bank worker access sensitive personal data (especially passwords) in the first place, without any check that she had a specific reason to do so? What else was she doing with this information? Why did the bank allow cash to be withdrawn based on such carelessly protected "secrets"?

  2. Why didn't Barclays' auditing procedures pick up her patterns of access to this data for further investigation? Why aren't customers notified on their monthly statements of bank staff access to their records, so they have a chance of picking up abuse?

  3. When will more businesses realise that such lax privacy controls can have extremely costly consequences?

Panopticon highway

In June the House of Commons Home Affairs select committee declared that: "We reject crude characterisations of our society as a surveillance society in which all collections and means of collecting information about citizens are networked and centralised in the service of the state."

It is difficult to square that with today's discovery that all car journeys within the UK are to be logged for five years; or the government's plan to build a central data warehouse to store details of all calls, texts and e-mails. Henry Porter comments:

With parliament dead from the neck up when it comes to issues of liberty, it is difficult to know how the [Automated Number Plate Recognition] surveillance and the equally important proposal to seize data concerning all phone calls, text messages and internet connections, can be resisted. But resist we must if we are to save our free society.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Govt intervention not needed on high-speed broadband

A review for the government has concluded that there is no need for panic over the speed of Britain's broadband networks compared to the 100Mb/s+ more common in Asia:

The high costs of [Next Generation Access], and high expectations of what it can deliver, tend to raise expectations in some quarters that the Government should make a major intervention — such as a large subsidy or structural change to regulation — to support the market. However, it is the conclusion of this review that the case for such a major intervention is weak at best.

Author Francesco Caio, former chief executive of Cable and Wireless, instead suggests that the government removes obstacles to market provision of this access, for example by coordinating the build-out of fibre optic cables.

Universities should declare independence from government

Universities play a vital democratic role as a source of information independent of government spin and patronage. Unfortunately their independence in the UK has been undermined by the former Conservative government's Education Reform Act and by current ministers. They have also been pushed to promote wider government objectives such as greater social equality.

It is unsurprising that those responsible for so much of universities' income will seek to meddle in their affairs. Simon Jenkins describes the simple solution:

Universities must bite the bullet and charge their students what their courses cost. For the half who allegedly cannot afford this, the Treasury should be challenged to convert teaching grants to bursaries. For British universities to deny themselves the revenue base enjoyed by their American competitors is self-defeating. It denies the poor the financial help that might attract them into higher education so as to relieve the middle classes of paying their way.

The billions spent by the government on undergraduate teaching would have a much bigger impact on social mobility if redirected towards the schools and families of less well-off children. Why, after all, should poorer non-graduate taxpayers subsidise individuals who will realise private gains of hundreds of thousands of pounds during a career built on their first degree? Whether tuition fees are covered by larger student loans, charitable bursaries or a graduate tax is a secondary question.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Google must try harder on privacy

Google got some positive press coverage last week with their announcement that they would retain search data linked to individuals for nine rather than eighteen months. However, it seems that we need a lot more information to properly evaluate this move. Chris Soghoian certainly wasn't impressed:

To the naive reader, the announcement seems like a clear win for privacy. However, with a bit of careful analysis, it's possible to see that this is little more than snake oil, designed to look good for the newspapers, without delivering real benefits to end users.

Google has previously claimed that European data retention laws force them to store this data. As the European data protection regulators have replied, this is just not true.

By default, Google should not be logging this type of user-identifiable data. If users wish to benefit from personalised search and other features that allegedly require logging, they should opt-in before potentially sensitive personal data such as medical information is stored. That after all is what European privacy law requires.

Nothing to add, really

The George W. Bush years

Friday, September 12, 2008

© bites Spielberg

"If Steven Spielberg has broken [©] law it is a law that is only on the statute book because of the power that producer lobbies have in framing law. The consumer doesn't get a look in. Spielberg should fight to get it changed. The law is often called an ass, but when it becomes an ass-assinator of creativity, that is the time to call a halt." —Vic Keegan

Sunday, September 07, 2008

Our obsession with crime is crushing our freedoms

"We have forgotten all our empirical skills when it comes to law and policing. Instead of assessing what the problems are — the fact that prisons do not reform offenders, that crime is caused by complex social issues as much as by individual moral failure, that police officers at their desks or in squad cars do not deter crime as well as those on the beat — we have allowed a blind and vengeful regime to skew our sense of reason and what is right for a liberal democracy." —Henry Porter

A billion here, a billion there…

"Prison reform, along with hospital cleaning, inner-city schools or armoured vests, lacks the glitz that has atom smashers, velodromes and aircraft carriers sailing through the Treasury door. A lobbyist has only to say that some giant scheme is 'good for Britain' and the cabinet goes limp.

"If I had a pet project to push I would include in its title the words terrorism, computers and international league table, and ensure that it cost not less than a billion." —Simon Jenkins

Thursday, September 04, 2008

Security tech and democratic legitimacy

Praise the Flying Spaghetti Monster for Eurostar, which got me to Brussels and back today for an EU meeting on security research and human rights. I talked about how we can make sure new security technology supports rather than subverts European political values:

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Activism 2.0

I just spent a fascinating morning with Amnesty International's communications team, who are developing their strategy for the next decade. They asked me to talk about how Web 2.0 tools can be used in campaigning on human rights issues. Here are my slides, with some examples of how other NGOs have run such campaigns:
Activism 2.0
View SlideShare presentation or Upload your own. (tags: politics campaigning)

Happy birthday to GNU!

GNU/Linux
Stephen Fry wishes a happy 25th birthday to free software.

Friday, August 29, 2008

Cameron is a whig

"Labour talk of a leadership change is not just petty and mean-minded; it is sublimely irrelevant. The question that matters is whether it can retrieve the non-statist democratic republican strand in its heritage — exemplified by John Milton, John Stuart Mill, Tom Mann and RH Tawney — and abandon the heavyhanded, statist democratic collectivism that has been second nature to Labour governments since the 1920s. There is still time. Just." —David Marquand

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Olympics v freedom

"I admit, I questioned the wisdom of giving the games to a city with such a poor human rights record — every citizen under surveillance, police executing suspects, people interrogated just for taking a photo in a railway station — but maybe London can rise to the occasion." —Dave Garner

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Trade deals replace gunboats

"Where once they used gunboats and sepoys, the rich nations now use chequebooks and lawyers to seize food from the hungry. The scramble for resources has begun, but — in the short term, at any rate — we will hardly notice. The rich world's governments will protect themselves from the political cost of shortages, even if it means that other people must starve." —George Monbiot

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Commission IP proposals are evidence-free

Bernt HugenholzIntellectual property policy can be a frustrating field. Despite endless debate, analysis of evidence and careful reviews, officials and legislators often go their own sweet way in deciding policy on (to pick one recent example) the term of copyright.

Bernt Hugenholtz, a distinguished IP law professor who directs the University of Amsterdam's Institute for Information Law, has just sent a blistering letter to the president of the Commission about their latest "Intellectual Property package":

We are, of course, well aware that several conclusions of the IViR studies do not agree with the policy choices underlying the Commission's proposals. And we are certainly not so naïve as to expect that the recommendations of an academic institution such as ours, however well researched and conceived they may be, will find their way into the Commission's policies in undiluted form. What we would expect however is that our work, which was expressly commissioned by the policy unit in charge of these proposals, be given the appropriate consideration by the Commission and be duly referenced in its policy documents, in particular wherever the Commission's policy choices depart from our studies' main recommendations.

As you are certainly aware, one of the aims of the 'Better Regulation' policy that is part of the Lisbon agenda is to increase the transparency of the EU legislative process. By wilfully ignoring scientific analysis and evidence that was made available to the Commission upon its own initiative, the Commission's recent Intellectual Property package does not live up to this ambition. Indeed, the Commission's obscuration of the IViR studies and its failure to confront the critical arguments made therein seem to reveal an intention to mislead the Council and the Parliament, as well as the citizens of the European Union.

In doing so the Commission reinforces the suspicion, already widely held by the public at large, that its policies are less the product of a rational decision-making process than of lobbying by stakeholders. This is troublesome not only in the light of the current crisis of faith as regards the European lawmaking institutions, but also — and particularly so — in view of European citizens' increasingly critical attitudes towards intellectual property law.