Thursday, July 31, 2008

MPs, step away from the Internet

"I'm all for regulation when the entities needing regulation are themselves suitable for it. But the internet isn't. It's like trying to regulate the weather. Social sites have their own regulation: it's called their users. They can flag the bad stuff — retroactively, of course — and report concerns. And actually, the system that works best to defeat the lousy content is a machine-based one, marking down and making invisible the content that the community deems undesirable. It works on sites like, well, this one, and Slashdot, and many others.

"But MPs won't like it. It's entirely peer-based. No central bodies. How do you invite 8 million people to a private little lunch? No, it'll never catch on at Westminster." —Charles Arthur

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

How terrorist groups end

"Al Qa'ida's resilience should trigger a fundamental rethinking of U.S. strategy… Key to this strategy is replacing the war-on-terrorism orientation with the kind of counterterrorism approach that is employed by most governments facing significant terrorist threats today. Calling the efforts a war on terrorism raises public expectations — both in the United States and elsewhere — that there is a battlefield solution. It also tends to legitimize the terrorists' view that they are conducting a jihad (holy war) against the United States and elevates them to the status of holy warriors. Terrorists should be perceived as criminals, not holy warriors." —RAND Corporation

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Wanted: Chief PET Officer

PRIME identitiesBlogzilla has been quiet while spending quality time with his favourite gang of cryptogeeks, techno-anarchists and radical privacy lawyers. In a feast for the mind, the PRIME, ADAPID and FIDIS European projects last week all held meetings alongside the annual Workshop on Trustworthy Elections and Privacy Enhancing Technologies Symposium. While the setting was the genteel 15th-century Katholieke Universiteit Leuven, the assembled throng were focused on building fundamental legal and technical checks on 21st century state and corporate power.

PRIME has been a very successful four-year project to demonstrate that electronic credentials and partial identities can make privacy a key part of the information society. I have been fortunate to be part of the project's Reference Group, and was most impressed by the quality of research undertaken into cryptography, middleware, user interfaces and data protection law. T-Mobile have deployed some of the results in privacy-friendly location-based services that already have over 3 million users in Germany. €15m well spent, I think. ADAPID and FIDIS are rather smaller projects but are coming up with some interesting results on privacy-friendly e-ID cards and citizen profiling.

WOTE is concerned with technologies that allow individuals to verify that an election has been properly run — that all votes cast are valid and included in the final tally. Would you like a commitment-consistent proof of a shuffle with your ballot paper? This kind of verifiability is critical for those jurisdictions that have already moved to the horribly unreliable electronic voting systems commonplace in the US. Fortunately the UK has so far resisted government attempts to junk our well-understood and largely trusted paper ballot in favour of such systems.

PETS is a mind-bending combination of maths, mixes and cryptographic onions (!) Participants discuss the technologies that make possible an information society with the privacy properties that we take for granted in the physical world. If you want to understand how to defeat Internet surveillance, prove you are entitled to services without revealing your identity, or understand the full damage done to privacy by social networking sites, you should definitely get a copy of the proceedings. You might though first need to brush up on your Shannon entropy, public-key cryptosystems and information-theoretic proofs.

All of this may sound rather abstract. But waiting for me upon my return was the UK government's response to the recent Home Affairs Committee report on surveillance — in which the government accepts the following recommendation:

We recommend that the Government track and make full use of new developments in encryption and other privacy-enhancing technologies and in particular those which limit the disclosure and of collection of information which could identify individuals. We further recommend that the resources of the Information Commissioner’s Office be expanded to accommodate sufficient technical expertise to be able to work with the Chief Information Officer to provide advice on the deployment of privacy-enhancing technologies in Government. (Paragraph 159)

The recruitment and impact of an anarchist mathematician in such a key role will be fascinating to watch…

Sunday, July 20, 2008

A joint is a lesser menace than binge drinking

"Possibly I feel this way because I liked taking (soft) drugs when I was a teenager myself — my fondness for marijuana got me expelled from boarding school, in fact, due to an unfortunate incident during an Italian translation class. The vocab had struck me as so intensely hilarious — it was something to do with Jesus at Gethsemane — that I couldn’t control my laughter, fell off my chair and lay on the ground, convulsed with mirth, unable to obey increasingly furious orders to get up.

"The fact is that this had only positive consequences: I changed schools, stopped having to play bloody lacrosse (the sheer hell of which had sent me in search of new pastimes in the first place), moved home to London, regained normal freedoms and occasionally took more drugs. By the time I went to university I had grown bored with the druggy scene and had evolved enough to get over the sense that drugs were exciting and naughty — an insight, I observe, that still eludes many less precocious middle-aged types, 20-odd years later." —India Knight

Friday, July 18, 2008

The quixotic quest for invulnerability

Bruce Schneier points out a wonderful paper from Prof John Mueller on the futility of much counter-terrorism activity:

This paper attempts to set out some general parameters for coming to grips with a central homeland security concern: the effort to make potential targets invulnerable, or at least notably less vulnerable, to terrorist attack. It argues that protection makes sense only when protection is feasible for an entire class of potential targets and when the destruction of something in that target set would have quite large physical, economic, psychological, and/or political consequences. There are a very large number of potential targets where protection is essentially a waste of resources and a much more limited one where it may be effective.

Footnote 18 is especially amusing!

Pardoning war criminals

"Cheney and Addington and Bush actively, relentlessly and surreptitiously broke the law, rescinded the Geneva Conventions, approved memos that are laughable hack work in retrospect, used false confessions procured by torture as rationales to go to war, and destroyed the moral reputation of the US, the honor of the armed services and the rule of law. They are immensely powerful, privileged, wealthy men. And they are war criminals, under the strictest interpretation of that term. They have shifted blame on the lowest of the low, while fixing the system to protect them from accountability.

"America doesn't pardon war criminals. It prosecutes and, in the past, has even executed them for the same techniques that Bush and Rumsfeld and Cheney endorsed." —Andrew Sullivan

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Copyright for the dead

Dave Rowntree"Evidence from Swedish collecting societies shows that, following a copyright term increase of 20 years, payments to dead composers leapt from 2.4 per cent in 1995 to 14.1 per cent in 2006. Copyright term extension for sound recordings will lead to a similar effect in favour of the estates of best-selling, and in all likelihood dead, performing artists. The increased earnings for struggling artists will be minimal; it won't keep starving artists off the poverty line." —Dave Rowntree

Monday, July 14, 2008

Torture and the rule of law

"There are many political disputes — probably most — composed of two or more reasonable sides. Whether the U.S. Government has committed war crimes by torturing detainees — conduct that is illegal under domestic law and international treaties which are binding law in this country — isn't an example of a reasonable, two-sided political dispute. Nor is the issue of whether the U.S. Government and the telecom industry engaged in illegal acts for years by spying on Americans without warrants. Nor is the question of whether we should allow Government officials to break our laws at will by claiming that doing so is necessary to keep us Safe." —Glen Greenwald

Friday, July 11, 2008

Thomas/Walport data sharing review published

Richard ThomasThe Ministry of Justice has today published Richard Thomas and Mark Walport's review of the UK's framework for the use of personal information in the public and private sectors. Many of their recommendations are unremarkable (e.g. rr. 1–4, 18–19) and would already be enforced if the Information Commissioner had taken a more pro-active approach during his tenure.

While it makes a brief mention of credentials (r. 5), the report is extremely backward-looking on technology, with very little about the potential of better system design to enhance privacy. Thomas & Walport take as read that better customer service, crime prevention and national security all demand ever-greater collection of personal data. They continue the Commissioner's remarkably back-to-front approach of encouraging the UK government in their efforts to savage the EU Data Protection Directive, rather than to properly implement European law (r. 6). They also give the government the go-ahead to allow widespread data-sharing in the public sector after cursory consideration of secondary legislation by Parliament (rr. 7–8).

The few welcome recommendations (rr. 9–13), while entirely predictable from a political economy perspective, would increase the resources and powers of the Commissioner to levels closer to that of the Financial Services Authority. As the FSA told the review, it cannot be right that financial institutions have been fined over a million pounds for data breaches while other sectors need fear virtually nothing from ICO enforcement action. However, a more effective remedy might be to strengthen private rights of action under the Data Protection Act.

The really shocking claim of the report, however, is tucked away on p.34:

An NHS patient agreeing to a course of treatment should also be taken to have agreed that information given during the course of the treatment might be made available for future medical research projects, so long as robust systems are in place to protect personal information and privacy. After all, that patient may be benefiting from research using health information from earlier patients.

It is Stalinesque to demand that the National Health Service should ride roughshod over the need for patient consent for medical records to be used in research. While Mark Walport (head of the Wellcome Trust, one of the world's largest medical research charities) clearly wanted to throw a bone to his colleagues, even they would probably be shocked by such a juicy morsel. It is particularly inappropriate given the Medical Research Council's own findings of low levels of public support for this type of assumed consent.

Richard Thomas would probably not thank me for considering this report a most fitting conclusion to his term as Information Commissioner.

DNS security problems

Yesterday's big Internet news was a security flaw in the Domain Name System that would allow browsers to be hijacked by phishers. I spoke to the World Service about how the DNS works and how users can protect themselves against these types of attacks.

Legal, Security and Privacy Issues in IT

This week I've been reviewing papers for the Third International Conference on Legal, Security and Privacy Issues in IT, which will be held in Prague 3-5 September. The call for papers is open until 7 August, so if you work in this field please consider submitting your recent work.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

A ha'p'orth of momentary panic

"Still today, 800 years later, Magna Carta resonates: 'To no man will we deny, To no man will we delay, Justice and Right.' Is that not grand, worthy of your vote? Is habeas corpus to be traduced in one sad moment of political expediency? Do we not clearly deny and delay Justice and Right when we imprison a person for 42 days without charge?

"What existential threat do we face greater than those of the past 800 years? What great terror exists today that not civil war, not world war, nor recent other terrorisms could make our forefathers change the fundamental basis of this state? What is so dangerous that our oldest statutes could be upended for such a ha'p'orth of momentary panic?" —Bob Geldof

Snuggly AND secure!

Snuggly the Security BearSnuggly the Security Bear explains the latest on warrantless wiretapping by the Bush administration.

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Former MI5 director against 42 day detention

Baroness Manningham-BullerBaroness Manningham-Buller, former director of MI5, has used her maiden speech in the Lords to strongly reject the government's proposal for 42 days of pre-charge detention:

In deciding what I believe on these matters, I have weighed up the balance between the right to life — the most important civil liberty —the fact that there is no such thing as complete security and the importance of our hard-won civil liberties. Therefore, on a matter of principle, I cannot support the proposal in the Bill for pre-charge detention of 42 days.

I understand that there are different views and that these judgments are honestly reached by others. I respect those views, but I do not see on a practical basis or on a principled one that these proposals are in any way workable for the reasons already mentioned and because of the need for the suspect to be given the right to a fair trial.

Finally, I have been fortunate in my career to have dealt with national security. It has been a great privilege. Our legislation covering the Security Service refers to the protection of parliamentary democracy. I have a plea: handling national security should, as far as possible, be above party politics, as it has been for most of my career. Faced by a severe terrorist threat, we should aim to reach, after debate and discussion, a broad, cross-party consensus on the way ahead. Polarised positions are damaging to what we are all trying to achieve in preventing — I underline that — detecting and countering terrorism.

I strongly agree with her very thinly veiled position that the petty politics behind this policy is a disgrace to the Labour party.

Many other Lords share her position, including the former Lord Chancellor, Attorney-General, and chair of the Joint Intelligence Committee.

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Growing ORG


The Open Rights Group has launched a campaign to double its membership from 750 to the 1,500 that will make it sustainable in the long-term. If you care about your online rights to privacy, balanced copyright law and reliable elections — why haven't you joined already?

Lords follow-up report on Personal Internet Security

The House of Lords Science and Technology Committee has published a follow-up report on Personal Internet Security, after their original report last August was rejected by the government. As they note, with the hindsight of the HMRC data disaster, these recommendations are more important than ever:

We acknowledge that, following the Government's disappointing response to our Report, they have reflected further and, with regard to some of the issues we raised, there has been some progress towards meeting our concerns. What progress there is, however, appears to be slow. Given this, we particularly welcome Mr Coaker's offer to keep the Committee informed, every two months, of what is happening (Q 50). We accept this offer and look forward to the Minister's first report in July. We anticipate that we shall be returning to this topic on a regular basis.

Their new report contains specific comments on consumer protection against e-crime; software vendor liability; personal data protection and breach notification; fraud and e-crime reporting and classification; funding for a central police e-crime unit; and international co-operation. It is short and to the point, and well worth a read.

Monday, July 07, 2008

I can haz Street Privacy?

o-hai-googlz-i-can-has-privacy.jpg
Google has been hit by yet more privacy controversy, this time over the launch of its Street View service in Europe. Privacy International is worried that Google's face-blurring technology is not yet up to the job of protecting the privacy of those caught by the Street View cameras.

I just spoke to the World Service's business news about this. My position was that this is a great tool as long as Google can properly protect individuals' privacy. As Naomi Campbell, Princess Caroline and others will tell you, you do not entirely give up your privacy rights when you step out into a public space.

Sunday, July 06, 2008

What is your SatNav recording about you?

TomTom SatNavA Metropolitan police forensic analyst has discovered that TomTom satellite navigation devices are retaining all sorts of information about their owners' movements. Unsurprisingly, the police are now accessing this data as part of their investigations. As I told New Scientist, I would imagine better privacy protection will soon become a popular feature in this type of device as customers realise what's happening.

Saturday, July 05, 2008

Liberty vs social engineering

"Entrenching civil liberties matters, because it is always in the interests of authorities to make it easier for themselves to exercise their authority and to impose their will, so there is always a tendency towards limitation of freedom in the name of efficiency, security, the majority, or some greater good such as public health. As governments try social engineering schemes — at the outset always with the best intentions — so the mission creep of directing, controlling and improving by force, occurs: and with it the loss of the physical and psychological space around each individual that makes life worth living." —A. C. Grayling

How to save the BBC

"There is no longer a case for taking £4 billion a year from the public to produce programmes they do not want or can obtain free elsewhere. If there is a demand for a particular programme, the broadcasting market will supply that demand, without the licence fee.

"So the real questions are: do we need the BBC at all? And, if we do need it, how can we save it?" —Sir Anthony Jay

Friday, July 04, 2008

Viacom v. Google

Today's press is filled with the news that Google has been ordered by a court to hand over records of every single viewing of YouTube videos. These records would include YouTube user IDs (often real names) and Internet Protocol addresses — which independent experts agree are identifying personal data, whatever the protestations of Google.

This court decision is a grossly disproportionate response to allegations of copyright infringement by some YouTube users. A court-appointed expert could have determined roughly what percentage of videos viewed on the site were infringing without any personal data being handed over.

I did an interview today for Channel 4 News pointing out how difficult it is to provide this quantity of data in anonymised form. Simply replacing user IDs and IP addresses with pseudonyms is not nearly enough. Unfortunately the lawyer interviewed from Pinsent Masons hasn't yet got with this programme.


The lesson for the future is that Internet sites like YouTube, Google (and many, many others) should not be amassing such quantities of personally identifying information. Courts and legislatures simply cannot resist the appeal of access.

The veneer of civilisation over the rock of religious bigotry

"Religious doctrine is a menace that has spattered the world with blood as it now spatters it with acrimony. Rival narratives are deeply embedded in every community's DNA. The shrill conflicts of Ulster, still enshrined in its politics and in public policy on schools and housing, show how fragile is the veneer of civilisation over the rock of religious bigotry." —Simon Jenkins

A new business model for the music industry

"Simply put, the internet is fundamentally incompatible with the music industry’s sales-based revenue model. Every internet user, whether or not involved in P2P or social networking, and every webcaster, podcaster, or other audio service provider in the world is a potential source of unauthorised mass distribution of recorded music in pristine and unprotected form. Through the internet, the market for sale of individual recordings can be saturated in a moment’s time and without payment of any royalties. The actual amount at risk may be greater for larger rights holders; but all rights holders, large and small, are impacted to the extent they derive revenue from sales of recordings.

"The industry’s efforts to salvage its sales-based revenue model have compelled it to resist consumer demand for full, unfettered, DRM-free access to music; blocked consumer electronics makers and technology firms from offering new products with next generation capabilities; limited the growth of webcasting and other digital audio services; chilled free speech and interfered with academic freedom on university campuses; caused distortions in the music licensing marketplace; relegated consumers to black-market services where adware, spyware, and privacy violations abound; and exposed consumers to ruinous infringement liability damages for conduct occurring in the privacy of their homes.

"And for it all, the industry’s efforts have resulted in fewer licensed transmissions of fewer works and slowed the growth of royalties that songwriters, music publishers, recording artists and record labels otherwise may have earned." —Bennett Lincoff

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

London elections not adequately transparent

E-counting London ballotsFlickr photo by secretlondon123

The Open Rights Group has just published its report on May's elections for the London mayor and assembly. A team of 27 ORG observers (including yours truly) observed the procedures at the three e-counting centres following the vote, and has concluded:

“there is insufficient evidence available to allow independent observers to state reliably whether the results declared in the May 2008 elections for the Mayor of London and the London Assembly are an accurate representation of voters’ intentions.”

Needless to say, this is not the way to build voter confidence in the electoral system.

Privacy is the wellspring of liberty

"Freedom of speech in the public sphere springs from freedom of conscience, and freedom of conscience from the possibility of private discourse. Unless there is a sphere into which the power of the state or the disapproval of the community cannot reach to choke dissent before it starts, then there's no start to liberty. The source of liberty in privacy is scarcely noticed, because it has not [before] been under threat in modern times in the west." —Guy Herbert

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Data Control and Social Networking: Irreconcilable Ideas?

Lilian Edwards and I just tied up our recent work on the regulation of social networking sites with a book chapter entitled Data Control and Social Networking: Irreconcilable Ideas?

The future of both law and technology will require reconciling users' desire to self-disclose information with their simultaneous desire that this information be protected. Security of personal information and user privacy are potentially irreconcilable with the conflicting set of user preferences regarding information sharing behaviours and the convenience of using technology to do so. Social networking sites (SNSs) provide the latest and perhaps most complicated case study to date of these technologies where consumers' desire for data security and control conflict with their desire to self-disclose. Although the law may provide some data control protections, aspects of the code itself provide equally important means of achieving a delicate balance between users' expectations of data security and privacy and their desire to share information.

It will be published next year in a collection from Stanford University Press, edited by Andrea Matwyshyn.