Thursday, December 31, 2009

DNA retention hampers policing

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

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

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Happy Xmas!

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

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Publics need persuading on climate change

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

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

Well, Matthew; since you ask…

Does the Internet support political revolution?

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

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

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Paper beats electronic patient records

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

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

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

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

Saturday, December 12, 2009

ID cards down. What's next?

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

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

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Facebook starts to fix application privacy

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

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

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

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

Monday, December 07, 2009

Mobile phone and Internet access now a necessity

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

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

Sunday, December 06, 2009

NHS IT system down. What's next?

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

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

Friday, December 04, 2009

Fightback coming on Digital Economy Bill?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Tories crowdsource a new government IT strategy

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

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

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Local newspapers aren't worth saving

"For many years the local press has been one of Britain's most potent threats to democracy, championing the overdog, misrepresenting democratic choices, defending business, the police and local elites from those who seek to challenge them. Media commentators lament the death of what might have been. It bears no relationship to what is…

"It's true that the vacuity and cowardice of the local papers has been exacerbated by consolidation, profit-seeking, the collapse of advertising revenues and a decline in readership. But even if they weren't subject to these pressures, they would still do more harm than good. Local papers defend the powerful because the powerful own and fund them." —George Monbiot

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

Politicians are intoxicated by cowardice

"Drugs policy is desperately important. It has the power to wreck lives, families and communities. It underpins a third of crime and 80% of acquisitive crime. Four decades of illegality have done nothing to curb consumption, merely breeding the most lucrative, untaxed product market in Britain. No country has achieved the remotest success with prohibition, but Britain's archaic laws have been the least successful. Go to any deprived area, any difficult school, any failing social service, and the root cause of trouble is drugs." —Simon Jenkins

"Speakeasies, moonshine and gangsterism live on in folkloric infamy, even though the disastrous American experiment in prohibition only lasted for 13 short years. It has been three times as long since the 1971 Misuse of Drugs Act instigated its own unwinnable war. In the late 1960s there were 2,000 registered drug addicts, together with a perhaps similar number who lived their life below the radar. Four decades on there are 360,000 problem drug users. Addicts scramble to spike their veins with dangerously adulterated substances that sell at inflated prices, while modern-day Al Capones clear up. As well as accompanying an explosion in damaging narcotic use, strict prohibition has gone hand in hand with an equally remarkable increase in recreational dabbling, making criminals of a huge minority of young people along the way. Half the government, as well as the Conservative leader and three US presidents in a row, have used drugs in their own youth, and yet punitive laws continue to threaten others who do the same with prison. The three-year sentence that a teenager can receive for providing friends with a few ecstasy tablets snuffs out his future far more surely than any drug, and does so at great expense to the taxpayer." —The Guardian

My FT lead feature: Can creative industries survive digital onslaught?

Always a pleasure to be commissioned by the Financial Times, especially to write a lead feature for today's Digital Business supplement:
Can creative industries survive digital onslaught?

Ian Brown examines the competing rights of content producers and file-sharers and argues that new business models are the future, not blocking users

If you are interested in following up any of the points made, here are some references:
  1. Jack Valenti told Congress that cable TV was “a huge parasite in the marketplace”: Richard Corliss (2007) What Jack Valenti Did for Hollywood, Time, 27 Apr

  2. …and that “the VCR is to the American film producer and the American public as the Boston strangler is to the woman home alone.” Hearings before the Subcommittee on Courts, Civil Liberties, and the Administration of Justice of the Committee on the Judiciary, House of Representatives, Ninety-Seventh Congress, Second Session, 12 April 1982

  3. The recording industry claims… online copyright infringement will cost the UK music sector £200m this year: British Phonographic Industry (2009) Reducing online copyright infringement

  4. The US Supreme Court decided in 1984 that video recorders should not be considered as directly contributing to copyright infringement: Sony Corporation of America v. Universal City Studios, Inc., 464 U.S. 417 (1984)

  5. Google stumbled upon the sponsored search model that now earns billions of dollars each quarter: Google Inc. (2009) Google announces third quarter 2009 results, October 15

  6. James Murdoch asks, can online journalism compete with the “dumping [of] free, state-sponsored news on the market”? James Murdoch (2009) The Absence of Trust, Edinburgh International Television Festival MacTaggart Lecture, 28 August

  7. The Guardian’s Emily Bell worries that “the ecology of some parts of the UK media is now so uncertain and fragile that it can be depleted by a single blow from the end of the BBC's tail as it rolls over in its sleep": Emily Bell (2008) We need to start a new conversation about the BBC, The Guardian, 28 April

  8. Established musical acts recently had their most successful year ever on tour, grossing over $4bn worldwide in 2008. Tours by Bon Jovi, Bruce Springsteen, Madonna and the Police all grossed over $150m: Ray Waddell (2008) Bon Jovi Scores 2008's Top-Grossing Tour, Billboard, 11 December

  9. Two-thirds of the Guardian’s 30 million monthly online visitors come from outside the UK: Patrick Smith (2009) Guardian Hiring Bloggers For Local News Network, paidContent:UK, 12 October

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Blogzilla is 4! And his big brother is 15!!

Amidst this week's rejoicings at the 40th birthday of the Internet, Blogzilla is celebrating his own fourth year on the Web. Doddering along behind is the prehistoric Web presence of the author: so old even the Wayback Machine didn't catch up until 1997. Perhaps fortunately, this avoided the purple flares phase of 1994-1996.

To think, it was only fifteen years ago that a first-year undergraduate friend eagerly introduced HTML 1.0…

Friday, October 23, 2009

Cops go for Regional Internet Registry

The FBI and UK Serious Organised Crime Agency are getting heavy with RIPE (thanks, Lilian!):
Andy Auld, head of intelligence at SOCA’s e-crime department… used the Russian Business Network (RBN) cybercrime network as an example of the type of criminal enterprise they were targeting. The now disbanded group used an IP network allocated by RIPE, a European body that allocates IP resources, to host scam sites, malware and child porn.

RIPE actions might lend themselves to interpretation, viewed in the harshest terms, as being complicit with cybercriminals and "involved in money laundering offences".

"We are not interpreting it that way. Instead we are working in partnership to make internet governance a less permissive environment," Auld said.

This explains some recent EU discussions about blocking "criminal IP address spaces". RIPE is unimpressed:
Press coverage this week portrayed the RIPE NCC as being involved with the criminal network provider Russian Business Network (RBN). Any connection with criminal activity, or with RBN itself, is completely unfounded.

The press coverage arose from a speech given by the Serious Organised Crime Agency (SOCA) in the UK. SOCA has since contacted the RIPE NCC with an apology. The RIPE NCC will continue to work with SOCA and other bodies to ensure criminal investigations can be carried out in an efficient manner within established laws and guidelines.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Policy-based evidence making

Two revealing examples in one day of how this government approaches policymaking:

The UK's biggest ever investigation of sex trafficking failed to find a single person who had forced anybody into prostitution in spite of hundreds of raids on sex workers in a six-month campaign by government departments, specialist agencies and every police force in the country… Current and former ministers have claimed that thousands of women have been imported into the UK and forced to work as sex slaves, but most of these statements were either based on distortions of quoted sources or fabrications without any source at all.

Civil liberty campaigners claimed a victory today after the government announced it is dropping current proposals to retain the DNA profiles of innocent people on the national database… The authors of the research on which Home Office ministers based their plan had disowned the proposals. The Jill Dando Institute for Crime Science said its work should not have been used to decide the six- to 12-year time limits because the work was unfinished.

Sigh. Wouldn't it be nice if government departments thought through the impact of policy options before proposing, let alone enacting, legislation?

Monday, October 19, 2009

Consumer privacy and online marketing

Consumer Privacy and Online Marketing: Market Trends & Policy Perspectives, Brussels 12 November 2009
Next month I will be acting as a rapporteur for the European Consumers' Association (BEUC) at their Brussels conference on privacy and marketing. Alongside the EU Commissioners for the Information Society and Consumer Affairs, there will also be keynote speeches from the European Data Protection Supervisor and a number of other prominent experts. You can see the programme and register here.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

The irresistible illusion of Afghanistan

"Obama has so far committed to building ‘an Afghan army of 134,000 and a police force of 82,000’, and adds that ‘increases in Afghan forces may very well be needed.’ US generals have spoken openly about wanting a combined Afghan army-police-security apparatus of 450,000 soldiers (in a country with a population half the size of Britain’s). Such a force would cost $2 or $3 billion a year to maintain; the annual revenue of the Afghan government is just $600 million. We criticise developing countries for spending 30 per cent of their budget on defence; we are encouraging Afghanistan to spend 500 per cent of its budget.

"Some policymakers have been quick to point out that this cost is unsustainable and will leave Afghanistan dependent for ever on the largesse of the international community. Some have even raised the spectre (suggested by the example of Pakistan) that this will lead to a military coup. But the more basic question is about our political principles. We should not encourage the creation of an authoritarian military state. The security that resulted might suit our short-term security interests, but it will not serve the longer interests of Afghans. What kind of anti-terrorist tactics would we expect from the Afghan military? What kind of surveillance, interference and control from the police? We should not assume that the only way to achieve security in a developing country is through the restriction of civil liberties, or that authoritarianism is a necessary phase in state-formation, or a precondition for rapid economic development, or a lesser evil in the fight against modern terrorism." —Prof. Rory Stewart (via Andrew Sullivan)

Saturday, October 17, 2009

The lives of the other

"In recent years general concerns about privacy in Britain have been greatly inflamed by the disappearance of personal data and great rows over planned mega-databases. The public increasingly perceives information collected for official convenience as a malign intrusion. And fears of recreating The Lives of Others are all the greater when the others in question are also "the other" in cultural terms. Muslims read every day about western fighting in Muslim lands. This week they heard MI5's director trot out a less-than-reassuring reassurance on torture of mostly-Muslim terror suspects, and this morning they read that the foreign secretary has been covering up what the government knew in one such case. Already angered by the sense that the ordinary rules no longer protect them as they do everyone else, many more followers of Islam may be tempted to succumb to militant rage if they feel they have been singled out for special snooping. Surveillance aimed at gauging the extent of a problem could end up making it very much worse." —The Guardian

Monday, October 12, 2009

The UK's unspoken constitution

"We the elite, do not believe in the kind of constitution most other advanced nations have — those that boast a belief in popular sovereignty; with resounding declarations such as ‘we, the people’, and that tend to contain rules about how governments should act.

"We describe ours as the ‘unwritten constitution’. It is a collection of laws, fictions, powers left over from the old monarchy and powers that we make up as we go along. It allows us to decide what governments can do; and best of all, only we have the power to change it.

"We disguise the fact that it is neither popular, representative nor accountable through a set of myths about the ‘Mother of Parliaments’, Magna Carta and the rule of law… We are also able to treat the people not as citizens but as subjects. We encourage people to believe that they are free, though actually they are in chains, unfelt but real chains nevertheless…"

Monday, October 05, 2009

Enough poison about the Human Rights Act

"They have fought important battles for personal freedom: opposing 42-day detention of suspects without charge, opposing ID cards, and opposing unjust extradition, and the poorly designed European arrest warrant. And it has taken these positions in a thoughtful and well calibrated way, without naivety as to the gravity of the issues involved.

"It is time, now, for the Conservative party to take the final step: to make the Conservative case for the Human Rights Act. It is our own bill of rights, and it is Churchill's legacy." —Peter Oborne

"The Tories have suggested introducing a Bill of Rights, based on the provisions in the convention, but also drawing on this country's own traditions and sorting out the problems of judicial application. That would be a properly conservative approach, although given the amount of legislative time taken up by constitutional measures, my suspicion is that this will slide quickly down the list of Tory policy priorities." —Philip Johnston

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Selling surveillance to authoritarian regimes

Timothy Garton Ash has a strong comment piece in today's Guardian on the continuing political developments in Iran. He suggests:
A textbook example of what democracies should not do was provided last year by a joint venture between Siemens and Nokia, called Nokia Siemens Networks. It sold the Iranian regime a sophisticated system with which they can monitor the internet, including emails, internet phone calls and social-networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter, much used by Iranian protesters. In today's politics of people power, that is the equivalent of selling a dictator tanks or poison gas.

So, to be clear: a German company, Siemens, which used slave labour during the Third Reich, sold a Holocaust-denying president the instruments with which he can persecute young Iranians risking their lives for freedom. Think of that every time you buy something made by Siemens.

When this first hit the news in June, Nokia Siemens stated that they had sold technology that would allow Iran to monitor phone calls rather than Internet usage. The former is mandated in many countries' telephone networks under "lawful intercept" rules, including the US and UK. The latter is not, although the UK Home Office is doing its best with its proposed Intercept Modernisation Programme.

Democratic governments need to think much more carefully before requiring technology companies to develop products that could have an extremely repressive impact in undemocratic regimes lacking human rights protections. They should also update export controls to prevent the sale of these tools to states such as Iran. In the meantime, individuals can help by diverting their business away from companies that are aiding and abetting authoritarian regimes.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

A Liberal-Conservative alliance?

"It's clear: the real enemy of progressive politics is not the Conservatives and I would not claim it is the Liberal Democrats. In truth, it is the bureaucratic, backward-looking, big state government that Labour epitomises. That is why at our conference, instead of trying to create some artificial dividing lines between Liberal Democrat policy and Conservative policy, my message will be: if you want rid of Gordon Brown and the big brother state, and if you care about our schools, our quality of life and our liberties, then join us in one national movement that can bring real change." —David Cameron MP

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Tories to reverse rise of database state

It's always nice to see your research end up as Opposition policy. Even better, of course, once they are in power to implement it. Shadow Justice Secretary Dominic Grieve comments:
“This Government’s approach to our personal privacy is the worst of all worlds — intrusive, ineffective and enormously expensive.

“We cannot run government robotically. We cannot protect the public through automated systems. And we cannot eliminate the need for human judgment calls on risk, whether to children, or from criminal and terrorist threats.

“As we have seen time and time again, over-reliance on the database state is a poor substitute for the human judgment and care essential to the delivery of frontline public services. Labour’s surveillance state has exposed the public to greater — not less — risk.”

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Databases and child protection

Retired senior detective Chris Stevenson, who ran the investigation into the Soham murders, has an extremely sobering article in today's Times on why he believes new checks on the 11 million adults who have regular contact with children would not have made any difference in that case:
As a result of poor intelligence, [Ian] Huntley was appointed a school caretaker in Soham. Did that give him access to children? Yes, hundreds. Did he abuse them? No. In fact he reported to the headteacher that several teenage girls had made inappropriate comments. What Huntley did to Holly and Jessica was as bad as it gets, but did he come into contact with them through being a caretaker? Not exactly — he was caretaker of Soham Village College, a school for the over-11s. The two girls attended St Andrew’s Junior School. Different building, different caretaker. Huntley had contact with them because [girlfriend Maxine] Carr was employed at St Andrew’s as a classroom assistant. She worked in a class with Holly and Jessica, who both liked her. Holly’s mother sent Carr a box of chocolates on the last day of term to say thank you for helping her daughter.

Before trying to find policy solutions, it always helps to be sure exactly what the problem is. Headmaster Anthony Seldon adds:
Subjecting everyone in sight to checks, placing surveillance cameras everywhere, subjecting every institution to intimidating inspections, hemming in all relationships with contract and law, and driving everyone mad with bureaucracy is categorically not the way forward.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

The case for legalising all drugs is unanswerable

"The war on drugs is a failed policy that has injured far more people than it has protected. Around 14,000 people have died in Mexico's drug wars since the end of 2006, more than 1,000 of them in the first three months of this year. Beyond the overflowing morgues in Mexican border towns, there are uncounted numbers who have been maimed, traumatised or displaced. From Liverpool to Moscow, Tokyo to Detroit, a punitive regime of prohibition has turned streets into battlefields, while drug use has remained embedded in the way we live. The anti-drug crusade will go down as among the greatest follies of modern times." —John Gray

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Could Paine inspire Cameron?

"We live under a government that has almost certainly been complicit in torture; given state officials unprecedented power to snoop; undermined local democracy in England; eroded trial by jury; continued the Thatcherite assault on the public domain; presided over growing inequality; and sustained London's ignoble role as a happy hunting-ground for the world's ultra-rich. The gap between the state's proclaimed civic values and its oligarchic practices is becoming too glaring to miss." —David Marquand

Sunday, September 06, 2009

The war on drugs has failed

"No country has devised a comprehensive solution to the drug abuse challenge. And a solution need not be a stark choice between prohibition and legalisation. Alternative approaches are being tested and must be carefully reviewed. But it is clear that the way forward will involve a strategy of reaching out, patiently and persistently, to the users, and not the continued waging of a misguided and counterproductive war that makes the users, rather than the drug lords, the primary victims." —former Brazilian president Fernando Henrique Cardoso

Monday, August 31, 2009

All in the public interest?

"The 1998 Data Protection Act would allow access to some confidential databases if the journalist were acting in the public interest. However, the public interest is not obvious in the work summaries that [private investigator Steve] Whittamore listed on his weekly pay claims: 'Bonking headmaster, Lonely heart, Dirty vicar, Street stars split, Miss World bonks sailor, Dodgy landlord, Judge affair, Royal maid, Witchdoctor, Footballer, TV love child, Junkie flunkie, Orgy boss, BBC gardening blunder, Hurley and Grant, EastEnders star…'" —Nick Davies

Saturday, August 29, 2009

The Murdochs and the media

In this long, self-serving rant from Rupert Murdoch's son and anointed heir at News International, there is some sense struggling to get out:
Rather than concentrating on areas where the market is not delivering, the BBC seeks to compete head-on for audiences with commercial providers to dampen opposition to a compulsory licence fee. The corporation is incapable of distinguishing between what is good for it, and what is good for the country.

Yet bizarrely, James Murdoch spends the rest of the article attacking the one part of the BBC's output — its news and current affairs programming — where the strongest case can be made for limited state intervention. A carefully circumscribed and robustly impartial BBC news channel would certainly do more for the UK's democracy and soft power than a toxic Fox News UK.

Perhaps the government can do a deal with the Messrs Murdoch: a BBC without the soap operas, movies and sports that are amply provided by the market, and a less interventionist Ofcom, in exchange for much more robust enforcement of competition law and a limit of one national media outlet per beneficial owner. That would have the side benefit of saving us the nauseating spectacle of the leaders of both main parties flying around the world to pay obeisance to Murdoch Snr.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Facebook to fix application privacy problem

It's always good to see problems you've highlighted in your research fixed, even if it does take several years:
Facebook has agreed to retrofit its application platform in a way that will prevent any application from accessing information until it obtains express consent for each category of personal information it wishes to access. Under this new permissions model, users adding an application will be advised that the application wants access to specific categories of information. The user will be able to control which categories of information an application is permitted to access. There will also be a link to a statement by the developer to explain how it will use the data.

This change will require significant technological changes. Developers using the platform will also need to adapt their applications and Facebook expects the entire process to take one year to implement.

Now the privacy commissioners are taking action, perhaps their competition law counterparts can take a look at our more recent work!

Summer bliss

For only the second time in five years…

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Take 3 strikes into the shower?

"The creative industries are noisy and well organised, but they are minnows compared with our networking and computing industries. Government’s role is to strike a balance between the needs of rights holders on the one hand and society’s need for fast, efficient and lightly regulated networking on the other. That’s difficult to do and it will take time to work out, which is why Lord Carter set aside three years for the job. It’s not something that should be rushed on the basis of a dinner conversation in Corfu." —Prof John Naughton

Friday, August 21, 2009

Encryption ain't easy

Encrypting data is an elementary mechanism to protect it from unauthorised access. It would have trivially prevented the UK's biggest data breach to date, and many others, and is now mandated across UK government systems. But why do some software companies continue to make it so *&^$&^% awkward? Apple, I'm looking at you…

FileVault, which encrypts your home directory under Mac OS, has caused me real difficulties on my MacBook, where it has corrupted my files on several occasions (once even requiring a complete reinstall). Now that I've got Apple's Time Capsule remote backup system, it will only backup FileVault partitions when you logout (usually just as I want to switch off the power). It also breaks Time Machine's selective restore function. Why is it so badly designed? It's hardly surprising that many users just give up and leave data vulnerable to thievery.

PS It also breaks Sophos Anti-Virus, but that is probably more Sophos's fault.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Fixing the DNA database

The Home Office consultation on the future of the UK's National DNA Database has just closed. You may recall that the indefinite retention of DNA from all those arrested was found last December by the European Court of Human Rights to be a "disproportionate interference" with privacy that "cannot be regarded as necessary in a democratic society." I wrote a consultation response with some FIPR colleagues that suggested that:
On the key issue — retention of profiles from unconvicted individuals — the proposals are an entirely inadequate response to the judgement. By retaining profiles of unconvicted individuals for 6 or 12 years, they would leave England, Wales and Northern Ireland greatly out of step with the vast majority of other Council of Europe members. The Court noted approvingly that Scotland retains profiles only of those suspected of violent or sexual offences, for a period of 3-5 years, and that "the strong consensus existing among the Contracting States in this respect is of considerable importance and narrows the margin of appreciation left to the respondent State." The proposals would continue to treat innocent individuals as suspects by retaining their DNA profile for much longer than those, for example, who voluntarily provide samples to rule themselves out of enquiries.

We have suggested that the Home Office should therefore plan a further consultation around primary legislation that more carefully considers the impact of retaining profiles of innocent individuals on both crime and human rights. It seems there is little alternative given that a legal opinion for the Equality and Human Rights Commission found that the existing plans would still be in breach of the Convention.

Sunday, August 09, 2009

Tories and Google Health

More on the Conservative plans for medical records:
Individuals would share their notes with private hospitals and patient support groups, under the plans which would also involve the scrapping of the centralised database system currently being introduced in the health service, which has been dogged by problems and delays.

Under the Conservative scheme, patients would be able to annotate their official records, alerting family doctors and hospitals to side-effects they had suffered as a result of taking medication, or medical symptoms which had gone undetected.

The Tories will consult on more radical measures such as whether patients should be given the right to "edit" their own records, deleting information with which they disagreed. In such instances, NHS doctors might still be given access to the unedited version, it suggests.

The Tories need to be careful that they don't simply replace an inefficient, blundering, expensive public monopoly NHS database with a much more efficient private monopoly system that could be even more dangerous for patient privacy.

Saturday, August 01, 2009

The development of the surveillance state

Adam Serwer has some interesting background on the development of the US surveillance state:
The roots of excesses in law enforcement and incarceration … have almost the same impetus as those that created our modern surveillance state: fear of the other. Nixon's 1968 campaign was implicitly premised in large part on his ability to protect the silent majority from black criminality and radicalism, just like Bush's imperial presidency was meant to protect us from scary Muslim terrorists. It's only now, that fully 1 in 31 Americans is in prison, on probation or parole, that the public is beginning to recognize the problem, because the police state has gone beyond its mandate to protect "us" from "them." It's now locking "us" up too. The surveillance state will likewise only be met with sufficient skepticism once people realize it can be turned on "us" as well as "them."

The new Information Commissioner, Christopher Graham, makes a related point in his response to the Home Office's "Intercept Modernisation Programme" consultation: that Internet surveillance should be targeted at individuals already suspected of illegal activities, not blanketed across the entire population:
The consultation does not appear to have fully investigated other options that may exist between the two extremes of a single, centralised Government database of all communications data and doing nothing. The ICO response presents several other options that need to be properly considered and open to public debate and comment. Full consideration of all available solutions is essential to ensuring that the final decision as to which option is selected fully considers the proportionality and necessity of that solution against other possible solutions.

Of course, there should be ex ante judicial scrutiny of allegations of suspicion rather than the UK's feeble political warrantry regime.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Dr Google will see you now

"The Conservatives, whose independent review on medical IT reports soon, say there is no prospect of NHS records being handed over to Google in bulk. The party argues that it is simply preparing for an open source world, where individuals will manage and share data more effectively, and cheaply, than government ever can. If people want to use Google Health, or Microsoft HealthVault, they should be allowed to, on their own terms.

"But for individuals to be empowered, they must first be protected. Data is only guarded by the promises of the organisations that hold it. Users can protest if the terms of their contracts are changed, but there are no central rules and no central control. For some, that is the attraction. But do not mistake this for a right to privacy." —The Guardian

Monday, July 27, 2009

Lord Lester, tethered goat

"What about the Human Rights Act? The government damaged its creation by blaming the act for its own political mistakes. It never campaigned effectively to explain why human rights protection matters for everyone and not only for villains or cranks. It published proposals for a separate 'bill of rights and responsibilities' that would create no new legal rights and impose no new responsibilities, but would create uncertainty and confusion. The idea of building on the Human Rights Act by creating a Great Charter of Rights and Freedoms was entirely beyond ministers. The sad reality is that the government is illiberal and often deeply reactionary. It lacks imagination, ambition and respect for personal liberty. It continues to make too many vastly complex laws instead of making existing laws work in practice." —Anthony Lester

What should replace the NHS überdatabases?

It's good to see that the discussion is now opening up on what should replace the £20bn NHS system of centralised medical databases if the Conservative party wins the next election. David Davis MP writes in today's Times:
"There are powerful arguments for people owning their own information and having rights to control it. There are massive weaknesses in the NHS’s bloated central database and there are benefits from using the private sector. But there are also enormous risks, so we are still a long step from being able to give personal data to any company, let alone Google."

No doubt Google's PR flacks will be running around today trying to contain the damage (update: here we go). But Mr Davis is right that extreme caution is required in the design of systems containing so much highly sensitive personal data; and that while many solutions are likely to be preferable to the NHS's ill-starred National Programme for IT, that doesn't mean we should rush into the arms of Google (or indeed Microsoft).

We DO want competition in the provision of health data services that meet strong privacy (and interoperability) requirements.

We don't want any more centralisation than is necessary, because of the security and availability risks, but also the temptation for future governments to grab hold of that data without patient consent — for national security, medical research, and whatever other purposes are politically convenient at the time. So a Google-type solution would probably look less like Google Search and more like Google Wave, with GP practices and hospitals running Wave apps on their own servers, federated to exchange data where necessary, with strict controls and an absolute requirement for patient consent.

The best solution is to fund GPs and hospitals to buy whichever electronic patient record software best meets their clinical needs, so long as it meets key interoperability and privacy standards — not to push patients into the arms of large database companies whose business models are based on exploiting medical records.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Secret life of the private eye

"If one considers the profitable activities of companies like QinetiQ, Blackwater, Sandline International and myriad similar companies, their dominance in providing these sorts of less well advertised services in trouble hotspots all over the world and at home, one cannot but surmise that industrial and personal spying on largely innocent people has been turned into a very lucrative industry." —Helen Pender

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Corporate (c) bullshit

"While one hears, constantly, corporate chieftains claiming that they're out there fighting for the creators, we all know that is b.s.: the creators are merely an expense item on a balance sheet, to be reduced as much as possible. We also hear politicians make similar paeans to creators, yet when was the last piece of legislation that was passed that benefited creators at the expense of corporations? When was the last time you heard a government official suggest such a thing?" —William Patry

Friday, July 17, 2009

Canada echoes EU: Facebook breaking privacy law

Social networking sites raise some interesting questions for privacy law. However, some practices — such as Facebook giving all third-party applications access to users' and their friends' personal data — are just inexplicable. Canadian Privacy Commissioner Jennifer Stoddart yesterday echoed the EU's Article 29 Working Party in telling Facebook to improve their level of privacy protection or face legal action.

Michael Geist has more.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Is data burglary in the public interest?

"Any hacker knowing the right passwords could get access to personal computer information — often at call centres. The private detective just needed to pose as, say, a health worker to check details. Once one newspaper started hiring these gumshoes, rivals were obliged to follow. It became standard practice to ring an investigator and request all manner of information to avoid being beaten to the story." —Dominic Kennedy, Sunday Times Investigations Editor

Saturday, July 11, 2009

When the spotlight is the story

"The press cannot expect to be immune from a widespread and growing public concern about access to databases and personal information, whether it be CCTV, medical records, ID cards, emails or mobile phones. In a world in which editors plead total ignorance of industrial-scale data-burglary under their noses it can hardly be surprising that wider questions are being asked about accountability and regulation." —The Guardian

Thursday, July 09, 2009

Snooping biters can be bit

"Some MPs may bridle at the extent of public surveillance, but parliament has shown not the slightest desire to defend personal freedom from state surveillance. The bland claim is made by home secretaries that intrusion is required for 'national security', the excuse for absolute power down the ages. Nor is data remotely safe in state hands. When the government tells us its national identity register is wholly secure, it is lying: witness the high-security laptops and CDs discarded by the week. There is no such thing as secure electronics.

"Technology gives to those in power, whether in government or the media, immense scope for intrusion. The snooper will always be one step ahead of the defenders of personal freedom. In the case of the government, ministers might at least learn from the Telegraph and News of the World that biters can be bit. If they find ways of gathering absurd amounts of information about private citizens, citizens will gather absurd amounts of information about them." —Simon Jenkins

Thousands have voicemail and data hacked

Today's Guardian leads with the news that Rupert Murdoch's UK newspaper group has paid out over £1m in an attempt to cover-up a crime wave by its journalists:
The payments secured secrecy over out-of-court settlements in three cases that threatened to expose evidence of Murdoch journalists using private investigators who illegally hacked into the mobile phone messages of numerous public figures to gain unlawful access to confidential personal data, including tax records, social security files, bank statements and itemised phone bills. Cabinet ministers, MPs, actors and sports stars were all targets of the private investigators… officers found evidence of News Group staff using private investigators who hacked into "thousands" of mobile phones.

There are two particularly troubling aspects to this story. The Metropolitan Police, Crown Prosecution Service and Information Commissioner's Office all had prima facie evidence of these crimes, but have declined to take action against News Group. And, mobile phone companies continue to allow access to messages using voicemail PINs set to defaults that are apparently known throughout the media.

Perhaps in future:
  1. Law enforcement agencies will take action against those discovered to be breaking the law, whether or not they work for powerful newspaper groups?
  2. Mobile phone companies will not leave their customers' communications wide open to abuse?
  3. Government agencies and companies will think a little more carefully before building up large collections of sensitive personal data that will inevitably be sold to the highest bidder?

Sunday, July 05, 2009

MI6 stung by Facebook privacy settings

Even the new MI6 chief's wife can't cope with Facebook's privacy settings. Those geographical networks claim another victim… Clearly our book chapter should be required reading for new intelligence officers and their families.

Friday, July 03, 2009

‘디지털 시대, 표현의 자유’ 컨퍼런스 개최

What did I say!

두 번째 세션은 “인터넷상 이용자 및 타인의 권리보호”라는 주제로 논의된다. ‘인터넷상의 명예훼손 및 모욕’, ‘인터넷과 익명성 권리’, ‘인터넷상에서의 청소년 보호’에 대해 이언 브라운(Ian Brown) 옥스퍼드 대학교 교수와 황철증 방송통신위원회 네트워크정책국장이 주제 발표하고, 윤영철 연세대학교 언론홍보대학원장과 한상기 KAIST 문화기술대학원 교수, 한종호 네이버 정책담당이사가 토론자로 참석한다.

Human rights and Internet regulation

I'm in Seoul this week for a conference organised by the Foreign Office and the Korean government on freedom of expression in the digital age. Here is my presentation on the protection of online speech:

Yesterday the British Embassy kindly organised a visit to the DMZ (demilitarised zone) and the North Korean border. Sadly there was no Dear Leader to be seen, but I will post some photos shortly — it was a remarkable experience.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Tories plan radical action on privacy

Most gratifying to see the Conservative shadow minister for security, Baroness Neville-Jones, announce plans on data protection clearly based around our Database State report (via Ideal Government):

The individual is the rightful owner of personal information and the state is merely possessor and should behave as a responsible custodian. We need to roll back the advance of Big Brother and restore this fundamental right of our citizens. Restoring privacy today must mean a clear statement on the part of those who have custody of personal information of their purpose in retaining it and of their commitment to its proper management. This will necessarily involve a review of most of the government's centralised databases, their use and access to them regulated. It leads to the unavoidable conclusion that that the Information Commissioner should emerge as one of the important offices of state in the twenty first century.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Iranian repression aided by Nokia/Siemens

Quelle surprise: Iran has been using communications monitoring equipment developed by Nokia and Siemens for lawful intercept US/EU purposes to try and crush the ongoing Twitter revolution.

"Enfin, et c'est le point le plus polémique, la liste noire confidentielle gérée par cinq personnes de la BKA et supervisée par un délégué national à la protection des données privées ne sera contrôlée par personne d'autre. Dès lors — et c'est devenu la coutume à propos de ce genre de lois — se pose toujours la même question : qui surveillera les surveillants ?" —Olivier Dumons (merci a Michael!)

Friday, June 19, 2009

Google to improve cloud security

Google has responded quickly to an open letter signed by 38 security and privacy experts (including yours truly) asking them to improve the security of their cloud applications (such as Docs, Mail and Calendar). They are planning trials of the use by default of secure Hypertext Transfer Protocol, which will protect information while in transit between user machines and Google's servers.

This is an important protection for Google's users, especially those with laptops whose WiFi links can be easily monitored. Bravo to Google, and to the original author of the open letter Chris Soghoian.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Iran is not the only enemy of online freedom

Go to hell dictator
This last week's events in Iran have demonstrated the potential of the Internet as a tool for freedom. As Timothy Garton Ash writes in today's Guardian:
Is there sufficient energy, somewhere between a self-mobilised, networked youth, the Mousavi camp and disaffected factions within the regime, to sustain the demand for a new election? Or will it all fizzle out, defeated by a combination of repression, censorship, exhaustion and disunity? … One thing our governments can and should do … is to maintain and enhance the 21st-century global information infrastructure which allows Iranians – whichever candidate they support – to keep in touch with each other and to find out what is really happening in their own country. Earlier this week, I spent some time in the studio of the BBC Persian TV service, watching them upload and air electrifying video footage, blog posts and messages generated by Iranians from inside Iran. Probably the single most important thing the US state department has done for Iran recently was to contact Twitter over the weekend, to urge it to delay a planned upgrade that could have taken down service to Iranians for some crucial hours of people power protest. Welcome to the new politics of the 21st century.

And yet, what do we see in yesterday's Digital Britain report? Plans to order Internet Service Providers to implement the following:
28. For that reason the Government will also provide for backstop powers for Ofcom to place additional conditions on ISPs aimed at reducing or preventing online copyright infringement by the application of various technical measures. In order to provide greater certainty for the development of commercial agreements, the Government proposes to specify in the legislation what these further measures might be; namely: Blocking (Site, IP, URL), Protocol blocking, Port blocking, Bandwidth capping (capping the speed of a subscriber’s Internet connection and/or capping the volume of data traffic which a subscriber can access); Bandwidth shaping (limiting the speed of a subscriber’s access to selected protocols/services and/or capping the volume of data to selected protocols/services); Content identification and filtering– or a combination of these measures.

Alongside demands from childrens' charities for mandatory Internet filtering, and intelligence agency demands to install thousands of wiretapping devices across the UK Internet, it seems that it is not just the Iranian government that is uncomfortable at the freedom the Internet has enabled.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Scrapping ID cards

"In my view a national identity card system is not necessary in our country. No further money should be spent on it. The idea should be abandoned." —Former law lord Lord Steyn

"We are close to a general election and … a change of government will mean an end to ID cards. It will, quite literally, be the first thing we do. Drafting an ID card repeal bill will be right at the top of our to-do list." —Shadow home secretary Chris Grayling MP

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

The Internet is as vital as water and gas

Compare and contrast:

Gordon Brown: "Whether it is to work online, study, learn new skills, pay bills or simply stay in touch with friends and family, a fast internet connection is now seen by most of the public as an essential service, as indispensable as electricity, gas and water."

The French Constitutional Court: "Freedom of expression and communication is so valuable that its exercise is a prerequisite for democracy and one of the guarantees of respect for other rights and freedoms and attacks on the exercise of this freedom must be necessary, appropriate and proportionate to the aim pursued."

Creative Industries Coalition: "ISPs hold the key to creating the step change necessary to tackle illegal filesharing. For the vast majority, simply drawing attention to the illegality of their actions would be sufficient, but this needs to be backed by further graduated technical measures for those who do not change their behaviour."

The government is today publishing its Digital Britain report. How far are they intending to "balance" this essential prerequisite for democracy against the protection of failed 20th century business models for content, and demands for a filtered network?

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Monday, June 08, 2009

China orders installation of blocking software

Interesting to see that China has ordered PC makers to install custom-developed blocking software on every new PC from next month, which will prevent users accessing sites on a secret list that is centrally updated by the government. Although pornography is the stated target, clearly the list will also include the political opponents already filtered by the Great Firewall. Network-based blocking must have been insufficiently reliable for the Communist Party.

I imagine the software will also have other "interesting" functionality such as providing direct government access to user data.

Sunday, June 07, 2009

Privacy Law Scholars' Conference

Have just spent a wonderful few days in Berkeley at the PLSC. We got to hear from both Alan Westin, perhaps the most influential privacy researcher of the 20th century, and the counsel for Katz — who persuaded the US Supreme Court in 1967 that phone conversations deserved Fourth Amendment protection.

The format of two days of intensive discussions with all papers circulated beforehand was much more productive than the usual conference panels and keynotes. I'm already looking forward to next year's event back in Washington DC. But now I'm on the beach in Sydney preparing for SoGikII on Tuesday :)

Wednesday, June 03, 2009

Can the Internet still route around censorship?

US Supreme Court
I'm in the US this week for Computers, Freedom & Privacy in Washington DC and then the Privacy Law Scholars' Conference at UC Berkeley. Yesterday I spoke at a CFP session organised by Wendy Grossman. John Gilmore famously observed in 1990 that "the Internet interprets censorship as damage and routes around it." Is this still true?

My position, explained in much greater detail in a recent book chapter, was that even the more sophisticated filtering technologies of the last five years can be trivially circumvented by skilled users, absent a totalitarian state that will break down doors in response. However, they provide the ability to impose mass censorship on the vast majority of Internet users. States that value freedom of expression should therefore think very carefully before starting off down this road.

Derek Bambauer has more at Info/Law.

Sunday, May 31, 2009

Cheney should not have ignored Constitution

"'I'll freely admit that watching a coordinated, devastating attack on our country from an underground bunker at the White House can affect how you view your responsibilities,' Cheney said in his recent speech. But this defense does not stand up. The Bush administration's response actually undermined the principles and values America has always stood for in the world, values that should have survived this traumatic event. The White House thought that 9/11 changed everything. It may have changed many things, but it did not change the Constitution, which the vice president, the national security adviser and all of us who were in the White House that tragic day had pledged to protect and preserve." —Richard Clarke

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Obama's cybersecurity review

The White House has just published the report of its 60-day review of US cybersecurity policy. It contains a range of recommendations to improve online security, many of which echo those in the House of Lords' Personal Internet Security report (and the McAfee Virtual Criminology Report 2008 I wrote with Lilian Edwards). It also pays welcome attention to safeguarding privacy and civil liberties alongside improving security. Several of those involved in the review discuss their conclusions in this video:

The New York Times has commentary from Bruce Schneier, Gus Hosein and others.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Cameron: I will reduce PM's power

"We're living in an age where technology can put information that was previously held by a few into the hands of almost every one. So the argument that has applied for well over a century — that in every area of life we need people at the centre to make sense of the world for us and make decisions on our behalf — simply falls down. In its place rises up a vision of real people power. This is what we mean by the Post-Bureaucratic Age. The information revolution meets the progressive Conservative philosophy: sceptical about big state power; committed to social responsibility and non-state collective action. The effects of this redistribution of power will be felt throughout our politics, with people in control of the things that matter to them, a country where the political system is open and trustworthy, and power redistributed from the political elite to the man and woman in the street." —David Cameron MP, leader of the Conservative party and almost certainly the UK's next prime minister

Cyber Security and Global Affairs

St Peter's College and George Mason University are organising an interdisciplinary workshop on cyber security and global affairs in August that should be fascinating. I'm excited to be speaking there alongside some extremely distinguished individuals, including the US Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Information and Identity Assurance and the former Acting Director of the US National Cyber Security Division. Hope some Blogzilla readers can join us.

Data breaches go on, and on…

Losses of personal data are so commonplace these days that they barely seem newsworthy. But today's reports are really quite spectacular:
The personal medical records of tens of thousands of people have been lost by the NHS in a series of grave data security leaks. Between January and April this year, 140 security breaches were reported within the NHS — more than the total number from inside central Government and all local authorities combined.

Yet the government ploughs on with centralised databases containing tens of millions of medical records.
Sensitive files detailing the extra marital affairs, drug taking and use of prostitutes by very senior officers in the RAF have been stolen, raising fears within the Ministry of Defence that personnel could be vulnerable to blackmail. Up to 500 people in the service could be affected by the theft.

That has finally laid to rest my belief that the British armed forces were among the very few organisations with an adequate understanding of information security. Aside from wide-eyed disbelief, you get the feeling that the design of systems containing the most sensitive personal information imaginable is being conducted in the manner of toddlers throwing toy bricks around at playschool.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

A new Speaker is not enough

"Those parliamentarians yelling at [the Speaker] to get out now should also look to their own behaviour. Mr Martin did not compel honest MPs to strip bare Homebase and Harrods like a swarm of locusts. Far from being an officious overlord of greed, he was the emblem and, advertently or not, the facilitator of an odious culture from which too many of his colleagues gratefully benefited." —Mary Riddell

Disillusion made rage

"This waywardness in the political sphere goes beyond personal gain. It also means fudging statistics and cherry-picking research as has happened in the Home Office; it means manufacturing dodgy dossiers on intelligence as happened in the run-up to the Iraq war. It means public consultation exercises which are purely cosmetic and where the outcome has been decided in advance. But the public have been smelling a rat for a long time.

"The temptation for the parties will be to sack a few people and redesign the allowance system but if public trust is to be restored there has to be a much more radical rethink." —Baroness Kennedy

Monday, May 18, 2009

Record labels are blocking digital progress

"Clearly, some form of P2P subscription service is the way forward, if only because it provides the most convenient way for consumers to access music. Yet for the major labels, the success of such an initiative would mean the end of their control over the distribution of music. Is this the real reason why they seem determined to do everything they can to clip the wings of the fledgling digital industry before it can fly?" —Billy Bragg

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Waterboarding Cheney

"I was water boarded, so I know — at SERE School, Survival Escape Resistance Evasion. It was a required school you had to go to prior to going into the combat zone, which in my era was Vietnam. All of us had to go there. We were all, in essence — every one of us was waterboarded. It is torture… It's drowning. It gives you the complete sensation that you are drowning. It is no good, because you — I'll put it to you this way, you give me a waterboard, Dick Cheney and one hour, and I'll have him confess to the Sharon Tate murders." —Former Navy SEAL Governor Jesse Ventura

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Privacy, trust and biometrics

I spoke this morning at a meeting of GCHQ's Biometrics Working Group about privacy, trust and biometrics. Let's just say I had a different perspective from some of the Home Office civil servants in the room.

UPDATE: Oh, look! "The use of closed-circuit television in city and town centres and public housing estates does not have a significant effect on crime, according to Home Office-funded research to be distributed to all police forces in England and Wales this summer."

Monday, May 11, 2009

Labour is watching you, not the bankers

"A liberal state demands that its citizens give up only those freedoms that are vital for the benefit of the common weal; it doesn't aggrandise to itself the maximum amount of power and then hand back limited freedoms grudgingly and only when it sees fit. The notion that nobody has anything to fear from a powerful yet well-meaning state has been the cry of the totalitarian down the ages." —Larry Elliott

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Snouts in the trough II

Live free like an MP!
"Despite the many sleaze eruptions, I have clung to the increasingly unfashionable view that most MPs are not venal graspers motivated entirely by the pursuit of their own interests. It is becoming harder to sustain that faith. If politicians do not arrive at the Commons corrupt, there is clearly a culture in Parliament that is corrupting." —Andrew Rawnsley

"While ordinary families are struggling to cope with the deepest recession in the post-war era, our politicians are having a jolly old time living it up at taxpayers’ expense. Not only do MPs have their snouts in the trough, but they bought it on expenses, had it embellished with mock Tudor beams and acquired similar troughs for other homes dotted around the country." —The Sunday Times

Saturday, May 09, 2009

Privacy, neuroimaging and public policy

Spent an interesting day yesterday at a conference on neuroethics in London. Here's my presentation, which should hopefully turn into a chapter in an OUP edited volume next year:

Snouts in the trough

Whatever happened to nothing to hide, nothing to fear?
Labour MPs believe that a mole may be feeding sensitive personal information to the Daily Telegraph… "There is something horrible going on. I have never been so frightened. What is happening is disgusting."

"It's customary when decrying the DNA database to focus on what would happen should such potent material fall into the wrong hands. This week, we surely reached the point at which even the most slavishly deferential can concur that the very hands in which it currently resides are the wrong hands. How much wronger their hands can get, only time will show. But on current form, rule nothing bar competence out." —Marina Hyde