Saturday, July 31, 2004

Does Big Blunkett know his history?

David Blunkett once said, during a debate on ID cards that "No one should fear correct identification".

This T-shirt highlights Blunkett's flawed thinking quite beautifully. A clearer version of the graphic on the T-shirt is here.

(Those not getting the reference look here.)

NB: I first spotted the T-shirt over at Samizdata's coverage of the "Big Brother" awards.

Friday, July 30, 2004

Govt's information commissioner views ID card plan with "increasing alarm".

Richard Thomas, the Information Commissioner has expressed "increasing alarm" at the govt's planned ID card scheme:

Plans for a national ID card scheme risk changing the relationship between the British state and its citizens, the information watchdog has warned.

Richard Thomas said he had initially greeted the plans with "healthy scepticism" but the details had changed his view to "increasing alarm".

One cogent point Thomas makes is that the scheme is not just about handing out cards to the population but about creating a detailed centralised database on every person in the country:

Mr Thomas told the MPs: "This is beginning to represent a really significant sea change in the relationship between state and every individual in this country."

It was now clear the scheme was not just about identity cards but about a national identity register, he said.

"It is not just about citizens having a piece of plastic to identify themselves.

"It's about the amount, the nature of the information held about every citizen and how that's going to be used in a wide range of activities."

Quite. The scheme is about creating the necessary apparatus for the government to keep tabs on us 24/7. And the government certainly seems keen on creating detailed databases of all and sundry when legislating in other policy areas.

Furthermore they seem keen on using blanket surveillance of the public's movements simply to introduce road charges:

The most radical vision for road pricing would see a satellite tracking-based system, with drivers charged variable rates per mile depending on how busy the route they used was.
They also back another blanket surveillance system for tackling drivers who drive away from petrol stations without paying:
For the stream of shoppers driving into the supermarket petrol station just outside Bradford, the CCTV camera has been such a familiar sight it may as well have been invisible.

But from this month, it is not just fuel-dodgers who the camera is there to monitor; up to 3,000 number plates an hour from the forecourt will now be fed into a police database.

This government clearly loves blanket surveillance of the public's doings (especially if linked into a database), and this extends to plans for recording who you phone, who you email, what websites you visit, and who phones/emails you or visits your website for a year for the authorities to be able to trawl.

Big Blunkett is watching you...

Govt ID card plan is "badly thought out", says MPs' group.

The Commons Home Affairs Commitee, although backing the principle of an ID card, has described the government's plans as badly thought out:

Plans for introducing ID cards in the UK are poorly thought out and vital details are still unclear, say MPs.

The Commons home affairs committee says ID cards should go ahead and can help fight organised crime and terrorism.

But it criticises a "lack of clarity" over how the scheme will work in practice, with too much information kept secret by ministers.

The committee's report is available online.

2 committee members voted to reject the ID cards on principal:

Two MPs on the committee, Labour's David Winnick and Liberal Democrat Bob Russell, voted to reject ID cards on principle.

Mr Russell said the unknown cost of the scheme, which could be "several billions", would be better spent on police recruitment and surveillance.

I intend to produce some detailed comment on the Committee's report later. I'd be most interested to see if they provide any actual evidence or argument for the contention that an ID card can help at all with terrorism. To date, I've yet to see the government or any other backer of such cards explain this (as opposed to merely asserting it).

Our government's warped sense of justice

If you're wrongly convicted of a crime, and spend time in jail as a result, the British government thinks its right and proper to charge you for the use of prison accommodation and have just won a legal battle to establish this principle. Thus the govt makes you pay for its mistake twice over, once via the jail time, once via the cost of putting you up at Her Majesty's pleasure.

The state is not your friend (as they say on Samizdata).

Sunday, July 25, 2004

Govt plans detailed database on every child (and their family)

Times Online - Newspaper Edition reports that the government plans to set up a national database containing confidential details about every child in Britain.

Each child under 18 years will be assigned a unique identifiying number and a central electronic register will hold information on a child's school achievements, GP and hospital visits, police and social services records and home address. The record will also include information about their families such as whether parents are separated or divorced and will identify problem relatives, including aunts and uncles who have a history of alcoholism or drug misuse.

Anyone who has access to this database will thus have considerable power over the lives of the children and (extended) families that are on it.

The database will also become a target for those who would like to use this information themselves, I predict a lucrative black market arising whereby corrupt officials and hackers will obtain such information for people for a fee.

It is also worth noting that once you have this database setup with childrens' details on it, you only need to wait 18 years (whilst keeping it up to date) and you'll have this information available for a large chunk of the adult population.

The government will thus have 2 routes on the go for creating detailed databases of everyone in the country, the national identity register associated with the national ID cards and the children's database.

And the criminal classes will get creative in thinking about how to get hold of and exploit the information now that it is stored neatly in one central location.

Police can keep DNA samples of innocent people

As noted on Samizdata, White Rose and the blog, and reported in The Telegraph, it has recently been ruled that the police can keep the DNA samples of those who are arrested and charged and who either had the charges dropped or were cleared in a subsequent trial. This upholds a change in the law introduced in 2001 to allow the police to retain DNA samples for use in "crime prevention or investigation".

Thus anyone who is arrested and charged can have their DNA samples taken and stored indefinitely, regardless of whether they're susbequently cleared or not thus entirely innocent people will have their DNA samples stored indefinitely by the police.

According to the Telegraph, Lord Brown said the only logical reason for objecting to samples being kept by the police was that it would make it easier for authorities to arrest someone if they ever offended in future.

This is quite simply false:

  • DNA samples contain potentially very sensitive medical information such as whether someone has a predisposition to certain diseases or may indeed suffer from a genetically caused disease. The storing of such samples by the police opens up opportunities for abuse of this information by corrupt/unscrupulous officers. By retaining the DNA of the innocent, you expose them this risk.
  • Retaining DNA samples will also open up opportunities to frame people by planting their DNA at the scene of a crime, knowing that their DNA is on file and likely to be checked. This possibility is not even restricted to unscrupulous officers. Anyone who knows that someone was arrested and charged for a crime will know that their DNA is likely to be on file as a result. Again another risk that the innocent accused would be exposed to.
  • DNA matching is not a fool-proof process. Problems such as contamination of samples, or erroneously labelling of samples can lead to false matches being reported. Those whose DNA has been stored will be subjected to these risks and may find themselves in the dock again as result.
  • As points out, the retention of the DNA samples may even affect one's ability to get a job. Should an employer ask for an Enhanced Disclosure from the Criminal Records Bureau, they will be told that the police have some sort of record on you (though not the details). To assume that some employers won't hold this against you would be naive.
  • The fact that DNA samples can be retained indefinitely also gives the police the incentive to arrest and charged people as a means of expanding the DNA database, thus offering an incentive to arrest and charge people that has nothing to do with whether they're guilty of a crime or not.

The judge also argued that the DNA database should be expanded. According to the Telegraph:

In 2001, the law was changed to allow the police to keep a database of samples taken from suspects, though the retained samples may be used only in crime prevention or investigation.

Lord Brown said the benefits of this procedure were so manifest and the objections so threadbare that the cause of human rights would be better served by expanding the police database rather than by reducing it.

"The larger the database, the less call there will be to round up the usual suspects," he said. "Indeed, those amongst the usual suspects who are innocent will at once be exonerated."

But is this true? The larger the database the greater the probability of the following:

* human error leading to a false match leading to an innocent person in the dock

* a false match occuring due to limitations of the technology used in DNA profiling (there's a non-zero probability of a false match regardless of human error).

* that planting DNA at the scene of a crime will result in someone else being put in the frame.

* that someone gets put in the frame because they innocently left their DNA at the scene of a crime.

* that criminals will know that leaving DNA around is risky and will adapt their behaviour.

All of these will reduce the value of DNA evidence. Indeed suppose we were to create a DNA database of the entire population (ultimately taking samples at birth). Then a criminal could be certain of wasting police time by dropping randomly collected DNA at the scenes of his crimes, and taking steps to ensure he does not leave his own DNA there (will the police consider that none of the DNA samples they find at the scene of a crime come from the perpetrator?) .

Friday, July 23, 2004

Airline security and "discrimination"

Hot on the heels of the report of the 9/11 commission, today's edition of the Scotsman reports incidents suggesting that terrorists may have been carrying out dry runs for new attacks on aircraft in the US:

At least two flights are thought to have been targeted so far by groups of Middle Eastern men who appear to be forming a plan of attack.

On one flight an air marshal reportedly broke into an onboard toilet to find that a mirror had been removed and that a Middle Eastern man was trying to break through a wall to the cockpit.

The print edition of the paper includes an in-depth article,reproduced from, where one passenger, Annie Jacobsen tells a worrying story about a flight she took from Detroit to Los Angeles. Her account about how a group of men who boarded the flight separately but once on board seemed to group together and also behaved very suspiciously is worrying in its implications that they may have performed a dry-run for a terrorist act or even have decided to carry one out only to abort it. Admittedly the authorities later told her they were a bunch of musicians hired for a particular purpose but the behaviour reported was both alarming and odd even if this is true.

Worrying as the possibility of terrorists performing dry-runs for future attacks is, there seemed to be worse in the story:

During the 9/11 hearings last April, 9/11 Commissioner John Lehman stated that " was the policy (before 9/11) and I believe remains the policy today to fine airlines if they have more than two young Arab males in secondary questioning because that's discriminatory."

So even if Northwest Airlines searched two of the men on board my Northwest flight, they couldn't search the other 12 because they would have already filled a government-imposed quota.

ISTM this policy is quite insane, and in the post 9/11 world positively dangerous. The reason that 14 men were worrying Jacobsen, some other passengers, the flight crew and some unnamed air marshalls on board that flight was not that they were of middle eastern origin, with Syrian passports, but because they were behaving in a very suspicious and alarming manner.

If airlines can be fined for trying to question more than 2 people from a particular ethnic minority on any single flight, this seriously hampers the ability of the airlines and airports to make sure that terrorists do not board their flights and can not carry out attacks if they do get on board.

Look at it from the terrorists point of view -- they're hardly going to ensure that any team they send on board a flight is composed of no more than 2 people from any particular ethnic background. Indeed knowing about this law they could even exploit it by having a 2 people behave in a manner that causes them to be questioned as a distraction from the rest of the team going about its plan.

If a group of passengers are behaving in a suspicious manner the flight crew should be empowered to take action regardless of what ethnic group they might be or how many of them there are. This is not discriminatory against any particular ethnic or religious grouping, it is merely discriminatory against people who seem to be up to no good. And it's also exactly the sort of powerflight crews and airport staff need to be able to help prevent terrorist attacks. We can't afford such stupidity post 9/11.