Sunday, June 29, 2008

Transformational money-wasting

"Last week, the Poynter review on the loss of 25 million records from HM Revenue & Customs was published. The culprits — Gordon Brown, Dawn Primarolo MP and David Varney, the former head of the HRMC — have all moved on to other jobs, in Varney's case to the Transformational Government project that will oversee the merger of all government databases in a monstrous implement of surveillance. Forget privacy, let's just think about the appalling, and expensive, mess that this is likely to result in. And while we're about it, the waste of public funds in local government surveillance operations and CCTV systems which Detective Chief Inspector Mike Neville, Scotland Yard's CCTV expert, declared an 'utter fiasco'." —Henry Porter

Saturday, June 28, 2008

This surveillance onslaught is draconian and creepy

"Just who are these people, these swelling legions of unelected, ill-qualified monitors who wield such extraordinary power in our surveillance society? Clarification in one case came last year, when the civilian in charge of a Worcester police station's surveillance team was suspended after detectives found, among one day's footage, a 20-minute sequence of close-ups of a woman's cleavage and backside as she walked oblivious through the streets. Whether the woman ever discovered she was the star of a kind of pervert Truman Show is not recorded. But the offending monitor escaped with a warning and was — unbelievably — back in post within weeks." —Marina Hyde

Iguazu Falls

Today I'm experimenting with video-sharing. Here is a short clip from my trip to Iguazu Falls before Christmas:

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Fighting terror blindfolded

"In the war on drugs, enormous effort has been devoted to taking out individual 'king-pins' and as each new major figure is taken out, the combat against narcotics is said to be at a tipping point. In fact … there are now 300 so-called king pins. And in another parallel with al-Qaida … following the killing of Pablo Escobar and the dismantling of his organisation in the early 90s, all that has happened is that drug trafficking groups have become more amorphous, more dispersed, flatter in terms of organisation but no less effective, as the constant level of cocaine prices and quality in the USA attests." —Jason Burke

Saturday, June 21, 2008

The character assassination that passes for debate

"When the history of this unedifying period comes to be written, it will be these vignettes of Campbellesque bullying that will crystallise the age, and speak of a ruling elite that never engaged in debate where character assassination would do. I suppose we should be grateful that they're currently limiting the personal attacks to public figures like Chakrabarti, who are practised enough to take it, as opposed to the likes of David Kelly, who patently wasn't." —Marina Hyde

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Labour is victim of hyperactivity on crime

Louise Casey"The mistake the Casey report makes is not to think that the criminal justice system must be minimally credible to those in whose name it is conducted. Nor is she wrong to want to find ways of engaging the public in deliberation about how that system can and should operate. Her mistake is to lazily and hastily collapse that project into a frame that places offenders and victims in a zero-sum game, and to scoff at the protections a liberal criminal justice system provides. It is to view public confidence through a consumerist lens that affords government no legitimate role in raising the quality of public debate, highlighting value conflicts and resource trade-offs, correcting crime myths, or taking on mass-mediated opinion. And it is to recycle the view that 'public opinion' remains preoccupied with crime and eager for harsh, ostentatious punishment.

"There is, in fact, good evidence to the contrary — evidence that the majority of citizens go about their lives without being affected by or thinking about crime; that they feel ambivalent towards punishment; and that when they participate in the system or engage with 'their' offender, this makes them think and act less and less like Louise Casey." —Prof. Ian Loader

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

The shame of 2MB

Beef protests in Seoul(Flickr photo by fetus karate)

Apropos my current visit to talk about online communities in Seoul, where tens of thousands of "digital protestors" are out on the streets campaigning against the import of US "mad cows"…

Young protesters who felt their president was out of touch sarcastically called Lee "2MB" — a hopelessly slow computer processor speed of two megabytes — which coincides with Lee Myung Bak's initials. ("Two" is pronounced "Lee" in Korean.)

I assume the Koreans are actually referring to Megabits/second (a measure of broadband speed) rather than Megabytes (a quantity of storage) :) 2Mb/s is the common home broadband speed in the UK, whereas South Korea's world-beating infrastructure more commonly provides 50–100Mb/s.

Monday, June 16, 2008

The future of ©

"The real dispute, once again, is not between proponents and opponents of copyright as a whole. It is between believers and non-believers. Believers in copyright keep dreaming about building a digital simulation of a 20th-century copyright economy, based on scarcity and with distinct limits between broadcasting and unit sales. I don’t believe such a stabilization will ever occur, but I fear that this vision of copyright utopia is triggering an escalation of technology regulations running out of control and ruining civil liberties." —Rasmus Fleischer

"The copyright policies of the last decade have been based on the idea that copyright is about controlling unauthorized copying. An alternative is to treat copyright as a limitation on commercial exploitation of creative works. Under this option, individuals could make any non-commercial use they liked of copyrighted works, including sharing them with strangers on the Internet, without fear of legal consequences. Copyright law would focus on commercial entities, who are both easier to regulate and better equipped to deal with copyright law’s complexities." —Timothy Lee

Conservatism vs. authoritarianism

"The contrast between the British Right and the American Right could not be more glaring. The former is at least mildly faithful to the principles they espouse, while the latter has morphed completely into an authoritarian, government-power-worshiping faction that fantasizes it's waging glorious war against — to use Antonin Scalia's politicized term — 'radical Islamists,' but which is only at war with its own claimed principles and the principles on which the country was founded." —Glen Greenwald

Friday, June 13, 2008

Fighting to defend our basic freedoms

Dynamite Davis"The truth is that, while 42 days marks a watershed, it is only the latest in the steady, insidious and relentless erosion of our freedoms over the past decade.

"We will soon have the most intrusive ID card system in the world. There is a CCTV camera for every 14 citizens — despite growing evidence of their ineffectiveness as deployed. We have the largest DNA database in the world, larger than any dictatorship, with thousands of innocent children and millions of innocent citizens on it.

"The Government has attacked the jury system, that historic bulwark against unfair law and the arbitrary abuse of state power. Shortcuts with our legal system have left British justice less firm and less fair. The Government hoards masses of personal data on insecure databases, opening up our private lives to the prying eyes of official snoopers, but also exposing personal data to careless civil servants and criminal hackers.

"The state has security powers that clamp down on peaceful protest, and so-called hate laws that stifle legitimate debate — while those inciting violence get off scot-free. A 15-year-old boy was recently charged on the spot for holding a banner describing scientology as a 'dangerous cult', but extremists such as Abu Hamza are left free for years to incite violence and vitriol against this country.

"There are now 266 state powers allowing officials to force their way into the home. Six hundred public bodies have the authority to bug phones and emails and intercept the post. Forget the security services: councils and quangos conduct 1,000 surveillance operations every month, using powers that ought to be the preserve of law enforcement agencies. Officials in Poole spied for weeks on a family taking their children to school, to check that they lived inside the catchment area. Even our rubbish can now be examined by neighbourhood spooks.

"None of this has made us any safer. Violent crime has doubled in 10 years, and the Government continually briefs blood-curdling assessments of the terrorist threat. It is a myth to believe that we can defend our security by sacrificing our fundamental freedoms — one I intend to puncture over the next few weeks." —David Davis MP

Thursday, June 12, 2008

A shaming victory on 42 days

"The prime minister has squandered parliamentary time, goodwill and his reputation as a man of principle on a symbolic sacrifice of liberty. That sacrifice is gratuitous, a vote on a law that would not work, is not needed and which, quite possibly, will never come into force." —The Guardian

"Such is the likely negative impact of this measure on the very people whose loyalty to Britain we most need to win, that we might end up being less secure as a result. So, less liberty in return for less security. What an irresistible offer." —Timothy Garton Ash

"Each new measure is justified in the same way - you have nothing to fear if you have done nothing wrong, But that is no longer true. We have everything to fear from a State that has lost all sense of proportion. In a free society, rights and laws protect people from the government. In a tyranny, rights and laws protect government from the people." —Camilla Cavendish

"What made Gordon Brown's moral compass needle swing to Belmarsh jail? Last October, he gave a speech on freedom in which he called Britain's 'passion for liberty' our 'gift to the world'. Now Zimbabwe and other unsavoury regimes will no doubt be copying our pre-charge example." —Mary Riddell

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

The warmonger on terror

Philip C. BobbittPhilip C. Bobbitt has had a distinguished career as a law professor and counsel at the highest levels of US government. I was fascinated therefore to hear him speak in London on Monday about his new book Terror and Consent: The Wars for the Twenty-first Century. However, I came away largely unconvinced by his thesis.

Bobbitt argues that Al Qaeda is just the first of a new type of 21st-century warfighting phenomenon, of globalised networked terrorism. If such organisations can obtain nuclear, biological or chemical weapons, they can cause carnage on a scale entirely different from 20th century groups such as the IRA or ETA. Therefore states need to take radical action while they still have time in order to tackle this menace — sweeping aside civil liberties and international law if need be.

No doubt the book is more subtle. But Bobbitt's arguments in person were a hysterical yet superficial apologia for George Bush's "war on terror." He claimed that the situations in Afghanistan and Iraq provide evidence that globalised terrorist groups require an entirely new type of hard state response. Others have argued that they instead show the folly of imagining that wars on ideas can be won on the battlefield, however many trillions of dollars blown. Nor have we seen evidence of the fabled online recipes for Weapons of Mass Destruction that would produce any kind of usable WMD. Simon Jenkins, who ably chaired the event, has pointed out before that it is fantasy to conflate the threat from Al Qaeda with the existential threat to the West posed by the Soviet Union's nuclear arsenal. Jenkins compares them instead to the tea-room anarchists of the late 19th century.

Bobbitt's policy goals as opposed to rhetoric seem much more reasonable. Who could argue with increasing the resilience of countries to both natural and man-made disasters? Or ensuring that Western polities have orderly succession plans in the case of serious threats to the continuity of government? But perhaps such moderate, proportionate responses would be drowned out in a political culture that so catastrophically gave command of the greatest empire since Rome to a group of deranged ex-Trotskyists.

Friday, June 06, 2008

Detention for 42 days just doesn't add up

"What seems to have happened is that early on in his premiership Mr Brown took a punt on a number — an arbitrary 42 days — and is now stuck with it. The policy was fixed on the basis of an ill-conceived political objective — tough on terror — and not on the basis of the evidence or any proper consultation. Consequently, the principles now invoked by the Prime Minister seem almost absurd." —Prof. Philippe Sands QC

Law and principle are lost in the crazy politics of 42 days

"On morning radio Jacqui Smith asked for our trust. Since when was trust in today's home secretary a basis for suspending the rule of law? It is part of her job to plan for horrific scenarios. It is the job of her parliamentary colleagues to consider her proposals in future home secretaries' hands. This is not a vote of confidence in this government, but about confidence in parliament's ability to hold all governments to account." —Shami Chakrabati, director of Liberty

Labour: a threat to our liberty

John Major"These days a police superintendent can authorise bugging in public places. A chief constable can authorise bugging our homes or cars. The Home Secretary can approve telephone tapping and the interception of our letters and e-mails. All of this is legal under an Act passed by the Labour Government. None of this requires — as it should — the sanction of a High Court Judge. Francis Pym once spoke of the democratic deficit of any government having too large a majority. He was right. In a Parliament with a more balanced representation, the undermining of personal privacy, lengthy detention before charge, identity cards and a DNA register would have never been passed." —Sir John Major, former Conservative prime minister

Thursday, June 05, 2008

Brown lacks the courage of his convictions

"We already have thought crimes. We already have people picked up for being in places they 'ought' not to be. We have a quarter of the CCTV on the globe.

"For all Brown's more emollient style, the end result will be the same. Britain will continue its sleepwalk to becoming one of the most policed, bugged, watched and imprisoned 'democratic' nations on earth." —John Kampfner

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Govt has failed to make case for 42 days

"The police have enough emergency power already. As for panic, that has nothing to do with national security and everything to do with the position of the prime minister. If Gordon Brown needs to appear macho, he can find thugs to arrest, drink laws to change, taxes to raise and citizens to frighten with late-night calls. He has failed to make a case for detaining people for 42 days without charge. MPs should never pass this sinister bill." —Simon Jenkins

Monday, June 02, 2008

Big Government's death throes

"What are the consequences of introducing the kind of surveillance techniques once associated with Eastern Bloc countries to prevent terrorism, without providing careful safeguards against their misuse? Local councils adopt them (at God only knows what cost in man-hours and resources) to pursue the careless depositors of dog poo and to prosecute people for putting the wrong kind of rubbish in their wheelie bins, presumably so that the fines thus collected can help to pay for the ridiculous numbers of staff required to carry out these persecutions of the law-abiding." —Janet Daley

Sunday, June 01, 2008

This is not a worthy enemy

"[Al-Qaeda] has been honoured by Blair, the neocons and the military industrial complex as the global antithesis to the once-vaunted new world order. Never can so wretched an outfit have been awarded so vast a dignity." —Simon Jenkins