Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Back in the tropics of London

Ian and Greg skating in OttawaAfter -20°C temperatures in Vermont and Ottawa, it's nice to get back to the balmy climes of 4°C London. Fortunately it's time for my birthday bash in Barcelona this weekend, forecast to be 17°C. Bring on the summer weather!

Greg and I went skating on the frozen canal in Ottawa yesterday, which was a first for me. If only the Thames would freeze over occasionally, as it used to do in the 1800s...

Bloggeurs, aux armes!

Liberty leading the people, by Eugene DelacroixSmartFilter, a censorware company, is blocking sites such as Boing Boing that feature mild nudity in a tiny percentage of their posts. Here's my contribution to the campaign to force the company to be a little smarter.

Liberty Leading the People, by Eugene Delacroix (1830, detail shown left) is my favourite painting in the Louvre. The whole large-format French paintings section is always worth a visit, and is far less over-rated and crowded than the Mona Lisa :)

Monday, February 27, 2006

Rumsfeld still doesn't get it

Donald RumsfeldThe Economist is scornful of Donald Rumsfeld's latest efforts in the "War on Terror":

Now something—was it, one wonders, Abu Ghraib? Or Guantánamo? Or the torture memos? Or the fact that China now lectures America on human rights? Or the tragic decline in sympathy for America around the world?—seems to have prompted a meagre mental adjustment on Mr Rumsfeld's part. His recent Quadrennial Defence Review confessed that “victory in the long war depends on strategic communication” and even issued a plea for “considerably improved language and cultural awareness”. His speech in New York was an attempt to flesh out this strategy. Yet it ended up illustrating how completely the defence secretary still fails to “get it”.

Innovative RFID application

Jesus' GeneralJesus' General has a fascinating suggestion for a new application of RFID tags.

Quangos, scumbags and a pompous donkey

Ken LivingstoneWilliam Rees-Mogg is outraged by a quango's suspension of London's democratically elected Mayor, and by the contempt for due process shown by Tony Blair that led to this situation:

This view that due process is obsolete explains the Prime Minister’s conduct; it explains the connection between extradition without safeguards, detention without trial, Asbos without criminal offences, subjective and discretionary judgments, police powers to arrest, and increasing ministerial powers. They are all characteristic of Blair legislation; they all avoid due process of law.

I wish I could think of an appropriately “offensive and insensitive” epithet to describe Tony Blair. Perhaps “antinomian” would do.

Sunday, February 26, 2006

Trust me, I am Blair

PC BlairTony Blair has a bizarre article in today's Observer claiming that he is protecting our liberties:

This government has introduced the Human Rights Act, so that, for the first time, a citizen can challenge the power of the state solely on the basis of an infringement of human rights, and the Freedom of Information Act, the most open thing any British government has done since the Reform Acts of the 1830s. We have devolved more power than any government since the 1707 Act of Union introduced transparency into political funding and restricted the Prime Minister's right to nominate to the House of Lords.

The problem for Blair's case is that these were all long-standing Labour party policies, championed by politicians such as Robin Cook. The Freedom of Information Act was watered down by Blair as it went through Parliament, and Blair has introduced derogations under the Human Rights Act to allow his government to introduce policies such as detention without trial that would otherwise be illegal.

His article then moves on to the usual "ignorance is strength, freedom is slavery" Newspeak justifications:

In theory, traditional court processes and attitudes to civil liberties could work. But the modern world is different from the world for which these court processes were designed.

This is really quite a staggering claim. We live in such unique times that court processes and civil liberties that have evolved in the UK over the last thousand years suddenly should be thrown out by Blair and his New Labour automatons in the Commons?

What and when precisely was the event that turned A.G. Blair into a proto-fascist?

Massive rise in child porn hysteria

Statistics about the prevelance of child pornography need to be read with extreme care. They are often badly constructed, and almost always deployed in support of a government initiative to "crack down" on the problem.

In this case, pre-publication of Internet Watch Foundation figures seems to be a pre-emptive strike against critics of the Protection of Children Bill. They also seem to be continuing the subtle government campaign to force ISPs to filter access to overseas sites à la BT Cleanfeed, which has its own problems and questionable statistics:

Less than 1 per cent of the sites were located in the UK, highlighting the success of the police and the IWF in countering domestically generated child pornography. But the fact that more than 99 per cent of the illegal images come from overseas raises questions about the ability of the UK authorities to extinguish the problem.

The US police's approach to tackling the problem is unpopular with the IWF, but seems to be a much better long-term solution:

"In America they tend to leave the sites up once they are identified while the police gather evidence for a sting operation. That's a problem for us in the UK, because people continue to access the sites and commit offences."

Saturday, February 25, 2006

We are giving the authorities an open invitation to abuse their power

South Africa pass bookJenni Russell sees worrying parallels between increasing UK authoritarianism and South Africa's apartheid regime:

I fear that many of us are failing to see the danger we are now in, precisely because we have grown up in a largely benign state. We still trust in the good sense and reasonableness of its agents, and the rest of officialdom. We don't understand that that has been sustained only by the existence of our legal rights, and by a respect for our freedom of action. We don't see the lesson of every society: that if you do not place constraints on official power, its instinct is to grow. Our tolerant world is disappearing, and it is only when many more of us start running up against that reality that we will realise what we have lost.

Friday, February 24, 2006

The Boing Boing effect

Guess which day Boing Boing met Blogzilla...

Home Office is Internet Villain of the Year

The Internet Service Providers' Association is not happy with the Home Office (thanks, Dave!):

At its annual awards ceremony on Thursday, Ispa awarded the UK presidency of the EU the dubious honour of internet villain of the year.

The trade body said it had chosen the UK for its role in seeking the data retention laws without considering the impact on net providers and telecoms operators.

Einstein on software patents

(Via Boing Boing)

Innovation key for IP review

Andrew GowersThe review of the UK's intellectual property regime being undertaken by Andrew Gowers is picking up steam:

"If the review is simply an invitation to people who currently enjoy IP protection to ask for more IP protection we'd be failing in our duty," he told the Financial Times. "The issue is about rewarding innovators and inventors, not ossifying existing industry structures..."

He pledged to look at copyright "in the round", adding the debate about term - when a performer's rights should expire - would consider the significant number of works that were in copyright but unavailable to consumers or other companies wishing to use the rights.

Glad to see the review hasn't (yet) been hijacked by the content mafia.

Durant appeals to European Court on definition of personal data

Michael Durant is appealing to the European Court of Human Rights over the UK's definition of "personal data". A Court of Appeal ruling in 2003 limited this definition in respect of paper files, leading the European Commission to question whether the UK had properly implemented the 1995 Privacy Directive:

The Strasbourg Court has the power to order an award of compensation if it finds that Mr Durant's human rights were breached. It could decide that 'just satisfaction' is simply a change in the law; or it might decide that compensation is also appropriate if, for example, the relevant documents have since disappeared.

Thursday, February 23, 2006

ID cards have already cost £32m

Alistair Carmichael MPBefore any parliamentary approval, the Home Office has already spent £32m preparing their ID card scheme:

In the last six months of 2005 Home Office spending on the project soared from a rate of £25,000 a day to £63,000. Alistair Carmichael, Liberal Democrat home affairs spokesman, said: "The Government is spending money which it has no right to spend. It is completely unacceptable to forge ahead on a scheme which will radically alter British society without the approval of MPs."

And they still couldn't manage to produce reliable costings of their scheme. Just how many tens of millions of pounds more would that have taken? (Via FIPR)

Crunch coming for Blair on torture

Terry DavisThe Secretary General of the Council of Europe writes that his organisation is very close to releasing the results of its investigation of European complicity in the US "extraordinary rendition" of terrorist suspects to nations known to practice torture:

The Council of Europe insists on full compliance with the organisation's human-rights standards because it firmly believes that this is the only way to win the fight against terrorism. Torture is not only morally wrong, it also does not make us any safer because it produces unreliable intelligence and helps to recruit new terrorists.

This sounds ominous for Jack Straw and Tony Blair, who have claimed ignorance of the 200+ CIA flights through the UK that are believed to have been involved in "rendering" suspects for torture.

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

It won't need a tyranny to deprive us of our freedom

RFIDGeorge Monbiot has a good piece in the Guardian on RFID tags and the way that surveillance technology creeps from the margins of society to the mainstream with no need for compulsion from government:

As it is with all such intrusions on our privacy, it won't be easy to put your finger on exactly what's wrong with this technology. It won't really amount to a new form of control, as all the people who accept the implants will already be subject to monitoring or tracking of one kind or another. It will always be voluntary, at least to the extent that anything the state or our employers want us to do is voluntary. But there is something utterly revolting about it. It is another means by which the barriers between ourselves and the state, ourselves and the corporation, ourselves and the machine are broken down. In that tiny capsule we find the paradox of 21st-century capitalism: a political system that celebrates choice, autonomy and individualism above all other virtues demands that choice, autonomy and individualism are perpetually suppressed.

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

In the Land of the Free

New Hampshire sealDespite its current troglodyte administration, I love visiting the US: the amazing geography, the inventiveness and energy of the people, and the high standard of living always make for a great trip.

I'm visiting MIT today, then heading for Dartmouth this afternoon. I'm particularly looking forward to visiting New Hampshire, the "live free or die" state. Let's see how literally they take the state motto ;)

The only drawback with coming to the States is the offensive demands for biometrics at the border (as if the immigration and customs process wasn't already unpleasant enough). As Bruce Schneier points out, this US-VISIT program has been an enormous waste of money as well as invasion of privacy, nabbing only 1,000 low-grade criminals at a cost of at least $15m each. Not nearly as intrusive though as the body scanner I tried out going through security at Heathrow.

Sunday, February 19, 2006

Bush and Blair have brilliantly done Bin Laden's work for him

Bert and Osama are evil
Osama Bin Laden has created the perfect enabling environment for the authoritarian policies of Bush and Blair, who have magnified two terrorist atrocities into threats to global democracy. Their massively disproportionate responses only make it easier for Bin Laden to recruit new zealots to his cause. Simon Jenkins comments:

There never was a “terrorist threat” to western civilisation or democracy, only to western lives and property. The threat becomes systemic only when democracy loses its confidence and when its leaders are weak, as now. Terror attacks are for the police. For George Bush and Blair to demand a “long war” against Bin Laden and, by implication, a long suppression of civil liberty is ludicrous. Western civilisation is not some simpering weakling that cowers before a fanatic ’s might, pleading for leaders to protect it by all means, however illegal. It has been proof against Islamic expansionism since the 17th century. It is not at risk.

It's so cowardly to attack the church when we won't offend Islam

Death Hope Life Fear by Gilbert and George, 1984Nick Cohen is sickened by the hypocrisy of the British cultural establishment:

After the refusal of the entire British press to print innocuous Danish cartoons, the stench of death is in the air. It is now ridiculous and impossible to talk about a fearless disregard for easily offended sensibilities… You can't be a little bit free. If you are not willing to offend Islamists who may kill you, what excuse do you have for offending Catholics, the families of murdered children and British troops who won't?

Reclaiming liberty

Henry Porter thinks that Britain has just seen one its worst weeks for liberty:

To compromise the freedoms of a society which has no bill of rights and no written constitution to protect it from the menace of future tyrants is irresponsible in the extreme. Laws have a habit of lying around and when Labour eventually loses an election, we must hope that the incoming government draws up a list of laws to remove immediately from the statute books.

Here's my proto-list — please feel free to add further liberty-destroying legislative powers in the comments!

Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 Part I Chapter IIProvides a wide range of government bodies with access to data on your phone and Internet usage with no judicial control
Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 Part IIIAllows law enforcement to demand passwords and decryption keys on pain of up two years in prison (five once the current Terrorism Bill is passed). If you tell anyone except your lawyer you have received such as demand, you can go to jail for five years. Can put the burden on you to prove you have forgotten your password.
Anti-Terrorism, Crime and Security Act 2001 Part XIEnables government to require phone companies and ISPs to store information about their customers calls and Internet usage

All of the last week's legislation, assuming it makes it through the Lords, needs to be added to the list. Along with the parts of the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act 2005 that makes arrestable virtually every offence; the police powers to compel the production and storage of DNA from anybody they come across; ASBOs; and so on.

Saturday, February 18, 2006

Storage of teenagers' DNA varies widely

Stroppy teenagersTory MP Grant Shapps is doing a good job digging up data on the storage of innocent children's DNA by the police. He has found a wide disparity between forces:

In Cumbria, the figure was 934 per 100,000 children, while in West Mercia it was just four per 100,000… Tony Blair's own Durham Constabulary is 16 times more likely to retain innocent children's DNA, with 830 per 100,000, than Merseyside police with 52 per 100,000.

Sen on religion and politics

Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen is interviewed in the Guardian on his forthcoming book, "Identity and Violence":

"To put people in a faith school is to pre-classify people into categories at a time when they can't even think for themselves. They are told that they have a very clear identity, which swamps all other identities. They are Muslims or Sikhs or Hindus and that is all you are going to get. Now of course, later on, they might be able to overcome that narrowness, but it is much harder to overcome if it has been drilled into you that that is what you are." It is not that he is hostile to religion, he says; it is simply a question of context. Gandhi was very much a religious man and a religious Hindu, he reminds me, but when it came to politics he was thoroughly secular.

Friday, February 17, 2006

Who will rid me of this troublesome judge?

Mr Justice Collins' comments on US torture are not the first time he has stood up against government abuse of power:

The judge said in his ruling on a test case involving an asylum seeker left destitute after being refused benefits that however much the government wanted to deter asylum seekers, it could not be achieved by placing them at risk of starvation and ill health… [he] also embarrassed Mr Blunkett in 2004 when, as head of SIAC, he said the home secretary had used evidence that was "not reasonable" and had "exaggerated" links between a detainee and al-Qaida.

Collins therefore shares with Simon Davies the highest mark of integrity in my mind — "Mr Blunkett was so annoyed by Mr Justice Collins that he once refused to share a platform with him at a seminar."

£15m per medal

Blair doing press-upsSimon Jenkins is appalled at the sums of money being demanded by Sports UK for the 2012 Olympics. (I'm pretty appalled myself at the sums likely to appear on Londoners' council tax bills to finance the event):

An obsession with sporting excellence (as with military prowess) is a feature of authoritarian regimes. Public money is blown so the leader can bask for a couple of weeks in a handsome stadium and thrill as burnished bodies, muscles rippling, bring to his feet literally piles of gold. He and they shower each other with honours. The standard rises slowly up the pole and the stadium echoes to the national anthem. Is it to this that Blairism has been reduced?

Judge's anger at US torture

Dead Abu Ghraib detainee
"America's idea of what is torture is not the same as ours and does not appear to coincide with that of most civilised nations." —Mr Justice Lawrence Collins, High Court ruling, 16 Feb 2006.

"Abu Ghraib cannot be allowed to fade away like some half-forgotten domestic political controversy, which may have prompted newsmagazine covers at the time, but now seems as irrelevant as the 2002 elections. Abu Ghraib is not an issue of partisan sound bites or refighting the decision to invade Iraq. Grotesque violations of every value that America proclaims occurred within the walls of that prison. These abuses were carried out by soldiers who wore our flag on their uniforms and apparently believed that Americans here at home would approve of their conduct. Rather than hiding what they did out of shame, they commemorated their sadism with a visual record." —Walter Shapiro, 16 Feb 2006.

Thursday, February 16, 2006

Globalising the first amendment

One good thing is coming out of the debate caused by the actions of the Gang of Four (Google, Microsoft, Yahoo and Cisco) in China. How can the US and other parts of the international community alleviate the pressure on Western companies from repressive regimes?

Urs Gasser has some comments on Rep. Chris Smith's discussion draft of a Global Online Freedom Act of 2006. Urs' only worry is that the Act would aim to restrict the ability of governments to attempt "the control, suppression, or punishment of peaceful expression of political or religious opinion" — despite the fact that this would encompass the activities of many European governments in restricting "hate speech" and "holocaust denial". It's time for Europe to sweep away these archaic laws and give the foul racists and Nazis that remain enough free-speech rope to hang themselves.

The key and enduring political contribution of the Internet has been to globalise the US Constitution's First Amendment. Any statute that continues this trend can only be a good thing.

Microsoft has also been finalising the details of a new policy that will contain the effect of government censorship. Orders to remove content on Microsoft's sites will only have effect in the country of origin. So a Chinese order to censor a Chinese blog will only prevent the viewing of that content within China and not elsewhere in the world.

These are certainly steps forward. Government and consumer pressure is essential to ensure that technology companies do not weigh the interests of their shareholders above the human rights of their customers.

Let a thousand blogs bloom

Chairman Mao, in one of his rare moments of clarity, said: "Let a hundred flowers bloom: let a hundred schools of thought contend."

Rosemary Righter thinks that the Chinese government should treat blogs in the same way:

Wen Jiabao, the Prime Minister, has argued on “efficiency” grounds that “independent” thinking must be encouraged. He has recognised that a society of “yes” men cannot develop the innovative edge that drives the knowledge economy. But neither man dares risk the party’s neck. They understand Lenin’s dictum that knowledge is power, but not that it is slipping from their grasp, as Marx and Mao and Deng Xiaoping make way for King Blog.

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Tech. giants vs Chinese human rights

Rep. Chris SmithCompare and contrast these quotes from the US Congress's investigation into censorship and surveillance in China enabled by US technology giants:

"Cooperation with tyranny should not be embraced for the sake of profits" —Rep. Chris Smith

"[Censored Google] will make a meaningful, though imperfect, contribution to the overall expansion of access to information in China." —Elliot Schrage, Google

"Your abhorrent actions in China are a disgrace. I simply don't understand how your corporate leadership sleeps at night." —Rep. Tom Lantos

"It is clear that any country's legal authorities closely monitor the spread of illegal information. We have noted that the U.S. is doing a good job on this front." —Liu Zhengrong, Information Office, Chinese State Council

Urs Gasser has news on an intitiative to counter this disturbing trend.

Blair TV beams live and direct

BlairIt seems that Blair TV has been broadcasting in the Middle East with the same level of integrity and truthfulness we expect in his British media outings (thanks, Stefan!):

The British Satellite News website says it is "a free television news and features service". It looks like an ordinary news website, though its lack of copyright protection might raise some questions in alert journalists. Broadcasters can put BSN material "directly into daily news programmes". In fact, BSN is provided by World Television, a company that also makes corporate videos and fake news clips for corporations such as GlaxoSmithKline, BP and Nestlé. It also produced Towards Freedom Television on behalf of the UK government. This was a propaganda programme broadcast in Iraq by US army psychological-operations teams from a specially adapted aircraft in 2003/04.

Next time make sure she's OT III before implanting a thetan

Xenu child
Tom Cruise is so upset at reports of his split with Katie Holmes, he has lost all sense of spelling and grammar.

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Today's news: soldiers are violent

Martin Samuel is not surprised at the footage of British squaddies beating up Iraqi prisoners:

The increasingly desperate Gordon Brown chose yesterday, of all days, to unveil a plan that peddles the tired old association of militarism and self-restraint, with an expansion of the school cadets scheme. Against the backdrop of British soldiers demonstrating the lack of control that army life is supposed to eradicate, Mr Brown announced he wanted tens of thousands of state school pupils to volunteer for uniformed training in the Army, Navy or Air Force, to teach discipline and national pride. The focus for his trial project, naturally, will be deprived areas. It would be risible as a suggestion from a retired colonel on The Daily Telegraph’s letters page; from a future prime minister it is terrifying. At least Tony Blair’s right-wing tendencies had an air of sincerity. Mr Brown appears to have got his from watching reruns of Till Death Us Do Part in the hope he makes a connection with a daytime talk radio audience.

You can't kill terrorists with a calculator

Dollar billJeffrey Robinson believes that Gordon Brown is looking in the wrong place for terrorist finances:

To get to the terrorists, you’ve got to get down below the radar, where the IRA first settled and where al-Qaeda’s franchisees are crawling around now. Then, why reinvent the wheel? Why build a new “Bletchley Park” when there’s already a group in place that specialises in this sort of thing. The National Terrorist Financial Investigation Unit (NTFIU), part of Special Branch at Scotland Yard, understands the link between terrorism and low- level crime, and happens to be very good at interrupting it. A huge increase in their funding would be a great start. Unfortunately, “Bletchley Park” makes for a better headline.

Religion cannot trump freedom

Distinguished law professor and philosopher Ronald Dworkin has little time for religious censorship:

Religion must be tailored to democracy, not the other way around. No religion can be permitted to legislate for everyone about what can or cannot be drawn any more than it can legislate about what may or may not be eaten. No one's religious convictions can be thought to trump the freedom that makes democracy possible.

The problem with Dobson's cost amendment

Frank Dobson MPThe government bought off rebels in the Commons yesterday by accepting an amendment from Frank Dobson MP that requires the Home Office to report on the cost of the ID card scheme every six months. However, this will not cover the costs in other government departments. And isn't the whole problem that the Home Office has refused to provide accurate costs so far? Why should it agree to do so in the future?

Worst of all, the Home Office has used "commercial confidentiality" as the reason to hide the scheme's costs — and the Dobson amendment allows them to continue to do so:

(4) If it appears to the Secretary of State that it would be prejudicial to securing the best value from the use of public money to publish any matter by including it in his next report under this section, he may exclude that matter from that report.'.

Treasury identifies risks in ID project

An anonymous correspondent writes…

Office of Government Commerce review of ID Card system identifies "amber" cost risks

The Office of Government Commerce (OGC) uses a red, amber or green traffic light system in conjunction with its reviews of all IT projects which are subject to a "gateway review" (this is an independent assessment of the risks associated with a project). The OGC has given the ID Card system the "amber go-ahead", a status which is the only logical conclusion if information given to the House of Lords by Baroness Scotland is carefully deconstructed. The risks associated with the ID Card project's amber status have not been included in the ID Card project cost estimates issued by the Government.

The OGC web-site posits three possible statuses for any major IT project:

  • A red status which would mean that "To achieve success the programme or project should take remedial action immediately";

  • An amber status which is defined as "The programme or project should go forward with actions on recommendations to be carried out before the next OGC Gateway Review"; or

  • A green status which is defined as "The programme or project is on
    target to succeed but may benefit from the uptake of the recommendations".

On 16 Jan 2006, Baroness Scotland of Asthal confirmed during the ID Card Bill's passage through the House of Lords, that the ID card programme had been "subject to that regular review under the Office of Government Commerce gateway review process" and that "the review teams have full access to the business case for the identity cards programme". She then continued "I can announce that, just last week, a further gateway review of the identity cards programme was completed and I am pleased to say that the review team concluded that the programme is in a fit state to proceed". Baroness Scotland continued "it is not usual for the gateway process details to be expanded upon or disclosed".

We are in a position to provide some expansion. Clearly if the ID Card project had been given the red status (i.e. perform "remedial action immediately"), then this would not be consistent with the Ministerial statement. Similarly, if the OGC had given a green status (the ID Card project "is on target to succeed"), then the Ministerial statement that "the programme is in a fit state to proceed" is incredibly understated and very reserved. Would it not be the case, we conclude, that if the ID Card project was "on target to succeed", isn't that something which Ministers would trumpet loud and clear in order to bolster public confidence in the system and to deflect the criticisms from detractors?

Thus if it is not red nor green, it follows that the ID Card project has the amber status.

The OGC provides the Red/Amber/Green status as a summary way of quantifying the risks of a project combined with the impact of that risk if it ever occurred. An amber status means that the OGC has identified either some low probability risks with a high impact (e.g. something that would be very costly to put right but is unlikely to occur) and/or some high probability risks with a low impact (e.g. something which is inexpensive to correct but could happen often) and/or some medium impact risks with a medium probability of occurring.

The OGC also identify three methods of responding to these risks. The first is to transfer the risk to another party, and this might arise when the technology being used is innovative. The OGC warns that such risks "should not be transferred until they are clearly understood" because "a premium may be paid when a risk is transferred to another party". The second way of responding to a risk is to avoid it — but that might have "serious consequences for the project" (e.g. system "redesign"). The final way is to reduce the risks — and this might take the form of a redesign of the system.

In the context of the ID Card system the amber status has implications for the cost estimates for the scheme. Irrespective of what method is used to counter the risks — whether these risks are transferred or systems are redesigned — these cost implications remain unquantified.

Last year the London School of Economics (LSE) produced one cost assessment of the whole project which was criticised by the Government as being "mad". In response, the Government published cost figures, audited by KPMG, which relates only to the Home Office costs of running the system (i.e. unlike the LSE report it excludes the costs of other Government Departments).

However, the KPMG report indicates that the Government costings have not considered a risk based approach — even the risks associated with the "amber status", Instead these risks are subsumed into a general "flat 20% contingency factor" which would be insufficient if the worst happened. Indeed, the KPMG report explicitly recommends that "a more detailed risk-based approach, such as a Quantitive Risk Analysis (QRA), should be considered for the Scheme total cost estimation or, at least, in relation to operating costs" and if this cannot be achieved "as a minimum, it would be useful (for the ID Card team) to consider a number of risk-based scenarios".

Last month, the House of Lords amended the ID Cards Bill to include a provision which states that the scheme should not go ahead unless Parliament has considered an independent, risk-based, cost-benefit analysis of the whole ID Card project produced by the National Audit Office. The Government used its majority in the House of Commons to overturn this amendment on 13 February 2006.

ID cards in two years as rebellion fails

Now that the government has got its version of the ID cards bill through the Commons, it remains to be seen how firm the Lords will stand on their amendments. With Blair stuck in South Africa, Gordon Brown had his day in the sun:

Mr Brown had interesting things to say on the ID cards bill, which came through its latest Commons stages last night without further damage. A combination of timely concessions and the fact that there always were relatively few Labour rebels on this issue ensured that the bill had less political shipwreck potential than some eager forecasts. But the government has been all over the place about why ID cards are deemed so necessary - and it still is; the emphasis in Mr Brown's speech on the need to fight identity theft simply adds yet another ingredient to that intellectual confusion. The fact remains that this is a bad bill that will soon be a bad law. It is characteristic of an exaggerated, draconian and headline-chasing response to the genuine challenge of Islamist terror that has marked the Blair government and now seems likely to mark a Brown government too.

Monday, February 13, 2006

Blair to miss key ID cards vote

One fewer vote for the cards... Fax your MP now!

Tony Blair will miss a crucial Commons vote on ID cards after being delayed in South Africa, Number 10 has said.

He had been due to return from a summit in Pretoria, but his flight was aborted on take off when the pilot spotted a problem with one of the engines.

Full text of warning over ID card safety

Brian Gladman's letter to the Prime Minister warning of the safety risks of the ID card scheme is below.

9 February 2006

The Rt Hon Tony Blair
Prime Minister
10 Downing Street
London SW1A 1AA

Dear Prime Minister,

During Prime Ministers Questions in the House of Commons on 18 January you said that you thought that the report from the London School of Economics (LSE) on ID cards was authored by one person, a leading campaigner against identity cards. For reasons I will now explain, I am in a position to say definitively that you are wrong in this belief.

When this project was started it was realised that there was an important but highly specialised area in which the LSE did not have sufficient intramural expertise for proper coverage. The area concerned was that of information systems security. In consequence the LSE team asked if I would be prepared to write that part of the report that would consider this aspect of the proposed UK Identity Card programme. I accepted this task so I can easily confirm that: (a) I was the author of that part of the LSE report that deals with information security and safety matters, and (b) Simon Davies took no part in the writing or the peer review of this part of the report.

The reason I was approached is because of my background. From 1980 to 1990 I directed the research and development work on information security undertaken for the UK Ministry of Defence at the Royal Signals and Radar Establishment. At the time this was the primary R&D work on information security within UK government and formed the technical basis for the safety and security of future computer based defence weapons systems. From 1988 to 1995 I directed the acquisition of secure defence communications and information systems. I also directed work to develop safety standards for computers in weapon systems as a part of my role as a member the Ordnance Board, the body that oversees the safety of defence armaments. Since retiring from defence in 1997 I have continued to work in the information security and safety fields where I have undertaken work for several US government agencies as well as major international companies involved in computing and software developments for use in secure systems.

That part of the LSE report written by me concluded that the UK ID card proposals, in their current form, would create safety and security risks for all those whose details are to be held on the system. In view of the seriousness of this conclusion, LSE were rightly concerned to have this work independently validated and it was hence peer reviewed by two independent information security experts, both of whom are internationally recognised for their expertise in this field.

My primary reason for writing to you is to ask that you correct your statement to the House of Commons about the authorship of the LSE report on Identity Cards. Should you doubt my word on my role in this report, I can supply a wealth of evidence to support this claim. Moreover, Michael Foster, the MP for Worcester, has a letter confirming my role, one that he received prior to your statement.

But I also think that you should reflect carefully on the fact that it is the considered view of internationally recognised experts in information systems security that the UK ID cards programme as now envisaged will create safety and security risks for those whose details are entered onto the system. Although I can afford to pay the fines to avoid these risks, it is shameful that those who are less well off will be forced to put themselves at serious risk for a system that serves no useful purpose that cannot be achieved in other, more effective and less costly ways. And, in case you think that I am an opponent of ID cards, I should point out that I support an irrevocably voluntary, self funded ID card scheme.

Please note that I am copying this letter to Mr Cameron and Sir Menzies Campbell.

Yours sincerely,

Dr Brian Gladman, Worcester, UK.

Greek wiretappers used police interfaces

It appears that senior members of the Greek government have been wiretapped using the "lawful access interfaces" that are increasingly built in to telecommunications equipment to facilitate communications intercepts. Unknown agents bypassed the authentication systems supposed to restrict access to these interfaces. Also monitored were peace activists, alternative community heads, known leftists and many persons with seemingly Arabic names (thanks, Erich!).

Dr. George Danezis writes:

1) None of the safeguards actually worked, to detect or find the perpetrators. The wiretaps were discovered allegedly in a routine control by Vodaphone. The minister admitted that if the CEO of Vodaphone had chosen to say nothing, no one would have ever known.

2) Many questions (and surveys) are asked about how to provide assurance that this is not going to happen again. The government keeps repeating that this is a matter that has legal and constitutional solutions, and if necessary says that it will strengthen these. At the same time (a) the role of the governments (there were many) that promoted laws / regulation / standards that introduce these systemic vulnerabilities are never addressed (b) The possibility to build and deploy security technology for everyone (the PM is already using it apparently — so they are not worried) has never been mentioned…

3 ) The oversight structures that proved useless turn out to be very close to the British ones. They have a Data Protection Authority, a 'Confidentiality of Communications Commissioner' who in fact is a surveillance commissioner, etc. The government has used them as a fig leaf to take away responsibility, so drawing the parallels between the Greek and potential UK issues would be interesting.

Cybersecurity? What cybersecurity?

The US government has been strongly criticised by the U.S. Government Accountability Office over its Internet security programme:

Citizens who may have harbored the idea that there was a murderously efficient J. Edgar Hoover of the Internet, working day and night, will be much disappointed at the contents of two recent government reports. They are easy to summarize: not only is very little of use being done, but essentially nobody is doing it. There is barely a boss and hardly any techno-G-men defending us from hackers, terrorists, scam artists, foreign nations, and others who might wish to do our Internet harm.

Security vs authoritarianism

David Cameron is none-too-impressed over Blair's political games on terrorism:

Labour's ineffective authoritarianism is the wrong response to the serious, complex challenges we face. Our approach has to be different. Our duty is clear: to be the defenders of security and freedom. ID cards that waste money and won't work: wrong. Investment in proper security measures: right. Confused legislation that misses the target: wrong. Clear legislation that thwarts terrorists: right.

We have a chance to make a difference by opposing ID cards and amending the Government's glorification clause. I hope that MPs on every side will join us in the long term interests of security and freedom.

Defence expert undermines Blair on safety of ID cards

Brian Gladman, a retired senior defence official, is extremely concerned about the safety and security of the government's ID proposals. In a letter to the Prime Minister, he wrote:

"it is shameful that those who are less well-off will be forced to put themselves at serious risk for a system that serves no purpose that cannot be achieved in other, more effective and less costly ways".

Rummy's assassination squad

Despite the boys-with-toys drooling over SAS and American special forces activities in the Middle East, this Sunday Times article contains one astonishing statistic:

Rumsfeld had created a killer elite that has been compared favourably by one its key US architects, Lieutenant-General Jerry Boykin, with America’s highly controversial Phoenix programme, which secretly eradicated about 20,000 people without judicial process during the Vietnam war.

So, a group of troops supposedly targetting a small number of Al-Qaeda leaders are compared favourably to those responsible for mass extra-judicial slaughter in Vietnam. Has the British government forgotten so quickly the lessons from the SAS shoot-to-kill policy in Gibraltar?

Sunday, February 12, 2006

‘We don’t do God, we do Palestine and Iraq’

Amir Tahiri feels that the root cause of the cartoon problem is that the fundamentalists agitating over the issue are political activists who still feel they should receive the protection they claim for religious beliefs:

Isn’t Islam supposed to be a religion? Shouldn’t it be concerned with the broader issues of human existence rather than with a set of cartoons, a Dutch television documentary, the head-covers of French schoolgirls or a novel by a British-Indian author? Today the visible Islam, the loudest Islam, is a political movement masquerading as a religion. Many mosques in this country have been transformed into political clubs where Kashmir, Iraq and Palestine and “the misdeeds of Anglo-Saxon imperialism” have replaced issues of religious faith as the principal theme.

This is having appalling repercussions for community relations in the UK:

Until earlier this month most of us had never heard of the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten. Most were blissfully unaware, too, that the 12 cartoons published in that newspaper on September 30 last year would eventually result in a wave of Muslim protest that would lead to embassies being set on fire, posters being paraded around London with messages inciting terror and several deaths across the Middle East and south Asia. However, this vile and disproportionate reaction could change profoundly the way that British people coexist with the 1.6m Muslim minority in their midst.

These issues cannot be dealt with by attempts to stifle debate through "religious hatred" thought-crimes. They need to be discussed openly by moderates from all faiths and none if Britain is to have any hope of keeping repellent groups such as the British National Party out of power.

Don't mess with Cheney

He'll shoot you reeeeeeeal gooooood (via Boing Boing).

Now I can understand why Dubya is so addicted to torture, domestic wiretapping, imprisonment without trial, military rape, etc. etc.

UPDATE: Jesus' General has a couple of product endorsements that the Deputy Leader may now regret.

UPDATE: Chewbacca Blog has the final word.

Avoiding another David Kelly

The government should be more mindful of history before launching vicious personal attacks on those who criticise its policies:

“I have been hit very hard by this,” said Davies this weekend. “I have been hounded. I could imagine that an academic who is subjected to attacks of this kind could do something stupid. This shows that the government has made clear that if any academic challenges government policy, it will take off the gloves.

“I can understand how David Kelly must have felt. When I first heard what Clarke had said about me, I was devastated.”

Creeping sharia

As you can see from the comments below, it doesn't take much intimidation to encourage the West into self-censorship. This of course is the aim of the fundamentalists who whipped up this phoney storm of outrage several months after the original cartoons were published in Denmark and Egypt:

Their hope has always been what can only be called creeping sharia. Bit by bit, free societies abandon small freedoms to accommodate the sensitivities of Muslims or Christian fundamentalists or the PC police or other touchy fanatics. Bit by bit, we cede our freedoms to fear and phoney civility — all in the name of getting along.

Yes, in this new war of freedom versus fundamentalism I always anticipated appeasement. I just didn’t expect the press to be among the first to wave the white flag.

US plans massive data sweep

Despite the manifest failure of the massive US federal programme to data-mine telecommunications records, other surveillance programmes march forwards (thanks, Douwe!):

The US government is developing a massive computer system that can collect huge amounts of data and, by linking far-flung information from blogs and e-mail to government records and intelligence reports, search for patterns of terrorist activity.

The system - parts of which are operational, parts of which are still under development - is already credited with helping to foil some plots. It is the federal government's latest attempt to use broad data-collection and powerful analysis in the fight against terrorism. But by delving deeply into the digital minutiae of American life, the program is also raising concerns that the government is intruding too deeply into citizens' privacy.

Don't vote for this ID pig in a poke

Charles Clarke ID cardLord Phillips hopes that the Commons will share the Lords' concerns over the government's ID card proposals, and vote tomorrow to support the critical Lords amendments:

Should the state manifest a presumption of trust towards its citizenry, or is that onus now to be reversed, and, if so, with what effects? Will a surveillance state strengthen or weaken the body politic and citizen allegiance long term? And will our unparalleled new security regime lead to diminishing returns, like an excess of antibiotics?

The Lords, after 60 hours of debate, sensed that red lights are already flashing on all these issues and stood resolute against this pig in a poke.

Free speech is the keystone of civilisation

Freedom of speech isn't some luxury that can be thrown aside at the first hint of offense taken by religious groups. As Minette Marin comments:

Freedom of speech is the keystone of western civilisation, of individuality, of scientific discovery, of wealth and of democracy; without it, the entire edifice would collapse.

Saturday, February 11, 2006

When it was no longer sweet or noble to kill for the cause

Martin Kettle has some interesting recollections of the demise of Communism and its relevance today:

Too many haters of capitalism and the United States still cram everything into the frame of untruth and self-deception that says my enemy's enemy is still my friend because, even if he blows up my family on the tube, murders my colleagues on the bus or threatens to behead me for publishing a drawing, he is still at war with Bush, Blair and Berlusconi. It is 50 years this month since that simplistic view of the world lost whatever moral purchase it may once have had. It is time such thinking was, to choose a sadly appropriate word, purged.

Redneck skiing

Bode MillerI like Bode Miller's style, and will be seeking to emulate it in full in Canada later this month:

[T]he 28-year-old Miller has become a sort of anti-hero to a host of Americans who had previously ignored skiing. Rolling Stone described him during an interview as a "rosy-cheeked ski god, a sexy redneck addicted to DIY fun, adrenaline highs and stupid amounts of beer". Even when he is not trying to be deliberately controversial, it seems Miller cannot avoid offending someone. He has riled his Italian hosts by refusing to stay in the Olympic village because of the size of the beds.

Tracing money flows != breaking Enigma

GOrdon BrownGordon Brown no doubt has the best of intentions, but he obviously has no idea of the scale of the achievements of Alan Turing and his colleagues at Bletchley Park during the Second World War:

"As chancellor ... I have found myself immersed in measures designed to cut off the sources of terrorist finance," Mr Brown will say. "And I have discovered that this requires an international operation using modern methods of forensic accounting as imaginative and pathbreaking for our times as the Enigma codebreakers at Bletchley Park achieved more than half a century ago."

This will certainly lead to yet more attacks on financial privacy in the name of combating money laundering and terrorism.

Friday, February 10, 2006

Cartoon wars

The Economist has a resounding defence of free speech and the right to offend religious sensibilities:

There are many things western countries could usefully say and do to ease relations with Islam, but shutting up their own newspapers is not one of them. People who feel that they are not free to give voice to their worries about terrorism, globalisation or the encroachment of new cultures or religions will not love their neighbours any better. If anything, the opposite is the case: people need to let off steam. And freedom of expression, remember, is not just a pillar of western democracy, as sacred in its own way as Muhammad is to pious Muslims. It is also a freedom that millions of Muslims have come to enjoy or to aspire to themselves. Ultimately, spreading and strengthening it may be one of the best hopes for avoiding the incomprehension that can lead civilisations into conflict.

ID card application forms now available

Just in case they do manage to pass the ID Cards Bill on Monday, the government has been preparing the requisite application forms.

Durham University in sticky situation

DNA matching may provide the solution