Thursday, December 31, 2009

DNA retention hampers policing

"When ministers or police chiefs seize on the odd case, always with emotional pulling power, which they claim would not have been solved without a big DNA database, they should consider the long-term implications of an intrusive DNA policy. An alienated population seldom provides the tip-offs the police need to catch criminals, or the evidence in court needed to convict. This has been a problem at times within some minority communities who regard the police as hostile. How much more difficult life would be for the police if this attitude became widespread.

"A smaller, targeted DNA database would not only be a more effective tool in crime-fighting; it would act as a sign that the creeping expansion of the surveillance state was being reversed. In this instance civil liberties and the real interests of the police point in the same direction. The only people who still need convincing are current Home Office ministers, and the senior ranks of the police." —Damian Green MP

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Happy Xmas!

A wonderful new addition to Martin Rowson's cast of end-of-humanity characters:

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Publics need persuading on climate change

The lack of a binding agreement on carbon emissions in Copenhagen is regrettable in the extreme. That said, it is perhaps a warning signal to politicians that they have not yet done enough to persuade voters that radical action is needed. Too many political leaders are still terrified for their jobs and Senate majorities if they take the necessary steps to stop the planet frying. (Of course, the leaders of non-democracies have no such excuse).

Matthew D'Ancona, former editor of the Spectator (which likes to promote absurd contrarian denials of the climate impact of atmospheric CO2), at least has this right:
If you want a "green revolution" — and the evidence suggests that you don't – it must truly be from the bottom up. This Government's strategy – to sneer at the doubters — is doomed, not only because doubt is the cornerstone of democracy but because, on this specific issue, the doubters are in the majority. Copenhagen marked the end of an era: it demonstrated the poverty and self-regard of elite politics, the introspection and self-congratulation of a political class still in love with itself because nobody else will love it. The lesson of 2009, from duck houses to green summits, was that that kind of politics is dead, and a new kind is needed. Any ideas?

Well, Matthew; since you ask…

Does the Internet support political revolution?

Clay Shirky on the impact of the Internet on authoritarian regimes (via Andrew Sullivan):
Iran’s geopolitical importance is paramount on many fronts at once. Clearly, the protests following the 12th June elections were aided by social media. Although Twitter got top billing in western accounts, the most important tools during the Tehran protests were mobile phones, whether to send text messages, photos, or videos. Twitter, predominantly, was a gateway to western attention.

By the time the regime managed to shut down the various modes of communication available to the Tehran protesters, they were retiring to rooftops and shouting slogans into the night. Although this act of coordination did not use technology per se, it was made possible by the visible evidence provided by users documenting and broadcasting the earlier solidarity of the street protests. This is why figures showing how few people use social media for political change are red herrings. Insurrections, even pro-democracy insurrections, always begin as minority affairs, driven by a small, young, and well-educated population before they expand more widely. In the Iranian case, once the information about general discontent had successfully cascaded, the coordination among the populace remained intact, even when the tools which helped disseminate that information were shut down.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Paper beats electronic patient records

If this wasn't so shocking, I would be pleased to see that we had some significant new evidence on the efficacy of electronic patient records:
A leading academic has dealt a major blow to the Government's embattled electronic patient record rollout, after publishing a major global study claiming systems of its kind hamper rather than improve clinical care.

Professor Trisha Greenhalgh, professor of primary healthcare at University College London, led a review of hundreds of previous studies from all over the world, which found that large systems such as that being developed by Connecting for Health, are less efficient than locally-based systems and often less useful than paper records.

If only the Department of Health had engaged Professor Greenhalgh before they spent £4 billion on the NHS National Programme for IT. Or even just listened to their own accident and emergency clinicians, one of whom wrote earlier this week in the Daily Telegraph that:
When someone is brought in unconscious or unable to speak or give any history, the priority for the medical staff is to ensure they are physiologically stable — that they are breathing, their heart is beating and their blood pressure is adequate.

While background details are important, these are rarely the pressing concern when someone is in extremis. Yet the Government has repeatedly justified the ludicrously expensive NHS IT programme on the grounds that it is needed in precisely this situation. The reality is, it's not. Not only this, despite vast sums being spent, the system is not fit for purpose. Aside from the issues around confidentiality and the Government's refusal to allow people to opt out from having their personal details entered into the system, the whole thing has proved to be an ill-thought out, wasteful and unnecessary white elephant.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

ID cards down. What's next?

The Chancellor tells The Daily Telegraph:
"Most of the expenditure is on biometric passports which you and I are going to require shortly to get into the US. Do we need to go further than that? Well, probably not."

This comes after the spending of at least £120m on the scheme.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Facebook starts to fix application privacy

Facebook's new privacy controls have received global media coverage today. Their new privacy defaults have been called a "disaster in the making". However, they have at least started to fix the gaping privacy problems their platform has with third-party applications:
When you visit a Facebook-enhanced application or website, it may access any information you have made visible to Everyone as well as your publicly available information. This includes your Name, Profile Picture, Gender, Current City, Networks, Friend List, and Pages. The application will request your permission to access any additional information it needs.

Users can also separately control which information their friends' applications can access. Previously your installed applications could access just about all of your profile information (and much of your friends').

The largest remaining issue is that your friends list should not be publicly available, as it can reveal not just your patterns of association but also enable de-anonymisation attacks on your privacy based on your social network. This is otherwise a positive step — shame it only came after a ruling from the Canadian Privacy Commissioner and an opinion from the European data protection commissioners.

UPDATE: Much more on this by the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

Monday, December 07, 2009

Mobile phone and Internet access now a necessity

The Young Foundation has today published a new study, Sinking & Swimming: Understanding Britain's Unmet Needs. Recommendation six states:
Our research has repeatedly confirmed how quickly some things have moved from being luxuries to become necessities. People living in rural areas are not alone in thinking of the car as a necessity. But the mobile phone is much the clearest example of this shift – invaluable and prioritised by everyone from refugees to unemployed teenagers. Given the importance of social contact to mental wellbeing and life opportunities, perhaps this should be reflected in how essential support is provided to people in hardship, and in regulation that already treats some other utilities as necessities. Access to the internet is also becoming a necessity (not least as public services go more fully online) and for many the mobile will be the main point of access.

Perhaps someone should tell Lord Mandelson, before households start being disconnected on the basis of unverified allegations of copyright infringement?

Sunday, December 06, 2009

NHS IT system down. What's next?

The Chancellor has announced this morning that the NHS's troubled National Programme for IT, estimated to cost £20bn to operate over the next decade, is to be significantly scaled back:
"You know, for example, the NHS had a quite expensive IT system that you know, frankly, isn't essential to the frontline. It's something that I think we don't need to go ahead with just now."

I'm sure the government will be looking carefully through our Database State report to find further ideas for reducing the Public Sector Borrowing Requirement.

Friday, December 04, 2009

Fightback coming on Digital Economy Bill?

The recording industry clearly thought the Digital Economy Bill, with its constitutionally outrageous copyright proposals, was a done deal. Judging from the Lords 2nd Reading debate on Wednesday, they might be right — only Lords Lucas and Whitty and Baroness Miller had much sensible to say:

Lord Lucas: We have to be careful too about the industry cloaking itself in the finery of the small, creative individual. We are not talking about the small, creative individual here, but about powerful, monopolistic industries and giving them power over citizens… The recording industry is another major beneficiary of what is being done here. That industry is not exactly known for its kindness to creative people. Many people have created pieces of music and sold them to rapacious recording companies for a couple of hundred quid, only to see those companies go on to make vast sums out of them… We also need to bear in mind that the problems now facing the industry are, to quite a large extent, of their own creation. The industry has been extremely slow to listen to the demands of its customers, and has had something of an abusive relationship with them, seeking to punish them before thinking of how to serve them better. It has taken a decade for the industry to produce sensible alternatives to illegal file-sharing, and the fact that a generation of people have become used to an illegality comes down to the industry's sluggishness.

Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer: While understanding the wish of industry for protection from the tides of change, the Government have, in Clauses 4 to 17, laid the emphasis too much on stemming that tide and not enough in channelling it into the new business models. Can the Minister elucidate the most successful, established and emerging business models for monetising online content? Noble Lords have mentioned Spotify, micro-payments and other forms of payment for content. How will they be made easier and more convenient? What vision do the Government have for this? What studies have they done to see how free, ad-funded models might also succeed?

Lord Whitty: Surely the main way forward should be to develop legal ways in which the interests of rights holders can be met and to which consumers can relate, not engaging in sanctions that raise serious issues of consumer rights and human rights. That is happening but it is happening slowly and, as other noble Lords have said, it is happening far too late. The main focus of this debate and the main focus of this Bill should be to develop those alternative measures. Instead, the headline of this part of the Bill regrettably is on sanctions. It is on criminalising people who are unwittingly engaged in downloading and it is setting in statute and through the regulations that Ofcom will be required to produce sanctions that are not proportionate to the loss to the original rights holders. They are not necessarily the original rights holders because, as the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, said, most of the rights are actually owned by monopolistic companies, not individual creative persons.

However, today's resignation of Pure Mint Recordings CEO Anthony Hall could be the start of a fightback:
"I have enjoyed contributing to both [the BPI's] Rights [Committee] and the [IFPI's] ILC, but increasingly feel that my contributions are falling on deaf ears as an agenda has already been reached that I now consider is unmovable. As you know, I do not think the Digital Economy Bill is a sensible or well thought out piece of legislation. In my view it is being rushed through the last months of a parliament of an unpopular government and it is not legislation that I support".

Referencing clause 17 — the one that gives senior ministers the right to change copyright laws on whim — he continued: "I am particularly surprised that the record industry has chosen to endorse s.17 of the DEB, which I consider is wholly undemocratic and contrary to centuries of good practice regarding the forming of our copyright legislation. I also believe it may set a dangerous precedent going forwards (and could come back to haunt the industry)".

You can follow the progress of the legislation at Parliament's new Bill Tracker.

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Tories crowdsource a new government IT strategy

Any ideas on how to improve government IT strategy? The Conservative party would like to hear them:

You certainly couldn't do any worse than the leaked Government draft strategy