Friday, February 29, 2008

Taking evidence seriously

"Muslim, Hindu, Sikh and Jewish Britons can rightly complain that the state has long funded Church of England and Roman Catholic schools. But the proper remedy is not to extend state patronage from Christianity to other superstitions; rather, it is to implement a complete separation of church from state, and more generally to insist that taxpayer-funded institutions have no business propagating dogmas unsupported by evidence." —Alan Sokal

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Anti-contraception, pro-life?

"When the Pope tells bishops in Kenya — the global centre of this crisis — that they should defend traditional family values 'at all costs' against agencies offering safe abortions, or when he travels to Brazil to denounce its contraceptive programme, he condemns women to death. When George Bush blocks aid for family planning charities that promote safe abortions, he ensures, paradoxically, that contraceptives are replaced with backstreet foeticide. These people spread misery, disease and death. And they call themselves pro-life." —George Monbiot

The LSE ID report story

Interesting video of Simon Davies and Gus Hosein describing the process behind the LSE Identity Project report they coordinated, and the vicious and personal attacks launched by the government in an attempt to deny its findings. In hindsight, these findings if anything look to be overcautious.

Monday, February 25, 2008

We don't need a high-tech Domesday Book

"It is in the nature of states to want to obtain and store information about their citizens. They have been doing so since the year dot in order to tax them; but retaining vast amounts of detailed personal and private information has been nigh on impossible in any democratic state.

"Totalitarian ones have been more successful, relying on spies and bureaucrats to keep their records up to date. But information technology now allows democracies to collect and keep the sort of data about us all that more malign regimes of recent history would have killed to possess, and possessed to kill." —Philip Johnston

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

The state is utterly clueless on the public-private divide

"Firms with anonymous names such as Serco, Capita, Carillion and Jarvis build and run Britain's roads, railways, hospitals, schools, pension services, speed cameras and congestion charges, and are believed by the Treasury to be 'private'. Yet they are merely capitalist redefinitions of state-financed activities.

"Most outrageous are those involved in the government computer programmes, with Britain (according to the Guardian last year) reported to be the worst of the seven biggest users of computers in competitive supply, negotiating competence and scrap rate. Firms such as EDS have been walking away from the Treasury with huge sums in their pockets for kit that nobody appears to want. They are the unacceptable face of crypto-nationalisation…

"Jacqui Smith and Alan Johnson have neither the competence nor the courage to end the absurdity of the ID card and NHS computers, both victims of high-pressure consultancy with billions of pounds at stake." —Simon Jenkins

Sunday, February 17, 2008

These catch-all terror laws are killing off British justice

"The authorities now have extraordinary powers to arrest and convict Britons on evidence that may be tainted by American interrogation techniques or by the sheer ignorance of the police and security services.

"It is to this secret establishment that Smith wants to give discretionary power to incarcerate suspects without charge for an undecided number of months. It is this establishment that is still determined not to reveal the extent of its wiretap activities in court. It is this that has equipped Britain with the most extensive network of surveillance in the free world. It is this that intends to computerise the personal, occupational, medical and family records of the entire nation, on bases that everyone knows will be insecure." —Simon Jenkins

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Musicians, fans and online copyright

2pm-5.30pm 19 March 2008
The Old Theatre, London School of Economics, Houghton Street, London WC2

Is home downloading killing music? Should Internet Service Providers monitor customers to try and spot copyright infringement, and disconnect downloaders? Do musicians need new laws to benefit from the opportunities of the Internet?

Join us at this FREE event to debate these questions and more with leading copyright thinkers from the music world, government, consumer groups and universities. Confirmed speakers include John Kennedy (CEO of IFPI), Becky Hogge (Open Rights Group), Lilian Edwards (Southampton University), Rufus Pollock (Cambridge University) and Michelle Childs (Knowledge Ecology International). Find out more and register here.

This zeal for intervention is imperialism in new clothes

"The west can invite the world to witness the virtues of democracy. It can deploy the soft power of education, exchange, publicity and aid. But a true democrat cannot abandon Voltaire's respect for the autonomy of disagreement, let alone seek to crush it. Britain can shine its beacon abroad but it cannot impose its values on the world. It has tried too often, and has failed. This is not isolationism. It is fact." —Simon Jenkins

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Britain's security-industrial complex

"Britain has a Kafkaesque oversight bureaucracy ranking with the one it purports to oversee. Some six separate surveillance monitors trip over themselves. All operate in secret and appear to be one gigantic rubber stamp. The distinction drawn by the justice secretary, Jack Straw, between 'intrusive' and 'directed' bugging, illustrates the prevailing mumbo-jumbo. The chief surveillance monitor, Sir Christopher Rose, has been asked by Straw to investigate the Khan affair, which appears to be a failure by the chief surveillance monitor. Is this to be taken seriously?" —Simon Jenkins

"This explosion of sticky-beaking, much of it done in the name of combating terrorism but even more of it not, has occurred on the watch of the same MPs now protesting their right to an almost unique degree of privacy. Their constituents are entitled to ask: and where were you when we wanted you to protect our rights? Ah, yes, in the voting lobbies, nodding them away." —Alice Miles

Sandboxing Facebook

My colleague Jonathan Zittrain asks whether Facebook should protect its users from rogue third-party applications, not least given the sensitive personal data it holds.

We talked about the missed opportunity for Facebook to control applications' access to users' data in a presentation last summer at GikII: Stalking 2.0: privacy protection in a leading Social Networking Site. In a nutshell, FB gives applications almost unrestricted access to users' data, even though in most cases it is not needed — and certainly not to turn friends into zombies or werewolves or play Scrabulous. FB holds almost every category of personal data categorised as "sensitive" by the European data protection directive. The best way to stop "rogue" applications from abusing this information is to stop them getting access in the first place.

JZ also compares the privacy impact of Web apps to traditional applications. In practice, while many operating systems (even Windows) allow users to sandbox their applications' access to user data, few applications use this functionality. Why, for example, does a document viewer launched by a mail client need access to anything other than its own application files and the relevant attachment? Restricting access in this way would make it harder for malware to spread through e-mail, but it seems that application writers are not yet putting the basic security principle of "least privilege" into practice.

e-government is the problem, not the solution

"The fiascos of 'e-government' are not anomalies that can be corrected by more rigorous procedures. The billions that have been squandered on unworkable computer networks in the NHS and the repeated loss of data throughout government are signs of a dysfunctional system. The disappearance of millions of learner drivers' details somewhere in the Midwest is par for the course. Nothing that has been announced by Gordon Brown will prevent similar debacles. Inevitably, there will be more such incidents — plenty more." —John Gray