Thursday, April 30, 2009

Database tyranny

"You cannot fix society with computers. People fix society, if you let them. That means freeing nurses, teachers, social workers — and their clients — from the relentless tyranny of Whitehall’s cravings for ever more information. A benevolent state must have a human face, not an unblinking screen. Technology can help, but only if it is despatched by those at the front line. It is a perverse truth that in an age where the bottom-up, decentralised, so-called 'network of ends' that is the internet has demonstrated its primacy, the state continues to deploy digital technology from the top down." —Becky Hogge

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

How much security is too much?

How much security is too much?
Don't forget to vote in the European elections in a month!

Swine panic

The hysteria over swine flu is eerily similar to that stoked by fear-mongering politicians using wars on nouns for narrow political ends. Simon Jenkins is one of the few mainstream media commentators to call them on it:
Professional expertise is now overwhelmed by professional log-rolling. Risk aversion has trounced risk judgment. An obligation on public officials not to scare people or lead them to needless expense is overridden by the yearning for a higher budget or more profit. Health scares enable media-hungry doctors, public health officials and drugs companies to benefit by manipulating fright.

Lunatic risk assessment can seriously damage your health (and economy, and freedom).

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Überdatabase retreat not the end of the snooping story

The Home Office has finally launched its "Interception Modernisation Programme" consultation. Much of the document sets out the government's rationale for allowing hundreds of agencies to access records of telephone and Internet activity. You need to read the media's behind-the-scenes reporting (and talk privately to industry insiders) to get a full picture of what is planned (and indeed already being trialled). While a central database of online activity is no longer on the cards, the "consultation" makes quite clear the government's preferred option to demand the installation of wiretapping equipment across the UK Internet.

You can read my take in a new article for Index on Censorship, which concludes:
While the government’s retreat from a central database of everyone’s online activities is to be welcomed, we should not lose sight of the invasiveness (and expense) of their remaining proposals. Shadow Home Secretary Chris Grayling said today that ‘too many parts of Government have too many powers to snoop on innocent people and that’s really got to change’. The UK should not be leading democracies and autocracies alike in wiretapping the Internet.

UPDATE: Oh look! "SPY chiefs are pressing ahead with secret plans to monitor all internet use and telephone calls in Britain despite an announcement by Jacqui Smith, the home secretary, of a ministerial climbdown over public surveillance."

UPDATE 2: Sir Bonar Neville-Kingdom writes: "We won’t monitor all of it, just some of it. We won’t monitor the phone call itself, just who rang whom, when, for how long and from what location. We won’t target everyone in the UK, although for reasons of equality and balance everyone’s communications data will be kept. Our actual 'targets' will be a fraction of the entire population. We won’t store it centrally. It will be dispersed and for reasons of cost the actual databases will reside with our private sector partners. Thus we continue to do what we do, yet are able to issue a forceful, plausible and entirely truthful denial… Dealing with the news media requires a subtlety which our friends in Cheltenham, with their inevitable but unhealthy introspection and somewhat 'geeky' culture, have never had the proper chance to acquire."

Torture and the law

"The rule of law is one of this nation's founding principles. It's not optional. Our laws against torture demand to be obeyed — and demand to be enforced." —Eugene Robinson

Sunday, April 26, 2009

A tortured lie

"The British government processed and interrogated more than 500 Nazi spies during the second world war in a situation in which the very existence of Britain as a free country was at stake and when Londoners endured a 9/11 every week during the blitz. But not one of the spies was physically coerced. Not just because it would have been immoral and illegal, because giving in to torture was not morally different from surrendering to Nazism, but because it would have produced false leads, dead ends and fantasies. The reason totalitarian states use the torture techniques that Bush did is to produce false confessions to create a reality that buttresses their ideology." —Andrew Sullivan

Saturday, April 25, 2009

A victory for terror

"In Europe, we have lived with various forms of terror for at least a century, and accepted it as a fact of life. That is why terrorists always lost, because, on balance, our way of life always prevailed. The terrorist was defeated by irrelevance — by failing to make an impact upon the fundamentals of our life. People died, often horribly. Families were devastated and communities disrupted. For a day, a week or a month a road was closed, a bus station was surrounded by policemen, a wrecked district cordoned off. Then life was rebuilt. State, society and business co-operated in ensuring normality returned at all costs. Whether the City of London or the heart of Paris or Rome, wherever atrocities were committed, life as we knew it ultimately continued. But not any longer. Now, terror has gained the upper hand." —Ilana Bet El

Reclaiming America’s soul

"Officials in the Bush administration instituted torture as a policy, misled the nation into a war they wanted to fight and, probably, tortured people in the attempt to extract 'confessions' that would justify that war. And during the march to war, most of the political and media establishment looked the other way.

"It’s hard, then, not to be cynical when some of the people who should have spoken out against what was happening, but didn’t, now declare that we should forget the whole era — for the sake of the country, of course." —Paul Krugman

Friday, April 24, 2009

Any fool can raise taxes

"While austerity is the talk of the moment, there is no such talk when it comes to prestige projects. In the ­hothouse of Whitehall, the Olympics are like grand weapons platforms, ­mainframe computers, super-jails and giant wind turbines. They are backed by lobbyists, project managers and ­industries fat on government contracts. They have publicity traction and ­spending momentum…

"It is easy to tell a local council to close a swimming pool or library, shut a drug rehab centre or stop training for prisoners. But it takes guts to sink a Trident submarine or clip a hundred million off an Olympic ­velodrome. It upsets the people ministers meet at dinner. They do not have such courage these days." —Simon Jenkins

Thursday, April 23, 2009

A bias for freedom

"The principal lesson of the new century is the following: that you must condemn censorship, intimidation, bullying, coercion, torture, encroachment on human rights and illegality in your friends with exactly the same rigour you bring to its condemnation in your enemies. Limitations on freedom of speech, from even the best reasons, are going to be ever more enthusiastically advanced. In the cause of pretending to protect the weak, an awful lot, as usual, is going to be fiddled on behalf of the strong. All sorts of wonderful reasons in all sorts of different cultures — religious and non-religious — are going to be given in the next 10 years, as they were given in the last, for why people should not say what they want, about what they want." —David Hare

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Waterboarding is for wimps

"[Security Minister Lord West] says he wants to reinforce every shopping centre, sports ground, school, hospital and restaurant — even every church — against suicide bombers. With billion-pound budgets flashing, he is courted by cohorts of security consultants, defence lobbyists, building contractors, electronic warfare pundits, and health and safety fear merchants. He will not stop until he has allowed al-Qaida (which we are constantly told is 'on its last legs') to drain the exchequer dry and reduce British citizens to gibbering wrecks of fear." —Simon Jenkins

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

The wages of spin

So this is how the government is using its powers to spy on mobile phones:
It was one of the most infamous incidents in the long-running Blair-Brown spin wars. On the eve of Labour party conference in 2004, Tony Blair was rocked by a story revealing that senior Whitehall communication directors had savaged No 10 during a private meeting — for media manipulation.

But it has now emerged that the leak caused such consternation that senior civil servants launched a secret investigation, including a trawl of phone records, to identify the culprit.

In other snooping news, it appears that the consultation on limiting local council use of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act has been conveniently launched at the same time as the Home Office moves ahead with its über-database Intercept Modernisation Programme.

Monday, April 20, 2009

The budget from hell

"There will no doubt be much talk on Wednesday of investment in the cutting-edge businesses of the future, but the reality is that the UK lags miles behind Germany in green technologies. Britain remains a low wage, low skill, low productivity economy with pockets of hi-tech excellence.

"The government has indeed put money behind tackling child poverty but not enough to meet its own targets. Billions of pounds have been squandered on the surveillance state, delusions of imperial grandeur, useless IT projects and armies of overpaid consultants." —Larry Elliott

Losing patience with thuggish policing

Home Office muppets
Militant Animal by innerhippy

"To succeed the police must have the trust of the public. It shows just how far we are from that ideal when officers are being spotted at demonstrations with their ID tags deliberately obscured. No police force should tolerate such brutish arrogance.

"This aggression is no doubt linked to the government's nasty habit of writing laws that prefer the convenience of security forces to the rights of free citizens. But the police are public servants, not government enforcers. Their job is to keep the peace, not clear the streets of dissent." —The Observer

Sunday, April 19, 2009

The cult of the celebrity PM

"National leaders from Baldwin to Major did their best to respect the rule of law. Celebrity prime ministers are actively hostile to historic freedoms and civil liberties. Traditional prime ministers understood and appreciated due process. Celebrity prime ministers see it merely as an encumbrance and resent the civil service disciplines of impartiality, scruple and properly noted cabinet meetings. Traditional prime ministers always sought to govern through parliament — Baldwin would spend hours in the chamber of the House of Commons. Celebrity prime ministers have tried to cut out the Commons…

"At this grim moment in our national life, Britain doesn't just need a change of personnel at the very top. We urgently need a new decency and morality in government and to get rid of the stinking and corrupt regime that has brought the idea of British democracy into such deep disrepute over the last few years." —Peter Oborne

Humiliation tames our little despots

Jacqui Smith"If our democratic liberties are in slightly better shape now than a week ago, it is because those involved in the abuse of power have been humiliated. McBride and Gordon Brown have been humbled. The Metropolitan police, who so terribly mishandled the Green case, have been made to look foolish. Jacqui Smith, the home secretary, has been debased because her department exaggerated the threat to national security from the leaks fed to Green. Those American lawyers who signed their names to waterboarding and other physical abuse of prisoners must defend their reputations now that their advice has been made public.

"To enjoy seeing those who abuse power being humbled is not sadistic. The fear of humiliation is one of the few things that make those who hold office think twice about overstepping the mark, which otherwise is so tempting. It is essential that McBride, Brown, the police, Smith and the US justice department experience painful disgrace. That helps to protect us against further violations of public trust and liberties." —Michael Portillo

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Bush war crimes must be prosecuted

"The need to criminally prosecute those who authorized and ordered torture (as well as illegal surveillance) is absolute and non-negotiable (and … in the case of torture, criminal investigations are legally compelled). A collective refusal to prosecute the grotesque war crimes that we know our Government committed is to indict all of us in those crimes, to make us complict in their commission." —Glen Greenwald

Citizen Snoops

Eyes down citizens, only terrorists look at the cameras
"The same government that now asks householders to play Miss Marple with next door's garbage has, properly and impressively, encouraged the public to look less beadily at those around them: to stop filing in their mental copper's notebook details of sexuality, religion or physical capacity that departs from what was previously defined as the norm.

"And so an administration that has been no stranger to contradictions is now caught in another one. Having urged us to be less mistrustful of others, they now urge beady scrutiny even of a stranger's trash. And teachers who would rightly be sacked if they commented on a student's race or sexuality are now prompted to brand their charges as terrorists in sneaky phone calls. If anyone has been missing lessons, it's the people who came up with these misguided ideas for a sus culture." —Mark Lawson

Friday, April 17, 2009

Hackers stole 285 million electronic records in 2008

Verizon has found that sloppy security planning led to the theft of 285m electronic records last year in 90 breaches investigated. 93% were in the financial sector, and organised criminals were behind 90% of the breaches, particularly targeting PINs:
The higher monetary value commanded by PIN data has spawned a cycle of innovation in attack methodologies, with criminals re-engineering their processes and developed new tools, such as memory-scraping malware, to steal this valuable data.

Remember that next time you hear from the banks that Chip and PIN systems are infallible and that anyone reporting ATM "phantom withdrawals" must be committing fraud.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Liberalism, democracy and privacy in Europe

ALDE MEPs launch balloons at their European Civil Liberties Day
Yesterday the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE), the third-largest political grouping in the European Parliament, launched their first European Civil Liberties day. They asked four NGOs to give short speeches on key current human rights issues, including European Digital Rights — on whose behalf I gave the speech below.

It's great to see today's launch of European Civil Liberties day. Coming from the UK, which Privacy International now rates as the worst surveillance state in the EU, I need all the optimism I can get. We have millions of CCTV cameras; an illegal DNA database of over 5m profiles including nearly 100,000 under-13s; and out-of-control Internet surveillance with 519,000 government accesses in 2007 to people's communications records.

The UK and its allies have been pushing this surveillance agenda at the European level, most noticeably with the Data Retention Directive but more subtly with the exchange of travel records with the US and a "principle of availability" that allows law enforcement databases to be shared across the EU.

Some of the member states are looking forward to much, much more electronic surveillance of their citizens. The Portuguese presidency in 2007 envisaged a "digital tsunami", where "Every object the individual uses, every transaction they make and almost everywhere they go will create a detailed digital record. This will generate a wealth of information for public security organisations". The former UK intelligence coordinator Sir David Omand recently added: "The realm of intelligence operations is of course a zone to which the ethical rules that we might hope to govern private conduct as individuals in society cannot fully apply."

This surveillance on steroids is being pushed by governments with little evidence it will prevent terrorism or reduce serious crime. Detailed criminological studies have found that CCTV cameras reduce crime levels by only around 2%, except in very specific circumstances such as indoor car parks. The US National Research Council recently concluded that "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."

Liberals and democrats should campaign for a different kind of information society, where the human rights of citizens remain centre-stage, as they have been in Europe for the last sixty years and as they are proudly proclaimed in the EU's new Charter of Fundamental Rights. Members of Parliament must continue to stand up for citizens' rights in the face of anti-democratic attempts by some Council members to turn the EU into a surveillance society. Today's launch is a very positive step in that effort.

Amazon opts out from Phorm

Another blow for Phorm and its user profiling technology: Amazon has opted out, preventing Phorm from monitoring their users' behaviour on that site. Phorm's business model is looking increasingly improbable given the threatened lawsuit from the European Commission.

I think the advertising industry has overplayed the benefits to users of adverts targeted based upon their browsing behaviour. However, this could be done in a privacy-friendly way by code running on the user's own PC, under their full control, retrieving customised adverts using Private Information Retrieval protocols that would prevent the leakage of any information on their interests to advertisers.

This seems an obvious direction for Microsoft and Google to go with their browsers, with the added advantage (to them) of capturing a further significant slice of future advertising revenues.

Freedom vs Protection in the Age of Networks

Ann Light and colleagues are organising a great workshop in September in Cambridge: Freedom vs Protection in the Age of Networks. They've kindly asked me to give the keynote speech, which I am looking forward to immensely. If you have some HCI-related research to report on any of the following topics:
  • Intellectual Property and the Right to Share
  • Security vs Privacy and Anonymity
  • Designer Intent and User Appropriation
  • Human Computer Sexual Interactions
  • The Social Implications of Digital Networks
then do consider submitting a position paper!

Sunday, April 12, 2009

PC Porkie Pie is on the case again

"Surely nobody, now, would believe the police’s version of events, not even one of those independent inquiries we get every so often to mollify public opinion. Not after the fabulous rubbish which the Met has come up with so far in order to evade the blame for Tomlinson’s death — or, while we’re at it, the stuff they initially came up with when Jean Charles de Menezez was shot by them. Or the desperate scrabbling around for an excuse or a smokescreen after they had shot Mohammed Abdul Kahar, in Forest Gate, for the crime of being in possession of a provocative beard and a copy of the Koran. Child pornography and loads of money underneath his bed — got to be a wrong ’un. All, as it turned out, lies." —Rod Liddle

Saturday, April 11, 2009

The serially deferential wake up

Police Medic by amjamjazz
Police Medic by amjamjazz

"It is something of a shame that certain elements of society have only recently woken up to the possibility that the police might not be the faultless, justice-dispensing force of establishment myth, and only because — in the cases of De Menezes and Tomlinson — they have seen it with their own eyes, or at least enough of it to provoke a suspicion that was hitherto absent." —Marina Hyde

Friday, April 10, 2009

The surveillance state's blind eye


"What a peculiar position we're in. We have all the bad things about omnipresent surveillance (restriction of freedom, enforced paranoia) but apparently not the one possible good thing, namely the recording of a crime, where we seemingly have to produce the footage ourselves. Even then, there's the fear that if we do so, the Counter-Terrorism Act could be used against us.

"The frequently heard argument of the pub tub-thumper on the subject of surveillance is that if you've got nothing to hide, you don't need to worry. If only our police and politicians felt that way about the monitoring of their own activities, perhaps we'd feel less angry about the way they monitor ours." —Michael Deacon

Friday, April 03, 2009

Talking privacy in Berlin

This week we held our second Privacy Open Space conference in Berlin. There was a whole range of interesting presentations, which should soon be published on the project website. The city itself remains as fun and bohemian as ever.

I talked to the audience of academics, data protection authorities and corporate types about our Privacy Value Networks project and our recent Database State report. You can read through the latter slideshow below. My colleague Alison Powell has also blogged some thoughts on the event.

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

The innocent have plenty to fear

Very gratifying to see my favourite columnist, Simon Jenkins, writing in today's Guardian about our Database State report:
The Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust recently recorded just 15% of 50 government databases as "effective, proportionate or necessary". It concluded that 10 actually broke privacy law. Yet a staggering £100bn is to be spent on them in the next five years.

The only hope is that now MPs have been hoist by their own petard, they might be more mindful of the liberties — and privacies — of others. I would not hold my breath.