Thursday, January 31, 2008

Our state collects more data than the Stasi ever did

Timothy Garton-Ash, one of the leading campaigners against the communist regimes in Eastern Europe during the 1980s, has a powerful article in today's Guardian comparing East Germany under the Stasi to the surveillance-on-steroids of today's UK:

"Our stalwart information commissioner, Richard Thomas, has fought a valiant battle to protect what the Germans call, with portentous profundity, the right to informational self-determination. A valiant battle, but a losing one — as the commissioner himself acknowledges. The warning that we are 'sleepwalking into a surveillance society' comes from him.

"For even as he tries to strengthen the dykes, more powerful arms of government are busy tearing them down: in the name of fighting terrorism, crime, fraud, child molestation, drugs, religious extremism, racial abuse, tax evasion, speeding, illegal parking, fly-tipping, leaving too many garbage bags outside your home, and any other 'risk' that any of those nearly 800 public (busy)bodies feels called upon to 'protect' us from. Well, thank you, nanny — but kindly eff off to East Germany. I'd rather stay a bit more free, even if means being a bit less safe."

I gave a presentation along similar lines last year at a NATO workshop (Wild West or gulag: models for policing cyberspace). One of the Russian intelligence officers present asked me what was wrong with the Stasi!

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

The 'war on terror' licenses a new stupidity in geopolitics

"This so-called war on terror has filled the pockets of those profiting from it. It has killed thousands, immiserated millions and infringed the liberty of hundreds of millions. The only rough justice it has delivered is to ruin the careers of those who propagated it. Tony Blair was driven to early resignation. Bush has been humiliated and Musharraf's wretched rule brought close to an overdue end. It may be an ill wind that blows no good, but it is hardly enough." —Simon Jenkins

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Transforming government with technology

Over 150 people participated on Tuesday in our Government 2.0 event at the Houses of Parliament. Topics ranged from reducing the failure rate of big government IT projects through to the use of designers and "start-small" evolutionary alternatives to £20bn monsters like the NHS's National Programme for IT and the proposed National Identity Register.

Our panelists and audience had a range of perspectives, but I think they could be threaded together as follows. Politicians and officials need the right incentives to commission systems for the long term, rather than switching roles not long after a burst of initially favourable headlines and avoiding accountability when a system is deployed (Ross Anderson). They need to understand in much greater depth what citizens need from services rather than simply computerising existing business processes (Jerry Fishenden). Designers rather than engineers or management consultants are the best people to tackle this phase (William Heath). Political issues such as transparency and equity must be carefully considered.

Before commissioning systems, civil servants should first consider whether small internal programming teams could prototype solutions that evolve at much lower cost than traditional large-scale projects, especially by exposing government data sources like maps and house prices to mash-up designers like mySociety (Tom Steinberg). But when large-scale and/or critical national infrastructure solutions prove to be necessary, they must be carefully specified and project-managed in the manner of large civil engineering projects (Martyn Thomas). They must also be approached holistically as business change projects, with most of the budget going towards people rather than technology issues (Jim Norton).

If you want to find out more you can watch video of all of the sessions. Let us know in the comments if you disagree with any of the opinions expressed! Thanks again to all of our speakers; to our co-organisers POST; and to everyone who came along and contributed. Thanks also to Microsoft and Kable for sponsoring a drinks reception after the event.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Children must not be next victims of data loss

The Ministry of Defence has brought us the latest data disaster, putting 600,000 sailors, pilots and potential recruits at risk by losing their detailed personal information. And like the debacle at Revenue and Customs, the MoD is trying to pin the blame on the junior naval officer who lost the laptop, rather than the far more senior officials who commissioned systems that allow so much data to be downloaded onto an individual laptop. As I told Radio 4, while government departments collect and store so much sensitive personal data in centralised databases, we will go on seeing these massive data losses.

You would hope other departments would be learning from these very serious mistakes. However, it seems that the Department for Children is ploughing ahead with their plans to build a centralised database on all 11 million children in England. Action on Rights for Children has produced three short videos explaining the problems with this ContactPoint system, featuring interviews with Prof Ross Anderson, Terri Dowty, Dr Liz Davies, Shami Chakrabati and myself.

Friday, January 18, 2008

Much heat, little light on "terror" websites

Jacqui SmithHome Secretary Jacqui Smith made a big media splash yesterday by calling for a crackdown on websites promoting terrorism. However, she gave little detail, claiming that discussions are ongoing with Internet Service Providers — who are almost universally sceptical of the idea.

If the government is talking about shutting down UK websites that "encourage" terrorism, then this is old news. Police constables have had this power since 2006 under s.3 of the Terrorism Act. However, if they plan to use the system already in place at most ISPs to block access to child abuse sites, this will be much more controversial — and almost completely ineffective.

As I told Associated Press, much propaganda and recruitment content from terror groups is already moving to password-protected forums. Flaky filters would just accelerate this process, in the meantime removing from view some useful intelligence on the activities of these groups.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Bloodspell panel discussion

If you're interested in machinima you can now listen to Bloodspell director Hugh Hancock discussing his creation with Lilian Edwards, Andres Guadamuz and myself last November. Thanks to Fernando Barrio for organising the event, and to Robin Scobey for the recording!

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Breathtaking Machu Picchu

High above the Urubamba river
So, was it worth crossing the Atlantic and South America by train, plane and automobile (and catamaran) to see Machu Picchu? I was worried that the climax of our month-long trip might be a disappointment. But it turned out to be a real high point!

The ruins themselves are well-preserved and sprawl across the hillside. You can spend hours wandering through the various temples, buildings and terraces that rise hundreds of feet. The 45-minute Inca bridge trail through the jungle and along the edge of precipitous slopes was fun and a lot easier than the better-known four-day trek to the site.

It is this spectacular geography that really makes the city. Hundreds of metres up from the Urubamba river, it is ringed with mountains almost 6km high. The clouds tumbling over these peaks and through the valley change the views every few moments. One hundred kilometres of altiplano and dense jungle from local capital Cusco, you can see how the city was entirely missed by the Spanish conquistadores.

Cusco itself was a charming place to relax for a week. It took a few days to adjust to the altitude (3500m) and was tiring to climb even the slightest hill. But the local restaurants compared with the best of Rio and Buenos Aires, and we even managed to find some draught English beer in the highest Irish pub in the world. It's fun to act like a real gringo sometimes :)

If London wasn't such a spectacular city itself, I would be less happy to be flying home (via Lima and Sao Paulo) tomorrow!

Monday, January 07, 2008

Guardian: we have right to publish Facebook info

In response to readers' complaints, the Guardian has announced that they have the right to print personal information from social networking sites in the public interest:

The fact that information is more or less publicly available may not be a complete answer to all arguments about privacy. Privacy is about intrusion rather than secrecy and the question is whether you have a reasonable expectation that something is private, rather than whether you have done or said something in public. These concepts are not easy to apply to social networking sites where the point of the exercise is to share information with others.

I think the Guardian is wrong on both the details and the fundamentals. How is a photo from a student Hallowe'en party of an individual who only later entered public life in the "public interest"? How can a desire to share information with friends be translated into a desire to see private photographs published in a newspaper read by millions of people around the world?

We saw a similar plundering of Facebook and Myspace sites after the appalling murder in Perugia last November. Who knows what effect that has had on the potential for a fair trial of the accused, or the lives of those peripherally involved?

As Chris Marsden, Lilian Edwards and I said in our GikII conference paper last summer, the privacy issues raised by social networking sites are far more complex than many in the media would like to believe.

Tuesday, January 01, 2008

Happy new year from Rio!

Guanabara Bay
Sorry, I couldn't resist :) Rio has been a great place to see in the new year. I thought that Sydney and Hong Kong had spectacular settings, but Rio really must have the best geography of any city in the world.

The parties on Ipanema and Copacabana beaches were as fun as you would expect. Two million people were watching the fireworks at midnight, along with tens of thousands of people on the seven enormous cruise ships sitting in the bay.

A day more to recover; then off to Peru to fulfill a real ambition of mine — visiting the Incan ruins at Machu Picchu.

A new year's resolution for the PM

"Mr Brown previously let it be known that he saw big problems with Tony Blair's pet ID card project. But when he moved into No 10, polls showing strong support for the scheme deterred an immediate change of course. That support has now slipped thanks to concern about lost data; it will slip further as the costs become stark. After a battering few months, Mr Brown must use the new year to define his government more sharply, making plain how it differs from what went before. He should ditch ID cards — and make a virtue of the change." —The Guardian