Monday, April 30, 2007

ID cards and Japan's Juki-net

日本 の 住民基本台帳ネットワーク

Andrew Adams has an interesting post on Juki-net, Japan's version of the UK ID card scheme.

Cameron the libertarian?

I find it fascinating that Conservative party leader David Cameron is now so explicitly using the language of libertarianism, which is not a mainstream political movement in the UK as it is in the US. In today's Telegraph, for example, Cameron argues:

"We cannot address social problems merely with state solutions. Government has a role to play in setting the framework of law and incentives that encourage the right behaviour. But the best thing that the state can do is to help build the independent institutions of a responsible society - strong families and strong communities."

Coincidentally, the Guardian today republished one of Margaret Thatcher's best-known speeches where she makes the same argument in far more robust Mrs T-style:

"But it is not the State that creates a healthy society. When the State grows too powerful people feel that they count for less and less. The State drains society, not only of its wealth but of initiative, of energy, the will to improve and innovate as well as to preserve what is best. Our aim is to let people feel that they count for more and more. If we cannot trust the deepest instincts of our people we should not be in politics at all."

Gowers: we drew line in sand on IP

Andrew Gowers"[F]or quite a number of years, probably for decades, intellectual property protection has been regarded as, in a way, a one way ratchet. Partly because the people wanting, demanding more intellectual property protection have tended to be larger, better financed, more articulate than the fragmented number of essentially as consumers who pay the price for it. I think what we have done with this report is reassert the balance and make some arguments as to why that ratchet need not go any further and you know that line in the sand is very significant because I think you know the argument that tended to be made largely by those who had their own interests at stake or did not know enough about the subject that more intellectual property rights are good and less intellectual property rights are bad. It is not as unequivocally so as that and I think one needs to take a much more nuanced view." —Andrew Gowers (via Open Rights Group)

EU fails for third time on privacy

The European Union's attitude to data protection in the law enforcement field would be laughable were it not so important:

Peter Hustinx, the European Data Protection Supervisor (EDPS), has issued an opinion on a new proposal for a framework decision on data protection in the third pillar. While thankful for the efforts from the German presidency to progress on the dossier which requires unanimous support to be adopted, the EDPS expresses grave concern about a dilution towards the lowest common denominator. As many aspects of the current proposal fail to give appropriate protection as required by the EU Treaty, the EDPS strongly advises Council not to adopt the current text. Some aspects even fall below the standard of Council of Europe Convention 108 which provides some basic principles of data protection since 1981.

Democracy is safe in their hands

Thanks to Jason Kitcat for digging up these gems from Hansard.

A J Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed, Liberal Democrat): Why did not the Under-Secretary ensure that all the secondary legislation was correctly drafted and in place to give returning officers the full power to enforce the postal vote safeguards in the way that Parliament intended?

Bridget Prentice (Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Constitutional Affairs): The right hon. Gentleman is right. It is most unfortunate that we could not do what he suggested. We will ensure that the regulations are drafted correctly in future. It was unfortunate that we could not get that right for 3 May, but I hope that we shall ensure that everything is exactly as it should be in future.

Andrew Robathan (Blaby, Conservative): The Minister seems to be living in a slightly different world from the rest of us. Has she read Sir Alistair Graham's speech in January, in which he said:

"How does DCA or the Electoral Commission know about the extent of electoral fraud when neither of them have kept any statistics nor have undertaken any research on the issue? Is it that, in their obsession with increasing participation at all costs, they have turned a blind eye to the risks of electoral fraud and its consequences on the integrity of our democratic system?"

Oliver Heald (North East Hertfordshire, Conservative): The Minister will know that the Committee on Standards in Public Life warned that impersonation was the most common form of electoral fraud. The election commissioner in Birmingham warned that well-organised fraudsters were getting away with scores of personated votes. Given that, which Minister is responsible for the latest fiasco that the new laws to tackle impersonation will not be introduced for this year's major set of local elections, because they were so badly drafted? Is that not yet another sign of Government incompetence in the face of growing corruption and fraud?

Friday, April 27, 2007

The Lives of Others

I finally got to see Oscar-winning The Lives of Others this week. It's a stark but extremely moving look at the tyranny of East Germany and its secret police, told through the story of a playwright who becomes disillusioned by this Communist paradise and the Stasi officer monitoring his loyalty to the state. The actors brilliantly portray the day-to-day life and complex moral choices of those who can never be sure whether they are being monitored and manipulated by their government.

Of particular modern relevance is the Stasi's use of psychological torture to silence dissident writers and activists — although nothing on the scale of the US in driving mad prisoners such as Jose Padilla. I left the cinema tearful at the horrors of four decades of state terror in the Deutsche Demokratische Republik, and furious that the country that did the most to end Communist misrule is now busy recreating its horrors.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

NHS reveals doctors' religion and sexual orientation

Compare and contrast:

“[The NHS] has adopted the highest security standards for access to patient information” —health minister Caroline Flint in Parliament on Tuesday.

"The Department of Health has apologised after a security lapse on the junior doctors recruitment website enabled confidential information on thousands of applicants, including their sexual orientation and previous convictions, to be accessed by the public yesterday." —Today's Guardian


Interception technology has long been within the reach of large corporations. It seems that it has now reached even one-man-band private detective agencies. A court heard yesterday that London's Active Investigation Services planted Trojan horse software to snoop on targets' electronic activities, and even planted bugs in BT junction boxes and overhead telephone wires:

David Carroll, of Highgate, north London and Scott Gelsthorpe, of, Kettering, Northants, both deny 15 counts of conspiracy alleging fraud, the unauthorised modification of computer material, the unlawful interception of computer material and criminal damage.

The price list: £5,000-£7,000 to hack into a computer, £2,000 to obtain bank details and £6,000 to tap telephones. As Paul commented yesterday, will the police used proceeds of crime legislation to recover the profits made by this agency?

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Fascist America, in 10 easy steps

"As Americans turn away quite leisurely, keeping tuned to internet shopping and American Idol, the foundations of democracy are being fatally corroded. Something has changed profoundly that weakens us unprecedentedly: our democratic traditions, independent judiciary and free press do their work today in a context in which we are 'at war' in a 'long war' - a war without end, on a battlefield described as the globe, in a context that gives the president - without US citizens realising it yet - the power over US citizens of freedom or long solitary incarceration, on his say-so alone." —Naomi Wolf

There is no such thing as Blairism

"Blairism does not exist and never has. It is all froth and miasma. It consists of throwing a packet of words such as change, community, renewal, partnership, social and reform into the air and watching them twinkle to the ground like blossom until the body politic is carpeted with sweet-smelling bloom." —Simon Jenkins

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Elementary, my dear blagger

Given the following Guardian report of a rare prosecution of someone for obtaining private information by deception, can you work out why "blagging" is such a growth industry?

Nicholas Munroe, 32, of west London, conned civil servants into giving home addresses of more than 250 people over the phone. He was convicted of 44 offences of stealing and selling private data in a prosecution brought by Richard Thomas, the information commissioner, and fined £3,200 plus £5,000 costs…

Yesterday Phil Taylor, solicitor for the information commissioner, told the court that Munroe was paid £25 for each address, and on one day alone made £6,000 by obtaining 245 addresses through a "few telephone calls". His company, Infofind, had an annual turnover of £100,000.

Information Commissioner Richard Thomas has called for gross violations of the Data Protection Act to be subject to jail terms. Perhaps courts could take the initial step of fining offenders more than their profits?

Happy birthday ZX Spectrum!

Manic miner
The Guardian has a birthday tribute to the ZX Spectrum, 25 years old this month, which had a big impact on the nascent British computing scene — and was my first computer :) How different my life could have been…

I'm astonished to find, through a quick Google Search, that I can download a Spectrum emulator desktop widget for my MacBook!!

Monday, April 23, 2007

Shiny new NHS computers make the government look stupid

"While it may be quite useful politically for a government to be seen to be spear-heading a new [NHS] computer system — presumably because it makes them look young and hip — it is, after all, only a computer system, and that's a lot of money for something that doesn't actually save lives.

"Now that it transpires that the system will have no benefit for patients, it all begins to smack of geeky adolescent boys sitting in their bedrooms getting excited over the latest pointless gadget. But they should know better, because they are adults, and it's not their pocket-money they're frittering away, it's our money. Billions of pounds of it." —Dr. Max Pemberton

Thursday, April 19, 2007

The Pirate Pose

"Many of us have pulled off the big coups. Many of us have had the nerve, the aggressiveness, the independence, the heart and stones that being the stones-out Delta commandos of capitalism requires—and have made our billions, our multibillions. So what is our social payoff? How is our stature to be known publicly and celebrated in the form of social prominence, eye-popping reputations, honors, medals, appointments as ambassadors with The Hon. before our names forever after?" —Tom Wolfe on hedge fund managers

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

We’re fighting on the wrong front in the ‘drugs war’

"There is a difference between one kid popping a pill to pep up Saturday night and another sitting around smoking crack all day, while drifting from truancy to unemployment and crime. The war against drugs fails to differentiate. Everybody becomes a drug user, as if all drugs are the same, all use is the same, all situations, lifestyles and choices are the same." —Martin Samuel

The sickening £12 billion NHS fiasco

Richard Bacon MP"If Connecting for Health had been created by one of this country's enemies with the specific task of wasting as much money as possible while causing maximum anger and resentment among doctors, nurses and hospital managers, it could hardly have done a better job. Having been given responsibility for the largest sum of money ever allocated to a health IT programme anywhere in the world, at least £12.4 billion, which incidentally dwarfs the entire NHS deficit, it has failed to deliver. This disastrous agency should be put out of its misery." —Richard Bacon MP, member of the House of Commons' Public Accounts Committee, which today published a damning report on the NHS IT programme

Monday, April 16, 2007

Plundering the public sector

Plundering the public sectorIf you ever wondered why the UK government's big IT projects have failed so spectacularly over and over again during the last decade, "Plundering the Public Sector" by David Craig and Richard Brooks will certainly open your eyes. It documents the astonishing naivite of the civil servants who took seriously large IT consulting firms' permanent diagnosis that huge, money-gobbling new computer systems were the answer to every government ill. Project budgets were allowed to double and triple, with resulting systems often thrown out after totally failing to meet their objectives. Departments failed over and over again to learn the lessons of these failures, and moved on to commission even larger disasters.

Craig and Brooks document the various scams used by management and IT consulting firms to boost profits, screwing ever-larger amounts of cash out of the taxpayer. The civil service accounting officers responsible for obtaining value for money had little institutional incentive to do their job properly, with political masters eager for quick tabloid-friendly fixes and convinced the consulting ethic was the ideal way to inject private sector nous into the public sector. Instead we got monopolistic profiteering on a criminal scale:

Overall, just eleven large IT systems companies receive more than 80 per cent of all government systems work. And on the biggest project of them all, Connecting for Health, the programme board have knowingly created just four monopoly IT systems suppliers each with their own reserved area of the country — one supplier even has two areas. So systems are reinvented from scratch, while providers with already proven products are barred from selling to the NHS and told that, if they want to stay in business, they should sell their products abroad. The government has repeatedly claimed that it is trying to push more work to medium-sized companies. In fact, they have done the opposite — the way civil servants have bought consulting services has provided a truly incredible financial bonanza for just a few massive companies at the expense of smaller providers and of the taxpayer. We don't have competition — we have just a few robber barons sharing the spoils among them and not even allowing the scraps to be distributed among the others. Had civil servants been capable buyers, most of the work they bought could probably have been obtained for well under half the price actually paid and many more of the systems would have worked. The systems would have been based on adapting existing working technology from specialist suppliers, rather than on paying a small number of generalists with massive armies of code-monkeys to try lucratively, incompetently and unsuccessfully to rebuild what already existed.

While some of these lessons have been learned at Connecting for Health since the book was published in 2006, this is still a shocking look at the abuse of IT by government on a financial scale that boggles the mind.

DRM, lock-ins, and piracy: all red herrings for a music industry in trouble

"As we analyze the industry's core challenges... we consistently find that the industry has lost the ability to influence and control its future. Worse, the industry has often appeared caught short, and its reactions accordingly wrong-footed." —Enders Analysis (via Open Rights Group)

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Designing for forgetting

UCLA waterfallI've been at the University of California at Los Angeles for a couple of days for a workshop on "Designing for forgetting and exclusion." How can we consider privacy and people's ability to move beyond past events as a positive social good — and design systems that will support that ability? Extremely interesting, not least because of the diverse range of perspectives of the participants, who included geographers, information scientists, historians, artists and film directors as well as computer scientists and lawyers.

The workshop was part of a process of putting together a large grant proposal to the National Science Foundation later this year, which I think could result in some extremely interesting research.

Saturday, April 14, 2007

The Don Imus affair

Don Imus"He’s quite amusing and articulate in a resolutely uncomplicated way and had a huge listenership generating vast advertising revenue. Consequently, he attracted significant political figures as guests, pretty much anyone bar the President, who, of course, is rarely free to speak in public unscripted lest he describe Condi Rice as 'that Secretary of State ho' in a momentary lapse." —Alan Davieson

Surveillance and privacy in an e-society

ESRC e-societySpent an interesting day last week hearing the results of the privacy projects funded by the UK Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) under their e-society programme.

Charles Raab covered the suggestions for improved regulation of surveillance in the report the Surveillance Studies Network wrote last year for the Information Commissioner, including surveillance impact assessments for new government proposals. Fellow Network members David Murakami Wood and Kirstie Ball looked at the privacy issues of implanted tracking devices, and the employer-employee relationship. Ann Rudinow Saetnan suggested that statistical techniques used to measure the costs and benefits of medical tests should also be applied to new surveillance technologies — and often find that false positive results cause the most problem in systems. And Adam Joinson described experimental psychology work that found that individuals' trust in a web site was a much stronger determinant than the site's privacy policy in how much information they would be willing to disclose.

Several of the projects looked at the use of tracking technologies within government. John Taylor described systems being used by probation officers, for driving licence applications and in other areas of e-government. Nicholas Pleace talked about his work on data sharing to improve service delivery to homeless groups. While interesting, I thought both these projects would be enhanced by looking at the deeper question of whether data sharing was an efficient way to meet the government's stated policy objectives, and whether cheaper and less invasive systems could do the job just as well.

Other projects looked critically at the tracking of children using the Child Index, border security, regulating online privacy and the intensification of surveillance in the criminal justice system. Finally, Nigel Gilbert discussed the recent Royal Academy of Engineering project that he chaired which found that privacy and security can be complementary rather than in opposition.

A pleasure to hear about so much interesting research on privacy. Hopefully the ESRC will consider funding a follow-up programme!

New technology, new lows for our political discourse

Labour podcast"'New technology, same suck-up,' wrote a commenter on Labourvision this week, and it is hard to disagree with his conviction that the exercise is nothing more than down-with-the-kids gesture politics. If a million people can march against the Iraq war and be ignored, does anyone believe that commenting on Caroline Flint's smoking ban video is going to make the blindest bit of difference?" —Marina Hyde

Friday, April 13, 2007

The rule of Blair is best characterised by mendacity

"Blair's iron grip on his party's loyalty invites the electorate's derision, now that his partnership with Bush has brought catastrophe. Many of us would admire Labour more had it forced Blair out when his follies and deceits were exposed. Instead, of course, we see cabinet ministers and backbenchers addicted to office and power. Where once a Labour MP's greatest fear was of betraying principle or conscience, today we see the Westminster herd trembling at the risk of losing their cars and red boxes, or the possibility of acquiring these wonderful things. Labour's quiescence, through these bleak years when Blair's foreign policy has brought Britain disaster, invites public contempt and, according to the polls, is receiving it." —Max Hastings

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Bushies are clueless bozos

"Am I the only guy in this country who's fed up with what's happening? Where the hell is our outrage? We should be screaming bloody murder. We've got a gang of clueless bozos steering our ship of state right over a cliff, we've got corporate gangsters stealing us blind, and we can't even clean up after a hurricane much less build a hybrid car. But instead of getting mad, everyone sits around and nods their heads when the politicians say, 'Stay the course.'

"Stay the course? You've got to be kidding. This is America, not the damned Titanic. I'll give you a sound bite: Throw the bums out!" —former Chrysler and Ford CEO Lee Iacocca (via Boing Boing)

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Iraq war ruining UK's international reputation

Barbara Stocking"It is now clear that the invasion of Iraq, and the Government's failure to stand up to all governments when they break international law and harm innocent people, have seriously damaged Britain's capacity to be a force for good on the world stage." —Barbara Stocking, director of Oxfam

Where are EU security data protection rules?

The European Data Protection Supervisor has emphasised yet again that the EU must complete data protection rules for the Justice and Security Pillar before enabling data sharing between national police forces (via EDRI).

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Religion: it makes bishops go bonkers

"It is mad for churchmen to expect politicians in a mainly secular society to witter about the Resurrection during diplomatic negotiations. You don’t have to be Richard Dawkins to grasp that." —Libby Purves

Climate change censorship

"In the Sunday Telegraph and the Daily Mail, in columns by Dominic Lawson, Tom Utley and Janet Daley, the allegation is repeated that climate scientists and environmentalists are trying to 'shut down debate'. Those who say that man-made global warming is not taking place, they claim, are being censored. Something is missing from their accusations: a single valid example." —George Monbiot

Monday, April 09, 2007

Sailors should be glad they were captured by Iran, not US

US tortureIt seems that the British sailors held hostage by Iran have little awareness of what their political masters in London and Washington have sanctioned in Iraq, Guantanamo Bay and elsewhere. Just listen to this tale of horror from Operator Mechanic Arthur Batchelor:

"It was beyond terrifying. They seemed to take particular pleasure in mocking me for being young. A guard kept flicking my neck with his index finger and thumb. I thought the worst ... I was frozen in terror and just stared into the darkness of my blindfold."

Breaking trust with the public

"A society that has accepted an extraordinary level of surveillance by CCTV cameras can probably be relied upon not to make a fuss about a system aimed at testing people on benefits. But why should the poor and the unlucky in society be subject to these tests, and not everyone else? There is something nasty about a proposal to scan the voices of those in need to see if they really are - especially as the systems are far from certain to work." —The Guardian

DRM is broken

Mark ShuttleworthMark Shuttleworth, one of the few first-round entrepreneurs to exit at the right time (and hence to be worth around half a billion dollars), has a nice post on the futility of DRM (via Open Rights Group):

The truth is also that, as the landscape changes, different business models come and go in their viability. Those folks who try to impose analog rules on digital content will find themselves on the wrong side of the tidal wave. Sorry for you. It’s necessary to innovate (again, sometimes!) and stay ahead of the curve, perhaps even being willing to cannibalize your own existing business - though to be honest cannibalizing someone else’s is so much more appealing.

DRM is broken — monetise ubiquity, not scarcity!

Sunday, April 08, 2007

You talking to me?

CCTV"The obvious question looms: if surveillance really works, surely Britain ought to be the safest country in the developed world. Yet the last International Crime Victims Survey, which consisted of interviews with 34,000 people in 17 countries in 2000, found that 3.6 per cent of Britons reported being victims of crime in the previous 12 months, second only to Australia. Since then, the number of CCTV cameras has continued to rise, as has violent crime and robbery: the very sort of crimes that tend to take place on streets watched over by CCTV." —Ross Clarke

Thursday, April 05, 2007

Europe's shape must not be dictated by unelected newspaper proprietors

Rupert Murdoch"Eurosceptic journalists on the Daily Mail and the Sun like nothing more than to denounce a European Union allegedly run by a conspiracy of unelected Brussels bureaucrats. They have yet to explain why it would be more democratic to have an EU whose shape is dictated by a conspiracy of unelected British newspaper proprietors." —Timothy Garton Ash

Funds speak out to press Google on freedom of expression

The New York State Pension Funds have used their shares in Google to press the company to give a higher priority to human rights:

The funds outlined a six-point agenda in the proxy demanding that Google should not host user information in countries that restrict internet usage, such as Belarus, Burma, China, Cuba, Egypt, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Tunisia, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.

The group also demands that Google should pledge not to engage in censorship, using all means at its disposal to fight government demands to restrict access to certain information.

I've written a book chapter on Internet censorship that will be published this summer. If you can't wait that long, you can see a pre-publication copy here

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Iraq is still a lost cause

"If defeat, chaos, regional war indeed come to pass, the Iraqi people and the security interests of the west will suffer a disaster for which the disgrace of George Bush and Tony Blair will represent wholly inadequate compensation." —Max Hastings

Monday, April 02, 2007

Putin takes to the Internet

"Dictatorships, like individuals, can be highly adaptable. Technologies that make it easy to disperse information can be thwarted by technologies that make it easy to track communications. True, even in an unfree society, the Internet can give individuals greater access to unauthorized facts and ideas than a typewriter and a radio. But ultimately, technology's liberating potential would still run into the barriers of society's political structure. Sadly, in the years to come, Russians may discover that the Internet can in fact coexist with an authoritarian regime—and even become a tool in its hands." —Cathy Young

EMI launches DRM-free downloads

EMIEMI is the first of the major record labels to offer DRM-free music across their catalogue. Consumer pressure can work! Let's hope the rest of the industry follows fast…

Keep your eyes peeled

"Security, in short, is a mantra, but not a reality. It is bureaucracy without brain engagement." —Peter Preston

Sunday, April 01, 2007

For Blair, it's child's play to make us all criminals

"Last week, an important part of the Prime Minister's Operation Legacy was published in a policy review document called 'Building on progress: security, crime and justice'. It is a dreary work and reading it, I remembered HL Mencken on President Warren Harding's use of English. 'It reminds me of a string of wet sponges,' wrote Mencken. 'It reminds me of tattered washing on the line; it reminds me of stale bean soup... it is so bad that a sort of grandeur creeps into it. It drags itself up out of a dark abyss of pish and crawls insanely up the topmost pinnacle of posh. It is rumble and bumble. It is flap and doodle. It is balder and dash.'" —Henry Porter