Wednesday, September 24, 2003

A note on comments

You might have noticed that the comments and the ability to post them have disappeared from my blog. This is due to me having to reconstruct my template after trashing it recently. Unfortunately I forgot to re-include the comments. I'll do so on return from my US trip on the 1st October. In the meantime sorry for the delay and inconvenience this may cause! The perils of being a novice blogger...

Guardian columnist supports ID card

David Aaronavitch argues for ID cards in the Grauniad. I'd write a dissection of this except that (1) I'm rather busy on a trip to the US (2)'s blog has done a superb job.

So I'll note that as per usual, this advocate of ID cards claimed they'll help with fighting crime, benefit fraud, etc without providing any solid arguments or evidence that they will do so. The fact that most EU countries have ID cards is in fact prima facie evidence they don't help with such problems -- none of the EU countries have seen a reduction in crime, benefit fraud, etc as a result of adopting them. Anyway read's blog for more details...

Friday, September 19, 2003

Polling booths to be abolished for local elections

I almost missed this but for taking a trip over to Samizdata's weblog. A brief report in the Telegraph states that John Prescott is to abolish polling boths in local elections in England and Wales, apparently because postal balloting increases turn-out.

Now it seems to me that the problem with postal balloting is that you can never be sure the person filling in and posting the ballot form is the person to whom the ballot was sent. At least with the polling booth, they can do some checks to make sure that you are the person who was supposed to get the form and check that you haven't already voted whether with your form or someone else. As for the turnout, certainly it seems to be up in areas using postal balloting. However the same report also states:

But the Free e-democracy project, a non-party political group which has a history of developing internet voting software, says there is no guarantee that results from e-voting or postal ballots can be trusted.

However I expect postal ballots to be popular with the politicians -- I'm sure election candidates will love going round to people's houses to help them fill in the forms, and then volunteer to post the forms themselves. Perhaps this explains some of the increased turnout?

Monday, September 15, 2003

Labour adds some more blocks to the British police state

Several reports over the last week or so illustrate how the govt is trying to turn "big brother" (that is Orwell's big brother, nothing to do with the silly TV show) into a reality.

The Telegraph and the BBC were among those to report two developments.

Firstly the revival of the ``snooper's charter'', whereby numerous govt agencies will be given the right to demand communications data -- who you email, which websites you visit, who you phone and the location of your mobile phone whilst switched on -- from telecomms providers. In the new form, 6 govt agencies will gain automatic access to this data on their own authority, namely the UK Atomic Energy Constabulary, the Scottish Drugs Enforcement Agency, the Maritime and Coastguard Agency, the Financial Services Authority, the Radiocommunications Agency and the Office of the Ombudsman for Northern Ireland. However hundreds of other bodies including local councils will be able to get access via making a request via the Interception of Communications Commissioner. The earlier form gave automatic access to all the bodies. Note that the police, MI5, MI6, GCHQ, Inland Revenue and Customs and Excise have had these powers since the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 came into force. Note also that the fire services and ambulance services are to get these powers to combat hoax calls -- but surely there's no need for them to monitor email and website access for this purpose?

The second development is that the govt has published the so-called "voluntary code" for communications providers to store the above data for 12 months, so that the agencies with access to it can perform retrospective trawling. I say "so-called" voluntary code because the govt is threatening a compulsory code if the telecomms industry continues to resist the efforts to impose this.

The Guardian also reported on these plans.

So what will the likely impact be? The first point to note is that it will be trivial for terrorists or organised criminals to avoid being caught out by these plans. The options for doing so range from regularly buying and changing unregistered pay-as-you-go mobile phones, using anonymous internet accouts or accounts opened under false identities and regularly changing them, using face-to-face contact, "dead drops", sending communications by post and many other means of communicating secretly or anonymously. They could even steal mobile phones for the purpose. The implication thus is that the people who will be snooped on will be the law abiding general public and the stupid/technologically illiterate criminals.

But it does not end there. There is also the scope for abuse. A govt department, reeling under embarassing revelations uncovered by a journalist, may use access to this information to track down the journalists sources, or failing that, track down the journalists friends and acquaintances in order to put maximum pressure on the journalist. Another govt department might decide to find out who visits the websites for an opposition group, again with sinister motives in mind.

But it does not even end there. The govt is requiring telecomms providers to store this information for upto 1 year. Thus there will be multiple databases of varying degrees of security with this information stored on them, and staff to deal with them. The staff could be intimidated or bribed to get information for organised criminals or terrorists. The databases themselves may become the target of hackers.

So in return for a few stupid or illiterate criminals being caught, we are being asked to let the govt perform the electronic equivalent of tailing all of us for a year and storing the records of who we meet and where we go and then risking this information being used against us by numerous govt agencies, officials and even criminals. The Stasi would have been proud of such a creation.

Finally, another illustration of the mind set of this govt. The govt has published its green paper on children's services, ostensibly looking at better ways of protecting children. Many of the recommendations are sensible. But the govt couldn't help suggesting that every child be issued an ID card apparently for their protection. Quite why issuing ID cards to those who will never be abused will help isn't explained. But what is clear is that this will ensure that all children grow up accustomed to having an ID card, linked to centralised database with information about them shared between all and sundry in govt. Thus even if their plan to impose ID cards on us all fails now, they'll at least educate the next generation to regard them as "normal".

Wednesday, September 03, 2003

John Stevens claims ID cards "essential" in TWAT

White Rose, a civil liberties blog comments on a Reuters report that John Stevens, the Police Commissioner for London, regards compulsory ID cards as essential for fighting terrorism. Both White Rose and Samizdata provide interesting comments on this. E.g. highlighting the contrary nnature of Stevens' comments:

What I am totally against is the business whereby we can trace and follow people who have a normal life. But we do need to have the ability to identify those people who are around doing their business lawfully and those other people who want to create mayhem and effectively destroy our way of life.

So he is totally against tracing and following people who have a normal life but wants to identify people who are doing their business normally! For his purposes, he only needs to identify those who are terrorists and/or criminals.

However another of his statements deserves a response:

The excuse people say is that terrorists and organised criminals get round it. They might do. But in getting round it, it will identify who they are.

This is simply wrong. All of the hijackers on 9/11 had apparently valid travel and identity documents. "Getting round it" did not identify them as terrorists and in fact involved elaborately established false identities. And here's the nub of the problem. The possession of a valid ID card will not indicate whether you're a terrorist or a criminal unless you get convicted as such and continue to operate under that identity (without e.g. bribing officials to wipe the slate clean). Real terrorists will operate under false identities and recruit people who haven't got criminal records and won't attract attention to carry out their plans.

I have yet to see a single jot of evidence that ID cards will help at all with crime and terrorism. The govt has not provided any. Stevens hasn't either. According to Liberty there is in fact evidence that those countries with ID cards have not solved problems relating to crime, terrorism or immigration and have seen the fuelling of a criminal industry in the production of forgeries. Surely that suggests the ID cards could in fact make the situation worse?

The rise of a British police state?

This Guardian article was highlighted in a posting made to the uk.politics.misc usenet group, by Alan G. Apparently, Special Branch is now 2.5 times bigger than it was during the Cold War. Furthermore:

In addition to the growth in its size, the special branch "now has far more civilian staff and the means for mass surveillance of telecommunications and the payments of informers which it never had in those days," he adds.

In the run-up to the next EU summit in Brussels in mid-October, each special branch division in Britain will be expected to provide the names and profiles of activists who are expected to go to Belgium to protest, Statewatch says.

So Britain has a political police force keeping tabs on people who attend demonstrations, with powers to perform mass surveillance of telecommunications, growing to its largest level ever. And at the same time we've had the massive growth in CCTV (still largely unregulated) and a relentless eriosion of civil liberties by the current Labour govt extending back to well before 11 Sept 2001. The govt has enormous powers to invade our privacy, without any effective accountability. Maybe the term police state is a bit strong for the current situation, but the trend is clear -- Britain is heading that way.