Tag Archives: database-state

Why is Jenni Russell praising Cameron Come Lately?

Jenni Russell has written an article attacking ContactPoint, the much maligned national children’s database that the government are still insisting on trotting out. The only problem is, she has written it as a piece of Tory hagiography.

We might be able to let her off the title – Another invasion of liberty. And only the Tories are alert – as a bit of subbing hyperbole. I’ve written enough articles for newspapers over the years to know this happens. But she can’t blame the sub for the final paragraph:

Labour will not reverse this; only the Tories might. They promise to review CAF database, ditch ContactPoint for a small, targeted database, and invest in strengthening people’s relationships instead. It’s depressing that Labour supporters who believe in liberties, privacy and humanity should find themselves having to cheer the Tories on this issue.

I first became aware of ContactPoint due to Terri Dowty’s article in Liberator back in 2002. I couldn’t actually tell you when the Lib Dem’s formally adopted policy to scrap ContactPoint but the line was pretty clear in 2007. Here’s Annette Brooke raising the core concern about ContactPoint while the Childrens Act was being debated. It formed a central blank of our Freedom Bill earlier this year. Vince Cable even called for it to be scrapped in his Reform pamphlet published yesterday. The Conservatives came off the fence this June.

I think we can rely on Cameron to scrap this database since it is £200m he will badly need. In better economic circumstances, I wouldn’t be so sure. Either way, at a time when Guardianistas are habitually bemoaning how come the media don’t give Cameron a harder time, it seems odd to hand them so much credit and deny the Lib Dems even an acknowledgement.

Rafael, the thing about golden ages is that they tend to end

Congratulations to Rafael Behr for writing what is possibly the most complacent, ahistorical article I’ve read thus far in 2009. It’s not that any of the facts he alludes to are particularly wrong, its that he completely misses the point.

Can the era we currently live in be legitimately described as a “golden age of liberty”? In as much as any era can be described as a golden age, certainly. We don’t ban plays (even if certain individuals do manage to get them shut down from time to time), we no longer reserve social opprobrium for gay people or children born out of wedlock. I can declare, here, that God does not exist and instead of being burned at the stake, receive the odd plaintive comment. Christ, you can even walk down the street with a name like “Rafael Behr” and not get punched (I would imagine).

A note of caution: the whole notion of golden ages is at odds with liberalism. It is no coincidence that fascists, religious zealots and nazis (and superhero comics fans) love to bang on about them. By contrast, if you don’t believe that utopia is either attainable or desirable, you should be sceptical that any era could be described as a golden age. It is entirely unsurprising that all the golden ages in history have one thing in common: they all came to a crashing end and were often quickly followed by what can only be described as a “dark age.”

What is particularly dumb about Behr’s article, is that two years ago you could read remarkably similarly toned articles about the economy which drew the same conclusion: we live in a golden age, the pessimists who are predicting economic doom and gloom ignore the fact that we have enjoyed economic growth for X number of years; anyway, they are middle class wankers who live in big houses and have lived off the fat of the land; what about [insert reference to token minority group here]?

Our liberty and economic security go hand in hand – just as failing democracies tend to do worse economically, failing economies find their democracy under threat. The police and media are already irresponsibly stoking up the hype about 2009 having a “summer of rage.” “British jobs for British workers” is in danger of becoming the far-right’s new rallying cry (thanks, Gordon). Behr brags about how we don’t spy on our neighbours, blithely ignoring the fact that the government actively encourages us to do so when it comes to benefit cheats. He ignores the fact that the current government agenda is not merely to store information about us on computer, but to use that data to monitor people who seem to be involved in criminal activity (regardless of the number of false positives that will throw up). Whitehall knows less about me than Tesco? Well, I don’t have a Tesco Clubcard but even if I did, Tesco wouldn’t be able to use that information for much more than to sell me more stuff, and they can’t fine me £1,000 for putting someone else’s shopping on my card. And if I am forced to register for an identity card, the Home Office will know a LOT more about me than Tescos – or even Ryanair. If Jack Straw comes back with Clause 152 of the Coroners and Justice Bill (now dropped but will almost certainly return again soon), there will be almost no information about me they won’t be able to look at.

The whole “transformational government” agenda is only really about five years old. We are at the very early stages. Already though we’ve seen an emboldened police force arresting people for taking photographs in the street and banning boardgames which could be used in an act of terrorism. We’ve seen nonsenses like Form 696 (something tells me Behr is not a bashment fan).

Behr is keen to look at the past and remark how much more free we are compared to then. What worries civil liberties campaigners is that we are headed back there and that all the progress of the last 100 years will be for nothing. Ten years ago, I remember newspapers – even the Telegraph and the Daily Mail – prepared to contemplate that cannabis prohibition isn’t working. Now the Guardian and the Independent rail against skunk. Where will we be in ten years time? Fifty? Why should we take anyone seriously who feeds us with atrocity-porn about the past yet doesn’t address that?

Behr claims to “give thanks that there is a well-mobilised artistic [note this comes first in his order of priorities], media [second] and political lobby exercising the necessary eternal vigilance” but then immediately goes out of his way to belittle them in the very next sentence “I’m glad there are intelligent, dedicated people carefully monitoring our progress down the slippery slope, demarcating in units of kilo-outrage our incremental creep towards the thick end of the wedge.” In other words, he couldn’t really give a hoot. It won’t affect you after all, will it Pastor Niemöller?

Ashdown, Amnesty and the ippr

Background: last week I wrote a short article on Lib Dem Voice about the ippr’s new report on surveillance and data protection, pointing out how it had been funded and lamenting the fact that Lord Ashdown has, in effect, been used to legitimise the argument. This resulted in a furious response from Lord Ashdown himself, most of which I have dealt with in the subsequent comments thread.

There has been one lingering thread from all this which I have been quietly pursuing. Lord Ashdown listed a number of other funders for his Commission which I didn’t mention. These are:

Cabinet Office
The Foreign Ministry of Sweden.
Amnesty International

I didn’t mention them because they didn’t finance this particular report. Nonetheless it is true that the Commission itself has a plurality of funding. This hardly negates my argument, but if Lord Ashdown wishes that to be placed on the record, then fair enough.

But then I dug a little deeper, looking at the Security Commission’s section on the ippr website and scanning through all their publications. I could find references to the Swedes and DFID, but not the Cabinet Office or Amnesty. Since the Cabinet Office hardly counts in my book as pro-human rights and privacy organisation, I wasn’t particularly bothered if Lord Ashdown wanted to boast of getting money out of them. But Amnesty was somewhat more curious, so I have spent the last couple of days trying to find out the exact nature of their funding. And now, thanks to the helpful person running Amnesty’s Twitter account, I have it:

We do not fund the work of the commission per se, but contribute to a series of security lectures they hold. We do this to give voice to the human rights dynamic of counter terrorism. [Direct message sent to me]

Now let me be clear: as far as I am concerned, Amnesty’s role here is unimpeachable. They are doing exactly what I would expect a major human rights organisation to be doing. But it does highlight a couple of points coming out of Lord Ashdown’s missive. The first is that Amnesty’s funding is entirely unrelated to the production of this report and thus it is extremely misleading to even bring it up. They aren’t even contributing to core costs which would make them indirectly responsible for its publication.

Secondly, he stated that:

All funders are required to sign a contract which explicitly forbids them from trying to influence the content of what we publish. As it happens, one funder did try to exert this kind of influence and their money was returned to them immediately and they were immediately showed the door.

I’m sure they do all sign such a contract, but it is a silly one to make. They know exactly what they are getting. In the exact same way, it is not as if CAMRA are funding the ippr on a research project on community pubs (announced today) with any doubt in their mind that the research will conclude that community pubs are worthless and should be shut down. In the case of Amnesty, they are quite explicit: “We do this to give voice to the human rights dynamic of counter terrorism.

EDS, Raytheon Systems et al don’t merely have an agenda, they have shareholders and a fiduciary duty to maximise profits. I don’t begrudge them funding research but I do assert my right to highlight it.

I am unaware of a single disinterested IT professional who actually supports the agenda driving the database state. Equally, I have seen the sheer energy which has been wasted in countering apparently independent research on climate change which, it turns out, was funded by Big Oil over the past decade. We simply cannot afford to ignore the degree to which money is driving this agenda and what an unlevel playing field it results in. And that is why I am uncomfortable with a man like Lord Ashdown effectively lending it greater legitimacy that it would otherwise warrant.

I am genuinely surprised by how many fellow Liberal Democrats have sought to shout me down or belittle me for raising this issue, or claimed that getting told off by Lord Ashdown has left my credibility in “smoking ruins.” Whether my reputation is in ruins or not, I’m afraid I’ll keep blogging about this. Sorry to disappoint.

Britain: when will you rage?

On Saturday, I organised the activist sign up desk at the London Convention on Modern Liberty. It was a great day which by all accounts has inspired a great many people, but I found myself in a somewhat dissonant role of trying to convert as much of that inspiration into real action. While there are clearly lots of people who will now go out and make something of it, I found the task extremely challenging. Some people were actually offended at being asked to do something – anything – to keep the momentum that the Convention created going. “I’m only hear to listen to the debates,” one person told me.

Now, I’m open to the charge that we could have done things better in terms of guiding people towards “what’s next.” I only found myself in charge of that desk a few days before the event itself and along with all my other duties struggled to put a personal stamp on it all. With the benefit of hindsight, there are a great many things I would have done different. But none of that got away from the realisation that a great many people, still, consider themselves as mere passive consumers of information and not active citizens with a moral duty to do something themselves at all. Even some of the people who did show willing to do something seemed incapable of imagining what they themselves could do.

Were people always like this? From looking at trends, it seems that people are more likely to join marches and sign petitions than ever before, yet are less likely to join political parties. I have lost count of the number of young people I’ve spoken to in recent years who have told me that the reason they haven’t joined a political party was that they didn’t agree 100% with any one party and that joining, they felt, would mean having to sign up to their whole policy agenda. Those of us on the inside of course know that is utter nonsense. But we do seem to have created a society whereby people are so precious about their identities that they would rather hold back and continue to be pushed around than join in, enjoying strength of numbers but risking some dillution of self. It is why libertarians, in the main, are such paper tigers.

The bottom line is, if you value your freedom, you will have to fight for it. And if you want to be effective, you will have to work with other people – even people who you profoundly disagree with on some issues. I took the Left to task about this on Liberal Conspiracy a couple of weeks ago but it applies to us all. As Anthony Barnett says:

When asked “What next?” I feel like saying don’t look to the smoke alarm to put out the fire. Look to yourself and what you can do in concert with others. Remember that we are powerful together – and if you don’t feel this to be so, perhaps it is because this is how they want you to feel. Many organisations are already combating the four-fold undermining of liberty as we can see. Please join and support them.

And Henry Porter (same link):

It’s no exaggeration to say that unless we involve ourselves in the political process ours will be the first generation in centuries of British history to hand on a less free society than the one we inherited. That is a shocking thought, but we still have time to act.

I began this year with an off-the-top-of-my-head list of things people should do to raise the issue of civil liberties up the political agenda:

1. Bookmark the Convention for Modern Liberty website and sign up to their news alerts.
2. Attend a Convention event, either the one in London, one of the regional and national events happening on the same day or a local event. If there is no event happening in your area, start organising one!
3. Join a pro-democracy and human rights organisation. Whichever tickles your fancy (although, obviously, joining Unlock Democracy helps pay my wages!) and get involved.
4. Join or set up a local group. It doesn’t have to be affiliated to anything, and it needn’t be anything more than you and a couple of your mates to start off with.
5. Write to your MP and ask them their starter for ten: “what do you think about the dillution of civil liberties over the past couple of decades and what do you intend to do about it in 2009.” And keep writing to them.
6. Go to the Taking Liberties exhibition at the British Library if you can, before it closes at the beginning of March.
7. Tell everyone you know to do the same.

Now, 1, 2 and 6 are now effectively redundant (the Taking Liberties exhibition’s last day was today), but the rest still hold. And I will add a couple of others:

8. Join the Convention social network (it needs a better name IMHO – any suggestions?) and “friend” anyone who lives within a ten mile radius from you. Meet up for a drink and plot.
9. A good thing to start plotting about is setting up a public meeting on the subject of civil liberties and the database state, inviting your MP and the candidates they will be running against in the next general election. The power of a well attended public meeting cannot be under-estimated and you have about 14 months before the most likely date (given the state of the opinion polls) to get organised.

The most important thing to remember is: you are not alone unless you choose to be. I saw people crying yesterday out of a sense of disempowerment. This in itself is an example of how unforgiveable the present government’s behaviour has been but this is a far from intractable problem. As a society, we simply need to wake up and demand control. When that finally happens it will seem remarkably simple.

You aren’t a consumer; you are an activist. How you choose to take action will decide the quality of our rights and freedoms for decades to come.

Lord Ashdown and I have words…

A few days ago, I quickly penned a brief article for Lib Dem Voice about a new ippr report which amounts to a paean to the database state. What the coverage about it did not mention was that the report was funded by what amounts to the ICT industry which will be the main beneficiary of such a massive expansion of the so-called “transformational government” and that this has not even been mentioned by the mainstream media. What irritated me somewhat less but which was nonetheless pertinent was the fact that the working group which commissioned this paper was co-chaired by Lord (Paddy) Ashdown.

The immediate reaction was almost deafening silence from the LDV readership, an audience not known for its reticence in putting its views forward. But this weekend Lord Ashdown himself issued a furious response. He went on to make a number of extraordinary accusations, dwarfing anything I wrote, which was actually quite mild about him (I only really challenged him to put his views on the record, which he sort of now has – job done). So you can read my counter argument as well.

It does all rather recall my rather mixed feelings amount the man. Just last week I hailed him as the best leader the Lib Dems have ever had. Yet he is also a leader who secretly discussed merging the party with Labour (hotly denying it at the time) and a cheerleader for the 2003 Iraq invasion. So you’ll excuse me if I don’t view his judgement as infallible.

Nine wishes for 2009 #3: The State’s assault on Civil Liberties to begin to reverse

2008 was the year in which the gaff was well and truly blown on the government’s relentless drive to have every one of us “pushed, filed, stamped, indexed, briefed, debriefed and numbered.” Starting with the data leaks scandals at the end of 2007, we had a steady trickle of revelations about how the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act is being casually abused by local authorities. The year ended with the revelation (courtesy of David Howarth) that the injuries which the police used as a pretext for raiding the eco-protest camp outside Kingsnorth power station included insect bites and toothache. We had an open verdict at the Jean Charles de Menezes inquest and police raiding Parliament without even bothering to try obtaining a warrant. All of this adds up to a state that is running completely out of control.

Domestic terrorism – the original pretext for all those extra state and police powers – has drifted down the agenda. So have we seen a reversal of the encroachment of civil liberties? Not really. Jacqui Smith’s response to the growing realisation that her plans for a national identity card scheme was completely unrealistic has been to adopt a divide-and-rule approach, targeting immigrants and smelly students and extending the full implementation of the scheme to 2011/2012. The near defeat in the House of Commons of the proposals to extend pre-charge detention to 42 days was followed by a total defeat in the Lords and the abandonment of the project by the government (ditto the plans to hold politically inconvenient inquests in secret). But this happened almost hand-in-hand with the announcement of government plans to begin recording the details of every email, telephone call and website visit made in the UK.

And while the Tories have, in the main, become born-again civil libertarians in recent years, it is clear that their opposition is only skin deep. David Davis’ resignation, it appears, was rooted out of a desire to force Cameron to not abandon opposition to 42 days. In this respect, it appears to have been successful. But almost instantly afterwards, his successor announced plans to increase police powers. And let’s not forget that under the Tories, the police would be more politicised than ever, with police commissioners directly elected (I should point out at this point that the Lib Dems want directly elected members of police authorities but a) this is far less problematic than electing commissioners themselves and b) I don’t agree with them either!).

Like the environment, the problem with the creeping assault on civil liberties is not that politicians are acting against the wishes of the electorate, but in the face of broad indifference. Unlike the environment, I don’t think the problem is quite as intractable. Liberty’s recent ComRes poll suggests why. Support for the rights protected by the HRA are extremely high, yet the general public has not made the connection. Given the lack of public information on the subject (“only 13% remember ever seeing or receiving any information from the Government explaining the legislation” – I’m amazed it is that high; I work in the sector and have seen sod all from the government on the subject), that isn’t entirely surprising.

So what’s to be done? Fortunately, plans are already in place for a Convention for Modern Liberty, supported by the Guardian, Liberty, Amnesty, NO2ID, Unlock Democracy, Open Democracy and Liberal Conspiracy. My hope is that this will lead to a significant shift in attitude. For that to happen however, the Convention will have to be the spark of something big; not another organisation but an upswing in civil liberties-based activism around the country. In this respect, the London-based event by itself is less significant than the satellite local and regional events around the country.

We certainly need a debate, but following that we need people who will be willing to take a stand. It isn’t enough for people to say they support civil liberties, only for them to vote for an MP who is part of the problem at the next general election. For the Convention to have been worth the time and effort being put into it, it needs to lead to thousands upon thousands of letters being sent to MPs, local public meetings, lobbies and hustings.

I would urge all readers of this blog to:
1. Bookmark the Convention for Modern Liberty website and sign up to their news alerts.
2. Attend a Convention event, either the one in London, one of the regional and national events happening on the same day or a local event. If there is no event happening in your area, start organising one!
3. Join a pro-democracy and human rights organisation. Whichever tickles your fancy (although, obviously, joining Unlock Democracy helps pay my wages!) and get involved.
4. Join or set up a local group. It doesn’t have to be affiliated to anything, and it needn’t be anything more than you and a couple of your mates to start off with.
5. Write to your MP and ask them their starter for ten: “what do you think about the dillution of civil liberties over the past couple of decades and what do you intend to do about it in 2009.” And keep writing to them.
6. Go to the Taking Liberties exhibition at the British Library if you can, before it closes at the beginning of March.
7. Tell everyone you know to do the same.

And as for the Lib Dems, I would urge them to be pushy. Both Clegg and Huhne are speaking at the Convention event on 28 February; make sure they get a good reception by promoting the event via your various networks (including the party’s central email list). Include a civil liberties-related story in every Focus leaflet you publish this year. If there are events happening in your area, make sure you attend. If there aren’t, make sure your local party is sets one up. The party could achieve a lot by riding the coat-tails of this one, both in terms of forcing the other parties to take it more seriously and by recruiting sympathisers to the party. It has many of the benefits of the anti-war march in 2003 but without the risk of sharing a platform with people who are predominantly out in the far left fringe.

In short, this is an O-P-P-O-R-T-U-N-I-T-Y (like most campaign gifts, it tends to need to be spelt out) – seize it with both hands!

Jacqui Smith: It’s not my fault, it’s my contractors that are rubbish (whinge, whinge…)

Jacqui Smith’s startling insight into how the details of 84,000 prisoners managed to wind up on a memory stick which promptly went missing:

“This was data that was being held in a secure form, but was downloaded onto a memory stick by an external contractor,” she said.

“It runs against the rules set down both for the holding of government data and set down by the external contractor and certainly set down in the contract that we had with the external contractor.”

Well, duh.

more animals

You’ve got to marvel at how these bozos get out of the house in the morning. Based on this statement I can only assume that Jacqui Smith doesn’t actually walk around with her door keys on her, but instead keeps them under a potted plant by the door. To avoid being burgled she has figured out the genius ruse of writing personally to her neighbours and insisting that they don’t break in without her permission.

The point, Smith, is that if it is possible for a private contractor to leave the office with sensitive data on a flashdrive, your system isn’t fucking secure. Almost a year after the Customs and Excise debacle and you still haven’t figured that one out. And now you want to put the exact same fuckwits in charge of a national identity database??!?!?!?

Give. Me. Strength.

Have a pop at Polly

Polly Toynbee is really starting to depress me. The fact that a member of the aristocracy actually gets paid to write, week after week, about the need for the government to intervene on absolutely everything, is quite remarkable. She is beginning to eclipse any attempts at parody.

Today, she writes a heartfelt paean to the joys of the surveillance society, suggesting that anyone who opposes ID cards and a national DNA database is a green ink using paranoiac. Fortunately, there is a much more sensible piece by Michael White in the same paper to give a bit of balance (one suspects that the latter was written in response to the first), but I can’t help but feel that someone really needs to give her a proper fisking.

Unfortunately I’m far too busy to day to do it justice, and there are far more eloquent people out there than me. So please, if you get a chance, do make an effort to write your rebuttal and leave a link in my comments section so my faith in humanity can be restored.


Carbon Credits

I’m in two minds what to think of David Miliband’s recent interest in Personal Carbon Allowances.

As I’ve explained previously on this blog, I like the economics behind carbon allowances, but feel it could be better administered simply by selling carbon allowances to the businesses, having them pass on the cost to the consumer, and having the government pass on the revenue raised in the form of a citizen’s income. I’m uneasy at the thought of advocating technocratic solutions in an era where that appears to be politicians’ solution to anything and with particular regard to this government and technology I wouldn’t trust them with my pocket calculator. They invariably fall for feature creep and buying expensive, over complicated systems that just don’t work (I met an old friend who is currently earning a small fortune touring GP surgeries to keep their databases up and running, which the government has installed in every GP’s office at enormous expense and even more incompetence). Who knows what extra features Blair will insist on adding to this card in an effort to keep any eye on how much carbon suspected terrorists are consuming?

To be fair, I don’t think Carbon Allowances are doomed to failure in the same way that I am absolutely convinced a national Road User Charging scheme will be (and the fact that New Labour are keener on the latter than the former I feel proves my point), but we should be careful to read the fine print before patting them on the back for catching up.
Fundamentally though, any system like this wouldn’t be up and running for another ten years. Ministers ought to be addressing what they plan to do in the here and now rather than get carried away with what we might think about introducing in the future.

A Hole to Keep your Lead Aubergine In

Jock and Vivienne have already got the IPPR’s compulsory voting pamphlet covered, so there is little for me to add. All I will say is that before Geoff Hoon decides to force this measure through, he ought to consider the obstinacy of the British. I live in a Labour-Tory marginal; I vote Lib Dem simply to keep the national average up and to get the Lib Dems a bit more public funding (which works out at approximately 12p per vote). Compulsory voting however would mean that if I and another 10,000 or so people didn’t vote we could use polling day to make a political statement about how poor our voting system is. With so few votes that count under our electoral system, frankly, I’d be surprised if it is as low as 10,000.

A lot of people are already feeling pretty bloody minded about ID cards; this is an invitation for a mass civil disobedience campaign. I can think of nothing else that would more quickly hasten electoral reform. Perhaps Geoff Hoon and the IPPR are fifth columnists secretly plotting to bring down the status quo through the sheer incompetence of their scheme?