Tag Archives: privacy

Would the “cop in my pocket” accept a bribe from News International?

Morgan Freeman in The Dark KnightThis week’s New Scientist features an article entitled Smartphone surveillance: The cop in your pocket (kerching). In it, a rather breathless Nic Fleming waxes lyrically about how, thanks to our smartphones, “we are all set to gain unprecedented crime-fighting abilities.”

Sadly, however, it is not through being able to download mad martial arts skillz via our phones Matrix-style but by using the sensors on our phones to create a near-universal level of surveillance. The residents of Boston, for example, will soon be using their phones to record potholes in the road (thus rendering the Liberal Democrats entirely obsolete). Soon we’ll be able to use our phones to spot GPS jamming and the cameras in the front of our cars to track down stolen cars. If only manufacturers would include gas detectors in our phones, soon we’ll be able to get early warning of sarin gas attacks without having to do a thing.

The civil liberty implications of all this are waved away. We are reassured that software will be developed to guarantee privacy of the individual, with a particular system called “AnonySense” being cited, although it is not at all clear how all the examples illustrated in the article could be used anonymously, nor are the rights of the spied upon (as opposed to the spy) even considered.

But it is not Big Brother that ought to concern us here. What I don’t understand is how this article can be published, weeks after the hacking scandal erupted, without even considering the scope for massive abuse.

Imagine making such universal surveillance just a bung away from use by the tabloid newspapers. How could you even go into hiding from them if every single camera mounted on every single car in the country was just a mouse-click away from a corrupt police officer? This isn’t even theoretical now; we now know that police officers are perfectly willing to offer these services to journalists, safe in the knowledge that both their superiors and the journalists’ will be quite happy to look the other way and claim they didn’t know it was going on. We can delude ourselves that it won’t happen again, but you can bet that it will just as soon as the dust settles sufficiently enough for people to start thinking they can get away with it.

So while it is terribly exciting to think of our phones working like the ones at the end of the film The Dark Knight, the real question is what we can do to stop it from happening, not how it might save us from future attacks by Aum Shinrikyo.

Confused debate over superinjunctions

I can’t help but smell a rat over the current media furore over superinjunctions.

It started out perfectly honourably, with a genuine freedom of speech issue surrounding Trafigura. Clearly a company which had been caught dumping toxic waste should not be able to hide behind a legal nicety reserved solely for the wealthy. But what was clearly a debate about the right to report issues which are clearly in the public interest has descended into a terribly English furore about where footballers stick their winkies.

Is an important principle of law really being defended right now, or is this little more than a distraction. After all, it can’t be a coincidence that this story has arisen as the scandal surrounding the News of the World phone-hacking scandal appears to get worse and worse. We are being invited to consider the death of privacy – and that such an occurrence is no bad thing – precisely at a time when one of the world’s top media corporations is under pressure for steamrollering over people’s personal rights.

Of course new technology presents us with new challenges in defending privacy, and of course we need to defend freedom of speech. Refusing to have a privacy law helps us to achieve neither. It isn’t that I think Judges are fools or terrible people; I just think the basic principles should be established in as democratic a manner as possible. It is surely pure laziness to claim that any attempt to legislate will inexorably lead to a French system in which sex pests are free to aspire to the highest positions of power, knowing that they can avoid even the slightest whiff of scandal (so long as they stay within France’s borders – should have thought of that Dominique).

However imperfect our Parliament is, I would still trust it above and beyond the lone instincts of Justice Eady. Let’s by all means tear up superinjunctions, but in the process let’s not create such a free-for-all that everyone is left at the mercy of the Daily Mail.

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.

Boris Johnson’s crime maps, data protection and land values

Unaccustomed as I am to defending Boris Johnson, I’m not convinced that publishing crime maps would necessarily result in a breach of data protection. Didn’t we solve this problem with census data decades ago?

A more intriguing objection is the complaint by RICS that “publicising high crime areas in such detail could literally wipe thousands off house prices overnight, further disadvantaging those who are already struggling to make ends meet.” I think this is possibly true, although it is a particular problem for the UK where we don’t have proper land/property taxation. In countries which use property taxes more extensively and reassess them more regularly (or indeed, at all), such data is a double edged sword. Yes, it would lead to the value of their properties dropping but that in turn would lead to them paying less tax. If you don’t get the service, you get your money back: sounds like a fair deal to me. In the UK though it would be unambiguously bad news for many, whilst enriching those fortunate enough to live in safe areas still further.

David Cameron’s privacy

It is none of my business if David Cameron’s disabled son has been rushed to hospital or not, but it does raise an issue about the way Cameron expects to be able to turn his family’s privacy on and off like a tap whenever its suits him. Apart from that recent ITN footage of him serving his kids breakfast and that notorious Webcameron film, there was the fact that early in his leadership he invited cameras to film him taking Ivan to hospital in the back of an ambulance.

The way Cameron has used his family is quite spectacularly cynical. He has frequently used Gordon Brown’s protectiveness of his own family against him in a quite nasty way and just seems to treat his own children as props to advance his own agenda. It may yet end up biting him in the bum. It makes Clegg’s “30 lovers” admission seem tame in comparison.

Is Jeremy Clarkson the luckiest idiot in the UK?

On the basis of this, I think so:

The Top Gear host revealed his account numbers after rubbishing the furore over the loss of 25 million people’s personal details on two computer discs.

He wanted to prove the story was a fuss about nothing.

But Clarkson admitted he was “wrong” after discovered a reader had used the details to create a £500 direct debit to the charity Diabetes UK.

Clarkson published details of his Barclays account in the Sun newspaper, including his account number and sort code. He even told people how to find out his address.

Given how much worse it could have been, he’s lucky to have just been stung for £500.

Which begs the question: should such a face-slapping moron be allowed on the nation’s highways? What if, on a whim, he decides that shunting cars on motorways is “safe” and decides to go about proving that?

Peter Bazalgette on Privacy: a poacher turned game-keeper?

Peter Bazalgette has written a thoughtful piece about privacy and social networking sites, so for once I will dispense with the usual toilet jokes. I do think he’s got it slightly wrong however.

Firstly, attitudes amongst young people and those websites. I have to admit, I’m amazed at the number of people who are quite happy to have anyone read the most personal of information about them on sites like Facebook. One of the first things I did was to look at the privacy settings and find out what casual visitors to the site could learn about me. Very little, as it turns out, unless I let them. I can even change what my ‘friends’ can see. So I’m fairly happy.

On the other hand, clearly a lot of other users don’t have such concerns. They should, and maybe such sites should do more to educate them about the risks. With that said however, Bazalgette doesn’t seem to understand the technology. If I decided to join the “A woman’s place is in the kitchen” group I could do so, knowing that I could both leave and remove any public trace of the fact that I had joined in the first place. Even if I did make all my details public, a future employer would struggle to find me amongst the dozens of James Grahams (they’d have an easier time finding a Peter Bazalgette admittedly). To an extent I suspect people are indeed taking account of the risks, and concluding (rightly or wrongly) that they are worth taking.

But is there a chance that attitudes are fundamentally changing? I’ve noticed that the sort of people who have an exaggerated concern about their conduct as a 20-something being regarded as ‘private’ tend to have something in their past to be ashamed about. I don’t have an issue with people knowing that I used to be heavily involved with the Manchester University Film Society, but then, why should I? It is part of who I am, and I don’t believe I have fundamentally changed. By the same token, I find it hard to believe that David Cameron has fundamentally changed since his days as a member of the Bullingdon Club and I’m pretty certain John Reid hasn’t fundamentally changed since his days as a Communist.

These aren’t particularly private acts – we all leave traces, from photos to mentions in student union newspapers. I don’t believe we have a right to restrict the media from mentioning them – that is going beyond privacy and steps into censoring what is in the public domain. David Cameron doesn’t have a right, in my view, to keep his life before he entered politics private. He has a general right to privacy about both his past and present – one he compromises every day he flaunts his disabled child in front of the press. And he should be able to reconcile his past; if he can’t, it is an important issue.

So I don’t think these websites represent a particular challenge to people entering public life since most normal people don’t join toffs’ clubs or totalitarian political parties. If it introduces a little more Darwinian selection into the mix, that can only be a good thing (joining misogynistic Facebook groups even as a ‘joke’ suggests your values are dubious), but in the face of such things applying to simply thousands of people simultaneously, it will be balanced out to an extent by a degree of proportion – which can also only be a good thing.

We all need to get to grips with the implications that the internet has regarding privacy. I have to admit that from time to time I worry about whether I’m too careless about it myself. But social networking sites aren’t really the problem. Credit card details, passwords and those dubious black boxes that now sit in every single ISP’s office… that’s a different story.

[OPEN THREAD] Reforming privacy laws: a little help?

A plea for help: as I’ve mentioned before, I’m sitting on the Lib Dems’ Better Governance Working Group. I’ve been tasked with coming up with some detailed policy on what the Lib Dems would do on the thorny issue of privacy. Specifically: would we reform data protection? What is our response to the Regulatory of Investigative Powers Act? Should we legislate for a privacy law and thus potentially subject the media to a regulatory regime? How do we protect privacy in an internet age when anyone can violate an individual’s privacy within seconds by revealing personal information on a blog or forwarding an email? How do we roll back the ever encroaching state while being mindful of security issues?

All tricky issues. I have some idea about what to right, but I have an open mind here and would appreciate input. Please email me at semajmaharg@gmail.com or just post a comment below.