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